Beginning in September and running up until November 6th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2018-2019 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.
Every day at Noon ET, we will be releasing an in-depth preview of one member of our Preseason Top 25.
Today we dive into No. 9 North Carolina.
North Carolina has been the most successful program this side of Villanova over the course of the last five years because they bucked the trend, whether that was the plan or not.
In an era where the other bluebloods have chased one-and-done talent and rebuilt their roster each and every offseason, the Tar Heels reached the 2016 national title game and won the 2017 national title on the backs of veterans.
Marcus Paige, Justin Jackson, Joel Berry II, Kennedy Meeks, Brice Johnson, Isaiah Hicks, Theo Pinson. Roy Williams went from being a Hall of Famer to one of the very best to ever do it thanks to players that stuck around for three or four years.
Now that might not have been by design.
The scandal that enveloped the UNC athletic department for years took some of the luster off of the program. Concerns about whether or not the program would be eligible for the NCAA tournament played a role in why a handful of those one-and-done prospects — namely, Brandon Ingram — ended up elsewhere.
This season is different.
For the first time in years, the Tar Heels will be relying quite heavily on a pair of highly-touted freshmen to carry them.
When Luke Maye committed to North Carolina in the fall of 2014, no one in the country thought much of it. Here was a three-star recruit, an in-state kid and the son of a former Tar Heel quarterback, committing to program that he had loved his entire life. The most notable thing about his decision to enroll at UNC was that he was, for a long time, the only member in Roy Williams 2015 recruiting class thanks to the academic scandal that was still hanging over the program at the time.
For forward three years, and Luke Maye had turned a memorable buzzer-beater during a national title run into an all-american season.
And now, he will enter the 2018-19 season as the best returning player in all of college basketball.
If you predicted that would happen, please buy me a Powerball ticket and predict the winning numbers.
In all seriousness, Maye is a terrific talent and almost the antithesis of a Roy Williams big man. For years and years, Williams was one of the last coaches to embrace the small-ball movement, but as his roster dictated it, he made the change last season and bought in. UNC’s best lineup a season ago featured Maye — a 6-foot-9 forward who is at his best as a shooter or when he has the chance to face-up — at the five with Cameron Johnson — a 6-foot-8 shooter that is officially listed as a guard — at the four. Johnson, along with fellow senior Kenny Williams, will join with Maye to provide Ole’ Roy with plenty of shooting and plenty of veteran leadership.
And, unlike past seasons, that group will be joined by a pair of five-star freshmen in Nassir Little and Coby White.
Little is the name to know here. He’s a consensus top three player in the class and, depending on how R.J. Barrett performs cross-town at Duke, he could end up being the No. 1 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft. He’s a perfect fit alongside Maye and Johnson, as he is more toolsy and, at 6-foot-6 and 220 pounds with a 7-foot-1 wingspan, known more for what he can do defensively. White is the bigger question mark, but we’ll get into that in a bit.
The Tar Heels have a really nice blend of role-playing veterans and talented freshmen to go alongside their all-american senior.
I may be in the minority here, but I actually think that losing Theo Pinson is going to hurt North Carolina more than losing Joel Berry II.
That’s not meant as a shot at Berry, either. He was terrific. He was the MOP when the Tar Heels cut down the nets in 2017. He played in two national title games. His resume speaks for itself.
What he did for this North Carolina team, however, can more easily be replaced than what Pinson did. Berry may have played the point for the Tar Heels last season and he may have been the ‘one’ in Roy Williams’ secondary break, but for all intents and purposes, Pinson was the playmaker on that Tar Heel team the last two years. He’s the guy that made things have in the halfcourt, helping to break down a set defense. He’s the guy that led the program in assists. He was their most important player for long stretches, and while the Tar Heels bring in guys that can score, they don’t have someone that can do the things that Pinson did.
But that doesn’t mean that UNC won’t miss Berry, who provided the kind of leadership every team in the country needs. That’s not necessarily something that can be coached into you. You either have it or you don’t, and Berry had it.
And all of this becomes more relevant when you realize that UNC will likely end up starting a freshman at the point this season …
… and that brings me to Coby White.
First things first: Roy Williams, more than anything, is known for being a coach that wants to play two bigs as much as possible. He’s also known as a coach that prioritizes playing in transition, that runs a lethal secondary break and that attacks the glass with abandon.
The other thing that Williams’ best teams have been known for has been point guard play.
Ray Felton was the starter with the Tar Heels won the 2005 national title. Ty Lawson ran the show when North Carolina cut down the nets in 2009. The 2017 title saw UNC led by Joel Berry II, who isn’t going to have the NBA career of the other two but who was an all-american in his own right. In 2012, the year where the Tar Heels were the one team that could have kept John Calipari from getting his national title with Kentucky, North Carolina had Kendall Marshall at the point.
Marshall was a pure point guard in every sense of the word, but he’s also something of the outlier in this group.
Berry was more of a natural scorer than he was a playmaker, as Pinson was the guy that North Carolina ran their offense through last season. Felton and Lawson both put up big assist numbers in their time in college — both were clearly more than capable as playmakers — and while they weren’t exactly score-first, they certainly were scoring point guards. Having a player that can go coast-to-coast, having a lead guard that can get him 20 points on any given night, that’s what Williams’ best teams have had. It’s part of what makes his offense work.
And that’s where Coby White comes into play.
A low-end five-star prospect, White is a 6-foot-5 combo-guard that scored a state-record 3,573 points while in high school, a downright ludicrous number that should tell you all you need to know about his reputation as a bucket-getter. It also provides the clear contextual concerns for this UNC team: Not only is White looking at stepping into the ACC as a starting point guard as a freshman, he’s potentially doing so as a score-first combo on a team where he will be surrounded by plenty of shooting and a roster full of veterans, particularly UNC’s all-american big man, Luke Maye.
