2014-2015 Season Preview

2014-15 Season Preview: Can anyone other than Kentucky, Florida go dancing?

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source: AP
Karl-Anthony Towns (AP Photo)

Beginning on October 3rd and running up until November 14th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2014-2015 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we will be previewing the SEC.

MORE: 2014-2015 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

Kentucky should be awesome.

We all know that.

But when it comes to the SEC, that’s about all that we know for sure. Florida should be good, but a number of key pieces are young and unproven. Arkansas might be good, but when was the last time that a Mike Anderson team was anything close to consistent on the road? LSU should make the tournament, but they should have made it last season. Georgia finished tied for second in the league last year, but they didn’t sniff the bubble. Might Ole Miss actually be the third-best team in the conference?

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW:

1. Kentucky is so deep they’ll be playing with platoons: I was asked about this on the radio this week, andto really get a feel for just how deep Kentucky is, think about Derek Willis. At one point, Willis was the No. 26 recruit in the country. He’s an athletic, versatile combo-forward with three-point range and probably good enough to start for just about any team outside the top 25. He’s so far down the Wildcat depth chart that he won’t even play in Kentucky’s second platoon. Nine McDonald all-americans. Eight guys that potentially could be drafted this spring. Yeesh.

2. Florida is talented, but quite young: Florida graduated four seniors from last year’s team, including center Patric Young and SEC Player of the Year Scottie Wilbekin. In their stead this season will be former five-star recruits Chris Walker and Kasey Hill. How will that pair fare playing much-expanded roles for the Gators this season?

source: Getty Images
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3. Ole Miss is the league’s sleeper team: There is a lot to like about the Rebels this year. For starters, the distraction that was Marshall Henderson is gone, and in his place is star guard and our Preseason SEC Player of the Year, Jarvis Summers. The Rebels also have a big, athletic front line, and that should be enough to get them in the mix for that No. 3 spot in the league standings.

4. Arkansas should be good enough to get an at-large bid: If the Razorbacks are going to make the NCAA tournament, this is the season to do so. They have talented, veteran perimeter plays that will do well in Mike Anderson’s “40 Minutes Of Hell” system, but they also have one of the most underrated players in the country is star big man Bobby Portis. Portis could end up being a first round pick by the time the season is done, meaning that this may be their best chance to dance.

5. The same with LSU, but they should have been last year, too: Once again, LSU will enter this season with a front line that will draw attention: Jordan Mickey, Jarell Martin and Elbert Robertson. But the key this year will be the back court of Josh Gray and Keith Hornsby, who will replace Anthony Hickey. The key? Ensuring that back court understands the importance of pounding the ball into the paint for those big bodies.

PRESEASON SEC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Jarvis Summers, Ole Miss

With all the talk about Marshall Henderson over the course of the last two seasons it was easy to overlook the fact that the best player on the Rebels was Summers. He may not become a national name this season — it’s hard to do that if you play in the SEC for someone other than Kentucky or Florida — but an all-american team isn’t out of the question.

THE REST OF THE ALL-SEC FIRST TEAM:

  • Aaron Harrison, Kentucky, So.: Harrison could very well end up being the leading scorer for Kentucky this season. He was inconsistent as a freshman, but he hit three enormous threes during Kentucky’s run to the NCAA tournament title game.
  • Karl Towns, Kentucky, Fr.: Towns is the most talented player in the league and may be the most talented player in the country, but Kentucky’s depth will limit his playing time and production.
  • Bobby Portis, Arkansas, So.: One of the most underrated players in the conference, Portis had a very good freshman season that was a bit overshadowed by the fact that Arkansas wasn’t a tournament team in a mediocre SEC.
  • Jordan Mickey, LSU, So.: Mickey put up huge numbers as a freshman, but it didn’t get as much attention nationally due to LSU’s disappointing finish to the season.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW:

  • Andrew Harrison, Kentucky, So.
  • Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky, So.
  • Kasey Hill, Florida, So.
  • Michael Frazier, Florida, Jr.
  • Charles Mann, Georgia, Jr.

