Rodney Purvis, Lorenzo Brown

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.

After blowout of South Carolina, is No. 22 Kentucky a Final Four contender?

Kentucky guard Tyler Ulis (3) guards the ball after a rebound during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Auburn, Saturday, Jan. 16, 2016, in Auburn, Ala. Auburn won 75-70. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
(AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
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It only took 2:26 for official Doug Sirmons to plant two technical fouls on Kentucky head coach John Calipari, and that may have been the worst thing that could have happened to South Carolina.

He poked the bear, and the result was that a ticked off No. 22 Wildcat team proceeded to run the Gamecocks out of their own gym, 89-62.

The star of the show was interim head coach Tyler Ulis, who put together as dominating of a performance as you’ll ever see out of a player that stands 5-foot-9. Ulis finished with 27 points and 12 assists, hitting 4-for-8 from three and turning the ball over just once.

Marcus Lee added 11 points and 13 boards, including six on the offensive end, and Jamal Murray had his customary 26 points on 9-for-21 shooting, but the story of this game was Ulis.

I’m not sure I’ve ever seed a player under 6-foot capable of dominating a game the way that Ulis can dominate. Murray can take over with the best of them — we saw it against Florida and Ohio State — but when it comes to the NCAA tournament, this Kentucky team will go as far as Ulis carries them.

And based on the way that he’s played in the last six weeks, that could end up being pretty far. In SEC play, Ulis is averaging 19.4 points and 7.6 assists. He’s scored at least 17 points in 12 of the last 14 games and has notched as least five assists in all 14. He just orchestrated a total mollywhopping of a Frank Martin-coached team that was tied for first place in the SEC while playing without his head coach and on the road.

The issue with Kentucky is the same today as it was a month ago. They’re a two-man team with an inconsistent supporting cast. When their two studs play like this, they can beat anyone in the country. When they don’t, they can struggle against anyone.

But here’s the thing: When Ulis is playing the way that he’s played of late, they don’t really need all that much from their supporting cast. Derek Willis needs to be able to space the floor. Lee and Skal Labissiere need to be able to hold their own against opposing big men.

And when that happens?

Kentucky is clearly the best team in the SEC and good enough to be able to win four straight in the Big Dance and get to a Final Four.

No. 25 Wichita State falls to Northern Iowa as at-large chances take critical hit

Northern Iowa's Matt Bohannon drives in the lane past Wichita State's Conner Frankamp during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2016, in Cedar Falls, Iowa. (Matthew Putney/The Waterloo Courier via AP)
(Matthew Putney/The Waterloo Courier via AP)
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Northern Iowa has been a confusing team to follow this season but the Panthers peaked against a ranked team once again on Saturday in a 53-50 upset of No. 25 Wichita State. While the Panthers looked like a potential at-large NCAA tournament team during the non-conference season with wins over North Carolina and Iowa State, they’ve faltered in Missouri Valley Conference play.

Saturday’s road win at Koch Arena proves that Northern Iowa (16-11, 8-6) is still a credible threat in the conference tournament as they’ve now won six consecutive games. The loss for the Shockers could end their at-large hopes and their 43-game home winning streak — the longest such streak in the nation — was snapped.

A defensive adjustment was the difference for the Panthers as a switch to a 2-3 zone in the first half confused Wichita State’s offense enough for Northern Iowa to jump out to a 38-27 halftime lead. The Shockers (18-7, 12-2) recovered enough to make it a tight game, but Northern Iowa came up with big shots down the stretch to come up with the road win. Klint Carlson was a tough matchup for the Wichita State defense as he led the Panthers with 12 points while Wyatt Lohaus contributed 11.

Wichita State had two good looks from 3-point range to tie in the game’s final 10 seconds, but Ron Baker (12 points) and Connor Frankamp (0 points) both missed. Senior Fred Van Vleet was held scoreless in the first half and finished with eight points on 3-for-15 shooting.

This loss is concerning for Wichita State, not only because they hurt their dwindling at-large chances, but they didn’t look prepared to face the zone and 3/4 court press that Northern Iowa threw at them. The Shockers shot 30 percent (20-for-66) from the field and 22 percent (7-for-31) from 3-point range as they really couldn’t get much of anything going on the offensive end. Van Vleet and Baker couldn’t get their shots to fall and Northern Iowa mustered just enough offense to pull off the win.

As noted before, this win is another confidence builder for Northern Iowa, as they’ve reeled off six consecutive wins after a puzzling 2-6 start in the Valley. It’s also nice that the Panthers won a slow, grind-it-out game on the road over a quality opponent, since the North Carolina and Iowa State wins came in more uptempo settings.

The Missouri Valley is looking like a one-bid league as we inch closer to Arch Madness and with Wichita State falling to Illinois State and Northern Iowa recently, the conference tournament could have a lot of teams with a realistic chance for the autobid.