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ACC Season Preview: Can anyone snatch the title from Duke’s hands?

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Beginning in September and running up through November 11th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2016-2017 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the ACC.

There will be no shortage of attention given to the ACC this season, and it’s not only because the consensus No. 1 team in the country and a total of four top ten teams reside here. In September, the state of North Carolina, where the ACC is headquartered, became a national talking point as the NCAA, and, subsequently, the ACC itself, decided to pull all of their postseason games out of the state for the 2016-17 calendar year.

That means that the Blue Devils and the Tar Heels will not be getting home games in the first weekend of the NCAA tournament this season, and that may be what it takes to get the controversial HB2 law overturned.

But we’ve talked enough about that law and the impact this decision will have on it already. So lets get to the hoops.

Virginia's London Perrantes (32) shoots against Iowa State's Monte Morris (11) during the first half of a college basketball game in the regional semifinals of the NCAA Tournament, Friday, March 25, 2016, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
Virginia’s London Perrantes (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THE ACC:

1. Duke is going to be awesome, but they are not without flaw: This will be the most talented team that Mike Krzyzewski has had in Durham since Jay Williams was on the roster. There could be three top ten picks on the roster (Harry Giles III, Jayson Tatum, Marques Bolden) and that doesn’t factor in the NBCSports.com Preseason National Player of the Year, Grayson Allen, or Amile Jefferson, a fifth-year senior that was averaging a double-double last season when he broke his foot.

They’re loaded. No one is denying that.

But the roster construction isn’t perfect. (Is it ever?) There’s no real point guard on the Blue Devils next season. Frank Jackson is more of a scorer that can handle the ball than a point guard, the proof being the amount of time Allen will have the ball in the lead guard role this year. Moreover, Duke’s four best perimeter players — Allen, Tatum, Jackson and Luke Kennard — are all at their best with the ball in their hands, creating shots for themselves. That’s not ideal.

No one in the world is better suited to finding a way to make all of this talent work together than Coach K is, and it will be fascinating to see how he decides to put this puzzle together.

2. Virginia loses Brogdon, but still will contend: I’m not sure that it is possible to be more underrated than Malcolm Brogdon was last season, and I understand the irony in me saying that while also saying that the Cavaliers can still contend without him. The reason? For starters, I don’t think we’ve seen the best of London Perrantes yet. As a senior, don’t be surprised when he embraces playing a bigger role offensively. And then there is Austin Nichols, the Memphis transfer who couldn’t be a more perfect fit for what Tony Bennett wants to do on both ends of the floor.

But the biggest reason I think UVA will remain in the mix for the ACC crown? Bennett’s program is good enough at this point that we can pencil them into the top four before actually looking at the roster.

3. You may not recognize the names at Louisville, but they can make a Final Four: Last season, Louisville showed flashes of being a top 15 team while using a pair of mid-major grad transfers to bridge the gap between the Terry Rozier and Montrezl Harrell years and a promising 2015 recruiting class that wasn’t quite ready last season.

Now? They should be ready. Sophomores Donovan Mitchell — who spent much of last season playing behind Damion Lee — and Deng Adel — who battled knee issues last year — are on track to make Cardinal fans realize why people have been raving about the potential those two have. Yes, I wonder about a team where Quentin Snider is the lone point guard on the roster, and no, I have no idea who out of that motley crew of bigs will take a step forward, but if both Mitchell and Adel develop into all-ACC caliber players like I think they will, Rick Pitino should be able to once again field a winner.

Louisville's Donovan Mitchell (45) reaches in against North Carolina State's Anthony Barber (12) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Raleigh, N.C., Thursday, Jan. 7, 2016. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
Louisville’s Donovan Mitchell (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

4. UNC has talent, but they also have question marks: The knock on North Carolina last season was that, while they had a roster full of highly-rated recruits, they didn’t necessarily have much future NBA talent in their ranks. That was before Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige graduated. Now, it seems like every player on this Tar Heel roster has either a major red flag in their game or a major question mark in their outlook this season. Will the Joel Berry II from last March show up, or will it be the Joel Berry II that struggled to beat out Nate Britt for the starting point guard spot? Has Justin Jackson found a way to be a consistent three-point shooter? Has Theo Pinson? Can Isaiah Hicks handle the pressure that comes with being a star player? Just how good is a front court if the best player is Kennedy Meeks?

