Johnson missed the final 20 games of last season with a torn ACL in his right knee. He was averaging 8.8 points and 3.0 rebounds per game through the first 16 games. Jamie Dixon graduated his two leading scorers — Lamar Patterson and Talib Zanna. In September, Cameron Wright, who averaged 10.5 points per game, broke a bone in his foot which will keep him out until December.
The 6-foot-6 Johnson had scored 19 points off the bench in Pitt’s final exhibition game on Friday against Division II Philadelphia University.
Pitt opens the season against Niagara on Friday night.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
“Hey, an ankle injury is something you just deal with in basketball; if we had a game today, I’d be suiting up to play,” Johnson told reporters. “I just need to keep working through it and work it out. I’m not too concerned. I’m just glad my knee is back to 100 percent, it feels good, it is strong.”
Pitt took a blow last week when another key contributor from a season ago went down with an injury. On Sept. 26, it was reported guard Cameron Wright, who started all 36 games last season, had suffered a broken right foot and is out for up to 10 weeks.
With Lamar Patterson and Talib Zanna both gone, Wright and Johnson are Pitt’s top two returning scorers at 10.5 and 8.8 points per game, respectively.
“I can’t really give you specifics for when [Wright and Johnson] are going to be back, but I don’t anticipate that [Wright] will miss many games, and Durand should be able to work back into it,” Pitt head coach Jamie Dixon said. “And he will tell you he is ready to go today.”
At least for the time being, Pitt will rely on other returners such as junior point guard James Robinson, who was top 3 in the country last season in assist-to-turnover ratio, Jamel Artis, who has reportedly slimmed down this summer and fellow sophomores Michael Young and Josh Newkirk.
The Panthers begin the 2014-2015 season with a home contest against Niagara on Nov. 14.
Last Season: 23-12, 10-8 Pac-12 (t-3rd), lost in the Round of 64
Key Losses: Spencer Dinwiddie
Key Returnees: Josh Scott (14.1 ppg, 8.4 rpg), Askia Booker (13.7 ppg, 3.3 apg), Xavier Johnson (12.0 ppg, 5.9 rpg), Wesley Gordon (5.9 ppg, 6.0 rpg)
Key Newcomers: Dominique Collier, Tory Miller
Outlook: Colorado had won their first three Pac-12 games and were sitting at 14-2, ranked 15th in the country, when Spencer Dinwiddie tore his ACL last season. They finished the year losing 10 of their final 19 games, losing in the opening round of the NCAA tournament before watching Dinwiddie head off to the NBA. The trio of Josh Scott, Xavier Johnson and Wesley Gordon will give Tad Boyle one of the best front courts out west, but finding a way to fill Dinwiddie’s void will be key. Askia Booker is back and Boyle brings in top 100 recruit Dominique Collier to handle ball handling duties, but the key in the back court may end up being the development of Xavier Talton (who grew three inches this summer), who played well down the stretch last season, and whether Jaron Hopkins or Tre-Shaun Fletcher make the leap as sophomore.
Last Season: 26-11, 10-6 Atlantic 10 (t-5th), lost in the Elite 8
Key Losses: Devin Oliver, Vee Sanford, Khari Price
Key Returnees: Dyshawn Pierre (11.2 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 40.9% 3PT), Jordan Sibert (12.2 ppg, 42.6% 3PT)
Key Newcomers: Ryan Bass (transfer), Darrell Davis, Detwon Rogers
Outlook: Dayton was as good as any team in the country in February and March of last season, going 9-1 to close out the Atlantic 10 season before making a run to the Elite 8. Losing Devin Oliver will hurt, putting pressure on Jordan Sibert and Dyshawn Pierre to take on a bigger role offensively. The combination of Oakland transfer Ryan Bass and sophomore Scoochie Smith will be counted on to take over ballhandling duties. Dayton should compete for top four in the A-10.
Georgia State Panthers
Last Season: 25-9, 17-1 Sun Belt (1st), lost in the first round of the NIT
Key Newcomers: Kevin Ware (transfer), Jalen Brown, Jordan Session, Jeff Thomas, Carter Cagle
Outlook: Ron Hunter will have himself one of the most talented back courts in the country. Former Kentucky point guard Ryan Harrow finally found himself last season and Hunter will hope that he can work the same magic with former Louisville guard Kevin Ware. And here’s the scary part: sharpshooter R.J. Hunter is the best player of the three. The Panthers should roll through the Sun Belt again, and should be a trendy cinderella pick if they reach the NCAA tournament. They lost in the Sun Belt title game last season.
Kansas State Wildcats
Last Season: 20-13, 10-8 Big 12 (5th), lost in the Round of 64
Key Losses: Will Spradling, Shane Southwell
Key Returnees: Marcus Foster, Wesley Iwundu, Thomas Gipson
Key Newcomers: Justin Edwards (transfer), Brandon Bolden (transfer), Stephen Hurt, Malek Harris, Tre Harris
Outlook: Kansas State has a chance to be really good this season. Sophomore Marcus Foster has a shot to end up as the best shooting guard in the country this season, while Wesley Iwundu will be a trendy breakout candidate this year. Justin Edwards was a very productive player in his two seasons at Maine and will compete with Malek Harris for minutes on the wing. Stephen Hurt and Brandon Bolden will help add height inside to the muscle-bound duo of Thomas Gipson and D.J. Johnson. The biggest question mark is at the point. Can Jevon Thomas or Nigel Johnson embrace the role?
