Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

ACC Reset: Does ACC title run through Durham or Charlottesville?

Leave a comment

College basketball’s non-conference season is finally coming to a close.

To help you shake off post-holiday haze and the hangover of losing in your fantasy football playoffs, we’ll be providing you with some midseason recaps to get you caught up on all the nation’s most important conferences.

Who has been the best player in the biggest leagues?

Who is on track to get an NCAA tournament bid?

What have we learned about the conference hierarchy?

What is still left for us to figure out?

We break it all down here.

Today, we’ll be taking a look at the ACC.

MIDSEASON ACC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Zion Williamson, Duke

This decision really is not all that difficult. As of today, Zion Williamson is likely the favorite to win National Player of the Year; he’s been atop the NBC Sports Player of the Year Power Rankings for more than a month. The numbers he is putting up for the No. 1 team in the country more than speak for themselves — 19.8 points, 9.4 boards, 2.3 assists, 2.1 steals, 1.9 blocks — but it is more than that. He’s the most unstoppable force in college hoops. He is the piece that allows Duke to play the way they want to play this season. His versatility defensively is a major reason the Blue Devils are one of the top three teams in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric while his ability to grab-and-go in transition and make plays using his out-of-this-world physical gifts is why the Blue Devils are an impossible matchup.

Williamson is a special, special talent. By the end of the year, even the world’s biggest Duke haters will be forced to agree.

THE ALL-ACC FIRST TEAM

  • ZION WILLIAMSON, Duke
  • R.J. BARRETT, Duke: There are 353 teams in college basketball, and Barrett is ninth nationally in scoring and putting up those numbers while playing on the No. 1 team in the country. Let’s not overthink this.
  • DE’ANDRE HUNTER, Virginia: Kyle Guy is Virginia’s leading scorer and Ty Jerome is arguably their best player, but for my money Hunter is the guy that needs to be recognized on this list. He’s the most talented player on the roster and is the guy that allows the Wahoos to be matchup proof.
  • NICKEIL ALEXANDER-WALKER, Virginia Tech: Not only is Alexander-Walker one of the best players in the conference — he’s averaging 18.5 points, 4.3 boards, 3.8 assists and 2.5 steals while shooting 46.8 percent from three — he’s probably the most improved as well. He’s turned into a knockdown jumpshooter than is a playmaker defensively and thrives initiating offense and running pick-and-rolls. He’s become a lottery pick.
  • CAMERON JOHNSON, North Carolina: North Carolina’s best player to date this season, which is odd considering Luke Maye was their preseason all-american, Nassir Little is the future top five pick that can’t seem to crack the starting lineup and Coby White is the freshman getting all the hype.

POSTSEASON PREDICTIONS

  • NCAA: Duke, Virginia, North Carolina, Virginia Tech, Florida State, N.C. State, Louisville, Syracuse, Clemson
  • NIT: Miami, Boston College, Notre Dame, Pitt
  • OTHER/NO POSTSEASON: Wake Forest, Georgia Tech
(Darryl Oumi/Getty Images)

THREE THINGS WE’VE LEARNED

1. DUKE’S FRESHMEN ARE WORTH THE HYPE

This is hardly breaking news.

Zion Williamson has been absolutely sensational. R.J. Barrett is a guy that has his flaws as a basketball player, but those flaws will not be all that visible when he’s playing against college athletes. Cam Reddish is struggling to find his role on this Duke team and has still managed to put up 13.5 points in just 23.8 minutes while shooting 35.6 percent from; if only all freshmen could struggle like that.

And then there is Tre Jones, the unsung hero on this Duke roster. He is a game-changing defensive presence, precisely the kind of point guard that Duke has been looking for since … well, since Tyus Jones. The Blue Devils are the favorite to win the national title this season because of those four players.

So yes.

Duke’s freshmen are worth the hype.

2. VIRGINIA MIGHT BE BETTER THAN THEY WERE A YEAR AGO

This is my favorite storyline of the season to date. Coming off of the most embarrassing loss in the history of college basketball, the Wahoos entered this season carrying the burden of being the only No. 1 seed to have ever lost to a No. 16 seed, and they’re doing so while already being saddled with the reputation of being a choke artist.

Let’s call it like it is: In the last five NCAA tournaments, Virginia has either blown a lead they shouldn’t have blown or lost earlier in the tournament than they should have based on their seed. People remember things like that, since that is the time when the most people are paying attention to college basketball.

(Eric Espada/Getty Images)

Now stop me if you’ve heard this before, but this might actually be the best Virginia team that we have seen in the Tony Bennett era. They’re as good defensively as we have become accustomed to this program being, but this team is better offensively than a typical Virginia team. Kyle Guy has been very good once again this season. Ty Jerome continues to play like a future pro. Freshman Kihei Clark has given them the lineup versatility that we knew they were lacking. Most importantly, De’Andre Hunter has given Virginia a dynamic combo-forward than can defend up and has NBA ability on the perimeter.

This is a dangerous basketball team.

3. “THE REST” IS LOADED THIS YEAR

Before the season started, one of the questions that we had about the ACC what who would be the team that would be the best of the rest; who would win the race for fourth in a league that is going to be dominated by Duke, Virginia and North Carolina.

As it turns out, there is more than one team vying for the title of “best of the rest”, and there is legitimate reason to wonder whether or not each of those teams can crack the top three in the league.

