CBT Weekly Roundtable: Figuring out the ACC

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In a new series here on College Basketball Talk, every Friday we’re going to have a discussion about some of the hot topics in college basketball. The inaugural installment focuses on the ACC, the now 15-team conference that some stated was the greatest conference ever assembled before a game had been played. Now that we’ve seen the teams in action, who’s the favorite to win the regular season crown? And who else can make a run at challenging for the title? 

Rob Dauster: The ACC, especially the teams at the top, started out the season in fairly ugly fashion, with Duke losing to Kansas, UNC losing to Belmont and Virginia losing at home to VCU. But over the last couple weeks, Duke bounced back with a win over Michigan, Syracuse won the Maui and UNC has proven they’re going to be Team Schizophrenia this year.

Who’s your pick for winning the league? Right now, I’m still riding with Duke, especially if Marshall Plumlee can find a way to be as effective over 15-20 minutes as he was on Tuesday in six minutes. I think Syracuse is right there with the Blue Devils as well, and I’d probably slot North Carolina 4th and Notre Dame, UVA and Florida State from 5-to-7 in some order. Here’s the sleeper though: Pitt. They’re the third best team best team in the league, period.

Raphielle Johnson: I like Duke, especially with Rodney Hood and Jabari Parker on the wings and an improved point guard in Quinn Cook running the show. But who are they going to defend? The Blue Devils have put forth better efforts in their last three games, and they won’t be as bad as they were against either ECU or Vermont as the season wears on. That being said, those who are thinking that a player who isn’t even averaging ten minutes per game could potentially be the “rim protector” the Blue Devils need may not be thinking clearly.

Enter Syracuse, who has no such issues on the defensive end of the floor. Their 2-3 zone has length on the wings, and what starting guards Tyler Ennis and Trevor Cooney lack in that department they’ve made up for with sheer activity. And offensively this is a group that will only get better, especially as Cooney improves after struggling last season. C.J. Fair and Jerami Grant are two high-level forwards, and I don’t think we’ve seen the best out of Michael Gbinije either. This should definitely be a fun race to watch, but I’m taking Syracuse to win it with Duke, Pittsburgh, Notre Dame, Virginia and North Carolina next in line.

RD: I don’t think Duke necessarily needs a rim protector to be good enough to win the ACC, especially if they are going to defend on the perimeter the way they did against Arizona and Michigan. The Blue Devils game-plan well to take away what their opponents want to do and have a long track of success executing those game plans. That’s not to discredit Syracuse, because I think they’re awesome this year, but writing Duke off is just dumb, especially if Marshall Plumlee can find a way to build on the game he just played.

Seriously, though, Pitt! I’m telling you, this team is legit. Outside of Casey Prather and Xavier Thames, I can’t think of another senior that is having a more pleasantly surprising season that Lamar Patterson. Frankly, if the season ended today, he’d be an all-american. He’s been that good.

RJ: Point taken regarding Duke, and I’m with you on Pittsburgh. Outside of the one hiccup in which they landed in the CBI (and ended up winning it), the Panthers have been a consistent factor under Jamie Dixon. I don’t think that changes in the ACC, with Patterson and Talib Zanna leading the way in the front court. But here’s another name for you: Cameron Wright. He may not be the most improved player in the ACC (Maryland’s Jake Layman and Syracuse’s Jerami Grant), but Wright’s name will come up in those discussions as the season wears on. He’s given Pitt the perimeter scorer they needed with Tray Woodall graduating, and that also relieves a little of the weight on James Robinson’s shoulders.

But here’s something else I want to touch on. Prior to the season Boston College and Georgia Tech were two teams expected to show signs of improvement this season, but it can be argued that their W/L records won’t be the greatest indicator based on the strength of the ACC. Now that we’ve played some games, it’s become evident that the Eagles would have trouble guarding stationary objects. Can they turn things around before the start of league play? I like the offensive pieces, but I’m not sure they can based upon how they defend.