BREAKOUT STAR: Kasey Hill — and, to a lesser extent, Chris Walker — should have big seasons for Florida this season, and Bobby Portis will likely shoot up draft boards as the season progresses, but my pick for a breakout star in the SEC is Vanderbilt big man Damian Jones. He averaged 11.3 points, 5.7 boards and 1.4 blocks as a freshman with the ‘Dores and will be asked to carry the load once again next season.

source:
AP

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Anthony Grant was one of the hottest names in coaching when he was hired away from VCU by Alabama back in 2009, but he hasn’t really been able to get things up and running in Tuscaloosa. Grant’s made just one NCAA tournament in his five seasons with the Crimson Tide, and last year was his worst as a head coach, as the Tide finished just 13-19 overall. It would not be good for Grant if his program finishes behind Bruce Pearl’s at Auburn.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING … : The SEC only sent three teams to the NCAA tournament again?

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT … : Seeing how John Calipari will manage his roster and whether or not the platoons will work.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR:

  • Nov. 18th, Kansas vs. Kentucky (Champions Classic)
  • Dec. 5th, Florida at Kansas (SEC/Big 12 Challenge)
  • Dec. 5th, Texas at Kentucky (SEC/Big 12 Challenge)
  • Dec. 13th, North Carolina at Kentucky
  • Dec. 27th, Kentucky at Louisville

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @SECSports

PREDICTED FINISH

1. Kentucky: I could see the Wildcats doing what Florida did last season, rolling through the league schedule undefeated and winning the regular season title by six games.
2. Florida: Florida’s success this season hinges on the play of sophomores Kasey Hill and Chris Walker. If they play like top ten recruits, the Gators could end up being a top ten team. If they don’t, Florida might not finish second in the SEC.
3. Arkansas: The Razorbacks have a star-in-the-making in big man Bobby Portis and a pair of talented wings in Rashad Madden and Michael Qualls. Two keys for this group: Winning on the road, and finding a point guard to run the ship.
4. Ole Miss: The Marshall Henderson Show overshadowed just how good Jarvis Summers was last season. Andy Kennedy will have a pair of talented transfers joining him in the back court along with a slew of big, athletic forwards. The SEC’s sleeper this year.
5. LSU: Jordan Mickey headlines a talented front court that includes Jarrell Martin and Elbert Robertson, but the Tigers are going to need more consistent back court play. Can transfers Josh Gray and Keith Hornsby provide it?
6. Georgia: The Bulldogs bring back their top five scorers from last season, including Charles Mann and Kenny Gaines, but to move up the SEC standings, they’ll need big years from big men Nemanja Djurisic and Yante Maten.
7. Texas A&M: The Aggies lose Jamal Jones, but Alex Caruso and Kourtney Robertson are back and will be joined by Jalen Jones, Alex Robinson and, if he gets a waiver, Danuel House.
8. Auburn: The Tigers bring back K.T. Harrell and add a number of quality transfers, but most importantly, the hiring of Bruce Pearl has added a level of excitement around the program. Bet on Pearl to win.
9. Missouri: New head coach Kim Anderson will have work to do with this group, but the cupboard if far from bare. I loved point guard Wes Clark in high school, Johnathon Williams III was promising last season and the addition of Jakeenan Gant, Deuce Bello and Keith Shamburger will help.
10. Vanderbilt: Kevin Stallings returns Damian Jones, who is a future all-SEC talent, and adds four top 150 freshmen to the mix. They’re young, but the future is brighter than the present.
11. South Carolina: Frank Martin has the Gamecocks moving in the right direction, as he’s added Sindarius Thornwell, TeMarcus Blanton and Marcus Strohman in recent classes.
12. Alabama: Anthony Grant has yet to have real success at Alabama. He’ll be relying on the influx of talent into the program — freshmen Justin Coleman and Devin Mitchell, transfer Ricky Tarrant — to try and get a tournament bid this season.
13. Mississippi State: Rick Ray is still in full-blown rebuilding mode with this program, but this season he’ll get back a number of key pieces — including Craig Sword — and will finally have some height.
14. Tennessee: The Vols lost quite a bit from last year’s Sweet 16 teams, and while Robert Hubbs and Josh Richardson return, there’s not much else here outside of the distraction provided by the NCAA investigation into Donnie Tyndall.

