Conference Catchup: Duke leads a top-heavy ACC

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Conference play is right around the corner, so to help you get out of that post-holiday haze, we’ll be catching you up on all the happenings in the country’s top 12 conferences. Here’s our ACC Conference Catchup:

Favorite: Duke

This team looked good in the preseason, but we all had some questions about how the pieces would fit together. Those questions have been answered in spades, as Quinn Cook has settled into the distributor’s role with ease, allowing Seth Curry to be the gunner he wants to be. Mason Plumlee is the steady scorer and rebounder we all expected, and Ryan Kelly is the super-effective sidekick who can do what’s needed on any given night. With freshman Rasheed Sulaimon rounding into a reliable starter as well, the Blue Devils look unstoppable.

Contenders: NC State isn’t as dominant as we all thought they would be, in light of the talent available in Raleigh, but it’s hard to really quibble with losses to quality teams like Oklahoma State and Michigan. The Wolfpack have taken care of business in every other respect, and seem ready to roll in conference play.

Maryland lost a close game to Kentucky to start the season, and have reeled off twelve straight since. They’re still under the radar because they’ve beaten twelve so-so teams, and because they haven’t had the same leading scorer on consecutive nights all season long. Having options is a good thing, but it’s also nice to know there are two or three guys who will always carry the load.

North Carolina… I seriously feel like I’m mentioning them out of habit on one hand. But there’s no doubt that there’s top talent in Chapel Hill, and a hall-of-fame coach, so I’m not marking them out of the race until we’ve seen how they react to conference play.

Biggest Surprise: Maryland

The Terps looked like a collection of decent parts in the early going, but credit Mark Turgeon for getting them to play like a team. Pe’Shon Howard is playing like a pass-first point guard, dishing nearly six assists per game, Dez Wells is fitting in well for a new guy, and Alex Len is living up to his vast potential on the blocks. A whole cadre of additional options are developing into reliable role players as well.

Biggest Disappointment: Florida State

FSU was obviously going to be hard-pressed to hold serve after the departure of Bernard James, but preseason All-American Michael Snaer and Ian Miller as returnees seemed like a solid base for the Seminoles to work from. The team that prided itself on defense has been distinctly sub-par, by their own exacting standards. Losing to rival Florida by 25 points was a bitter experience, and losing home games to South Alabama and Mercer almost defies comprehension.

Player of the Year: Mason Plumlee, Duke

Virginia Tech’s Erick Green was a tempting choice, due to his flashy scoring numbers, but it has to be Plumlee. He’s averaging a double-double for the nation’s number one team, and he just doesn’t miss around the basket. That might sound simple, but look around at the big men in DI and you’ll see that Plumlee’s 63.8% shooting is truly remarkable. When he’s not scoring, he’s setting up teammates by drawing defenders and passing out of the post. The 6’10” senior is a luxury most programs just don’t have any more.

Best Freshman: T.J. Warren, NC State

Warren’s a crazy-good shooter and a big guy to boot. He’s shooting 69.4% from the floor, and even nails the occasional three-pointer to keep defenses honest. It was a fair bet that Warren would be a huge part of State’s future plans, but how great for Mark Gottfried that the frosh is paying dividends right here and now.

Three Predictions

  • Duke will sweep the season series with UNC. The Tar Heels probably have more raw talent to call on, but Coach K has a rock-solid team that has played in sync since day one of the season. After a very rugged non-con season, the Devils should be ready for anything.
  • The ACC will get four teams in the NCAA tourney. The league is very top-heavy this season. With very patchy non-conference records at UNC and Miami, and a big drop-off in talent below them, it’s a shaky year for the league that will be bolstered by Pitt and Syracuse next season.
  • Georgia Tech will surprise somebody. There are no superstars on this team, but the ‘Jackets have size and experience, as well as rapidly improving freshman Marcus Georges-Hunt. Brian Gregory will find a way to snatch a win or two away from somebody he has no business beating before the league slate is through.

Power Rankings (* = tourney team):

1. Duke*
2. NC State*
3. Maryland*
4. UNC*
5. Miami
6. Florida State
7. Virginia
8. Georgia Tech
9. Virginia Tech
10. Clemson
11. Boston College
12. Wake Forest

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

Syracuse’s Tyus Battle to test NBA draft waters

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Syracuse announced on Friday afternoon that sophomore guard Tyus Battle will be declaring for the NBA draft without signing with an agent, giving him until the NCAA’s May 30th deadline to withdraw from contention and return to school.

Battle averaged 19.2 points as a sophomore for the Orange, who made a surprising run to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament.

He is a projected late-first round or early-second round pick given his size, shooting ability and skill with the ball in his hands.

Losing Battle would be a massive blow to a Syracuse team that is already going to be without Matthew Moyer, who transferred out of the program, and Dareus Bazley, who is heading to the G League instead of enrolling in college.

