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.

USC lands four-star 2018 guard Elijah Weaver

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USC landed an important commitment for its future on Monday night as four-star Class of 2018 guard Elijah Weaver.

Regarded as the No. 35 overall prospect in the Rivals’ national Class of 2018 rankings, the 6-foot-5 Weaver gives the Trojans a floor leader to build around for the future as he provides great size in the backcourt. Capable of playing multiple guard spots, Weaver has a lot of upside for a program that has done a very solid job of developing backcourt talent under head coach Andy Enfield.

Weaver’s commitment is also important for the Trojans because it comes despite the looming FBI investigation that the program is dealing with thanks to former assistant coach Tony Bland. USC had recently lost a four-star commitment from forward J’Raan Brooks, so the commitment of Weaver is a huge momentum boost for them as they get right back on track in the Class of 2018.

With Weaver in the mix, USC now owns three four-star pledges in the 2018 class as he joins four-star forward Taeshon Cherry and four-star guard Kevin Porter.

Jim Larranaga believes he’s ‘Coach-3’ in FBI investigation

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Despite losing key contributors Davon Reed and Kamari Murphy from last season’s NCAA tournament team, the Miami Hurricanes are expected to be a player both within the ACC and nationally this season. But instead of having the focus solely on the likes of JaQuan Newton, Bruce Brown and Lonnie Walker, Jim Larrañaga’s program is also having to deal with the impact of the ongoing FBI investigation into corruption and fraud in college basketball.

While no one connected to the Miami men’s basketball program was arrested last month, the program is referenced in the FBI report. On Monday, Larrañaga stated during a press conference that he believes that he is “Coach-3” in the FBI report. Larrañaga also maintained his innocence, saying that he had done nothing wrong while also being thankful that none of his assistant coaches were involved.

“It’s been a strain, physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually,” Larrañaga said according to the Palm Beach Post. “It’s something that’s there. I have to deal with it. I have the support of my wife and a wonderful family. I have the support of the university, my staff and players.”

According to the FBI report, “Coach-3” requested that payments totaling $150,000 be funneled to “Player-12” in order to ensure his commitment to their university. It has been reported that “Player-12” was 2018 five-star prospect Nassir Little, who has also stated that he had done nothing wrong. Two of the schools recruiting Little at the time, Arizona and Miami, have been entangled in the FBI investigation to varying degrees.

While Miami has not had anyone connected to its program arrested, Arizona assistant coach Emmanuel “Book” Richardson was one of the four Division I coaches were were indicted. As a result Little removed both Arizona and Miami from consideration before ultimately committing to North Carolina earlier this month.

There’s no telling what the FBI investigation will ultimately uncover, which for the schools involved could take a heavy toll not only for the 2017-18 season but for future years as well. The FBI case has been comparatively quiet since the first set of indictments, with future moves likely to be influenced by what authorities learn from the ten individuals named in the first announcement.

Miles Bridges discusses being offered money during recruiting process

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With the FBI launching an investigation into corruption and fraud in college basketball last month, the entire sport has found itself under the microscope. Ten people, including four Division I assistant coaches, were arrested and there’s no telling just how long the FBI’s investigation will last or what information it will produce.

Michigan State forward Miles Bridges is considered by many to be the leading candidate for national Player of the Yeah honors, and he had the opportunity to turn pro after a good freshman season. But Bridges made the decision to return to East Lansing, and with that comes questions as to why he would do that as opposed to cashing in on his NBA potential as soon as possible.

In an interview with Brendan Quinn of The Athletic (subscription required) Bridges discussed a host of issues, including being offered money by people while going through the recruiting process.

“I mean, if you get caught, that might be the end of your career. I wanted to play in college really bad,” Bridges told Quinn. “I don’t know — materialistic things, they don’t really get to me. So when people were offering me money, I would say no right away, because I wanted to be able to live out my college experience. But really, I don’t know, it is hard, especially because I was so young at the time — 17.”

