Michael Gbinije

(AP Photo/Ben McKeown)

No. 20 Duke loses third straight after falling to Syracuse

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For the first time since 1968, a ranked Duke team has lost three consecutive games to an unranked team, as the No. 20 Blue Devils fell at home to Syracuse 64-62.

And frankly, the Blue Devils should be ecstatic the game was that close.

Chew on this, for a second: Duke had two shots to take the lead in the final minute despite the fact that they shot 10-for-37 from three on a night where more than 60 percent of their field goal attempts were from beyond the arc while simultaneously allowing the Orange to shoot 11-for-23 from three and grab 26 offensive rebounds.

You read that right.

26 offensive rebounds.

And they still had a chance to beat the Orange.

That’s why I’m not jumping off of the Blue Devil bandwagon just yet. The issues that Duke has right now — front court depth and defensive rebounding — will get answered when (if?) Amile Jefferson returns from his broken foot and gets back to 100 percent. He’s by far their most versatile front court defender, he gives them balance offensively and he was averaging 9.3 boards when he went down with the injury. Play him alongside Marshall Plumlee and Ingram and all of a sudden Duke’s front court has some size.

There are two problems with that theory:

  1. It doesn’t solve the issue of Duke’s lacking perimeter defense. Jefferson is world’s better in defending ball-screens actions than Plumlee is but it’s not like Duke’s guards are known for their ability to prevent dribble penetration. Mike Krzyzewski can do a good job of masking those problems with the switching man-to-man that he plays, but this group is never going to be great defensively.
  2. It operates under the assumption that Jefferson is going to come back and be the player that he was before he went out. He’s now missed four weeks of action, which is plenty of time for a player to lose their legs, lose their timing and lose their rhythm.

And that’s to say nothing of the idea that maybe, just maybe, the Blue Devils defense is too far gone at this point, that even with Jefferson they aren’t going to be stout enough on that end of the floor, they aren’t going to be strong enough on the glass, to allow their offense to win them games.

But until we’re certain about Jefferson — his health and his impact — I’m not ready to write off these Blue Devils yet.

As far as the Orange are concerned, they’ve now won three games games in the ACC and are 9-2 in games that Jim Boeheim has not been suspended for. They’ve got a big hole to dig themselves out of in regards to earning an NCAA tournament berth, but, at 13-7, their only killer loss is to St. John’s and they do have three wins against KenPom’s top 50. They’ve now won back-to-back road games in league play as well.

I like the make-up of this team, particularly when they have Tyler Lydon at the five, but that hinges entirely on whether or not they are making their threes. Without a severe lack of depth and a frustrating inconsistency shooting the ball from the perimeter, it’s hard to imagine this group putting together a run to an at-large bid.

College Basketball’s Most Improved Players

(AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)
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On Wednesday, we released our Midseason Awards, which included the NBCSports.com All-American teams, the Player of the Year, the Coach of the Year and the Freshman of the Year.

We also named our Most Improved Player. That decision wasn’t quite as easy as it seemed, so here is a complete list of the nation’s most improved players:

THE BREAKOUT STARS

Ben Bentil, Providence: As we wrote yesterday, Bentil had some promising moments as a freshman and found his way onto a few Breakout Stars lists in the preseaosn, but I don’t anyone could have predicted that he would end up being a guy that averages 19 points and eight boards for a team ranked in the top ten. He’s got a legitimate case to be an all-american. Who saw that coming?

Buddy Hield, Oklahoma: Hield was the Big 12 Player of the Year last season and, depending on where you looked, he found his way onto some all-american teams as well. But he did all that as a guy that was more-or-less a spot-up shooter that did much of his damage in transition. This season, he’s become Oklahoma’s late-clock option. He’s getting isolations. He’s the ball handler in pick-and-roll actions, and he’s far more effective doing it as well. Last season, he scored 21 points in 42 totals isolations, according to Synergy’s logs. This season, he’s already had 29 isolation possessions and scored 31 points. When you factor in possessions that end in a pass, he’s creating 1.083 PPP in ball screen actions as compared to 0.825 PPP last season.