RD: I’ve given up on BC. Eight games into the season. Awesome.

Olivier Hanlon and Ryan Anderson are still two of the best players in the ACC, but there just isn’t the kind of toughness up and down that roster that will allow them to compete in a league as strong as the ACC.

And while we’re here … look, you shouldn’t have listened to anyone who told you that this year’s ACC was going to be the best conference of all time. If you did, that’s your fault. Maybe one year, when Syracuse, Duke, Louisville and North Carolina all are having a top ten-caliber season, we can revisit this conversation. Until then, no.

But that doesn’t mean the ACC isn’t good this year. I mean, this is still the ACC. Florida State beat the brakes off VCU. North Carolina, a team that I think will struggle to finish in the top four of the conference, has beaten Louisville on a neutral court and won at Michigan State. This is still a tough league.

RJ: I agree with your point on the “best of all time” talk. I know people were excited about the programs the ACC was adding, but that’s crazy talk based upon the fact that the league had yet to play a season in its new form. And while I get your point about the high-level programs needing to have top-ten caliber seasons, I’m not sure they’re the ones who will ultimately determine how great this league is. I know March and national polls are what most people use to determine strength in college basketball but hear me out. We know (mostly) what we’re going to get from a Duke, Syracuse, North Carolina or Louisville, and programs such as Notre Dame and Pittsburgh are solid as well. But if this league is to be the “best ever” it’ll take the improvement of the programs in the middle and lower portions of the league pecking order.

Yes they’re going to take losses in conference play, but the number of “bad” losses outside of the ACC can’t be what they’ve been in recent years. For example Georgia Tech, with the amount of talent in the Atlanta area, needs to take steps in the right direction and Wake Forest needs to do enough to get its fans to stop buying billboard space calling for the jobs of their head coach and AD. That all takes time, and that’s why there shouldn’t have been so much chatter about this being the best league ever during the preseason. But is also means that the folks who immediately jumped to bury the league last month need to exercise restraint as well. Let’s allow it all to play out, and it’ll definitely be fun to watch.

RD: Agreed.

And when North Carolina ends up winning the ACC title over Notre Dame and Virginia, we’ll just pretend this conversation never happened.

Syracuse’s Tyus Battle to test NBA draft waters

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Syracuse announced on Friday afternoon that sophomore guard Tyus Battle will be declaring for the NBA draft without signing with an agent, giving him until the NCAA’s May 30th deadline to withdraw from contention and return to school.

Battle averaged 19.2 points as a sophomore for the Orange, who made a surprising run to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament.

He is a projected late-first round or early-second round pick given his size, shooting ability and skill with the ball in his hands.

Losing Battle would be a massive blow to a Syracuse team that is already going to be without Matthew Moyer, who transferred out of the program, and Dareus Bazley, who is heading to the G League instead of enrolling in college.

Maryland’s Kevin Huerter declares for NBA draft, won’t hire agent

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Maryland wing Kevin Huerter announced on Friday afternoon that he will be declaring for the NBA draft without hiring an agent, giving him the option of returning to school by May 30th.

“This will be a great experience for Kevin to get honest feedback from NBA teams and executives,” said head coach Mark Turgeon. “Taking advantage of this opportunity will allow Kevin and his family to make an informed decision about his future.”

Huerter is a 6-foot-7 wing known for his ability to shoot from the perimeter. He averaged 14.8 points and shot 42 percent from three as a sophomore.

He is also the third player from Maryland to declare for the 2018 NBA Draft. Justin Jackson, a borderline first round pick who missed time last season with a shoulder injury, has signed with an agent while Bruno Fernando is testing the waters. Maryland, who has an excellent recruiting class coming in, will be a preseason top 20 team if Huerter and Fernando both return to school.

Huerter is a borderline first round pick.

