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ACC Preview: Duke’s back, but what do we make of Miami, Louisville and UNC?

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Beginning in September and running up through November 10th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2017-2018 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the ACC.

The ACC is not as loaded this season as it has been in past seasons.

Part of that is just the simple, cyclical nature of these things. North Carolina, coming off of a national title, lost five of their top seven players. Virginia lost London Perrantes and enters something of a rebuilding year. Syracuse is in full-blown rebuilding mode after six of their seven leading scorers departed. Hell, even a team like N.C. State likes the kind of elite talent that always gave us hope, and left Wolfpack nation bitterly disappointed, under Mark Gottfried.

But there won’t be a lack of intrigue this season, not with Duke finding themselves right back in the same position they were in last season or with Louisville in a position to make a run at the league title. Throw Miami and Notre Dame in mix, along with reigning champs UNC, and what the ACC may lack in star power in should make up for with drama.


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FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW

1. Louisville should be fine this season, they just need to find their new Donovan Mitchell: In case you were living under a rock for the last week and haven’t heard by now, the entirety of the college basketball world is imploding and Rick Pitino, along with his prized freshman Brian Bowen, was the first casualty of a scandal that could rock the sport to its core.

OK, maybe there is some hyperbole in there, but the truth is this: The Hall of Fame head coach Louisville had employed for the last 16 seasons was fired three days before the start of practice when it became clear that, at the very least, a member of his staff – and likely Pitino himself – orchestrated a $100,000 payment from Adidas to Bowen to get Bowen to Louisville.

What that means is that the Cardinals will be coached by David Padgett this season while playing under the cloud of more potential NCAA sanctions.

Not good.

RELATED: Scandal is business as usual | Proof players have value | Death Penalty?

But that doesn’t change the fact that the Cardinals do have top 15 talent on this roster. Assuming they find a way to maintain Pitino’s principles, this group is going to be very, very good defensively again this season. It seems like they have plus length, plus athleticism and depth at every single position … expect the point. As well as Quentin Snider played for stretches last season, I have yet to be convinced that he is a true Pitino point guard. He’ll have a chance to prove that this season, as Louisville’s success may ultimately hinge on it.

But the real x-factor this year is going to be finding a player to make ‘the leap’. Donovan Mitchell did it last year, going from prospect to producer to lottery pick in the span of what felt like two months. Will that be Deng Adel this season? He finished last year strong. What about V.J. King? Athletic and positionally-versatile wings are something Pitino is excellent at taking advantage, and reports out of Louisville have been bullish on King’s sophomore year. Maybe this is the year that Anas Mahmoud or Ray Spalding finally takes the leap.

In all likelihood, someone is going to for the Cardinals. I’m just not sure who it is yet.

And I’m not sure that they’ll get to February without self-imposing another postseason ban, or if the team will fully gel under an interim coach.

It’s a nightmare scenario, for sure. But Louisville has the talent to make this ending a happy one, at least in the short term.

RELATED: WCC Preview | Perry Ellis All-Stars | Contender Series
Marvin Bagley III (Reagan Lunn/Duke Athletics)

2. Duke is back: I’ll be taking a much deeper dive on Duke later on this fall, but suffice to say, the Blue Devils are going to be the most fascinating team to watch this season. They are the most talented team in college basketball – seriously, their starting lineup will include the No. 1 point guard in the 2017 recruiting class (Trevon Duval), the No. 2 shooting guard (Gary Trent Jr.), the Nos. 1 and 2 power forwards (Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter) and the 2016-17 Preseason National Player of the Year (Grayson Allen). Allen, himself, is must-watch TV, as his talent has been completely overshadowed by the off-the-court issues that have plagued him the last two years.

Then there are the point guard question marks. And the issues with depth. And the concern about trying to shoe-horn elite talents into smaller roles, and whether or not Marques Bolden will be happy coming off the bench for the second straight season.

And that’s before we get into the bigger picture: this is the exact same thing Duke went through last season.

