Monday, November 21, 2005

2005 Basketball Preview

Things just are not the same. Gone are 9 members of the All-ACC teams. Three of the top teams in the conference were gutted of fantastic talent. In 2004 the ACC was the preeminent basketball conference in America with 4 legitimate Final Four teams and a few teams picked 5th or 6th that could have contended for a conference title in other leagues. This year will be very different, which was obvious this week with the loss of Virginia Tech to Bowling Green and Wake Forest needing overtime to beat George Mason. Boston College joins the ACC in the final act that ended almost 50 years of the finest basketball tradition in college basketball. Gone is the round robin and legitimate regular season championship. Now you have to consult a rotation formula to figure out who your team is playing and if the game is home or away.

On the other hand, the more things change the more they stay the same. Duke again starts the season ranked #1 in the country and favored to win the ACC for the seventh time in eight seasons. Returning are seniors JJ Redick, Shelden Williams, Lee Melchionni and Sean Dockery to go along with a talented freshman class. Redick and Williams are the most dominating players at their positions in the ACC. Love to hate Redick but you must respect him as there isn't a more clutch shooter or fierce competitor in the league. Williams is a dominating defensive player that Duke needs to get more involved in the offense if they are to return to another Final Four. Too many times last season the Blue Devils got enthralled with JJ Redick's jump shots and neglected their inside game. Dockery and Melchionni must replace the clutch production of Daniel Ewing. Dockery has never been a dangerous shooter but showed improvement last season. He only hit 24 3-point attempts all last season which was half of the number a roll player like Melchionni was able to sink. He'll need to develop his own outside shot to hurt opponents when they key on Redick. Freshman Josh McRoberts is the most hyped of the 2005 class at Duke. He has NBA level skills for a 6-10 post player. Together with Williams they could provide a devastating frontcourt game.

Boston College is really an unknown. They played very well in the Big East last season until they faded down the stretch. The players will have to adjust to the refs in the ACC which call a slightly different game than the refs in the rough in tumble Big East. This may land them in foul trouble until they adjust, though I think BC will enjoy the same "advantage of the unknown" that Miami and Virginia Tech enjoyed last season. Sean Williams and Craig Smith are both All-ACC caliber players and will anchor the offense for Al Skinner's Eagles. The rest of the team is a question mark. As with Maryland, the PG position is a weakness for BC with senior Louis Hinnant, from Oxon Hill, assuming that role again. Hinnant averaged 4.5 assists per game but limited his turnovers to 1.9 per game. Junior Sean Marshall also returns at guard after averaging 11.1 points and 2.7 rebounds per game last season. Hinnant and Marshall are solid players but are not among the better guard combos in the ACC. The real question is if they will be able to defend against the quick, slashing guards that dominate ACC backcourts. Center Sean Williams is serving a suspension for the first semester due to a drug possession arrest.

Besides North Carolina and Georgia Tech no team in the ACC lost as much talent as Wake Forest. All American point guard Chris Paul left early and seniors Jamaal Levy, Taron Downey and Vytas Danelius exhausted their eligibility. That removes 4 of the top 6 scorers on Wake's roster from last year. Paul is irreplaceable but senior Justin Gray will move to point from shooting guard to try to cushion the blow. Gray played some point as a freshman till Duke's Dahntay "Tauntay" Jones broke his jaw setting a hard pick. He is an excellent player and will produce for Skip Prosser but it will be a downgrade at both PG and SG since Wake doesn't have a player who can step in and play the vacated SG position as well as Gray. Wake also gets Eric Williams back after a brief flirtation with the NBA. Williams doesn't get the attention he deserves as a dominant big man in the ACC, even though he was 2nd team All-ACC. Chris Ellis and Kyle Visser, who combined to average 5 points a game in the ACC, will try to supplement Williams' low post game. Eillis has the greater potential of the two with legitimate range out to the 3-point area. Levy, Downey and Danelius all contributed with defense or as a boost off the bench and Wake will miss their production. Their bench is talented but very inexperienced and unproven.

NC State's Julius Hodge finally left Raleigh to go to the NBA. Prior to Hodge arriving at State they had not been to the NCAA tournament in a decade. Even with Hodge the Wolfpack had only managed to escape the first weekend of the tournament once in his four years there. Hodge lead his team in points, rebounds, assists and free throws, mostly by a wide margin. Losing a player like that would hurt any team, but it will be especially devastating for a team that for the last 4 years was built around Hodge and a bunch of role players. The most amazing thing about NC State's team last season was that Hodge was the only significant player who took less than half his shots from beyond the 3-point line. It is an amazing statistic. Obviously Herb Sendeck's Princeton style offense is centered around perimeter shooting and backdoor cuts, but the backdoor cuts and inside-outside passing are critical to the success of the system. This is why Hodge was so valuable with his ability to penetrate and create off the dribble. State lacks a player with anywhere near that ability on this year's team. No returning player averaged more than 3.8 rebounds a game from a team that was probably the worst rebounding team in the conference. They hope Andrew Brackman will improve this number, but he seems to be most famous for playing on the baseball team.