It’s almost counter-intuitive to say this, but the freshman that could end up being a top two pick in the 2019 NBA Draft — Nassir Little — is less important to North Carolina’s success this season than the freshman that profiles as their next three- or four-year starting point guard.
How quickly will White adjust to playing at the one in the ACC? Can he score at that level? Can he also be more than just a scorer at that level?
The answers to those questions could end up being the difference between the Tar Heels competing for the ACC title and making a run at a Final Four and finishing the year as something closer to a No. 6 seed.
The Tar Heels should be fine.
They are old, they are talented and they have at least one all-american on a roster that is going to be coached by a Hall of Famer.
That’s enough to win a lot of basketball games.
That said, given the question marks we do have about their point guard situation, I think the ceiling on this team is a little bit limited. In a one-off competition like the NCAA tournament, anyone can win, I just find it difficult to believe that the Tar Heels are going to have the horses to make a run at getting back to the Final Week of the season.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski took the opportunity Monday to downplay the breadth of the illicit actions being alleged/revealed/confirmed in testimony over the last two weeks of Brian Bowen Sr. and T.J. Gassnola.
The father of an elite recruit and and adidas consultant, the pair have essentially narrated a roadmap to college basketball’s underground that includes payoffs, cars, deception, hustling and layers upon layers of NCAA violations.
“It’s a blip. It’s not what’s happening,” K said at the Blue Devils’ media day. “We haven’t lost guys because of someone’s shoe. I’m not aware of that.”
Gassnola: “In my mind, it’s KU, Bill Self. Everyone else fall into line. Too (expletive) bad. That’s what’s right for Adidas basketball. And I know I’m right. The more you have lottery picks and you happy. That’s how it should work in my mind.”
Self: “That’s how ur (sic) works. At UNC and Duke.”
So despite K’s handwringing and outright dismissal of shoe companies’ involvement in high-profile recruitments, there is a Hall of Fame, national-championship winning coach at one of the most prominent and storied programs in the history of the sport that, apparently, thinks different.
That seems noteworthy.
Coach K’s whole premise, in fact, ignores the whole point of what, whether he admits it or not, is going on, seemingly, at a wide scale. The idea that Duke may or may not have lost guys because of their shoe affiliation is beside the point. The Blue Devils, you may have heard, are a Nike school. One of the preeminent Nike schools. Another thing you may have heard is that Nike is far and away the predominant player in basketball apparel. The pool of players that Duke could even conceivably miss out on because of shoe affiliation is tiny compared to the amount of high-level prospects that are “Nike guys.”
Let’s also not forget that Nike outfits another pretty influential group in the basketball world. USA Basketball. Which Coach K has essentially headed as the men’s national team coach for the last 10 years where he worked with some of Nike’s most high-profile athletes like LeBron James and Kevin Durant. Oh, and Mason Plumlee, who got a spot on the 2014 World Cup team totally because he was one of the best players the United State had to offer and not at all because of his Duke connections.
But I digress.
What we learned today is that the perception nationally that shoe companies, to whatever degree, help their favored schools land top recruits is not one held simply by media blowhards and paranoid fanbases. It’s one a coach of one of those favored schools holds, too. The fact that there have been days of testimony in a federal courtroom that back up that sentiment should matter here, too.
Krzyzewski’s statements are self-serving. He’s not the first one to take this route. That’s fine. It’s his job to win basketball games and protect Duke basketball. Pretending like shoe companies are a non-factor in recruiting is in his best interest as he and his program continue to enroll the best players in the country while wearing a swoosh on every piece of clothing.
It’s not reality, though.
UNC’s Johnson ready to ‘just do more’ after hip surgery
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — Cameron Johnson is grateful for something simple entering his final season at North Carolina: the ability to spread his feet in a wide defensive stance without the mix of pain and limited motion in his left hip.
It’s been roughly six months since the 6-foot-8 graduate student had an arthroscopic procedure to correct issues that had plagued him back into his high school career. And that has Johnson feeling free to “just do more” in conditioning and preseason drills.
“I feel like I’m in a much better place to build, especially on skillsets and movement and playing in the system,” Johnson said Tuesday during the Tar Heels’ preseason media day. “I feel like I can keep building rather than taking steps one day and then the body kind of hits me saying, ‘Whoa, slow down.'”
Johnson said his recovery from the April 16 procedure has gone to plan, and that’s good news for the Tar Heels. He’s one of three returning starters and averaged 11.9 points last season, his first after transferring from Pittsburgh as a graduate with two years of eligibility remaining.
He also brings size, rebounding (4.5) and outside shooting (41.5 percent on 3-pointers) to the Tar Heels’ perimeter, which lost program mainstays Joel Berry II and Theo Pinson.
He put up those numbers despite dealing with the hip problem, one Johnson described a bone impingement and a torn labrum.
The issue manifested in several ways. Chasing a shooter around a screen was perilous because taking a bump to the thigh could trigger the muscles to tighten and aggravate the issue, leading to “a good 15 minutes of some real aching” and attempts to massage the muscles to loosen it up.
There was also the day-to-day “dull ache” and restrictions in movement as he tried to change direction or close out on a shooter, as well as stiffness following games or workouts.
“It was just part of my experience — I had never played without it,” Johnson said.
While he can’t pinpoint exactly when it surfaced during high school, he remembers when it became apparent: during his first year at Pitt.
“My coaches were like, ‘Spread your feet, get in a stance, get in a stance,'” Johnson said. “I’m like, ‘It really doesn’t feel like it wants to go there.’ They were like, ‘Ah, you just need to strengthen this, strengthen that, stretch this, stretch that.’