It may be a soap opera, but just like Gossip Girl and the first two seasons of The O.C., I just can’t stop watching it.

MOREThe Enigma of Miles Bridges | NBC Sports Preseason All-American Team

3. Miami can win the league: I may be higher on Miami than anyone else in the country, but I think that it is justified. Let’s start with the obvious – the Hurricanes are going to have arguably the best back court in the country. Sophomore Bruce Brown is the name to know (more on him below), and he’ll be flanked by veteran JaQuan Newton and five-star freshman and projected lottery pick Lonnie Walker; Walker is dealing with a knee issue but should be healthy by the time the season starts. Those are three big, athletic and talented guards, and if we’ve learned anything about the Larrañaga era in Coral Gables, it is that he thrives with players like that.

The front court will be a bit of a question mark, but Dewan Huell is a former five-star recruit that should have a big year after playing behind Kamari Murphy last season. If the Hurricanes can find a way to adequately replace Davon Reed, we might be looking at the best team in the ACC this season. Even if they don’t, they can win the league.

4. North Carolina is going to have a hard time defending their titles: I love Joel Berry II.

I don’t see any way that he is going to have anything other than a frustrating senior season.

The Tar Heels have had a terrific amount of success the last two years. They’ve gone 66-14, won back-to-back regular season titles, an ACC tournament title and came one Kris Jenkins buzzer-beater away from winning back-to-back national titles. But that came with a typical Roy Williams team, one built around a big, powerful, veteran front line. With Tony Bradley going one-and-done, UNC’s lone veteran presence up front is Luke Maye, who is more of a stretch four than anything, and their freshmen aren’t exactly considered to be game-changing talents this season. Berry is a winner. He’ll keep them competitive, just not at the top of the league.

5. Notre Dame is the most underrated program in college basketball: No one has a better recent track record of developing talent than Mike Brey. He keeps kids in his program, lets them ride the bench for a year or two as they develop and then unleashes them on an unsuspecting ACC that thought it was finally the year the Irish were rebuilding. With Matt Farrell and Bonzie Colson already proven, and Temple Gibbs and Rex Pflueger chomping at the bit to get more minutes, we’re not yet at the Notre Dame rebuild.


Bonzie Colson (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

MORE: 2017-18 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

PRESEASON ACC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Grayson Allen, Duke

I can hear you scoffing at this pick from here, but facts are facts. As a sophomore, Allen was a second-team NBC Sports All-American, and we were far from the only outlet to have him slotted there. Prior to last season, he was the NBC Sports Preseason National Player of the Year, and again, we were far from the only outlet that made that prediction. After battling through injuries and the off-the-court distractions he created for himself, Allen had offseason surgery and, according to Mike Krzyzewski, is finally back to being healthy. That should mean that, this season, we’ll see the Grayson Allen we all expected to see last season.

THE REST OF THE ACC FIRST TEAM

  • Joel Berry II, North Carolina: Coming off of a national title, Berry is going to have to shoulder much of the load for the Tar Heels this year.
  • Bruce Brown, Miami: I am the conductor of the Bruce Brown hype train. Get aboard now while there are still seats available.
  • Bonzie Colson, Notre Dame: Colson averaged 18 points and 10 boards for the Irish last season as a junior. Expect that, at minimum, to be repeated this season.
  • Marvin Bagley III, Duke: I’m not convinced he’ll be the best player in college basketball off the bat, but he is a big time talent that fills a role Duke badly needed filled.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW

  • Matt Farrell, Notre Dame
  • Tyus Battle, Syracuse
  • V.J. King, Louisville
  • Deng Adel, Louisville
  • Ben Lammers, Georgia Tech

Bruce Brown (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

BREAKOUT STAR: Bruce Brown, Miami

There are a couple of other names to like in this league – namely Notre Dame’s Temple Gibbs and Brown’s teammate Dewan Huell – but Brown is the clear-cut favorite for me to be the ACC’s breakout star. The 6-foot-3 combo-guard showed flashes of his potential down the stretch of last season, but he may be the best two-way guard in the country and he plays for a coach that has thrived with lead guards that operate well in ball-screen actions. He’ll have to share the limelight in the back court with JaQuan Newton and Lonnie Walker, but there should be more than enough shine to go around for a team that has a real shot of winning the league.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Brad Brownell, Clemson

It’s not often that you see a coach at the high-major level go six seasons without getting to the NCAA tournament and keep his job, but that is exactly what has happened with Brownell. He reached the Big Dance in his first season with the program and, since then, has managed just a pair of NIT appearances. The good news for Brownell is that the success of Clemson’s football team might mean that no one has noticed … yet. Seven years without an NCAA tournament would likely be the nail in the coffin.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING …

The only No. 1 seed from the ACC this season is the Miami Hurricanes?

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT

Watching Duke try to figure it all out. There is an absurd amount of talent on that roster, and while the rest of the country will likely end up with Duke fatigue, the drama that inevitably creates is always going to be interesting.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR

  • 11/14, Michigan State vs. Duke, Champions Classic (Chicago)
  • 11/29, Miami at Minnesota, ACC-Big Ten Challenge
  • 11/30, Notre Dame at Michigan State, ACC-Big Ten Challenge
  • 12/3, Seton Hall at Louisville
  • 12/29, Louisville at Kentucky

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

POWER RANKINGS

1. Duke: The Blue Devils are the most talented team in the conference. Does that mean it will translate to the being the best team in the conference? It did in 2015. It didn’t in 2017. However it does turn out, the presence of Grayson Allen and Marvin Bagley III on this roster will mean that Duke is one of the most talked about teams in the country. So get used to it.
2. Miami: I’m very, very in on Miami this year. I love their back court, I think they have a ton of young talent on the roster, and when you give Jim Larrañaga talented guards and athletic big men, good things usually happen. Remember the name Bruce Brown. He’ll be an all-american and a first round pick by the time April rolls around.
3. Louisville: There are so many question marks surrounding this team, not the least of which is the potential for a self-imposed postseason ban. Given the amount of turmoil this group of kids has gone through in the last two years, I can’t begin to predict what this season will hold.
4. Notre Dame: At this point, we might as well just look at Notre Dame as the new Wisconsin. Regardless of who is on the roster or what the program has lost, just slot them into the top 25 somewhere. The good news for Irish fans is that, this year, both Matt Farrell and Bonzie Colson are back, meaning that the Irish look like they will once again be in the mix for the top four in the league. The big question? Will Temple Gibbs, Rex Pflueger, Martinas Geben and D.J. Harvey be enough of a supporting cast?
5. North Carolina: Joel Berry II might end up being the ACC Player of the Year this year, but if the Tar Heels are going to have a shot at winning the league title, they’re going to need that kind of season out of him. With three of their top four players gone, this wasn’t unexpected, but the real killer was losing Tony Bradley. For a program that thrives on pounding the ball inside, UNC will have a real lack of experience – and, frankly, talent – up front.
6. Virginia: This will probably come back to bite me, but I think this is the year Virginia takes something of a step back. The Wahoos lost London Perrantes, and while there is quite a bit of promising young talent in the program, those players – Kyle Guy, Ty Jermoe, Jay Huff, De’Andre hunter – seem like they’re a year away.
7. Virginia Tech: Despite losing Zach LeDay and Seth Allen, I still think the Hokies are an NCAA tournament team. They bring back an impressive supporting cast, get Chris Clarke healthy and add a pair of talented and promising freshmen in Wabissa Bede and Nickeil Alexander-Walker.
8. N.C. State: I’m actually bullish on this N.C. State team this season. Just like last year, there is enough talent on the roster – Abdul-Malik Abu, Omer Yurtseven, Allerik Freeman, Torin Dorn, Markell Johnson, Lavar Batts – to make some noise in the league. It’s almost as if the coaching staff put the talent on the roster to waste. We’ll see if new head coach Kevin Keatts can make a difference.
9. Florida State: The Seminoles are a tough team to project. They lose their three best players off of last year’s team, but they bring in five-star freshman M.J. Walker and return a handful of talented pieces. There is also a ton of size up front, as we’ve come to expect of FSU.
10. Georgia Tech: Somehow, the Yellow Jackets went 8-10 in the ACC last season. Josh Pastner returns a pair of talented pieces in Ben Lammers and Josh Okogie, meaning that, for the first time in a few years, there should actually be some expectation for success for Georgia Tech.
11. Boston College: I think BC is going to sneak up on some people. Between Jerome Robinson and Ky Bowman, they have one of the best back courts in the league. Throw in Illinois State transfer Deontae Hawkins, and that’s not a bad top three. Depth, clearly, is the issue, but when you’ve won two ACC games in the last two years, almost anything is an improvement.
12. Syracuse: I’m very curious to see how this season plays out for the Orange. After finishing last year 19-15, the Orange lost six of their top seven scorers. Tyus Battle is back and is going to be asked to carry a massive load. There are pieces here – Geno Thorpe is a fifth-year senior at the point, Paschal Chukwu was once a promising prospect, Matthew Moyer has the tools to be good in a 2-3 zone and Jim Boeheim did bring in a promising recruiting class – but this roster looks a lot different than the rosters you expect to see from the Orange.
13. Wake Forest: Danny Manning has been getting things done on the recruiting trail, but to date that has earned the Demon Deacons a trip to last year’s play-in game thanks to the unexpected emergence of John Collins. He’s gone, as is Dinos Mitoglou. This year’s group will have some back court talent – Bryant Crawford, Brandon Childress, Chaundree Brown – and a four-guard group was how Manning had his most success as a head coach, when at Tulsa.
14. Clemson: The Tigers were better last season than their 6-12 ACC record would indicate. The lost six games by a single possession and three more by less than five points. That would normally be a good sign, except that the Tigers lost Jaron Blossomgame, the best player on their roster the last few years. I’m not sure who on this roster would worry me as an opposing coach, but I also think there are enough quality pieces that, say, finishing eighth would not be an insane prediction.
15. Pitt: The Panthers went 4-14 in the ACC last season then lost their top five scorers, including all-ACC talents like Jamel Artis and Michael Young. They were the easiest team to pick in these power rankings, easier even than picking Duke to win the league.

