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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)

Calipari signs two-year extension with Kentucky

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Kentucky continues to take care of John Calipari.

The Wildcats coach has received a two-year extension, keeping him under contract in Lexington through the 2024 season, the school announced Wednesday.

The contract will pay Calipari $7.75 million next season and increase to $8 million per season thereafter.

“John has achieved consistent championship-level performance at Kentucky,” Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart said in a statement. “No one in America is better suited for everything that comes with being the coach here. Not only has he attained incredible success on the court, he is also a leader in our community and in college basketball.

“We have been blessed to have him and Ellen here for the last eight years and we are blessed they will continue to call Kentucky home.”

Not only does the deal extend Calipari, but it continues to keep Kentucky competitive with the NBA, which would seem to be the only outlet that would even potentially tempt Calipari away from Kentucky. An NBA franchise would have to make him among the highest-paid coaches in the league to even match Kentucky financially.

Of course, given that Calipari has spurned interest from the league since returning to college in 2000, it seems unlikely that financial considerations would be the lone or heaviest variable in making a decision to move on.

Certainly, Calipari has an excellent thing going at Kentucky as the premier recruiting program in the country that has enjoyed serious success on the court, culminating in a 2012 national title and a 38-0 start to the 2015 season before a loss in the Final Four.

“The last eight years at the University of Kentucky have been a terrific ride,” Calipari said in a statement. “This extension shows our full commitment to each other. I believe this school is the gold standard and I’m so thankful and blessed that this university has given me this opportunity at this point in my career.”

The Wildcats face UCLA in the Sweet 16 on Friday.

Louisville’s Mitchell declaring for draft, won’t hire an agent

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Louisville’s Donovan Mitchell is the latest to decide to see what the NBA might offer.

“I have decided to test the waters and not hire an agent!” Mitchell wrote in an Instagram post Wednesday. “I am excited to work out this summer for teams and hopefully participate in the NBA combine! I want it to be clear I have not decided to leave Louisville!”

Mitchell, who is expected to be joined by dozens of players, is taking advantage of new NCAA rules that allow him to work out for teams and attend the NBA draft combine before making a decision on whether to remain in the draft and return to school.

Players have until May 24 to withdraw from the draft and return to school.

Mitchell averaged 15.6 points, 4.9 rebounds and 2.7 assists as a sophomore, shooting 40.8 percent overall and 35.4 percent on 3-point attempts.

The 6-foot-3 guard is projected as a potential first-round pick, but should he return, the Cardinals would project as one of the top teams in the country with nearly the entire core returning from this year’s 25-9 squad.

Moe-mentum: Wagner stands tall for Sweet 16-bound Michigan

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ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) Ask Moe Wagner who he looked up to when he was younger, and suddenly the Michigan big man’s fiery demeanor makes a little more sense.

“Kevin Garnett was always my biggest idol, even though our play isn’t really similar. Just the way he brings intensity and energy to his team,” Wagner said. “That always was something that really impressed me.”

Now Wagner is providing his own emotional leadership to a Michigan team that has become one of college basketball’s most remarkable stories this March.

The Wolverines have won six in a row since they were involved in a plane accident on the eve of their Big Ten Tournament opener.

After winning that conference tourney, they opened the NCAAs with victories against Oklahoma State and Louisville – with Wagner scoring 26 points in the win over Louisville that sent Michigan to the Sweet 16.

The 19-year-old Wagner is in his second season with the Wolverines. He showed some promise in 2015-16, but averaged only 8.6 minutes a game as a freshman. He’s been a starter the whole way this season, teaming up with D.J. Wilson to give Michigan some unexpected production in the frontcourt.

The Wolverines entered the season with high hopes thanks to the presence of seniors Derrick Walton and Zak Irvin.

The 6-foot-11 Wagner has made them even tougher to defend. The sophomore from Berlin is averaging 12.2 points a game, and unlike Mitch McGary and Jordan Morgan – two of Michigan’s top big men of the recent past – Wagner is a threat from beyond the arc. He’s made 41 percent of his 3-point attempts in 2016-17, putting even more pressure on opposing teams.

An expressive player on the court, Wagner admits he’s still learning how to keep his emotions under control.

Coach John Beilein says Wagner can be hard on himself, but he has an upbeat attitude the Wolverines can appreciate.

“I don’t want to rob him of his energy and his passion,” Beilein said. “If you heard him in timeouts – I mean, he is really into it. And it’s encouraging things he’s saying.”

The key for Wagner is to stay on the court. He’s been whistled for 100 fouls this season – no other Michigan player has more than 80 – and he picked up two in the first 3:11 when the Wolverines faced Oklahoma State in their NCAA Tournament opener Friday. Wagner played only 14 minutes in that frenetic game, which Michigan won 92-91 .

Against Louisville in the round of 32 , Wagner went 11 of 14 from the field and kept his poise after being called for his second foul late in the first half.

“He’s always just been an excited guy – play hard and play with a lot of passion,” Walton said. “I don’t think anything has changed. I think he’s just channeling it a little better.”

The seventh-seeded Wolverines face third-seeded Oregon on Thursday night in a regional semifinal. Michigan has won seven in a row, a streak that began with the team’s last game of the regular season.

What happened next is well documented. The day before its opening game in the conference tournament, Michigan’s plane slid off the runway .

There were no serious injuries, and the Wolverines arrived in time to play. Then they won four games in four days to take the title.

Now, Michigan is two victories away from an improbable Final Four appearance. If the Wolverines actually make it that far, Wagner will be a big reason why – and he’ll probably be as excited as anyone.

“One of my youth coaches actually used to say that I was somebody who, like, sees the basketball court as a stage and really enjoys it,” Wagner said. “Last year, I started to understand what that actually means, and kind of embraced that this year. That’s just me. I really love it. I really enjoy it.”

 

California’s Ivan Rabb declares for the NBA Draft

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Ivan Rabb announced on Wednesday that he will be declaring for the NBA Draft and foregoing his final two seasons with California.

“I want to thank everybody for their support,” Rabb said in a statement. “Since the day I committed to Cal, the love from Bay Area fans was overwhelming. I could genuinely tell that people really appreciated seeing me come to Cal and succeed and do well. Haas Pavilion will always hold a special place in my heart, and I won’t forget how incredible it felt to be “Oakland’s Own” as I ran onto the court in front of my friends, family and team.”

As a sophomore, Rabb averaged 14.0 points and 10.5 boards. He’s projected as a mid-to-late first round pick in the draft a year after making the decision to return to school as a projected lottery pick last season.

Duke’s Jayson Tatum declares for the NBA Draft

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Duke’s Jayson Tatum will declare for the NBA Draft and hire an agent, the program announced on Wednesday.

Tatum is a projected top five pick in the NBA Draft. He averaged 16.8 points playing the role of small-ball four for the Blue Devils this season after missing the first month of the season with a foot injury.

“I have absolutely loved coaching Jayson Tatum,” Coach K said in a statement. “His skill set and work ethic will make him a star in the NBA. Whichever team selects him will be getting a humble, thoughtful and talented young man whom we are proud to call a member of the Duke basketball brotherhood.”

Tatum was the most talented player on the Blue Devils this season, but it was an up and down year for Duke as a whole. They were predicted by just about everyone to win the national title back in the preseason, but they eventually bowed out of the NCAA tournament in the second round.