2013-2014 ACC Preview: Notre Dame, Syracuse invade Tobacco Road, but watch for Virginia

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All month long, CBT will be rolling out our 2013-2014 season preview. Check back throughout the day, as we’ll be posting three or four preview items every day.

To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. To see the rest of the Conference Previews we’ve published, click here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.

All it took was one cycle through conference realignment for the ACC to morph into one of, if not the strongest league in the country, particularly at the top. As many as five teams have the talent on their roster to feasibly put together a run to the Final Four: Duke and North Carolina will almost always be in that conversation, as will new member Syracuse. Notre Dame has arguably the best back court in the country, and Virginia will enter this season as one of the nation’s most underappreciated teams.

For my money, Duke is the favorite in this league, but I could see any of those four teams playing their way into the No. 2 spot in the conference standings. Raiding the Big East sure did make the ACC a compelling conference.

REALIGNMENT MOVES

In: Notre Dame, Syracuse, Pitt
Out: None

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW:

1. Duke’s best lineup may be small: As talented as the Blue Devils are this season, they’re missing a presence in the paint. They don’t have a physical, imposing shot blocker and rebounder to put around the rim. Marshall Plumlee isn’t as blue-collar as his brothers were. Amile Jefferson is talented and stronger but still undersized. Josh Hairston is, well, Josh Hairston. On the other hand, Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood are both extremely talented combo-forwards. Could they be paired along the front line with a three-guard lineup on the perimeter? Can you imagine college fours and fives trying to chase those two around on the perimeter?

2. North Carolina’s pieces don’t necessarily fit: There are two things that Roy Williams’ offense has when it’s running right: a point guard that can get the ball up the floor in a split-second, and a big man that can score on command in the post while also beating defenses to the rim in transition. The combination of Marcus Paige and Nate Britt should resolve the first issue, but who steps up in the front court? Is Joel James in good enough shape? Has Brice Johnson gotten stronger? Does James Michael-McAdoo have a post move year?

3. Virginia is for real: Yes, the ‘Hoos have a situation at the point they have to work out, as a group of guys battling injuries will look to replace veteran leader Jontel Evans. But beyond that, Tony Bennett has himself a squad. Joe Harris is one of the nation’s most underrated stars, and Akil Mitchell is a sparkplug on the front line. Expect a much-improved Mike Tobey, who is coming off of a summer with Team USA’s U19 team, and don’t be surprised to see junkyard dog Justin Anderson take a big step forward, either. This group defends, and this season, they have some serious weapons offensively.

4. Boston College: This year’s crop of realignment additions aren’t the only former Big East members that will make some noise. Steve Donahue has himself a squad up in Beantown. Ryan Anderson and Olivier Hanlon form one of the best 1-2 punches in the league, and Joe Rahon is a formidable third option. BC has a decided — read: frigid — home court advantage as well. Tourney team this year?

5. What should we expect from Tyler Ennis?: I’m not sure there is a more important player in the ACC than Ennis, who is the only true point guard on the Syracuse roster. There’s enough talent around him, particularly in the front court, to make the Orange a formidable Final Four threat, but he’s more or less the only playmaker that Jim Boeheim has.

source:
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PRESEASON ACC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Jabari Parker, Duke

Before Andrew Wiggins turned into ‘ANDREW “OMFG” WIGGINS!!!’, it was Parker that most scouts believed was the best prospect in the Class of 2013. He was surpassed by a couple of guys as a senior in high school, but he was also banged up as a senior. Now healthy and in shape, Parker is going to have a chance to truly showcase his ability. He’s an all-american caliber guard with a power forward’s size. You’ll enjoy watching him play. Trust me.

THE REST OF THE ALL-ACC FIRST TEAM:

  • C.J. Fair, Syracuse: One of the most underappreciated players in the country. Quietly has had a terrific career.
  • Joe Harris, Virginia: Just as overlooked as Fair. Playing on one of the slowest teams in the country, averaged 16.1 ppg and shot 42.5% from three.
  • Jerian Grant, Notre Dame: Big, talented lead guard will be Notre Dame’s best player this season.
  • P.J. Hairston, North Carolina: A terrific talent, his off-the-court issues seem to be resolved. How long will his suspension last?

