Tuesday , Nov , 09 , 2004 C.Y. Ellis

College Basketball Preview – Atlantic Coast Conference

*** College Basketball Preview – Atlantic Coast Conference ***

The Sports Network

By Scott Haynes, College Basketball Senior Editor

OUTLOOK: Regarded for some time now as the toughest conference in college
basketball, little will change for the ACC this season. The conference is top-
heavy with as many as five teams in the top 10 to 15 programs in the nation to
start the year. The strength of the conference will once again revolve around
Tobacco Road, where North Carolina, Duke and Wake Forest all have legitimate
shots at not only the conference crown, but a national title as well. Skip
Prosser has the best backcourt in the nation in Winston-Salem, Roy Williams
will put out the nation’s best starting five in Chapel Hill and Mike
Krzyzewski always has a plethora of talent in Durham. Paul Hewitt continues to
build a winning program at Georgia Tech and coming off a Final-Four and
national-title game appearance last year certainly has the Yellow Jacket
faithful ready to see what is next. Gary Williams has another outstanding
group in College Park and the Terrapins are only a couple of years removed
from a national title. North Carolina State doesn’t have the depth that the
previous five teams have, but what Herb Sendek does have is perhaps the
nation’s best player in Julius Hodge. Leonard Hamilton is in year three of the
reclamation process in Tallahassee and the Seminoles could really be a
surprise in the conference this season. Virginia and Clemson are once again
relegated to the lower half of the conference, but will have company in
2004-05, as new members Virginia Tech and Miami-Florida will be longing for
the days of the Big East, as the ACC slate will prove to be even deadlier for
the Hokies and Hurricanes this season.


PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. Wake Forest, 2. North Carolina, 3. Georgia Tech,
4. Duke, 5. Maryland, 6. NC State, 7. Florida State, 8. Virginia, 9. Virginia
Tech, 10. Clemson, 11. Miami-Florida


WAKE FOREST – The Demon Deacons were a very young team a year ago, but that
didn’t prevent the squad from going 21-10 on the year. What it did prevent
however, was an ACC title, as Wake finished tied for third place with a mark
of 9-7. This year, the sky is the limit, as all the pieces are in place to
make a Final Four appearance. It all starts with the nation’s best backcourt,
comprised of sophomore sensation Chris Paul and junior scoring machine Justin
Gray. This will be Paul’s team to run and there are few players in the country
that will do it better. Paul was named the ACC Freshman of the Year last
season after averaging almost 15 points (14.9), while doling out nearly six
assists (5.8) per outing. Gray (16.8 ppg last season) is a perfect complement,
with his ability to take over a game offensively. The frontcourt is no slouch
either, with sophomore center Eric Williams (12.2 ppg) and senior forwards
Jamaal Levy (10.3 ppg, 8.4 rpg) and Vytas Danelius. If Danelius remains
healthy in 2004-05, this is a trio that could rival any in the conference.
Further depth up front and in the backcourt is found in veterans Trent
Strickland and Taron Downey, respectively.

NORTH CAROLINA – Last season, the Tar Heels made a huge leap in terms of
growth, despite a new coach in Roy Williams. The team finished the year 19-11,
but a disappointing 8-8 in conference play (fifth). Roy Williams inherited a
ton of talent in Chapel Hill and this is the year that that talent will
finally blossom. The Tar Heels boast the nation’s best starting five, led by
the superior post play of center Sean May. At 6-9, 260 pounds, May is better
suited to play power forward, but he will once again man the middle for UNC.
That is a good thing however, as May is the best pivot in the country, with
the ability to both score at will (15.2 ppg) and throw his body around on the
boards (9.8 rpg). Junior Rashad McCants and senior Jawad Williams complete the
starting frontcourt. McCants, who led the ACC in scoring last season (20.0
ppg) is a scoring machine that can break down most defenders and get his shot
off whenever he wants to. Williams (12.6 ppg) adds another athletic scorer off
the wing. The entire UNC offense funnels through the capable hands of junior
Raymond Felton (11.5 ppg), who always gets his teammates involved in the game
(7.1 apg). Senior Melvin Scott (9.9 ppg) is a terrific role player, but his
minutes may be reduced this year with the addition of Marvin Williams. J.R.
Smith backed out of his commitment to UNC to turn pro, the Tar Heels stopped
pursuing JamesOn Curry (now at Oklahoma State), but Williams will suit up this
season and the 6-9 225-pound, freshman is an ultra-athletic forward with the
ability to jump out of the building.

