Mike Tobey

AP Photo/Steve Helber

No. 4 Virginia clamps down on No. 11 Louisville

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In boxing there’s the old adage of “styles make fights,” with those styles either producing instant classics or absolute mismatches. When it comes to No. 4 Virginia and No. 11 Louisville this season, it was clear in their two meetings that the Cavaliers were a bad matchup for the Cardinals. Saturday night Tony Bennett’s team completed a sweep of the season series with a 68-46 win in Charlottesville, and it was Virginia’s seniors who led the way.

Malcolm Brogdon, who is seen by many as the favorite to earn ACC Player of the Year honors next week, scored 13 of his 17 points in the second half and Anthony Gill added 15 points and four rebounds. But the senior star on this night was none other than Mike Tobey, who scored 15 points and corralled a staggering 20 rebounds on the night.

Tobey became the first Virginia player since Travis Watson in 2003 to grab at least 20 boards in a game, and his total was just eight fewer than Louisville tallied as a team. The rebounding number was just one aspect of this beating, a game in which Virginia controlled the action in all areas. Virginia committed 13 turnovers but shot 51.3 percent from the field, supplementing their scoring from the field with a 23-for-30 night from the foul line.

As for the defense, that was the biggest reason why Virginia is a bad matchup for Louisville. The Cavaliers limited the Cardinals to 27.6 percent shooting from the field, with Louisville getting just 14 attempts from the foul line (making ten). Gill’s ability as a defender in ball screens is well-known by this point, but he wasn’t the only Virginia big man who performed well.

Louisville’s guards were unable to turn the corner, and on many occasions the ball stayed on one side of the floor as a result. Quality shots were tough to come by, as one would expect when playing against Virginia’s pack line defense, and Louisville struggled mightily. In the first meeting, the Cardinals shot 32.7 percent from the field and had many of the same issues. Much was made of Virginia’s defense earlier this season and the underrated impact of Darion Atkins’ departure, and there was some work to be done when it came to how big men other than Gill defended in ball screen actions.

There were no such issues Saturday night, and as a result the Cavaliers will be the two-seed at next week’s ACC tournament. And if they can continue to defend at this level, Tony Bennett’s team will have a good shot at winning their second ACC tournament in the last three years.

Gill leads No. 5 Virginia to 71-58 victory over Oakland

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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) Mike Tobey showed again what a jolt of confidence can do for his productivity, just in time for Atlantic Coast Conference play.

The 7-foot senior scored 16 points, more than he had in his last five games combined, and was part of two runs that helped No. 5 Virginia pull away from pesky Oakland for its 10th consecutive victory, 71-58.

It was a far cry from the former starter whose confidence drooped as he tallied two points in three of his last four games, and went scoreless in the fourth while playing just 6 minutes.

“It felt really good. My teammates have been real supportive and just helping me get through the hum of not playing as much as I would like to play, but it felt good to get a good one in tonight,” he said.

Tobey was 7 for 8 from the field and added seven rebounds in 19 minutes.

The Cavaliers open their ACC schedule at home on Saturday against Notre Dame.

Anthony Gill and London Perrantes scored eight points each during a 24-7 run to open the second half that put the Cavaliers in command, and while both are regular scoresheet contributors for Virginia, Tobey has been a sometimes frustrating four-year enigma.

But he started his night with a putback dunk, and then an alley-oop dunk on a pass from Darius Thompson, and was off.

“It was awesome,” Gill said. “We’ve kind of been waiting on it and we know he has it in him. It’s up to him just to go out there and do it. When he’s like that, it’s hard to beat us because we have another big guy down there that can really score the ball or cause other problems.”

Gill led the Cavaliers (11-1) with 17 points, and Malcolm Brogdon had 12.

Kay Felder, the nation’s No. 3 scorer with a 26.6 average, had 30 on 10 for 22 shooting to lead the Golden Grizzlies.