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW:

  • Rodney Hood, Duke
  • Eric Atkins, Notre Dame
  • Ryan Anderson, Boston College
  • Olivier Hanlon, Boston College
  • Dez Wells, Maryland

BREAKOUT STAR: Jerami Grant, Syracuse

There are two other options I considered here — Rodney Hood and Mike Tobey — but I think that Grant has the best chance to see a significant uptick in his production. A long, athletic forward, Grant is a high-energy guy that can make plays defensively and get to the glass. A very nice compliment to C.J. Fair.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Jeff Bzdelik, Wake Forest

It seems like everyone in Winston-Salem wants him gone. How bad is it down there? Demon Deacon fans want their AD fired in part because he hired Bzdelik. That’s not a good sign, and this Wake Forest squad is not a good team. That’s not a good combination. Not a good.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING … : The ACC has five teams capable of making the Final Four.

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT: Seeing the teams on Tobacco Road invite the Orange-clad hills of Upstate New York.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR:

  • Nov. 12, Duke vs. Kansas (Champions Classic in Chicago)
  • Nov. 12, VCU at Virginia
  • Dec. 3, Michigan at Duke
  • Dec. 4, North Carolina at Michigan State
  • Dec. 14, Kentucky at North Carolina

PREDICTED FINISH

1. Duke: Absurd amount of perimeter talent, the question for the Blue Devils will be just how well they can defend the paint and capitalize on the mismatches that Parker and Hood will create. Also key: Quinn Cook. Duke has shot makers, but not necessarily shot creators. Cook was terrific early last year, no so much in March.
2. Syracuse: That trip to Upstate New York won’t be easy. Preparing to face that 2-3 zone won’t be either. Some question marks for the Orange — Ennis, post play, perimeter shooting — but there is plenty of talent.
3. Virginia: I love this Virginia squad. They can really, really defend, and they’ve got more weapons offensively than anyone realizes. Joe Harris is a stud, as is Akil Mitchell. Will Mike Tobey and Justin Anderson make the jump as sophomores?
4. Notre Dame: The best back court in the ACC. Jerian Grant and Eric Atkins are known quantities, while Demetrius Jackson will allow the Irish to give three and four guard looks. They need Zach Auguste to become a force in the middle.
5. North Carolina: I’m concerned about UNC, as you read above, but if Roy Williams does find his answers at the point and at center, and P.J. Hairston and James Michael-McAdoo live up to their potential, this team can win the league.
6. Maryland: Losing Seth Allen for a month will hurt, as Roddy Peters isn’t quite ready to be a full-time point guard yet. Lots of talent on this team, with a bullying front line and the underrated Dez Wells leading the way. X-factor: Jake Layman.
7. Boston College: Couldn’t love Olivier Hanlon and Ryan Anderson anymore, but will their supporting cast be strong enough to garner a bid to the NCAA tournament?
8. Pitt: The Panthers are the most intriguing team in the ACC. They’ve got some quality big men, so talent on their perimeter, and a young point guard in James Robinson that could end up being a star. Not a lot is proven, but I think this group has top-four-in-the-ACC potential.
9. NC State: T.J. Warren is slimmed down and ready to become a scoring machine. Cat Barber and Tyler Lewis have the potential to be a thrilling back court. I don’t trust Mark Gottfried.
10. Georgia Tech: The Yellow Jackets might sneak up on some teams this season. They filled their hole at the point with Trae Golden and bring back their top four scorers from last season.
11. Florida State: The Seminoles’ 9-9 ACC record last year was more impressive than it should have been thanks to four buzzer-beaters from the now-departed Michael Snaer.
12. Wake Forest: Losing C.J. Harris hurts, but with Travis McKie, Devin Thomas, Codi Miller-McIntyre and Arnaud-William Adala Moto all back, Bzdelik’s team has a chance to finally make some noise in the ACC.
13. Clemson: The Tigers lose two of their top three scorers from a team that went 5-13 in the ACC and lost 10 of their last 11 games. Addition by subtraction or just subtraction?
14. Miami: The Hurricanes lost six of their top seven from last season, and with Angel Rodriguez, Shelden McClellan and DeAndre Burnett sitting out, Miami’s practice squad could beat their starting five.
15. Virginia Tech: No Erick Green means James Johnson’s club is in for a long season in Blacksburg.

