Don’t let my neighbors in Big Ten country know I said this, but the ACC is the best conference in college basketball. I know that the ACC hasn’t won an ACC–Big Ten Challenge since 2008 and I know that the Big Ten was the best conference last season. That’s irrelevant now. The Big East broke up, other conferences frantically claimed teams as if they were playing Hungry Hungry Hippos, and when the dust settled the balance of power had shifted to the ACC.
The Big Ten can still hang its hat on being deeper than the ACC. The Big Ten will probably get more teams into the NCAA tournament and it will probably win the ACC–Big Ten Challenge again this year. You know what else is deep, though? The ocean. And I only care about the 0.000000000001 percent of it that I can dip my toes into while I sip piña coladas. I’m sure the Big Ten has some really cool monsters like whatever creatures lurk in the shadows near the ocean floor, but the ACC has the better beaches (literally, as it turns out), and that’s what matters to me.
Think about this for a second: As it stands right now, the ACC has three of the four best coaches in the game and three of the five winningest programs in college basketball history. It claims 13 national championships (six of which have come in the past 12 years), which is second all time to the Pac-12 only because of John Wooden and Sam Gilbert at UCLA. When Louisville joins the ACC next season, the conference will have the four best coaches in the game and five of the 12 winningest programs. So, yeah, the ACC is turning into an even better version of the old Big East.
Enjoy it while you can, ACC fans. When Jim Delany gets Notre Dame, Pitt, Duke, and North Carolina to join the Big Ten we’ll see who’s laughing.1
Top Three Teams
3. North Carolina
Hating Duke has always been one of those little things in life that puts a smile on my face for reasons I don’t fully understand, kind of like how “Taco Bell” and “Netflix” always trend on Twitter around 2 a.m. But in what experts are calling the biggest upset in college basketball history, this year’s Duke team starts zero white guys, they’re incredibly fun to watch, and — this can’t be right — they are easy to cheer for? And if that wasn’t enough, Mike Krzyzewski is starting quotes with the phrase “As an American“? What’s going on in Durham? Where are the unathletic white guys who take charges and slap the floor? Where are the punchable faces? As an American, I demand to know what happened to the Duke I grew up hating.
In all seriousness, I am very excited to see how good this Duke team can be. It doesn’t have a ton of size or depth and it plays zero defense, but the Blue Devils have tons of athleticism, two players in Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood who are a mismatch no matter who guards them, and a solid upperclassman point guard in Quinn Cook. After 21 straight years of watching at least one of the Plumlee brothers posting up on the low block, it feels strange to see Duke without a real post presence. But I think this will be good for this team. Amile Jefferson can roam the paint and serve the role of big man, but because he’s not going to anchor himself under the basket on offense, Duke will spread the floor and let its athletes do what they do best. And if the Blue Devils decide that they need to dump the ball down low, they can just put Parker on the block and let one of the best players in America make plays.
Syracuse should be the second-best team in the ACC because — stop me if you’ve heard this before — the Orange have size, a couple big-time scorers, and an NBA-bound point guard. Syracuse fans will tell you that their famed 2-3 zone changes each year because everyone learns the system at a different pace and some guys don’t have the length or athleticism to be as effective as their predecessors. And while these fans are right, Syracuse’s zone is always going to be somewhere between pretty good and great. If the Orange can get the zone closer to great, there’s no telling how good they can be, given that C.J. Fair and Jerami Grant could both score 30 on any given night.
Finally, North Carolina might actually have the most talented team in the ACC, but I’m picking the Tar Heels to finish third because talent has never been a problem for them. What has been a problem, and what separates the 2005 and 2009 teams from the 2010 and 2013 teams, is attitude and leadership. If you look at Roy Williams’s tenure in Chapel Hill, an obvious pattern emerges — every time North Carolina has arguably the best team in America (2005, 2009, 2012), that team inevitably gets gutted at the end of the year with NBA departures and Carolina brings in a group of highly touted recruits who can’t live up to the previous year’s impossible standard. This was true in 2006, it was especially true in 2010, and it was true again last season.
Now that North Carolina has a core group back this season, it will be interesting to see who steps up and fills the leadership roles that Tyler Zeller, John Henson, Kendall Marshall, and Harrison Barnes vacated in 2012. As great as James Michael McAdoo can be, I’m not sure he’s wired to be that guy. And considering that P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald are suspended indefinitely, it doesn’t make much sense for either of them to assume a leadership role either. That means sophomore point guard Marcus Paige is the logical choice. If he can step up, and if Hairston and McDonald can get their issues resolved, I wouldn’t be surprised to see North Carolina compete for a conference championship.
