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.

South Carolina advances to first Final Four in program history with win over Florida

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South Carolina entered this year’s NCAA tournament, their first NCAA tournament since 2004 and their fifth NCAA tournament in the last 43 years, having never won two consecutive tourney games in the history of the program.

On Sunday afternoon in Madison Square Garden, Frank Martin led the Gamecocks to their fourth straight win and their first trip to the Final Four.

Sindarius Thornwell scored 11 of his 26 points in the final 10 minutes, leading No. 7 seed South Carolina back from a 40-33 halftime deficit for a 77-70 win over No. 4 seed Florida. P.J. Dozier added 17 points and Chris Silva finished with a critical 13 points and nine boards, coming up with some huge offensive rebounds and hustle plays defensively in the second half.

After shooting 7-for-12 from three in the first half, Florida missed their all 14 attempts from beyond the arc in the second 20 minutes. South Carolina’s defense, which is second nationally this season, according to KenPom, and which allowed 40 points to the Gators in the first half, buckled down in the final minutes, forcing turnovers and taking the Gators out of what they wanted to do offensively. They shot just 11-for-35, or 31.4 percent, from the floor after halftime and didn’t get a clean look at the rim in the final five minutes of the game.

That’s how South Carolina plays. That’s who they are. It’s physical and it’s ugly and it’s just so effective when they’re able to make shots at the other end of the floor. And that is where this team has changed in March. The Gamecocks lost six of their last nine games heading into the NCAA tournament, failing to score more than 1.00 points-per-possession in five of those six losses.

But the story of this game isn’t how this South Carolina team has changed.

The story is how the program has changed.

The Gamecocks were a 10-win team that went 2-14 in the SEC the year before they Frank Martin away from Kansas State, a hire that was made thanks to a falling out with his athletic director, and boy, does that look like a coup now. He was responsible for leading Kansas State, which isn’t exactly a program known for basketball success, to their only Elite 8 since 1988. He’s now led South Carolina to their first Final Four in the history of the program.

South Carolina will advance to Phoenix to take on No. 1 seed Gonzaga in the Final Four.

A season of highs and lows ends for Kansas in the Elite 8 again

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For the second season in a row, Kansas was one-win shy of a Final Four appearance, falling to Oregon, 74-60, in the Elite Eight on Friday night at the Sprint Center in Kansas City.

This comes a year after Kansas, as the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed, fell to eventual national champion Villanova in the Elite 8.

Just as stars such as Perry Ellis struggled in that regional final, so did KU’s freshman phenom Josh Jackson, whose quick two personal fouls that saddled him on the bench and appeared to take him out of the game mentally. Devonte’ Graham, averaging 20.0 points per game in the tournament, was 0-for-7 from the field. Frank Mason III’s first-half performance assured that Oregon would completely run away with the game before halftime.

The loss put an end to a tumultuous season for the Jayhawks.

Kansas entered the 2016-17 season as one of the favorites to win the national championship. The Jayhawks went on to win the Big 12 regular season title for an unprecedented 13th consecutive season. Frank Mason III, in the eyes of many, was the wire-to-wire national player of the year.

However, for all its accomplishments on the court, Kansas faced more than its share of issues off-the-court. Lagerald Vick, who was under university investigation for allegedly striking a female student. Carlton Bragg was arrested — and subsequently suspended — for drug paraphernalia. There was also the affidavit released a day before the start of the NCAA Tournament for the Jayhawks, detailing the incident outside a Lawerence bar from December involving both Vick and Josh Jackson. Even Devonte Graham’s arrest for an unpaid ticket made headlines during this string of non-basketball related news.

The Jayhawks downplayed talks of distraction before the start of the NCAA Tournament and backed it up by dominating opponents through the first three rounds. The average margin of victory was 30.0, and that includes victories over Michigan State and a 32-point beatdown of a Purdue team that held a massive mismatch on the interior.

It looked like Self was destined to add to his Hall of Fame résumé; a third trip to the Final Four — first since 2012 — was in front of essentially a home crowd. Instead, Oregon handed the Jayhawks their worst tournament defeat in the Bill Self era.

Seven times under Self, KU has made the Elite Eight and was sent home.

Perhaps, all would have been forgiven — or at the very least, overshadowed — had KU cut down the nets in Arizona.

Instead, its season ended in an all too familiar place.

Elite 8 Preview: Sunday’s picks, predictions, betting lines and channels

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No. 4 FLORIDA (-3) vs. No. 7 SOUTH CAROLINA, 2:20 p.m., CBS: If you’re a fan of uptempo, wide-open basketball, of teams running beautiful offensive sets, spreading the floor and using the three-point line like it should be used, this game probably is not going to be for you.

This is going to be as physical and as tough as any game you watched all season long. Both the Gamecocks and the Gators are top five teams in defensive efficiency, and both of them get out and pressure defensively, Florida in the full court and South Carolina in the half court. They shun shooters for the toughest athletes on their roster. They pride themselves in being tougher, both mentally and physically, than whoever they end up playing.

And they think that a game played in the 50s is beautiful basketball.