Kasey Hill’s second family gave him a new lease on life

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source: Getty Images
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Beginning on October 3rd and running up until November 14th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2014-2015 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we will be previewing the SEC.

MORE: 2014-2015 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

Life is pretty good for Kasey Hill these days.

On Friday night at 6:00 p.m., he’ll be the starting point guard for No. 7 Florida as the Gators kick off their season at the O’Connell Center against William & Mary. Still just a sophomore, Hill is a former McDonald’s All-American playing for the best basketball program in his home state. He’s one year removed from playing in a Final Four, and if he doesn’t end up as an NBA player down the road, he’ll have to settle for getting a free education while competing for SEC championships and national titles these next three years.

Things could be a lot worse, which, unfortunately, is a fact that Hill is well aware of. If it wasn’t for the Simmons family (Jeff, Jennie and their two kids) … well, that’s something that Hill would rather not dwell on.

“I don’t know [where I’d be]. That’s tough,” Hill told NBCSports.com earlier this month. “I definitely wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for them helping me out.”

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The move happened when Kasey was in fifth grade, but if we’re being honest, it probably started when he was about half that age.

“My wife loved him since he was six, he just had that personality about him,” Jeff Simmons said of Kasey. “He was just a great kid.” Jeff is the father of Kyle, a boy about Kasey’s age that grew up in the same part of Florida as Hill. The two were teammates in flag football and YMCA basketball leagues. Jeff? He coached the teams.

source:
AP

As a coach that doubled as the best friend’s father, it didn’t take long for Jeff to realize that Kasey’s living situation was less than ideal. He would spend the weekends with the Simmons family, getting rides to and from their Saturday flag football games, rides that were as much about the transportation as they were a chance to simply enjoy each other’s company.

Eventually, however, it became clear that this setup was no longer going to work for Kasey. This is what we know: Kasey’s father was in prison at the time, and he’s still in prison now. Kasey declined discussing the reason why. Around the time that he turned 11, Kasey’s mother began having difficulties in her life that made it hard for her to raise her son on her own. Again, Kasey — and Jeff — declined to go into specifics regarding what changed, but what they both told NBCSports.com is that it became very clear that it would be in Hill’s best interest to move in with the Simmons.

“It was a mutual agreement between my wife and I, his mom, and Kasey,” Jeff said. “We thought it would be a better environment for him at that time. He kind of felt at home.”

There was never a second thought.

“It was really never a decision that we swayed back and forth on,” he added. “It was kind of an immediate thing: Let’s take him in.”

Bringing another child into a household is not a decision that gets made lightly. Kids aren’t cheap to raise. They certainly aren’t easy to get through high school and to college, and that’s before you even consider how much the dynamic of a household can change by bringing in another kid that is getting ready to hit adolescence.

And the Simmons, they had no idea whether this was a situation where Kasey would be staying with them for a week or a month or, as it turns out, the rest of his childhood.

That’s not even the strangest dynamic at play here. The Simmons are white. Kasey is black. They lived in Eustis, a town of about 15,000 in central Florida, 45 minutes north of Orlando and 90 minutes south of Gainesville. That’s not exactly the most progressive region of our country.

“We’ve always raised our kids where we don’t really see color, but there’s always some looks that you’ll get,” Jeff said. “But I coached basketball, and most of our kids were African-American, so we got those looks everywhere we went. It’s just part of life.”

Here’s the most beautiful part of the story: it worked! All of it. Kasey and Kyle shared a room growing up. They both played the role of over-protective big brother for the fourth member of the Simmons clan, Samantha. During our conversation, Kasey repeatedly referred to the Simmons as family. Jeff affectionately refers to Kasey as “my boy”, saying that he has three kids, “two biological, and Kasey”.

“I don’t think there’s ever been one argument between him and either of my kids,” Jeff said. “Honestly. Never.”

Perhaps more important is the fact that Kasey’s relationship with his biological family remains as strong as ever. He talks to his mom on the phone daily. He talks to his father whenever the calls from prison get through. He wouldn’t commit to Florida until head coach Billy Donovan met and spent time with his mom and his grandmother.