Best College Player — C.J. Fair (Syracuse)
The best senior in the ACC might be better than any other senior in college basketball except Doug McDermott. Brandon Triche was the leader of last year’s team, Michael Carter-Williams had the most talent, and James Southerland was the best shooter, but C.J. Fair was the best player for Syracuse’s Final Four squad. The game at Georgetown notwithstanding, Fair almost never had a bad night offensively — he scored double-digit points in 28 of Syracuse’s last 30 games. As great as Syracuse’s defense was last season, their offense struggled at times and would’ve been completely screwed if Fair hadn’t saved them. One of those games was in the Final Four against Michigan, when Fair scored 22 of the Orange’s 56 points and prevented the semifinal from being a blowout.
What I love about Fair’s game is that he seems like he’s never trying to score because he wants glory, but because it’s his job. That’s an important distinction. Many players care about scoring because that’s what gets their names in the paper and gets the girls to tweet emoticons at them. If taking charges suddenly became the cool thing to do, these guys would stop shooting and start flopping enough to make Sergio Busquets take notes. Fair, however, scores because he has to. It’s as if he’s thinking, I don’t necessarily want to do this, but it needs to be done and I’m the best man for the job. This attitude and his ability to score from anywhere on the court remind me of Deshaun Thomas, all the way down to the left-handedness. Of course, Fair is more athletic, a much better rebounder, and actually gets into a defensive stance more than once a game.
Best Pro Prospect — Jabari Parker (Duke)
If you are a Michigan State fan who was busy getting drunk and calling all your friends to tell them you think “this is our year,” if you are a Kentucky fan who was busy canceling your order from 40and0.com, or if you just have a normal job and couldn’t stay up late enough to watch Kansas beat Duke on Tuesday night, you missed a one-on-one matchup that was every bit as good as advertised. Well, maybe that’s a stretch since it was impossible to live up to all that hype and Andrew Wiggins sat on the bench with foul trouble for most of the first half. But even though it took Wiggins a while to get going, there were fireworks right out of the gate, as Parker was so good in the first half that Twitter was overflowing with “Wiggins is overrated” proclamations.
This is going to be my favorite thing in college basketball this season. Anytime a big-time NBA prospect has a great game, America will praise him while also trashing another prospect. In the first half of Michigan State–Kentucky, Julius Randle was overrated and James Young wasn’t getting enough respect. In the second half, Randle was the obvious no. 1 pick and the Harrison twins shouldn’t even put their names in the draft. Then the Kansas-Duke game started and the general sentiment was that Wiggins might drop out of the lottery because Parker was playing so well. Then Wiggins turned it on and finished with 22 points and eight boards as Kansas pulled away, prompting everyone to slobber all over themselves about Wiggins’s greatness. At some point we’re going to run out of prospects to bash, which is why I think the only plausible end game to this madness is for some analyst to say that he’d “definitely draft Marshall Plumlee over Alex Gauna.”
Anyway, this freshman class is nothing short of amazing, and Parker just might be the best of the bunch. Whereas Wiggins carries himself like a shy kid who apologizes after he dunks on you, and Randle carries himself like everyone in the world took his lunch money and the only way to get vengeance is to grab boards and get buckets, Parker has the perfect combination of NBA star confidence and youthful playground enthusiasm.
Wiggins looked like he was uncomfortable with all the attention Tuesday night. Randle looked like he wasn’t having fun because there’s nothing fun about getting your lunch money stolen. These aren’t criticisms at all. But what made Parker stand out was that he was clearly having a blast. There’s something infectious about his attitude that’s impossible to cheer against, even though the four letters across his chest tell me I should hate him. Hopefully, Parker was having so much fun just because he was playing under the bright lights in his hometown. If he and Duke continue to be this much fun, college basketball fans aren’t going to know what to believe anymore.
Most Underrated Player — T.J. Warren (North Carolina State)
If you don’t follow ACC basketball, you probably don’t know T.J. Warren. I mean, he was a McDonald’s All-American who put up decent numbers for an underachieving but not terrible NC State team, but when you talked about the Wolfpack last season, Warren was probably the seventh name out of your mouth. Lorenzo Brown was the point guard, C.J. Leslie was the best player, Richard Howell was the animal in the paint, Scott Wood was the sharpshooter, Tyler Lewis was another McDonald’s All-American who looked like the Professor and was a lot less talented and cocky than his highlight mixtapes suggested, and Mark Gottfried was the captain of the sinking ship. And then there was Warren. This year, with those first four names gone and the third All-American of NC State’s 2012 recruiting class, Rodney Purvis, having transferred, Warren is the guy in Raleigh. And when I say that he’s the guy, I mean that he will need to average something like 20 points and 10 rebounds for NC State to be on the bubble of the bubble.
