Best Team — North Carolina
The Tar Heels are the near-unanimous preseason no. 1 team in all of college basketball, and Jay Caspian Kang already wrote about why they will win the national championship this year, so I don’t exactly need to go into too much detail here with this pick. But I will give you this synopsis of Carolina: The Tar Heels return pretty much everyone from last year’s ACC championship team that made the Elite Eight, they brought in two of the best freshmen in the country in James McAdoo and P.J. Hairston, their starting five this year have a legitimate chance to all be first-round picks in the 2012 NBA draft, and they have the best group of walk-ons in the country with Blue Steel. Can we just hand them the national title now? Or at least just fast-forward to the Final Four and let Kentucky, Syracuse, UConn, and UNC play for the title? I’d even be willing to throw Duke, Vanderbilt, Memphis, and Louisville in there, too, and make it an eight-team tournament, just so we still have something to get excited about in March. But honestly, there’s no need to even play this regular season or have the traditional NCAA tournament this year, because it’s not like any team outside of those eight has any chance at winning it all anyway.
Best player — Harrison Barnes
If you were to ask most casual college basketball fans how Harrison Barnes played in his freshman season last year, they’d probably tell you that he underachieved and didn’t really live up to all the preseason hype surrounding him. They’d say this for two reasons. First of all, the hype was probably just a little bit too much. After freshmen like Kevin Durant and Greg Oden in 2007, Michael Beasley and Kevin Love in 2008, and John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins in 2010 ended up on All-American teams at the end of their respective seasons, it seemed like All-American voters wanted to be preemptive last year and put a freshman on the preseason team since it was pretty much inevitable that a freshman would end up on the postseason team. As the no. 1 recruit in the country, Barnes seemed to be the logical choice to be that anointed freshman, and so he became the first freshman in college basketball history to be named a preseason first-team AP All-American. Once casual college basketball fans learned of Barnes’ historic accomplishment, they all basically thought the same thing: This guy must be the best college basketball recruit ever. Suddenly it wasn’t good enough for Barnes to just be one of the best players in the country — now fans expected him to have one of the best freshman seasons of all time
which brings me to the second reason why casual college basketball fans would tell you that Barnes had a disappointing year last year: Casual college basketball fans are stupid. Because Barnes didn’t put up huge numbers like Durant and Beasley, lead his team to the Final Four like Oden and Love, or go to the NBA draft after his freshman year and get picked in the top 5 like Wall and Cousins, many labeled his freshman campaign a failure. Sure, his slow start didn’t do much to help the perception that he was an overhyped recruit, since a lot of people probably stopped paying close attention to Barnes after he went 0-12 in a five-point loss to Minnesota in the third game of the year, and then went 2-9 in an eight-point loss to Illinois just a few weeks later. But, as Jay Kang alluded to, this was partly because Barnes didn’t have a good point guard to feed him the rock until Kendall Marshall took over for Larry Drew halfway through the season. Once he got his feet wet a little bit and Marshall took over the point and got him the ball where he could do something with it, he came much closer to playing to the level that had been expected from him all season long. (Barnes’ scoring average was 7.4 ppg higher with Marshall at the point in UNC’s last 20 games than it was with Drew in its first 17 games.) He also led the Tar Heels’ resurgence at the tail end of last season that ended with a loss to Kentucky in the Elite Eight.
My point is this: Just because he wasn’t dominant all season long and his team didn’t make it to the Final Four, many people either forget or never noticed in the first place that Harrison Barnes actually had a pretty good freshman season as a whole last year (especially the second half of the season). With a year of experience under his belt and a loaded cast of teammates around him this season, you’d have to be crazy to think he’s not going to explode this year. Chances are he’ll never live up to the astronomical expectations that were placed on him when he first stepped foot in Chapel Hill, but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s still one of the best players in America and is certainly going to be the best player in the ACC this season.
