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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.

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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.

Five things we learned: Duke’s a mess, Gonzaga’s a controversy, Baylor’s back

ORLANDO, FL - NOVEMBER 27:  Nigel Williams-Goss #5 and Josh Perkins #13 of the Gonzaga Bulldogs celebrate a victory over the Iowa State Cyclones at HP Field House on November 27, 2016 in Orlando, Florida.  (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)
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1. The ‘Is Gonzaga a No. 1 seed?’ controversy is coming whether you like it or not: Gonzaga improved to 17-0 this week, meaning that the Zags are now exactly halfway to entering the NCAA tournament undefeated on the season. The statement was made on Saturday night, when No. 5 Gonzaga hosted No. 21 Saint Mary’s and won by 23 points.

The game was much closer than the final score – a late-run from the Zags and foul trouble for Jock Landale were the culprits in the end – but it was a statement nonetheless. Saint Mary’s is really good, and Gonzaga dispatched them with little trouble. It more or less confirms what we already knew: there is a very real chance that the Zags can go undefeated during the regular season, and it is a virtual certainty that ‘Is Gonzaga really a No. 1 seed?’ will be one of the biggest talking points on Selection Sunday.

Think about it: How many more games will the Zags actually lose? Their trip to Saint Mary’s is going to be tricky, BYU is certainly dangerous and they’ll likely face one of those two teams in the WCC title game. Throw in the fact that every road game they play is the biggest game of the year for their opponent, and I’ll set the over/under for Zag losses at 2.5; worth noting: KenPom projects Gonzaga to be favored in every game they play.

Let’s think about this in a best-case scenario: The Zags will enter Selection Sunday with neutral site wins over Iowa State, Arizona and Florida, but a clean sweep of Saint Mary’s. That will, in all likelihood, be the totality of their top 50 wins. The Selection Committee is going to have to compare that profile to the profiles of Villanova, Kansas, Kentucky and the eventual ACC champion, not to mention fellow west coast powerhouse UCLA.

If Gonzaga ends up going 34-0, they’ll be an automatic No. 1 seed, or at least they should be. But if they lose a game or two?

That’s when this will become interesting.

And even if the Zags don’t lose a game, there will still be people saying they don’t deserve to get a top seed.

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2. Duke is a total mess right now: Twice in the last week and for the third time this season, Duke went on the road in ACC play and took a loss in a game that never felt like it was all that much in doubt. On Tuesday, the Blue Devils lost by 16 at Florida State in a game where they gave up 88 points. On Saturday, they lost by nine at Louisville, giving up 78 points to the offensively-challenged Cardinals.

And that’s where their issues begin. On defense, particularly in ball-screen defense. Harry Giles III just doesn’t look like he quite understands where he has to be and when he has to be there yet, while Marques Bolden, in Amile Jefferson’s absence, is playing behind both Chase Jeter and Javin DeLaurier. Offensively, the issues they’ve had with point guard play are really coming to the forefront, as Grayson Allen, for all his ability, is an attacker, not a facilitator, at heart. Jayson Tatum is a super-skilled scorer, but he lacks a feel for the game to the point where Duke has actually looked like a better team with him on the bench.

The Blue Devils lack toughness. They lack a killer. They get pushed around. And their leaders – Coach K on the bench and Jefferson on the floor – are both currently on the mend.

At what point do we start questioning if, not when, Duke can turn this thing around?

3. Xavier has their own problems: The Musketeer’s issues have less to do with ability than they do with the fact that this team lacks résumé wins. As of this moment in time, Chris Mack’s club may not have a win over an NCAA tournament team. They beat Clemson who can’t beat anyone in the ACC. They beat Utah before Utah had David Collette and Sedrick Barefield eligible. They beat Wake Forest (whatever) and Northern Iowa twice (they stick this year).

There are still plenty of good wins left for them to get – Creighton twice, at Cincinnati, Xavier at home, Butler at home, the Big East tournament – and this team is good enough to get some of them, but it’s worth noting that, as of today, Xavier’s tournament profile is not good.

4. Maybe Baylor wasn’t the best team in the country after all: It was fun while it lasted for the Bears, as No. 1 Baylor went into Morgantown and learned what Press Virginia is all about. They committed 29 turnovers in a 21-point loss. And frankly, if you were paying attention, the result shouldn’t have been all that surprising. Yes, Scott Drew’s club got beaten worse than we thought, but they were also a team that earned that No. 1 ranking because of the way that the voting is done, not necessarily because they were the best team in the country.

WACO, TX - JANUARY 7: Johnathan Motley #5 and Jo Lual-Acuil Jr. #0 of the Baylor Bears celebrate after defeating the Oklahoma State Cowboys 61-57 on January 7, 2017 at the Ferrell Center in Waco, Texas.  (Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images)
Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

5. New Mexico and Colorado State do not like each other: New Mexico and Colorado State got into a couple of different altercations on Saturday in UNM’s win at Colorado State. It started in the pregame, where a reporter for the Albuquerque Journal reported that CSU players were talking trash to UNM players about the job status of the Lobo coaches. During the game, a hard-screen set by a UNM player resulted in a near-brawl, one where UNM assistants Chris Harriman and Terrence Rencher were ejected for leaving their bench.

