2014-15 NCAA Basketball Preview: The ACC

Lance King/Getty Images

Remember when we knew that the death of the Big East was inevitable? It was only three years ago that Syracuse and Pitt announced they’d be joining the ACC. And while the Big East probably could’ve survived those two departures (technically, I guess it has survived), it was clear that those schools would be the first of many dominoes to fall. Ever since, the college basketball world has done everything short of locking itself in a dark room with a handle of whiskey and a Sinead O’Connor CD playing on repeat. Sean McDonough, Bill Raftery, and Jay Bilas basically eulogized the conference during the 2013 Big East championship game between Louisville and Syracuse. ESPN released the Requiem for the Big East 30 for 30. Thousands of think pieces have been written. Middle-aged men in bars from Washington, D.C., to Boston have reminisced about Patrick Ewing, Chris Mullin, Ed Pinckney, Walter Berry, and Dwayne Washington. We reflect on how UConn won a national title in 2011 despite finishing ninth in the Big East. We remember how insane it was that the Big East got 11 NCAA tournament bids in 2011 and how equally insane it was that this happened in 2009:

2009-big-east-standings

It’s as if we’ve all gone through a brutal breakup that has turned us into Mikey from Swingers. If that’s the case, let me be Trent Walker and tell everyone it’s time to get back out there. It’s time to move on. And I’ve got just the conference to help us do it.

Let’s see: East Coast conference with a ton of teams? Check. Basketball-first conference? Check. Every school in the conference has spent at least one week ranked in the Top 25 in the last six seasons? Check. Almost every school in the conference has been to a Final Four? Check. A rivalry that every fan in America will watch no matter what the teams’ records are? Check. The rest of the country makes fun of how bad a football conference it is? Check.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the new Big East  the Atlantic Coast Conference!

Seriously, how can you call yourself a college basketball fan and not be excited about the new ACC?1 Duke, North Carolina, Louisville, and Syracuse in the same conference alone is enough to give me a semi-chub. You’re telling me I get Pitt, Virginia, Notre Dame, NC State, Wake Forest, and Georgia Tech on top of that? And the programs that are supposed to be the DePauls and Northwesterns of the conference are Clemson, Boston College, Miami, Florida State, and Virginia Tech? But Miami just won the ACC in 2013! Virginia Tech had the ACC Player of the Year in 2013! Florida State was in the 2011 Sweet 16! Clemson went to four straight NCAA tournaments not long ago! Boston College was in the 2006 Sweet 16!

I know that you loved the Big East. I did too. But give the ACC a chance. Get to know it a little bit. Wait until you see North Carolina play Syracuse, then go to Louisville, then play Virginia, then go to Boston College, then go to Pitt, and then play at Duke in the span of about three weeks. I’m guessing you’ll find that you won’t miss the Big East as much as you think you will.

The Top Three Teams

duke-blue-devils-2014Lance King/Getty Images

1. Duke
2. North Carolina
3. Louisville

The ACC has four teams ranked in the top 10  Duke, North Carolina, Louisville, and Virginia. And to be honest, there is so little separating them that I could justifiably put them in any order. In the interest of preserving the top-three format, I’m cutting Virginia because the horseshoe mustache that Joe Harris is rocking in the NBA these days is proof that he’s irreplaceable in Charlottesville. But the Hoos bring back plenty of pieces from last year’s ACC title team, including preseason first-team All-ACC pick Malcolm Brogdon, so don’t think I’m down on Virginia. I expect them to be included in the four-way fight for the ACC crown that will look something like this:

wrestling-4-way-KO-gif

Two weeks ago, I probably wouldn’t have even included Duke in the top three. At the time I didn’t like what I’d seen of Jahlil Okafor in high school and I wondered if a bunch of unpredictable freshmen would be enough to improve a core made of veterans like Quinn Cook, Amile Jefferson, and Rasheed Sulaimon (who has gotten progressively less productive from one year to the next).2

After seeing Duke play Michigan State, I’m ready to pull a complete 180 on the Blue Devils. Okafor is much better than I realized, but his skills are just the half of it. The bigger factor is what the arrival of Okafor and Tyus Jones means for Cook and Jefferson. What if Cook has been a ho-hum point guard for the past two years because he’s not really a point guard? What if he’s a shooting guard who ran point because Duke didn’t have anyone else? Based on the start of this season, that seems to be the case. Jones has assumed the point guard duties and Cook is now playing off the ball and putting up numbers I never thought he was capable of. Through five games, Cook is shooting 53 percent from the field, 49 percent from the 3-point line, and 100 percent from the free throw line while averaging 17 points, 4.2 assists, and less than one turnover per game. That’s absurd.