Overrated Team — Duke
By now, Duke fans are accustomed to being the most-hated fan base in all of college basketball, so instead of getting too upset with this pick, my guess is that most of them are probably just going to say, “Haters gonna hate,” proudly put on their puka shell necklaces, continue to give everyone around them douchechills, and hope that the lonely tears they cry from being unloved losers don’t ruin their ridiculous face paint. Still, I didn’t pick Duke as the most overrated team in the ACC just because it’s fun to rag on Duke and its intolerable fans. I picked it because despite what its preseason ranking says, I truly don’t believe that it is the sixth-best team in America. (You’re never going to believe this, but Duke sometimes starts out the season ranked way too high, just because it’s Duke.)
Just look at Duke’s probable starting lineup. Its point guard, junior Seth Curry, is certainly a fantastic shooter who will probably be Duke’s most consistent player this year, but let’s be honest — unless you closely follow college basketball, the only reason you know his name is because he is Steph Curry’s younger brother and he plays for Duke. After being a secondary option on last year’s team, he should have a bit of a breakout year this season, as Duke will look to him to be one of its leading scorers, but he’s not exactly a guy who is going to strike fear into the hearts of Duke opponents. Duke’s probable starting shooting guard, freshman Austin Rivers, is one of the top recruits in the country and has the potential to be a star this year. But as Shane Ryan pointed out, he also has the potential to be a complete turd whose sense of entitlement and punchable face could alienate himself from his teammates. My guess is that he’ll be a little bit of both, as I expect him to be a household name among college basketball fans by year’s end while also being a guy whose teammates wouldn’t mind seeing get knocked down a peg or two.
Rounding out Duke’s starting lineup are junior forward Ryan Kelly, who is essentially the tallest shooting guard in the country, and the Plumlee brothers, Mason and Miles. Kelly is a 6-foot-11 knockdown shooter who can handle the ball pretty well, but he isn’t as big of a mismatch for Duke as he should be because he has virtually no inside game whatsoever. And the Plumlees, in the words of Shane Ryan, “play terrible help-side defense, commit stupid fouls, lack any post moves outside of what John Wooden calls ‘the dunk shot,’ put themselves in poor rebounding position, and lack the inside-to-outside passing ability that sets up Duke’s shooters and was such a crucial part of Brian Zoubek’s game in the 2010 title run.”
To summarize, Duke’s point guard is good, but at this point is still known more for his lineage than his play on the court; its shooting guard is supremely talented, but seems to reek of arrogance and has the potential to divide the locker room; its small forward is a finesse big man; and its power forward and center are apparently whatever would be considered the exact opposite of favorites for Duke fans. I’m sure the Blue Devils will still be highly ranked all season long even if they have a handful of losing streaks, but considering everything I just wrote in that last sentence, I’m not buying that Duke is going to be one of the best six teams in America this season.
Sleeper Team / Team You Wouldn’t Realize Was Good If You Haven’t Been Following College Basketball For the Past Few Years / Team to Cheer For If You Don’t Have a Favorite — Florida State
Since Florida State is likely going to be the only relevant team in the ACC this year (other than North Carolina and Duke), I’m grouping all three of these categories together and there’s nothing you can do to stop me. (I almost made this entire ACC post say, “NORTH CAROLINA AND DUKE and Florida State a little bit, too.”)
It’s no secret that at Florida State, basketball’s place on the sports hierarchy is somewhere below football, baseball, spring football, football recruiting, and checking out the babes at the football games. With the exception of one team in 1972 and the teams in the early ’90s led by Bobby Sura, Sam Cassell, and Charlie Ward, Florida State has been pretty much nonexistent in the world of college basketball to the point that one of its best all-time players (Ward) played only half the season his senior year because he was too busy in November and December winning the Heisman as the starting quarterback for the football team. Prior to 2009, the Seminoles went to only one NCAA tournament after Sura, Cassell, and Ward left for the NBA, when they advanced to the second round of the 1998 tournament and finished with a 6-10 conference record and an 18-14 record overall (so even then, they weren’t exactly all that great). Considering that the only other relevant bit of information concerning Florida State basketball is that NBA great Dave Cowens played for the Seminoles, it’s easy to see why, for a long time, Florida State basketball was taken as seriously as Harold Camping prophecies.