Imagine if State had not shot 40.5% from the 3-point line in their league games, an incredible 6.5% increase over the average in non-conference games? They saved their season by getting into a hot shooting streak for the last few games and beating a Wake Forest team without Chris Paul, suspended for the Hodge nut punch in the regular season finale. It masked the fact that for the majority of the year they were simply a horrible team. They went 4-8 against ranked teams last season. Throw out two games against Georgia Tech and Maryland, neither of whom finished the season ranked, and the aforementioned victory against Wake they would have gone 1-8 against opponents in the top 25. That is a good indicator of the talent on State's roster. Their grind it out, slow paced game allows them to hide some rather poor defensive players and one of the least athletic group of starters in the league. For some reason the North Carolina based writers feel State will finish 4th in the league. Personally, I feel 8-8 is very generous. State has the best chance to plummet in the standings and not much of a chance to improve on their record from last year. The schedule isn't easy with only 3 total games against Virginia, Clemson and FSU plus 2 games a piece with Wake Forest, Boston College and Miami. The road ACC slate will be very difficult, unlike last season which saw the Wolfpack win 4 games to salvage their season.

UNC & Georgia Tech are both very difficult teams to handicap this year since everyone from last season is gone. Neither team returns a regular starter from last season. The Yellow Jackets do have some interesting young talent in G Anthony Morrow, PF Ra'Sean Dickey and frosh G Lewis Clinch, who many people feel was the steal of the '05 class. This team reminds me of the Chris Bosch team that went 6-10 a few years back, talented but way too inexperienced in the backcourt. The Tar Heels should take consolation in their first national title in a decade because this season won't be much to get excited about. Every significant player from that championship team is gone with the exception of F David Noel. They do have talent in Chapel Hill with freshman PF Tyler Hansbrough and junior SF Reyshawn Terry but other positions like point guard are very shaky. Depth will also be an issue and Roy Williams will have to rely on freshman early and often. That isn't a winning formula most of the time. The schedule is brutal with Illinois, Kentucky, Arizona and even mid-major Santa Clara. Five games versus Wake, Duke and Maryland don't help either.

Miami is a trendy sleeper pick in the ACC and I was tempted to join the herd. Miami's loss to a decent, but not great, Air Force team on Monday made me think twice. Anthony King may develop into a solid inside presence later in the season but for now the Hurricanes lack a legitimate frontcourt game. They will likely play a three guard set for the season with Guillermo Diaz, Robert Hite and Anthony Harris. Harris is currently out with a fractured foot and could miss up to 6 weeks, for now freshman Denis Clemente has filled in with only a modest dropoff. They will go as far as Hite and Diaz can carry them, which last season resulted in a nice 7-9 season. I feel like they benefited from being unknown to ACC opponents for the first part of the season last year. Miami and Virginia Tech went a combined 6-12 in the second half of the season and ACC tournament. That is more along the lines of what people were expecting coming into last year. The weaker ACC might allow them to match their record of last season. Like VT they still don't have a bench to play well in the second half of the season, which will result in Diaz and Hite being exhausted at the end of the year.

Maryland fans don't want to hear about Clemson. The three losses to the Tigers kept Maryland out of the NCAAs for the first time in 11 seasons. It became the Sharrod Ford farewell tour in Washington as he abused Maryland's frontcourt in three games. He's gone now along with his 16 points and 8 rebounds per game in the ACC. Cliff Hammonds was one of the better freshman in the ACC last season and posted 10.6 points per game, however he ran out of gas in ACC play only shooting a horrid 39% from the floor. Senior Akin Akingbala will have to step in and try to give Clemson some inside presence. He must improve his 4.8 points and 3.5 rebounds from last season. Like Miami, Clemson has very little inside game returning and will depend on the improvement of Vernon Hamilton and Hammonds to contend for the postseason. They could be a darkhorse team since they only play Boston College, Duke, and Maryland a total of 3 times, two of those at home. Oliver Purnell is building a good program at one of the toughest places to achieve that in the ACC.

