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Hoop rosters set: Big Four still chasing Virginia?

June 13, 2018 GMT

We now know who will remain in the upcoming NBA Draft, and which players are coming back to school. With most of these roster unknowns now settled, it looks like the Big Four-and for that matter the rest of the ACC-will begin the season chasing Virginia.

Virginia

Yep, Virginia lost in the NCAA Tournament to UMBC, the first number one seed ever to lose to a sixteen. Stunning. Embarrassing. The Cavaliers also lost defensive star Isaiah Wilkins, and fine two way player Devon Hall, to graduation. But look who comes back! Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome, Jack Salt, De’Andre Hunter and Mamadi Diakite represent five of Virginia’s top seven. That’s a big number in a mature program like Tony Bennett’s, especially since Guy and Jerome earned All ACC honors. Hunter was voted the ACC’s Sixth Man of the Year then he missed that NCAA Tournament loss due to injury.

Now, would this five beat UNC or Duke on the playground? Probably not. But in the more controlled and highly sophisticated confines of ACC basketball, this Virginia quintet (and there is talent behind them) should start the season as the team to beat. These five will defend the paint and the three point line for 30 seconds on every single possession. They will run Bennett’s patient offense until Guy, Jerome or Hunter gets a makeable shot. The Cavaliers will stop nearly all opponents’ attempts at transition, requiring them to play UVA’s unique style of half-court combat. Unless of course carelessness leads to a turnover, in which case the Cavs will steal the ball and dunk it, before racing back on defense, adding two more points to the deficit and filling the minds of other competitors with doubt. Even dread.

In down years, Bennett’s ability to teach.. no.. more like institutionalize the Pack Line defense and his overall style of play, makes the Cavaliers formidable. Fans are bought in, showing their disdain when opposing teams get rewarded with a re-set of the shot clock after a Virginia foul late in the possession. So this culture is pretty tough to overcome even when youth and lack of offensive talent are factors. But, when UVA returns experienced players who can handle the ball, avoid turnovers and make shots, the Cavaliers become incrementally more difficult to overcome.

Last year Virginia won the regular season and the ACC Tournament, a double that is becoming increasingly rare. And many of the guys that propelled UVA to the top are back, with more experience, and likely more motivated than ever after the early NCAA knockout.

I see a few teams in 2019 that have a chance to knock Virginia off the mountaintop, starting with UNC and Duke. To me, Carolina has a slight edge in any preseason analysis based on returning talent and experience, though of course Duke’s incoming recruiting class is off-the-charts good.

North Carolina

his team did not lose any underclassmen to the NBA draft, as Luke Maye opted to return for his senior year. Theo Pinson and Joel Berry graduated. Playing without them will be difficult. Pinson’s versatility enabled him to create plays at both ends of the floor; probably no three guys can do collectively what TP did in terms of getting deflections, blocking shots, claiming rebounds and finding open teammates. Pinson became a pretty reliable scorer, too. Berry’s departure could be more problematic. The point guard was a solid defender whose heart, leadership and ability to take and make clutch shots pushed Carolina to two National Championship runs (and one title). Berry leaves a huge void at point guard. No Carolina team has ever been great without a seasoned, talented point guard. Right now I can’t tell you who the new point guard will be. Seventh Woods certainly, as a two year player and Berry’s backup, will get his chance. New recruit Coby White impressed in the high school all star games with his ability to handle the ball and hit open teammates. But White has always been a scorer first. Also, mastering all the responsibilities Roy Williams requires of his point guards is not something every freshman can do. Just ask Woods. Or the departed Jalek Felton.

If the Heels can find a reliable point guard, the rest of their lineup looks stout, with Kenny Williams at shooting guard (or two guard), Cam Johnson at small forward (three position) and Luke Maye at power forward (four position), though that term doesn’t adequately describe Maye, who is arguably the best “stretch four” in school history with his ability to shoot the three and still rebound, help defend in the post. Post play, so critical in Williams’ system, should be improved with Garrison Brooks, Sterling Manley, and Brandon Huffman coming in stronger and more experienced-no longer freshmen.

Add to this mix freshman Nassir Little who, playing against all the top recruits in the U.S., was chosen MVP of the McDonald’s All American game. Little is a guy who can score in lots of ways-can also rebound and defend. UNC’s talent at the 2, 3, and 4 positions, compares favorably with any team in the ACC. But so much depends on play at point guard.

Duke

No team will take a bigger hit from the NBA draft than the Duke Blue Devils. This is not unexpected of course. The “Four Freshmen” were always going to the NBA after one year. And senior Grayson Allen was always going to graduate.