Kelan Martin, Butler: This may be a situation where Martin simply needed to get the opportunity, but he’s become the most consistent offensive weapon for a Butler team that’s currently ranked in the top 20. Martin, who is averaging 14.1 points after scoring 7.7 per game last season, began the season as Butler’s sixth-man but played his way into the starting lineup with Kellen Dunham’s shooting slump.

Elijah Brown, New Mexico: Brown has usurped coach’s son Cullen Neal as the star of the Lobo back court. A redshirt sophomore, Butler transfer and the son of former NBA coach Mike Brown, Elijah is averaging 19.4 points, 5.6 boards and 3.1 assists.

Moses Kingsley, Arkansas: As a freshman, Kingsley played 10 minutes a game and averaged just 3.4 points and 2.5 boards. As a sophomore, he’s averaging 17.1 points, 9.9 boards and 2.5 blocks, turning into a guy that may actually be the best big man in the SEC. Chew on that for a second.

Michael Gbinije, Syracuse: The fifth-year senior has become one of the best guards in the ACC and is one of the only reason that Syracuse has a reason to believe they can play their way into an NCAA tournament bid. He’s averaging 18.0 points, 4.7 boards and 4.3 assists.

Yante Maten, Georgia: Maten, a sophomore, has become the anchor on the interior for a Georgia team that still has NCAA tournament hopes. The 6-foot-8 Michigan native is averaging 16.5 points and 7.2 boards.

Desi Rodriguez, Seton Hall: When he’s not getting benched for yelling at his coach, Rodriguez is a pretty important piece for the Pirates, averaging 12.0 points and shooting 38.1 percent from three after going 1-for-12 as a freshmen.

Kendrick Nunn, Illinois: Nunn, along with Malcolm Hill, is the reason this season isn’t a total loss for the Illini. He’s averaging 18.5 points as a junior.

Zach LeDay, Virginia Tech: LeDay averaged 3.5 points for South Florida in 2013-14. He’s averaging 14.7 points and 9.5 boards for the Hokies this season and went for 22 points and seven boards in the win over No. 4 Virginia on Monday night.

George King, Colorado: King is a redshirt sophomore that didn’t play much as a freshman and then sat out last season as Tad Boyle knew that he wouldn’t get much playing time. It paid off, as King is Colorado’s second-leading scorer, averaging 13.9 points and shooting 43.1 percent from three.

Joel Berry II, North Carolina: Berry has embraced the point guard role for the Tar Heels, averaging 12.9 points and 4.4 assists as he’s allowed Marcus Paige to spend more time playing off the ball.

Bradley Hayes, Georgetown: Hayes was a total non-factor in his first three seasons with the Hoyas but has emerged as the best low-post scorer for this Georgetown team, averaging 9.4 points and 6.6 boards.

THE ALL-AMERICANS: There is also a small subset of guys that belong on the most improved list that were already pretty damn good.

  • Grayson Allen, Duke: I really struggled with whether or not to include Allen on this list at all, because I’m not convinced that he’s all that much better than he was last season. He’s having a sensational season — we have him as a second team all-american right now — but how much of that is simply a result of Allen finally seeing the floor? A lot of it, I think.
  • Jakob Poeltl, Utah: Poeltl could have been a lottery pick had he bolted for the NBA after last season, which means that some folks may not realize just how much better he is right now than he was at this time last season. He’s got post moves, he can pass out of double teams and he’s still one of the best defensive centers in college basketball.
  • Brice Johnson, North Carolina: Johnson has played himself into All-American consideration in the last seven games, as Kennedy Meeks has been out with a knee issue. It came to a head on Monday: 39 points, 23 boards, three steals, three blocks. Talent isn’t the issue. It’s assertiveness and aggressiveness. Let’s see if it lasts.
  • Denzel Valentine, Michigan State: Valentine has always seemed like one of those dudes where we’re going to say, “He’s a great college players.” Now, after his start to the 2015-16 season, there’s a real shot he ends up getting picked in the first round.