Kentucky lands commitments from two more elite prospects

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John Calipari is getting his work done early in the 2020 recruiting class, as he added two more commitments over the weekend.

On Thursday, it was Lance Ware, a 6-foot-10 post player from Camden, New Jersey, that announced his commitment. Ware is a top 50 recruit that held offers from the likes of Michigan, Ohio State and Miami. The bigger news, however, came on Saturday afternoon, when Terrance Clarke announced that he will be enrolling at Kentucky whenever he ends his high school tenure. Clarke is currently a member of the Class of 2021, but the plan is for him to reclassify and graduate high school this year.

Clarke is a consensus top three player in 2021 – and he may be the No. 1 player in that class, depending on who you ask – and should immediately vault into the top five of the 2020 recruiting class. An athletic, versatile wing that stands 6-foot-6, Clarke is a potential lottery pick given his physical tools and the way that he projects as multi-positional defender with the ability to create off of the dribble. Ware, like Nick Richards and E.J. Montgomery before him, projects as the kind of player that will spend 2-3 years in Lexington.

Clarke and Ware join top ten prospect B.J. Boston and another top 50 recruit, Cam’Ron Fletcher, in Kentucky’s 2020 class. That’s three wings in the class with Johnny Juzang, Kahlil Whitney, Dontaie Allen and Keion Brooks currently on campus. Throw Montgomery into the mix, and that’s eight players that fit somewhere into a lineup as a wing or a face-up big man, and it seems rather unlikely that all five of the guys currently at Kentucky will leave the school this offseason. Put another way, this looks like the end of Kentucky’s pursuit of the likes of Jalen Green and Josh Christopher.