“And I’m like: ‘I really don’t think this feels the way it’s supposed to feel.'”
Yet it wasn’t always obvious to those around him, either. Teammate Kenny Williams said he knew the hip bothered Johnson but he never really talked about it and “honestly I couldn’t really tell.”
“We were always aware of it and perhaps subbed him more or gave him a few more days here and there,” coach Roy Williams said. “But I think (after) the surgery, we went as slow as you could possibly go this summer. He was mad at everybody because he wanted to get out there and be able to play earlier.
“He looks like he’s moving more freely. He looks like he doesn’t have as much pain, doesn’t look as stiff, so I think it’s been really helpful.”
Things have rarely been easy for Johnson in his time with the Tar Heels — or even before he got to play for them.
There was a transfer dispute when Pitt tried to prevent him from being eligible to play immediately at UNC.
Even though Pitt relented, Johnson didn’t get to play for the Tar Heels until December. That’s because he missed the opener with a neck sprain, then suffered a torn meniscus in his left knee at practice three days later and needed surgery that would keep him out another 10 games.
And he was battered coming down the stretch, too. He injured his back when a Miami player fell on him during the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament, then reinjured it and played only 23 minutes in the loss to Virginia in the title game.
Maybe things will be easier this time around.
“I take good as relative, and for me right now I definitely say I feel very good,” Johnson said. “I don’t know how good 100 percent is because I feel like I’m finding a new 100 percent.”
Rob Dauster was joined on Monday morning by Scott Phillips to roll through the College Basketball Talk ACC preview podcast. Just how good will Duke’s freshmen end up being? Can Virginia overcome the demons of the worst tourney loss of all-time? Why is Theo Pinson a bigger loss for North Carolina than Joel Berry II? Which of the mass of teams in the middle of the league can get to a Final Four?
It’s all here.
Open: Boston College
20:42: Florida State
26:27: Georgia Tech
38:47: NC State
50:12: Notre Dame
1:09:27: Virginia Tech
1:12:25: Wake Forest
2018-19 ACC Preview: Duke, Virginia, North Carolina once again top loaded conference
Beginning in September and running up until November 6th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2018-2019 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.
Today, we are previewing the Atlantic Coast Conference.
The ACC returns for another mega year as the league reloads with five-star freshmen and a ridiculous number of preseason top-25 teams.
This could very well be another year in which the ACC gets multiple No. 1 seeds and up to 10 teams in the NCAA tournament as the conference looks deep and talented.
Here’s a look at the ACC.
FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW
1. The ACC is loaded with contenders, but doesn’t have a clear cut favorite.
A lot of familiar names pepper the top of the ACC’s preseason standings. Duke and North Carolina are the seemingly perennial contenders while Virginia has now included themselves in that tier with the past few years. All of those programs have the potential to win the ACC again this season. None of them are the clearcut favorite at this point.
You can certainly make a strong case for all three of those schools. They also all have glaring issues. Duke is going to be very young, with question marks about how the ball moves and defense. Virginia has the talent to be a title contender again, but how will they handle last season’s loss while also handling season-long questions about the team’s ability to score when necessary? And North Carolina will be relying heavily on two freshmen this season — something Roy Williams hasn’t always done before — so how well will Nassir Little and Coby White adjust to potential prime-time roles?
And this doesn’t include a ridiculously loaded second tier of teams. The NBC Sports Preseason Top 25 has more than half the league in the poll. Can one of those teams make a leap to compete for the title as well? It’s certainly feasible, with teams like Virginia Tech, Florida State, Clemson and Syracuse all returning a lot of talent from successful teams. This should be a fascinating year in the conference.
2. Duke’s freshman class has the potential to be legendary.
Duke returns a few key pieces from last season, but the truth is nobody’s interested in the Blue Devils that are coming back. Everybody wants to talk about the recruiting class with four top-10 talents and huge expectations.
The freshman class of R.J. Barrett, Zion Williamson, Cam Reddish and Tre Jones will all likely start from day one as the quartet is perhaps the most well-known recruiting class of all time. You could argue that other groups of recruits were deeper or more talented. None of them carry the level of burden this group does.
Williamson is the most popular high school basketball player since LeBron. He’s a YouTube sensation who throws down NBA Dunk Contest-level in-game dunks while checking in at the 285 pounds that an NFL defensive end weighs. He destroyed rims in Canada and showed off a higher skill level than people give him credit for.
Barrett is the future of Canada basketball and a potential No. 1 pick in next June’s NBA draft. He’s already defeated a team full of American stars in FIBA play while getting an early call up to play with pros on the Canadian Senior National team this summer. He just played a national high school schedule at Montverde and dominated everybody.
Reddish might be even more talented than Barrett and Williamson. There were times in high school that the 6-foot-8 perimeter threat looked like the best player in the class. But inconsistencies have plagued Reddish at times, as he makes for an insanely talented No. 3 option in this class.
And then there is Jones, the younger brother of an NBA player who already won a national title at the same school. Tre will be known more by casual basketball fans than the common Duke player because of that association to Tyus. But Tre has also won multiple gold medals with USA Basketball and should be ready for the attention that comes with the position of being Duke’s lead guard.
Veterans like Javin DeLaurier, Marques Bolden and Alex O’Connell will likely play a big role in Duke’s season, but it’s the freshman class that everyone will be watching for, as we’ll only get a limited window to see these four play together in Durham.
3. Virginia returns another potential No. 1 seed after last season’s NCAA tournament disaster.
The jokes and memes are never going to stop, and neither will the questions about Tony Bennett’s credibility when it comes to winning in March. Virginia’s loss to No. 16 seed UMBC during last season’s NCAA tournament will always be remembered as one of the biggest upsets in sports history.