 

No. 13 Miami pulls away late to beat Syracuse 64-51

Associated Press
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CORAL GABLES, Fla. (AP) The seeds for this win were planted more than two years ago, when Ja’Quan Newton turned down a scholarship offer from Syracuse and committed to play for Miami.

It stung the Orange then, and hurts even more now.

Sheldon McClellan scored 22 points, Newton made two big 3-pointers in the second half to kick start a Miami offense that was dreadful for most of the game, and the 13th-ranked Hurricanes pulled away late to beat Syracuse 64-51 on Saturday.

Newton finished with 14 points for Miami (12-1, 1-0 Atlantic Coast Conference), which won its seventh straight despite missing its first 16 tries from 3-point range. Newton was 2 for 2 from beyond the arc, while his teammates were a combined 1 for 23.

“The whole game, they were playing off me,” said Newton, who pulled a groin muscle in the final minutes. “I noticed it in the first half. … They were a big two 3’s, the biggest two 3’s of the game, probably.”

Not probably. There’s no doubt.

“The difference in the game,” Syracuse interim coach Mike Hopkins said of Newton’s 3-pointers. “Got to give him a lot of credit.”

Both of Newton’s 3’s gave Miami the lead, the second one putting the Hurricanes on top for good and starting a 12-0 run that would give them a 56-44 edge with 2:46 left.

Malachi Richardson scored 20 points for Syracuse (10-5, 0-2), which has dropped its first two league games for the first time since it started the 1998-99 Big East season 0-2.

Michael Gbinije added 10 points for the Orange, who were outscored 47-26 in the second half.

“Second tough road game that our kids played in and they gave a great effort,” Hopkins said. “They really executed defensively.”

The Orange led 25-17 after the first 20 minutes, absolutely frustrating a Miami team that came in averaging 85 points on 51 percent shooting. The Hurricanes were shooting only 19 percent at the break – and missed all 11 of their 3-point attempts. And if not for McClellan managing 11 points by halftime, it could have been much worse for Miami.

“Players respond to challenges one of two ways,” Miami coach Jim Larranaga said. “Either they start thinking negatively … or they respond positively and start to dig down deeper defensively.”

TIP-INS

Syracuse: Hopkins is 4-4 as the replacement for Orange coach Jim Boeheim, who is one game from satisfying the nine-game suspension handed down as part of Syracuse’s NCAA sanctions. … The Orange have lost six straight road games going back to last season – that doesn’t count their three neutral-site wins at the Battle 4 Atlantis in November – and have dropped their last five ACC games.

Miami: The Hurricanes improved to 4-8 in their ACC openers. … It was the second straight slow start for Miami, which had 27 first-half points against Princeton. Until Saturday, that was Miami’s season-low for a half. … Miami improved to 7-1 at home. … The Hurricanes got to the line 34 times, compared with 14 for the Orange.

ODD CONSISTENCY

Syracuse shot 9 for 28 in the first half, and shot exactly that again in the second half. Miami, after a 5 for 27 start to the game, finished by making 13 of its last 25 attempts. “That 2-3 zone is really annoying,” McClellan said.

ORANGE EVERYWHERE

The seats at Bank United Center were mostly filled with orange-clad fans – which, ordinarily, would be a good thing for Miami and its orange-and-green color scheme. But included in that crowd was a contingent of about 2,500 Syracuse backers, many of whom made the trip from Central New York as an escape now that winter has finally seemed to strike. Temperatures at game time: 80 in Coral Gables, 32 in Syracuse.

UP NEXT:

Syracuse: Hosts Clemson on Tuesday.

Miami: Hosts Florida State on Jan. 9.

Ranking the top wings in college basketball

Associated Press
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After ranking the top lead guards and off guards, we move to the wing position.

With more teams moving away from the rigid positions that defined the game of basketball for years, the wing has become a more important role. Nowadays versatility is a trait of many of the nation’s best wings, as they can be used to initiate the offense as either a scorer or distributor.

Without further ado, below are our ranking of the top wings in college basketball. Who’s too high on the last? Who isn’t high enough on the list? Who’d we leave out?

[MORE: Top backcourts | Top frontcourts]

1. Ben Simmons (LSU)

Simmons arrived in Baton Rouge amidst much fanfare and with good reason, as his skill set makes him a player many project to be a high lottery pick in next June’s NBA Draft. The 6-foot-10 Australian will play a “point forward” role for the Tigers, as his ability to initiate offense makes an incredibly difficult matchup for opponents.

2. Denzel Valentine (Michigan State)

Speaking of versatility, Valentine’s a senior who can play any of the three perimeter roles within Tom Izzo’s offense. As a junior Valentine averaged 14.5 points, 6.3 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game, shooting 44.3 percent from the field and 41.6 percent from three. His ability to fill the stat sheet and lead will be key for a Michigan State team looking to earn a second straight Final Four appearance.

3. Jaylen Brown (California)

Brown’s a power wing who rates as one of the top freshmen in the country. At 6-foot-7 he has the size and athleticism needed to fill multiple roles for the Golden Bears, who boast one of the country’s top perimeter rotations. And with those options there will be occasions in which Brown plays as an undersized four in order to force mismatches on the offensive end.

4. Brandon Ingram (Duke)

While Ingram has plenty of skill, he’s a slender 6-foot-9 wing who trends more towards the perimeter than the aforementioned Brown does. Ingram can score at multiple levels, and while he does need to get stronger his offensive skill set will apply pressure to opponents within Duke’s offense.

5. Taurean Waller-Prince (Baylor)

Last season Waller-Prince emerged as one of the nation’s most improved players, averaging 13.9 points and 5.6 rebounds per contest. He took full advantage of increased minutes a season ago, and with fellow senior Rico Gathers Sr., redshirt sophomore Johnathan Motley and junior college transfer Jo Acuil is part of one of the country’s best front court rotations.

RELATED: Top 100 players | Top leads guards | Top off guards | Top Bigs

Taurean Waller-Prince, Getty Images
Taurean Waller-Prince, Getty Images

6. DeAndre Bembry (Saint Joseph’s)

The Preseason Atlantic 10 Player of the Year deserves more pub, as he shouldered a lot of the offensive load for the Hawks last season. Bembry, after starting all 34 games on an NCAA tournament team as a freshman, accounted for 17.7 points, 7.7 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 1.9 steals per game in 2014-15. Bembry led the Hawks in all four of those categories last season, and could very well duplicate that feat in 2015-16.

7. Justin Jackson (North Carolina)

Jackson’s in line for a breakout season, and his presence is why there isn’t a great deal of concern when it comes to accounting for the departure of J.P. Tokoto. Jackson started 37 games as a freshman, averaging 10.7 points and 3.7 rebounds per game and shooting nearly 48 percent from the field. Also ranking third on the team in assists a season ago, Jackson has the ability to find teammates as well as score.

8. Gary Payton II (Oregon State)

The son of “The Glove,” Payton won Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year honors in his first season in Corvallis. How big of an impact did he have in Wayne Tinkle’s first season as head coach? Payton led the Beavers in scoring, rebounding, steals and blocks and was second in assists. That kind of versatility isn’t all too common, and with Oregon State’s improved depth he could be even better this year.

9. Troy Williams (Indiana)

Averaging 13.0 points per game as a sophomore, Williams led the Hoosiers in rebounding and steals while shooting 54 percent from the field and 74.2 percent from the foul line. While he isn’t much of a perimeter shooter, Williams can knock down mid-range shots and he finishes above the rim with authority. As a slasher he’s a key player who can open things up for Indiana, which has a host of perimeter shooters to call upon.

10. Kyle Collinsworth (BYU)

Collinsworth is one of the most versatile players in the country, and he’s entrusted with the responsibility of running the show for BYU. Collinsworth is tied for the NCAA record for career triple-doubles (six), all of which came last season, and he averaged 13.8 points, 8.7 and 6.0 assists per game in 2014-15. While the loss of Tyler Haws is important, the return of Collinsworth is one reason why BYU is seen as Gonzaga’s biggest threat in the WCC.

