2014 ACC Tournament Preview: Will a newcomer crash the party in Greensboro?

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This has been a season of change for the Atlantic Coast Conference, with the addition of Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and Syracuse meaning that this year’s conference tournament will last five days. With that change teams seeded from 10 to 15 will begin play on Wednesday, now needing to win five games in as many days to earn the ACC title. And even though the regular season did yield an outright winner, with Virginia sitting atop the standings for the first time since 1981, there are multiple teams capable of winning the tournament beginning with those Cavaliers.

RELATEDRead through NBCSports.com’s latest Bracketology

Tony Bennett’s team has taken advantage of an efficient, balanced offense led by guards Malcolm Brogdon and Joe Harris, and their pack-line defense has frustrated many opponents over the course of the season. Among their 16 conference wins was an impressive beating of Syracuse on March 1, but the Orange will arrive in Greensboro healthier than they were on that afternoon as Jerami Grant is back to full strength.

Duke and North Carolina earned the other double-byes, and with Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood leading the way the Blue Devils should be considered one of the favorites to win the tournament. And in Marcus Paige the Tar Heels have a capable leader, but he’ll need consistent help from the big men. Even teams outside of the top four are capable of making a run, and this is an important weekend for Clemson and Florida State with regards to the NCAA tournament. Add in the fact that this is charter member Maryland’s final ACC tournament, and there will be no shortage of storylines in Greensboro.

MORE: Browse through all of our conference tournament previews

The Bracket

When: March 12-16

Where: Greensboro, N.C. (Greensboro, N.C.)

Final: March 16, 1:00 p.m. (ESPN)

Favorite: Syracuse

The Orange certainly had their issues offensively during the latter stages of ACC play, shooting lower than 40% from the field in five of the six games played before their their regular season finale at Florida State. Jim Boeheim’s team shot 48% in that win over the Seminoles, and one reason why was the presence of a healthy Jerami Grant. Tyler Ennis and C.J. Fair lead the way and have been very good, but the Orange need Grant as their third contributor. With Grant healthy some of the pressure is taken off of Trevor Cooney, but it should be noted that Syracuse still needs him to get going.

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Syracuse’s defense is why they were able to hang around in most of those games, and it’s been a strength all season long. Opponents are shooting 40.8% from the field against the Orange in ACC play, and they’re also second in the conference in defensive efficiency. The defense has largely been there for Syracuse, and the combination of that and an offense bolstered by the return of Grant may be enough to push the Orange to the ACC crown.

And if they lose?: Duke

The Blue Devils have been the ACC’s best offensive team from an efficiency standpoint, and in Hood and Parker they’ve got two talented options leading the way. And their solid backcourt does a good job of playing off of the two stars, which also helps make Duke a tough team to defend. Something to watch this week is the play of Quinn Cook, who struggled in the three games prior to his 11-point, six-assist night against North Carolina. He needs to be consistent when on the floor running the show for Mike Krzyzewski. Defense remains a concern, but Duke ranked fourth in the ACC in forced turnover percentage.

Other Contenders:

  • Virginia: Clearly the Cavaliers are contenders, with their balanced offense (led by guards Malcolm Brogdon, Joe Harris and London Perrantes) and stingy defense being two reasons why. But they’re going to need consistent play from Akil Mitchell and Mike Tobey inside, with both coming off of subpar performances in a regular season-ending loss to Maryland.
  • North Carolina: Marcus Paige has been outstanding all season long for the Tar Heels, who have also benefitted from an improved J.P. Tokoto. But if they’re to make a run at winning this event, James Michael McAdoo and the rest of the front court needs to be consistent in the rebounding department.

Sleeper: Pittsburgh

Even with the rough stretch he experienced in the middle of conference play, senior wing Lamar Patterson was still a second team All-ACC selection. He averaged 17.6 points and 4.5 assists per game for the Panthers, who boasted the ACC’s third-most efficient offense in conference play. With Patterson and classmate Talib Zanna leading the way, Pitt has the potential to make a run provided the underclassmen (James Robinson especially) are heard from.

Deeper Sleeper: N.C. State

There’s one reason why the Wolfpack are the pick here: T.J. Warren. This is a group that has struggled with consistency in conference play, but Warren has been the notable exception. Having scored at least 40 points in each of his last two games, Warren’s got the talent and scoring ability to get hot and carry Mark Gottfried’s team on his back for four straight days.

Studs you haven’t heard about:

  • K.J. McDaniels, Clemson: McDaniels was a first team All-ACC selection and rightfully so, but the national pub is lacking for this athletic wing who gets it done on both ends of the floor.
  • Aaron Thomas, Florida State: One of the most improved players in the ACC, Thomas averaged 14.5 points and 4.1 rebounds per game for a team looking to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.
  • Daniel Miller, Georgia Tech: A third team All-ACC selection, Miller blocked a league-best 2.8 shots per game for the Yellow Jackets.
  • Olivier Hanlan, Boston College: Hanlan (18.6 ppg) was a bright spot in an otherwise dismal season for the Eagles, and he dropped 41 on Georgia Tech in last year’s ACC tournament.

CBT Prediction: With Grant back and healthy, look for Syracuse to withstand challenges from Duke and Virginia to win the ACC in its Greensboro debut.

Best ACC Tournament Memory:

4-star center commits to Purdue

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With Vince Edwards and Isaac Haas entering their senior seasons, adding front court options in the 2018 class was something that Purdue needed to do. Purdue added its second front court commitment in the 2018 class Tuesday evening, as four-star center Emmanuel Dowuona reportedly made his pledge. News of Dowuona’s commitment was first reported by the Lafayette Journal & Courier.

Dowuona, a 6-foot-11 big man who attends Westwood Christian School in Miami, joins fellow four-star prospect Trevion Williams in Purdue’s 2018 class to date.

Dowuona’s commitment comes just days before he was reportedly to visit Tennessee. Among the other programs to have offered Duwuona were Clemson, Georgia Tech, Miami and UConn.

Dowuona played for the Team Breakdown program on the Under Armour Association circuit during the summer, averaging 7.9 points, 7.0 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game while shooting 59.3 percent from the field. While still a bit raw offensively, the native of Ghana provides value as a defender and rebounder. Dowuona is joining a program that during Painter’s tenure as head coach has done a good job of developing big men.

Dowuona and the aforementioned Williams will look to compete for playing time in 2018-19 alongside current redshirt junior Jacquil Taylor and 7-foot-3 redshirt freshman center Matt Haarms.

Dayton freshman Toppin ineligible for 2017-18 season

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Dayton announced Tuesday afternoon that one of the program’s incoming freshmen will not be eligible to compete this season. 6-foot-8 forward Obadiah Toppin has been ruled by the NCAA to have not met initial eligibility requirements, and he will have to sit out the 2017-18 season as a result.

Toppin will be allowed to remain a member of the team and participate in practices, and he will have four seasons of eligibility remaining beginning with the 2018-19 season. While the NCAA’s decision leaves the Flyers short a front court option in head coach Anthony Grant’s first season at the helm, it did not come as a surprise.

“We knew this was a possible scenario for Obi early on in the recruiting process,” Grant said in the release. “And if it came to pass, we saw this as a chance for him to utilize this year acclimate as a student and enhance his strength and skill as an academic redshirt. This is a great opportunity for Obi to develop as a player and student over the next 12 months, and prepare himself for a very successful college career.”

Toppin, who averaged 17 points and eight rebounds per game at Mt. Zion Academy last season, is one of five freshmen who have joined the program. Matej Svoboda and Jordan Pierce will look to earn minutes alongside returnees Josh Cunningham and Xeyrius Williams, and the same can be said for redshirt freshman Kostas Antetokounmpo.

Toppin being declared ineligible is the third hit Dayton has taken to its front court this offseason. Ryan Mikesell, who played in 32 games last season, will redshirt after undergoing two hip surgeries. And Sam Miller, who was also part of the team’s front court rotation last season, was suspended from school for the fall semester after he was arrested during the summer.

Four-star forward commits to Ohio State

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Ohio State is on the board with regards to the 2018 recruiting class, as Chris Holtmann’s program received a much-needed verbal commitment from four-star forward Jaedon LeDee. The 6-foot-9 Houston native announced his decision via his Twitter account Tuesday afternoon.

In receiving a verbal commitment from LeDee, Ohio State beat out California, Houston, Iowa State, LSU, Oklahoma, Texas A&M and UCLA. The Buckeyes hosted LeDee for his official visit the weekend of September 9, which coincided with the football team’s matchup with Oklahoma. Originally scheduled to visit Cal this past weekend, LeDee instead visited Texas A&M.

With LeDee’s commitment to Ohio State, visits to LSU (September 30) and UCLA (October 6) are likely off the board.

