2008 ACC Conference Preview
By Adi Joseph
[img_assist|nid=3637|title=Tyler Hansbrough - Credit: Max Turner/Icon SMI|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=300|height=433]From Tobacco Road tales to riots in Maryland to the newest territory up north in Chestnut Hill, Mass., the ACC is widely regarded as the top tier in terms of basketball conferences. Last season saw some surprises and even more disappointments. And for the second straight season, it also saw the league unrepresented in the Final Four. Even more disappointing, the Atlantic Coast Conference only had one team advance into the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. These are rare down-times for the ACC, uncharted territories in many ways. The world may continue to hate Duke, but the Blue Devils haven’t seen a Final Four since 2004 and were first-round victims to upstart Virginia Commonwealth last season. Once again this season, futility – relatively speaking – seems to be the theme of ACC basketball. Once again, only North Carolina appears to have what it takes to contend for a national championship. And the Tar Heels may not even have much competition in league play this time around.
PROJECTED TEAM FINISH
1. North Carolina
2. N.C. State
5. Boston College
6. Georgia Tech
9. Florida State
11. Virginia Tech
12. Wake Forest
1-6=NCAA, teams 7-9=NIT, teams 10-12=no postseason
Player of the Year – Tyler Hansbrough, North Carolina
Newcomer of the Year – Kyle Singler, Duke
Coach of the Year – Al Skinner, Boston College
All-ACC First Team:
Sean Singletary, Virginia
Tyrese Rice, Boston College
Brandon Costner, N.C. State
James Gist, Maryland
Tyler Hansbrough, UNC
The past two seasons, the Eagles have lost one of the conference’s top three players. Last season, Jared Dudley won the ACC Player of the Year as he replaced departed Craig Smith as the team’s top scorer and overall leader. Dudley will now have to be replaced himself. And guard Tyrese Rice appears to be more than ready to fill Dudley’s shoes. Rice is a high-paced scorer with the ability to play either guard spot. Unfortunately, the Eagles lack much to put next to Rice. Freshmen Corey Raji and Rakim Sanders will be relied on heavily to provide perimeter punch, alongside sophomore swingman Tyler Roche. Freshman Biko Paris will give Rice a break at the point, as well as allowing Rice to slide to the off guard. In the front court, though, the team returns three key contributors. Tyrelle Blair is a tremendous shot-blocker and defender. Shamari Spears is a very skilled, very wide, post presence. And John Oates is a tremendous energy player who will provide plenty of leadership. Al Skinner is one of the finest and most underrated coaches in America, and if he can get some contributions out of a decent freshman class the Eagles should soar.
Jan. 5 vs. Kansas – The Eagles have the chance to protect their home court and give the ACC some additional credibility against top non-conference competition.
From 17-0 to NIT. Clemson fans are still shuttering just thinking about it. Last season finished in disaster mode for the Tigers, who came together in the NIT to make a push to the NIT Championship. But after that kind of start, finishing second in the NIT doesn’t hold much vindication. Still, there is plenty of good news – notably that almost everyone returns. Departed point guard Vernon Hamilton was streaky and replacing him is highly-touted freshman Demontez Stitt. Stitt was named Mr. Basketball in North Carolina for his senior season, and he is an explosive prospect. Senior Cliff Hammonds is a dangerous contributor from either guard spot and junior swingman K.C. Rivers led the team in scoring last season. In the frontcourt, senior James Mays and sophomore Trevor Booker are returning starters who enjoy the dirty work and possess great athleticism and well-rounded skills. If Booker breaks out and Stitt proves consistent, the Tigers should definitely find their way into the NCAA Tournament this season.
Jan. 19 @ Duke – The Tigers were just one ACC road win away from the NCAA Tournament last season, and a win in front of the Cameron Crazies would be a big boost.