Government shutdown forces Air Force to cancel all athletic events

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The Air Force Academy has been forced to cancel all home and away games due to the government shutdown, the school announced on Saturday.

Announcing on the official Air Force Academy Twitter page, the school will attempt to reschedule as many missed events as possible.

Canceled games include a home men’s basketball game against Fresno State on Saturday and a home hockey game against Sacred Heart. According to a report from the Colorado Springs Gazette, the women’s basketball team is in Fresno, Calif., for a road game against Fresno State, but that game will also not be played.

This is an unprecedented measure for the Air Force Academy as they’ve been able to play through government shutdowns before. In 2013, the USAA gave a $230,000 check to help Air Force football travel to Navy for its game. Government shutdowns in the 1990s also never forced the cancellation of any major Air Force games in the past.

A source told NBC Sports that Army’s athletic department has not been affected as it is privately funded. Navy’s athletic department should also be able to operate and continue under the government shutdown since they are privately funded.

Without private sponsors helping, it looks like Air Force won’t be playing until the government shutdown is over. The Gazette also reported on Saturday that Air Force athletic officials knew that this could be a possibility and said it would be an “11th hour decision.”

Air Force men’s basketball is 8-10 with a 2-4 record in the Mountain West this season. While the Falcons haven’t been a major contender, they had the momentum of a small two-game winning streak heading into Saturday’s home game against Fresno State.

The Falcons are also scheduled to play on the road at Utah State on Wednesday and host Boise State next Saturday.

Bosnian professional team announces they have signed Billy Preston

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Billy Preston has signed with BC Igokea, a Bosnian professional team, according to a release put out by the club on Saturday.

“We are thrilled to welcome Billy Preston to our club,” the statement read. “We were watching his situation closely and reached out to his family to show interest and ultimately reached an agreement with the family attorney in California on a contract for the rest of the season. We know Billy is an NBA prospect so we will do our best to continue his development to help him excel for our club and fulfill his goal which is to be an NBA star in the near future.”

“Billy Preston is foregoing his eligibility to play at Kansas and has signed with a professional team in Bosnia,” head coach Bill Self said in a statement provided to NBC Sports. “Billy’s family has been very upfront telling us that his first choice was to stay at Kansas, but with the uncertainty of the situation they needed to look at other potential options. This opportunity in Bosnia came with a deadline for a decision, and the family reached that decision Friday afternoon.”

“We are all disappointed that Billy never had the opportunity to experience college basketball competition but we certainly support him and wish him the best. Although he has been frustrated with the situation, Billy’s attitude has been tremendous and he has developed as a person and as a player. I’m sure that will continue as he prepares for his professional career.”

Igokea’s roster also includes former UCLA guard Malcolm Lee, former Oregon and UTEP guard Dominic Artis and Katin Reinhardt, who played at UNLV, USC and Marquette.

Preston had enrolled at Kansas as a freshman this season, but he was involved in a car accident prior to the start of the season. He was held out from competition as the school attempted to find out who was paying for the vehicle.

Ugly growing pains: No. 18 Kentucky needs to fix mistakes

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LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — John Calipari warned the growing pains would be ugly for his youngest Kentucky squad.

It’s been an annual caution from the coach, but this time he may not have been exaggerating. Kentucky has two losses in its last three Southeastern road contests.

But all is not lost.

The No. 18 Wildcats (14-4, 4-2) return home to face first-place Florida (13-5, 5-1) Saturday night with a chance to erase a one-game deficit to the Gators. And after playing four of its first six SEC games on the road, Kentucky gets to close January with three of its next four at Rupp Arena.

The immediate goal is correcting mistakes in a loss to South Carolina, a setback that Calipari said revealed how green his freshman really are.