  • 11. Daniel Hamilton (Connecticut): The American Athletic Conference Rookie of the Year, Hamilton averaged 10.9 points, 7.6 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game. And he’ll have even more chances to initiate things offensively this season.
  • 12. Josh Hart (Villanova): Last season Hart emerged as a valuable option for Villanova, averaging 10.1 points and 4.6 rebounds per game. His shooting percentages from the field and from three were nothing to scoff at either, as the Big East tournament Most Outstanding Player shot 51 percent from the field and 46 percent from three.
  • 13. Jake Layman (Maryland): Layman’s skill isn’t to be questioned, as the 6-foot-8 senior averaged 12.5 points and 5.8 rebounds per game while shooting 47 percent from the field and 37.8 percent from three. But with Dez Wells gone, can he step forward as an even more assertive force for a team projected as one of the nation’s best?
  • 14. Dillon Brooks (Oregon): For all of the talk about how Wayne Selden Jr. (Kansas) and Jamal Murray (Kentucky) played this summer, Brooks also played well on the international circuit. And after earning Pac-12 All-Freshman Team honors, he could be poised for a breakout sophomore campaign.
  • 15. Michael Gbinije (Syracuse): “Silent G” is likely to fill a variety of roles for Jim Boeheim as he has the skills needed to play anywhere from the point to the wing. Last season Gbinije averaged 12.7 points, 5.0 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game.
  • 16. Tim Quarterman (LSU): Quarterman joins teammate Simmons on this list, and he’s looking to build on a solid sophomore season in Baton Rouge. The 6-foot-5 Quarterman accounted for 11.5 points, 5.2 rebounds and a team-high 4.0 assists per game, doing so despite starting just 14 of the 33 games in which he played.
  • 17. Damion Lee (Louisville): The lone grad transfer on our list, Lee averaged 21.4 points, 6.1 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game at Drexel last season. Given Louisville’s personnel losses, Lee’s abilities as a scorer and defender will be of high importance as the Cardinals look to hold their own in the ACC.
  • 18. Malcolm Hill (Illinois): Hill’s a player who emerged as Illinois’ most efficient offensive option last season, averaging 14.4 points and 4.8 rebounds per contest as a sophomore. He’s an all-conference caliber player, and Hill could very well earn those honors this season.
  • 19. Dwayne Bacon (Florida State): The 6-foot-6 Bacon is the crown jewel of one of the nation’s top recruiting classes, and with his athleticism and scoring ability the Oak Hill Academy product should have an immediate impact in Tallahassee.
  • 20. Roosevelt Jones (Butler): Jones’ (12.7 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 3.7 apg) return from a broken wrist that sidelined him for the entire 2013-14 season was a big reason why the Bulldogs not only reached the NCAA tournament but nearly eliminated Notre Dame in the round of 32.

Others Considered: Malik Pope (San Diego State), Trevon Bluiett (Xavier), Isaac Copeland (Georgetown)

ACC Preview: Are you riding with UNC, UVA or Duke?

Marcus Paige (Getty Images)
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Beginning in October and running up through November 13th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2015-2016 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the ACC.

The ACC is going to be really, really tough this year. There are three title contenders at the top of the conference, a half-dozen more programs that can make a run to the tournament and two or three really dangerous programs that will finish in the bottom-third of the conference.

Let’s get to it.

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW:

1. Marcus Paige is healthy which makes UNC is a title contender: Entering the season with a mountain of hype, Marcus Paige spent the majority of the year trying to work his way through ankle and foot injuries that led to offseason arthroscopic surgery. He’s healthy now, meaning he’s no longer limping while walking to class or spending his practice time on a stationary bike, and that’s huge for the Tar Heels. Throw in that sophomores Joel Berry, a point guard that should be able to move Paige off the ball, and Justin Jackson, a talented wing scorer, should rightfully be expected to take a step forward and that UNC’s massive front line returns intact, and Roy Williams has all the pieces to make a run at a national title.