First round exits are not acceptable at Duke. Mike Krzyzewski has established himself as one of the greatest coaches ever largely due to his remarkable consistency. And Coach K will certainly be ready to get back to that level once again. The issue for Duke is obvious: a lack of size. Josh McRoberts’ departure has left a gaping hole in the post, with only sophomore Brian Zoubek to fill the role. Fortunately, Krzyzewski has dealt with size issues in the past, and his system works best with a collection of skilled shooters and wing players. And on those wings, the Blue Devils are loaded. It all starts with freshman forward Kyle Singler, the ACC’s top recruit who has been compared by some to a smaller Dirk Nowitzki. Junior point guard Greg Paulus is another gunslinger who really stepped up his game offensively at the end of last season, though he struggles with athleticism and defense. On the wings, Gerald Henderson is a budding star with tremendous athleticism, DeMarcus Nelson is a well-rounded senior leader and Jon Scheyer can light it up from deep. If Zoubek, Lance Thomas and undersized David McClure can handle defensive and rebounding duties down low, the Blue Devils may find themselves in the hunt for the ACC crown, something their fans have come to expect.
March 8 vs. North Carolina – Even in a season where the Tar Heels are fairly obviously superior, the rivalry is still the best in sports, and the Blue Devils will take pride in protecting Cameron.
It’s been nine seasons since Florida State last was seen in the NCAA Tournament. And frankly, it’s about time. Coach Leonard Hamilton’s job may rest on it. Unfortunately, he’ll have to reach that goal without Al Thornton. The star has taken his games to the NBA ranks after four seasons with the ‘Noles. Without him, Florida State will look to a group of skilled guards to lead them. Toney Douglas, Isaiah Swann, Jason Rich and reserve Ralph Mims provide the Seminoles with one of the top backcourts in the country. Swann is a shooter with point guard skills and Douglas should see his scoring rise substantially. Rich may prove to be the leader as a streaky gunslinger with great slashing abilities. Up front, though, the worries begin. Unless freshmen Julian Vaughn and super-raw Solomon Alabi produce at the center position, there won’t be any help for junior Uche Echefu. Echefu is a skilled and athletic player but not much of a banger. Vaughn seems likely to provide some help, but the Noles likely don’t have enough on their roster to find their way to the NCAA Tournament. Make it 10 seasons.
Nov. 23 @ Florida – The Seminoles have a chance to topple the weakened and inexperienced defending champs and prove they are the top team in the state.
Last season, the buzz around Georgia Tech was two phenomenal freshmen: Javaris Crittenton and Thaddeus Young. Both had superstar written all over them, with graceful athleticism and NBA size and skill. Now, the pair is in the NBA. And coach Paul Hewitt must move on. But don’t feel bad for one moment – the Yellow Jackets have one of the deepest talent pools in the nation. With potentially 12 players fighting for not just minutes, but starting positions, Hewitt’s biggest job this fall will be figuring out who to put on the court when and where. In the frontcourt, superstar freshman Gani Lawal and grizzled senior Jeremis Smith will battle for minutes at power forward in a conflict of blue chip vs. blue collar. And underachieving talent Ra’Sean Dickey will fight with defensive-minded Zach Peacock and the raw Alade Aminu for the center position. On the wings, the choices are just as numerous. Lewis Clinch returns to the team after violating the honor code and having his season cut short last year. Sharpshooter Anthony Morrow, super-sized Mouhammad Faye and defensive spark D’Andre Bell will additionally compete for minutes. Ultimately, the biggest issue for Tech will be filling the most important position on the floor: point guard. Freshman Maurice Miller's ability to come in and run the show will factor big into how well G-Tech plays this season. He has a great deal of potential but the transition to the college level playing the PG position is not an easy one.
Nov. 27 @ Indiana – The Yellow Jackets drew a very tough match in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, but they have a chance to make an early national statement.
The Terps lost the guidance of seniors D.J. Strawberry, Mike Jones and Ekene Ibekwe, but the two most exciting players in College Park last season return. Greivis Vasquez is a combo guard with tons of flair and international flavor. He proved to be a natural emotional leader and his play rose substantially in big games. James Gist is a force to be reckoned with as a hyper-athletic power forward who can defend, crash the boards and has a quickly developing inside-outside game. Beyond those two, Vasquez is joined by Eric Hayes, a stable point guard with a sweet perimeter jump shot. And Gist will be paired with Bambale Osby, a mound of physicality who can rebound but offers little offensively and lacks height. Strawberry will be sorely missed as freshman Cliff Tucker and seldom-used sophomore Landon Milbourne will compete for the small forward position. And depth as a whole is an issue for the Terps, who will rely heavily on freshmen off the bench, specifically guard Adrian Bowie, forward Dino Gregory and center Braxton Dupree. If Gary Williams can get the freshman game-ready quickly and the team buys into his intense pressure system, the Terps could prove a surprising ACC contender. But Williams’ system is demanding and he may lack the depth and skill to make it work.
