In the ACC, defending national champion Duke and in-state rival North Carolina are poised to battle for the conference crown again.
With the start of college basketball season less than a month away, we're previewing each team in nine conferences. Using a statistical projection system developed by economist Dan Hanner and SI's Luke Winn, which is now in its second season, we've forecast the conference standings and the top seven scorers from each team. Next up is the conference of the defending national champion Duke Blue Devils, the ACC:
Coach of the year: Leonard Hamilton, Florida State
Let’s be honest: It probably should be Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, who somehow hasn’t won this award since 1999-2000. But the talent that Coach K has again will overshadow his dexterity in creating a cohesive group. So Hamilton will benefit, as Coach of the Year honors often go to leaders of teams that make a jump. The Seminoles return their top six scorers and welcome in a ballyhooed recruiting class led by five-star wing Dwayne Bacon, who should bolster an already potent perimeter group. And a schedule featuring only one regular-season meeting apiece with Duke, North Carolina and Virginia sets up the Seminoles to push into the top half of the league. The school’s first NCAA tournament berth in four years would cinch the deal.
Player of the year: Marcus Paige, North Carolina
It’s less a Lifetime Achievement Award than an acknowledgement that a cavalcade of injuries—hip issues, some plantar fasciitis, bone spurs in his ankle that prompted off-season surgery—contributed to the dip in Paige’s production as a junior. (He went from 17.5 ppg and 44% shooting as a sophomore to 14.1 ppg and 41.3% shooting last year). If the wear-and-tear of a long college career creates more health problems, then all bets are off. If Paige is healthy, then he should thrive with a more mature, productive supporting cast while receiving the credit for leading the Tar Heels back into the national title picture.
Freshman of the year: Brandon Ingram, Duke
The consensus top-five recruit is 6'8" with a 7'4" wingspan and has added 23 pounds since he arrived in Durham. Blue Devils coaches believe Ingram has the shooting, driving and ball-handling skills to slot in everywhere offensively except center. “He’s really unique,” Duke associate head coach Jeff Capel said. “I think Coach K has done unique better than anyone.” Unlike last year, and especially early last year, Duke won’t run its sets through big men as much. That should play to Ingram’s strength of attacking from the perimeter and enable him to put up big numbers.
Projected conference race
|conference rank||team||projected Conf. record||last year's Conf. record|
Each team’s outlook in about 68 words
Perhaps the Tar Heels weren’t as bad defensively last year as it seemed; they ranked 51st in adjusted defensive efficiency, per kenpom.com, which was three spots better than national runner-up Wisconsin. But even a minor uptick would make a major difference. Many believed Theo Pinson (merely 12.5 minutes per game as a freshman) has the capacity to be a shut-down guy. Now would be a time to prove it.
Because he had to complete a summer course after reclassifying to 2015, Derryck Thornton joined the Blue Devils later than usual for a freshman. Still, the 6'2" guard’s ability was immediately evident: Quick hands and feet, pushing the tempo offensively, picking up opposing guards for 94 feet. On a team replete with options, Thornton must reprise Tyus Jones’s performance as a steely first-year floor leader.
By now, we’re all done doubting Tony Bennett can bring it together in Charlottesville. But the emergence of a second perimeter scorer to complement Malcolm Brogdon (14 ppg) is imperative no matter how good the defense is. Marial Shayok, Evan Nolte, Isaiah Wilkins ... the Cavaliers need someone, anyone, in the Justin Anderson role to make a Final Four push.
This season relies on the premise that the skills of graduate transfers Damion Lee (21.4 ppg at Drexel) and Trey Lewis (16.3 ppg at Cleveland State) will translate to the ACC. That’s a gamble, but it’s not like Rick Pitino had much choice. In terms of on-court performance—and only in that context, it must be emphasized—the difficulty of a roster turnover looms larger than the specter of an NCAA inquiry.
|Bonzie Colson, Jr.||PF||9.7||4.4||0.7||121.1||23%||50%|
Mike Brey has enough pieces left over from an Elite Eight run to forge a top-half ACC finish. But no returning Irish player will be able to replace Pat Connaughton or Jerian Grant. Demetrius Jackson (12.4 ppg) will try, and an NCAA tournament return is likely, but this team can’t match the intangibles that helped last year’s group soar.