“I would say that Kasey has a tremendous amount of love and affection for the Simmons, and he’s got a tremendous amount of love and affection for his own family,” Donovan said. “For Kasey, both relationship are very important.”

“They are my real family,” Kasey said.

“I have two families.”

College Basketball Talk’s Top 100 Players: Nos. 40-17 #CBTTop100

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The #CBTTop100 Players Countdown:

The maturation of Jerian Grant: What one star learned during a season-long suspension

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Jerian Grant (AP Photo)

Beginning on October 3rd and running up until November 14th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2014-2015 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we will be previewing the ACC.

MORE: 2014-2015 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

Jerian Grant screwed up.

He knows it. He freely admits his screw up was a doozy — a stupid, selfish and ill-timed decision that he paid for dearly. Grant was suspended from school for the spring semester, costing him the final 20 games of Notre Dame’s 2013-14 season, for what the school has termed “an academic mistake.” After the tears dried up following a December 21st loss to Ohio State in Madison Square Garden, Grant traveled back to South Bend, Indiana, with the team, packed up his apartment and headed home.

His season was kaput, but Grant’s Notre Dame career wasn’t over. Academically, he was a senior, but Grant redshirted his first season on campus. He still had a year of eligibility remaining, and after discussions with his family and high school coaches, Grant quickly made the decision that he would be returning to school for his final year. Head coach Mike Brey made it a point to keep Grant close, to make sure he felt like he was part of the team even if he was a thousand miles away. He gave Grant some homework: He had to watch every Notre Dame game, and at some point after the final buzzer, he had to email Brey with his thoughts and observations.

The assignment was harder than Grant anticipated. He was fine breaking down the game — Brey said he rarely needed to wait more than 45 minutes after the game was over to get the email from Grant — the issue was watching his teammates struggle. The Irish finished 15-17 overall, 6-12 in the ACC and didn’t play in any postseason events.

But that wasn’t the worst part.

At some point in every telecast, Grant’s face was flashed on the screen as the broadcasters proceeded to explain just how badly he had messed up, how dreadful Notre Dame’s season had been since the suspension and how fortunes could have been changed if it wasn’t for Grant and his “academic mistake”.

MORE: The NBCSports.com 2014-2015 ACC Season Preview

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source: Getty Images
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Mike Brey’s biggest concern when bringing his star back into the Notre Dame team this season wasn’t anything that had to do with Jerian Grant’s basketball ability. He knew the 6-foot-3 guard had stayed in shape during his seventh months away from school. He wasn’t worried that he’d be rusty or that his jump shot would have suddenly become ineffective. He knew that, as Brey put it, “our finisher” would still be lethal in the pick-and-roll and capable of picking out his open teammates.

No, what kept Brey up at night was the Blame Game.

Notre Dame’s inaugural season in the ACC was a disaster. The Fighting Irish finished the year below .500, seeing their season come to a close with a loss to lowly Wake Forest in the opening round of the ACC tournament. The majority of that happened with Grant, the team’s best player, separated from the program.

How would the team react when Grant rejoined them that summer? Perhaps more importantly, how would Grant react to a season where it was beaten into his head that he was to blame for Notre Dame’s struggles? Grant and Eric Atkins were very, very close. They were both from Maryland, just outside of Washington D.C., and they had roomed together since their first day on campus. Atkins didn’t redshirt. Last season was his final season; he watched the last NCAA tournament he was eligible for from a couch, just like you did.

“We came in together. We wanted to do something special here,” Grant told NBCSports.com last week. “We had our good runs, but we never got to leave the mark that we wanted to. It was hard not to go out with him.”

“Talk about swallowing pride,” Brey added. “There was a lot for him to deal with.”

The only game that Grant didn’t watch on television was Notre Dame’s ACC tournament loss. Instead, he made the trip to Greensboro for the game, in part to see his brother, Jerami, play for Syracuse, but mainly to support his teammates in their last chance at trying to earn a bid to the NCAA tournament. He joined the team in Brey’s hotel room just hours after the loss, and it was in that room, as the coach addressed his players, that Brey’s concerns melted away.