Duke will replace the “Four Freshmen” with a whole new group of one-and-done players. This time, the Blue Devils’ program has brought in the No. 1 class in America again. R.J. Barrett, ranked No. 1, Cam Reddish, No. 2, Zion Williamson, No. 5, and Tre Jones, No. 12, are all terrific players-athletic and fun to watch. Forward Joey Baker moved up a year in school to join this elite group. But there are no bigs among the new freshmen to replace Marvin Bagley and Wendell Carter, who as freshmen, were two of the top inside players in the league. And from the high school all star games I have seen, there is no three point shooter at the level of Gary Trent Jr. One or two may develop, of course.

For me, the biggest issue at Duke is the departure of Allen. He was a pretty rare collegiate talent -- perfect for Duke’s drive and kick attack with his ability to take the ball to the basket and dish to a teammate or shoot himself. Allen also could help a freshman point guard run the offense. G.A. was a reliable three point shooter, who also made clutch free throws. He provided senior leadership. The new Duke freshmen would have a better chance at the ACC title playing with a skilled veteran, as happened last year and also in 2015, the last season when Duke won it all.

Among Duke’s returning players, Marques Bolden and Javin DeLaurier figure to get playing time. Bolden, remember, was a top high school player. But he has been held back by injuries. Bolden can be a force inside when physically at this best. Stamina remains a question mark. DeLaurier is not a huge scorer but excels at getting his hands on the basketball: blocks, deflections, rebounds. He will blend defensively with Barrett, and the other freshmen, all of whom are quite athletic enough to play Duke style man to man defense. Also among Duke’s returnees, I like Alex O’Connell’s ability to come off the bench and provide offense, with transition baskets and threes. The Devils may need some of that.

One other program loss to talk about -- the departure of top assistant coach Jeff Capel, who left Duke to become the head coach at Pittsburgh. College basketball’s winningest coach Mike Krzyzewski still is the man that matters most, of course, and he continues to surround himself with former player/assistants who know Krzyzewski’s philosophy and points of emphasis. But without Capel, this coaching staff has slightly less experience as a unit, and with all the teaching new players require that could matter. Or not.

The biggest challenge for Duke is that so many other programs return experienced, All-ACC type talent. This Duke team has what it takes to win a lot of games. But it will look very different from last year’s team.

NC State

The Wolfpack may be in for a bigger makeover in year two of Kevin Keatts’ tenure than we saw when Keatts first took over the coaching duties from Mark Gottfried. Fortunately for NC State, Keatts has vast experience remolding rosters on an annual basis, as a result of his ten years coaching at Hargrave Military Academy. But no doubt, there is much to do in West Raleigh this off season.

Omer Yurtseven transferred to Georgetown in order to play for seven foot coach Patrick Ewing. Yurtseven seemed a perfect fit in Keatts’ offensive system with his ability to shoot from the floor as well as play with his back to the basket. Forwards Abdul-Malik Abu and Lennard Freeman graduated, and grad students Al Freeman and Sam Hunt completed their eligibility. Freshman reserve Lavar Batts decided to transfer. So six of NC State’s top nine are gone, including all of the Pack’s big men.

The best news Keatts received during this somewhat tumultuous off season is that Torin Dorn pulled out of the NBA Draft. Dorn is a 6’5 perimeter player who possesses close to the basket skills. His ability to rebound and defend bigger players allows Keatts to field the smaller line ups that best suit his pressing, shoot the three, up tempo style of play. Dorn joins talented backcourt mates Markell Johnson and Braxton Beverly as holdovers from the Wolfpack’s highly successful first season under Keatts. Johnson ranks among the ACC’s leaders in assists and steals and he can also score. Beverly, like Johnson and Dorn, is a reliable ball handler and three point shooter. Given Keatts’ philosophy, that the team which wins the turnover battle and shoots the most threes will usually win, this trio gives the coach a nucleus to build around. Still, State will have to rely on transfers C.J. Bryce, Wyatt Walker, Devon Daniels and Derek Funderburk to make an immediate impact. Given the Pack’s paucity of big men, the 6’9 Walker and the 6’10 Funderburk will get immediate opportunity. Bryce, who played two years for Keatts at UNC-Wilmington, and Daniels, could become major scoring threats next season.

Because of all the roster turnover, NC State likely will be ranked somewhere in the middle of the ACC pre-season. But after a year when the Pack was picked to finish near the bottom of the ACC, then wound up in a tie for third, State fans have plenty of reason to harbor high hopes for 2019.