The good news for the ‘Hoos is that they have a potential No. 1 seed once again this season. They get a chance at revenge. Three starters, including the backcourt of Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy, are back, as is senior center Jack Salt. And De’Andre Hunter should earn starting minutes and make a huge leap this season on the wing. Junior big man Mamadi Diakite showed some late signs of being a major factor with more minutes.
No matter what Virginia does, they’ll still have plenty of doubters — especially if the slow-paced offense continues. But this team has the makings of another consistent season in which they should compete for an ACC title.
4. North Carolina has the weapons to make another deep March run.
After four seasons of March memories, the backcourt of Joel Berry II and Theo Pinson have exhausted their eligibility. With a title and two Final Four appearances, the duo will be greatly missed. The good news for North Carolina is that they have the necessary weapons to make another deep run in March.
Senior forward Luke Maye is one of the nation’s most versatile frontcourt weapons. He’s a double-double machine who can also hit a three. Cameron Johnson and Kenny Williams are veteran perimeter threats and two more returning double-figure scorers. And North Carolina also has a promising young center platoon that includes Garrison Brooks and Sterling Manley.
But it’s the freshmen who could be the key to North Carolina’s success. Forward Nassir Little exploded into a top-five prospect during his senior season of high school as he’ll be expected to be a major contributor this season. Scoring guard Coby White will likely be asked to handle much of the point responsibilities that fell on Berry, as he’ll be playing a new role.
On the plus side, many project Little as a lottery pick after one season, while the scoring-minded White looked very good playing for the gold-medal winning USA Basketball U18 team this summer. So expectations will be high for both of them. The duo is also a big reason why expectations are once again high on North Carolina.
It’s easy to get lost discussing the recent greatness of programs like Duke, North Carolina and Virginia. So let’s not forget about the rest of the ACC — which is once again loaded this season. Virginia Tech returns most of last season’s NCAA tournament team, as they have a promising core and an offense that can really put up points.
Florida State, Syracuse and Clemson, the next pack of ACC teams, all made at least the Sweet 16 last season (the Seminoles made the Elite Eight) while each program returns a good chunk of those rosters. N.C. State and Miami both have intriguing rosters that just came off of NCAA tournament appearances. Both of those teams will rely heavily on rosters to offset the loss of some key players.
And it’s also tough to count out programs like Louisville, Boston College and Notre Dame this season. New coach Chris Mack inherits a talented, but inconsistent, group with the Cardinals. Boston College might have received preseason top 25 consideration if Jerome Robinson didn’t leave and go in the first round. The Eagles do have an All-American candidate in Ky Bowman with four starters back. And Notre Dame has T.J. Gibbs and Rex Pflueger returning, but they’ll rely heavily on freshmen.
All together, it’s feasible that this league gets double-digit NCAA tournament bids this season, particularly if some power leagues struggle to generate a normal number of bids.
PRESEASON ACC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: R.J. BARRETT, Duke
Many already view the 6-foot-7 Canadian as the No. 1 NBA Draft prospect for 2019, but before he shakes Adam Silver’s hand, Barrett will see if he can be the latest freshman to dominate college basketball. Already great at the high school level in both FIBA and playing a national schedule with Montverde Academy, Barrett has been battle-tested by older players for much of his career. An electric athlete who has a chance to be a menace on both sides of the ball, Barrett could be an unstoppable scorer for the Blue Devils this season. He was the NBC Sports Preseason National Player of the Year.
THE REST OF THE ACC FIRST TEAM
LUKE MAYE, North Carolina: The versatile junior big man became only the sixth Tar Heel in the last 40 years to average a double-double for a season (16.9 ppg, 10.1 rpg) as he also shot 43 percent from three-point range.
TYUS BATTLE, Syracuse: Stuck in a bad offense last season, the junior guard still managed to average 19.2 points per game — helping carry the Orange to a surprising postseason run.
ZION WILLIAMSON, Duke: Expectations for the freshman forward have been enhanced after some flashes of brilliance during Duke’s summer exhibition tour to Canada.
DE’ANDRE HUNTER, Virginia: The sophomore could emerge as one of the premier two-way wings in the country after earning ACC Sixth Man of the Year last season.
FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW
KYLE GUY, Virginia
NASSIR LITTLE, North Carolina
KY BOWMAN, Boston College
CAM REDDISH, Duke
T.J. GIBBS, Notre Dame
Syracuse sophomore forward Oshae Brissett didn’t receive a lot of attention as a freshman putting up big numbers at a known school. The bouncy 6-foot-8 Brissett averaged 14.9 points, 8.8 rebounds and 1.2 steals per game as he played in a notable 38.1 minutes per game. Despite putting up one of the best freshman seasons in Orange history, Tyus Battle received most of the attention as the go-to scorer from last season’s team. If Brissett improves his 35 percent shooting, while showing more consistent three-point range (33 percent), then he could have a monster second season and receive much more attention.
COACH UNDER PRESSURE
Danny Manning has recruited at a high level at Wake Forest (including a very good freshman class this season). Unfortunately that hasn’t always translated into success for the Demon Deacons. Although Wake Forest made the NCAA tournament with a breakout star in John Collins just two seasons ago, the program reverted back to a 4-14 finish in the ACC last season. Manning only has one postseason appearance in four seasons with the program and Wake Forest hasn’t finished about 10th in the ACC during his tenure. Regardless of how well he is recruiting, Manning needs to start winning some games.
ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING …
The loaded ACC has multiple national title contenders to go along with a deep group of eight teams who were selected into the final Field of 68.