Feb. 13 @ Duke – The Terps swept Duke last season, and the momentum of their win at Cameron provided the energy for a strong late-regular season run.
Let’s face it: Miami is not a basketball school and that doesn’t appear to be changing any time soon. On the positive, after last season’s 20 losses and last-place finish in conference play, there isn’t much lower for the Hurricanes to go. In the frontcourt, the Hurricanes actually have a decent rotation. Anthony King was granted an extra year of eligibility, bring back his 9.3 rebounds per game for another season – hopefully a healthy one. He is joined by rising star sophomore Dwayne Collins, who broke out late last season, and junior Jimmy Graham showed flashes of vast potential, including a five-block performance in the ACC Tournament win over Maryland. On the wings, Jack McClinton and Brian Asbury were unquestionably the two best players for Miami throughout last season. McClinton is a streaky shooter with great scoring potential and Asbury has a well-rounded game. Point guard is a major issue for Miami, though, with freshman Edwin Rios and juco transfer Lance Hurdle apparently the team’s best options. In general, things aren’t looking too far up but a strong frontcourt should provide some improvement and perhaps even an NIT bid if things really look up.
Feb. 23 vs. Maryland – The Hurricanes somehow managed to knock off the Terps twice last season, and it would be big for them to make it three-in-a-row at home.
A very young team last year who came together for a strong stretch run, the Wolfpack have big expectations entering this season. Losing only point guard Engin Atsur, the group also adds highly regarded recruit J.J. Hickson and should have one of the top frontcourts in the nation. It all starts with forward Brandon Costner, who quietly was perhaps the best freshman in the conference last season. Costner has a wide range of skills and will be asked to step outside more often to show his great range with the addition of Hickson. Ben McCauley is a viable post scorer who had a wide range of skills and went completely unheralded last season. At the center position, Hickson will be called upon to provide his outstanding low post abilities as a centerpiece of the offense alongside Costner. Gavin Grant is a versatile, athletic swingman and Courtney Fells is a streaky shooter and crafty defender. At point guard, the answer will likely be found in transfers Marques Johnson (Tennessee) or Farnold Degand (Iowa State). But Fells and Grant may make up the backcourt often, with Grant running the offense. Leadership could be a problem if Grant can’t organize the offense himself. Still, there is so much to like with the Wolfpack this season that they could even find themselves in Championship contention.
Nov. 28 @ Michigan State – Want to prove you’re really in the championship? Here’s an ACC/Big Ten Challenge in Izzoville.
The Tar Heels have it all: depth, defense, offense, and Tyler Hansbrough. Hansbrough is the key here, as the superstar junior officially takes his reigns as the most recognizable player in college basketball, maybe in all college sports. Hansbrough is a monster in the paint and he alone is enough to keep the Tar Heels in the national hunt. If he takes another step the results could be scary. Sophomores Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington should both be much improved. Lawson really peaked late last season and Ellington will be the Tar Heels’ second option offensively. Deon Thompson seems poised for a breakout season after watching Brandan Wright last season, and the chiseled sophomore has shed some pounds and drawn a lot of praise from teammates and critics. And the depth still is crucial in Chapel Hill. Marcus Ginyard and Danny Green offer varied looks at swingman, and one will start while the other fills the sixth man role. Meanwhile, Bobby Frasor is a top tier reserve guard and Alex Stepheson showed signs of being a potential star in his own right down low. The Tar Heels are a preseason No. 1 for a reason, and anything less than an ACC Championship and Final Four appearance will be disappointing for the fans in powder blue.
March 8 @ Duke – Here is the Tar Heels’ best opportunity to prove their superiority to the rest of the ACC and get a road win in the sport’s biggest rivalry.