Maryland’s Kevin Huerter declares for NBA draft, won’t hire agent

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Maryland wing Kevin Huerter announced on Friday afternoon that he will be declaring for the NBA draft without hiring an agent, giving him the option of returning to school by May 30th.

“This will be a great experience for Kevin to get honest feedback from NBA teams and executives,” said head coach Mark Turgeon. “Taking advantage of this opportunity will allow Kevin and his family to make an informed decision about his future.”

Huerter is a 6-foot-7 wing known for his ability to shoot from the perimeter. He averaged 14.8 points and shot 42 percent from three as a sophomore.

He is also the third player from Maryland to declare for the 2018 NBA Draft. Justin Jackson, a borderline first round pick who missed time last season with a shoulder injury, has signed with an agent while Bruno Fernando is testing the waters. Maryland, who has an excellent recruiting class coming in, will be a preseason top 20 team if Huerter and Fernando both return to school.

Huerter is a borderline first round pick.

Michigan’s Charles Matthews to test NBA draft waters

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Michigan guard Charles Matthews announced on Friday that he will be declaring for the NBA draft, but that he does not intend to sign with an agent, meaning he has until May 30th to withdraw from the draft and return to school.

“After careful consideration with my parents and coaching staff, I am excited to announce that I will be declaring for the 2018 NBA Draft without hiring an agent,” said Matthews. “I give thanks to the Lord for this amazing opportunity, as well as the entire University of Michigan for their support. Go Blue!”

Matthews, a redshirt sophomore that averaged 13.0 points and 5.5 boards for the national runners-up, was a four-star prospect coming out of Chicago and spent his freshman season at Kentucky.

Matthews is a likely second round pick with the potential to climb into the first round should he prove to be a more consistent three-point shooter. He shot just 31.8 percent from beyond the arc this past season.

Virginia’s Hunter to return to school for sophomore season

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De’Andre Hunter announced on Friday afternoon that he will not be entering his name into the NBA draft and will return to Virginia for his redshirt sophomore season, a decision that will have as much of an impact on the 2018-19 college basketball season as any that is made this spring.

Hunter, now a potential top ten pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, was one of the breakout stars of the 2017-18 season. A 6-foot-7 combo-forward with a 7-foot-1 wingspan, Hunter averaged 9.2 points and 3.5 boards while shooting 38.2 percent from three in just under 20 minutes a night for a Virginia team whose pace severely limits the kind of numbers a player like him can put up.

Throw in his ability to defend on the perimeter and in the paint, and Hunter is precisely the kind of player that NBA teams are looking to land as basketball becomes more and more built on positional versatility and the ability to space the floor.

And it’s that versatility that will make Hunter so important for the Cavaliers next season.

Let’s go beyond the simple fact that he is going to be the only guy on the Virginia roster that can create his own shot against length and athleticism and that there is a chance that he could end up being an all-american next season if things play out the right way. What makes Hunter so important to Virginia his that his defensive versatility is what allows Virginia to matchup with teams that want to try and play small-ball against them.

That’s precisely what UMBC did in the first round of the NCAA tournament, a game that Hunter missed with a broken wrist. We all know how that played out, and I’m not even dumb enough to pin all the blame of a 20-point loss to a No. 16 seed on a guy that played less than 20 minutes a night.

Virginia choked once they realized that there was a chance this could happen, but I would argue that a major reason they couldn’t ever truly assert their dominance was because they were unable to matchup with UMBC’s four-guard lineup without Hunter.

With Hunter back, Virginia is the No. 6 team in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25. If he had declared for the draft and signed with an agent, I’m not sure I would have had the Wahoos in the top 20.

He takes Tony Bennett’s club from simply being good to once against being a contender for the ACC regular season title.

Vanderbilt the sixth Kentucky player declares for the NBA draft

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Jarred Vanderbilt is now the sixth Kentucky Wildcat to declare for the NBA draft this spring, joining P.J. Washington and Wenyen Gabriel in testing the waters without signing with an agent.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Kevin Knox and Hamidou Diallo have all declared for the draft and signed with an agent.

Vanderbilt announced his decision on Friday afternoon.

“This season wasn’t easy for me,” Vanderbilt said. “At the end of the day, my goal has always been to make it to the NBA.”

“I know I have more to my game to show, but now I’ve got to figure out if the time is right for me to do it at the next level or if I would be better to return to school.”

Vanderbilt missed the first 17 games of his freshman season with a left foot injury, a foot that he had injured twice before during his high school career. He then missed all four of Kentucky’s postseason games with a left ankle injury, and there is a chance that he could end up needing surgery to correct this issue this offseason.

All told, the 6-foot-9 Vanderbilt played in 14 games as a freshman, averaging 5.9 points and 7.9 boards in just 17 minutes a night. But issues with his ability to shoot from the perimeter and a lower left leg that has proven to be extremely problematic, there is a good chance that Vanderbilt would go undrafted should he decide to turn pro.