But not anymore. After Leonard Hamilton took over as coach in 2002 and turned Florida State into a perennial NIT team following years of occupying the cellar of the ACC, the Seminoles finally had a breakthrough in 2009 when Toney Douglas led them to their first NCAA tournament berth in 11 years. Even though they were bounced from that tournament in the first round, they were at least able to sustain some momentum into the next season and get their second consecutive bid to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1992 and 1993. Last year, they got over yet another hump in the tournament and advanced all the way to the Sweet 16 before losing to VCU (which eventually went to the Final Four), setting them up for an opportunity this season to go to four straight NCAA tournaments for the first time in program history, which is something they should have no problem doing. With traditionally good basketball programs like Maryland, Wake Forest, and North Carolina State in a bit of a slump as of late, Florida State seems to have seized the opportunity and momentarily secured its spot as the third-best program in the ACC.
There’s reason to be optimistic in Tallahassee this season, because the Seminoles return all but two players from last year’s team that had the best field goal percentage defense in all of college basketball. Sure, the two players they lost (Derwin Kitchen and Chris Singleton) were their two leading scorers, but Kitchen was remarkably inconsistent last year and virtually disappeared in some games, and FSU played the season’s final month and a half without Singleton because he fractured his foot, and they still made it to the Sweet 16. (Besides, it’s not like these two guys were lighting it up or anything, as they averaged only a combined 23.5 points per game.) Nonetheless, Florida State needs to find a way to make up for its lost scoring and then some, considering last year it had those two guys and still had one of the worst offenses among NCAA tournament teams. If the Seminoles can find a way to be even just a little bit better on offense this season, they could be pretty dangerous, because at this point it’s a given that all Florida State teams are going to be great defensively. They’re just too long, too strong (and down to get the friction on?), and too athletic to not be.
(By the way, my reasoning for why you should cheer for them is simple: They are the only good team in the ACC that isn’t Duke or North Carolina.)
Player to Cheer For If You Don’t Have a Favorite — Bernard James (Florida State)
If there are two groups of people I will forever have unconditional respect and support for: They are college basketball players and American servicemen and women (and veterans). College basketball players because I know firsthand how much of a commitment playing college basketball is, and how much they are exploited by the people who make billions off of them while they get next to nothing; and members of the military because while they sacrifice their lives for my freedom, the worst thing I have to deal with on any given day is my Internet running slow or wanting to go to Chick-fil-A on Sunday. Keeping this in mind, Bernard James could make a serious case for being my favorite human being on the planet, since he just so happens to be both a college basketball player and a veteran who served six years in the Air Force and was deployed to the Middle East three times (Iraq, Kuwait, and Qatar).
Making James even more likable is the fact that his story is one of redemption. After he was cut from his high school’s freshmen basketball team and his grades began to rapidly decline, James dropped out of school when he was 16, earned his GED, and enlisted in the Air Force not long after his 17th birthday. While in the Air Force, the then-6-5 James joined the intramural basketball program and quickly fell in love with the game, most likely because he hit a growth spurt that shot him up to 6-10 and made him pretty dominant on Air Force bases around the world. After a few years of destroying his fellow soldiers on the intramural courts, James realized he had a newfound passion for basketball and wanted to play in college, so he enrolled at Tallahassee Community College in 2008. In two years there, he averaged 14 points and 10 rebounds in 52 games, which was enough to catch the attention of Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton. Following his stint at TCC, James transferred to Florida State, where he played a pivotal role in the Seminoles’ run to the Sweet 16 last season. This season, the 26-year-old James will be called upon to be Florida State’s anchor down low, as he is the Seminoles’ leading returning rebounder and second-leading returning scorer from a season ago. Assuming he’s able to thrive in his new role and fill the void left by Singleton, there’s no reason to expect anything less than James leading Florida State to another NCAA tournament run. Not bad for a guy who claims he would probably be in prison by now if he hadn’t joined the Air Force nine years ago.
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 scheduled to be released in March. You can follow him on Twitter at @clubtrillion.
Previously By Mark Titus:
Club Trillion’s Only Partially Biased College Basketball Preview Spectacular Part II
Club Trillion’s Only Partially Biased College Basketball Preview Spectacular
Why Ohio State Will Win the National Championship
Let the (Midnight) Madness Begin
In Defense of Wussing Out in the NFL
OK, Ohio State Fans. Maybe We Don’t Have This
Read more of The Triangle, Grantland’s sports blog.
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