Calipari is still recruiting Cade Cunningham despite the fact that many expect Cunningham to end up at Oklahoma State, where Mike Boynton hired his brother Cannen, but Cade has skyrocketed up the recruiting rankings as he has transitioned to playing the point. Kentucky is still in the mix for a handful of other forwards, including Scottie Barnes, Isaiah Todd and Greg Brown.

Tony Bennett turns down raise, signs contract extension

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Virginia announced that they have signed head coach Tony Bennett to a contract extension, keeping him under contract through the 2025-26 season.

This is not unexpected. He just won the national title. I think he earned a new deal.

What is unique here, however, is that Bennett turned down a raise. He asked for more money for his assistants and for some cash to be put towards improvements in both his program and the other Virginia sports teams, but he passed on getting more money put into his own bank account.

“[My wife] Laurel and I are in a great spot, and in the past I’ve had increases in my contract,” Bennett said in the news release. “We just feel a great peace about where we’re at, all that’s taken place, and how we feel about this athletic department and this community and this school. I love being at UVA.

“… I have more than enough, and if there are ways that this can help out the athletic department, the other programs and coaches, by not tying up so much [in men’s basketball], that’s my desire.”

That’s the dream scenario right there, being rich enough to turn down more money.

NCAA urges California governor not to sign ‘fair pay’ bill

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) The NCAA Board of Governors wants California Gov. Gavin Newsom to reject a new attempt to pay college athletes.

And it is prepared to take the fight to court if necessary.

In a six-paragraph letter released Wednesday, the board urged Newsom not to sign the legislation known as the Fair Pay to Play Act, which would allow college athletes to be paid for the use of their names, likenesses and images. The move comes two days after approval of the measure by the California Assembly, with the state Senate expected to consider the measure later this week.

The board warned that California schools may be declared ineligible for NCAA competition if the bill becomes law because they would have an unfair recruiting advantage.

“We’ve explored how it might impact the association and what it might do. We believe it would inappropriately affect interstate commerce,” Donald Remy, the NCAA’s chief operating officer and chief legal officer, told The Associated Press. “It is not intended to be a threat at all. It’s a reflection about the way California is going about this.

“I’m not saying there will never be a day we would consider that (legal action), but it is not meant to be a threat,” Remy said.

The NCAA said the measure would affect more than 24,000 athletes in the nation’s most populous state.

Should the bill pass, Newsom would have 30 days to sign or veto it. If he does nothing, the bill would become law. It would be the first measure of its kind and the outcome is being closely watched as one of the biggest challenges in years to the NCAA’s longstanding and far-reaching model of amateur sports. Over the past decade, that model has come under increasing pressure – and attacks in court – as critics push for big-time college athletics to clear the way for the athletes themselves to benefit financially.

NCAA rules prohibit athletes from profiting off their athletic skills. The organization, however, has recently begun considering rules changes to loosen those restrictions, though NCAA President Mark Emmert – and the board again on Wednesday – insist that players cannot be paid or become the equivalent of a university employee. Formal recommendations are expected to be made at the board’s October meeting.

It appears there is an appetite for significant changes.

Board members met with the working group studying these issues in August but neither Remy nor board member Denis McDonough would discuss specific proposals.

“The rules that we operate under, many of which date to 1975, may not be suitable for us in 2021 with the challenges and opportunities student-athletes face,” said McDonough, the White House chief of staff under President Barack Obama. “So we are and have been taking a very close look at how we can modernize those rules. We’re hoping the state of California would recognize that modernizing those rules for student-athletes across the country is the best way to do that.”

Supporters think those changes are already overdue and believe California’s elected officials should act now.

“The NCAA’s assertions are purposefully misleading,” said Ramogi Huma, executive director of the National College Players Association. “The 9th Circuit upheld a ruling concluding that the NCAA’s ban on player name, image, and likeness compensation does not bring forth a level playing field. The Big 12 commissioner stated competitive equity is `largely an illusion.’