I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT …
Watching Zion Williamson play at the college level is something I’ve been waiting for since his sophomore year of high school. America’s most popular prep basketball star since LeBron James, Williamson has rare size and athletic grace. If Zion puts up some monster numbers, while making huge highlight-reel plays, for the Blue Devils this season, then it’s a very good thing for college basketball.
FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR
Nov. 6, Duke vs. Kentucky (Champions Classic, Indianapolis)
Nov. 28, Purdue at Florida State (ACC/Big Ten Challenge)
Nov. 28, North Carolina at Michigan (ACC/Big Ten Challenge)
Dec. 8, Georgetown at Syracuse
Dec. 15, Gonzaga at North Carolina
1. DUKE: It’s always tough for teams reliant on freshmen to make the Final Four. Duke is hoping this potentially special group is an exception. Figuring out roles and lineups is going to be one of the fascinating things about this Duke roster.
The Blue Devils have the luxury of throwing a lot of unique looks out there since Barrett, Reddish and Williamson can play so many different positions on the wing. Small-ball lineups are available. Duke can throw a lot of size out there with someone like Bolden at center and maybe DeLaurier at the four. And O’Connell gives them another perimeter weapon who showed he can make some big plays last season. Scoring shouldn’t be too much of an issue. Getting consistent stops is likely going to dictate whether this team lives up to its ultimate potential.
2. VIRGINIA: Expected to once again be one of the best teams in the country, the Cavaliers feature a lot of returning talent. The backcourt of Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy are back. De’Andre Hunter goes from the bench to a starting, more featured role. Frontcourt depth shouldn’t be a concern as Jack Salt, Mamadi Diakite and Jay Huff are among a versatile group.
Improving offense is going to be what everyone is watching for. Since Virginia got run out of the gym by UMBC last season, putting up points — when necessary — has been a big subject with this team. With an NBA talent and two upperclass guards who can really shoot, Virginia is hoping to have more consistent offensive firepower this year. Remember, Hunter also missed the NCAA tournament with a broken wrist. While the pack-line defense and getting stops is still the backbone of Virginia basketball, this offense should be better equipped to fight back if an opposing team gets hot. And if Virginia can consistently put up points, then it makes them more intriguing for a potential Final Four run.
3. NORTH CAROLINA: While the Tar Heels have plenty of returning veterans and five-star freshmen to plug in holes at starting positions this season, the North Carolina bench is going to be a fascinating subplot. Reliable players fill most of the spots in the starting five, but the Tar Heels will ultimately need a few more guys to step up and help Luke Maye, Cameron Johnson and Kenny Williams.
Aside from freshmen like Nassir Little and Coby White, junior guards Seventh Woods and Brandon Robinson could be key guys off the bench, while sophomore big man Brandon Huffman is another development piece to keep track of. Freshman Rechon Black could also be looked at to play a Pinson-like role on the perimeter as his versatility and 6-foot-7 size are standout attributes. The freshmen duo of Little and White will ultimately be the big key to North Carolina’s ceiling. But developing a deep bench, or some surprising late-risers, wouldn’t hurt either.
4. VIRGINIA TECH: Back-to-back seasons of making the NCAA tournament is a good start for Buzz Williams turning Virginia Tech into more of a basketball school. Now the goal is to win a game or two in March. The Hokies return everybody except Justin Bibbs from a postseason team as expectations will be high.
Bibbs was an experienced double-figure scorer, but the Hokies can now slide Chris Clarke into the starting lineup and led him battle on both ends with Kerry Blackshear up front. Point guard Justin Robinson, one of the nation’s most underrated lead guards, also has talented perimeter options like Ahmed Hill and Nickeil Alexander-Walker returning. While the Hokies led the ACC in field goal percentage and threes last season, they often struggled for long stretches on the glass and the defensive end. If this veteran team puts more of a focus on being great on both ends, then the second weekend and beyond in the tournament isn’t a stretch.
5. FLORIDA STATE: Putting a reigning Elite Eight team fifth shows how loaded the ACC is, because Florida State could be really good once again. Most of last season’s group is back. Seven returning players averaged double-figure minutes. Depth is not going to be an issue.
Senior wing Terance Mann and fifth-year senior forward Phil Cofer are both returning double-figure scorers while lead guard Trent Forrest and wing M.J. Walker also return. The center rotation of Christ Koumadje and Mfiondu Kabengele provide a nice platoon in the middle. Shooter P.J. Savoy should also have more bench help from newcomers that include Albany transfer guard David Nichols and redshirt freshmen Raiquan Gray and Anthony Polite. Florida State is hoping that someone like Walker can make a leap and become a consistent third scoring option.
6. SYRACUSE: After shocking the sport by returning to the Sweet 16, the Orange have the makings of a very good team this season. All of the important pieces are back from last season, most notably junior guard and All-American candidate Tyus Battle. With Battle coming back, the Orange have a returning double-figure scorer at point in Frank Howard along with a long and athletic frontcourt that can really defend. Senior center Paschal Chukwu and sophomores Oshae Brissett and Marek Dolezaj all logged heavy minutes last year, with Brissett becoming a solid secondary off-ball scorer.
Landing reinforcements is what makes this Syracuse team so interesting. Last season’s group had to log heavy minutes, leading to low-scoring slogs throughout the NCAA tournament. Adding some talented freshmen and transfers should help alleviate some of the minutes burden on this program. Freshman guard Jalen Carey is a four-star prospect who should earn some minutes. East Carolina transfer Elijah Hughes is another 6-foot-6 shooter who can help. Guard Howard Washington should recover from injury. And you can’t forget freshman guard Buddy Boeheim, Jim’s son, who adds another shooter to the rotation as well. If Syracuse finds a good minutes balance for this roster then an improved offense could make them scary.