Last Season: 24-10, 12-6 American (t-3rd), lost in the Round of 32
Key Losses: Joe Jackson, Michael Dixon, Geron Johnson, Chris Crawford
Key Returnees: Austin Nichols (9.3 ppg, 4.3 rpg), Shaq Goodwin (11.5 ppg, 6.5 rpg), Nick King (4.9 ppg, 3.3 rpg)
Key Newcomers: Kedren Johnson (transfer), Calvin Godfrey (transfer), Dominic Magee, Trahson Burrell, Chris Hawkins, Avery Woodson
Outlook: Last season, Josh Pastner’s team was built around a talented, veteran perimeter attack. This season, all four of those guards are gone, meaning the strength of the Tigers will be their young, talented front line of Austin Nichols, Shaq Goodwin and Nick King. The perimeter is a massive question mark, however. Vanderbilt transfer Kedren Johnson, who sat out the 2013-2014 season, is the only guard on the roster that has played Division I basketball, and it’s still unclear whether he is going to be cleared to play this season. Pookie Powell, Dominic Magee and Markel Crawford, who is coming off of an injury, are expected to see big minutes at the guard spot.
Last Season: 19-13, 11-7 Big Ten (3rd), lost in the Round of 64
Key Newcomers: Jacob Hammond, Tarin Smith, Moses Abraham (transfer)
Outlook: The Huskers were one of the most surprising teams in the country last season, coming out of nowhere to finish fourth in the Big Ten. They return three of their top four scorers — leading scorer Terran Petteway, wing Shavon Shields and stretch four Walter Pitchford — and also get back Tai Webster, a talented guard who played for New Zealand in the FIBA Basketball World Cup. They won’t be sneaking up on anyone this year, but good luck trying to get a win at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
Ohio State Buckeyes
Last Season: 25-10, 10-8 Big Ten (5th), lost in the Round of 64
Key Losses: Aaron Craft, LaQuinton Ross, Lenzelle Smith Jr.
Key Returnees: Sam Thompson (7.9 ppg, 2.7 rpg), Shannon Scott (7.5 ppg, 3.4 apg, 2.0 spg), Amir Williams (7.8 ppg, 5.8 rpg)
Key Newcomers: Anthony Lee (transfer), D’Angelo Russell, Keita Bates-Diop, Jae’Sean Tate, David Bell, Kam Williams (redshirt)
Outlook: Ohio State is going to be very young as they kick off the post-Aaron Craft era, but there is talent on their roster. Shannon Scott will not replace the intangibles that Craft brought to the floor, but he should be able to replace his ability to be a lock down defender at the point. The addition of Anthony Lee up front will bolster a front line that will include Amir Williams and Marc Loving, who should be in line for a big jump in production, while Sam Thompson will once again provide aerial acrobatics and stalwart perimeter defense. The x-factor is going to be D’Angelo Russell. He’s got a reputation for being a big-time scorer on a team that will be lacking offensive firepower, but it’s not easy being a freshman scorer in a league as good as the Big Ten.
Last Season: 26-10, 11-7 ACC (5th), lost in the Round of 32
Key Newcomers: Sheldon Jeter, Cameron Johnson, Tyrone Haughton, Ryan Luther
Outlook: The Panthers will lose their two best players from last season in Lamar Patterson and Talib Zanna, but if there is anything that we’ve learned about Jamie Dixon’s team, it’s that they are always ready to call the next man up. With Cameron Wright out for ten weeks with a broken foot Durand Johnson (who’s returning from a torn ACL) will have to carry the offensive load, while James Robinson and rising sophomore Josh Newkirk will give Dixon a solid back court attack. The question mark is going to be in the front court. Michael Young had some promising moments as a freshman and Vanderbilt transfer Sheldon Jeter will be eligible this season. One of the trio of Joseph Uchebo, Tyrone Haughton, and Ryan Luther should be able to be effective in the ACC.
Last Season: 26-5, 14-4 ACC (2nd), lost in the Round of 32
Outlook: For the third straight year, Syracuse will enter the season with just one point guard on the roster, and for the second straight season, that point guard will be a freshman that is getting thrown directly into the fire. Will Kaleb Joseph follow in the footsteps of Michael Carter-Williams and Tyler Ennis? That remains to be seen, but what we do know is that he won’t have nearly the experience around him. Trevor Cooney, an inconsistent three-point marksman, is the only one of Jim Boeheim’s four leading scorers from last season that returns, and Rakeem Christmas and Dajuan Coleman won’t exactly provide a pressure release inside. Chris McCullough is a five-star prospect, but he’s more athlete than basketball player at this point. Syracuse is going to need Michael Gbinije, Ron Patterson, B.J. Johnson and Tyler Roberson to make significant improvements if they are going to contend in the ACC this year.