“NCAA amateurism is a fraud. It’s a $14 billion a year industry with millionaire coaches. An NCAA ban on California colleges would amount to an illegal group boycott that would violate federal and California antitrust laws.”

The NCAA believes the California measure would violate the federal Commerce Clause and may not withstand a legal challenge; Remy cited a previous case in California in which the state tried to inhibit the NCAA from enforcing its rules. The NCAA won that case.

Should the measure pass, Remy said, the NCAA would penalize the schools, not individual athletes.

“There are two parts to this and part of this is the membership and that includes the California schools,” Remy said. “Schools and universities agree to comply with the rules of (NCAA) membership and there are a set of eligibility criteria that go along with being member institution. The California schools have consented to that criterion. So in that context it would be the schools that would directly impacted.”

Road To Redemption: How Virginia went from losing to 16 seed to winning title

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Over the course of the next month, we will be taking a look at some of the most memorable and important things that happened during the 2018-19 season and what kind of impact those moments are going to have on the 2019-20 season.

We’ll start with the obvious: Those Virginia Cavaliers.

Without question, the single best and most memorable moment from the 2018-19 college basketball season was The Redemption.

Less than 13 months removed from suffering what will go down as the most humiliating and demoralizing defeat in the history of college basketball – if not sports, period – Virginia went out and won the Whole. Damn. Thing.

And oh buddy, was it a roller coaster ride.

In the opening round, in their first game against a No. 16 seed since they became the first team to lose to a No. 16 seed, Virginia dug themselves a 14 point first half hole against Gardner-Webb before pulling their collective heads out of their, ahem, keisters and rolling to a win. The ‘Hoos handled Oklahoma with relative ease in the second round to advance to the second weekend, where that postseason roller coaster ride got an injection of Dominic Toretto’s NoS.

In the Sweet 16 against Oregon, Kihei Clark ended an 18-5 Duck run by burying a three and, two possessions later, finding Ty Jerome for another triple, giving UVA a lead that they would never surrender after they blew a lead they shouldn’t have lost. Virginia’s Elite Eight win will go down as one of the best NCAA tournament games of the decade. UVA survived Carsen Edwards going Super Saiyan while lighting up college basketball’s best defender in De’Andre Hunter for 42 points, and they did so thanks in very large part to one of the best and most instinctual plays you’ll ever see a college kid make:

Again, it was Clark coming to the rescue, as Virginia found a way to not only beat Purdue, but cover a 4.5 point spread in the overtime period.

Not that I’m still bitter or anything.

That brings us to the Final Four, the first of Tony Bennett’s illustrious career, where those Wahoos did their very best to make everyone believe they had not left their inner choke artist behind. Thanks to a couple of bone-headed fouls by Ty Jerome followed Auburn’s Bryce Brown making a pair of critical three-balls, Virginia blew a 57-47 lead in all of 3:16. In the blink of an eye, they found themselves down 61-57 with 17 seconds left after a pair of Anfernee McLemore free throws.

This time, it was Kyle Guy coming to the rescue. He buried a three with nine seconds left to cut the lead to one, and after Jared Harper missed one of two free throws, Guy was – controversially, but correctly – fouled while shooting a three with just 0.6 seconds on the clock. He would step to the line and swish not one, not two, but all three free throws, sending Virginia to the national title game, where they would face off with Texas Tech, a matchup that was billed as the worst national title game of all-time.

And that prediction turned out very, very wrong.

It took a while to get going, but by the time the final ten minutes rolled around, the battle between the two best defenses in all of college basketball was as intense and as physical as any game this year. We knew that was coming. What we didn’t know was that it would be the offenses for both those programs that would take over, as the shot-making and execution in the second half reached a level we rarely see in the college game. That said, Virginia again blew a double-digit second half lead, getting to overtime when Jerome found Hunter in the corner for a game-tying three with 12 seconds left:

Virginia would take the lead in the extra frame on another Hunter three with 2:10 remaining, pulling away to win 85-77 and cut down the nets for the first time in program history.