The Tar Heels are a top ten team on paper. But just how sure are you that what we’ll see on the court on a night-to-night basis will be a top ten team?

5. It’s Virginia Tech, not Syracuse, that you need to be all-in on: Syracuse, a Final Four team last season, got Tyler Lydon back for his sophomore season, brought in Tyus Battle and Paschal Chukwu, and added a pair of fifth-year seniors in the back court in John Gillon and Andrew White. But they lost their three best players from last season, including Michael Gbinije, from a 9-9 ACC team and they don’t really have a point guard.

The Hokies? They return everyone from a team that went 10-8 in the ACC last year, including wins over Miami (who was top ten at the time) and UVA, and have a head coach in Buzz Williams who is as good as anyone in the country and getting a group of under-recruited players to have a chip the size of Blacksburg on their shoulder. Syracuse could be good this season. Tech will be better.

MORE: 2016-17 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

PRESEASON ACC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Grayson Allen, Duke

Allen is our Preseason National Player of the Year, so why wouldn’t he be our Preseason ACC Player of the Year? It’s far from a shoe-in, however, as there are a couple of factors working against the junior. For starters, he’ll be playing a different role this season, operating as more of a lead guard than someone whose job was to put his head down and get to the rim. And with the amount of talent on the roster around him — Duke could potentially start five first round picks — it will be hard for him to replicate the production he had last season.

That said, this was Allen’s stat-line last season: 21.6 points, 4.6 boards and 3.5 assists with a true shooting percentage of 61.6%. I know people are required to hate him because he’s white and a star at Duke, but no high major player since 1993-94 (which is as far back as the database at CBB Reference goes) has ever posted that stat-line.

THE REST OF THE ALL-ACC FIRST TEAM:

  • Dennis Smith Jr., N.C. State: I’m not sure how good the Wolfpack will be, but assuming his ACL is back to 100%, Smith may be the single-most talented player in the conference.
  • Jaron Blossomgame, Clemson: Blossomgame is an under-the-radar name because he plays for Clemson, but he’s a future top 40 draft pick that can defend multiple positions and averaged 18.7 points last season.
  • Jayson Tatum, Duke: We initially had Harry Giles III here, but Tatum gets the bump after this week’s news that Giles underwent another knee surgery.
  • Austin Nichols, Virginia: Nichols averaged 13.4 points, 6.7 boards and 3.4 blocks before leaving Memphis. He’s a perfect fit for the five-spot in Virginia’s system and he’s had a year to learn what Tony Bennett will want from him.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW:

  • Joel Berry II, North Carolina
  • Donovan Mitchell, Louisville
  • Deng Adel, Louisville
  • London Perrantes, Virginia
  • Tyler Lydon, Syracuse

BREAKOUT STAR: Donovan Mitchell and Deng Adel, Louisville

Mitchell is going to be the trendy pick on this Louisville team to be a breakout star, not only because he’ll have a chance to step into a starting role in the back court, but because he had a handful of impressive performances in league play last season. But I think there’s a chance that Adel ends up being the best player on the Cards this year. All I heard over the summer were good things about his development, and he was really impressive in practices before hurting his knee as a freshman.

Just so I’m on the record with this, in just about any other year, both Tyler Lydon of Syracuse and JaQuan Newton of Miami would be an easy pick here.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Brad Brownell, Clemson

The obvious pick here is Boston College’s Jim Christian — if you can’t win a league game, you’re automatically on the hot seat — but Brownell is a more interesting case. This will be his seventh season with the Tigers. He hasn’t reached the NCAA tournament in five years and is six games under .500 in ACC play in those five seasons. But, with Blossomgame returning to school, Brownell has a chance to get back to the tournament with this group. If he does, that may save his job.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING … : Grayson Allen, Amile Jefferson and Matt Jones will be the first Duke players to win two rings since Christian Laettner and Bobby Hurley were playing.

