Conference Preview: ACC topped by Tobacco Road triumvirate

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Throughout the month of October, CollegeBasketballTalk will be rolling out our previews for the 2012-2013 season. Check back at 9 a.m. and just after lunch every day, Monday-Friday, for a new preview item.

To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. To look at the rest of the Top 25, click here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.

Sometimes, things have a way of working out. With Pitt, Syracuse and eventually Notre Dame preparing to join the ACC, unbalanced schedules are the wave of the future. This may be the last season in which the Triangle powers of Duke, North Carolina and N.C. State play one another twice apiece in the regular season. It just so happens that this is also the first time in a long time in which all three programs are nationally ranked and favored to reach the post-season as well, thanks to the Wolfpack resurgence.

This could be a rare jewel of a season in the ACC. And, hey, there are even nine other schools fielding teams this year. We knew that. That’s why we’re the college basketball experts.

Five things to know

1. Pitt and Syracuse join the league next season, which will drastically alter the character of a league that was once so very Southern.

2. Notre Dame will remain independent in football, but may have paved the way to full conference membership by agreeing to move basketball and other sports to the ACC at some point in the near future.

3. Roy Williams endured a cancer scare this fall, but is back and ready to lead his Tar Heels, who are gunning for a third straight 1st-place league finish.

4. Mark Gottfried is in just his second year as NC State head coach, but he has eight Big Dance appearances on his resume. One with the Wolfpack, five with Alabama, and two with Murray State.

5. Aside from hall of famers Mike Krzyzewski (11) and Roy Williams (7), the only other ACC coach with a Final Four appearance on his resume is Miami’s Jim Larranaga, who took George Mason to the brink in 2006.

Impact newcomers:

Rodney Purvis – 6’4”, 190 lb. G, NC State: Purvis (pictured, left) is one of those guys who can get to the hoop in a hurry and he’s not afraid to take some contact once he gets in amongst the trees. ACC coaches named him the preseason newcomer of the year, and we’re not going to dispute that.

Rasheed Sulaimon – 6’3”, 175 lb. G, Duke: Sulaimon is not quite the deadly jump-shooter Coach K had last year in Austin Rivers, but he has a respectable stroke to complement his ability to get to the rim. It probably goes without saying that he’s a very smart player as well, which means he should be able to improve as the season goes on.

T.J. Warren – 6’7”, 205 lb. SF, NC State: Warren is a rangy player from Durham who also drew interest from Chapel Hill. That he ended up in Raleigh is one sure sign the Wolfpack are on the rise. His ability to get open and make plays off the dribble will make him a key reserve on an already loaded team.

Amile Jefferson – 6’9”, 190 lb. F, Duke: Jefferson was a McDonald’s All-American, and was widely considered to be the top prospect coming out of hoops-mad Philly. He’s pretty slender, but he’ll still be a power forward in the mold of Gumby-like Tar Heel John Henson. Great body control, a nice shooting touch, and enough leverage to get inside when necessary.

Shaquille Cleare – 6’9” 270lb. C, Maryland: Cleare is a brick house. He can take it to the rim with authority, or drop in a hook shot over a bodied-up defender. James Padgett was forced to be the leading rebounder for the Terps last season, and it was too much for him. Here comes big-time help.

Breakout players:

Quinn Cook – 6’1” 175 lb. G, Duke: The Blue Devils have made do with combo guards at the point for a while now, if you consider that Kyrie Irving missed most of his one year in Durham due to “the toe”. If Cook makes good use of his increased playing time this year, he’ll become that playmaker who gets the ball inside to the Plumlees and frees up slashing Sulaimon and shooting Curry as marquee scorers.

Reggie Bullock – 6’7” 205 lb. G, UNC: Bullock had a great summer, showing off increased range and leadership skills in the North Carolina Pro-Am league. The most intriguing thing about Bullock is that he puts a wide range of perimeter abilities into a 6’7” body, which makes him a very difficult matchup on either end of the floor.

Ian Miller – 6’3” 186 lb. G, Florida State: Miller put together some really solid games in the ACC last season. He had an 18 point game to help usher in-state rival Miami out of the ACC tournament last season, then fouled out after just 15 minutes against Duke the next night. If Miller gets consistent alongside Michael Snaer, look out for the Seminoles.