It was a wild ride, one that ended the opportunity for the dummies out there to criticize Tony Bennett’s coaching acumen because of a couple of fluky, unlucky tournament results.

But for my money, what made the turnaround so memorable – and what truly cemented Bennett’s standing as arguably the best in the game today – has everything to do with how Virginia changed the way they play after UMBC.


(Getty Images)

Before we get into the changes that Virginia actually made, I think it is important to put into context what actually happened in that loss to UMBC.

As Hunter has been quick to remind his teammates – over and over again – he did not play in Virginia’s loss to UMBC. He fractured his wrist before the start of the tournament, and the hole that he left in the lineup was drastically bigger than his 6-foot-7 frame. You see, Hunter was the guy that made Virginia matchup proof. He was the best, most versatile defender in all of college basketball as a sophomore. When Virginia won at North Carolina earlier this year, Hunter was, at different points throughout the game, matched up on lottery pick point guard Coby White, lottery pick wing Cameron Johnson and All-American power forward Luke Maye.

That’s who Hunter was as a freshman, too.

He was and is a monster defensively. 

Back to UMBC, the America East champs had a team that, in 2018, played a lineup with four guards and often had five players on the perimeter. It would not have been an issue to throw Hunter on any of them, especially since he was good enough offensively to be able to take complete advantage of that matchup on the other end of the floor. He was, after all, the No. 4 pick in June’s draft. He would have been a mid-first round pick had he left a year earlier.

But without Hunter on the floor, Bennett ran into a problem: He needed to play two bigs because of the offense that he ran, but none of Jack Salt, Isaiah Wilkins or Mamadi Diakite were going to be able to duplicate what Hunter could do. They couldn’t stay with those little UMBC guards, and they weren’t good enough offensively to take advantage of the mismatch on the offensive end. When UVA went small, it just meant that Nigel Johnson had to play more and, well, that was not ideal.

Now, look. Hunter’s absence is not a valid excuse for this loss. Virginia was still a much, much better team even without their best player. They played their worst game on a night where UMBC absolutely caught lightning in a bottle. It got into their heads. Jairus Lyles played the game of his life. UMBC ran away with the win. Weird things happen when college kids play sports. What can I say.

But Hunter’s absence and the slight matchup advantage that gave UMBC over UVA certainly played a major role in how this game played out, and I think it is fair to say that this game would have been much closer, and, in all likelihood, had a different result, with Hunter on the floor.

Here’s the proof.

These two clips are the same play. In the first example, Jerome finds Hunter for a game-tying three in the national title game. In the second example, Jerome finds Wilkins, who is not a shooter and the play results in yet another missed three in Virginia’s loss to UMBC:

“That situation made me take a look at a lot of things,” Bennett told me during last year’s Final Four. “From a basketball standpoint, that was such a pivotal moment.”

As I reported then, what Bennett did was reach out to former Wisconsin Badger Kirk Penney, a man he calls “a little brother to me.” Penney had played in the NBA and all over Europe before finishing out his career in New Zealand, so Bennett asked him, “In all your experiences, did you run any stuff that opens up the court more?”

Turns out, Penney had.

He knew exactly what Bennett needed.

You see, Bennett had spent the majority of his time in Charlottesville running the Blocker-Mover offense that his father created. That offense is fairly simple – there are three perimeter players on the floor, the “movers”, that continuously run off of screens that are set by the two bigs, the “blockers”:

But as effective as Virginia has been running Blocker-Mover in the past, running that offense with his 2018-19 roster makeup didn’t make sense. And again, this was because of De’Andre Hunter.

Hunter was the prototype college four. At 6-foot-7 and a strong 225 pounds, he’s big enough to guards fours while simultaneously taking advantage of them with his ability to shoot and beat slower defenders with straight-line drives. But he was also far and away the most talented player on the Virginia roster, and running Blocker-Mover would put Bennett in a position where he was forced to either play Hunter in a role where he was predominantly a screener or put him in a position where he was going to be defended by college threes doing something – specifically, running off of pindowns and flare screens – that is not his forte.