2. Duke should contend despite losing four starters : Tyus Jones, Justise Winslow and Jahlil Okafor are all in the NBA. Quinn Cook graduated after what felt like a seven-year career. Only four players with game experience return, but the Blue Devils will be just fine. That’s what happens when you bring in a recruiting class that includes potential top five pick Brandon Ingram and fellow five-star recruits Luke Kennard, Chase Jeter and Derryck Thornton. Coach K will have a ton of talent on the wings, meaning that you should expect the Blue Devils to play uptempo basketball that features Ingram, a small forward by trade, at the four quite often. While the development of guys like Grayson Allen, Matt Jones and Sean Obi will be key, Duke’s success this season will likely be determined by two things: Thornton’s adjustment to playing point guard at the highest level a year early and whether or not Marshall Plumlee can have a senior season on par with Brian Zoubek’s in 2010.

3. You can’t count Tony Bennett out at this point: There are some legitimate reasons to be concerned about Virginia this season. They weren’t the same team after Justin Anderson’s injury last season, and Anderson went to the NBA. They’re built around their defense, and not only do they lose Anderson, but they lose Darion Atkins, who was one of the best defensive big men in the country. Those are concerns, but with their back court of London Perrantes and Malcolm Brogdon intact, depth up front and Bennett’s Pack-Line defense still running things, the ‘Hoos will be just fine. And if Marial Shayok and Isaiah Wilkins develop, they’ll have a real shot at winning their third straight ACC regular season title.

4. The name Demetrius Jackson: Notre Dame has some serious pieces to replace this season, as Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton have both graduated. But luckily for Mike Brey, he still has Demetrius Jackson in the fold. Jackson, a 5-foot-11 point guard that played off the ball last season, should thrive in Brey’s pick-and-roll heavy offense. Brey is going to make sure that the ball is in his hands and he’s going to allow Jackson to make decisions, because that’s the way that Brey likes to coach. With Zach Auguste back and promising youngsters like Steve Vasturia, V.J. Beachem and Bonzie Colson back — not to mention newcomers Rex Pfleuger and Matt Ryan — Jackson will have plenty of space to operate. I think he becomes a lottery pick this season.

5-foot-11 Demetrius Jackson (AP Photo)
5-foot-11 Demetrius Jackson (AP Photo)

5. The second-tier in the ACC is a mess, but in a good way: There’s a clear-cut top three in the conference this season: North Carolina, Duke and Virginia, in some order. But after that, there are about six teams that can all finish somewhere between fourth and ninth in the league standings: Notre Dame, Florida State, N.C. State, Syracuse, Miami, Pitt, Louisville. I’d even argue that Wake Forest has a chance to make some noise in league play, assuming that point guard Codi Miller-McIntyre can get healthy. Where in past seasons, the middle of the conference has been on the weaker end of the spectrum, the ACC looks like they could get eight or nine teams into the NCAA tournament this season.

MORE: 2015-16 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

COACH’S TAKE:

  • Favorite: “UVA and UNC are neck and neck. UVA loses key parts [in Anderson and Atkins], but they run such a good system and get some key guys back. They’re so well-coached. Carolina is starting live up to their talent. From a personnel standpoint, they’re really experienced and more of a quintessential Carolina: big wings that can shoot, a slew of big men that can control the paint.”
  • Sleeper:
    • “I’d say Miami or FSU. If people don’t give them credit, maybe Louisville with the unknowns.”
    • “Miami or FSU. With Miami, everybody is back from a team that won 25 games and no one is talking about them like that. For FSU, they’ll be really good if the young guys turn out to be as good as they’re supposed to be.”
  • Best player: “Malcolm Brogdon has to be right there from an accomplishment standpoint. He’s an MF’er, man. In every way.”
  • Most underrated player:
    • “Most probably wouldn’t think he’s underrated, but I’m going to say Grayson Allen. He’s really good, obviously. They make their run because of them I don’t know if he’s looked upon as a guy like that.
    • “Miami’s Sheldon McClellan. Look at his percentages and then tell me he is just an honorable mention all-league player on a team that went 10-8 in the league.”