Let’s start with Virginia Tech, who has emerged as the best team that Buzz Williams has produced in Blacksburg. We knew, coming into the season, just how good Justin Robinson was, but with the emergence of Nickeil Alexander-Walker as a legitimate star in the league, the Hokies all of a sudden look like they have the best backcourt in the ACC. They start four seniors, they are betting quality minutes off their bench and we still haven’t seen Landers Nolley or Chris Clarke. This team is for real.

I think the same can be said for Florida State. While M.J. Walker has not quite taken the step forward I think everyone expected him to take, Mfiondu Kabengele has developed into one of the most productive players in the ACC. Trent Forrest has embraced the point guard role while Terance Mann is playing the best basketball of his life. If Phil Cofer can get back to where he was last season, the Seminoles are a very real threat to get back to the Elite Eight.

I also believe that N.C. State belongs in this conversation as well. I have so much respect for what Kevin Keatts is able to do when running a program, and it only took him one year to get the Wolfpack to be what he wants a basketball team to be: They’re loaded with guards, they love to press, they have a number of guys that can really shoot the rock and their bigs are good enough to get the job done. They’re probably third-best of this group, but that still leaves them as something close to a top 15 team this season.

(Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

THREE STORYLINES TO FOLLOW

1. CAN A GROUP OF FRESHMEN WIN A NATIONAL TITLE?

Only twice in the one-and-done era has a team that was built around freshmen won the national title. Kentucky did in in 2012 with Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist running the show. Duke did it in 2015, as Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow carried them to a title. This Duke team, however, is different in the sense that their four-best players are all freshmen. Neither the 2012 Kentucky team nor the 2015 Duke team had this little upper-class influence on their roster. 

That said, I think the reason that there is a very real shot Duke can get this done is the presence of a couple of key veterans pieces. Javin DeLaurier and Marques Bolden don’t play all that much, but the options that they provide Duke — Bolden with his size and rim protection, DeLaurier with his versatility and shot-blocking — let Mike Krzyzewski change looks based on opponent.

But the two biggest reasons why I think Duke can avoid the fate of other freshman-led teams — besides, you know, the fact that their Big Three is awesome — is the presence of Jack White and Tre Jones. Those two are elite level glue guys that make a major difference in the way Duke can play. We took a deep dive into their impact on the program last month.

2. WILL SYRACUSE TURN THIS THING BACK AROUND?

The Orange are the team in the ACC that has been the toughest to figure out early on this season. On the one hand, this is a team that wasn’t all that good last season that managed to gather quite a bit of preseason hype due to the fact that they won three NCAA tournament games and returned everyone of note from last year’s team.

So I get it.

But it’s also worth noting that this is a team that was elite defensively last season and not only added a couple of talented offensive weapons, they brought back Oshae Brissett and Tyus Battle, the former a sophomore expected to make the leap and the latter and all-american and NBA draft hopeful. I know that they have lost to some teams they should not have lost to, but I think the ceiling is still there.

That said, it seems like the best place for Syracuse to be heading into the NCAA tournament is as a No. 10 or No. 11 seed. So maybe the Orange are right where they want to be.

3. WHAT HAPPENS WITH NASSIR LITTLE VS. ROY WILLIAMS?

The most annoying topic of discussion this season has been the debate over whether or not Nassir Little deserves more playing time for North Carolina. The truth is this: Little plays a position where North Carolina has depth to spare. We know Roy Williams wants to play with two big men. We also know that he already has Luke Maye and Cameron Johnson on the roster. If Little wants to get minutes, he is either going to have to outplay one of those guys — one of whom was an all-american last season and the other who has been playing at an all-american level this season — or be good enough to convince Williams to play small.

And while Little has been effective this season, he hasn’t done either of those things. It might happen as he continues to get acclimated to the college level and figures out what Williams wants from him, but it hasn’t happened yet.

The reason Little isn’t playing more isn’t a conspiracy. He just has a lot in front of him to beat out.

(Sam Wasson/Getty Images)

THREE PREDICTIONS

1. VIRGINIA WINS THE ACC TITLE AGAIN

The Cavaliers are legit this season. I’m on board with the idea that this is Tony Bennett’s best team in Charlottesville, and I think they prove that with their fourth ACC regular season title in the last six seasons.

2. DUKE JOINS VIRGINIA IN THE FINAL FOUR

I also think this is the year that Virginia breaks through and makes it to the Final Four. The narrative will always be “you can’t win the big one” until you win the big one. Ask Jay Wright. Or Bill Self. Or Mark Few. Or Jim Calhoun. Tony Bennett is the next on that list.

Duke will join them there as well, but that shouldn’t be much of a surprise. The Blue Devils are my pick to win the title.

3. THE ACC GETS AT LEAST THREE TEAMS INTO THE ELITE EIGHT

I really believe in the depth of this league, and I already told you I think that they are going to get two teams into the Final Four. This means that one of the other four top 15 teams find a way to win three games in March. That’s very doable.

John Petty Jr. returns to Alabama for senior season

Getty Images
3 Comments

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

Getty Images
3 Comments

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

jared butler baylor
Getty Images
Leave a comment

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.

Preseason Top 25 | Mock Draft 3.0 | Early Entry Tracker

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

Getty Images
3 Comments

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

xavier tillman nba draft
Getty Images
Leave a comment

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.

Preseason Top 25 | Mock Draft 3.0 | Early Entry Tracker

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.