Given the ongoing investigation, high-profile players and teams will be on the receiving end of increased scrutiny even if they aren’t part of the FBI probe. It’s an unfair situation for a player like Bridges to deal with, as even in the actual cases of alleged wrongdoing the players themselves are essentially commodities whose services are being auctioned as opposed to the main characters looking to cash in.

Unfortunately, due to recent events a decision like the one made by Bridges will result in some questioning whether or not the player received something from the school or another entity/individual. And that’s a tough — and unfair — thing for a young player to have to deal with.

Broken hand sidelines North Carolina PG Joel Berry II

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North Carolina’s defense of its national title will likely begin without its most important player, as it was announced on Monday that senior point guard Joel Berry II will miss approximately four weeks due to a broken bone in his right hand.

Berry started at the point each of the last two seasons, earning Most Outstanding Player honors in April as the Tar Heels defeated Gonzaga to win the national title. As a junior, Berry averaged 14.7 points, 3.6 assists and 3.1 rebounds per game and started 37 of the 38 games in which he played. Berry shot 42.6 percent from the field and 38.3 percent from three, with the latter percentage being the best on team amongst players who attempted at least two three-pointers per game.

Berry was named an NBC Sports Preseason Third-Team All-American in late September.

With Berry out of the lineup, North Carolina loses its floor general as well as one of their top perimeter shooters. Sophomore Seventh Woods and freshman Jalek Felton become more important options at the point as a result of Berry’s injury, and the team doesn’t lack for perimeter shooters either with Cameron Johnson, Brandon Robinson, Kenny Williams and freshman Andrew Platek all being capable of helping to pick up the slack.

North Carolina opens its regular season on November 10 against Northern Iowa.

Bill Self’s stance on Kansas/Missouri series remains unchanged

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Sunday afternoon in Kansas City, bitter rivals Kansas and Missouri got together on the basketball court for the first time since 2012, with the Showdown for Relief raising $1.75 million for recent hurricane victims. In what was an entertaining game, the Jayhawks won by the final score of 93-87 with point guard Devonté Graham leading the way for the winners with 25 points and ten rebounds.

Kansas finished the game with five players in double figures, including Mississippi State transfer Malik Newman (17 points) and center Udoka Azubuike (16). On the other side freshman Michael Porter Jr. paced four Tigers in double figures with 21 points while younger brother Jontay grabbed a game-high 12 rebounds off the bench.

However despite the excitement for the two rivals being on the same court in any capacity, Sunday’s meeting was different given the circumstances. Following the game Kansas head coach Bill Self was asked about the possibility of the two teams meeting in a regular season game, and he maintained the stance he’s held since Missouri left the Big 12 for the SEC.

“I’m not going to say never, but I don’t think there’s been any change in our position as far as the university goes,” Self said following Sunday’s exhibition. “I’m the spokesman, I guess, on this but trust me, I’m not the only one that feels that way.”

While it would certainly benefit college basketball if Kansas and Missouri were to renew acquaintances down the line, it is understandable that Self — and maybe some others on the Kansas side of things — would have reservations. The programs, even with the arrival of Cuonzo Martin in Columbia and the freshman class led by the aforementioned Michael Porter Jr., are in different places right now.

The Jayhawks have their sights set on a 14th consecutive Big 12 title and a run at their first national title since 2008, Missouri is looking to fast-track a rebuilding process after struggling mightily under former head coach Kim Anderson. Yet with that being said, the state of the two athletic departments during realignment likely has more to do with the teams not playing each other.

Missouri was a school with options earlier this decade before joining the SEC, but that was not the case for Kansas. Had the Big 12 broken up as some believed would be the case, where would the Jayhawks have landed? Fortunately for the school the Big 12 survived the realignment craze, losing four schools (Missouri and Texas A&M to the SEC, Colorado to the Pac-12 and Nebraska to the Big Ten) and adding TCU and West Virginia to get their membership number to ten.

Given that, the best bet for college basketball fans who want to see this rivalry played during the regular season may be to hope for the programs wind up in the same in-season tournament. Even better, how about the same NCAA tournament region?