Virginia Tech shocked everyone by finishing fourth in their inaugural ACC season. A gritty defensive minded team last season, the Hokies tried to shorten the game and gamble on steals to try to keep up with superior teams in the ACC. With a paper thin bench and a roster with few ACC level players it was Seth Greenberg's only choice to be competitive. Some clutch shooting by Carlos Dixon and Zabian Dowdell allowed VT to pull out a number of close games. They went 4-1 in games decided by 2 points or less. The Pythagorean Method used by basketball stat man Dean Oliver, who now consults for the Seattle Sonics in the NBA, can be a useful tool to determine which teams finished with better records than their play would indicate. In short, which teams had some luck and good bounces resulting in more wins that you would expect. Using the Pythagorean Method you would predict that the Hokies would have won only 3 games in the ACC last season with a winning % of 0.203, a variation of 1 or 2 games isn't unusual but 5 games is very dramatic. Part of this can be explained by their excellent record in close games and partly by the fact that VT played a league high 10 games against teams that finished below 0.500 in conference play. A baseball term called the Johnson Effect also has applicability to basketball and it states: "The tendency of teams that exceed their Pythagorean projection for wins in one season to relapse in the following season.". The bench isn't in the desperate straights it was last season, when football player Jeff King played critical minutes for the Hokies, but it remains to be seen if any of the newcomers will be able to help.

Florida State continues its tradition of futility with eleven straight losing seasons in league play. The Seminoles have not won more than six games since 1993, their second year in the conference, and seem to have little hope of changing that this year. They ended last season in a freefall, losing 10 out of the last 11 games. Von Wafer was Leonard Hamilton's version of John Gilchrist. It was clear the chemistry on last year's team was toxic. Big men like Alexander Johnson and Diego Romero never provided the inside game that they were expected to and the point guard position was a mess. Johnson's regression last season was especially baffling. With great size and a nice touch around the basket he reminded me of a young Lonny Baxter his freshman year, last year he was more like a young Shavlik Randolph. It seems like Hamilton rarely gets the best out of his talent, except for the occasional upset of Duke at home, and is unable to win any ACC games on the road. Florida State must get tremendous improvement out of Johnson, G Isaiah Swann or Romero to be competitive this year. Losing the versatile Adam Waleskowski will hurt, he was a crafty player who could score from anywhere on the court and had an ability to hit a big shot. Hamilton will struggle to find anyone who can provide consistent point production and that will make for another very long season in Florida.

Virginia finally cut ties with head coach Pete Gillen. After a promising start in Virginia his final years were marked team turmoil and lots of losses. It isn't as if Gillen never had any talent, even with the unfortunate injuries to Magestic Mapp he could have fielded competitive teams. Gary Forbes, Devin Smith, Travis Watson, Todd Billet, Elton Brown may have all had flaws but they could be very good players under the right coaching. Gillen could never provide that. Now Dave Leitao takes over Virginia and the cupboard is fairly bare. Gone are seniors Smith and Brown and junior Gary Forbes has transferred. Sean Singletary may be the best point guard in the ACC this year. He is a feisty competitor who can score from outside or slash to the basket with equal ability. If Singletary can cut down on his fouls and turnovers, as I expect he will, he'll be a formidable player in a weakened ACC. Shooting guard J.R. Reynolds played well at the end of the season including a 32 point explosion against Miami in the ACC tournament. He needs to develop consistency and eliminate the games where he disappears, which happened too frequently last year. The departure of Smith and Brown will certainly allow him more opportunities to score and Virginia will need him to provide that offense. Virginia has little inside game to speak of and will have to cross its fingers and hope that Jason Cain or talented sophomore SF Adrian Joseph can provide some help for Reynolds and Singletary.


1. Duke 14-2*
2. Boston College 12-4*
3. Maryland 10-6*
4. Wake Forest 9-7*
5. NC State 8-8
6. Miami 8-8
7. UNC 7-9
8. Clemson 7-9
9. Georgia Tech 6-10
10. Virginia Tech 6-10
11. Virginia 5-11
12. Florida State 4-12

*- NCAA bids


ACC Player of the Year: JJ Redick (Duke)
Freshman of the Year: Tyler Hansbrough (UNC)
Breakout Player: James Gist (Maryland)
Defensive Player of the Year: Chris McCray (Maryland)
Team that will be better than expected: Clemson
Team that will be worse than expected: Wake Forest, NC State


Pythagorean Method for 2004

Winning % Predicted Wins
0.97565449 15.61 UNC
0.911355772 14.58 WF
0.874025597 13.98 Duke
0.811365441 12.98 BC
0.558092872 8.929 NC State
0.464771682 7.436 GT
0.321483411 5.143 MD
0.278801752 4.460 Miami
0.202774722 3.244 VT
0.186423458 2.982 Clem
0.153698709 2.459 FSU
0.083668626 1.338 UVA

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