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.

It took four years, but Sindarius Thornwell has finally put South Carolina on the basketball map

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NEW YORK — If the NCAA tournament ended today, South Carolina guard Sindarius Thornwell would be named the event’s Most Outstanding Player.

Through two games, he’s averaging 27.5 points and 3.5 assists while shooting 48.5 percent from the floor and 6-for-12 from three. He’s been the catalyst of an offensive explosion fro the Gamecocks that no one — not Thornwell, not Frank Martin, not anyone — could have seen coming.

South Carolina, a team that ranked in the 130s in offensive efficiency nationally and in the 300s in effective field goal percentage prior to the start of the NCAA tournament, put up 93 points on Marquette and 88 points on Duke. They scored more second half points in their upset win over the Blue Devils — 65! — than they did in ten games this season, five of which they won.

So it may not come as a surprise to you that No. 7 seed South Carolina’s opponent in the East Regional semifinals, No. 3 seed Baylor, have zeroed in on Thornwell as the man they need to slow down on Friday night.

“Coach has broke down every made shot that he’s had and we have all watched at least about three hours of film on just Sindarius,” Baylor senior Ishmael Wainwright said. “He’s just a great player. The whole team, it’s not just me, it’s not just me, but the whole team, we’ll be trying to stop him.”

It’s fitting that Thornwell is the cornerstone of South Carolina’s arrival on the national scene, as the Lancaster native was the most important commitment of Frank Martin’s tenure with the Gamecocks. A blue-chip prospect that ranked in the top 40 of every recruiting service, Thornwell was an in-state kid that was recruited by the likes of Louisville, Indiana and Syracuse. South Carolina, at the time that Thornwell committed, had a new head coach that took over a program that hadn’t been to the NCAA tournament in eight years and had the prestige of making four trips to the Big Dance in the previous 38 seasons.

More to the point, it wasn’t clear whether that new head coach, Frank Martin, was there because he wanted to be there or because he simply didn’t want to be at Kansas State anymore, a program where his relationship with his Athletic Director had deteriorated.

Thornwell, who at that point had left Lancaster High School for the more prestigious Oak Hill Academy, had every reason in the world not to go to South Carolina.

But he did.

He wanted to play for his state, for his family. He is loyal, and that loyalty almost kept him from leaving Lancaster for Oak Hill in the first place.

“They had to force him to go, because he did not want to leave his state, did not want to leave his high school team, did not want to leave his high school coach, did not want to leave his family,” Martin said. “His uncle, ‘Big Country’, Dajuan Thornwell, may he rest in peace, who was his father figure basically put him in a car and drove him and said, ‘You’re going to school here. This is for your own good.'”

“And it’s who he has become. The day I got the phone call from him telling me, ‘I want to do this with you,’ when he could have gone to some of the blue bloods. He wanted to help us build. He wanted to surround his heart with the state name that means so much to him and his family’s name on the back of his jersey. And that’s powerful.”

(Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Thornwell was the SEC Player of the Year in 2017. He was in the mix for a spot on the NBC Sports All-American teams before South Carolina’s late-season swoon. He’s had a sensational senior season individually, but more importantly, he got South Carolina back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2004. He led them to the Sweet 16 for the first time since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985. South Carolina had never won back-to-back in the NCAA Tournament before.

As in ever.

Thornwell did that for his state, and he wasn’t alone. Fellow senior Justin McKie and sophomore P.J. Dozier are both from Columbia, and the Gamecocks have quite a bit of young talent on their roster, as well as a five-man recruiting class headlined by four-star prospect David Beatty and former Delaware guard Kory Holden, who sat out this past season as a transfer.

The South Carolina program is as healthy as it’s been in decades, and Thornwell has as much to do with that fact as anyone.

“I have been born and raised in South Carolina,” Thornwell said, saying that all of the South Carolina natives play “for the same reasons, for our family, for our state. We all grew up in South Carolina. We all have been through the struggles and with the program.”

“For us all to be in the spotlight is just tremendous because we don’t feel like we get the recognition that we deserve.”

The Gamecocks certainly got plenty of recognition last weekend, becoing the focal point of the nation’s glare as they played a the biggest role in putting an end to the soap opera that was Duke’s season.