After the game is when things really got interesting. The Journal reporter published video of a verbal altercation outside the arena between Rencher and CSU player Emmanuel Omogbo. Omogbo, who was held back by CSU head coach Larry Eustachy, claimed that Rencher started the altercation, and Eustachy’s wife, Lana, accused him of laughing when he was told of the tragedy Omogbo has lived through; his parents and two two-year old sisters died in a house fire last year.

UNM strongly denied that those allegations were true, and their account was supported by the Journal reporter. It turned into a big deal this weekend, largely due to the fact that it was a coach and a player that got into it …

… and because it was on video.

And that was where the real damage was done.

Dust-ups like what happened in and around that building on Saturday happen more than you think, particularly in the gyms where both teams have to leave the floor through the same tunnel. In this incident, a 22-year old coming off of a chippy home loss lost his temper. It happens. Rencher didn’t raise his fists or raise his voice, essentially responding to the player by saying, “Keep it moving, you don’t want these problems.”

Neither man covered himself in glory, and neither of them did anything that was all that bad.

It was a situation that was diffused pretty quickly, never escalated into any type of violence and only became ‘a thing’ because it was captured on video.

These two teams play again in mid-February. Hopefully this will be the last time we have to talk about it until then.

Team of the Week: West Virginia Mountaineers

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 25:  Head coach Bob Huggins of the West Virginia Mountaineers reacts against the Temple Owls in the second half during the championship game of the NIT Season Tip-Off at Barclays Center on November 25, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.  (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
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The Mountaineers did two things this week that should impress you.

For starters, they absolutely crushed No. 1 and then-undefeated Baylor at home. The Bears committed 29 turnovers and lost by 21 points in a game that never felt like it was in doubt for WVU. Press Virginia has never looked so good.

But Bob Huggins’ club followed that up on Saturday by going on the road, playing in an empty arena at Texas and overcoming a flu outbreak to land a come-from-behind win over the Longhorns. Let-down games are a real thing, especially when those games are played in arenas that don’t have the same kind of energy as a packed WVU coliseum.

We know what this team is and we know what they bring on a nightly basis. Their loss to Texas Tech puts them behind the eight-ball in a conference where Kansas is going to be so difficult to beat, but we need to take them as seriously as a Big 12 title contender as we do Baylor.

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THEY WERE GOOD, TOO

  • UCLA: The Bruins became just the fourth team since Utah and Colorado joined the Pac-12 to sweep the road weekend at the Mountain schools. UCLA hit 19 threes and scored 104 points at Colorado and followed that up with a come-from-behind win at Utah, a game where UCLA’s legs were clearly weighing on them. Worth noting: the other three schools to accomplish this feat both won the conference.
  • Mississippi State: For all the talk about Mississippi State’s struggles this season, they’re quietly looking pretty good this year. They’re 12-4 on the season and, after a win at Arkansas and a win over Texas A&M at home, are sitting at 3-1 in the SEC.
  • Louisville: The Cardinals shook off a slow start to ACC play this week, hanging on to beat Pitt despite 43 points from Jamel Artis and following that up with a win over Duke in the Yum! Center on Saturday. Anas Mahmoud played the best game of his career in the win over Duke.
  • Notre Dame: The Fighting Irish are now 16-2 on the season and 5-0 in the ACC after landing close wins at Miami and Virginia Tech this week. The Irish choked away big leads and lost a game down the stretch against both Villanova and Purdue. It looks like they may have shed those demons. Their five ACC wins are by a combined 23 points.
  • Cincinnati: The Bearcats asserted their dominance atop the American by beating SMU at home on Thursday night. They followed that up with a road win at an overmatched East Carolina. Cincinnati is one of the nation’s best defensive teams, and a team that we probably are not paying enough attention to right now.

Player of the Week: Justin Jackson and Joel Berry II, North Carolina

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At this point, it’s almost too difficult to separate the contributions being made by Joel Berry II and Justin Jackson.

Berry is the guy that makes everything easier for No. 11 North Carolina offensively. Jackson has turned into the sharpshooter and the closer that the Tar Heels have lacked the last two seasons. And the two of them have essentially taken turns making the big shots down the stretch for UNC this season.

On Wednesday, in a win at Wake Forest, it was Jackson burying a clutch three in a game where he led the Tar Heels with 19 points. On Saturday, it was Berry that had an answer for every Florida State run. He finished with 26 points against FSU. Jackson had 22, and he had a three in a late run that put the game away.