When point guard Sean Singletary announced that he was withdrawing his name from the NBA Draft, the entire city of Charlottesville should have offered a sigh of relief. While Singletary probably would have been a second-rounder at best in the draft, he is the heart and soul of Virginia basketball this season. The star senior is one of the top lead guards in the nation and perhaps the most valuable player in the conference. Alongside Singletary, there are plenty of strong role players. Swingmen Mamadi Diane, Will Harris, Solomon Tat and freshman Jeff Jones should make up for the loss of high-powered scorer J.R. Reynolds. And the Cavaliers should remain a very strong perimeter team with plenty of gunslingers. Senior Adrian Joseph has all the ability to be one of the leagues biggest breakout stars, especially if coach Dave Leitao allows him to play primarily at small forward. On the blocks, then, Leito will put big men Laurynas Mikalauskas, Ryan Pettinella and Tunji Soroye, to start the year. Of the group, Mikalauskas, a junior, has probably the most potential but all three should be efficient in replacing the departed Jason Cain’s rebounding. Freshman Mike Scott will be looked to as an option as well, and with his athleticism and skill set he could be a force. If either Joseph or Diane can step up and develop into a star and the rest of the role players can handle themselves, the Cavaliers could make a big push even on a national level. And Singletary will lead them.
Nov. 17 @ Arizona – This early season match up should provide a good litmus test for where the Cavaliers’ season may be headed.
Everything comes to an end. And Virginia Tech’s surprising success of the last few seasons will follow that trend this year. The Hokies were blessed with a great trio of senior stars last season, on their way to a No. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament. But with the departures of Zabian Dowdell, Jamon Gordon and Coleman Collins, Virginia Tech fans should be happy if this team can scratch out an NIT birth. Deron Washington is the obvious star, if you can call him one. The raw forward is a big-time athlete but hasn’t proven worthy of being a go-to player. A.D. Vassallo is the only other returnee with much key experience. Vassallo and Washington should both benefit, though, from a bigger team this season, allowing Vassallo to slide from small forward to shooting guard and Washington from power forward to small forward. The other starting spots are where things get tricky, though. Freshman Jeff Allen should provide good rebounding and post skills at power forward. But joining him at the center position will be either Cheick Diakite or Lewis Witcher, both of whom are only 6-feet-9-inches and probably too weak to play consistently with true centers like Tyler Hansbrough or Dwayne Collins. And at point guard, freshman Hank Thorns wasn’t billed as much of a recruit but freshman Malcolm Delaney is more of a combo-guard. Everything has shaped into what will likely be a rough season in Blacksburg. On the positive side the recruiting class as a whole was rather deep and Seth Greenberg is one of the most underrated coaches in the country.
Feb. 2 vs. Virginia – Protecting their home court against an in-state rival would be a big accomplishment for the Hokies
Skip Prosser’s death shook all of college basketball. Known as one of the classiest acts in the game, Prosser was a consistent producer of strong teams. Now, Wake Forest basketball must move on, and there isn’t anywhere to move but up. The Demon Deacons were atrocious at times last season, ending the year with a 15-16 record and little to speak of offensively beyond departed center Kyle Visser. However, there were some promising showings especially by an unheralded freshman class. Now sophomores, Ishmael Smith, Jamie Skeen and L.D. Williams surely have higher expectations placed on them. Smith was a bright spot who displayed great passing ability and break away speed, along with a turnover-prone nature and a poor jump shot. Skeen has the ability to break out as a star power forward but was plagued by inconsistency last season. Williams is probably the team’s top player and biggest asset, as he provides a well-rounded, athletic swingman who should develop into the Deacons’ go to player. Along side Smith at guard, there will be a battle between the offensively-inept Harvey Hale, the streaky Anthony Gurley and freshman Gary Clark. Center is an even bigger issue, as sophomore David Weaver takes the position after a relatively unproductive season. New coach Dino Gaudio has a lot of work to do for the Demon Deacons to experience any success – there is a reason Wake Forest is projected last in the conference by just about every major media outlet. And anything beyond a last place finish should satisfy fans, who will welcome in a top tier recruiting class next season led by swingman Al-Farouq Aminu and bigmen Tony Woods and Ty Walker.
Feb. 17 vs. Duke – A Tobacco Road win would sure be nice for the Wake Forest faithful, and this game seems to be the best opportunity for one.