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT: Seeing how the other powerhouse programs at the top of the conference — Virginia, UNC, Louisville — try and defend a super-talented, but somewhat-flawed, Duke roster.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR:

  • Nov. 15, Duke vs. Kansas
  • Nov. 29, Michigan State at Duke
  • Dec. 17, North Carolina vs. Kentucky
  • Dec. 21, Kentucky at Louisville
  • Jan. 29, Virginia at Villanova

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @accsports

PREDICTED FINISH

1. Duke: Shocker.
2. Virginia: We cannot overlook the loss of Malcolm Brogdon or underrate just how good Anthony Gill was. That said, Nichols will be a borderline all-american this season and we haven’t seen the best of London Perrantes yet.
3. North Carolina: Losing Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson hurts a lot, but there are quality pieces left on this roster. The problem? They’re all question marks. Which Joel Berry II shows up? Will Justin Jackson reach his potential? Can Isaiah Hicks or Kennedy Meeks really anchor the front line of a top ten team?
4. Louisville: The sophomore class for the Cardinals is going to shine this season. Donovan Mitchell and Deng Adel could end up being first round picks one day. The major issue for Louisville will be their front court. They have a lot of bodies and not a lot of proven pieces.
5. Virginia Tech: My sleeper pick. They return everyone — and add two injured pieces — from a team that won 19 games, went 10-8 in the ACC and beat Miami and UVA.
6. Syracuse: Getting Tyler Lydon back to school was key. Adding Andrew White was big as well. The Orange are going to have an absurd amount of length and athleticism in that zone. Will their point guard play and rebounding hold up?
7. Miami: There will be some turnover for the Hurricanes, but with JaQuan Newton running the show and Jim Larrañaga in charge, rebuilding years in Miami won’t be as bad as they’ve been in the past.
8. Notre Dame: Gone are Demetrius Jackson and Zach Auguste, both of which are major blows. Mike Brey has proven he can weather a storm like this, however. V.J. Beachem’s time to shine?
9. N.C. State: The Wolfpack have a ton of talent, namely freshmen Dennis Smith Jr. and Omer Yurtseven. Will all the pieces come together?
10. Florida State: Like N.C. State, the Seminoles have plenty of pieces, but they’ve struggled to look like a cohesive unit in recent years.
11. Pitt: Jamel Artis and Michael Young might be the best forward tandem in the conference, but this is a team dealing with coaching turnover that lost their point guard, James Robinson.
12. Clemson: I love Jaron Blossomgame’s … well, game. I don’t love much else on this roster.
13. Wake Forest: Danny Manning’s team was a total disaster last season even though they had the talent to be much better than they were. They lost Codi Miller-McIntyre and Devin Thomas. Was that addition by subtraction?
14. Georgia Tech: They hired Josh Pastner this offseason. I’ll let you decide if that’s a good or bad thing.
15. Boston College: BC lost Eli Carter from a team that didn’t win an ACC game last season. Woof.

North Carolina guard Joel Berry II (2) moves the ball against Providence during the first half of a second-round men's college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament, Saturday, March 19, 2016, in Raleigh, N.C. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
North Carolina guard Joel Berry II (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

Thursday’s Three Things To Know: Drexel’s historic comeback, Arizona survives, Houston doesn’t

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1. DREXEL COMPLETED THE BIGGEST COMEBACK IN DIVISION I HISTORY

Drexel trailed Delaware 53-19 late in the first half on Thursday night.

They won 85-83.

Both of those things are 100 percent true and 100 percent happened.

2. ARIZONA WON WITHOUT ALLONZO TRIER … BARELY

No. 14 Arizona was forced to play without Allonzo Trier on Thursday night at Oregon State after Trier tested positive for a banned substance again. The Wildcats led by 12 points in the first half, but Wayne Tinkle’s club slowly but surely chipped away at the lead. They were ahead with less than a minute left with OSU missed two wide-open threes on the same possession before a pair of Rawle Alkins free throws forced overtime.