Enter Penney, who helped Virginia install a Ball-Screen Continuity offense, what Virginia called their “Flow Continuity.”

Again, the concept of this offense is fairly simple. The goal is to get open-side ball-screens, which just means having a big screening for a guard on one side of the floor with three players – preferably shooters – spacing on the opposite side. If nothing comes of the first ball-screen, the offense is designed for the ball to end up in a second ball-screen with the sides of the floor reversed. It’s run until a they get a shot, hence “continuity.”

It’s easier to show it than to explain it:

This is not something that Virginia has ever really run before this season.

Which brings me back to that game-tying three in the national title game.

While it’s not exactly the continuity ball-screen, it is a high-ball screen for Jerome. He did what he does so well: He got into the paint, he drew defenders and he found the guy everyone forgot about.

Now, one of the reasons that this worked so well for Virginia is that they had the players to execute it. Hunter was the best basketball player not named Zion Williamson in college basketball last season. Jerome was as good as anyone as the handler in a ball-screen, and he also happens to be an elite shooter that can run off of screens just as effectively. Guy was one of the very best shooters in the country. Clark is a defensive menace that allowed Jerome to move off the ball when necessary.

That changes next year.

Hunter, Jerome and Guy are all on NBA rosters. They will be replaced by Braxton Key, Tomas Woldetensae, Kody Stattman and Clark. Clark proved himself to be much better than I ever gave him credit for last season, but being effective in last year’s role and taking over full-time point guard duties for an All-American like Jerome are two very different things. Woldetensae and Stattman can both shoot, but they are not the shooters that Guy was. And most important, Key is a good player and can play the same position that Hunter played, but he’s not the player that Hunter was. If Hunter is Kraft Mac and Cheese, Key is whatever brand they carry at Aldi.

That puts Bennett in a tough position this season.

Because he doesn’t really have the guards to run his flow continuity offense as effectively as he did last year, but the guys that project as his starting bigs – Jay Huff and Diakite – fit a ball-screen heavy offense better than they do the Blocker-Mover. Huff is 7-foot-1 with ridiculous length, and he shot 14-for-31 from three this past season. He’s more or less the perfect five for ball-screen actions because he can catch a lob as a roll-man as effectively as he can bury a three when he picks-and-pops. Diakite can make threes as well, and he’s even more effective as a roll-man.

So I really don’t know what Virginia is going to look like next season.

Like Villanova last year, they are not exactly built to withstand that many critical pieces leaving with eligibility remaining.

My best guess? We see a lot of lineups with Key, Diakite and Huff on the floor at the same time as Bennett figures out exactly how he is going to be able to work in a guy like Woldetensae, who has never been asked to defend near the level he will have to defend with Virginia, and how he can effectively use Clark.

But I certainly expect Bennett to figure something out.

That’s just what he does.

The ‘Hoos will have some growing pains, and asking them to compete with Duke, Louisville and even North Carolina in what appears to be a three-horse race for the ACC title is tough, but I’d be shocked if they enter the NCAA tournament as anything other than a top four seed.

Boston College guard Wynston Tabbs to miss season due to knee surgery

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Boston College sophomore guard Wynston Tabbs will miss the entirety of the 2019-20 as he will undergo surgery on his left knee, the school announced on Wednesday.

This is an injury that has been plaguing Tabbs since last season, when he averaged 13.9 points but played in just 15 games.

“While I won’t be able to play this season,  I know that it is a temporary setback and I will be back stronger than ever before,” Tabbs said in a press release from the school.  “I want to thank my family, the Boston College Basketball program, and all our fans for their continued support. I’ve overcome obstacles before in my life and will work tirelessly to overcome this one. I am built for this.”

Tabbs has all-ACC potential and was going to be counted on to help fill the void left by Ky Bowman.