James Michael McAdoo – 6’9” 220 lb. F, UNC: As much as everyone’s talking about McAdoo these days, you’d think he’d broken out already. In a way, he did. His wildly inconsistent showing as a freshman started to come together in March, culminating in a 15-point/19 minute explosion against Kansas in an Elite Eight loss. Expect many double-doubles this season.

Alex Len – 7’1” 225 lb. C, Maryland: Len had an up-and-down season as a new guy in College Park, partly because he had to sit out ten games, partly because he didn’t really speak English very well. He’s past those two problems now, and he’s added a lot of strength to his frame. Even if he just keeps up his 2 blocks per game pace, he’s making a huge impact. If he gets his score on, Maryland could break up the Triangle love fest.

Player of year: Lorenzo Brown – 6’5” 186 lb. G, NC State: CJ Leslie is getting the nod from plenty of pundits, and he is likely to be the most visible, highlight-reel-worthy member of the Pack this season. On a team with this much talent, and such high expectations, I’m putting the onus on Brown (pictured, right). His 6.3 assists per game last season ranked second only to Kendall Marshall in the league, and Brown is a major scoring threat as well. He can bomb from downtown, drive and dish, drive and score, and plays marvelous defense. He’s the engine that drives the Wolfpack bandwagon.

All conference performers: Brown; CJ Leslie, NC State; Michael Snaer, FSU; James Michael McAdoo, UNC; Mason Plumlee, Duke.

Coach under pressure: Jeff Bzdelik, Wake Forest – Now that Seth Greenberg is gone at Virginia Tech, it’s time for a passing of the torch. Many were nonplussed by Wake’s hiring of Bzdelik, a middling college coach at Air Force and Colorado best known for his time at the helm of the Denver Nuggets. Bzdelik has won all of five ACC games in two years, and he looks even less impressive thanks to the fast resurgence of NC State under Mark Gottfried.

Predicted finish

1. NC State – Too much talent. And, honestly, Sidney Lowe was never bad at landing talent, either. But Mark Gottfried seems to know what to do with it, and how to layer in incoming classes behind loyal veterans. That’s classic Tobacco Road-level stuff.

2. North Carolina – Only Kentucky lost more talent to the NBA last season than the Tar Heels, but Carolina has options. Roy Williams will have a nice blend of veterans and talented rookies ready to keep the train on the track.

3. Duke – The never-ending supply of Plumlees has become a core virtue of the Blue Devil program these days. With Marshall injured to start the season, and the point still somewhat in question, coaching will make all the difference. Oh, well then.

4. Florida State – Snaer talked his way onto our preseason watch list, which made us take more note of his play. The ‘Noles will probably struggle a bit without a Bernard James type in the paint, but there’s plenty of talent to make it work, and always that dag nasty Leonard Hamilton defense.

5. Miami – Senior-laden and big as all-get-out. Kenny Kadji and Reggie Johnson will once again take care of all scoring and defense inside the half-circle, and Durand Scott will be there to drop dimes or score as needed.

6. Maryland – Mark Turgeon may have lost out to Kentucky on some prime recruits, but who hasn’t sung that song in recent seasons? The former Wichita State and Texas A&M head man has a fair amount of talent, and if he can get Pe’Shon Howard and Nick Faust on the floor together, things could go very well.

7. Virginia – Tony Bennett keeps bringing in heralded classes, then watching half of the new guys walk out the door soon thereafter. For years, his rock was Mike Scott, who finally graduated after getting the ‘Hoos back to the Big Dance last season. This year, much falls on senior point guard Jontel Evans, who came up lame to start the season.

8. Georgia Tech – Brian Gregory has a young lineup drawn almost entirely from within the borders of the Peach State. Mfon Udofia and Kammeon Holsey are the inside-out duo, so they’ll need at least one more scorer to step up.

9. Clemson – Brad Brownell is a good coach, but his Tigers have yet to establish an identity. To be fair, their identity under former head coach Oliver Purnell was “over promise, peak too soon, under deliver,” so a little patience may be in order.

10. Wake Forest – Travis McKie is such a strong player, he’d probably be an all-league performer if he were playing elsewhere. CJ Harris is going to do his level best to get the Deacs where they want to go, but losing Tony Chennault to Villanova and Carson Desrosiers to Providence hurt, a lot.