GEORGIA TECH – Paul Hewitt led his Yellow Jackets to a magical season in
2003-04, as Georgia Tech won 28 games and made it all the way to the national
title game, before falling to UConn. The maturation process in Atlanta was
certainly sped up by the extraordinary play of guard B.J. Elder. The 6-4
senior averaged 14.9 points per game last season and if the team had a healthy
Elder in the lineup in the Final Four (missed one game and was hobbled against
the Huskies), who knows what would have happened. With Elder at 100-percent,
the sky is the limit for the Yellow Jackets. The Yellow Jackets will probably
run small once again this year, with point guard Jarrett Jack (12.5 ppg, 4.9
rpg, 5.6 apg) running the offense and senior Will Bynum (9.6 ppg) completing a
wonderful three-guard set. The inside game will fall on the shoulders of
emerging center Luke Schenscher (9.2 ppg, 6.6 rpg) and active forwards Anthony
McHenry and Isma’il Muhammad. At 7-1, 250 pounds, Schenscher really came on
strong in the latter parts of last season and will certainly present interior
matchup problems for most opponents this year. No longer the hunter, the
Yellow Jackets will certainly not sneak up on anyone this time around. How
the team handles the role of the “hunted” will go a long way in determining
just how far it will go in 2004-05.

DUKE – The Blue Devils are so loaded with talent year in and year out, that it
is inevitable that pieces to the puzzle end up leaving Durham early. This year
Coach K will have to replace Luol Deng, who decided to join the NBA after just
one season at Duke. While his 15.1 points per game will surely be missed,
there is plenty of reason to expect another run at both the conference and
national crowns. Last season, Duke finished with a 31-6 record, winning the
ACC title and making a run all the way to the Final Four, where the team fell
to eventual champion UConn. Reaching 30 wins this year may be too much to ask,
but that doesn’t mean the Blue Devils will be anything but an elite national
contender. Deng may have left for the NBA, but Mike Krzyzewski didn’t, as his
courtship with the Los Angeles Lakers was very short-lived. Coach K returns
plenty of talent this season, led by the sharp-shooting of junior J.J. Redick.
The 6-4 Redick averaged nearly 16 points per game last season, while shooting
almost 40 percent from behind the arc (.395). Daniel Ewing (12.6 ppg) is
another superb shooter (led the ACC in three-point accuracy at .411), but he
usually saves his best for tournament time (twice an ACC Tournament First-Team
member and once the tourney MVP). The emergence of junior forward Shelden
Williams (12.6 ppg, 8.5 rpg) in the paint will keep teams honest inside.
Williams should get help up front from fellow forward Shavlik Randolph (7.0
ppg). There is a change at the point, where Chris Duhon reigned supreme for a
few years. Junior Sean Dockery will get every opportunity to win the job, now
that recruit Shaun Livingston (fourth pick in the NBA Draft) decided to forgo
college. Freshman DeMarcus Nelson will provide some scoring punch in the
backcourt, but running the offense is not his strong suit. Duke is usually
among the top offensive teams in the nation and that shouldn’t change with
this talented group.

MARYLAND – The Terrapins won 20 games last season and a surprising run to the
ACC Tournament title may have hopes in College Park much higher than they
probably should be. Gary Williams’ squad finished in sixth place in the ACC a
year ago (7-9), but strong play in the tournament gave the team its first
tourney title since 1984. Considered an extremely young team last year,
Maryland is now comprised of a seasoned nucleus, led by the budding star John
Gilchrist (15.9 ppg). Now a junior, it is Gilchrist who Williams will look to
for veteran leadership. Fellow junior Chris McCray is one of the most
underrated players in the conference and has the ability to take over a game
offensively, coming off a season in which he netted 11.0 ppg. Throw in
sophomore Mike Jones (4.9 ppg) and the backcourt should have a big year in
terms of offensive production. The frontcourt has good depth, with the return
of forwards Nik Caner-Medley (12.2 ppg), Travis Garrison (7.8 ppg, 5.2 rpg)
and Ekene Ibekwe. However, the Terps may have trouble in the paint. The loss
of Jamar Smith (13.1 ppg, 8.8 rpg) will be huge for this team. Ibekwe led the
team in blocked shots last year and will be asked to man the middle, while
sophomore big man Hassan Fofana (6-10, 290) will be called upon to provide
minutes inside as well. Defense is the key to Maryland’s strong play over the
last few years and Williams will once again preach at that end of the court.
If you can’t play defense, you can’t play for Gary Williams. Sophomore
swingman D.J. Strawberry epitomizes that philosophy and should see his minutes
increase with his hard work at the defensive end of the court.