“One of my major points was, ‘Jerian, you’re coming back to us,'” Brey said. “I wanted him to get over this mindset, ‘I let everybody down, it’s my fault.’ When I looked at the guys sitting in front of me, Pat Connaughton had his arm around him. That was awesome. Our rock, our guy, our voice was like, ‘I got his ass, he’s back.’ For me, I’m looking at that going, ‘Ok, we had a tough year, but I’m feeling a little better now.'”

“The guys welcomed me back with open arms,” Grant said. “And that’s been good for me,”

“Pat was really a lifeline for him,” Brey continued. “They’ve been through a lot together. They’ve won a lot together. I think Pat always kind of reached out to him and stayed connected to him. ‘I’m coming back, you’re coming back.’ I thought that that’s kind of been a neat thing to watch, those two guys.”

The suspension couldn’t have come at a more convenient time for the Irish. Missing Grant hurt, but the good news was that Notre Dame had a foreign tour scheduled for this past summer. Grant, Connaughton — who spent the spring playing pro baseball — and the rest of the team returned to campus in the middle of June and were back on the practice court by the end of July.

They got 10 days worth of practice in before they spent 10 days in Italy, playing four games in total. And in that time, Brey noticed a subtle, but important, difference in his star. He started preparing like a pro. And not just for games, either. He was going hard for every minute he was on the floor in practice. He was showing up in the morning, before class, to get shots up. He was getting to practice an hour early, getting to the trainer and working through his own stretches before the team stretch.

“He has his routine now,” Brey said. “He’d never been a great practice player. I was on his ass throughout his career,” mentioning that Grant would sometimes show up “20 minutes before practice with a quarter pounder in his hand.” But Grant was young. He was 17 years old when he got to college, as immature as you would expect any 17 year old freshman to be, and it took him a while to grow out of that.

But a public embarrassment like the one Grant dealt with? A suspension that was on the front page of every sports website in the country, that got his name mentioned on Sportscenter for all the wrong reasons?

That’s an easy way to force a kid to grow up.

It’s the quickest way to give him a new perspective on life.

“I don’t take things for granted,” Grant said. “I’ve been preaching to the guys, you’ve gotta play every game like it’s your last. You never know when it’s going to be taken from you.”

As Brey put it, “I feel like I’m talking to a man now.”

2014-15 Season Preview: Can the ACC produce four Final Four teams?

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Jahlil Okafor (AP Photo)

Beginning on October 3rd and running up until November 14th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2014-2015 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we will be previewing the ACC.

MORE: 2014-2015 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

We’re entering a new era in the ACC, as Louisville enters the conference while Maryland exits to the Big Ten. Some old rivalries will die as a result — the Duke-Maryland rivalry in the early-2000s was as good as it gets — but the ACC is now the best conference in the country. The top four teams in the conference are all good enough to make a Final Four and win the ACC regular season title. There are at least six more teams that will have a chance to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. It’s going to be a fun league to watch play out.

REALIGNMENT MOVES

In: Louisville
Out: Maryland

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW:

1. The top four in the ACC is clear-cut: Duke, North Carolina, Louisville and Virginia. Those are the four best teams in the ACC, and there really isn’t a debate to be had there. All four are ranked in the top ten of the NBCSports.com preseason poll, and all four are legitimate national title contenders. What order those four should be ranked is something we are all going to disagree on, but the bottom-line is this: no one else in the conference can even be called a consensus top 25 team. That said …

2. … the race for fifth place will be just as contested: There may not be another consensus top 25 team in the conference, but there are six teams in the league that could end up being ranked at some point during the season and earning themselves an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. All six could also end up missing the NCAA tournament. We have Notre Dame fifth and Miami tenth in our preseason poll. You could flip-flop them and I wouldn’t argue all that much. The middle of the league is going to be a mess.