Oakland (8-5) arrived with a reputation as a dangerous team, having won at Washington and then taken No. 1 Michigan State to overtime in a 99-93 loss, but after trailing 29-28 at halftime, the Golden Grizzlies were no match once Virginia got its offense going.

Its defense also forced eight turnovers in the first 8 minutes while allowing just seven points.

“We really wanted to play their game and not play our game,” said Oakland coach Greg Kampe, who is in his 32nd season and whose team likes to get up and down the floor quickly and score quickly. “I thought if we played our game it wouldn’t go well.”

The Golden Grizzlies closed the half on a 7-0 burst to lead 29-28, but as the second half started, the Cavaliers clicked.

Gill scored inside, Perrantes followed a turnover with a 3-pointer and Brogdon followed another turnover with a free throw. A dunk by Gill made it 36-29 before Felder finally hit two free throws for Oakland. Another turnover led to a breakaway dunk for Gill, followed by a 3-pointer from Perrantes, and the Cavaliers built their lead as high as 22 points.

THREE FOR ME:

Virginia scoring leader Malcolm Brogdon has made six baskets in the last two games, all from 3-point range. He’s 6 for 9 from beyond the arc in victories against California and Oakland, but 0 for 13 from 2-point territory.

TIP INS:

Oakland: Max Hooper came into the game having attempted 103 field goals, all 3-pointers. He’d made 46, or 44.7 percent. He tried eight shots at John Paul Jones Arena, all also from beyond the arc, and was Oakland’s second-leading scorer with nine points.

Virginia: Virginia entered play with the nation’s ninth-best scoring defense, allowing 59.2 points per game. The Golden Grizzlies’ 88.4 scoring average was fourth-best in the country. … New Virginia football coach Bronco Mendenhall got a loud cheers when introduced at halftime. They got louder when he told the crowd, “I only know winning football, and I don’t know what it’s like to be home in the holidays.” Mendenhall led BYU to 11 straight bowl games.

UP NEXT:

Oakland plays Cleveland State at home on Saturday.

Virginia plays Notre Dame at home on Saturday.

Follow Hank on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/hankkurzjr

The AP’s college basketball page: http://www.collegebasketball.ap.org

Ranking College Basketball’s Top Front Courts

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Where it was tough to whittle down the back courts to just 15 teams, for the front lines, it was tougher to find 15 units that we truly thought were potentially dominant. Whether it was a result of a lack of depth or a lack of star power, the back end of this list didn’t feel all that overpowering.

Here are the 15 teams with the best big men:

1. Gonzaga (Kyle Wiltjer, Przemek Karnowski, Domantas Sabonis)

The Zags ended up winning out on this list for the simple fact that there isn’t another program in the country with three big men that are as good as this trio. Wiltjer is a prototype stretch four with shooting splits that are reminiscent of Doug McDermott. Karnowski is the rim protector, a 7-foot-1 behemoth that has developed a solid offensive repertoire that includes baby hooks and the ability to dive to the rim in ball-screens actions. And Sabonis may actually be the best of the three, a throwback power forward that plays physical, sets hard screens and is always looking to hit the glass.

As a whole, however, I’m personally not sold, although my colleagues don’t necessarily agree with me. I think Wiltjer is a defensive liability and I worry about lineup flexibility; can you get all three on the floor at the same time? Can Sabonis and Karnowski both be on the court without the shooting of Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. to spread the floor? If the answer to those questions is yes, than Gonzaga should be a top 15 team. If not, it’s a much different story.

2. North Carolina (Kennedy Meeks, Brice Johnson, Isaiah Hicks, Joel James, Luke Maye)

When the casual ACC hoops fan thinks of North Carolina basketball, they probably think of an uptempo, run-and-gun team built around Roy Williams’ patented secondary break offense. And while that’s true, the best North Carolina teams have always had a couple of big bodies that commanded double-teams on the block. Sean May turned into Tyler Hansbrough who eventually became Tyler Zeller. None of UNC’s bigs have that kind of lottery pick potential, but Meeks, Johnson and James are all above average post scorers. Hicks struggles with his confidence in games, but he’s routinely one of UNC’s best players in practice. If he can put it together this season, the Tar Heels will reach another level.

