Player of the Week
It's that wonderful time of year again. The time that basketball turns into a scrum of turnovers, fouls and ugly, UGLY play. Everything becomes twice as competitive and three times as exciting for basketball junkies like myself. It's ACC play and a whole new season (cliché ahead) where the real stars come out to shine. Early results are in (game one, at least), and things look promising for CJ Leslie. The freakishly athletic forward has been featured on this blog several times (as both hot and cold), but seems to be responding well to the higher intensity of conference play. He played with a much better effort than he was earlier in the season and it showed on the stat-sheet. He put up 20 points and 11 rebounds in his team's win against Maryland on Sunday. The improved rebounding is a good sign, as he only averaged 6.2 rebounds during non-conference play, and that's extremely disappointing for a player with his athletic ability. Though billed as a combo-forward, I'm convinced that his position both now and in the future is in the post. While thin for the position, he's a monster around the hoop and will be an easy alley-oop target if paired with a quality point guard at the next level. In the meantime, the Wolfpack is a much better team when Leslie is dominating, so they'll be hoping he can keep this up.
UNC's star center is also responding well to conference play. In the Tar Heels' two conference games (both wins), Zeller has averaged 18.0 points on 60.9% shooting from the floor, along with 9.0 rebounds per game. This kind of production is fairly typical from Zeller, and it will have to continue if the Tar Heels want to make a deep postseason run. Zeller's size is a very important asset for the team, especially when they’re playing ACC opponents. Bigs often seem to be what separates the upper-tier teams in the conference from the lower-tier teams. While I don’t think UNC is a lower-tier team with or without Zeller, a offensive big like that provides a huge advantage against teams like Boston College and Virginia Tech that don’t have an answer for him. This is a luxury only a few ACC teams possess.
Player of the Week
The Maryland Terrapins have won seven games in a row, and even though the opposition hasn't been great during that stretch, playing undefeated basketball for over a month should earn you a little recognition. Explosive scorer Terrell Stoglin has been doing most of the work so far this season, but help may have finally arrived, and it's in a 7'1" Ukrainian package. Freshman center Alex Len has finished serving his mysterious ten-game NCAA suspension, and is playing extremely well. In his first three career games, Len is averaging 14.0 points on 78.9% shooting along with 8.0 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game. He also looks comfortable from the stripe, shooting a respectable 66.7% on 18 attempts. It's been suggested that Len could be a first-round pick when he decides to leave Maryland and it's not hard to see why. He's a more than decent athlete for a plus-seven footer. While he's raw offensively, he runs the court well and displays good instincts around the rim. Maryland is a lot more exciting with Len in the post, and he'll fit in well with Stoglin and Pe'Shon Howard (who also returned to the team recently). Other teams can no longer sleep on the Terps.
Wake Forest is not likely to be challenging for the ACC championship this season, but they are much-improved from a season ago, and a lot of that is forward Travis McKie. McKie has polished his offensive ability, not having to rely so much on his athleticism anymore (though he still scores a lot of points off of cuts and transition opportunities). He's clearly more comfortable than he used to be on the perimeter, where he makes 1.1 threes per game on 39.0% shooting (up from 0.5 threes made on 30.4% shooting in 2010-2011). But unlike many players who become better outside shooters, McKie is still a physical player on both ends of the court. He uses his strength a lot better when posting up smaller players, and aggressively pursues contact. He's shooting more free-throws per game (5.9 attempts this year), and it has improved his efficiency across the board. Over the course of his sophomore season, he's averaging 17.9 points per game and he should only get better in time.
Player of the Week
I don't know how many of you foresaw the Virginia Cavaliers cracking the top-25 AP rankings this season, but it actually happened last week. Point guard Jontel Evans, sophomore Joe Harris and sharp-shooter Sammy Zeglinski are all doing their part in this unexpectedly strong start to the season, and deserve their due credit. However, there is little doubt that the MVP of the 11-1 Cavaliers (currently the best record among ACC teams) is super-senior Mike Scott. The star power forward for Virginia has been particularly hot as of late, averaging 22.3 points per game over the last week, including a 33 point outburst against Seattle on Wednesday. In fact, he's scored a total of 50 points in his last two games, in a combined 52 minutes. More impressive than that, however, is his efficiency over his last five games. Scott is shooting 81.0% from the floor in the month of December. That is not a typo. He's made 34 of the 42 shots he's taken this month. He's also made both of his three-point attempts and 84.8% of his free-throws. With these kind of numbers, it's no wonder the Cavs are surging. While he can't play like this forever, Virginia seems like they could be just as competitive of a team in conference play this year. They have great size, good depth and a ridiculously efficient double-double machine in Mike Scott. They'll play at home against Miami on January 7th, and then get tested at Duke on the 12th.
Glen Rice Jr
The Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets won't be very intimidating to anybody in the ACC, but Glen Rice Jr. is quietly having season that teams should be taking note of. The 6'5" guard (and son of former NBA all-star, Glen Rice) is averaging 20.0 points on 56.5% shooting with 10.5 rebounds in his last two games. He's primarily been known as a defender during his career at Georgia Tech, but with Iman Shumpert having left for the NBA, we're getting to see Rice take on more scoring responsibility. What's really impressive is that this new role hasn't changed the way he approaches the game. He hustles, plays hard, attacks the glass and is a dynamic defender regardless of whether he's the first option on offense (like this season) or just a role-player off the bench (like in his freshman campaign). So regardless of how successful his team is over the next two seasons, you should expect to hear Rice's name in NBA draft discussions. There will always be room for players like him on a roster.
Player of the Week
Perhaps feeling a little overshadowed by his younger brother (who's making a lot of noise in Indiana); Tyler Zeller took it upon himself to explode Saturday against Appalachian State for 31 points. Granted, that's not exactly the best competition, but this performance is noteworthy nonetheless, and I've been meaning to give Zeller his due on this blog for a while now. The mobile 7-footer has a number of well-known weaknesses, but lately, there appears to have been a little progression. When describing Zeller, most of his critics will tell you that he lacks the toughness and aggressiveness to be a good defensive rebounder, and... this is still true. But Zeller has upped his rebounding average per 40 minutes from 10.3 a year ago to 11.7 this season. This is partially due to the added weight he's put on over the summer. Another improvement of Zeller’s has been his passing ability. I've always felt that Tyler was too skilled to not be at least an average passer, and it looks like he's finally becoming a bit more comfortable kicking the ball out when he gets double-teamed. In the 318 minutes he’s played this season, Zeller has recorded 15 assists. That's already half of the 30 assists he dished out in his previous 1,511 minutes of playing time (his entire junior and sophomore seasons combined). Oddly enough, 13 of his 15 assists this season have been in his last five games. He only had two assists in the previous seven. Hm. I don't know what caused this sudden bout of generosity (might be Christmas related), but I'm sure his teammates appreciate it. Regardless, it's nice to see Zeller starting to round out his game. Passing is a very underrated skill for offensive-minded bigs, and hopefully he can keep it up.
Though he's been a bit more erratic than Duke fans may be comfortable with, Austin Rivers has shown off an incredible amount of talent for the Blue Devils in his first (and possibly only) season. Rivers combines a lightning-quick first step with a super-sweet jump shot to annihilate defenders in one-on-one situations. In his last three games, Rivers has averaged 17.8 points on 47.1% shooting from the field and 47.3% shooting from behind the arc. The star freshman should only continue to improve offensively as the season progresses. But as with any freshman, there are several weaknesses in Rivers' game. His defense could stand to improve, as he was visibly overmatched when trying to guard Tony Wroten Jr. last Saturday. Experience and strength will be the key components to Rivers developing into a better defender, but I guess there's plenty of time for that. In the short-term he'll be more focused on scoring points to help his team win, a skill he’s already quite gifted at.
Player of the Week
The Maryland Terrapins don't figure to be much of a threat in the ACC this season, but sophomore Terrell Stoglin will at least keep them relevant. The 6'1" guard has been absolutely dominating the scoreboard this season, and is leading all ACC players in points per game, averaging 22.4. Stoglin displayed his dominance again this week, scoring 31 points in Maryland's 78-71 victory over Notre Dame. Though Maryland didn't project to have a lot of other scoring options this season, the magnitude of Stoglin's breakout has been surprising to me. He's nearly doubled his scoring output from a year ago (11.4 points per game in 2010-2011) and established himself as one of the most electric scorers in the nation. If you discount his 0/9 performance against Alabama, Stoglin's scoring 25.2 points per game, which would be the second highest average in the nation. So if he can continue to perform like he has in the six games this season that he did make a field goal, he might keep the Terps out of the ACC cellar this season.
CJ Leslie has been impressing the nation since his return from a three-game suspension, and until recently, he's been doing it coming off the bench. NC State's 6'9" forward started his first game of the season on Sunday, and scored 14 points on 75% shooting. It was the fifth game consecutive game this season that Leslie has scored in double-figures, and the fourth time he's made at least half of his shots. This is a promising sign for the Wolfpack, as Leslie only managed to shoot 43.3% from the floor a season ago (which is quite poor for a big man). If he can continue to improve his shot-selection (he's shooting 58.7% this season), the sky is the limit for Leslie, who is more known for his freakish athleticism than his offensive prowess. He's clearly at his best around the rim, where he displays an uncanny ability to finish plays through contact. The more he operates down there, the better his team will be.
Dorian Finney Smith
There's no denying Seth Greenburg's prized recruit is a nice talent. In fact, he's having a great season. The versatile forward is averaging 7.1 points, 9.4 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game. That is pretty remarkable for a freshman, as he's already leading a respectable Virginia Tech team in both rebounds and assists. Lately, however, his scoring limitations have presented themselves, and the Hokies are suffering because of them. In his team's two losses this week, Finney-Smith averaged 4.5 points per game on 33% shooting. His game doesn't currently revolve around scoring, so this is forgivable, though certainly inconvenient. If he can use his athleticism to finish around the rim better and make open three-point baskets with his solid shooting ability, the Hokies will be a much-better team. If he can get hot by the time conference play starts up, it would give his squad a great third scoring option behind guards Erick Green and Dorenzo Hudson.
Player of the Week
Virginia's super-senior Mike Scott isn't a high-level NBA prospect, but he's very much the difference between a bad Cavalier team and a good Cavalier team. The double-double machiene has returned from his red-shirt senior season with a vengence, and is averaging 15.3 points and 10.1 rebounds per game. He claims to have lost about 20 pounds over the summer by cutting junk-food out of his diet and this is evident when you watch him move on the court. He is just as tough and strong as he ever was, but is significantly more agile and explosive. As the team's centerpiece, Scott has led Virginia to an excellent 6-1 start to the season, including a vicory over #15 Michigan on Tuesday. Not a lot of people had the Cavaliers as significant players in the ACC this season, but they've proven to be a strong defensive squad with great size and several different offensive options. With the slimmed-down Scott performing like one of the top players in the ACC, Virginia could be a very competitive team come conference play.
If you followed the Hokies last season, you know that they were struggling to win games until Erick Green took control of the point guard position. Once he became a starter, Virginia Tech went on a tear and won nine out of their following ten games. This season, Seth Greenburg did not waste any time and made Green the starting point guard as soon as he could. Unsurprisingly, this has worked out in favor of both Green and the team's record so far. Scoring in double-figures in every game he's played in this season, Green is averaging 14.8 points on an efficient 52.2% shooting from the floor. Perhaps most impressive is the improvement the junior guard has made from the perimeter; shooting 61.1% on 2.2 made threes per game, up from 24.8% on 0.8 makes a year ago. The Hokies will be counting on the much-improved Green to lead them to that oh-so elusive NCAA Tournament bid, but it's way too early to be considering such things.
Ehhh... Somebody from UNC was bound to inherit the "Cold" distinction following the former top-ranked team in the nation's shocking loss to UNLV. It wouldn't be very fair to blame Zeller for the loss, but the skilled 7-footer was really unable to contribute anything that may have altered the embarrasing final outcome. Zeller finished the game with a line of 5 points on 1/6 shooting, 7 rebounds and 4 fouls. But what the game on Saturday exposed really didn't have anything to do with Zeller; rather it highlighted the questionable depth of UNC's frontcourt. John Henson and James McAdoo each had 4 fouls of their own, and without their star bigs, the Tar Heels (one of the best rebounding teams in the country last season) were outrebounded 46-37 to an unranked team. Zeller will surely bounce back from his poor performance quickly, but if UNC wants to make it to the Final Four, they're going to have to keep their post players out of foul trouble.
Top 5 Starting Point Guards
Player of the Week
John Henson is one of those draft prospects that everybody seems to be divided on. Some analysts believe he could be a top-5 pick; others think he's more of a bubble first-rounder. How he translates to the NBA is still very much in question, but it's becoming harder and harder to doubt his impact at the college level. The super-athlete in the lanky 6'10" frame has been dominating for the North Carolina Tar Heels thus far in the season. With his unreal length and quick leaping ability, Henson leads all ACC players in blocks per game (4.0) and is second in the conference in rebounds (10.8). That was expected; his offensive improvement was not. Henson's shooting ability is looking better with each passing game. He's developed a nice baseline jumper from 10-14 feet away from the basket, which surprisingly has been consistent so far in the season. On top of that, his free-throw shooting percentage is up to a less-abysmal 61.5%. All of his improvements offensively have accumulated to an average of 16.5 points per game (on 63% shooting). His scoring output is very likely to come down once North Carolina starts playing tougher competition and stops scoring 100+ points per game (as they have in both of their games this week), but he's clearly put some work in over the summer and an extra option offensively will come in handy for Coach Roy Williams.
Sophomore Travis McKie was poised for a breakout season after most of the other quality scoring options for Wake Forest either transferred or were dismissed from the team. Two weeks into the season, and he's already showing signs of being one of the top forwards in the conference. McKie is averaging 22.3 points per game, which is good for first among all ACC players. Like last season, McKie is scoring a lot of points using his size and athleticism to slash to the hoop or finish in transition, but unlike last season, he's also looking good as a shooter. He's 6/9 from behind the arc on the season (3 games) and shooting 59.5% from the field altogether. Along with teammate, CJ Harris, Travis McKie has led Wake Forest to a 3-0 record. This isn't special (especially considering the competition) but it is very promising for a team that was, quite frankly, a joke last season. If McKie continues his hot play, maybe Wake Forest won't be the bottom-dweller many of us predicted.
Durand Scott hasn't been horrible so far this season, but he's definitely been cold lately. In the past week, the 6'4" guard shot a combined 3/18 (16.7%) from the field in Miami's two wins over North Florida and Florida Gulf Coast. While the Hurricanes have been able to win so far this season without any consistent contributions from Scott, this trend does not figure to continue. Miami has already lost Julian Gamble and DeQuan Jones for the season, as well as Reggie Johnson for the next few months, so they're going to need all the help they can get. Scott has the potential to be a dynamic scorer, and he could be the x-factor that determines whether Miami gets a tournament bid or not.
Player of the Week:
Dorenzo Hudson isn't a household name, but his performance in Virginia Tech's opening week is certainly worth a bit of recognition. The fifth year senior had a relatively quiet 9 points in game one, but followed with outbursts of 18 and 31 in games 2 and 3 respectively. Personally, I think the slow start was directly related to point guard Erick Green's absence. Hudson (like his predecessor, Malcolm Delaney) seems to be much more effective with a second ball-handler in the backcourt with him. This is apparent in his statistical output, as Hudson is averaging 24.5 points per game on 65% shooting in the two games that Green has started. Virginia Tech is very fortunate to have Hudson with the team this season after his injury last year. With Delaney and Allen having graduated, the Hokies will look to Hudson (along with Victor Davila and JT Thompson) for senior leadership. If Hudson can provide that and continue to score at a high rate, the Hokies might sneak up on a few teams. They'll have an excellent opportunity to see what they're really made of on Wednesday against Syracuse.
Hey, I didn't expect to be writing about him either. In fact, I doubted NC State would even be worth a mention prior to the return of CJ Leslie, but the Wolfpack is starting to make some noise, and it's primarily because of 6'8" forward Richard Howell. Coming off a season where he averaged a mere 7.8 points per game, Howell has burst out of the 2011-2012 gate, averaging 19.5 PPG on 55.6% shooting. He's also managing to pull down 11.5 rebounds while dishing out 3 assists and swatting 2 shots per game. All of this while only averaging a single turnover and shooting 81.8% from the stripe. Maybe this kind of efficient production is a fluke due to the flakey competition NC State has played so far. Maybe NC State's first-year coach Mark Gottfried is responsible, or maybe it's just the fact that he doesn't have Tracy Smith (graduated) and CJ Leslie (suspended) in his way at the moment. Anyway, if he continues to play well the Wolfpack could finish higher in the standings than I initially thought.
Jones isn't playing this year, so I'm not sure if he technically qualifies as "cold", but I don't feel there are a lot of better candidates at this point. It hasn't even been a full week yet. Some teams have only played one game. The competition has been pretty soft so far, and guys like Daniel Miller, Carson Desrosiers and Terrence Shannon are putting up big numbers. All things considered, nobody has really disgusted me yet, so this week I'm letting the players off easy -- or at least the players who are playing. Turns out Miami's DeQuan Jones will not be playing in the 2011-2012 season due to allegations that he accepted $10,000 while being recruited by Miami. This is an extreme disappointment, as Jones is perhaps the most electric athlete in the ACC, and consequently a very fun player to watch. He's still practicing with the team and could return next season, but this is yet another big blow for the Hurricanes, who have already lost forward/center Julian Gamble for the season and star center Reggie Johnson for a few months due to injuries.
Top 5 ACC Centers
1. Tyler Zeller - Zeller's not the most physical center you'll find, but he's one of the most mobile 7-footers in the country and he's got an impressive and expanding skill-set. His defense is underrated and effective, but he definitely needs to improve his defensive rebounding.
2. Mason Plumlee - Players with Mason Plumlee's size, athleticism and passing ability are quite rare. He's a tough player defensively and has a nice shooting stroke on the offensive end. His listed height of 6’10” is fine for Coach K, but it might make his ideal position power forward at the next level.
3. Reggie Johnson - As I alluded to before, Johnson suffered a torn meniscus in his right knee while playing in a pick-up game over the summer. If the 300-pounder can recover quickly, he'll be a devastating weapon for the Hurricanes during ACC play.
4. Bernard James - James is a perfect fit for Florida State due to his excellent shot-blocking ability and his tough, physical defense. He's also proven to be useful on the offensive end, scoring 18 points on 8/9 shooting against UCF on Monday.
5. Daniel Miller - I could have gone a few different ways with #5 on this list, but I opted to give the prestigious honor to Georgia Tech's Daniel Miller. The still green center put up 14 points, 15 rebounds, 6 assists and a block in a win against Delaware State on Monday. I'm sure the Yellow Jackets’ new head coach Brian Gregory would love to see similar performances from Miller against better competition throughout this season.
ACC Player of the Year
Player of the Week
Singler entered the season as a potential National Player of the Year candidate. The reigning Final Four MVP didn't quite live up to those expectations. His stats across the board failed to increase between his junior and senior years. In fact his points, rebounds, assists, steals, blocks and three pointers made per game all decreased from a year ago. Still his experience, energy, versatility and leadership earned him a spot on the All ACC 1st Team. It is also this collection of intangibles that powers Duke during the postseason. In Duke's first game in the ACC tournament, Singler scored 29 points on 10/15 shooting (9/9 FT), and pulled down 9 rebounds against Maryland. He has a shining track record in important games, which bodes well for the Blue Devils as they look to win a very competitive ACC tournament. They'll face Virginia (one of the only teams to have beaten Duke this season) on Saturday and (should they win) face the winner of Clemson vs. North Carolina on Sunday. The importance of Kyle Singler is only intensified now that Duke's leading scorer, Nolan Smith, is questionable for today's game with a toe injury.