College basketball: 5 things to follow in the ACC this season
A year ago, the Atlantic Coast Conference fell a Kris Jenkins 3-pointer shy of the greatest college basketball season in its excellent 63 years of existence.
There were 11 ACC teams with 20-win seasons, seven made the NCAA tournament, six advanced to the Sweet 16, four made the Elite 8 and two played in the Final Four.
It took Jenkins drilling a 25-footer at the buzzer to deny North Carolina the ACC’s 14th national championship in men’s basketball and send the trophy home with Villanova instead.
How does the ACC follow such a special season? Here are five storylines to follow
Watching how the Duke rotation unfolds could be interesting
The Blue Devils are legitimate national title contenders. They return five veterans who have played more than 7,000 minutes for coach Mike Krzyzewski and add six talented freshmen.
With eight scholarship players 6-8 or taller on the roster, coach K won’t get caught short in the frontcourt this season either. Rather, his squad should be able to overcome interior foul trouble or minor injuries that cost a player a week or two.
And, one of Krzyzewski’s tallest teams at Duke could also be one of his deepest, although it’s worth noting none of his five national title teams used more than an eight-man rotation.
Grayson Allen, Jayson Tatum, Amile Jefferson, Matt Jones, Luke Kennard and Harry Giles (if healthy) will surely play plenty. There are at least four more Blue Devils capable of cracking the rotation, including 6-10 sophomore Chase Jeter, who thrived against college competition in an Adidas Nations exhibition this summer and highly touted freshman center Marques Bolden.
Don’t be surprised if Justin Jackson becomes a star at UNC
After two seasons in the Tar Heels’ supporting cast, coach Roy Williams needs Jackson to become more consistent and productive to help offset the loss of Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson, who were both selected in last June’s NBA Draft.
Really, a 3-point shot is all Jackson has been missing in two seasons at UNC. The slender 6-8 small forward averaged 11.5 points per game and recorded a stout 119.0 offensive rating last season despite hitting only 29.2 percent beyond-the-arc. In January, he made one 3-pointer.
Yet, even with a cold touch from deep, Jackson hurt defenses by slashing along the baseline, hitting soft floaters and making the extra pass to open teammates. He was a key cog in the nation’s most efficient offense as the Tar Heels played until the final night of the season.
UNC assistant Hubert Davis believes Jackson will shoot the ball better this season. Davis should know. His 44.1 3-point percentage ranks third-best in NBA history.
Clemson could be the sleeper the favorites hate to play
A team coached by Brad Brownell will defend. In his 14 seasons on the sidelines, every one of his teams has finished top 90 in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency. What makes the run even more impressive is he spent eight seasons at UNC Wilmington and Wright State.
Last season the Tigers sputtered to a 7-6 nonconference record, defeated Florida State, Syracuse, Louisville, Duke and Miami (FL) in a two weeks in January, then faltered late, sputtering to a 17-14 mark to miss the NCAA tournament for the fifth consecutive season.
Good news came in late spring when All-ACC selection Jaron Blossomgame opted to return for his senior season. The 6-7, 220 forward averaged 20.7 points per game against conference competition a year ago. The Tigers’ other two double figure scorers - Donte Grantham (10.2 ppg) and Avry Holmes (10.0) - are also back from the most efficient offensive squad (111.9 adjusted efficiency) during Brownell’s tenure.
The Tigers also come home to freshly renovated Littlejohn Coliseum after shuttling an hour to Greenville, S.C. to play home dates last season.
Receiving steady production from center Sidy Djitte could be key to a March Madness invite.
Virginia lost plenty but shouldn’t fall far
Sure, the earlier-than-expected NCAA tournament exits were disappointing, but Malcolm Brogdon and Anthony Gill guided Virginia to unprecedented success during the last three seasons. The Cavaliers were 89-19 overall, won 45 ACC regular season games, two outright regular season conference titles and a tournament championship.
So, it’s easy to focus on what’s missing from the 2016-17 roster. And while first-team All-Americans like Brogdon aren’t easily replaced, there’s ample talent in coach Tony Bennett’s locker room.
For one, the Cavs’ defense has ranked in the top 25 five seasons in a row. Don’t expect it to suffer much.
London Perrantes (11.0 ppg) is a senior point guard and one of three returning starters. Austin Nichols, a 6-9 forward, sat out last season after transferring from Memphis where he made first-team all-conference in the American in 2014-15 and led the country in blocked shots. Shooting specialist Kyle Guy was a McDonald’s All-American last season.
It’s difficult to figure out where Louisville fits
Louisville was 23-8 overall and 12-6 in the ACC last season and had the nation’s second stingiest defense yet any accomplishments were negated by a self-imposed postseason ban that cost the Cardinals a possible NCAA tournament berth.
The Cardinals’ top three scorers are gone.
Quentin Snider is back though after hitting 40 percent of 3-pointers a year ago.
Tony Hicks, a 6-2 guard, joins the backcourt. He scored 1,060 points and averaged in double figures all three seasons at Penn, hitting two 3-pointers per game at a 34 percent clip.
Deng Adel averaged four points in 12 minutes per game as a freshman but has the skills and size (6-7) to become a double-figure scorer. V.J. King, a freshman from the Washington D.C. area, is another talented wing option at 6-6.
The season could hinge on the health of 6-10 center Mangkok Mathiang, who broke his foot Dec. 19 against Western Kentucky. If he’s around to protect the rim, the wings are free to apply pressure and the Cardinals could have a top-5 defense (in adjusted efficiency) for a seventh consecutive season, which is one of the more remarkable streaks in college basketball.
Expect coach Rick Pitino to figure out how to put the pieces together.