Conference Preview: ACC topped by Tobacco Road triumvirate

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Throughout the month of October, CollegeBasketballTalk will be rolling out our previews for the 2012-2013 season. Check back at 9 a.m. and just after lunch every day, Monday-Friday, for a new preview item.

To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. To look at the rest of the Top 25, click here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.

Sometimes, things have a way of working out. With Pitt, Syracuse and eventually Notre Dame preparing to join the ACC, unbalanced schedules are the wave of the future. This may be the last season in which the Triangle powers of Duke, North Carolina and N.C. State play one another twice apiece in the regular season. It just so happens that this is also the first time in a long time in which all three programs are nationally ranked and favored to reach the post-season as well, thanks to the Wolfpack resurgence.

This could be a rare jewel of a season in the ACC. And, hey, there are even nine other schools fielding teams this year. We knew that. That’s why we’re the college basketball experts.

Five things to know

1. Pitt and Syracuse join the league next season, which will drastically alter the character of a league that was once so very Southern.

2. Notre Dame will remain independent in football, but may have paved the way to full conference membership by agreeing to move basketball and other sports to the ACC at some point in the near future.

3. Roy Williams endured a cancer scare this fall, but is back and ready to lead his Tar Heels, who are gunning for a third straight 1st-place league finish.

4. Mark Gottfried is in just his second year as NC State head coach, but he has eight Big Dance appearances on his resume. One with the Wolfpack, five with Alabama, and two with Murray State.

5. Aside from hall of famers Mike Krzyzewski (11) and Roy Williams (7), the only other ACC coach with a Final Four appearance on his resume is Miami’s Jim Larranaga, who took George Mason to the brink in 2006.

Impact newcomers:

Rodney Purvis – 6’4”, 190 lb. G, NC State: Purvis (pictured, left) is one of those guys who can get to the hoop in a hurry and he’s not afraid to take some contact once he gets in amongst the trees. ACC coaches named him the preseason newcomer of the year, and we’re not going to dispute that.

Rasheed Sulaimon – 6’3”, 175 lb. G, Duke: Sulaimon is not quite the deadly jump-shooter Coach K had last year in Austin Rivers, but he has a respectable stroke to complement his ability to get to the rim. It probably goes without saying that he’s a very smart player as well, which means he should be able to improve as the season goes on.

T.J. Warren – 6’7”, 205 lb. SF, NC State: Warren is a rangy player from Durham who also drew interest from Chapel Hill. That he ended up in Raleigh is one sure sign the Wolfpack are on the rise. His ability to get open and make plays off the dribble will make him a key reserve on an already loaded team.

Amile Jefferson – 6’9”, 190 lb. F, Duke: Jefferson was a McDonald’s All-American, and was widely considered to be the top prospect coming out of hoops-mad Philly. He’s pretty slender, but he’ll still be a power forward in the mold of Gumby-like Tar Heel John Henson. Great body control, a nice shooting touch, and enough leverage to get inside when necessary.

Shaquille Cleare – 6’9” 270lb. C, Maryland: Cleare is a brick house. He can take it to the rim with authority, or drop in a hook shot over a bodied-up defender. James Padgett was forced to be the leading rebounder for the Terps last season, and it was too much for him. Here comes big-time help.

Breakout players:

Quinn Cook – 6’1” 175 lb. G, Duke: The Blue Devils have made do with combo guards at the point for a while now, if you consider that Kyrie Irving missed most of his one year in Durham due to “the toe”. If Cook makes good use of his increased playing time this year, he’ll become that playmaker who gets the ball inside to the Plumlees and frees up slashing Sulaimon and shooting Curry as marquee scorers.

Reggie Bullock – 6’7” 205 lb. G, UNC: Bullock had a great summer, showing off increased range and leadership skills in the North Carolina Pro-Am league. The most intriguing thing about Bullock is that he puts a wide range of perimeter abilities into a 6’7” body, which makes him a very difficult matchup on either end of the floor.

Ian Miller – 6’3” 186 lb. G, Florida State: Miller put together some really solid games in the ACC last season. He had an 18 point game to help usher in-state rival Miami out of the ACC tournament last season, then fouled out after just 15 minutes against Duke the next night. If Miller gets consistent alongside Michael Snaer, look out for the Seminoles.

James Michael McAdoo – 6’9” 220 lb. F, UNC: As much as everyone’s talking about McAdoo these days, you’d think he’d broken out already. In a way, he did. His wildly inconsistent showing as a freshman started to come together in March, culminating in a 15-point/19 minute explosion against Kansas in an Elite Eight loss. Expect many double-doubles this season.