3. The offseason talking points had more to do with students than athletes: Despite the fact that the ACC is home to four top ten teams, four players that made at least one appearance as a preseason first-team all-american and four hall of fame head coaches, the stories that dominated the headlines this offseason were all bad. Syracuse is staring down the barrel of an NCAA investigation into academic improprieties, improper benefits, failed drug tests and who knows what else. But those issues paled in comparison to what North Carolina dealt with this fall, as a damaging independent investigation into the academic fraud in the athletic department — the Wainstein Report — legitimized the questions surrounding Roy Williams’ program. It’s bad enough that there’s a real chance the 2005 national title could end up being vacated.

4. It’s been two years since a blueblood won an ACC title: For all the talk of the ACC’s bluebloods — Duke and North Carolina — and the storied programs the league swiped from the Big East — Syracuse, Pitt, Louisville — it’s mildly surprising that it has been a full two years since anyone of those programs have won an ACC regular season or tournament title. In 2014, Virginia won dual ACC titles. In 2013, Miami did the same.

source:
Marcus Paige and Malcolm Brogdon (AP Photo)

5. Best point guard play in the country: You like watching elite ball-handlers? You’ll love the ACC this season. North Carolina’s Marcus Paige and Louisville’s Terry Rozier are going to get the majority of the attention, but that’s just the beginning of it. Notre Dame’s Jerian Grant is talented enough to put together an all-american caliber campaign. Miami’s Angel Rodriguez was an all-Big 12 point guard before transferring out of Kansas State. Duke’s Tyus Jones is the nation’s best freshman point guard. Olivier Hanlan (Boston College), Codi Miller-McIntyre (Wake Forest), Xavier Rathan-Mayes (Florida State), Cat Barber (N.C. State). There are going to be some really good point guards that don’t sniff the all-ACC team.

PRESEASON ACC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Jahlil Okafor, Duke

Jahlil Okafor is my pick to be the National Player of the Year this season, so it would only make sense that he is the Preseason ACC Player of the Year as well. I expect Okafor to have an impact as a freshman similar to that of Jabari Parker last season, as the 6-foot-11 center will be the most-skilled low-post player in the country.

THE REST OF THE ALL-ACC FIRST TEAM:

  • Marcus Paige, North Carolina, Jr.: Paige was dominant at times as a sophomore, as he learned how to playthe role of facilitator until he needed to take over.
  • Montrezl Harrell, Louisville, Jr.: Louisville caught a bit of a break when Harrell made the decision to return to school for his junior season. We know about his work in the paint, but he’s hitting threes now as well.
  • Malcolm Brogdon, Virginia, Jr.: Brogdon is one of the most underrated players in the country. He’s not flashy and won’t post huge numbers, but he’s consistent and the key for Virginia offensively.
  • Jerian Grant, Notre Dame, Sr.: Grant was having an all-american caliber season when he was suspended from school for the second semester. Expect him to pick up where he left off.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW:

  • Terry Rozier, Louisville, So.
  • Angel Rodriguez, Miami, Jr.
  • Olivier Hanlan, Boston College, Jr.
  • Aaron Thomas, Florida State, Jr.
  • Tyus Jones, Duke, Fr.

BREAKOUT STAR: Terry Rozier had a handful of impressive performances as a freshman, but consistent minutes were tough for him to come by. Part of that was the result of playing the same position as all-american Russ Smith. But it wasn’t a secret that Rozier was the best pro prospect on Louisville’s roster last season, and using the 6-foot-2 combo-guard in a reserve role helped ensure that Rozier would be back for another season.

source: Getty Images
Roy Williams and Jim Boeheim (Getty Images)

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Georgia Tech head coach Brian Gregory is the obvious pick here, but it’s also the boring one. We know that the Yellow Jackets have not been good during his tenure, and when you’re the coach at an ACC school that isn’t winning, you’re job will be in jeopardy. What’s more interesting is the status of hall of famers Jim Boeheim and Roy Williams. Syracuse is currently dealing with an NCAA investigation into issues with academics and improper benefits while North Carolina is undergoing intense scrutiny regarding their use of “paper classes” and just how much of the cheating Williams was aware of.

Are they in danger of losing their jobs? Not unless they want to retire. But you’d be hard-pressed to find a pair of coaches in any league facing more pressure entering the season than those two.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING … : The ACC might get four teams into the Final Four, but will anyone else win a game?