At this point, these two make up the best one-two punch in the ACC. They deserve to be in the same conversation with the likes of De’Aaron Fox-Malik Monk, Josh Hart-Jalen Brunson and Frank Mason III-Josh Jackson when it comes to the best one-two punches in the sport. Both have earned at least consideration for all-american teams.

They are the reason that UNC is very much a contender to get back to the Final Four and win that elusive national title.

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THEY WERE GOOD, TOO

  • Nigel Williams-Goss, Gonzaga: Williams-Goss was the best player on the floor for the Zags on Saturday night as they handed Saint Mary’s their worst loss of the season, 79-56. It was quite the statement for Gonzaga, as Saint Mary’s was considered by many to be a real contender for the WCC title. Is it too early to start talking about Gonzaga’s undefeated season?
  • Bryce Alford, UCLA: Alford put together one of the best shooting performances we’ve seen this season, hitting 9-for-14 from three in a 37-point outburst at Colorado. Alford also hit a huge three late in the second half of the Bruins’ win at Utah, only the fourth time in six years that a Pac-12 team has swept the Mountain schools on the road.
  • London Perrantes, Virginia: Virginia bounced back from a rough start to ACC play with a pair of wins this week, including a win at Clemson. Perrantes was fantastic in the two wins, averaging 24.5 points and hitting a number of critical shots late in the win at Clemson. He’s turning into the go-to guy that the Cavaliers lost in Malcolm Brogdon.
  • Lauri Markkanen, Arizona: Beating an in-state rival like Arizona State is always awesome. Scoring 30 points in a game is always awesome. Scoring 30 points in a blowout win over your in-state rival? Priceless. Or something like that, right? Regardless, Markkanen has more than lived up to the hype he had entering the season.
  • Vlad Brodziansky, TCU: The Horned Frogs moved to 3-2 in the Big 12 this season with wins at Texas and over Iowa State at home, and Brodziansky was the biggest reason why. The 6-foot-11 Slovakian averaged 22 points, 10 boards and three blocks while shooting better than 70 percent form the floor.

College Basketball Talk Top 25: Just how far will Duke fall?

PITTSBURGH, PA - FEBRUARY 28:  Luke Kennard #5 of the Duke Blue Devils reacts after losing 76-62 to the Pittsburgh Panthers during the game at Petersen Events Center on February 28, 2016 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
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There was a lot of movement in this week’s top 25, mainly a result of Baylor and Duke taking the losses that they took.

Baylor, on Tuesday, took a 21-point beating at the hands of West Virginia, a loss on the road in which they committed 29 turnovers. While the final score was worrisome, the actual result really should not have been overly surprising. West Virginia is a pressing team that plays their best at home when the crowd is rocking, and Baylor is a team that entered the season with question marks at the point guard spot.

As bad as the result looked, it was pretty predictable, particularly when you factor in that Baylor maybe wasn’t actually the best team in the country.

Duke was much more difficult to rank. This team is still the co-favorite in Vegas to win the national title, meaning their ceiling is still just as high as anyone’s, but at this moment, Duke is a total mess. Without getting too much into their specific issues – I wrote 1,000 words on that very topic on Saturday – it’s getting harder and harder to justify keeping them in the top 25.

As of today, I think it’s too early to drop them out when teams like Maryland and Minnesota are in and around the top 25.

But if you don’t want to rank the Blue Devils, I’m not going to be the one to tell you you’re wrong.

On to the rankings:

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1. Villanova (17-1, Last Week No. 1)
2. Kentucky (15-2, 2)
3. UCLA (18-1, 3)
4. Kansas (16-1, 4)
5. Gonzaga (17-0, 6)
6. North Carolina (16-3, 10)
7. Baylor (16-1, 5)
8. Florida State (16-2, 8)
9. Oregon (16-2, 9)
10. West Virginia (15-2, 11)
11. Louisville (15-3, 12)
12. Creighton (17-1, 13)
13. Wisconsin (14-3, 15)
14. Butler (16-2, 16)
15. Purdue (14-4, 14)
16. Arizona (17-2, 19)
17. Notre Dame (16-2, 20)
18. Cincinnati (16-2, 21)
19. Duke (14-4, 7)
20. Saint Mary’s (15-2, 18)
21. Xavier (14-3, 17)
22. Virginia (14-3, 22)
23. Florida (14-3, 23)
24. South Carolina (14-3, 25)
25. Maryland (16-2, NR)

DROPPED OUT: No. 24 Minnesota
NEW ADDITIONS: No. 25 Maryland

PHOTO: Drake wears jersey of Zion Williamson, 2018 recruit

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Drake, who is famous for jumping on bandwagons and Canada’s most well-known Kentucky basketball fan, was spotted in an Instagram post wearing the jersey of Zion Williamson, one of the best players in the Class of 2018:

@mikewillmadeit @troubledte6

A photo posted by champagnepapi (@champagnepapi) on

This Williamson kid is good, too.

Well, he’s great for the mixtapes.

Because he does stuff like this: