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ACC Conference Catchup: Will a loaded league live up to powerhouse reputation?

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The ACC’s 2013-2014 season did not quite go as expected.

In a year where the league was bringing in the likes of Syracuse, Notre Dame and Pitt in order to help bolster their basketball product, the conference as a whole was as down as it has been in quite some time. The Orange won a lot of close games to start the season but in the final month lost the ability to score. Duke had as much talent as anyone in the country, but their lack of a big man and inability to defend resulted in getting picked off by Mercer in the opening round of the tournament.

North Carolina was an interesting story. They beat the preseason’s top four teams during the year, but they also lost to the likes of Belmont and UAB before finally getting themselves to play with the kind of consistency they needed to. And Virginia, who won a dual-ACC title, did so while playing a very weak ACC schedule and bowing out in the Sweet 16.

RELATEDRead through all of our Conference Catchups here

For all the discussion about the new ACC, the ‘Hoos ended up being the only team from the league to make it out of the first weekend.

Next season, however, should be better as there are four ACC teams that have the pieces to be considered a favorite to put together a run to the Final Four.

THREE UP

North Carolina: The Tar Heels bounced back from a couple of rocky winter months to put together an impressive finish to the season and make it to within one DeAndre Kane basket of the Sweet 16. And they should be better next season. Marcus Paige will have a chance to be an all-american, UNC’s youthful front court should be one offseason’s of work better and freshman Justin Jackson should provide the kind of scoring pop from the wing that the Heels were without this past season.

Virginia: It feels weird saying this given the fact that the ‘Hoos won the ACC regular season and tournament titles last season and that they won’t enter next season as the favorite. That said, my point is that last year was not a fluke. Tony Bennett will once again field a top 10 team in 2014-2015, headlined by the ever-underrated Malcolm Brogdon, London Perrantes and Anthony Gill, who should be in line for a breakout season.

Terry Rozier: There’s a lot to like about this Louisville team heading into next season, but their x-factor may end up being the sophomore Rozier. Rozier was a bit limited in his minutes and shot attempts playing behind Russ Smith and Chris Jones a season ago, but people around the program believe — and believed last season — that Rozier might actually be the best NBA prospect on the roster. With Smith gone, expect Rozier to have a big year.

THREE DOWN

Syracuse: The Orange had a disappointing end to the 2013-2014 season, as they bowed out of the NCAA tournament in the first weekend after sliding to a No. 3 seed despite being one of the last team’s in the country to remain undefeated. Next year will be tough as well. The Orange lose Tyler Ennis, C.J. Fair and Jerami Grant and will once again be forced to head into the season relying on one point guard, with freshman Kaleb Joseph running the show this year.

Pittsburgh, N.C. State and Clemson: Departures hurt these three teams badly. The Panthers stumbled once they hit ACC play and they couldn’t hide behind a week non-conference schedule anymore. Next season, they’ll be playing without Lamar Patterson and Talib Zanna, who both graduated. There is some decent young talent on the roster, but the Panthers will have a lot of production to make up in a conference that could have four top 15 teams.

T.J. Warren was named ACC Player of the Year last season, largely because he routinely put on scoring displays that left everyone watching in awe. After coming within a couple of free throws of the Sweet 16, Warren then entered the NBA Draft, as he’s likely going to be a first round pick. The Wolfpack are going to have their work cut out for them to try and get into the tournament next season.

Clemson didn’t make the NCAA tournament, but they still lost K.J. McDaniels, their best player by far, to the NBA Draft.

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Quinn Cook: Cook is going to find himself in a difficult situation next season. He’s been a good, productive point guard in his tie with the Blue Devils, but with Tyus Jones entering the program next season, he may find himself in a situation where the freshman is better — or, at the least, most consistent — than the veteran. Duke had this same conundrum a few years ago when Nolan Smith overtook Greg Paulus in the starting lineup midseason.

NEW FACES

Louisville: The final change in the ACC’s membership stemming from the most recent round of conference will happen next season, as Louisville will replace ACC stalwart Maryland, who is headed to Big Ten country. The Cardinals were one of the big winners during the NBA Draft early entry process as Montrezl Harrell decided that he would be returning to school for his junior year. If Chris Jones, Terry Rozier and Wayne Blackshear have the kind of season we expect them to have, Louisville will be an ACC title contender.

Jahlil Okafor and Tyus Jones: Duke is always bringing in loaded recruiting classes. It’s what Duke does. But this group is as good as any that Coach K has landed. Okafor is the best player in the class, a throwback, low-post presence that will be one of the best true centers in the country next season. Jones may not have the NBA upside of some of the other point guards around the country, but he’s a full-blooded leader and a true point guard that will excel in the pick-and-roll. Oh, and two other Duke recruits, Justise Winslow and Grayson Allen, are also McDonald’s all-americans.

Buzz Williams: The most shocking move of college basketball’s coaching carousel was the decision of Buzz Williams to uproot himself from Marquette and make the move to Blacksburg, Va., where he will be coaching Virginia Tech next season. It is going to be rough sledding for Buzz early on, but he already has landed a number of talented players, including Maryland’s seconnd-leading scorer last season, Seth Allen.

Angel Rodriguez and Sheldon McClellan: Given that the Hurricanes lost six of their top seven from the team that made the 2013 Sweet 16, Jim Larranaga actually did a pretty impressive job with Miami last season. This year, he’ll add Kansas State transfer Angel Rodriguez and Texas transfer Sheldon McClellan, both of whom are all-league caliber players, in addition to redshirt freshman Deandre Burnett. Miami is a sleeper tournament team with those three in the fold.

Danny Manning: After a tumultuous tenure in Winston-Salem, Wake Forest finally made the decision to move on from head coach Jeff Bzdelik. In his stead, they hired Danny Manning from Tulsa.

POWER RANKINGS

1. Duke
2. Virginia
3. North Carolina
4. Louisville
5. Syracuse
6. Florida State
7. Notre Dame
8. Miami
9. N.C. State
10. Pitt
11. Wake Forest
12. Clemson
13. Georgia Tech
14. Virginia Tech
15. Boston College

Villanova beats Duke, Kansas, Indiana for Jermaine Samuels

Atlanta, GA - MAY 27: Nike EYBL. Session 4. Jermaine Samuels, Jr. #23 of Expressions Elite dunks. (Photo by Jon Lopez)
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Villanova landed a commitment from top 50 prospect Jermaine Samuels on Saturday.

Samuels is a tough and athletic 6-foot-5 wing that will remind many Wildcat fans of Josh Hart. He’s got the same kind of versatility and nose for the ball that will let him guard perimeter players as well as work in as a small-ball four. Players like this are a specialty of Jay Wright.

Samuels picked up an offer from Duke recently and also had Indiana, Kansas and Georgetown in his top five. Beating out blue-bloods for a prospect like this is quite the statement for Villanova, one that should tell you the reigning national champs are here to stay as a national power.

Syracuse lands critical piece in Andrew White

LINCOLN, NE - FEBRUARY 3: Andrew White #3 of the Nebraska Cornhuskers shoots the ball over Rasheed Sulaimon #0 of the Maryland Terrapins during their game at Pinnacle Bank Arena on February 3, 2016 in Omaha, Nebraska. (Photo by Eric Francis/Getty Images)
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Syracuse has found their replacement for Malachi Richardson.

On Sunday, Nebraska transfer Andrew White committed to the Orange, picking Syracuse, in the end, over VCU. White is a graduate transfer who spent last season with Nebraska, where he averaged 16.2 points while shooting 41.2 percent from three. A top 50 prospect out of Virginia back in the Class of 2012, White played a limited role for Kansas his first two seasons in college.

This is a significant pickup for the Orange, one that legitimately puts them into the conversation as a Final Four contender and a threat to finish at or near the top of the ACC. Jim Boeheim has put together a roster full of talented, long and athletic front court players, but after Richardson declared for the NBA Draft as a one-and-done freshman, he was left with just two back court players on his roster.

Earlier this offseason, Cuse landed Colorado State grad transfer John Gillon, a 6-foot-1 combo-guard, to reinforce their back court. The addition of White gives them a lights-out shooter and a big-time scorer on the wing, something that would have been a major void on their roster.

With Paschal Chukwu getting eligible at the center spot and Tyler Lydon likely landing on every breakout player list this preseason, the Orange should be a markedly better team than the one that made their way to the Final Four last season.

Arizona lands first commitment in 2017 class

Alex Barcello (Jon Lopez/Nike)
(Jon Lopez/Nike)
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Arizona landed their first commitment in the Class of 2017 on Friday night as point guard Alex Barcello pledged to Sean Miller and the Wildcats.

Barcello is a 6-foot-2 point guard from Tempe who plays his high school ball for Corona del Sol. He committed to the Wildcats on an official visit to the Tucson campus.

Barcello is a borderline top 100 prospect who sits at No. 123 in the Rivals top 150. He’s known for his ability to shoot, and he’s more of a combo-guard — i.e. shoot-first — than a point guard at times, but he’s a nice pickup and projects as a solid four-year player for the Wildcats.

Virginia, Indiana, Stanford and Butler were the other four schools on Barcello’s list.

Duke lands first commitment in 2017 class

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Alex O’Connell knew exactly where he wanted to play his college ball, which is why, just two days after picking up an offer from Coach K and the Blue Devils, he became Duke’s first recruit in the Class of 2017.

O’Connell announced the on twitter on Friday afternoon:

O’Connell is a four-star prospect from Georgia that had a terrific summer, going from being a borderline top 75 prospect to a player that caught the interest of Duke, who, along with Kentucky, sit atop the college recruiting hierarchy. He’s an explosively athletic and lanky 6-foot-6 wing with three-point range on his jumper. He needs to add some weight and some strength — he’s listed as a crisp 175 pounds — but he has the tools, and the swagger, to develop into a very effective player in the ACC.

Is he a one-and-done prospect?

Probably not. In fact, since 2010, Duke has landed just two players that were rated lower than O’Connell: Antonio Vrankovic and Jack White. If you know who both of them are, you’re probably either Jon Scheyer or lying.

But what O’Connell is is a kid who put in the work to get better this past year and who has the skill set, the physical tools and work ethic to continue to improve. He may not be on Grayson Allen’s trajectory, but O’Connell has the makings of being an impact player for the Blue Devils for three or four years.

Alex O'Connell (Jon Lopez/Nike)
Alex O’Connell (Jon Lopez/Nike)

Shaka Smart lands contract extension at Texas

Texas head coach Shaka Smart instructs his team in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Baylor on Monday, Feb. 1, 2016, in Waco, Texas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
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Shaka Smart has already landed himself a contract extension at Texas.

The school, according to the Austin American-Statesman, has given Shaka a one-year extension — through the 2022-23 season — and bumped his salary up to a cool $3 million, a raise of $100,000 annually.

Smart’s Longhorns went 20-13 last season and lost on a half court buzzer beater from Northern Iowa’s Paul Jespersen. It will be tough for Smart to match the success that he had last season, specifically because he lost senior point guard Isaiah Taylor to the professional ranks.

That said, the former VCU head man has been reeling in quite a bit of talent from the state of Texas — namely, Andrew Jones and Jarrett Allen — and is not all that far from turning the Longhorns back into a relevant member of the Big 12 title race.