11. Boston College – The jury is still out on whether Steve Donahue’s fancy Ivy League ways will translate to Chestnut Hill. The talent level at BC is just not ACC-caliber right now, so the system will have to triumph for this ranking to change.

12. Virginia Tech – Too much turmoil in Blacksburg. Seth Greenberg was let go too late in the offseason for his unknown replacement, James Johnson, to get a real grip on the reins. This team could struggle to recover for some time.

Eric Angevine is the editor of Storming the Floor. He tweets @stfhoops.

Walker struggles in return home, No. 11 Miami beats La Salle

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READING, Pa. (AP) — Prized freshman Lonnie Walker IV struggled in his return home, but Dewan Huell scored 16 points and No. 11 Miami did just enough to get by La Salle 57-46 on Wednesday night and remain unbeaten.

Part of Miami’s recruiting pitch for the projected NBA lottery pick was a game in his hometown. Walker was held to five points and 2-of-8 shooting, and his woes were contagious. Miami (4-0) shot 37 percent from the field and the Explorers were 0 of 15 from 3-point range.

B.J. Johnson scored 16 points on 6-of-20 shooting and Pookie Powell added 15 on 5-of-15 from the field for La Salle (3-3) in its third straight loss.

La Salle traveled about 60 miles from campus, but it was a Miami home game and the crowd was solidly behind their local hero’s team. Walker has provided a needed boost to a struggling city northwest of Philadelphia.

Once a bustling railroad and mill town of 120,000, Reading has been in a steady decline for decades. It ranked as the poorest city in the nation in the 2010 Census based on median household income. Population has plummeted to under 88,000.

Walker and his Reading High School team had given the city something to be proud of in March, winning its first state title.

Many in the crowd wore red Reading High state champion T-shirts and sweatshirts, with sprinkles of Miami orange and La Salle blue and gold sprinkled in.

Walker didn’t start — he hasn’t yet this season — but the crowd roared as he got off the bench and walked to the scorer’s table 4 minutes in.

While Walker didn’t appear to have any issue with the left ankle he turned in a win over Florida A&M last week, it was a struggle. He missed his first three shots before finally bringing the crowd to its feet with a nifty crossover dribble and bank shot in the lane in the final seconds of an ugly first half that made it 19-19.

Walker couldn’t get it going in the second half, either. But he fed Bruce Brown Jr. for a 3-pointer with 3:23 left to put Miami up 49-39 during an 8-0 run.

Huell hit 8 of10 shots and added seven rebounds.

BIG PICTURE

La Salle: The Explorers dropped their third straight game to a Power 5 team (Northwestern, Boston College), but this was one they could have won with a decent shooting performance. They shot 29 percent from the field.

Miami: It was tough to tell if Walker was 100 percent with his ankle. He likely had some nerves. It was far from the performance he would have liked. Walker has been held to single digits in three straight games.

UP NEXT

La Salle hosts Big 5 rival Temple on Sunday before departing for a two-game tournament in Northern Ireland next week.

Miami returns home to face North Florida on Saturday before traveling to No. 14 Minnesota next Wednesday.

No. 5 Villanova beats Western Kentucky 66-58 in the Bahamas

BUFFALO, NY - MARCH 16: Jalen Brunson #1 of the Villanova Wildcats drives against Elijah Long #55 of the Mount St. Mary's Mountaineers in the first half during the first round of the 2017 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at KeyBank Center on March 16, 2017 in Buffalo, New York. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas (AP) — Fifth-ranked Villanova failed to speed up Western Kentucky’s controlled tempo and struggled to make shots through the first half of its Battle 4 Atlantis debut.

In the second half, the Wildcats looked far more like the high-scoring bunch that had cracked 100 points in each of their past two games.

Jalen Brunson scored 18 points while Villanova finally got loose in transition after halftime, helping the Wildcats beat the Hilltoppers 66-58 in Wednesday’s opening round.

The Wildcats (4-0) found themselves in a close game until early in the second half. That’s when they ran off a 13-2 burst to push ahead by double figures, part of a hot-shooting stretch that had them picking up the pace and scoring off turnovers.

“They usually play a little faster than that, but I think they were smart knowing they’ve got three days here,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “They controlled the tempo. … Offensively they had us out of whack, and I think that had a lot to do with our poor shooting in the first half.”