3. Kentucky (Skal Labissiere, Isaac Humphries, Marcus Lee, Alex Poythress, Derek Willis)

On paper, Kentucky probably has the most raw talent along their front line. The problem is that none of their five players have proven anything at the college level. Lee has been good in flashes but has yet to play extended minutes. Poythress struggled with his position identity before tearing his ACL. Humphries is a freshman that enrolled a year early. Willis has always been projected as an end of the rotation kind of guy. Labissiere has the talent to be the National Player of the Year, but until we see how he transitions to the college level, it’s tough to know whether he’s going to be great or just simply good. The good news? It’s hard to imagine all five failing to live up to their individual potential.

4. Maryland (Robert Carter, Diamond Stone, Damonte Dodd, Michael Cevosky)

I’m probably higher on this Maryland group that anyone mostly because I love the potential of running high-low offense through Diamond Stone and Robert Carter. Stone is the name you know. A 6-foot-10 four man that can play on the perimeter, he’s a top ten recruit and a potential one and done player. But Carter is the guy that has gotten all the hype since practice started. He averaged 11.4 points and 8.4 boards at Georgia Tech before sitting out last season and shedding a good 20 pounds. Dodd and Cevosky are both better than adequate subs as well.

RELATED: Top back courts in college basketball | Top 100 Players

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A.J. Hammons (Getty Images)

5. Purdue (A.J. Hammons, Vince Edwards, Isaac Haas, Caleb Swanigan)

Like Gonzaga, I love Purdue’s big men individually even if I don’t love them as a group. Hammons, when he’s dialed in, is one of the best big men in the country. He was, more often than not, dialed in last season. Haas is a 7-foot-2 center that showed tons of promise as a freshman, while Edwards, another sophomore, has a chance to be a star at the three after a very good freshman season. Throw in Biggie Swanigan, a McDonald’s All-American and a terrific low-post scoring threat, and Matt Painter is going to have some legendary battles in practice. But Haas and Hammons can’t play at the same time. Can Purdue function offensively with Swanigan at the four and Hammons or Haas at the five?

6. Baylor (Rico Gathers, Jonathan Motley, Taureen Waller-Prince)

I love this Baylor group. Waller-Prince is as underrated as anyone in the country, Gathers is an absolute bully in the paint and Motley has a chance to be this season’s breakout star in the Big 12. When all three are on the floor together — which is possible given Waller-Prince’s versatility — they’re going to be one of the best rebounding teams in the country. The problem? Depth. If Jo Acuil can’t get cleared (he has a heart issue, as if Baylor hasn’t had enough of those), the Bears will have to rely on Terry Maston, who played 11 games as a freshman.

7. Kansas (Cheick Diallo, Perry Ellis, Hunter Mickelson, Carlton Bragg, Jamari Traylor, Landon Lucas)

It was hard to know what to do with Kansas here. Bragg is promising, Mickelson and Lucas should be serviceable and Ellis should once again put up first-team all-Big 12 caliber numbers. That’s a good front line, but one that should be closer to No. 15 than No. 7. But if Diallo gets eligible, that changes things, as he’s precisely the piece their missing, an athletic, 6-foot-9 four that plays hard, runs the floor, defends and crashes the glass. He’s everything that Cliff Alexander wasn’t last year, and makes Kansas so much better. He’s also not yet cleared to play. So we slotted them here.

8. Utah (Jakob Poeltl, Brekkot Chapman, Jordan Loveridge, Kyle Kuzma, Chris Reyes)

I like the mix that Larry Krystkowiak has at his disposal here. Poeltl is an elite rim protector with a chance at being a lottery pick, Loveridge is a veteran scoring presence that can space the floor and Chapman and Kuzma are talented sophomores with bright futures. Losing Delon Wright is going to hurt the Utes, but the reason they’ll remain in hunt for a Pac-12 title.

