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.

Report: Western Kentucky’s Lamonte Bearden staying in 2018 NBA Draft

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Western Kentucky guard Lamonte Bearden will stay in the 2018 NBA Draft after hiring an agent, according to a report from ESPN’s Jeff Goodman.

The 6-foot-3 Bearden just completed his redshirt junior season with the Hilltoppers as he averaged 11.8 points, 3.4 assists and 2.3 rebounds per game. A slippery guard with good size, Bearden shot 47 percent from the field and 82 percent from the charity stripe while also getting in the passing lanes for 1.7 steals per game.

Although Bearden has good size and athleticism at lead guard, his perimeter jumper has been inconsistent during his college career. He was 31 percent from three-point range (a career high) this past season. Starting his college career at Buffalo, Bearden helped lead the Bulls to the NCAA tournament before opting to play in Conference USA for Western Kentucky.

The Hilltoppers will certainly miss Bearden’s presence in their backcourt as the program has seven new players signed for next season.

USC makes a statement landing Class of 2019 four-star forward Isaiah Mobley

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USC ended a strong week of recruiting with another major statement on Friday afternoon as four-star Class of 2019 forward Isaiah Mobley pledged to the Trojans.

The second major Class of 2019 commitment for USC during the week, the 6-foot-9 power forward joins five-star big man Onyeka Okongwu. The Compton Magic teammates should be able to help replace the loss of Bennie Boatwright and Chimezie Metu, with Mobley playing the skilled, floor-spacing Boatwright’s role and Okongwu providing the interior energy of Metu.

Having two highly-touted big men commit in the same week is huge for USC. And it looks like the start of even bigger things in a continually-evolving SoCal recruiting war against Pac-12 rival UCLA.

Landing both Mobley and Okongwu is significant for the Trojans for a number of reasons. As previously mentioned, both come from the famous Compton Magic grassroots program that runs on the adidas Gauntlet. While landing AAU teammates from a regional program is common for high-major programs of USC’s stature, the commitments signify that the Trojans are the ones with the biggest pull with the Magic at the current moment.

And the Magic used to get raided by UCLA.

In the past few years, the Bruins signed T.J. Leaf, Ike Anigbogu, Jaylen Hands and Jalen Hill from the Compton Magic. Now, it’s USC who looks to be in the driver’s seat recruiting the program.

The Trojans aren’t done, either.

Newly-hired USC assistant coach Eric Mobley is the father Isaiah Mobley, as well as five-star Class of 2020 big man Evan Mobley. As Rivals national recruiting analyst Eric Bossi noted in his story about Isaiah, “Barring something strange happening, look for the younger Mobley to join his brother and father by committing to USC within the next two weeks.”

That would mean the Trojans would have landed three top-30 caliber big men in the span of a few weeks. That allows the USC coaching staff to recruit other positions extremely hard. Outside of Kentucky, USC has arguably the best future recruiting status of any program in the country.

The Trojans have taken full advantage of UCLA letting go popular assistant coach David Grace. The Bruins are still pulling in top-100 prospects, as evidenced by Grant Sherfield and Jaime Jaquez’s commitments in the Class of 2019, but losing two Magic kids in a week to a rival has to sting.

Considering where USC was last fall with the FBI investigation, who saw this type of recruiting swing coming? Other programs involved in the investigation like Arizona, Auburn and Oklahoma State have landed solid recruits. They also haven’t pulled in nearly the high-level talent that the Trojans currently have committed.

Even amidst the uncertainty surrounding the FBI investigation, USC is still pulling in elite talent while beating local rivals. It’ll be fascinating to see if the Trojans can continue to recruit at this level as they try to fill out the rest of an important recruiting class.

USF signs Oklahoma State transfer Zack Dawson

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USF landed a major addition on Friday as the school announced the signing of Oklahoma State transfer guard Zack Dawson.

The 6-foot-3 Dawson is a former consensus top-100 prospect coming out of high school as he’ll have to sit out the 2018-19 season due to NCAA transfer rules. A native of the region, Dawson will have three years of eligibility remaining once he’s able to play again.

Dismissed from Oklahoma State on Dec. 14 for violating team rules, Dawson averaged 4.4 points and1.6 assists per contest as he only suited up in five games for the Cowboys. Once Dawson is eligible to play for USF, he gives the Bulls a potentially dynamic backcourt along with rising sophomore guard David Collins.

“We are excited to welcome Zack back home to Florida as a member of the Bulls family,” USF head coach Brian Gregory said in a release. “He is a dynamic and versatile guard who can impact the game in a variety of ways. Zack comes from one of the best high school programs in the state, South Miami High School, so he immediately brings a championship attitude here to the University of South Florida.”

This is a really nice pickup for the Bulls, as they utilized a local transfer to help bolster the roster. Landing top-100 kids out of high school is going to be tough until USF boosts its basketball credibility. But getting a former top-100 player on the transfer market is a solid approach to building the Bulls into a respectable threat.

Michael Porter Jr.: ‘I’m the best player in this draft’

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The more I think about it, the more that Michael Porter Jr. is becoming the most interesting prospect at the top of the 2018 NBA Draft.

As a high school senior, he was considered by many to be the top player in the class, a 6-foot-10 combo-forward with a lethal three-point shot, NBA dunk contest athleticism and the versatility to, one day, be a multi-positional defender that would seamlessly fit into fit into the modern NBA.

But his one and only season at Missouri was derailed by back surgery, and that has allowed the rest of the class of 2017 to shine while we have focused on everything else that comes with drafting Porter. The reputation that he had for the majority of his high school career of being soft. The intel that was coming out of Missouri, that he was cocky and arrogant and something of a bad teammate. Questions about whether or not he is truly a wing or a four, more like a more athletic Lauri Markkanen.

When the only thing that we’ve had a chance to see this season is an out-of-shape Porter struggling in postseason games, it shouldn’t really be a surprise that his hype train has derailed.

“I know without a doubt that I’m the — I played against all these guys, they’re all great players — but I’m the best player in this draft,” Porter told ESPN. “And I just can’t wait to show what I’m capable of.”

And therein lies the conundrum for any team drafting him.

I have little doubt that Porter is going to be able to score and score a lot in the NBA. I think he and Bagley are the safest bets to average 20 points at the NBA level before their rookie contract runs out.

But putting up points and playing on winning basketball teams are not one and the same. For a ten-year stretch after his rookie season, Rudy Gay averaged at least 17.2 points while making the playoffs once during that stretch. Is that what Porter is going to turn into at the next level? Or will be find a way to become the kind of NBA defender his athleticism says he should be and, by the time he signs his first contract extension, end up the player that Paul George is?

The mitigating factor here is that Porter is going to do a fantastic job in every interview he has. He’s an intelligent, charismatic and articulate kid that is going to be able to sell himself. The red flags that he has aren’t going to show when he’s sitting down in front of NBA general managers.

They would have shown up — or been written off — if there was a season’s worth of game-tape available, but there isn’t. What that means is that scouts are going to have to decide whether or not Porter, who by all accounts had a very impressive senior season in high school, is that player or the one that had the reputation for being soft for years before that.

And all of that is going to come after the doctor’s have a chance to examine his back to see if the surgery he underwent fixed what was wrong, or if this is the kind of situation where a recurrence is likely.

The result is the widest range for any player at the top of the draft.

He could sell someone on taking him as a top four pick. He could also slide his way down to the Knicks at No. 9 or the 76ers at No. 10.

Which is what makes him the most interesting prospect at the top of this draft.

P.J. Washington ‘definitely going back to school’ without first round guarantee

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Kentucky forward P.J. Washington is one of the handful of players that currently finds themselves in the tenuous position of having their name in the NBA draft pool without having a clear picture of where, exactly, they are going to end up getting picked.

Will they be a late-first round pick? Will he be an early second round pick? Will he even be drafted at all?

Washington told reporters at the NBA combine this week that, if he’s a first round pick, he’ll be heading to the NBA. If he only gets a second round guarantee, he’ll be returning to school.

As we detailed last week, getting selected in the second round does not mean a player is destined to end up being broke his first year out of school. In the last six drafts, only one college player picked in the top ten picks of the second round (31-40) did not receive a guaranteed contract. In the 2017 NBA Draft, every college player selected in the top 50 received a guaranteed deal of at least one year, and Thomas Bryant was the only player whose one-year guaranteed deal was at the league minimum.

That doesn’t mean that Washington should leave Kentucky if he’s going to be a second round pick. If he returns to school, becomes a 42 percent three-point shooter (and can make free throws) and proves that he’s more versatile defensively than he was his year, then he could move up into the first round in a weaker 2019 draft.

It’s a risk for him, financially, to leave after this year if he doesn’t get that first round guarantee. It’s also a risk to return to school, where the best-case scenario isn’t always what happens.

I don’t envy the decision he has to make, but I am glad that Washington will have every chance in the world to be informed about the decision.