Villanova didn’t get many easy scores in the first half and had just two fast-break points by the break, but had 14 in the second half while also scoring 16 of their 23 points off turnovers.

Villanova made 15 of 24 shots (63 percent) after halftime after shooting just 33 percent to lead 27-24 at the break. The Wildcats ultimately led by 18 points late.

“They find ways to have spurts and make runs,” Western Kentucky coach Rick Stansbury said. “And they were able to find a way to spurt out the second half a little bit on some turnovers.”

Darius Thompson scored 16 points for the Hilltoppers (2-2), who shot 44 percent but struggled to maintain control with Villanova converting easy baskets off turnovers in the second half.

“I think our turnovers were kind of self-inflicted,” Thompson said. “Just trying to do a little too much in the wrong times.”

BIG PICTURE

Western Kentucky: The Hilltoppers kept Villanova close through the first half and trailed just 34-33 early in the second. Still, the Hilltoppers fell to 1-13 in their last 14 games against ranked opponents.

“I’m really proud of our team’s effort,” Stansbury said, “but I think it’s the way we kind of let the game get away from us in the second half that I’m most disappointed with.”

Villanova: The Wildcats came in putting up big offensive numbers, including 113 points against Nicholls State and 104 more against Lafayette in their last two games. They didn’t find that same roll here, though they ultimately built a big lead and cruised to the final horn.

“We still have to get a lot better,” Brunson said. “We’re still a work in progress.”

BRIDGES’ ROLL

Brunson is a preseason Associated Press All-American, but Mikal Bridges is leading Villanova in scoring. The junior guard had set career scoring highs with 23 points against Nicholls and then 24 against Lafayette, and he followed with 17 points and eight rebounds in this one.

BENCH SPARK

Sophomore Donte DiVincenzo scored 12 of his 14 points in the second half for Villanova off the bench. He finished a tough layup through contact for a three-point play at the 5:11 mark.

DiVincenzo has scored in double figures in three of four games this season.

“He’s really an unselfish guy,” Wright said. “We really have six starters, you can tell by the minutes. And he’s a guy that just said, ‘I don’t care, I’ll do whatever you need me to do.’

“And he comes in off the bench and he’s incredible, and brings great energy. He was awesome in the second half.”

UP NEXT

Western Kentucky: The Hilltoppers will face No. 18 Purdue in Thursday’s consolation bracket.

Villanova: The Wildcats advanced to play Tennessee on Thursday.

Tennessee tops No. 18 Purdue 78-75 (OT) in Battle 4 Atlantis

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PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas (AP) — Tennessee kept attacking the glass and playing aggressive defense on No. 18 Purdue’s shooters.

Once Grant Williams got going, the Volunteers had enough scoring punch, too.

Williams scored all 22 of his points after halftime and hit the go-ahead shot with 14.5 seconds left in overtime to lift Tennessee past No. 18 Purdue 78-75 in Wednesday’s opening round of the Battle 4 Atlantis.

The Volunteers (3-0) trailed by 11 points in the first half, needed to make a late 3-pointer to force overtime and fell behind by five in the extra period before rallying for the win.

“I thought we really showed the toughness we’ve been looking for from them,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said, adding: “I thought our guys just kept finding ways to fight back.”

After P.J. Thompson missed a jumper for the lead, James Daniel hit two free throws with 2.0 seconds left to push the margin to three. The Boilermakers had one more chance to tie, but Kyle Alexander intercepted Dakota Mathias’ long inbounds heave to end it.

Williams, a 6-foot-7 sophomore, missed both of his first-half shots and had one rebound while playing eight scoreless minutes with two fouls. But he made 8 of 16 shots with seven rebounds from there while the Volunteers kept running their offense through him at the top of the key and in the post.

“Just keep playing, because when you’re in foul trouble you tend to get out of your mind a little bit,” Williams said. “You’ve just got to stick to it and be yourself, because I knew guys were going to hit shots.”

Tennessee shot just 36 percent but dominated the boards (50-41), finished with 21 second-chance points and scored 20 points off turnovers.

The Volunteers also got a huge lift when Lamonte Turner buried a tying 3-pointer from near his bench with 5.1 seconds left in regulation. Purdue called a timeout, but Carsen Edwards’ 3 for the win hit the front rim as the horn sounded.