And Thornwell is going to find himself getting plenty of recognition on Friday night, as the Bears will focus plenty of their attention on slowing down the Gamecock star.

After all, three hours of film on one player is a lot of film.

“They exaggerate so much,” Baylor head coach Scott Drew said. “It was only two and a half.”

Rice promotes Scott Pera to head coach

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Rice didn’t have to look far for its new head coach.

The university announced on Thursday afternoon that associate coach Scott Pera will take over the program. He replaces Mike Rhoades who returned to VCU to fill its vacancy on Tuesday.

Pera had been with the program for three seasons following stints at Penn and Arizona State. Based on the reaction from the players, they approve of the hire.

Pera was also the high school coach of James Harden.

The Owls, coming off a 23-12 season, are expected to bring back three double-digit scorers for next season: Marcus Evans, Egor Koulechov and Marcus Jackson.

Report: NCAA affirms its Louisville allegations

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The NCAA continues to hold the position that Louisville coach Rick Pitino failed to properly monitor the program amid the scandal surrounding a former staffer and illicit parties, according to documents obtained by ESPN.

Louisville received the notice of allegations from the NCAA in January, and In its response, Louisville did not deny the NCAA’s findings, but argued that Pitino should not have been seen as failing to monitor Andre McGee, who is alleged to have organized the gatherings at Minardi Hall on the Louisville campus.

McGee is alleged to have paid for women to dance for and perform sex acts on Cardinals recruits.

The NCAA stated that Pitino “did not uphold his duties as head coach and in doing so, failed to discover” McGee’s actions and that if he “saw no red flags in connection with McGee’s interactions with then prospective student-athletes, it was because he was not looking for them,” according to ESPN’s report.

The original allegations were made by Katina Powell in a book that was published in 2015.

Louisville self-imposed a 2016 postseason ban and scholarship reductions as part of the scandal, but was looking to avoid further punishment on Pitino, who could be subject to suspension.

 

Report: Pat Kelsey will not take the UMass job

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Moments before Pat Kelsey was set to be formally introduced as the new head coach at the University of Massachusetts, the school canceled the press conference citing, “unforeseen circumstances.”

According to Jeff Goodman of ESPN, the former Winthrop coach has decided not to accept the job after all. Kelsey, 41, had agreed to terms with UMass on Tuesday. Pete Thamel of Sports Illustrated reports that Kelsey is heading back to Winthrop.

In five seasons at Winthrop, Kelsey compiled a 102–59 (56–30 Big South) record, leading the Eagles to the 2017 NCAA Tournament.

Kelsey was expected to replace Derek Kellogg, who was relieved of his duties after nine years at his alma mater. Kelsey was a smart hire. He had ties to the Atlantic 10, both as a player and an assistant coach at Xavier. His freshman recruiting class included a player out of the NEPSAC, showing that Kelsey was also familiar with the New England prep school recruiting landscape.

This has gone from a hire that was seen as a good one by many, to a nightmare scenario for UMass athletic director Ryan Bamford, who was making his first major decision in Amherst.

Other names linked to the vacancy were Vermont’s John Becker, Miami associate head coach Chris Caputo and Boston Celtics assistant coach, and former Butler and Purdue assistant, Micah Shrewsberry.

Virginia’s Thompson to transfer

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Virginia lost another member of its team Thursday.

The Cavaliers announced Darius Thompson will transfer out of the program, a day after the news of Marial Shayok and Jarred Reuter’s departures.

“Darius Thompson informed me he has decided to play his final season at another school following his graduation from Virginia,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said in a statement released by the school. “Although you never want to see young men transfer, I understand this is part of coaching. Darius, Marial, and Jarred feel it’s in their best interests to pursue other options for the remainder of their college careers.

“I will always appreciate the contributions they made to our program.”

Thompson, who would be immediately eligible as a graduate transfer, began his career at Tennessee before transferring to Charlottesville, where he averaged 5.2 points and 1.8 assists over two seasons. The 6-foot-4 guard shot 44.8 percent from the field and 35.1 percent from 3-point range last season.

Despite the three defections, Virginia returns a number of pieces that contributed to their 23-11 season.

As we look forward, we have a strong nucleus of players returning,” Bennett said, “and I’m excited for their continued development. As a staff, we are focused on finding student-athletes who want to be a part of this program and all the University of Virginia has to offer.”