Similarly, Okafor’s presence has relieved Jefferson from the role of Duke’s starting center. Last year, Duke got abused down low and Jefferson took a lot of heat from guys like me for not being reliable enough. In retrospect, though, it seems that Jefferson was never a center. He isn’t effective enough inside to play long stretches of games where he’s being asked to post up on the block. But put him at power forward next to a stud like Okafor and tell Jefferson all he has to do is clean up the glass and protect the rim? That’s where he can excel.

If we’re assuming that Cook is really a shooting guard, then Okafor and Jones give Duke a natural center and a natural point guard on the same team for the first time since 2010,3 when Duke last won a national championship. Okafor, Jones, and Justise Winslow are all better than I expected them to be, Cook and Jefferson have improved dramatically in their new roles, and Duke is actually trying on defense this season. It took me too long to come around, but I’m a believer  Duke is good enough to hang another banner in Cameron.

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Louisville could be just as good as Duke. The Cards have one of the best backcourts in the country (Chris Jones, Terry Rozier, and Wayne Blackshear) to go with the best big man in the country (Montrezl Harrell). Rick Pitino’s teams are always a headache to play against because of their defensive pressure, but this group looks particularly fierce. Imagine trying to bring the ball up court and initiate your team’s offense with Jones and Rozier crawling into your jock, Blackshear flying all over the court, Harrell jumping the passing lanes, and either Chinanu Onuaku or Mangok Mathiang pinning shots against the glass. And then after that, you have to try to prevent them from scoring? No thank you.

I do have some concerns with Louisville, though. The Cards don’t have a ton of depth, which is unusual for Pitino’s teams. Onuaku and Mathiang split minutes at center while Anton Gill, David Levitch, and Quentin Snider fill in on the perimeter. Those five had scored 181 career points combined before this season, and Mathiang accounts for 133 of those. This wouldn’t matter too much for many other teams, but Louisville’s press is its bread and butter. What happens when the Big Four get tired in a big game? Pitino will have to either call off the press (which is like Virginia suddenly deciding to play run-and-gun) or he’ll have to throw inexperienced players into the fire. Also, who will take big shots for Louisville now that Russ Smith is gone? Who is going to shot-fake every time he touches the ball now that Luke Hancock is gone?4 Who is going to get called for illegal screens now that Stephan Van Treese is gone? Louisville will be able to hang with anyone in America as long as the Big Four can play, but one or two bench players will need to emerge for the Cardinals to make a run at the ACC crown.

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Finally, North Carolina is the deepest team in the ACC and the Heels have a ton of talent, but they also have an enormous black cloud hanging over the program because of the school’s academic scandal. If I had to guess, I’d say the NCAA won’t impose sanctions this season. Then again, it’s the NCAA. It could wait until the day before the tournament to drop a five-year death penalty on UNC; or it could wait 40 years and then draw the name of a single North Carolina player in 2055 from a hat and declare that unlucky kid permanently ineligible. Both are just as likely. Anyway, if the Heels can avoid letting the academic scandal turn into a distraction, and if Roy Williams can find someone other than Marcus Paige to make a 3  two big ifs  then Carolina will be a national title threat. Paige is the best point guard in college basketball, the Heels have an ungodly amount of size, and did you hear that Kennedy Meeks lost weight? Not sure if it’s true, but I’ll do some research and get back to you.