So far this season, Warren has risen to the occasion. He’s averaging 20 points and nine boards through two games and he looks to have a complete understanding of what is expected of him. I don’t think he’s going to be good enough to get the Wolfpack into the Big Dance, but I am confident enough to make this prediction: At some point this season North Carolina State will win a game that it has no business winning because Warren will single-handedly carry them to victory. I would say that game will come against Duke because the Blue Devils won’t have an answer for him defensively, but NC State doesn’t play Duke at home this year and there’s no way I’m picking them to win at Cameron Indoor. So instead I’ll say it’s going to happen against North Carolina in late February, just because it’s a rivalry game and I think North Carolina upsets may be a common occurrence this season.
Best Senior With a Slim Chance at an NBA Career — Joe Harris (Virginia)
Joe Harris is the Aaron Craft of Virginia. He looks like a choir boy, it feels like he’s been playing college basketball for seven years, and so much of his game is intellectual. I don’t know for sure, but I’d be willing to bet that, like Craft with his Rubik’s Cube–solving ability, Harris doesn’t care that he’ll likely never play in the NBA because he’s going to make more money as a brain surgeon/lawyer/astronaut/Abercrombie & Fitch model anyway. There’s a chance that he’s actually kind of dumb, but I wouldn’t bet against him being as smart off the court as he is on it.2
I call Harris smart because he’s always under control on the court and he seems to be thinking two or three steps ahead of everyone else. A common misconception is that the best basketball players are very fast. While quickness certainly matters, it’s not speed that makes guys good as much as the changing of speed. Harris has mastered the art of changing speeds. He moves without the ball, reads screens well, and knows exactly when to lull defenders to sleep and when to go hard. His pass fakes, shot fakes, hesitation dribbles, half-spins, and back-down dribbles in the post are what make him so much more than just a knockdown shooter. This also explains how a guy who looks like 100 different people you went to high school with averaged 16.3 points per game in the ACC last season, which becomes even more impressive when you realize that scoring 16 points for Virginia is equivalent to scoring 41 points for North Carolina.
Player Who Best Fits the Label “Loose Cannon” — P.J. Hairston (North Carolina)
Hairston is the obvious choice for “loose cannon” for several reasons, the most significant of which are his run-ins with the law over the summer. His first problem came when he was pulled over for speeding on May 13, which seems innocuous on its own. Sure, he was driving a rental car linked to a convicted felon nicknamed “Fats,” but whatever. That part isn’t a crime. But things looked worse less than a month later, when he got arrested during a traffic stop for not having his license while driving another car linked to Fats. Sure, there was marijuana and a 9mm handgun in the car, but whatever. That part isn’t a crime as far as — no, wait — I’m pretty sure that is a crime. Yeah, definitely. But in a decision that I’m sure was in no way influenced by Hairston’s status as one of the best players on one of the biggest college basketball programs in America, those charges were dropped.
Look, I don’t want to get holier than thou here, but when you get busted with weed and a handgun while driving a rental car linked to a felon nicknamed “Fats,” it’s hard to argue against being labeled a loose cannon. So when, seven weeks after dodging that enormous legal bullet, you get suspended for driving 28 mph over the speed limit, and on top of all that your play on the court consists of shooting ill-advised 3s every time you touch the ball, you officially get the “loose cannon” label tattooed on your forehead.