Last Season: 21-12, 9-9 Pac-12 (8th), lost in the NIT 1st round
Key Newcomers: Brekkott Champman, Isaiah Wright, Chris Reyes, Kyle Kuzma
Outlook: I’m quite bullish on the Utes this season. In fact, I think there’s an outside chance that they end up being the second best team in the Pac-12 this season. For starters, the Utes lost so many close games last season thanks to dreadful late-game execution, and that can only get better this year as they essentially return everyone from last season, including one of the nation’s most under-appreciated stars in do-it-all guard Delon Wright. Forward Jordan Loveridge and point guard Brandon Taylor are back as well, and Larry Krystkowiak also adds a pair of talented freshman forwards in Brekkott Chapman and Kyle Kuzma, the latter of which redshirted in Salt Lake City last season. Winning is a skill and I don’t think it was a fluke that Utah consistently lost close games, but if they improve the way I think they can this year, they may not be involved in as many close games.
After averaging just 4.3 points per game as a sophomore in 2012-13, guard Cameron Wright took a significant step forward for the Pittsburgh Panthers in their first season as a member of the ACC. Wright averaged 10.5 points, 3.2 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game last season, giving Jamie Dixon needed perimeter production to supplement the output of seniors Lamar Patterson and Talib Zanna.
With Patterson and Zanna having graduated Wright is expected to be an even more important figure for Pittsburgh this season, but according to reports the Panthers may be without the 6-foot-5 redshirt senior guard for a while.
As first reported by Eric Hagman of 93.7 The Fan in Pittsburgh, and later confirmed by multiple outlets, Wright broke his left foot Thursday and underwent surgery on Friday. Wright, Pitt’s leading returning scorer, is expected to miss ten weeks as a result of the injury with the hope being that he’ll return just before Christmas according to Paul Zeise of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
With Wright out of the equation for the time being, more will be needed from junior James Robinson and sophomore Josh Newkirk. Robinson averaged 7.6 points and a team-best 4.1 assists per game last season, with Newkirk adding 4.6 points per contest off the bench. However those two won’t be the only Panthers who will need to raise their production, which would have been the case even with a healthy Wright.
Sophomore forward Michael Young, who averaged 6.0 points and 4.1 rebounds per game as a freshman, performed well during the team’s summer trip to the Bahamas and will have the opportunity to do more in 2014-15. Pitt also returns redshirt junior wing Durand Johnson, who averaged 8.8 points per game before suffering a torn ACL in a win over Wake Forest on January 11. Vanderbilt transfer Sheldon Jeter, who took classes at a junior college but did not play last season, is another available option.
As a result of Friday’s news the Panthers will look to navigate a non-conference schedule that includes a spot in the Maui Invitational and games against Indiana and Manhattan without their leading returning scorer.
While there were no questions regarding the validity of No. 2 Syracuse as a contender in the ACC, with the Orange picked in the preseason poll to finish second behind No. 23 Duke, the same can’t be said of No. 22 Pittsburgh. While Jamie Dixon’s Panthers entered the game undefeated in ACC play and 16-1 overall, there were some who wondered just how good Pittsburgh was.
Why? It likely had a lot to do with their non-conference slate, with Pittsburgh’s best win coming against Stanford and the majority of their wins coming against teams with triple-digit computer rankings. But to focus solely on that would be a mistake, as players such as Lamar Patterson, Cameron Wright and Talib Zanna have improved since last season and have shown themselves to be formidable talents in the ACC.
If anything Pitt’s 59-54 loss at the Carrier Dome showed a national audience that, even in defeat, the Panthers are without a doubt a contender in the ACC. Pitt attacked the Syracuse zone well, using good ball movement to hit the high post and short corner, but the issue for them was the number of missed opportunities close to the basket.
Syracuse, which entered the game ranked fourth in the country in block percentage, finished the game with seven blocked shots and Pittsburgh made just four of their ten layup/dunk attempts. According to hoop-math.com the Panthers entered Saturday shooting 54.3% at the rim and while that 14-percent margin may not look like much, against a team as good as Syracuse those missed opportunities can prove costly.
That was the case for Pittsburgh, who can also take positives such as their effort on the boards away from the loss. The Panthers rebounded 44.4% of their misses, scoring 19 second-chance points as a result, and limited Syracuse to just three fast-break points. While the Orange aren’t the running team we’ve come accustomed to seeing over the years they have the ability to bury teams if allowed to get out in the open floor. Pittsburgh, due in part to their ability to crash the offensive glass, took that away.
No team as good as Pittsburgh has much interest in “moral victories,” and that’s how it should be. Under Dixon the Panthers have accomplished too much over the years to think that simply hanging tough at the Carrier Dome is cause for celebration. With options such as Patterson, Wright, Zanna and point guard James Robinson they’re more than capable of winning a game of this magnitude despite falling short on Saturday.
Pittsburgh likely needed no convincing of that even before Saturday afternoon. If anything, they showed others what they already knew themselves: they’re a contender for the ACC title.