Angel Rodriguez (11.9 pgg) and Sheldon McClellan (14.5 ppg) were pretty good, but perhaps not the difference-makers some expected once the two transfer guards were eligible last year. Another favorable schedule that features only one game apiece with Virginia, Duke and North Carolina leaves them little excuse in a push for an NCAA bid.
The dynamic in Tallahassee is combustible enough to warrant special attention. Proven returning veterans like Xavier Rathan-Mayes (14.9 ppg), Montay Brandon (11.8 ppg) and Devin Bookert (10.1 ppg) didn’t earn an NCAA tournament bid last year. Will a trio of four- and five-star freshmen blend in without rancor, or will they attempt a takeover, given that the returnees haven’t accomplished much of note?
The Wolfpack have achieved consistency (four straight NCAA tournament bids) despite their defense: The team's adjusted efficiency rating for the last four seasons ranked 78th, 112th, 127th and 87th, respectively. And Cat Barber is the only returning double-digit scorer for 2015-16. That means Mark Gottfried needs immediate help from transfer Terry Henderson and freshman Maverick Rowan.
After the tumult of 2014-15, the Orange well know there are worse ways to start a season than with an experienced backcourt (Kaleb Joseph, Trevor Cooney and Michael Gbinije) and a freshman class featuring four four-star prospects. Jim Boeheim will miss nine ACC games due to a suspension, but an NCAA tournament bid is doable, and it would be a massive relief.
Pittsburgh—tough, blue-collar, bury-your-knuckles-in-a-bucket-of-granite-before-tipoff Pittsburgh—ranked 202nd nationally in defensive efficiency a year ago. That’s miserable and inauspicious and must be corrected for Jamie Dixon’s program recapture consistency. Bringing in three grad transfers for 2015-16 smacks a little bit of exasperation and isn’t a long-term solution to ACC contention.
|Landry Christ Nnoko||C||8.4||6.0||0.7||102.9||19%||66%|
The Tigers haven’t reached the NCAA tournament since 2011 and, as good a guy as Brad Brownell is, you have to wonder if ongoing renovations to Littlejohn Coliseum are more curse than blessing for the sixth-year coach. This doesn’t look like a roster fit for March Madness, with Jared Blossomgame (13.1 ppg) and little else of note. Would another middling season prompt administrators to consider a starting fresh in a spiffed-up arena next year?
This has to be it for Brian Gregory, who hasn’t produced a .500 record in league play or a postseason bid in any of his four seasons leading the Yellow Jackets. Make significant progress, or there isn’t much recommending Gregory’s return for a sixth year. A three-transfer influx, featuring former Virginia Tech marksman Adam Smith (13.4 ppg), underscores the urgency.
You’d like to see a semi-significant jump in Danny Manning’s second year to provide some belief that a culture change is taking hold. That requires a boost in defensive efficiency (137th nationally last year) most of all. Maybe the presence of top-100 recruits Doral Moore and Bryant Crawford, and their pushing for significant roles, will create some urgency among the returnees.
Eight players have left the Hokies for various different reasons since Buzz Williams’s arrival. That’s not unexpected for a coach who was gut-rehabbing the program, nor is it necessarily bad given where the Hokies were. Though it is ironic that Justin Bibbs (11.4 ppg) again will lead the charge, as he’s among the lone survivors from the previous regime.
The Eagles’ leading returning scorer, center Dennis Clifford, averaged 6.9 points per game last year. Programs sold at Conte Forum may reach an all-time high with eight newcomers on the roster, but patience is at an all-time premium as well. Jim Christian is effectively starting over in Year 2, and the ACC is a rough place to build from the ground up.