The Wolfpack finally made a coaching change after dropping the red coat jester Sidney Lowe after five disappointing seasons where he never finished better than 6-10 in the ACC. This was after firing Herb Sendek, who took State to five straight NCAA tournament appearances in his last five years as head coach. Hired was Mark Gottfried, who was not the home run hire that delusional Wolfpack fans thought they could get, but nonetheless he has a strong resume and is an immediate upgrade over Lowe. State is returning some talent with backcourt players Lorenzo Brown and Scott Wood who can fill up the basket on any given night. The best frontcourt player is sophomore C.J. Leslie, who showed flashes as a highly recruited freshman of his ability to score but was inconsistent with effort and was suspended for violating team rules at the end of the season. They don’t have a lack of size with Leslie and three juniors in Deshawn Painter, Richard Howell, and Jordan Vandenburg, but none of them have proven consistent production and they will need someone to make a jump to replace the loss of Tracy Smith. They will be formidable on days that Wood is hot and against teams with weaker inside play, but the lack of a true point guard with Ryan Harrow transferring and the lack of any consistent three point threats beyond Wood will hold this team back.
It looked to have the potential of being a promising season during the summer where a Top 3 finish in the ACC was in the cards, but injuries and off-the-court trouble have lowered expectations for the Hurricanes this season. Miami had four starters returning from a team that underachieved last season under Frank Haith. This includes talented and experienced guards Malcolm Grant and Durand Scott along with an All-ACC center in Reggie Johnson. Add in the addition of new head coach Jim Larranaga, which was an immediate upgrade over Haith, and this season could have been the most successful in the history of Miami basketball. But Johnson suffered a knee injury in a pickup game that required surgery and will keep him out of action until at least December. Shortly thereafter, another key post player Julian Gamble tore his ACL and was lost for the season. Adding to the frustration of the injuries is senior forward DeQuan Jones is sitting out the season as an alleged participant in the Nevin Shapiro scandal. The Canes will still have their excellent backcourt, but they will have to overcome losing their entire frontcourt in order to challenge for a winning ACC record. If Johnson can return to form by March, though will be a dangerous team come ACC tournament time. But will they do enough prior to warrant a tourney bid?
ACC record: 9-7
Quick trivia; Who is the second-longest tenured coach in the ACC? That’s right. It’s Leonard Hamilton. Since taking over in 2002, Hamilton has done a great job taking over a program that was perennial doormat of the ACC, never finishing higher than 7th in the ACC from the Sam Cassell years, through the Steve Robinson tenure, to when Hamilton took over. It took a few years to get things turned around, but Hamilton has lead FSU to three straight NCAA tourney appearances and has more wins in the ACC behind Duke and UNC in the past 5 years than any other school. His focus has been defense, which won’t be any different this season. He recruits tall, athletic players who can defend the rim and rebound in the paint and stay in front of perimeter players outside, and he has an army of those this season. I counted 7 players on the roster who are 6’7’ and taller, and their three best guards are 6’5’. Defensively Florida State is a top 5 team, but the offense is far away from it. They go into the season without an established go-to guy as there isn’t a single player returning who averaged double figures last season. The key to FSU's season and to the next stop up the ACC ladder is to be more efficient and effective on offense.
Surprise pick of the year. I decided to move them above Florida State after their win over Michigan, the only change I have made since the season started. Tony Bennett posted a winning record and a seventh place finish last season in the ACC with most experts picking them to finish in the basement, even without star forward Mike Scott for most of the season because of a broken ankle. Scott brings production on offense and defense and he played very well against Michigan, which proved he is back fully from injury and will a force all season. Assane Sene will be a force in the paint and shot 52 percent from the field. Joe Harris was a surprise at guard last season and if he continues his growth will be 14 point a game player. Two other veteran guards in Sammy Zeglinski and Jontel Evans will split time at the point. Zeglinski is the better shooter, Evans the better penetrator and passer. Freshman guard Malcolm Brogdon has played well in the first few weeks. If they can picked up where they left off with the addition of Scott, they will be a great team, but a step below the top 2.
ACC record: 10-6
The Ohio State game withstanding, I have liked what I have seen so far. Replacing 3 star players in Singler, Smith, and Irving is a tough chore for anybody, but Duke has come out of the gates stronger than I expected. I’ve liked the maturity and improvement I’ve seen from Mason Plumlee. He will be a legit low post threat this season and will only get better as the season goes as gets more accustomed to being a primary scoring option. He went toe-to-toe with probably the best low post player in the NCAA in Thomas Robinson in the Maui final against Kansas and put up 17 and 12 with the offense funneling through him down the stretch. I thought he played well against Jared Sullinger on Tuesday, just the rest of team besides Austin Rivers didn’t show up to compete. Rivers will be maddening at times this season as his tries to create offense on the dribble drive, but if the Ohio State game is a indication of what’s to come, Rivers could become the best guard in the ACC this year. His crossover is the quickest in the country and he can finish with both hands at the rim. Seth Curry has stepped up his scoring and is an assassin from behind the arc, but ultimately I think he will need to be moved off the ball as he just isn’t a point guard and he’s not Jon Scheyer who made the transition. Ryan Kelly looks much improved and will need to be a consistent scorer on offense and grab rebounds and defend effectively in the paint for this team to do things. Andrew Dawkins looks to be purely a 3 point specialist, which is somewhat disappointing in his junior year, but I can live with him in that role if he steps up his defense and keeps his head in the game on a night he’s struggling to score.
ACC record: 12-4
Based on the covers of all the major sports publications, the college basketball National Championship is once again Carolina’s to lose. UNC welcomes back all five starters from an Elite Eight team that finished last year inside the Top 10. Their primary strength is in the frontcourt with Harrison Barnes, John Henson, and Tyler Zeller all future NBA players. John Henson was the ACC Defensive Player of the Year, and he is as good defensively as any player in the country. Barnes played much better in the second half of the season after struggling through unreasonably high expectations in the beginning half and led UNC further than any team in the conference. Watching Barnes he is so much more efficient when he catches and shoots within a couple of dribbles. When he is pounding the ball into the ground and forcing his way into the paint is when he gets in trouble. Kendall Marshall took over the point guard slot midway through the season and became the catalyst for the turnaround in last year’s team. Because of his court vision and his ability to penetrate and find the open man with a pass, he makes everyone around him better. But his defense and perimeter shooting will need to show improvement to take the team to the next step. If UNC can improve their three point shooting with Reggie Bullock and PJ Hairston, and Kendall Marshall can improve his game and more importantly stay healthy, they will be tough to beat. The Heels aren’t a lock for anything, and I think Ohio State and Kentucky are more talented, but anything less than a ACC regular-season championship and a Final Four appearance would be a major disappointment.
ACC record: 13-3