PRESEASON ACC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Marcus Paige, North Carolina

I know what you’re thinking. I’m thinking it, too. Paige was considered by many to be the Preseason National Player of the Year entering the 2014-15 season, and he followed that up by seeing his scoring numbers drop from 17.1 points as a sophomore to 14.5 points as a junior. Part of that was due to the fact that the Tar Heels were better and more balanced, meaning that Paige didn’t need to carry the load as much as he had in previous years. They also lacked a true point guard, as neither Joel Berry nor Nate Britt truly embraced the role, forcing Paige to play the position. But more than anything, it was his health that led to his limited production. Those nagging injuries are gone now, meaning we’re going to see the real Marcus Paige this season.

THE REST OF THE ACC FIRST TEAM:

  • Malcolm Brogdon, Virginia: Brogdon is one of those dudes that does everything well. He can create off the bounce, he can shoot threes, and he’s one of Tony Bennett’s best defenders. He’s the prototype off-guard for Virginia.
  • Brandon Ingram, Duke: Ingram is the best pro prospect in the ACC, and he’s not that far behind Ben Simmons and Skal Labissiere when it comes to being the potential No. 1 pick in the 2016 draft. He’s also put on 20 pounds of muscle since arriving at Duke. His biggest issue now: assertiveness. Will he be willing to take over games?
  • Xavier Rathan-Mayes, Florida State: XRM is the most underrated player in the conference. He needs to get more consistent and efficient — he averaged 3.4 turnovers and shot 28.1 percent from three — but that should be helped with the addition of FSU’s recruiting class. He went for 30-plus three times last season, including when he scored 30 in 4:35 against Miami. Seriously.
  • Demetrius Jackson, Notre Dame: I’m not sure what else I can say here. I think Jackson is going to have a huge season.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW:

  • Kennedy Meeks and Brice Johnson, North Carolina
  • Michael Gbinije, Syracuse
  • Grayson Allen, Duke
  • Cat Barber, N.C. State
  • Shelden McClellan, Miami
AP Photo
AP Photo

BREAKOUT STAR: Grayson Allen, Duke

Demetrius Jackson would have been the pick here, but seeing as we’ve already written plenty on him, we’re going to go with Allen. A former McDonald’s All-American dunk contest champion, Allen exploded into the national consciousness with a terrific performance in the Final Four last season. With more playing time available this season, and with Duke expected to play a system that fits Allen’s skill-set much better this season, don’t be surprised to see him develop into an all-ACC caliber player.

RELATED: Grayson Allen’s recruitment to Duke started with a duct-taped shoe

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Roy Williams, North Carolina

Roy Williams is not on the hot seat, not unless the NCAA comes heavy-handed when they hand out their punishments. But Williams is under more pressure than his brethren at other blue blood programs because this may be the last time for a while that he truly has a national title contender on his hands. UNC’s recruiting has been hurt by the potential sanctions that could be handed down. They’re expected to miss out on all of the elite talents coming out of their state for the second straight recruiting class, meaning he doesn’t exactly have replacements in line for the talent that could leave Chapel Hill after this season. Ole Roy is 65 years old. He doesn’t have too many years left, does he?

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING … : Duke has a real chance to repeat, but North Carolina and Virginia are both more likely to cut down the nets in Houston.