Michigan’s Charles Matthews to test NBA draft waters

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Michigan guard Charles Matthews announced on Friday that he will be declaring for the NBA draft, but that he does not intend to sign with an agent, meaning he has until May 30th to withdraw from the draft and return to school.

“After careful consideration with my parents and coaching staff, I am excited to announce that I will be declaring for the 2018 NBA Draft without hiring an agent,” said Matthews. “I give thanks to the Lord for this amazing opportunity, as well as the entire University of Michigan for their support. Go Blue!”

Matthews, a redshirt sophomore that averaged 13.0 points and 5.5 boards for the national runners-up, was a four-star prospect coming out of Chicago and spent his freshman season at Kentucky.

Matthews is a likely second round pick with the potential to climb into the first round should he prove to be a more consistent three-point shooter. He shot just 31.8 percent from beyond the arc this past season.

Virginia’s Hunter to return to school for sophomore season

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De’Andre Hunter announced on Friday afternoon that he will not be entering his name into the NBA draft and will return to Virginia for his redshirt sophomore season, a decision that will have as much of an impact on the 2018-19 college basketball season as any that is made this spring.

Hunter, now a potential top ten pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, was one of the breakout stars of the 2017-18 season. A 6-foot-7 combo-forward with a 7-foot-1 wingspan, Hunter averaged 9.2 points and 3.5 boards while shooting 38.2 percent from three in just under 20 minutes a night for a Virginia team whose pace severely limits the kind of numbers a player like him can put up.

Throw in his ability to defend on the perimeter and in the paint, and Hunter is precisely the kind of player that NBA teams are looking to land as basketball becomes more and more built on positional versatility and the ability to space the floor.

And it’s that versatility that will make Hunter so important for the Cavaliers next season.

Let’s go beyond the simple fact that he is going to be the only guy on the Virginia roster that can create his own shot against length and athleticism and that there is a chance that he could end up being an all-american next season if things play out the right way. What makes Hunter so important to Virginia his that his defensive versatility is what allows Virginia to matchup with teams that want to try and play small-ball against them.

That’s precisely what UMBC did in the first round of the NCAA tournament, a game that Hunter missed with a broken wrist. We all know how that played out, and I’m not even dumb enough to pin all the blame of a 20-point loss to a No. 16 seed on a guy that played less than 20 minutes a night.

Virginia choked once they realized that there was a chance this could happen, but I would argue that a major reason they couldn’t ever truly assert their dominance was because they were unable to matchup with UMBC’s four-guard lineup without Hunter.

With Hunter back, Virginia is the No. 6 team in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25. If he had declared for the draft and signed with an agent, I’m not sure I would have had the Wahoos in the top 20.

He takes Tony Bennett’s club from simply being good to once against being a contender for the ACC regular season title.

Vanderbilt the sixth Kentucky player declares for the NBA draft

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Jarred Vanderbilt is now the sixth Kentucky Wildcat to declare for the NBA draft this spring, joining P.J. Washington and Wenyen Gabriel in testing the waters without signing with an agent.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Kevin Knox and Hamidou Diallo have all declared for the draft and signed with an agent.

Vanderbilt announced his decision on Friday afternoon.

“This season wasn’t easy for me,” Vanderbilt said. “At the end of the day, my goal has always been to make it to the NBA.”

“I know I have more to my game to show, but now I’ve got to figure out if the time is right for me to do it at the next level or if I would be better to return to school.”

Vanderbilt missed the first 17 games of his freshman season with a left foot injury, a foot that he had injured twice before during his high school career. He then missed all four of Kentucky’s postseason games with a left ankle injury, and there is a chance that he could end up needing surgery to correct this issue this offseason.

All told, the 6-foot-9 Vanderbilt played in 14 games as a freshman, averaging 5.9 points and 7.9 boards in just 17 minutes a night. But issues with his ability to shoot from the perimeter and a lower left leg that has proven to be extremely problematic, there is a good chance that Vanderbilt would go undrafted should he decide to turn pro.