Alex Len – 7’1” 225 lb. C, Maryland: Len had an up-and-down season as a new guy in College Park, partly because he had to sit out ten games, partly because he didn’t really speak English very well. He’s past those two problems now, and he’s added a lot of strength to his frame. Even if he just keeps up his 2 blocks per game pace, he’s making a huge impact. If he gets his score on, Maryland could break up the Triangle love fest.

Player of year: Lorenzo Brown – 6’5” 186 lb. G, NC State: CJ Leslie is getting the nod from plenty of pundits, and he is likely to be the most visible, highlight-reel-worthy member of the Pack this season. On a team with this much talent, and such high expectations, I’m putting the onus on Brown (pictured, right). His 6.3 assists per game last season ranked second only to Kendall Marshall in the league, and Brown is a major scoring threat as well. He can bomb from downtown, drive and dish, drive and score, and plays marvelous defense. He’s the engine that drives the Wolfpack bandwagon.

All conference performers: Brown; CJ Leslie, NC State; Michael Snaer, FSU; James Michael McAdoo, UNC; Mason Plumlee, Duke.

Coach under pressure: Jeff Bzdelik, Wake Forest – Now that Seth Greenberg is gone at Virginia Tech, it’s time for a passing of the torch. Many were nonplussed by Wake’s hiring of Bzdelik, a middling college coach at Air Force and Colorado best known for his time at the helm of the Denver Nuggets. Bzdelik has won all of five ACC games in two years, and he looks even less impressive thanks to the fast resurgence of NC State under Mark Gottfried.

Predicted finish

1. NC State – Too much talent. And, honestly, Sidney Lowe was never bad at landing talent, either. But Mark Gottfried seems to know what to do with it, and how to layer in incoming classes behind loyal veterans. That’s classic Tobacco Road-level stuff.

2. North Carolina – Only Kentucky lost more talent to the NBA last season than the Tar Heels, but Carolina has options. Roy Williams will have a nice blend of veterans and talented rookies ready to keep the train on the track.

3. Duke – The never-ending supply of Plumlees has become a core virtue of the Blue Devil program these days. With Marshall injured to start the season, and the point still somewhat in question, coaching will make all the difference. Oh, well then.

4. Florida State – Snaer talked his way onto our preseason watch list, which made us take more note of his play. The ‘Noles will probably struggle a bit without a Bernard James type in the paint, but there’s plenty of talent to make it work, and always that dag nasty Leonard Hamilton defense.

5. Miami – Senior-laden and big as all-get-out. Kenny Kadji and Reggie Johnson will once again take care of all scoring and defense inside the half-circle, and Durand Scott will be there to drop dimes or score as needed.

6. Maryland – Mark Turgeon may have lost out to Kentucky on some prime recruits, but who hasn’t sung that song in recent seasons? The former Wichita State and Texas A&M head man has a fair amount of talent, and if he can get Pe’Shon Howard and Nick Faust on the floor together, things could go very well.

7. Virginia – Tony Bennett keeps bringing in heralded classes, then watching half of the new guys walk out the door soon thereafter. For years, his rock was Mike Scott, who finally graduated after getting the ‘Hoos back to the Big Dance last season. This year, much falls on senior point guard Jontel Evans, who came up lame to start the season.

8. Georgia Tech – Brian Gregory has a young lineup drawn almost entirely from within the borders of the Peach State. Mfon Udofia and Kammeon Holsey are the inside-out duo, so they’ll need at least one more scorer to step up.

9. Clemson – Brad Brownell is a good coach, but his Tigers have yet to establish an identity. To be fair, their identity under former head coach Oliver Purnell was “over promise, peak too soon, under deliver,” so a little patience may be in order.

10. Wake Forest – Travis McKie is such a strong player, he’d probably be an all-league performer if he were playing elsewhere. CJ Harris is going to do his level best to get the Deacs where they want to go, but losing Tony Chennault to Villanova and Carson Desrosiers to Providence hurt, a lot.

11. Boston College – The jury is still out on whether Steve Donahue’s fancy Ivy League ways will translate to Chestnut Hill. The talent level at BC is just not ACC-caliber right now, so the system will have to triumph for this ranking to change.

12. Virginia Tech – Too much turmoil in Blacksburg. Seth Greenberg was let go too late in the offseason for his unknown replacement, James Johnson, to get a real grip on the reins. This team could struggle to recover for some time.

Eric Angevine is the editor of Storming the Floor. He tweets @stfhoops.

John Petty Jr. returns to Alabama for senior season

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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Alabama guard John Petty Jr. is staying in school instead of entering the NBA draft.

The Crimson Tide junior announced his decision to return for his senior season Monday on Twitter, proclaiming: “I’m back.”

Petty, the Tide’s top 3-point shooter, averaged 14.5 points and a team-high 6.6 rebounds rebounds last season. He was second on the team in assists.

Petty made 85 3-pointers in 29 games, shooting at a 44% clip.

Alabama coach Nate Oats called him “one of the best, if not the best, shooters in the country.”

“He’s made it clear that it’s his goal to become a first round pick in the 2021 NBA Draft and we’re going to work with him to make sure he’s in the best position to reach that goal,” Oats said.

Fellow Tide guard Kira Lewis Jr. is regarded as a likely first-round draft pick.

McKinley Wright IV returns to Colorado

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McKinley Wright IV will be back for season No. 4 with the Colorado Buffaloes.

The point guard tested the NBA draft process before announcing a return for his senior year. It’s a big boost for a Buffaloes team that’s coming off a 21-11 mark in 2019-20 and was potentially looking at an NCAA Tournament bid before the season was halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Wright was an All-Pac-12 first team selection a season ago, along with an all-defensive team pick. He and athletic forward Tyler Bey declared for the draft in late March. Bey remains in the draft.

“We’ve got unfinished business,” said Wright, who averaged 14.4 points and 5.0 assists per game last season.

Midway through the season, the Buffaloes were looking like a lock for their first NCAA Tournament appearance since ’15-16. Then, the team hit a five-game skid, including a loss to Washington State in the Pac-12 tournament. Simply put, they hit a defensive rut they just couldn’t shake out of, Wright said. It drove him to work that much harder in the offseason.

“This is my last go-around and I’ve got big dreams,” the 6-footer from Minnesota said. “I want to take CU to a place they haven’t been in a while. We want to go back to the tournament and win high-level games.”

The feedback from NBA scouts was reaffirming for Wright. He said they appreciated his transition game, movement away from the ball and his defensive intangibles. They also gave Wright areas he needed to shore up such as assist-to-turnover ratio and shooting the 3-pointer with more consistency.

He took it to heart while training in Arizona during the pandemic. He recently returned to Boulder, Colorado, where he’s going through quarantine before joining his teammates for workouts.

“The work I put in and the time I spent in the gym compared to all my other offseasons, it’s a big gap,” Wright said. “Last offseason, I thought I worked hard. But it was nothing compared to the time and different type of mindset I put myself in this year.”

Another motivating factor for his return was this: a chance to be the first in his family to earn his college degree. He’s majoring in ethnic studies with a minor in communications.

“My grandparents are excited about that. My parents are excited about that,” Wright said. “I’m excited about that as well.”

Wright also has an opportunity to take over the top spot on the school’s all-time assists list. His 501 career assists trail only Jay Humphries, who had 562 from 1980-84. Wright also ranks 13th all-time with 1,370 career points.

NOTES: Colorado announced the death of 95-year-old fan Betty Hoover, who along with her twin sister, Peggy Coppom, became fixtures at Buffs sporting events and were season ticket holders since 1958. Wright used to run into them not only on the court, but at the local bank. “I’ve never met anyone as loving and supporting and caring as those two,” Wright said. “They hold a special place in my heart. It sucks that Betty won’t be at any games this year. Maybe we can do something, put her name on our jersey. They’re two of the biggest fans in CU history.”

Jared Butler returns to Baylor

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Baylor got some huge news on Monday as potential All-American Jared Butler announced that he will be returning to school for his junior season, joining MaCio Teague is pulling his name out of the 2020 NBA Draft to get the band back together.

Butler was Baylor’s leading scorer a season ago, averaging 16.0 points and 3.1 assists for a team that went 26-4, spent a portion of the season as the No. 1 team in the country and was in line to receive a 1-seed had the 2020 NCAA Tournament taken place.

With Butler and Teague coming back to school, the Bears will return four starters from last season’s squad. Starting center Freddie Gillespie is gone, as is backup guard Devonte Bandoo, but those are holes that can be filled. Tristan Clark, who was Baylor’s best player during the 2018-19 season before suffering a knee injury that lingered through last year, will be back, and there is more than enough talent in the program to replace the scoring pop of Bandoo. Matthew Mayer will be in line for more minutes, while transfer Adam Flagler will be eligible this season.

Baylor will enter this season as a consensus top three team in the country. They will receive plenty of votes as the No. 1 team in the sport, making them not only a very real contender for the Big 12 regular season crown but one of the favorites to win the national title.

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As MaCio Teague returns, Baylor now awaits Jared Butler’s NBA draft decision

Butler is the key.

Baylor was one of college basketball’s best defensive teams last year. They finished fourth nationally in KenPom’s defensive efficiency metric, a ranking that dropped after they Bears lost two of their last three games to TCU and West Virginia. Where they struggled was on the offensive end of the floor. The Bears would go through droughts were points were at a premium and their best offense was a missed shot. Butler’s intrigue for NBA teams was his ability to shoot and to create space in isolation. He’s the one guy on the roster that can create something out of nothing for himself.

And now he is back to try and lead Baylor to a Final Four.

Arizona State’s Martin to return for senior season

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TEMPE, Ariz. (–Arizona State guard Remy Martin is withdrawing from the NBA draft and will return for his senior season in the desert.

“I’m blessed to have the opportunity to coach Remy Martin for one more season,” Sun Devils coach Bobby Hurley said in a statement Sunday. “Remy will be one of the best players in college basketball this year and will be on a mission to lead Arizona State basketball in its pursuit of championships.”

A 6-foot guard, Martin is the Pac-12’s leading returning scorer after averaging 19.1 points in 2019-20. He also averaged 4.1 assists per game and helped put the Sun Devils in position to reach the NCAA Tournament for the third straight year before the season was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Martin’s return should put Arizona State among the favorites to win the Pac-12 next season.

Martin joins fellow guard Alonzo Verge Jr. in returning to the Sun Devils after testing the NBA waters. Big man Romello White declared for the draft and later entered the transfer portal.

Hurley has signed one of the program’s best recruiting classes for next season, headed by five-star guard Josh Christopher.

Michigan State forward Xavier Tillman will remain in the 2020 NBA Draft

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In the end, Xavier Tillman Sr.’s decision whether or not to return to remain in the 2020 NBA Draft for his senior season came down to security.

A 6-foot-8 forward that averaged 13.7 points, 10.3 boards, 3.0 assists and 2.1 blocks this past season, Tillman was an NBC Sports third-team All-American a season ago. He’s projected as the No. 23 pick in the latest NBC Sports mock draft. He was the best NBA prospect that had yet to make a decision on his future until Sunday.

That’s when Tillman announced that he will be foregoing his final season of college eligibility to head to the NBA.

In the end, it’s probably the right decision, but it’s not one that the big fella made easily.

Tillman is unlike most college basketball players forced to make a decision on their basketball future. He is married. He has two kids, a three-year old daughter and a six-month old son. This is not a situation where he can bet on himself, head to the pro ranks and figure it out later on.

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He needs something stable, particularly given the fact that we are living in the midst of a pandemic that has put the future of sports in doubt, at least for the short term.

He needs security.

He needed to know that there would be a job for him in the NBA. Not a two-way contract. Not a spot on a camp roster or a chance to develop in the G League. Hell, there might not even be a G League next season. That was an option at Michigan State. He was living in an apartment with his family that was covered by his scholarship and stipend. He had meals paid for. He was able to take food from the training room home and have dinner with his family. He was able to get to class, to the gym, to practice and back home in time to do the dishes at night. He told NBC Sports in March that the school was able to provide him with $1,200-a-month to help pay for things like diapers high chairs. That was all going to be there if he returned to school. It was a great situation, one that lacked the uncertainty that comes with the professional level.

Because as much as I love Tillman as a role player at the next level, NBA teams do not all feel the same. The tricky thing about the draft is that it makes sense to swing for the fences on the guys that can be locked into salaries for the first four years of a contract. The Toronto Raptors took Pascal Siakam with the 27th pick and have paid less than $7 million in total salary in his first four years for a player that made an all-star team. Kyle Kuzma is averaging 16.0 points through three seasons and is on the books for $3.5 million in year four.

Tillman’s ability to defend, his basketball IQ, his play-making and his professional demeanor means that he can step into the modern NBA and do a job as a rotation player for just about any team in the league. But he doesn’t have the upside that other bigs in the same projected range have — Jalen Smith, Daniel Oturu, Jaden McDaniels, Zeke Nnaji — so there are teams that are scared off.

I don’t get it.

But Tillman’s decision to head to the professional ranks indicates that he does, indeed, feel confident in the fact that he will have gainful and steady employment next season. Since he would have walked at Michigan State’s graduation in May had it been held, that doesn’t leave much to return to school for.

The Spartans will now be left in a tough spot. There are quite a few pieces to like on this roster. Rocket Watts had promising moments as a freshman, as did Malik Hall. Gabe Brown and Marcus Bingham are both talented players. Joey Hauser had a good season at Marquette, and the early returns on freshman Mady Sissoko are promising. But this is going to be a young and unproven group.

Izzo has had less at his disposal before, but this is certainly not an ideal situation for Michigan State.