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT : Watching the top four teams in this league battle it out for a regular season title. The race for ACC Player of the Year will be fun as well.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR:

  • 12/3, Duke at Wisconsin (ACC/Big Ten Challenge)
  • 12/6, Virginia at VCU
  • 12/13, North Carolina at Kentucky
  • 12/18, Duke vs. UConn (at the Izod Center)
  • 12/27, Kentucky at Louisville

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @scacchoops

PREDICTED FINISH

1. Duke: I have my doubts about Duke, but the Blue Devils have the single-toughest matchup in the ACC in Jahlil Okafor roaming the paint and a ton of perimeter depth to surround him.
2. North Carolina: Picking the Tar Heels here means two things: Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks both lived up to their potential, and Justin Jackson played like the McDonald’s All-American he is.
3. Virginia: The ‘Hoos don’t look menacing on paper, but they return the majority of their roster from a team that won a dual-ACC title last season.
4. Louisville: Love Rozier and Harrell, but there are some real question marks elsewhere on the roster. That said, a fourth-place finish in the ACC could still yield a top three seed.
5. Notre Dame: Jerian Grant — and, to a lesser extent, Patrick Connaughton — good enough to get Notre Dame to .500 on his own. The Irish will be a tournament team if Zach Auguste, Demetrius Jackson and Steve Vasturia improve.
6. Syracuse: The Orange are loaded with athletes, especially in their front court. But the inconsistent Trevor Cooney is the only proven scorer and Kaleb Joseph is the only point guard. I could see the Orange missing the tournament.
7. N.C. State: Cat Barber, Ralston Turner and Trevor Lacey is a talented back court, BeeJay Anya has shed a bunch of weight and Abdul-Malik Abu could end up being an all-freshmen team player.
8. Pitt: Getting Durand Johnson back healthy is key, as is the return of Cameron Wright and James Robinson. How good will Sheldon Jeter and Michael Young be up front?
9. Florida State: Aaron Thomas is one of the most underrated players in the league and the addition of Xavier Rathan-Mayes should be key. If they address their turnover and defensive rebounding issues, a top five finish is feasible.
10. Miami: The quartet of Angel Rodriguez, Sheldon McClellan, Deandre Burnett and JaQuan Newton gives the Canes a talented perimeter. But what about their front line?
11. Wake Forest: The Demon Deacons have had made a habit of picking off elite opponents at home, but they’ll need to shore up their defense and get help for Codi Miller-McIntyre and Devin Thomas to finish in the top half of the league in Danny Manning’s first year.
12. Georgia Tech: Point guard play is still an issue, but DeMarco Cox and Charles Mitchell are both eligible up front while Marcus Georges-Hunt is underrated on the wing.
13. Clemson: The Tigers were a top 20 defensive team last season, and while they return a number of veterans, they lose K.J. McDaniels, their best defender and leading scorer.
14. Virginia Tech: The future looks bright in Blacksburg with Buzz Williams coming to town, but it’s going to take some time for him to get enough talent into the program to compete near the top of the ACC.
15. Boston College: The Eagles bring back Olivier Hanlan, but they lose Ryan Anderson, among others, and look destined for the ACC cellar.

A heart-to-heart with Bob Huggins changed Juwan Staten’s outlook, career

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Beginning on October 3rd and running up until November 14th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2014-2015 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we will be previewing the Big 12.

MORE: 2014-2015 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

West Virginia’s Juwan Staten was one of the best players in the Big 12 last season, earning the honor of being named first-team all-Big 12 player over the likes of Joel Embiid and Georges Niang.

He was terrific, averaging 18.4 points, 5.8 assists and 5.6 rebound despite being listed as a 6-foot point guard. Those numbers were good enough to convince the Big 12 voters to overlook the fact that the Mountaineers were only able to manage a 17-16 record and a trip to the NIT. They were also impressive enough to make you wonder: Where the heck did this come from?