Alkins — who finished with 16 points on the night — took over in the extra frame, but if there is anything that we learned in the 45 minutes that Arizona played without Trier available on Thursday, it’s that they are going to struggle to win games if they do not have their second-leading scorer available.

3. TUBBY SMITH FINALLY BEAT A RANKED TEAM

Tubby Smith has been crushed throughout his tenure with Memphis, and deservedly so. The Tigers are not selling tickets and are not competing at a level that is expected of that program in the post-John Calipari era. That said, they aren’t terrible. On Thursday night, Memphis beat No. 23 Houston in FedEd Forum — Smith’s first win over a ranked opponent since he took over the job — to alleviate some of the heat that has been directed his way this season.

Houston, on the other hand, is probably pretty safe when it comes to inclusion into the NCAA tournament at this point, but they sure have had a weird seven days. It started with a win over Cincinnati, then turned into a 21-point win at Temple and concluded with a loss to Memphis. Such is life in the AAC, I guess.

Ford leads No. 22 Saint Mary’s past Pepperdine, 75-61

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MORAGA, Calif. (AP) — Jordan Ford had 18 points and a career-high 10 rebounds, and No. 22 Saint Mary’s rolled to a 75-61 victory over Pepperdine on Thursday night.

Calvin Hermanson scored 14 points and Tanner Krebs added 12 for the Gaels (26-4, 15-2 West Coast Conference). Jock Landale scored 10 points and grabbed six rebounds.

Ford shot 7 for 11 from the field and 4 for 6 from 3-point range and fell two points short of tying his career scoring high.

Saint Mary’s remained one game behind Gonzaga (26-4, 16-1), a 77-72 winner at San Diego, in the WCC with one regular-season game to play. The Gaels can earn a share of the WCC regular-season title with a victory at home against Santa Clara and a Gonzaga loss at BYU on Saturday.

Saint Mary’s point guard Emmett Naar, who injured his left ankle late in the first half against Portland on Saturday, started and had three points and six assists in 14 minutes, most of those in the first half.

Trae Berhow and Knox Hellums each scored 13 points for Pepperdine (4-25, 1-16).

Ford had 14 points and six rebounds in the first half, when Saint Mary’s built a 46-26 lead.

Pepperdine guard Eric Cooper Jr., who averages 13.2 points, did not make the trip because of a shoulder injury. Udenyi Amadi started in his place.

BIG PICTURE

Pepperdine: The Waves lost their eighth straight game and are locked into sole possession of last place in the WCC. Pepperdine will be the No. 10 seed in the upcoming conference tournament.

Saint Mary’s: The Gaels won their second straight after losing back-to-back games to Gonzaga on Feb. 10 and San Francisco on Feb. 15. Saint Mary’s had won a school-record 19 straight games before falling to Gonzaga.

UP NEXT

Pepperdine hosts Portland on Saturday in its WCC regular-season finale. The Waves fell 85-76 in overtime at Portland on Feb. 1.

Saint Mary’s hosts Santa Clara on Saturday in its final WCC regular-season game. The Gaels beat the Broncos 81-57 on Jan. 11 at Santa Clara.

Thornton, Rivers lead Memphis past No. 23 Houston

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Jimario Rivers and Raynere Thornton each scored 21 points, helping Memphis beat No. 23 Houston 91-85 on Thursday night.

Rivers also grabbed nine rebounds and Thornton made four 3-pointers as Memphis (17-11, 8-7 American Athletic Conference) earned its third straight victory.

Rob Gray had 30 points and seven assists for Houston (21-6, 11-4), which entered the Top 25 this week for the first time this season. Armoni Brooks and Corey Davis Jr. each scored 15 points.

The Cougars led 43-37 at halftime, but they shot 32.3 percent from the field in the second half. The Tigers made 54 percent of their shots while rallying for the victory.