Currently attending the Kincaid School, LeDee played for the Texas PRO grassroots program on the adidas Uprising circuit this summer. The four-star prospect will likely be a combo forward for Ohio State, playing either the three or the four depending on the matchup.

With Jae’Sean Tate beginning his senior season and Keita Bates-Diop being a redshirt junior, Ohio State had a need to address in the front court. In landing a verbal pledge from Jaedon LeDee, the Buckeyes have done just that.

Among the front court players who will have eligibility remaining beyond the 2017-18 season are Bates-Diop, current sophomores Micah Potter and Andre Wesson, and freshmen Kaleb Wesson and Kyle Young.

The Pac-12 is foolish for scheduling Arizona-UCLA once during the regular season

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Last month, I wrote about one of the more troubling trends in college basketball: Teams steering away from playing the games that fans are going to care about the most.

It was the result of Georgetown head coach Patrick Ewing stating publicly that he was “not thinking about Maryland” after the rivalry between the DMV’s two most well-known programs went by the wayside.

Ewing isn’t the only coach that is culpable here. Kansas and Missouri don’t play. Kansas and Wichita State don’t play, either. Duke and Maryland don’t play. Ohio State doesn’t play Cincinnati, Xavier or Dayton. It goes on and on.

But the blame can no longer only be given to the coaches that schedule to protect themselves and/or their program.

The conferences deserve some criticism as well. Take, for instance, the Pac-12, who released their schedule recently after deciding that Arizona, a contender for the preseason No. 1 team in the country, should only play UCLA and USC, the only two teams that have a realistic chance of upending the Wildcats for the Pac-12 crown, once apiece.

Not only that, but the games will be played in Tucson, an incredible advantage for Sean Miller’s club as they pursue the league’s regular season title.

Look, I get it. There are 12 teams in the league and there is an 18-game schedule. Each team in the league is going to play four of their 11 league foes just once. It’s simple math. But the answer should never, ever be to schedule the Arizona schools and the Southern California schools just once.

The reasoning is simple: Arizona and UCLA are the two biggest brands in the league. When they play it will draw more interest than when any other two teams in the conference play, and that’s something the conference should be trying to capitalize on. It takes a lot to convince anyone on the east coast to stay up to watch a Pac-12 basketball game. I cover this sport for a living and I have a hard time making it all the way through a 10 p.m. ET tip. When a two-year old is going to be screaming at me to make breakfast at 6:30 a.m., do I really want to stay up to watch Arizona blow out Washington or UCLA to beat up on Cal?

The Pac-12 should do everything they can to ensure that Arizona and UCLA play twice every season.

That is even more true this year. Arizona might be the best team in the country and they might have the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft on their roster in Deandre Ayton. UCLA is a top 15 team that just so happens to have Liangelo Ball, the worst of the three Ball brothers and potentially the last one to matriculate through the college ranks. The seemingly inevitable LaVar Ball blow-up is something we all will be watching patiently to see.

Should I mention the simmering hatred between Sean Miller and Steve Alford as they continually compete for the best prospects on the west coast?

And that’s before you factor in that USC is the second-best team in the league, and anyone that UCLA plays twice, USC will also play twice.

I’ll be sure to watch a number of Oregon games this season, and I think that Stanford, Oregon State and Colorado all have the pieces to sneak up on some people this year. I’ll be sure to check in on them a couple times as well.

But the games that I’ll have circled on my calendar, the games I’ll be excited about watching, are between Arizona, UCLA and USC.

By scheduling the Arizona schools and the Southern California schools just once during the regular season, the Pac-12 cost themselves a third of that inventory.

That doesn’t seems like the smartest way to run a business conference.

But hey, if conference realignment and the development of conference-only networks taught us anything, it’s that major college athletics are all about competitive balance over those advertising dollars.

Vanderbilt lands commitment from Aaron Nesmith

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Vanderbilt landed their first commitment in the Class of 2018 with four-star wing Aaron Nesmith.

Nesmith is a native of South Carolina, and the Commodores beat out South Carolina for his services. At 6-foot-6, Nesmith is the kind of defensive presence and athlete that Vandy will need to replace Jeff Roberson, who will be graduating this season.

This is a critical class for Bryce Drew, who is squarely in the mix for five-star guards Darius Garland and Romeo Langford. Nesmith isn’t on that level, but he will be a nice piece for Vandy for four years.