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.

Sister Jean the star of Loyola’s Cinderella run

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Yeah, Loyola beating Tennessee to gain a spot in the Sweet 16 is a great basketball story, but the best news about their Cinderella run is something else entirely.

America gets another week with Sister Jean.

The Ramblers’ 98-year-old team chaplain has captured the hearts of the March Madness public, with her pre-game prayers and post-game celebrations. Clayton Custer’s game-winner was fine, but Sister Jean’s been great.

Loyola, though, will now have to try to defy Sister Jean. She picked against the Ramblers in the Sweet 16 in her bracket.

2018 NCAA Tournament: Azubuike’s presence huge as No. 1 Kansas holds off No. 8 Seton Hall

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It turns out Kansas is a whole heck of a lot better when Udoka Azubuike is in the floor.

Who knew?

The sophomore center returned Saturday for extended minutes after being limited with a knee injury to help the No. 1 Jayhawks to a 83-79 win over No. 8 Seton Hall to earn a spot in the Sweet 16.

Azubuike had 10 points, seven rebounds and two blocks, but the strongest stat in his column was his plus-minus. When he was on the floor, Kansas bested the Pirates by 21 points. When he was off, the Jayhawks got outscored by 17, and there is noise in that number as Seton Hall continued to put them on the foul line in the last minute with Azubuike on the bench.

The 7-footer’s importance to Kansas has been apparent all season, but it was even starker against the Pirates, whose Angel Delgado feasted when Azubuike wasn’t on the floor.  Seton Hall’s double-double machine finished with 24 points and 23 rebounds, but it wasn’t enough to power the Pirates into next week. Neither was Khadeen Carrington’s 28 points, all but two of which came after halftime.

Azubuike’s critical role for Kansas is three-fold. First, he’s very talented. Second, he makes the four-out offense possible. Third, the drop-off behind him – apologies to Mitch Lightfoot and Silvio De Sousa – is rather significant.

Kansas, which got 28 points from Malik Newman, has to play a very specific way offensively with guard-heavy roster. The Jayhawks have to get up a ton of 3s, and they’ve got to make a bunch of them. Without Azubuike in the middle drawing attention and making it difficult for defenders to stay hugged-up on shooters on the perimeter, the architecture of the offense can crumble in on itself.

Azubuike certainly isn’t a perfect or dominant player, but he rebounds well, blocks shots and makes about three-quarters of his shots. Which, of course, means he fits his role perfectly for maybe the most vulnerable Kansas team in Bill Self’s tenure. The Jayhawks’ margin for error, at least at this juncture against the competition they’re going to see in Omaha, is pretty small. Deviate from the plan and things can get away from them quickly. Duke and Michigan State, Kansas’ presumptive opponents in the Elite Eight, will punish them for any missteps or holes in their gameplan.

Azubuike is the linchpin. When he’s in place, things hold together. When he’s not, there’s trouble.

No. 11-seed Loyola-Chicago beats No. 3 Tennessee to advance to Sweet 16

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Cinderella is headed to the Sweet 16!

For the second time in this tournament, trailing 62-61 on the final possession of the game, Loyola-Chicago has won.

On Thursday, the Ramblers got the benefit of a missed Lonnie Walker free throw and a game-winning three from Donte Ingram to beat No. 6-seed Miami, 64-62.

On Saturday, the situation was almost the same — the Ramblers had the ball with 10.5 seconds left on the clock — but the execution was different.

Clayton Custer hit a jumper with 3.6 seconds left to answer Grant Williams’ and-one and send Loyola-Chicago to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament.

In the immortal words of Gus Johnson, the slipper still fits:

Loyola was in control of this game for the majority of the second half and led by eight points at the under-four time out, but a pair of threes from Tennessee set up Williams’ and-one on Tennessee’s final possession. Jordan Bone had a shot to win the game at the buzzer that bounced off the back of the rim.

Aundre Jackson led the Ramblers 16 points off the bench as No. 11-seed Loyola landed their second upset of the weekend, beating No. 3-seed Tennessee, 63-62, in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

Those 16 points that Jackson scored were the most that any Loyola player scored in either of their games this weekend. The 10 shots that Jackson took in the first round win over No. 3-seed Miami was the only time in those two games that a Rambler player had double-digit field goal attempts. They held Miami and Tennessee to a combined 116 points.