Best College Player: Montrezl Harrell (Louisville)

harrell-montrezl-louisvilleJoe Robbins/Getty Images

On March 1, 2014, Louisville played at Memphis, and with 10:42 left in the game and Louisville trailing by two, Harrell was forced to shoot a 3-pointer before the shot clock expired. He made it. It was his second career 3, and it was only the third time that he even attempted one. The interesting thing about that play is that if you showed it to a basketball fan who’d never heard of Harrell, that fan would be convinced that Harrell regularly makes 3s. This may sound crazy, but it’s true: When I look back on a season full of huge shots, great games, and compelling story lines, I’ll never forget Harrell making that 3. It just caught me so off-guard. It felt like I had witnessed the birth of a superstar.

WHOA! You mean to tell me that the big man who destroys opponents on the low block, is a rebounding machine, and looks like he might shatter the backboard when he dunks also has THAT in his arsenal? May God have mercy on the rest of college basketball if he comes back next season.

Memphis won that game by six and Harrell finished with a career-high 25 points and 12 rebounds. Of course, none of that mattered to me. All I cared about was being ahead of the curve. I told myself that one day people would be shocked to see Montrezl Harrell making multiple 3s per game. They would wonder how a guy who had shot 46 percent from the free throw line the previous year suddenly learned how to make it rain from the perimeter. And that’s when I’d smile like a proud parent because I’d known that he had it in him ever since that Memphis game.

Fast-forward nine months to November 14, 2014. The first marquee game of the college basketball season, Louisville versus Minnesota at the Armed Forces Classic, begins with the Cardinals winning the tip. And on the first possession of Louisville’s 2014-15 season, this happened:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oHnAKaNPMJ8

Harrell finished 3-for-4 from the 3-point line against Minnesota. He scored 30 points, pulled down seven boards, and went 9-of-10 from the free throw line as Louisville won by 13. Montrezl Harrell is about to rip through college basketball like a Sharknado where the sharks have chain saws for arms, the tornado is made of fire, and the sounds of the destruction are washed out by Florida Georgia Line songs.

Best Pro Prospect: Jahlil Okafor (Duke)

okafor-jahlil-duke-blue-devilsGrant Halverson/Getty Images It took about five minutes of watching Jahlil Okafor in person to realize that everything I had previously thought about him was wrong. I blame it on two things: (1) Okafor lost a ton of weight over the summer, and (2) surrounding him with talent makes a huge difference. The first is self-explanatory. Okafor is in better shape and it’s helping him be a dominant college center. The second, however, is something I’m embarrassed that I forgot to consider while watching him in high school. It was easy to see a bunch of overmatched 6-foot-3 teenagers guarding Okafor and wonder why he wasn’t just drop-step dunking on them. But if you’ve ever played high school basketball against a prominent big man, you know how these things work  coaches just throw every gimmick defense they can think of at the big guy because their teams have no chance at guarding him straight up. To the extent that Okafor wasn’t dominant in high school, it was because he faced endless triple-teams, experimental zone defenses, and hack-a-Jahlil strategies. Put him in something that more closely resembles a real basketball game, and then you might see the real, dominant Okafor.

At Duke, Okafor is surrounded by shooters and playmakers. As we saw against Michigan State, the Spartans couldn’t focus all of their defensive energy on him, and Okafor had space to operate on the block. I didn’t realize it 10 months ago, but holy smokes  Okafor has an arsenal of post moves that 18-year-olds aren’t supposed to have. His touch is great and he always seems under control. Best of all, he can catch the ball a step or two off the block, turn and face with confidence, and put the ball on the deck with either hand. Or knock down the 10-to-15-foot jumper. That’s insane. It’s unfair.

Do you realize how many college centers have an effective turn-and-face game? There have been like seven in the history of NCAA basketball, and that statement somehow gets less hyperbolic the more I think about it. Most players who turn and face in the post are either trying to convince NBA scouts that they have a diverse game or they just have no idea what the hell they’re doing. Okafor is calculated when he does it. You could almost read his thoughts against Michigan State: Matt Costello’s only hope is to be super-physical with me, so I’ll just catch the ball off the block and use my quickness to get by him. If he backs off to keep me from blowing by him, I’ll just shoot over him without dribbling.

Anyway, I’m completely onboard the Okafor bandwagon, especially since he’s still working to improve his strength and conditioning even more.5 Okafor needs to get better on defense, but he’s such an advanced offensive player  especially for a freshman  that I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s actually 28 years old.

Most Underrated Player: Justin Anderson (Virginia)

anderson-justin-uva-cavsPatrick McDermott/Getty Images

If you aren’t an ACC fan and you know the name Justin Anderson, it’s probably because of moments like this:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RuKKyC51YHk

Anderson has earned a reputation as one of the best dunkers in college basketball, but that’s pretty much where the praise for him ends. This is a shame because—

Wait, should we watch one more before we continue? Yeah, let’s watch one more.

As I was saying, Anderson is more than just a dunker. It’s just that he hasn’t been given the chance to showcase his entire game because for the last two years he had to play behind Joe Harris. Now that Harris is with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Anderson will have a much

Wait, you aren’t paying attention, are you? You want to see another dunk? Fine. Here’s one from high school:

What I’ve been trying to say is that Anderson has shown glimpses of greatness, and those glimpses should occur more often and more consistently now that he’ll be taking on a bigger role. So far, his stats are significantly better across the board, and he’s leading the Hoos in scoring with 16 points per game (remember that averaging 16 at Virginia is like averaging 56 at North Carolina). To simplify things: Malcolm Brogdon has become the new Joe Harris and Anderson has become the new Malcolm Brogdon. There. Now go watch more dunk videos.

Best Senior With a Slim Chance at an NBA Career: Jerian Grant (Notre Dame)

grant-jerian-notre-dameJoe Robbins/Getty Images The thing that sticks out about Jerian Grant’s game is that he always remains under control. He’s scored more than 1,100 points in his career, yet he never seems to force anything. In Sunday’s game against Providence, Grant took the first shot of the game for Notre Dame, missed, and then didn’t shoot for another seven minutes. Often, scorers seem to be hunting for their points, but it seems as if Grant looks to score only when he absolutely must. He doesn’t need to score, and he often appears content directing the offense  he averages 7.2 assists per game, which is the second-highest average in the country for non-point guards (Butler’s Roosevelt Jones averages 7.3).

Of course, Grant can also shift into hero mode when Notre Dame needs it. Remember that five-overtime game between Louisville and Notre Dame two years ago? The one in which Louisville kept screwing up the final possession of each extra period? Well, do you remember how that game got into overtime?

Grant nearly pulled off similar heroics Sunday against Providence. With 3:28 remaining in a tie game, he scored the Irish’s final eight points and would’ve pulled out the win for Notre Dame if Providence forward LaDontae Henton  who finished with 38 points  weren’t on a completely different level of hero ball.6

If the 6-foot-5 Grant had the size and athleticism of his younger brother Jerami, he’d be a lottery lock. Grant’s draft stock has also suffered because he’s a 22-year-old redshirt senior who was suspended for most of last season because of academic problems. Still, Grant is so talented and he has such a great feel for the game that he’ll definitely get a chance to prove himself at the next level.

Most Frustrating Player: Trevor Cooney (Syracuse)

cooney-trevor-syracuseJared Wickerham/Getty Images Cooney might be the biggest game-changer in college basketball. Unfortunately for Syracuse fans, it’s impossible to predict if he’s going to change games in a way that will help the Orange or in a way that will ensure a Cuse loss. When Cooney is making shots, Syracuse can look like one of the best teams in the nation. And when he’s not, they can look exceedingly average. Look at Cooney’s game log from February 1 through the rest of the regular season and see if you notice anything:

cooney-trevor-game-log-syracuseESPN In the first five games of that stretch, Cooney was 19-for-35 (54 percent) from the 3-point line and Syracuse went 5-0. In the last seven games, Cooney was 10-for-51 (19.6 percent) and Syracuse went 2-5, with bad losses against Boston College and Georgia Tech and a blowout defeat to Virginia.

Now, Cooney’s shooting had been uneven at times during Cuse’s 25-0 start to last season, so it’s not fair to pin all the blame for the late-season implosion on him. But imagine how Syracuse fans feel. Imagine watching your team go 25-0 to start the season before finishing 2-5 down the stretch. Imagine being certain your team was going to win a national championship and then a month later they’re the butt of a Yakety Sax joke.