As a sophomore, in Staten’s first season playing with the Mountaineers, he averaged just 7.6 points and 3.3 assists on a team that bookended a 13-19 season with a 34-point beat-down at the hands of Gonzaga on national television and a seven-game losing streak. That came after Staten had redshirted the 2011-12 following a transfer from Dayton. Before Bob Huggins made the decision to bring Staten into the program, he first made a call to Steve Smith, Staten’s head coach at Oak Hill Academy (Virginia), a prep school known for churning out as much basketball talent as anyone in the country.

That includes Ty Lawson, Rajon Rondo and Brandon Jennings.

“Steve said that he was probably the best point guard that he’s ever had,” Huggins told NBCSports.com this month, but through three seasons of college basketball, Staten looked anything but the part.

RELATED: NBCSports.com 2014-2015 Big 12 Preview Rick Barnes turns Texas around

That all changed when Huggins had a sit-down with Staten following the 2012-13 season. The message he needed to get across? If you don’t want to do things my way, then pack your bags.

“Coach Huggs, he basically told me that he needed me to be an extension of him,” Staten told NBCSports.com. “Some things that we have to do within our program, with me being around and knowing how things go, he just wanted me to step up and be a leader. Put guys in their place when they’re doing the wrong thing and give them encouragement when they’re doing the right thing. Let them know what we’re supposed to be doing here. Be that voice that the guys hear away from practice.

“All the players don’t always agree with everything that’s going on, but as a leader, it’s your job to find out what the coach wants and how to get the players to do that.”

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Huggins dismissed that heart-to-heart in a way that only he can — “If you look at what our record was that year, I had that conversation with a lot of people,” he muttered, which is about the best way to describe the twangy, choppy way that Huggy Bear speaks. “Like, all of them. Every single one of them.” — but in talking with Staten, it’s easy to see that his message got through.

“My mentality changed,” Staten said. “I didn’t really have the season that I wanted to have as a sophomore, and that tested me. It put things in perspective. Time’s running out. You either have to start putting it down or think about something else that you want to do with your life. I got a little more focused and serious about the game. It changed my approach. I started taking more of a business approach to the game, falling in love with the process.”

And what is “the process”?

For Staten, it was about more than simply getting in the gym and doing the same drills and workouts that he’s done throughout his career and will continue to do as long as he’s playing the game.

Huggins has been coaching this game for a long time — as Staten put it, “since before I was born” — and he’s had quite a few stars work their way through his Cincinnati and West Virginia programs. There were two, however, that piqued the interest of Staten: Nick Van Exel and Steve Logan. He got Huggins to bring him game film from when those two were playing in college, spending hours pouring over those tapes.

He wasn’t just studying their moves, however. His goal wasn’t to learn how to cross a defender over like Van Exel could or hit the same kind of pull-up threes that Logan shot. The sets that Huggins runs these days aren’t that different from what he ran in the 90s, and what Staten wanted to learn was when, in the flow of the offense, those two were able to attack.

“I just wanted to see where they got their shots from, where they were able to create out of and what opportunities the offense was able to open up for them,” he said. “After that it was pretty clear where I would be able to get my shots.”

It sure was.

The problem, however, was that all those shots and all that production led the Mountaineers to a first round ouster from the NIT. As good as Staten is, as bright as his professional future may be, the sport just isn’t as fulfilling when you’re not winning consistently, and Staten says there are two things that he can do to change that next season that go beyond extending his three-point range.

It starts with “grasping the concept of being a point guard,” he said. “Knowing the time and score, learning my teammates a little better, what situations do we run what plays in to get an easy basket.” He also hopes to be able to lead his team better in close games. Staten traveled to both the Point Guard Skills Academy in New Jersey and LeBron James camp in Las Vegas this summer, and the way he tells it, he has a better feel for “knowing how to close games”.

But if West Virginia is truly going to be able to earn an at-large bid this season, it’s going to be about more than just Staten.

“We’ve got to guard and we’ve got to rebound,” Huggins said. “There are two constants in basketball: the ability to defend and the ability to rebound. We got away from really what was the staple of what we were all about.”

“Everybody’s wants to win,” Staten added. “When you’re not winning, it makes things a little more difficult because people start questioning what’s going on. They want ot sart putting their own ideas into things.

“It’s all about trusting the process.”

Staten knows better than anyone.