Edwards scored 21 points to lead the Boilermakers (4-1), who never got their high-scoring offense rolling.

“We have a skilled team, but we’ve got to win the possession wars,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said. “We’ve got to outrebound our opponent. We have to have fewer turnovers. When you do, now that skill is really going to help you. I thought tonight we gave Tennessee a lot of help.”

BIG PICTURE

Tennessee: The Volunteers were trying for their first 3-0 start since the 2010-11 season, along with earning their fourth win against a ranked opponent under their third-year coach. They certainly found a thrilling way to do it, from Turner’s 3 to Williams’ huge effort after a scoreless first half.

Purdue: Offense sure didn’t come easily for a team that entered as one of the nation’s best offenses. The Boilermakers were averaging 102 points per game and shooting nearly 57 percent from the field. They also were shooting roughly 49 percent from 3-point range after making a school-record 19 3s against Fairfield on Saturday. But Purdue shot just 37 percent and had 18 turnovers.

“We’ve got to do a better job with decision-making,” Painter said. “We’re a good offensive team, we’ve got to allow ourselves to be a good offensive team. When we go too quick or we force things and we turn it over, now we’re not rewarding ourselves.”

BIG SHOTS

Tennessee came up with two huge 3s late, the first from Turner to force overtime.

“Up until that point, I felt like I was losing the game for us,” Turner said.

Then Alexander hit one after Purdue had raced out to a 70-65 OT lead. The 6-11 junior was 1 for 6 from behind the arc in his career before that shot.

LATE REVIEW

There was a bit of end-game confusion and a review with Alexander’s steal and whether he traveled just before the horn. Ultimately, it stood as the final play.

UP NEXT

Tennessee: The Volunteers will play the Western Kentucky-Villanova winner Thursday.

Purdue: The Boilermakers will play the Western Kentucky-Villanova loser Thursday.

Vanderbilt lands five-star forward Simi Shittu

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Vanderbilt continues to build a monster recruiting class under head coach Bryce Drew as five-star 2018 forward Simi Shittu pledged to the Commodores on Wednesday.

The second five-star commitment for Vanderbilt in the Class of 2018, Shittu joins top point guard prospect Darius Garland to form one of the best freshman combinations in the country for next season. The Commodores also have a top-150 forward in Aaron Nesmith.

The 6-foot-9, 220-pound Shittu is coming off of a monster summer in which he became a major problem and top-ten recruit. The No. 8 overall prospect in the Rivals national Class of 2018 recruiting rankings, Shittu is a huge get and an instant starter for Vanderbilt next season.

By landing prospects like Garland and Shittu, Drew is also becoming a major player in a short amount of time as a high-major coach. Always a noted recruiter at the mid-major level at Valparaiso, now Vanderbilt is seeing Drew’s hiring workout as he’s bringing top talent to the program.

If Drew can continue to recruit like this then Vanderbilt could be in position to be in the top half of the SEC as the league has seen some of its rebuilds go poorly over the last few years.

Kansas still without freshman Billy Preston

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Kansas freshman Billy Preston has yet to make his debut for the Jayhawks and it appears he’ll have to wait a bit longer before that happens.

Head coach Bill Self met with media earlier this week to discuss the Preston situation, saying that nothing has changed about his status quite yet. Preston was previously suspended for violating a team rule when he missed the game against Tennessee State. Before Preston was set to debut against Kentucky in the Champions Classic he was also withheld from the contest after the revelation that Preston had been in a single-vehicle accident the previous weekend.

“I have actually been out, until I just pulled back in, so as of this morning, there was no movement. The last time you guys asked me was Friday and so you don’t work on Saturday or Sunday, so there is nothing new on that situation,” Self said.

“Sure, I’m worried,” Self also added. “I’m concerned and I do think that it can work itself, based on what I’ve been told. I also think that it obviously hadn’t happened yet.”

It’s uncertain when the next step in any of this will play out but Self doesn’t appear to be too concerned over it. Kansas has won without Preston so far but they could definitely use his size, scoring punch and overall depth to a team that isn’t very deep right now.

A matchup nightmare, Preston could help the Jayhawk offense while also giving Udoka Azubuike additional help on the glass and protecting the rim.

(H/t: Jesse Newell, Kansas City Star)