So bet the under if you can.

But the pick I like is Florida here. Their ability to defend is going to make it very difficult for South Carolina’s offensive renaissance to continue, and their guards will be able to make the plays offensively that South Carolina dares you to make.

PREDICTION: Florida (-3)

No. 1 NORTH CAROLINA (-2.5) vs. No. 2 KENTUCKY, 5:05 p.m. CBS: This is the rematch we all wanted, right?

Ever since that day three months ago, when Kentucky got 47 points from Malik Monk in a 103-102 win over North Carolina in Las Vegas, I don’t think there is a soul in the country that would have told you otherwise.

There are two major differences between these two teams now and those two teams then. The biggest is the presence of Theo Pinson, North Carolina’s best perimeter defender. Pinson has dealt foot injuries all season long, and when these two got together in December, he was not yet healthy enough to play. I assume that he will draw the assignment of Malik Monk, chasing around the man that had definitively been Kentucky’s most dangerous scorer. Pinson will make life more difficult for Monk than it was the first time around.

But is he going to spend the entire game on him?

Because after De’Aaron Fox’s 39-point outburst against UCLA on Friday night, it’s fair to wonder whether or not Pinson may be better suited to taking on the task of keeping Fox from getting into the paint. Whatever Roy Williams opts to do, the bottom line is pretty simple — if he needs to find a way to keep Kentucky’s back court in check.

The other difference between now and then is that Bam Adebayo has been playing up to his potential for the past six weeks. He was solid earlier in the year. He can be dominant at times now, and that is going to be critical for the Wildcats, who are going to be outsized by a significant margin by UNC’s front line. The Tar Heels lead the nation in offensive rebounding percentage, and they are one of the only elite teams that thrives playing two bigs at the same time. In other words, one of Wenyen Gabriel or Derek Willis are going to have to deal with Isaiah Hicks, Kennedy Meeks and Tony Bradley. That’s a matchup that favors UNC, which is why Aebayo is going to have to play up to his size.

In the end, I think Pinson’s presence and North Carolina’s size advantage will be too much.

But if Fox and Monk play their game, they can carry Kentucky a long, long way.

PREDICTION: North Carolina (2.5)

Lawrence Police Department trolls Bill Self following Elite Eight loss

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Kansas had its season ended with a 74-60 loss to No. 3 seed Oregon.

The Jayhawks were the top seed in the South region. They were playing a de facto at the Sprint Center, which is 40 miles away from the school’s campus. As you can imagine, fans in Lawrence were likely unhappy, especially since it’s the second year in a row KU has been bounced one-game shy of the Final Four.

The Lawrence Police Department, while prepping for potential riots, couldn’t help tweeting a joke at the future Hall of Famer’s expense.

Bill Self’s teams have been eliminated seven times in the Elite Eight during his tenure at Kansas. He’s led the Jayhawks to a pair of Final Fours, winning the national championship in 2008.

Kansas finished the season 31-5.

Gonzaga passes the title of best program without a Final Four to Xavier in win

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In 1999, Gonzaga was not yet “Gonzaga”.

A No. 10 seed in just their third NCAA tournament, the Zags won three games against high-major competition, coming within a possession of reaching the Final Four in a loss to No. 1 seed UConn.

UConn, at that point, was one of the best programs in the country under Jim Calhoun, but the knock on the Huskies at that point was that they couldn’t win the big one. They had been to three Elite 8s and three more Sweet 16s in the previous eight seasons, but it wasn’t until they knocked off that Gonzaga team that they finally were playing on college basketball’s biggest stage.

For 18 years, Gonzaga tried and failed to get to a Final Four, becoming one of the nation’s premier basketball programs without having the postseason success to legitimize themselves in the eyes of idiots around the country. That ended on Saturday night in San Jose, as No. 1 seed Gonzaga ended No. 11 Xavier’s thrilling run to the Elite 8 and passing on the torch that UConn passed to them.

Xavier can now claim the title of the best basketball program that has yet to make a Final Four, which is both a compliment and a curse.

The Musketeers have been to the NCAA tournament 25 times since the bracket expanded to 64 teams in 1985. They’ve been to nine Sweet 16s and three Elite 8s. They had a winning record in NCAA tournament play until Saturday’s loss and now lay claim to the title of the team with the most NCAA tournament wins without an appearance in the Final Four.

Xavier is going to get there eventually. Chris Mack is one of the best coaches in the business. Hell, if Trevon Bluiett and Edmond Sumner both return to school, it could very well be next season that they snap that streak. It’s coming at some point.

I don’t even think it’s an insult to say this about Xavier. I don’t think it’s a shot at the program or the coaches that have come through it. Getting to the Final Four is hard. Bill Self is a lead-pipe lock to be a Hall of Famer, and he’s been to just two Final Fours in his career. He’s 2-7 in the Elite 8, and if Derrick Rose could make his free throws, the discussion of just how good of a coach Self is if he can’t win a title would be raging with the Jayhawks flaming out of the tournament on Saturday night.

But as with Gonzaga and UConn before them, Xavier is going to have that monkey on their back every time they suit up in March.