If all that transpired and you saw that a guy who averages 12 points and once hit nine 3s in a game was shooting 19.6 percent during a horrid stretch to end the season, wouldn’t you be frustrated with him? Now that Cooney is expected to be a leader for the Orange instead of just a shooter, let’s search his name on Twitter to see if Orange fans have changed their minds about him after four games this season.

It’s a mixed bag. On one hand, Cooney sucks and is stupid and awful and terrible and hard to like. On the other hand, he’s “bae af.”

Most Intriguing New Coach: Buzz Williams (Virginia Tech)

williams-buzz-marquette-virginia-tech-coachNate Shron/Getty Images

The more I think about Buzz Williams’s move from Marquette to Virginia Tech, the more it makes sense. After going 17-15 last season and missing the NCAA tournament for the first time in his Marquette tenure, the questions about his coaching ability intensified. Why not escape all that talk before it heats up AND land a job in the best conference in college basketball?

By the way, how do neutral college basketball fans feel about Buzz Williams? Do we like him? Do we think he can coach? He had a hell of a run in his first five years at Marquette, capped off with a Big East title and Elite Eight appearance in 2013. But what happened last season? Marquette lost some important pieces from the Elite Eight team, but it still had plenty of talent. How did the Golden Eagles finish 9-9 in conference play when their conference was half as good as it was the year before? And while we’re at it, does winning at Marquette really mean you can coach? I mean, the three Marquette coaches before Williams  Kevin O’Neill, Mike Deane, and Tom Crean  had a combined winning percentage of 64 percent at Marquette and just 46 percent for their post-Marquette careers. Maybe leaving Marquette is a curse?

It’s also worth mentioning that Williams seems like he’d make a great college basketball villain. He shaves his head even though he’s not balding, he’s animated on the sidelines, and he dresses funny. Oh, and don’t forget about how he pulled D.J. Newbill’s scholarship after Newbill had signed with Marquette. Or how he reportedly suggested in front of the team that Trevor Thompson should transfer when Thompson’s cell phone rang during the first team meeting that Williams held at Virginia Tech. Or how he did this after winning at West Virginia.7

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QMgLgigGR5E

I can’t decide how good of a coach Buzz Williams is or how likable he is, which is why I’m excited to see how the next chapter of his career unfolds.

Coach on the Hot Seat: Mike Brey (Notre Dame)

brey-mike-notre-dameLance King/Getty Images

Losing Jerian Grant last season was a death blow for Brey. It’s a totally acceptable excuse for why the Irish missed both the NCAA tournament and the NIT for the first time in Brey’s Notre Dame career. But I’m not putting Brey on my hot seat for last season. He’s on the hot seat because of his entire tenure at Notre Dame.

I know. You think I’m crazy. Before Brey started as coach in 2000, Notre Dame hadn’t made an NCAA tournament since 1990. With Brey, the Irish have averaged 23 wins per season and made nine tournaments in 14 years. Several NBA players have come through the program in the past 15 years. Brey has done well, and chances are he’ll be welcome to stick around at Notre Dame as long as he wants.

It’s just … have you seen Brey’s NCAA tournament record? Don’t look it up. Let’s play a game instead. Go ahead and guess how many NCAA tournament games Brey has won. And while we’re at it, guess how many Sweet 16s he’s been to. Remember: He’s coached at Notre Dame since the 2000-01 season and has had players like Ryan Humphrey, Troy Murphy, Matt Carroll, Chris Quinn, Luke Harangody, Luke Zeller, Ben Hansbrough, Chris Thomas, Jack Cooley, and Tim Abromaitis on his teams.

Ready for some answers?

Brey has six career NCAA tournament wins and one Sweet 16 appearance. He has won two NCAA tournament games over the past 10 years. Buzz Williams, Mike Davis, Steve Alford, and John Thompson III all have more tournament wins than him. In the last 11 years, Bob Knight has more tournament wins than Brey. Kevin Ollie has coached in one tournament, and he has as many wins as Brey.

TODD LICKLITER HAS BEEN TO MORE SWEET 16S THAN MIKE BREY.

That’s outrageous.