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT : League play is going to be awesome, and those Duke-North Carolina games will be as testy as ever, but how about this two-night stretch in the Triangle: Maryland at North Carolina followed by Indiana at Duke. That will be fun.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR:

  • 11/17, Duke vs. Kentucky
  • 12/1, Maryland at North Carolina
  • 12/2, Indiana at Duke
  • 12/19, Villanova at Virginia
  • 12/22, Cal at Virginia

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @accsports

PREDICTED FINISH

1. North Carolina: UNC will win the ACC if Paige is healthy, Berry takes over the point guard role and Jackson develops into a consistent scorer and deep threat.
2. Virginia: The ‘Hoos will win the league if Marial Shayok can replace Anderson’s production and if Isaiah Wilkins can provide quality bench production behind Mike Tobey and Anthony Gill.
3. Duke: Duke will win the conference if Thornton proves to be ready to handle the rigors of the point in the ACC, Plumlee develops into a dominant shot-blocker and rebounder, and if Ingram can find be a dominant force on both ends of the floor.
4. Notre Dame: You already know how we feel about Jackson, but the key to the season for the Irish is going to end up being how well they can replace Connaughton. He was a sharpshooter that could hold his own defensively and on the glass in the paint despite being a natural two-guard. Those aren’t easy to find.
5. Florida State: The Seminoles are the most intriguing team in the conference. Rathan-Mayes is the name everyone will know, but they also add a trio of talented freshmen wings — led by five-star scorer Dwayne Bacon — to go along with the likes of Montay Brandon and Devon Bookert. Leonard Hamilton also has plenty of size on his roster, including three players listed at 7-foot-1 or taller. If FSU misses out on the NCAA tournament this season, it won’t be because they lacked the pieces on their roster.
6. Miami: The Hurricanes are a bit thin in the front court, but they have quite a bit of talent in the back court. Sheldon McClellan is underrated nationally and sophomore Ja’Quan Newton should be primed for a big season. The key will be Angel Rodriguez. He’s a top 15 point guard nationally when he’s playing well, but he’s wildly inconsistent.
7. N.C. State: The Wolfpack have developed a reputation of being a team that underwhelms during the regular season before turning things on during the NCAA tournament. I could see them finished fourth in the league and I can see them finishing tenth, but I think that with a roster anchored by Cat Barber and Abdul Malik-Abu, Mark Gottfried should be able to get this group to the tournament.
8. Louisville: I love their freshman class — Donovan Mitchell is going to be a star — but with the scandal swirling around the program and the lack of an entrenched, veteran presence on the roster, Rick Pitino could be in for a long year. I’m not convinced grad transfers Damion Lee (Drexel) and Trey Lewis (Cleveland State) can lead them to glory.
9. Pitt: Forwards Michael Young and Jamel Artis are good and Chris Jones could be in line for a breakout season, but what on this roster is going to scare opposing coaches? The Panthers could end up being an NCAA tournament team, but I’m not sure their ceiling is much more than that.
10. Syracuse: Fresh off of a postseason ban, the Orange look like a team with a shot of getting to the Big Dance this season. Michael Gbinije could end up being a first-team all-ACC player, but there are too many other question marks to feel confident with this group. Is Trevor Cooney ever going to be consistent shooting the ball? Can Kaleb Joseph handle the point guard spot this year? Are the bigs any good? Can Tyler Lydon or Malachi Richardson have an immediate impact?
11. Clemson: The Tigers are evidence of why it’s so difficult to coach at a place like Clemson. They return quite a bit of talent from a team that went 8-10 in the league last season, but given the quality of the programs ahead of them, it’s hard to see Brad Brownell’s club climbing significantly in the standings.
12. Wake Forest: Danny Manning has landed a couple of quality recruiting classes in a row and sophomore Konstantinos Mitoglou looks like he has a really bright future, but Codi Miller-McIntyre’s foot injury really put a damper on this team’s expectations heading into the season.
13. Virginia Tech: Buzz Williams has brought in some quality young pieces and will replace the departed Adam Smith with Maryland transfer Seth Allen. I think the Hokies are still a year away from really competing, but they’re what I like to call an upside-team. The future is bright.
14. Georgia Tech: Brian Gregory was lucky to hang onto his job after last season, and there wasn’t a major roster overhaul that would leave me to believe the Yellow Jackets will make a jump in the standings. Adding Adam Smith from Virginia Tech will help, however.
15. Boston College: Losing Olivier Hanlan to the NBA means that things are probably going to get worse before they get better for BC head coach Jim Christian.