7. CLEMSON: Many of the Sweet 16 pieces return this season as the starting lineup features four returning seniors. Clemson’s backcourt of Shelton Mitchell and Marcquise Reed are one of the best duos in the nation as they’ll log heavy minutes. Forward David Skara and former top-50 recruit Elijah Thomas are also back as main cogs for the Tigers. Sophomore Aaric Simms should step in and help Clemson maintain the rugged defense that helped make them elite a season ago.
Question marks with the bench will be the key to Clemson’s success. Center Javan White was a near double-double a game at Oral Roberts, but the perimeter group could be thin. Freshman guard John Newman III could figure immediately into the Clemson rotation if head coach Brad Brownell wants to go small (as he’s done in the past). Expect a lot of opportunities for bench guys to help find a spark plug for the second unit.
8. N.C. STATE: Unknown, and perhaps underrated, the Wolfpack have eight new players on the roster as they try to acclimate transfers and freshmen into the rotation. But after a surprise NCAA tournament appearance last season, there’s reason to be decidedly optimistic that N.C. State is a potential darkhorse.
Loaded at guard, head coach Kevin Keatts will utilize a lot of small-ball lineups with 6-foot-5 veteran Torin Dorn often playing the four. Starting guards Markell Johnson and Braxton Beverley are also back after promising seasons. Newcomers will ultimately dictate the season. Guards C.J. Bryce (UNC Wilmington), Devon Daniels (Utah), Eric Lockett (FIU), Blake Harris (Missouri) and forward Wyatt Walker (Samford) are all expected to contribute. If the Wolfpack can mesh the old starters with the talented newcomers, then this could be a dangerous team.
9. MIAMI: Replacing Lonnie Walker, Bruce Brown and Ja’Quan Newton is tough enough. Miami has to replace that trio without the benefit of freshmen. The FBI scandal hurt Miami’s recruiting for this season, as they had to rely on transfers to fill holes.
There is still a lot to like about this team. Frontcourt experience returns in the form of junior big man Dewan Huell and senior forward Anthony Lawrence. Sophomore point guard Chris Lykes is also a dynamic playmaker and junior Dejan Vasiljevic can knock down shots. Grad transfer guard Zach Johnson (Florida Gulf Coast)is a proven double-figure scorer, but how do they acclimate to the ACC? And will the loss of transfer Miles Wilson (Mount St. Mary’s) hurt their backcourt depth? The key is getting multiple players to step up to become go-to guys. Walker and Brown took so much pressure off of the Hurricanes last season. Who steps up on this team to take and make tough shots down the stretch? That could ultimately decide how good Miami is this season.
10. LOUISVILLE: The excitement is certainly returning for Louisville as new head coach Chris Mack is drawing a lot of positive attention before even stepping on the sidelines. Recruiting wins aside, this season, Louisville has some holdover talent that should make them an intriguing team.
It all depends on who makes the jump. Junior V.J. King hasn’t lived up to his McDonald’s All-American billing yet as he has a chance to be a go-to guy this season. Point guard Darius Perry and junior shooter Ryan McMahon also have to address holes in their games on the perimeter. The interior of UConn transfer Steven Enoch and sophomore Malik Williams is unproven as well as both have only shown flashes of strong play. The talent is here, on paper, for the Cardinals to be a top-25 team. It all depends on how a group that has been through a lot the past few seasons handles playing for another new coach.
11. BOSTON COLLEGE: Had Jerome Robinson returned, Boston College could have been a sleeper top-25 team. Instead, Robinson went No. 13 to the Clippers, as the Eagles find themselves trying to replace an elite player. Thankfully, the rest of a team that went a surprising 7-11 in the ACC is back. Buy stock in junior guard Ky Bowman, a 6-foot-1 playmaker who should run the offense and be the team’s No. 1 scoring option. If Bowman can handle both responsibilities adequately, then he could reach All-American status. Guard Jordan Chatman is another double-figure scorer who returns as he’s another weapon from distance.
Frontcourt options remain intriguing for Boston College as starters Steffon Mitchell and Nik Popovic are back. Mitchell has shown himself to be a plus defender and rebounder while Popovic and Johncarlos Reyes could form an effective platoon in the middle. Replacing Robinson is going to be tough, but Jim Christian’s team showed a lot of ability and tenaciousness when many expected them to be a basement dweller last season. Don’t sleep on this group to beat some elite teams.
12. NOTRE DAME: It will be interesting to watch Mike Brey have to work with such a young team. Typically a veteran outfit, the Fighting Irish will have to count on a lot of inexperienced players and freshmen in 2018-19. Guard T.J. Gibbs is a potential All-ACC player after a brilliant sophomore season. Senior guard Rex Pflueger is a tough two-way guard who also returns with Gibbs.
But Notre Dame is desperately seeking a stable frontcourt while also finding some kind of lead guard of the future. The Fighting Irish should already be used to playing without former All-American Bonzie Colson since he missed much of his senior season. The loss of point guard Matt Farrell will be a tough one. Gibbs and Pflueger need help. The frontcourt returns junior John Mooney and former UConn transfer Juwan Durham, but question marks pepper this roster outside of the veteran perimeter duo. Finding an early identity will be key.
13. WAKE FOREST: A potential make-or-break season for head coach Danny Manning won’t be easy. After a 4-14 mark last season in the ACC, Wake Forest returns only three scholarship players from last season. Junior guard Brandon Childress and sophomore wing Chaundee Brown are the two most notable returnees.