I say all that to say this: Loyola is not a typical Cinderella team. They don’t have some superstar scorer that carried them to this point in the tournament, like a Jairus Lyles from UMBC or a Jon Elmore from Marshall. They’re not a high-scoring team or a team that just-so-happened to catch fire from three at the right time. What they are is a smart, tough and extremely well-coached group that is everything you think of when you picture Missouri Valley basketball.

They aren’t going to give up penetration defensively. They are going to pound the defensive glass. They aren’t going to commit silly turnovers or take dumb shots. They’ll run their offense and trust that whatever their coach calls is going to get them the shot they need to get.

They will not beat themselves, and if you are going to beat them, you’re going to work for every possession.

And it’s worked.

Loyola will advance to Atlanta where they will face the winner of Sunday’s game between No. 2 Cincinnati and No. 7 Nevada. With Buffalo losing and either No. 10-seed Butler or No. 11-seed Syracuse counting as anything close to a mid-major, Loyola, Marshall and UMBC are the only true Cinderella teams left in the tournament. The 16th-seeded UMBC Retrievers, who became the first No. 16 seed to get to the second round of the tournament after a Friday night win over top overall seed Virginia, take on No. 9-seed Kansas State on Sunday while No. 13-seed Marshall gets a date with in-state an rival, No. 5 West Virginia.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander paces No. 5 Kentucky past No. 13 Buffalo

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Its deficit cut to five, Buffalo zipped down the floor in transition. The ball found Jeremy Harris, who stepped into his 3-point shot attempt and let it fly as the crowd in Boise was ready to blow the roof off Taco Bell Arena, hopeful they’d have the chance to will the Bulls to an upset of Kentucky. The shot barrelled toward the basket, carrying Buffalo’s Sweet 16 dreams with it.

The ball, along with control of the game, clanged off the rim and bounced into Kentucky’s hands.

The No. 5 Wildcats turned away No. 13 Buffalo, 95-75, on Saturday to advance to the NCAA tournament’s second weekend.

Buffalo got 26 points from Wes Clark and 18 from CJ Massinburg, and made the Wildcats sweat deep into the second round until things spiraled away from them. Making just 7 of 31 shots from 3-point range and your opponent shooting 56.3 percent from the floor is no recipe for an upset.

Even with a rough shooting day, Buffalo threatened Kentucky time and again, but at every turn, the Wildcats had Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

The 6-foot-6 freshman was simply spectacular, scoring 27 points on 10 of 12 shooting. He added six rebounds and six assists for good measure.

Gilgeous-Alexander was an unsolvable problem for Buffalo. The Bulls were never able to find a way to corral or deny him. He just got what he wanted when he wanted it, and what he wanted was buckets. Lots of them.

Inconsistency has been the pock on Gilgeous-Alexander’s rookie campaign, but in recent weeks he’s found his groove. He’s scored in double-digits in nine-straight games. He’s either made shots or gotten to the free-throw line. Sometimes both.

For a Kentucky team without a dominant player, Gilgeous-Alexander’s emergence as a go-to and consistent scorer is huge. The Wildcats are going to have an athletic advantage in almost every game they play. If they’ve got a guy other than Kevin Knox they can count on for 15-plus, that’s going to take a lot of pressure off an offense that doesn’t have the benefit of much in the way of shooting.

The path for Kentucky to the Elite 8 looks incredibly navigable after Virginia’s stunning and historic loss Friday to UMBC. The Wildcats will have to beat a nine or 16 seed to be just 40 minutes from another Final Four.

If Gilgeous-Alexander can continue to be the offensive weapon he’s turned into over the last month, San Antonio may very well be hosting Big Blue Nation in April.

VIDEO: Buffalo’s Nick Perkins posterizes Kevin Knox

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Buffalo and Kentucky are locked in an entertaining battle on Saturday afternoon, and while Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has been completely dominant, the play of the day comes courtesy of the Bulls.

After Kentucky pushed their lead to 10 points with less than nine minutes left, Nick Perkins — who is known for as a three-point shooter than anything else — dunked on Kentucky’s soon-to-be lottery pick, Kevin Knox, emphatically: