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.

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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.

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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.

Miles Kelly leads Ga. Tech to 79-77 win over rival Georgia

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: DEC 02 Northeastern at Georgia Tech
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ATLANTA – Georgia Tech’s Miles Kelly hit another winning shot against a state rival.

Terry Roberts endured a nightmarish final minute for Georgia.

Kelly hit a long 3-pointer and then a drove for the game-winning floater with 23 seconds remaining as the Yellow Jackets rallied to beat Georgia 79-77 on Tuesday night.

Kelly hit the winning shot in similar fashion against Georgia State on Nov. 12. He did it again to beat the Bulldogs, finishing with a team-high 17 points after failing to score in the first half.

“I’m going to continue to keep shooting, no matter how many times I miss,” Kelly said.

Roberts missed a 3-pointer, turned the ball over twice with bad passes, and was called for an offensive foul as he was trying to drive for the basket that would’ve sent the game to overtime.

“A tough finish for us,” Georgia first-year coach Mike White said. “We were in position to steal one on the road.”

A pair of second-chance buckets seemingly put Georgia (7-3) in control with a 77-73 lead.

The Bulldogs wouldn’t score again as Kelly led the comeback for the Yellow Jackets (6-3) – with a big assist from Roberts.

He had a chance to essentially seal it for the Bulldogs, but his jumper beyond the arc clanked off the rim.

Georgia Tech grabbed the rebound and raced down the court, where Kelly swished a 3 from well behind the stripe that brought Georgia Tech within a point with about a minute left.

Trying to work the ball inside, Roberts made an ill-advised entry pass that was deflected and stolen by Deivon Smith, setting up Kelly’s drive for the basket that put the Yellow Jackets back ahead,

Roberts tried a drive of his own, only to have it blocked by Jalon Moore. Georgia retained possession, but Roberts’ inbounds pass was stolen by Moore, who was fouled and made one of two free throws.

Roberts took the ball again and hurriedly dribbled toward the basket, only to be called for an offensive foul when he sent Smith flying.

“Just sacrificing my body for the team,” Smith said.

Georgia stole an inbounds pass around midcourt, giving Karlo Oquendo one last shot to launch a 3 that still would’ve won it for the Bulldogs. It bounced off the rim.

The game was tight throughout. Neither team led by more than eight, and a sequence in the second half showed just how tightly these rivals were matched.

With both squads playing at a frenetic pace and showing little regard for defense, the lead changed hands on eight straight possessions as the teams traded baskets.

Stunningly, they combined to score on 19 straight possessions before Georgia’s Matthew-Alexander Moncrieffe missed a pair of free throws with 5:17 remaining.

FIRING UP THE CROWD

Perhaps the biggest cheer of the night came when Georgia Tech football coach Brent Key addressed the crowd at halftime.

Key, who served as interim coach for the last eight games of the season, was introduced Monday as the full-time choice for job.

He fired up the fans by getting them to chant “To hell with Georgia” over and over again. When a smattering of Bulldogs fans responded with barks, Key smiled and egged on the Yellow Jackets crowd to drown them out.

He also declared Georgia Tech to be the “greatest school in the entire state, the entire country,” following up his vow the previous day to not back down from the defending national champion and top-ranked Bulldogs.

BIG PICTURE

Georgia: This will be a tough one to swallow for Roberts, who led his team with 16 points and seven assists. The Bulldogs lost despite shooting 53.4% from the field.

Georgia Tech: Four players scored in double figures, and two others players finished with eight points. But it was Kelly, as usual, who had the ball in his hands at the end of a tight game.

UP NEXT

Georgia: After a nearly two-week break, the Bulldogs return to Atlanta on Dec. 18 to face Notre Dame at State Farm Arena in the Holiday Hoopsgiving event.

Georgia Tech: Head to North Carolina on Saturday for the Atlantic Coast Conference opener against the struggling Tar Heels.

No. 17 Illinois rallies late, beats No. 2 Texas 85-78 in OT

Illinois v Maryland
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NEW YORK – Terrence Shannon Jr. scored 12 of his 16 points in overtime, including the tiebreaking 3-pointer with 3:34 remaining, and No. 17 Illinois rallied to hand second-ranked Texas its first loss of the season, 85-78 on Tuesday night in the Jimmy V Classic.

Jayden Epps added 11 points, including the final five points of regulation – a 3-pointer with 35 seconds left and two tying free throws with 8 seconds remaining. Epps then blocked Marcus Carr’s jumper in the lane just before the buzzer to force overtime in an entertaining showdown at Madison Square Garden.

Matthew Mayer, who faced Texas several times at Baylor, tied a career high with 21 points as he made his first seven shots and finished 8 of 10.

Shannon, who missed eight of nine shots in regulation, took over in the extra period to help Illinois (7-2) beat a ranked foe for the second time this season. He opened overtime with a jumper after Marcus Carr was called for traveling and then hit an open 3 from the right wing over Brock Cunningham for a 73-70 lead.

Shannon then converted a reverse layup and finished off a three-point play to make it 77-70 with 2:16 left. Carr hit two free throws to get Texas within one with 1:28 remaining. Jayden Epps hit a layup, RJ Melendez sank two free throws to put Illinois ahead by five, and Shannon made two free throws with 27.7 seconds left.

Timmy Allen scored a season-high 21 points for Texas (6-1), which failed to open 7-0 for the first time since 2014-15. Tyrese Hunter added 10 points but Carr was held to nine points on 3-of-14 shooting as Texas had 12 shots blocked and shot 42%.

Texas took its only double-digit lead when Dillon Mitchell hit a layup with 8:28 left. Illinois cut the lead to 58-56 on a 3 by Melendez nearly four minutes later. After Cunningham hit an open 3 with 4:15 remaining, Si’Jabari Rice made a 3 for a 64-58 lead.

Allen found Cunningham for an open jumper that counted when officials called goaltending on Illinois’ Coleman Hawkins. That gave Texas a 65-61 lead with with 1:51 remaining.

Carr’s rainbow jumper in the lane made it 68-63 with a minute left and Illinois had a 3-pointer by Melendez waved off because it called timeout with 45.3 seconds left. After the timeout, Epps made an open corner 3 with 33 seconds remaining.

Hunter missed the front end of a 1-and-1 to set up Epps’ tying free throws.

BIG PICTURE

Illinois: The Illini continued to struggle with turnovers, committing 17. But only two of them came in the final 10-plus minutes of regulation or overtime. Illinois’ 15th turnover was an offensive foul by Mayer, which sent him to the bench with four fouls with 10:42 remaining.

Texas: The Longhorns had little offense beyond Allen and Hunter. While the duo was a combined 13 of 29, the rest of the team missed 24 of 40 shots.

UP NEXT

Illinois hosts Penn State in its second Big Ten game on Saturday. The Illini lost their conference opener to No. 13 Maryland.

Texas hosts Arkansas-Pine Bluff in the Jimmy Blacklock Classic on Saturday.

Clark, Gardner lift No. 3 Virginia past James Madison, 55-50

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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – Kihei Clark scored 18 points, Jayden Gardner had 14 points and eight rebounds, and No. 3 Virginia beat feisty in-state rival James Madison 55-50 on Tuesday night.

The Cavaliers (8-0), who lost starting guard Reece Beekman to a right leg injury early in the first half, prevented the Dukes (7-3) from winning a second straight December game in Charlottesville. James Madison beat Virginia 52-49 last Dec. 7.

Clark had seven assists while playing nearly 39 minutes with Beekman sidelined.

“Kihei gave everything he had and I had to, you know, ride him,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “Sure, he missed some free throws. And I know he made some mistakes, but you could just see him, you know, how tough-minded he was.”

Dukes coach Mark Byington said he told Clark – who’s playing his fifth season for Virginia – after last year’s game that he loved watching him play.

“He’s seen everything and nothing you’re going to do is going to surprise him,” Byington said. “There’s nothing Kihei Clark hasn’t seen out there, and he’s poised. I mean, you can’t rattle him. … So I told him this time I was like, `Look, I better never see you in college basketball again.’ But he’s one of my favorite players to watch just because he’s tough, talented, and he’s a winner.”

Takal Molson scored 18 of his 20 points in the second half for James Madison, including a 3-pointer that tied the game at 42-all with 7:47 to play. Gardner responded for Virginia by scoring five straight points in a 9-1 run.

The Cavaliers kept the Dukes in the game by missing eight of 13 free throws over the last six minutes.

Molson made an acrobatic layup while being fouled with 1:51 left, but he missed the free throw. He scored again with 1:01 left, pulling the Dukes within 52-50, but freshman Ryan Dunn answered with a strong move on the baseline for Virginia with 35 seconds to play.

James Madison threw the ball away on its ensuing possession.

BIG PICTURE

James Madison: The Dukes came into the game leading the nation in scoring (93.3 points per game) and having scored as many as 95 points five times. They were shooting 52.7% for the year, but made just four of their first 19 shots and finished 15 of 55 (26.9%). Vado Morse scored 11 points, the only other JMU player in double figures.

“Yeah, we knew how good they were and they showed it in spots tonight,” Gardner said. “But I think you saw a lot of resiliency tonight on the defensive end getting crucial stops.”

Virginia: The Cavaliers played the final 36 minutes without Beekman and gave extensive minutes to freshman Isaac McKneely. Virginia will hope Beekman, its third-leading scorer and a primary ballhandler and defender, recovers in time for its showdown with No. 1 Houston on Dec. 17.

UP NEXT

The Dukes return home to play Gallaudet on Saturday night.

Virginia has a 10-day break before hosting the top-ranked Cougars.

No. 25 Villanova women beat American University 83-42

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VILLANOVA, Pa. – Maddy Siegrist had 24 points and seven rebounds, Lucy Olsen added 14 points and No. 25 Villanova beat American University 83-42 on Tuesday night.

Siegrist scored 15 points in the opening 13 minutes as Villanova led 34-15. The Wildcats extended it to 46-23 by halftime before starting the second half on a 9-0 run for a 32-point lead.

Villanova added an 8-0 run in the fourth quarter for its largest lead of the game at 79-36. The Wildcats held American to 15-of-50 shooting (30%) and scored 21 points off 19 turnovers.

Christina Dalce scored 13 points for Villanova (8-2), which plays Saint Joseph’s on Saturday before taking a week off for final exams. Siegrist, who was coming off a 29-point performance on Sunday, made 10 of 17 shots as Villanova shot 56%.

Emily Johns scored 12 points for American (0-8), which hosts Marist (3-5) on Saturday.

No. 6 UConn star Azzi Fudd out 3-6 weeks with knee injury

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STORRS, Conn. — Sixth-ranked UConn’s top scorer, Azzi Fudd, is expected to be out three to six weeks because of a right knee injury she suffered during her team’s weekend loss to No. 5 Notre Dame, a university athletic spokesperson said.

The sophomore guard was injured in the first half of the game when a teammate collided into her. She returned midway through the second period to play four hobbled minutes, but sat the rest of the way.

“I think she’ll be all right,” coach Geno Auriemma said afterward.

Fudd entered the game averaging 24.0 points but finished scoreless on two shots over 13 minutes in the team’s first loss of the season.

The athletic spokesperson didn’t specify the type of knee injury Fudd sustained.

She underwent evaluation and an MRI confirmed the injury, the spokesperson said.

The Huskies host Princeton next.