The Demon Deacons have a good freshman class and some graduate transfers that they’re riding on to help produce. Freshman forward Jaylen Hoard received some five-star buzz while forward Isaiah Mucius was another top-100 prospect. Guard Jamie Lewis is another freshman who should crack the rotation as a backup lead guard. Finding big men could prove to be difficult as sophomore Olivier Sarr was inconsistent last season. Buffalo graduate transfer Ikenna Smart is also foul-prone. Wake Forest will need to offset the loss of big scorers like Bryant Crawford, Keyshawn Woods and Doral Moore, and they don’t have a lot of proven players ready to step up.
14. GEORGIA TECH: Expectations should be minimal as head coach Josh Pastner has a young team with not much returning firepower. Last season’s 13-19 team lost four of its top five scorers. Josh Okogie was a first-round pick and the Yellow Jackets still struggled. This season is about trying to rebuild and finding pieces for the future.
Lead guard Jose Alvarado showed All-ACC potential during a noteworthy freshman season that was cut short by an elbow injury. Senior guard Brandon Alston and senior big man Abdoulaye Gueye also have starting experience as the team’s veterans. Finding help for Alvarado will be key. Tennessee transfer Shembari Phillips should help on the wing. Sophomore guard Curtis Haywood II has intriguing upside as he returns from a shin injury. Freshman Michael Devoe was intriguing at times during his prep career. But Georgia Tech needs to find somebody to give Alvarado help off of the ball. The program’s season (and future) ultimately depends on getting Alvarado help.
15. PITT: Winless in ACC play last season, the Panthers have some positive momentum in Jeff Capel’s first season. Capel did himself some favors by feverishly recruiting a backcourt stable of talented pieces during the spring. While the Panthers return starters like Jared Wilson-Frame and Shamiel Stevenson on the wing, the backcourt has some interesting players who could make Pitt a tough out.
St. John’s transfer Malik Ellison and New Mexico State transfer Sidy N’Dir provide experience. Capel convinced two four-star guards, Trey McGowens and Au’Diese Toney, to reclassify a year up to play this season while also adding freshman guard Xavier Johnson when he decommitted from Nebraska. Pitt still has major holes in the middle. They’re asking a lot out of late additions who are younger than most freshman. They’re also in a much better position than last season’s winless team.
Scandal Proof: A year after the arrests, is college basketball immune to change or consequence?
Four high major assistant coaches, two shoe company executives, the head of a high-profile AAU program, a former runner for an NBA agent, a Princeton-based financial advisor and a former NBA-referee-turned-suit-maker were caught up in the FBI raids that would eventually end the career of one prominent NBA agent and implicate ten high-major programs — Louisville, Arizona, USC, Auburn, Oklahoma State, Miami, South Carolina, Kansas, Maryland and Alabama — while leaving dozens more twisting in the winds of rumor and hearsay.
This was supposed to be the moment of reckoning for a sport that had, many believe, spun out of control, a chance for the federal government to do what the NCAA had proven incapable of for so many decades: Clean up college hoops.
The FBI had exposed, as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Joon Kim referred to it, “the dark underbelly of college athletics.”
“Today’s arrests serve as a warning to others choosing to conduct business this way in the world of college athletics,” Kim added, “We have your playbook.”
A year on, and eight of the 10 people arrested will be heading to trial in the next six months while one Hall of Fame head coach has lost his job as a result of the investigation.
But the reality, no matter what the NCAA or the FBI has tried to tout over the course of the last 12 months, is that not much has truly changed, and that the one measure the NCAA could have taken to find an answer was hardly even discussed.
In the weeks and months after armed FBI agents raided the homes of the 10 men who were arrested, the entire college basketball world felt like it came to a halt.
Everyone — media members, coaches, players, agents — was, and to a point still is, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
If the FBI had managed to clandestinely investigate college basketball for more than two years, if they had wiretaps on the phones of powerful shoe company executives like Jim Gatto and Merl Code Jr., then there had to be more famous names than Book Richardson and Tony Bland just waiting to get arrested. All of those man-hours, the grandiose press conference touting the end of corruption in college basketball, it wasn’t just so the Southern District of New York could parade out four assistant coaches and a couple guys that helped distribute Adidas’ slush fund and say they fixed the sport.
There had to be more.
But as the weeks and months passed, it became more and more evident that this case had as much to do with Mischa Barton as it did a targeted strike on the biggest players in the world of amateur basketball.
Marty Blazer, a Pittsburgh-based financial advisor for professional athletes, was caught by the SEC committing securities fraud, illegally using his clients’ money to fund Hollywood movies — like this flop, which starred Barton, Devon Sawa and Michael Clarke-Duncan — at the same time that his name and firm was tied to the agent scandal that was developing on the campus of North Carolina. He flipped, and he offered the government the sport of college basketball.
Blazer started handing out bribes to assistant coaches, trading wads of cash for handshake agreements of influence over where soon-to-be professional athletes would invest their money. That eventually led him, and the FBI agents listening to his phone calls and conversations, to Christian Dawkins, a former runner for ex-NBA agent Andy Miller.
Dawkins was the perfect mark, a young go-getter that was connected enough to attract big names and high-profile programs while being green enough that he didn’t recognize the con. Blazer had put Auburn assistant Chuck Person and Oklahoma State assistant Lamont Evans on the radar. Dawkins was the one that brought Louisville, USC, and a number of other programs into that Las Vegas hotel suite, the one wired for video and sound by the undercover FBI agents posing as Dawkins’ money men. He helped get Gatto and Code on the FBI’s radar, which in turn ensnared the likes of Miami, Arizona, Kansas and Maryland.