“My issue right now is we’re playing a really good team and we needed some time to focus on them, but at this point we can’t,” Calipari said Friday. “If we get this right and it’s not good enough, then we move on to the next game.

“But if we get it right, then I’m going to feel good. If I don’t get it right, it doesn’t matter. At some point this has got to change and we’ve got to focus.”

Though Calipari is accustomed to annually guiding a new group of talented yet inexperienced teenagers through high expectations, this particular group is his youngest with no upperclassmen among his regulars. The communication and unselfish play he has stressed was absent as Kentucky blew a 14-point, second-half lead in Tuesday’s 76-68 loss at South Carolina .

Already short handed with point guard Quade Green sidelined for a third straight game because of a back issue, the Wildcats had three players foul out in the contest. Kentucky was also outrebounded 40-35 and recorded a season-low seven assists — with none from Hamidou Diallo or fellow guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

Calipari said the performance was the first time the Wildcats truly resembled freshmen but isn’t using youth as an excuse. If anything, he’s pushing players shake their youthful bad habits along with the memory of that defeat.

Calipari “just wants us to play harder the whole 40 minutes,” forward PJ Washington said. “We’ve been scrimmaging a lot more to get us in game-like situations. … You can never really try too hard. You just have to keep that mindset and just move on to the next opponent.”

One bright spot for Kentucky’s rotation was the debut of 6-foot-9 forward Jarred Vanderbilt after being sidelined with a left foot injury. The freshman had six points, five rebounds and a team-high three assists in 14 minutes against the Gamecocks, an encouraging start that has allowed the Wildcats to scrimmage more with him.

“He plays with a lot of energy,” freshman forward Nick Richards said of Vanderbilt. “We see it in practice a lot. He plays hard every possession. That could be one thing that could help us.”

Green’s availability meanwhile remains a game-time decision. If nothing else, Calipari would like him back to have another shooter, not to mention with someone who communicates with teammates. On the other hand, Green’s absence has allowed Gilgeous-Alexander to play the point alongside Diallo.

But after fouls and shaky play forced Kentucky to use a number of combinations at South Carolina, the mission this weekend is ensuring whatever lineup is out there plays more consistently to slow down a Florida squad seeking its eighth win in nine games.

“It just comes with your mental” approach, Washington said. “You just gotta be prepared every day in and every day out and just fight on a consistent basis, just get shots up in the gym and just continue to focus on you and getting better.”

No. 9 Michigan State bounces back and routs Indiana 85-57

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EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Miles Bridges scored 22 points and Nick Ward had 18 points and 13 rebounds to help No. 9 Michigan State bounce back with an 85-57 win over Indiana on Friday night.

The Spartans (17-3, 5-2 Big Ten) had a confidence-boosting performance after going from a top-ranked team to a reeling one. They were slumping after a 16-point loss at Ohio State, an overtime win over Rutgers and an 82-72 setback to Michigan at home.

The Hoosiers (11-8, 4-3) lost for the first time in four games, falling into a fourth-place tie with the Wolverines and Nebraska.

Michigan State took control with an 18-0 run midway through the first half, led by as much as 23 and was ahead 42-23 at halftime. The Spartans stayed ahead by a comfortable margin in the second half by spreading the ball around and making it tough for the Hoosiers to make shots.

Cassius Winston had 10 points, eight assists and only one turnover, while Jaren Jackson had 10 points, six rebounds, three blocks and three assists for the Spartans.

Indiana’s Robert Johnson had 21 points and the rest of his teammates struggled offensively. Josh Newkirk scored 14, but missed 12 of 17 shots and the Hoosiers were held to 34 percent shooting.

FAMOUS FAN

Alex Rodriguez, who was in Detroit for the North American International Auto Show, attended the game. He went to Michigan State’s shootaround earlier in the day and wore an “Izzone” T-shirt while standing in the student section behind coach Tom Izzo, his staff and players.

“I’ve always been a big fan of Izzo,” Rodriguez said.