Memphis went ahead to stay with a 22-8 surge that made it 76-68 on Mike Parks Jr.’s basket with 6:28 remaining. The Tigers closed it out at the line, making 29 of 36 attempts for the game.

Houston had won five in a row. It went 18 of 20 at the line.

BIG PICTURE

Houston: The Cougars, one of the best 3-point shooting teams in the conference, went 4 for 15 from beyond the arc in the second half. They also surrendered their most points this season.

Memphis: Leading scorer Jeremiah Martin left in the first half with a lower body injury. Thornton picked up the scoring after the break, scoring 19 points in the second half.

UP NEXT

Houston: Entertains East Carolina on Sunday.

Memphis: Travels to UConn on Sunday

No. 6 Gonzaga rallies to beat San Diego, 77-72

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SAN DIEGO (AP) — Killian Tillie scored 17 points, Rui Hachimura added 16 and No. 6 Gonzaga beat San Diego 77-72 on Thursday night to clinch at least a share of the West Coast Conference title.

The Bulldogs (26-4, 16-1 WCC) defeated the Toreros (17-12, 8-9) for the eighth straight game and for the 19th time in their last 20 meetings.

Olin Cater III led San Diego with 21 points.

After trailing at halftime and falling behind by eight points in the second half, the Bulldogs didn’t seize the lead until midway through the second half, when Tillie’s 3-pointer made it 52-51.

It was a back-and-forth affair from there, with the Toreros relying on their stingy defense to slow the up-tempo Bulldogs. But Gonzaga had too much firepower and was helped by four straight free throws from Hachimura when taking the lead for good with four minutes remaining.

Gonzaga demolished San Diego in last year’s visit by 58 points. The Bulldogs built an early six-point lead in this one but San Diego bounced back, tying the score at 27 with five minutes left on the first of three straight 3-point baskets by Carter. When he hit his second one, San Diego had a three-point advantage, its first edge since the game’s opening bucket.

Tyler Williams’ mid-range jumper gave San Diego a 35-30 lead and it was 37-34 at halftime. San Diego finished the first 20 minutes by converting 4 of 7 3-point shots.

BIG PICTURE

Gonzaga: When Gonzaga fell behind early in the game, it was the first time it had trailed in four games. … The Bulldogs have earned at least a share of the WCC title in 17 of the past 18 seasons and 18 of the last 20. … Gonzaga is the only team in the nation with seven players to score at least 20 points in a game this season.

University of San Diego: The highest-ranked team the Toreros have beaten is No. 14 UCLA in the 2002-03 season. … Forward Cameron Neubauer was honored before the game on senior night.

UP NEXT

Gonzaga is at BYU on Saturday night.

San Diego is at San Francisco on Saturday night.

Carsen Edwards scores 40 points, No. 9 Purdue beats Illinois 93-86

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CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) — Carsen Edwards scored career-high 40 points and Dakota Mathias added 18 to help No. 9 Purdue outlast Illinois in a 93-86 victory on Thursday night.

The Boilermakers were without their second-leading scorer Vincent Edwards but had no problem scoring.

Purdue shot 58.3 percent from the field and 47.8 percent from beyond the 3-point line. Edwards and Mathias each had four from behind the arc.

There were eight lead changes in the first half, highlighted by two big runs. With just under 10 minutes left Edwards stole the ball and went down for a huge dunk to spark a 17-6 run for the Boilermakers. The Illini responded with a 10-3 run to close out the half trailing 43-38.

Illinois stayed within striking distance the rest of the game, but ultimately Purdue’s size and Edwards scoring were too much. The sophomore scored 25 of his points in the second half, including a monstrous dunk on Trent Frazier with just under seven minutes to play.

The Boilermakers also outrebounded the Illini 33-20.

Leron Black led Illinois with 28 points, notching his fourth-consecutive 20-point game.

BIG PICTURE

Illinois continues to struggle in close games. The Illini have now lost 10 games this season by single digits.

After losing three straight games, Purdue has reestablished itself in the Big Ten with two close victories over Penn State and Illinois. The Boilermakers are one win away from tying the second most victories in school history.