Wake Forest

The Deacons finished near the bottom of the league in 2018. Now their top two players, Bryant Crawford and Doral Moore, have opted to stay in the NBA Draft. Keyshawn Woods transferred. Mitchell Wilbekin graduated. That leaves Brandon Childress as Wake’s top returning scorer at something just over nine points per game. Coach Danny Manning will get help from two outstanding recruits, Jaylen Hoard and Isaiah Mucius. Hoard scored in double figures in one of the all star games I watched. Still, it’s hard to visualize an opening day bracket on Tuesday at the 2019 ACC Tournament in Charlotte that doesn’t include Wake Forest.

Other Tuesday teams

Jeff Capel has hit the ground running in Pittsburgh, but the rebuilding job is so vast it’s hard to see Pitt escaping Tuesday in Capel’s first season. Others likely to finish in positions 10-15 and thus seeing the Tuesday bracket: Georgia Tech, Notre Dame, Boston College, and Miami. Georgia Tech lost senior center Ben Lammers and top scorer Josh Okogie will remain in the NBA Draft. Notre Dame loses four top seniors, including Bonzie Colson and Matt Farrell. BC star Jerome Robinson of Raleigh elected to stay in the draft. Ky Bowman, however, decided to come back to school, and he’ll pair with Jordan Chatman to make the Eagles’ perimeter pretty potent even without Robinson. Miami’s best players, Bruce Brown and Lonnie Walker, will stay in the draft. However, Dewan Huell pulled out and decided to return to school. And the Canes still have the small, dynamic Chris Lykes and streak shooter Dejan Vasiljevic. The Canes will rank low in pre-season, but this could be another Jim Larranaga team that exceeds expectations.

Other contenders:

Clemson: The Tigers tied for third in 2018 and made a strong showing in the NCAA Tournament. Most importantly, guards Marcquise Reed and Shelton Mitchell, who flirted with a move to the professional ranks, pulled out of the NBA Draft. Elijah Thomas and grad transfer Javan White will make the Tigers formidable inside. Brad Brownell’s teams are always hard to score against. The offense improved last season and it appears the trend will continue.

Virginia Tech: The Hokies return Justin Robinson, one of the ACC’s very best point guards. Robinson ranked 11th in scoring and 2nd in assists in 2018. Chris Clarke and Kerry Blackshear return at the forward positions. If the Hokies can improve their rebounding, they have a chance at getting the double bye in Charlotte, after narrowly missing out in 2018.

Syracuse: Another team with a shot at finishing among the ACC’s top four. The Orange barely made the NCAATournament in 2018, but then advanced all the way to the Sweet Sixteen. With Tyus Battle’s return to SU, there is no reason the Orange shouldn’t build on their strong finish in the post-season. Frank Howard and Oshae Brissett return. They, like Battle, rank among the ACC’s most productive players, statistically. Syracuse also welcomes back Pascal Chukwu and Marek Dolezaj. Had Orange 5 star recruit Darius Bazley not made the curious decision to play in the G League rather than man the back line of Jim Boeheim’s zone, the Cuse might have been headed toward a Final Four kind of season in 2019. The Cuse could easily make the ACC’s final four, however, even without Bazley.

Louisville: This team is hard to gauge with Deng Adel and Ray Spalding electing to remain in the draft, while Quentin Snider and Anas Mahmoud completed their eligibility. New coach Chris Mack, in from Xavier, has demonstrated the ability to recruit and remold rosters in a hurry. He has a couple of grad transfers Christen Cunningham and Khwan Fore who should help, along with returnees like V.J. King and Ryan McMahon. Mack will have to bring this team together quickly though, or the Cards could fall into the second division, possibly even becoming a Tuesday team.

Florida State: The mercurial Seminoles floundered in February, then mopped up in March, advancing all the way to the NCAA’s Elite Eight. FSU returns Phil Cofer, Terance Mann, Trent Forrest, and Mfiondu Kabengale, all of whom played a part in that run deep into March. The ’Noles also welcome back C.J. Walker, M.J. Walker, Ike Obiagu, and Christ Koumadje. Because Leonard Hamilton likes to use 11 or even 12 players, Florida State always returns a nucleus of underclassmen who have received ample playing time. If all these players continue to develop offensively, Florida State will again be an NCAA threat and could even challenge for one of the top spots in the ACC standings.

From what I’m seeing here in June after all the NBA Draft decisions, the ACC has enough good players returning to complement the influx of talented new recruits and transfers. 2019 looks like another great year in the league. The ACC might once again get nine NCAA bids, matching its best total ever.