BIG PICTURE

Indiana: The Hoosiers had a hard time competing without Juwan Morgan playing as he has lately. One of the Big Ten’s leaders in scoring, rebounding, steals and shooting before the game started was limited to two points on 1-of-5 shooting, three rebounds and one steal.

Michigan State: The Spartans desperately needed to get their swagger back and they did, suddenly looking like the team that was ranked No. 1 two weeks ago.

Weekend Preview: Big East showdown headlines an interesting slate of games

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SATURDAY’S SHOWDOWNS

*(NOTE: Lines are not posted for Saturday or Sunday games as of publication. Spreads referenced are via Kenpom.com)

No. 11 XAVIER at No. 19 SETON HALL (-1), Sat. 2:30 p.m. (FOX)

The only game this weekend featuring two teams that are currently ranked in the top 25, Xavier and Seton Hall square off in a battle of programs trending in opposite directions. Now that Trevon Bluiett has rediscovered his shooting stroke, the Musketeers have reeled off back-to-back wins, including a beatdown of then-No. 25 Creighton. Seton Hall, on the other hand, lost by a combined 37 points at Marquette and Creighton in the last 11 days and struggled with a Georgetown team that was down 44 points at home against Villanova.

  • PREDICTION: Xavier’s new starting lineup will be interesting. The Musketeers are much more offensively oriented right now, but Kerem Kanter and Naji Marshall are not exactly known for their defense and physicality. Seton Hall has a big, old, tough and strong front line. I think they get this win they badly needed in front of a packed out. Seton Hall (-1)

No. 14 ARIZONA (-5) at STANFORD, Sat. 4:00 p.m. (CBS)

First place in the Pac-12 is on the line as 5-1 Arizona squares off with 5-1 Stanford. And yes, you read that correctly. In their last five games in league play, the Cardinal have swept the LA schools at home, the Washington schools on the road and beaten Arizona State in their place. Now they get the best team in the Pac-12. Stanford is healthy and playing the best basketball they’ve played in a long, long time.

  • PREDICTION: If Stanford is getting five points at home I am all over the Cardinal. The problem is that I don’t think they will be. KenPom’s projections don’t factor in that Stanford is healthy and hot. I think the line will be closer to Stanford (-2), and I would still probably take them. Stanford (-5)

FLORIDA at No. 18 KENTUCKY (-3), Sat. 8:15 p.m.

This matchup is fascinating. Two teams that still have quite figured things out that play polar opposite styles of basketball. Florida is loaded with quick, veteran guards that fire up threes. Kentucky is loaded big, athletic forwards that can’t really shoot. Coming off of a loss at South Carolina, I think this game is probably more important for Kentucky, who finally looks like they are going to be healthy.

  • PREDICTION: Can Kentucky overwhelm Florida with their size or will the Gators exploit the mismatches with their guards? That answer really comes down to whether or not the Gators get hot from deep. I’m going to guess that they will since they have a tendency to show up in big games. Florida (+3)

WHAT ELSE IS THERE TO WATCH?

  • No. 1 Villanova (-17) at UConn, Sat. 12:00 p.m. (CBS): The big question in this game for me, beyond “Will UConn lose by enough for UConn to fire Kevin Ollie on the spot?”, is whether or not Villanova is the elite team in college basketball that we swear doesn’t exist. Villanova (-17)
  • No. 7 Wichita State (-1) at Houston, Sat. 12:00 p.m. (ESPNU): The Shockers have turned into a defensive liability out of nowhere, and on Saturday they will be traveling to visit a Houston team that badly needs this win. Wichita State (-1)
  • No. 4 Oklahoma (-3) at Oklahoma State, Sat. 2:00 p.m. (ESPN): Trae Young hasn’t been right for a couple of weeks, and now he gets a rival on the road. Is this the game that he figures it out? Oklahoma (-3)
  • BAYLOR at No. 10 KANSAS (-8), Sat. 6:00 p.m. (ESPN): Kansas has actually had some issues at home this season, more than they’ve had on the road. Baylor tends to play the Jayhawks tough. Is this a letdown spot after that massive win at West Virginia? Kansas (-8)