9. Vanderbilt (Damian Jones, Luke Kornet, Djery Baptiste, Jeff Roberson, Samir Sehic)

There’s a chance that Vandy’s ranking here could look far too low by the end of the season. We expect Jones to be a star this season, potentially as the best center in all of college basketball. Baptiste and Roberson both look like quality rotation players and Sehic, a freshman, is an undersized four that always seemed to be able to produce regardless of competition at the high school level. Kornet is the x-factor. People around the program expect the 7-foot-1 sharpshooter to have a big season. If he lives up to the hype, the Commodores will be very dangerous.

Damian Jones (AP Photo)
Damian Jones (AP Photo)

10. UNLV (Stephen Zimmerman, Dwayne Morgan, Ben Carter, Goodluck Okonoboh, Derrick Jones)

There is so much talent on this front line. So much. Morgan and Okonoboh were high profile recruits in the Class of 2014, Jones — a freshman — will be the nation’s best dunker this season and Carter was a starter at Oregon. Zimmerman is the best of a bunch, a versatile, 7-foot lefty whose biggest strength is his ability to pass the ball. Can they live up to their potential is the major question mark here.

11. Virginia (Anthony Gill, Mike Tobey, Isaiah Wilkins, Jarrod Reuter)

Losing Darion Atkins, who was so, so good for the Cavs on the defensive end of the floor, is a bigger blow than some may realize. But Anthony Gill and Mike Tobey are both above average post scorers and Isaiah Wilkins is an intriguing prospect that had some promising moments last season. As with just about everyone on Tony Bennett’s roster, these guys are better than their numbers will suggest.

12. Arizona (Kaleb Tarczewski, Ryan Anderson, Mark Tollefsen, Dusan Ristic, Chance Comanche)

Even with Ray Smith done for the year with a torn ACL, the Wildcats deserve a place on this list. That’s what happens when you have this much quality depth. But who is a star in this group? Who scares opposing scouts? Zeus has never lived up to the billing of being a top ten prospect, scouts love Ristic but he has yet to beat out Zeus, Comanche is a freshman that needs a year or two and Tollefson is a transfer from San Francisco. Anderson, who averaged 14.3 points and 7.3 boards at BC, is the best of the bunch on paper, but he lacks explosiveness and is coming off of a redshirt season. He’s the x-factor in this equation.

13. Iowa State (Georges Niang, Jameel McKay, Simeon Carter)

Niang is the single-toughest cover in all of college basketball. A 6-foot-8 power forward, he’s so skilled: he can beat you in the post, he can beat you to the rim from the perimeter, he can pass, he can shoot, he can dribble. He’s a stud. McKay is the perfect compliment, a 6-foot-9 shot-blocker and offensive rebounder. But after those two, there really isn’t much of note in ISU’s front court.

14. LSU (Ben Simmons, Craig Victor, Elbert Robinson, Aaron Epps, Brian Bridgewater)

Simmons is going to be must-see TV every time he plays as a freshman. He’s a 6-foot-9 point forward with handle, an innate passing ability and a flair for making highlight reel plays. He’ll notch multiple triple-doubles this season. But where is his front court support? Craig Victor is the most talented of the bunch, but left Arizona because he couldn’t crack the rotation.

15. San Diego State (Malik Pope, Skylar Spencer, Zylan Cheatham, Angelo Chol)

This ranking is based on the assumption that Malik Pope lives up to his potential. He’s got the talent of a lottery pick and the consistentcy — and the health — of a four-year Mountain West big man. Spencer is a shot-blocker extraordinaire, Chol is an above-average high major big man and Cheatham has plenty of promise, but if Pope doesn’t play his way into being a first round pick, this rank will look silly in March.

Others considered: Texas A&M, Cal, Marquette, Wake Forest, Cincinnati, Duke

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

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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.