But the bottom never fell out. The blue-bloods — Duke, Kentucky, UNC, Indiana, UCLA — more-or-less remained unscathed. The biggest name to get fired was Rick Pitino and his athletic director, Tom Jurich, but that had as much to do with the fact that this was Pitino’s third embarrassing scandal as it did the Louisville coaching staff getting caught (allegedly) helping to funnel $100,000 to a prospect.
In fact, one could argue that most of the programs that were caught up in the raid are doing better than ever.
Take, for example, Auburn.
Person, then an assistant with the Tigers, allegedly accepted at least $91,500 in bribes from Blazer in exchange for steering players Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy to Blazer for financial services, going as far as to lie to the players and their families about how well he knew Blazer and their past professional relationship. Getting kickbacks — or, as Person’s lawyer refers to it, “referral fees” — to send players that trust you to shady financial advisors is much different than finding a way to funnel $100,000 to the family of a player to get him on your roster.
Person will go to trial to face six federal charges in February of 2019.
They are coming off of their best season in decades. They won their first SEC regular season title since 1999 and just their third league title in program history last year. They reached the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2003. They enter this season as the No. 10 team in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25, and Bruce Pearl — their head coach who has already served a three-year show-cause penalty for lying to NCAA investigators about violating NCAA rules — received a five-year contract extension in June.
Louisville is the program that had to deal with the most direct evidence of cheating, as it became quite evident that Adidas helped the coaching staff funnel $100,000 to five-star recruit Brian Bowen in exchange for his commitment. This cost Hall of Fame head coach Rick Pitino his job — and possibly his career.
But it’s not like the Cardinals are suffering. They went out and hired the best young coach in the sport in Chris Mack, and he has proceeded to put together a recruiting class that would have made his predecessor envious. Four four-star recruits have committed since May, including three players in the month of September, one of whom was previously committed to the program under Pitino.
USC and Arizona both had an assistant coaches get arrested for accepting bribes. The Trojans currently have the nation’s top-ranked 2019 recruiting class — including a pair of five-star recruits — and are the favorite to land a commitment from the top player in the Class of 2020. They also managed to land a top 20 recruiting class this year.
Arizona dealt with as much fallout from the FBI investigation as anyone, losing a five-star prospect in Jahvon Quinerly, an assistant coach and nearly a head coach after a questionable report about head coach Sean Miller getting caught on a wiretap surfaced. Despite all of that, Arizona is still a force to be reckoned with on the recruiting trail. Five-star guard Nico Mannion picked the Wildcats over Duke and Kansas, among many others.
Kansas themselves were officially linked to the investigation after a superseding indictment in April, and while that might cost them Silvio De Sousa this season the way it cost them Billy Preston last season, the Jayhawks are still sitting as the preseason No. 1 team in the country. They are still coming off of a run to the 2018 Final Four. Quentin Grimes, a five-star prospect from Texas and a potential top five pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, didn’t seem too worried about the investigation when he enrolled for this season.
Alabama is coming off of a trip to the NCAA tournament and looks like a team that can get back there again next season. Maryland may not have returned to the heights that they were at prior to leaving the ACC, but that has as much to do with Mark Turgeon as it does any links to this investigation. Miami looks to be headed to a down year, but that probably has more to do with the natural swings that come with being a mid-level program in the ACC as anything.
Scandal does not impact a program as much as you might think. North Carolina reached a title game and won the title the following season with the recruiting classes that were built during the throes of the investigation into academic fraud. Impropriety is not going to affect recruiting. Instability does.
Once it became clear Sean Miller wasn’t losing his job, Arizona was back to landing five-stars. Once Louisville landed another elite head coach, the Cardinals were back to getting the players the program is used to. That’s why Bruce Pearl got his extension.
As much as Condoleezza Rice and the NCAA would like you to believe, not much has actually changed in the day-to-day realities of running a high-major college basketball program.
At this point, we know how ridiculous it is that the FBI is stepping in to try and turn the NCAA’s amateurism bylaws into federal law. We know that the legs that this case stands on are flimsy, that the men going to trial are facing decades in prison for something that no one truly believes is a crime. We know that the victims in this case — the universities — are not actually victims, that they are willingly complicit in the deals that get done. If they weren’t, would Kansas have signed a 12-year, $191 million extension on their apparel deal with Adidas after Adidas victimized the university by allegedly funneling $90,000 to the family of Preston and $20,000 to the guardian of De Sousa?
The question that is left here is what comes next, and that likely depends on what happens over the course of the three trials. Dawkins, Gatto and Code will be in court beginning on October 1st. The trial for Person and Michel is scheduled to begin on Feb. 4th, 2019, while the trial for Richardson, Evans and Bland is set to begin on April 22nd, 2019.
And that’s where things are going to get dicey for the programs that have had their names tied up in this scandal. Once those trials begin, the evidence that the FBI gathered over the course of their two-year investigation — which included wiretaps, undercover sting operations and the seizure of cell phones and laptops — becomes public. We’ve gotten a taste of what might be included in that evidence already. In February, Yahoo Sports got their hands on a couple of pages of evidence, and that was enough to get programs like Duke, Kentucky, Michigan State and Texas linked to this investigation.
What happens when all of that evidence comes out?
Perhaps more importantly, what happens when the NCAA if finally allowed to get their hands on all of this evidence?
But what the Commission did manage to get through this rule change: “People charged with investigating and resolving NCAA cases can accept information established by another administrative body, including a court of law [or] government agency.” In other words, the NCAA can use any and all evidence that the FBI dug up to hammer schools, coaches and players that found themselves caught in this mess.
They won’t actually start their investigatory procedures until the legal process has fully played out, but they absolutely will have a chance to come down hard on the offenders that get exposed by the FBI.
That stability currently being enjoyed by Louisville, USC, Arizona and the like?