NC STATE – Another ACC team that reached the 20-win plateau was the Wolfpack
(21-10). Herb Sendek’s squad finished second in the ACC with an 11-5 record
and while those numbers are within reach this time around, a middle of the
road finish in the conference standings is more likely. NC State may perhaps
have the best player in the country in swingman Julius Hodge, but having an
athlete like Hodge doesn’t exactly make you a great team. That is NC State’s
plight this season. Hodge is an unstoppable force, who was named the ACC
Player of the Year in 2003-04 after averaging 18.2 points and 6.4 rebounds per
game. Trying to become the first player to win the award in consecutive
seasons since Wake Forest’s Tim Duncan (1996-97), Hodge will have his work cut
out for him. Hodge is the center piece of this offense, with plenty of
perimeter support. While no one on the roster shoots the lights out from long
range, there is plenty of scorers that will have a chance to support Hodge’s
efforts. Sophomore guard Engin Atsur will run the point along with Georgetown
transfer Tony Bethel, a former double-digit scorer with the Hoyas. At times,
both players will probably be on the court, giving NC State a fast group that
can get up and down the court. Junior forward Ilian Evtimov (9.8 ppg) is now
back to health and his reemergence as a threat along the perimeter is a must.
The team’s Achilles’ heel will be inside, where it will certainly miss the
play of forward/center Marcus Melvin (14.3 ppg, 8.1 rpg). There isn’t a
dominant rebounder on the team and you can’t expect Hodge (6.4 rpg) to give
more than he already has on the glass. Those who will need to step up in the
paint are senior forward Levi Watkins (6.3 ppg, 2.4 rpg) and incoming freshman
forward/center Cedric Simmons (6-10, 205).

FLORIDA STATE – Leonard Hamilton has made a habit of turning programs around
and that has certainly held true in Tallahassee, where the Seminoles posted
their first winning season in six years by going 19-14 a year ago. After a
fast start however, FSU finished a disappointing seventh in the ACC (6-10).
The team will try to build on the positives from last year, but will have to
do so without the services of all-conference guard Tim Pickett. The 6-4
scoring machine (16.5 ppg) made a lot of tough shots when needed and his
veteran leadership will certainly be missed this time around. However, the
cupboard isn’t exactly bare. The team had one of the conference’s most
exciting newcomers last year in forward/center Alexander Johnson, who should
see the ball more inside this season. Sophomore Von Wafer (7.9 ppg) will be
the player that ignites this team. The 6-5 youngster has a lot of the same
attributes that Pickett brought to the team and will be looked upon for that
kind of leadership. Depth is found all over the roster, with forwards Anthony
Richardson (7.3 ppg) and Adam Waleskowski (6.8 ppg), not to mention incoming
talents like junior forward Diego Romero and freshman guard Isaiah Swann.
Romero redshirted last season and played for the Argentinean National Junior
Team. Romero can shoot the lights out and will be a welcome addition to a team
that will need to be clicking on all cylinders to improve its ACC standing
this season.

VIRGINIA – There was plenty of reason to think that Pete Gillen would be
looking for a job last year, but then the Cavaliers responded by winning six
of their last 10 games, including some huge upsets in the ACC. The real
problem for this team has been its lack of success on the road. Last season,
the Cavs were just 4-9 away from Charlottesville and that number will
certainly need to improve if Virginia wants to stay out of the bottom half of
the conference standings. There is plenty of talent available to make a run at
a 20-win campaign, led by one of the conference’s premiere frontcourt players
in 6-9 senior forward Elton Brown. He shot over 50 percent from the floor last
season and averaged a solid 14.9 points per game, while hauling in
over six boards per outing. However, Brown cannot do it alone inside and
another body on the boards is a must. Where the team will find that player
remains to be seen though. Senior forward Devin Smith (12.2 ppg) has the
ability to score in bunches, but at 6-5, he is not the big body the team
desperately needs inside. Despite losing sharpshooter Todd Billet, the
backcourt is in fine shape with the return of youngsters J.R. Reynolds (9.4
ppg as a freshman) and T.J. Bannister (3.6 ppg as a freshman). The sophomore
duo will lead the perimeter charge for the Cavaliers this season. Sean
Singletary is an incoming freshman that should push for time at the point
right away. He is a talented prospect who loves to push the ball up and down
the court. Still, Gillen will need his team to shoot well from long range, as
well as tighten things up defensively. Unfortunately, both areas of Virginia’s
game will probably not improve dramatically this season.

VIRGINIA TECH – Two seasons and two different conferences for Virginia Tech
head man Seth Greenberg. In his inaugural season in Blacksburg, Greenberg led
the Hokies to a 15-14 finish, only good for eighth place in the Big East, but
showed enough to prove that he is the right man for the job at Tech. The team
managed a winning season last year, but was extremely one-dimensional, riding
the wave of momentum provided by All-American Bryant Matthews, who was one of
the Big East’s top stars, averaging a hefty 22.1 points and 8.9 rebounds per
game. Those numbers will be impossible to match by any one player this season,
but the return of senior swingman Carlos Dixon (13.8 ppg in 2002-03) from a
season-ending foot injury and surgery is a good place to start. Last season, a
pair of freshmen handled the backcourt duties in Zabian Dowdell (10.8 ppg) and
Jamon Gordon (9.8 ppg). Both should continue to see their games rise in their
new conference and with the addition of incoming freshman Marquie Cooke (6-3,
200) this is a backcourt that could be a real asset to the Hokies. There is no
low post game to speak of for Virginia Tech now that Matthews has moved on.
The 6-8, 230-pound Coleman Collins (8.7 ppg, 3.7 rpg) has shown signs of
becoming a solid contributor down low, but there is little else in terms of a
proven commodity. In 2004-05, Dixon, like Matthews before him, will need to
carry this team at the offense end and hope that his teammates can help night
in and night out. Although the Big East is a formidable conference, the Hokies
are likely to find the road even tougher in the first season in the ACC.

CLEMSON – Although no stranger to the ACC, the Clemson Tigers are strangers to
success in the conference. Oliver Purnell is now in his second season with the
Tigers and has a history of turning programs around. His first season was
nothing to revel in at 10-18, including a last place finish in the conference,
so an improvement this year is a must. Fortunately for Purnell, he will have a
solid big man to rely on this season in senior forward Sharrod Ford. The 6-9,
220-pound Ford is the team’s top returning scorer (11.9 ppg) and rebounder
(7.2 rpg) and is a legitimate frontcourt asset. Fellow senior Olu Babalola
(6-6, 255) will need to assert himself down low this year after trying to show
his perimeter game too often last season. He averaged 9.0 points, but only 4.6
rpg and will need to be more physical to help Ford down low. Joining the cause
will be junior forward Akin Akingbala (6-9, 220), who should see a huge boost
in minutes in 2004-05. The backcourt was young a year ago and should be solid
this time around with return of junior Shawan Robinson (10.8 ppg) and
sophomore Vernon Hamilton (7.3 ppg, 3.3 apg). Freshmen Cliff Hammonds (6-3.
175) and Troy Mathis (6-0, 200) could provide immediate support in the
backcourt as well.

MIAMI-FLORIDA – Close calls were the name of the game for the Hurricanes a
year ago, as a 1-12 finish down the stretch was highlighted by four overtime
defeats. There is enough talent on the roster to improve on last year’s 14-16
overall record, but the ACC schedule may prove to be too much for first-year
coach Frank Haith and his Hurricanes. Haith was one of the nation’s premiere
assistants under Rick Barnes at Texas and it is hoped that in his first stint
as a head coach, he will be able to turn things around at Miami. There is
plenty of veteran talent to work with here, led by junior guard Robert Hite
(15.2 ppg). An athletic scorer both inside and out, Hite will do just fine in
the ACC. His backcourt mate is sophomore guard Guillermo Diaz, who netted 11.8
ppg a year ago and shot 46.1 percent from behind the arc when he did let it
fly from long range. The loss of Darius Rice in the frontcourt will be hard to
overcome this season, but Rice was more of a perimeter threat. The team will
need someone to step up inside, especially against some of the better teams in
the conference, but Haith may not have that player on the roster in 2004-05.
Gary Hamilton (6-10, 250) and Glenn Batemon (6-11, 335) are the likely
candidates to fill the need, but neither is a proven commodity.