Something to Keep an Eye On: The North Carolina Academic Scandal

north-carolina-ram-mascotLance King/Getty Images

I have read the entire Wainstein report and I’m choosing to believe 100 percent of it. I don’t mind making assumptions about fairly trivial matters, like if Kennedy Meeks has really lost weight8 or if Coach K faked his back problems in 1995 and took a leave of absence because his team sucked and he didn’t want to be embarrassed.9 But the UNC scandal is an enormous issue, so I’ve decided to trust the investigators who were paid $3.1 million to uncover the truth. You’re free to think what you want. I just want to clarify where I’m coming from.

In short, I don’t think North Carolina’s basketball program should get much more than a slap on the wrist because there isn’t evidence to suggest that the basketball program was cheating. It’s true that many basketball players took the paper classes,10 but that’s a far cry from saying the players had knowingly partaken in an academic fraud scheme. The more likely explanation is that the players signed up for the classes because they heard they were easy. Plus, there’s this from page 48 of the report:

Moreover, unlike the football players who largely conceded that these classes held little educational value, several of the basketball players insisted that they read extensively and worked hard to produce their papers for these classes.

The basketball players signed up for easy classes and did the work that was assigned to them, just like thousands of college students across the country. Lead investigator Kenneth L. Wainstein made it clear that the basketball players weren’t intentionally steered into these classes like football players were and instead found out about the classes through word of mouth. The basketball team’s academic adviser, Wayne Walden, did often suggest these courses to the players while knowing about “irregular aspects of the paper classes,” but even then it’s unclear whether Walden knew that the classes were fraudulent or if he was just trying to make himself look better by increasing the team GPA.

Meanwhile, Roy Williams was one of the few people named in the Wainstein report who emerged mostly unblemished. He “was uncomfortable with that clustering in [UNC’s  Department of African and Afro-American Studies] because it looked like the players were being steered into that major.” He “directed Walden to encourage players to opt for lecture classes over independent studies.” And Williams didn’t know about the structure of the paper classes, as this excerpt from page 73 shows:

When asked whether he [Walden] shared this information [the irregularity of the paper classes] with Coaches Holladay or Williams, he could not recall doing so. Both of the coaches claim that they never learned from Walden or anyone else that there was a question about faculty involvement in the classes.

“But,” you might be saying, “it’s Williams’s job to know these things.” No the hell it isn’t. It’s absolutely not the basketball coach’s responsibility to investigate every class his players take to make sure they meet the academic standards of the university. It’s the coach’s job to know how his players are doing in class, and Williams did that. It’s the academic adviser’s job to know about the classes (which Walden did) and to share relevant information with the head coach (which he didn’t). And even if Walden did inform Williams about the classes’ reputation, there’s no proof that Williams would’ve known that these courses were anything but abnormally easy classes, which is a huge difference from academic fraud.

This is an academic issue involving athletes. Not an athletics issue involving academics. You can’t punish people for getting wrapped up in something that goes so much higher up than them when there’s no proof that they knew anything was wrong. Unless there’s evidence that the basketball program was aware of academic fraud in the AFAM department and that the team knowingly steered players into those classes, I don’t see how the NCAA can vacate wins or, especially, national championships.

The North Carolina basketball program may have benefited from the paper classes, but that doesn’t mean that it systematically and intentionally cheated. I’d be fine with giving it a slap on the wrist (probation and loss of a scholarship or two) for Walden’s involvement. Anything more than that would be excessive.

Five Pressing Questions:

1. Is Miami a legitimate ACC threat?

2. How long until Wake Forest fans start freaking out about Danny Manning–to-Kansas rumors?

3. Did you hear that Kennedy Meeks lost weight over the summer?

4. Will Jim Boeheim or Mike Krzyzewski ever retire and concede the all-time wins record?

5. Will Roy Williams try to sell his extra timeouts to Brad Brownell when North Carolina plays Clemson?

Filed Under: College Basketball, 2014-15 NCAA Basketball Preview, Atlantic Coast Conference, ACC, Duke Blue Devils, North Carolina Tar Heels, Louisville Cardinals, Virginia Cavaliers, Syracuse, Virginia Tech, Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Mark Titus is the founder and author of the blog Club Trillion. His book, Don’t Put Me In, Coach, chronicles his career as a walk-on benchwarmer for the Ohio State basketball team and is on sale now.

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