Most Intriguing New Coach — Jim Boeheim (Syracuse)
Unlike my picks for “most intriguing new coach” in previous conference previews, Boeheim isn’t in his first year at Syracuse. But since no coach in the ACC is new to his team and since Syracuse is in its first year in the ACC, I figured I’d discuss Boeheim. I’m eager to see how much success his 2-3 zone has in a new conference. With respect to Louisville’s press, VCU’s “Havoc,” and Duke’s “fall over and hope the refs blow the whistle,” Syracuse’s 2-3 is the most famous defense in college basketball. When most teams play zone, they do so because they have a size disadvantage or they’re trying to hide weak defenders. Syracuse, though, plays zone because it has so much size year after year and wants to use it as best it can. So far this season, the Orange have eight guys 6-foot-7 or taller averaging double-digit minutes. All of that size is impossible to replicate in practice, which explains how non-conference teams that don’t regularly play Syracuse can sometimes look like they’ve never seen a zone defense when they face the Orange.3
Now that Syracuse has moved to the ACC, every team except Notre Dame and Pitt will effectively be non-conference opponents this season, so it will be interesting to see if the Orange’s 2-3 takes the league by storm. I can’t wait to see the chess match between Boeheim and Mike Krzyzewski at least twice this season, and I’m nearly as excited to see if P.J. Hairston can overcome the urge to jack up 40 3-pointers when North Carolina plays Syracuse.
Coach on the Hot Seat — Jeff Bzdelik (Wake Forest)
I’m torn on Jeff Bzdelik. There’s no denying he’s an awful coach who never should have been hired by Wake Forest. You’d have an easier time explaining the final season of Lost to your grandparents than you would explaining how Dino Gaudio got fired from Wake Forest for going 61-31 in three seasons yet Bzdelik went 34-60 in his first three years and gets to keep his job. I know the “he must have incriminating pictures of his boss” joke is played out, but I’m not sure it’s a joke in this case. After all, Bzdelik and Ron Wellman, Wake Forest’s athletic director, have been friends for years. Maybe Bzdelik knows personal secrets. Nothing else really makes sense. I’d do a lot of things for my friends, but neither running my career into the ground nor defiantly taking a dump all over a college basketball program are among those things.
But here’s the catch: If Wake Forest finally kicks Bzdelik to the curb, my favorite college basketball subplot will come to an end, so I’m kind of hoping he sticks around a while longer. I mean, the campaign Wake Forest fans started last season to get Bzdelik fired is just fabulous. There’s the Twitter account, the #BuzzOut hashtag, the call-in radio show takeover, the ads in the Greensboro News & Record, the billboard, and best of all FireBz.com, which is unquestionably the best Fire[Coach’s Name].com website I’ve ever seen. When Bzdelik goes, all of this glorious stuff goes with him. I know you can’t wait for that day, Wake Forest fans, but how about you don’t be so selfish? How about you consider the rest of America? We want to see you take the #BuzzOut campaign to even greater heights. We want to hear “HASH-TAG-BUZZ-OUT [clap, clap, clap-clap-clap]” chants during Wake Forest games. We want to see you video-bomb news reports like Joey Boots and yell, “Fire Bzdelik! Wellman eats farts!” We want to see you start a Kickstarter to raise money for a #BuzzOut Super Bowl commercial. This thing is just beginning. Don’t be so eager to stop now.
Most Intriguing Story Line — The Grant Brothers
Notre Dame’s Jerian Grant and Syracuse’s Jerami Grant were in the same conference last season and both played almost the entire game the one time their teams met, so it won’t be unprecedented when the Irish play the Orange this season. But what makes the Grant brothers more interesting now is that they play bigger roles for their teams this year. Jerian was the leading scorer for the Irish last year, but Notre Dame was Jack “I’m not Luke Harangody” Cooley’s team. Jerian will again be the leading scorer this season, only now that Cooley is gone he should also be the face of the Irish. Notre Dame fans claim Eric Atkins is the face of the team, but when the rest of America watches the Irish play, Jerian will stand out.
Meanwhile, despite playing all 40 minutes of Syracuse’s game against his brother’s team, Jerami averaged only 14.3 minutes per game last season. With Michael Carter-Williams, Brandon Triche, and James Southerland gone, Jerami needs to not only play more but also become a more significant contributor than last season. In fact, Jerami will go from the seventh or eighth man last season to the second-best player on the team this season and he will double, if not triple, his stats across the board.4 In other words, both Grant brothers carry a much greater load of responsibility for their teams, which is why they’ll be the best brothers to compete against each other in the same conference since 2007, when Greg Oden was at Ohio State and Tim Doyle was at Northwestern.
Water Cooler Comment That Will Make It Sound Like You Really Know What You’re Talking About
“Miami won the ACC last season and opened this year with an overtime loss to St. Francis (NY) and an overtime win over Georgia Southern. With that in mind, did you know that only three defending champions in conference history have gone from first to worst in the standings? It happened to Clemson in 1991 (after Elden Campbell left), Duke in 1995 (when Coach K took a year off), and Georgia Tech in 1997 (after Stephon Marbury left).”