9-Clemson (2-14): The Tigers have a decent core of veteran players to build around--Chris Hobbs, Chey Christie, Olu Babalola, and Sharrod Ford. Unfortunately for new Coach Oliver Purnell, every team in the ACC can match or exceed that group in talent. To make matters worse, most teams in the conference also have deeper benches.
Purnell has a tough road ahead as he tries to awaken his program, which he has called "a sleeping giant in basketball." He'll have his team playing intensely and intelligently, and that alone will help them steal a couple of wins at Littlejohn Colliseum this season.
7(tie)-Georgia Tech (6-10): I think the Yellow Jackets' lack of an inside presence will be too much of a disadvantage for them to be competitive in the ACC. They have an outstanding array of perimeter players--B.J. Elder, Marvin Lewis, Jarrett Jack, and Will Bynum (eligible after the first semester following his transfer from Arizona). The athletic Isma'il Muhammad will also be a key player for Coach Paul Hewitt's squad.
This is a team that will be able to run the court and rain down three's on any given night, but the team that lives by the three also dies by it. On nights the shots are not dropping, the Jackets' will get killed inside. Tech will be an exciting team to watch, but not one that will win a lot of games.
7(tie)-Virginia (6-10): The Cavaliers are a tough team to figure out. Coach Pete Gillen has had to do a virtual makeover of his squad after last season's disappointing 16-16 record. Elton Brown could be ready to emerge as an inside force after finally getting himself in shape, and should get some help down low from Devin Smith. Todd Billet will again be a threat from the outside. Coach Gillen is hoping for improved production from point guard Majestic Mapp.
Ultimately, Virginia's success this season will rely on how much incoming freshmen T.J. Bannister, Gary Forbes, and J. R. Reynolds can contribute. If at least one of them comes up big, the Cavaliers could be a pleasant surprise. If not, they will be fighting for an NIT bid. Either way, there is reason for hope in Charlottesville.
5(tie)-NC State (8-8): State has some outstanding players, including the best all-around performer in the conference, Julius Hodge. Marcus Melvin and Scooter Sherrill help provide a strong veteran presence, and Ilian Evtimov's return from a serious knee injury will give the Wolfpack a boost. The only problem is, none of them are natural point guards or low-post players. Melvin is tall enough to play down low, but prefers to emulate Sam Perkins and hang around the three-point arc. Hodge will again pick up much of the ball handling duties, while Evtimov's passing will help Coach Herb Sendek's "Princeton offense" run smoothly.
No team lacking both a pass-first point guard and a big man that can be relied upon to demand defensive attention and pull in rebounds can seriously think about competing for the upper echelon of the ACC. A perimeter oriented team like State could beat Duke one night and lose to Clemson the next, depending on if the three-pointers are falling. That is no way to win consistently.
5(tie)-Florida State (8-8): Yes, the Seminoles are my pick for the surprise team of the season (you will be surprised when they finish this high, not me). Last season, Coach Leonard Hamilton taught his team how to play defense. This year, he has added offensive weapons Von Wafer and JUCO transfer Antonio Griffin on the wing and Alexander Johnson down low. This will take some of the load away from Tim Pickett, one of the more underrated players in the nation.
Pickett, Todd Galloway, and Nate Johnson form a solid backcourt, and Hamilton will have depth that was unavailable to him last season. Florida State will still have trouble winning on the road, but their home court will become a place that ACC teams fear to tread.
4-Maryland (9-7): Terrapin Coach Gary Williams has harvested bumper crops of recruits the last two years. Now he has to teach them how to play together and win in the ACC. Returning sophomores John Gilchrist and Nik Caner-Medley were solid contributors last season and give Williams two anchors to build around. Look for freshmen Mike Jones and Hassan Fofana to make their presence felt before the season is over, along with sophomores Chris McCray and Travis Garrison.
This could, in time, develop into Williams' most talented team ever, but they will have their share of rough spots to work through this season, particularly establishing a low-post presence on offense. This team will go as far as point guard Gilchrist can lead it this season, and that could be further than many people think.
3-Wake Forest (10-6): I think a lot of the Demon Deacons. They are a tough, experienced squad well coached by Skip Prosser. They have one of the most versatile big men in the conference in Vytas Danelius, an even more versatile wing in Jamaal Levy, and a gutsy guard in Justin Gray. Add a more experienced and disciplined center Eric Williams and blue chip freshman point guard Chris Paul to the mix, and you have a team than can find a lot of different ways to win.
I thought long and hard about ranking Wake higher, but ultimately did not because they don't have a clear cut go-to-guy like Josh Howard was last season. The two teams ahead of them both have one this season. If Prosser finds that player in this mix, Wake has a chance of repeating as ACC regular season champions and having a successful post-season.
2-North Carolina (11-5): When Roy Williams was deciding if he wanted to return to Chapel Hill and coach the Tar Heels last April, he looked at their roster and saw three players who could be the best at their positions in the ACC; point guard Raymond Felton, wing Rashad McCants, and center Sean May. I'm sure that fact helped him make his choice. Williams also inherits a solid all-around player in Jawad Williams, a defensive stopper in guard Jackie Manuel, and a strong role player in David Noel.
Williams' toughest job will be to teach this team how to win, an amazing but accurate statement to make about a group of North Carolina players. His second hardest task will be to figure out how to play at the breakneck pace he wants without his players, particularly Felton, keeling over due to a thin bench. With Williams' proven coaching ability and some exceptional talent, the Tar Heels will be back in the mix this season.
1-Duke (12-4): Coach K has assembled the best balance of talent, depth, and experience in the ACC this season. He has a go-to-guy in J. J. Redick, an inside presence in Shelden Williams, a veteran (although overrated) point guard in Chris Duhon, and perhaps the nation's most talented freshman in Luol Deng. Daniel Ewing, Shavlik Randolph, and Sean Dockery should be important players off the bench for the Blue Devils.
As I pointed out in an earlier column, there are too many question marks about this team to rank them at the top in preseason polls. There are, however, a lot of potentially positive answers to those questions that could lead to a sixth-straight ACC Tournament title and a long run in the NCAA Tournament.
Julius Hodge, NC State
Raymond Felton, North Carolina
Rashad McCants, North Carolina
Vytas Danelius, Wake Forest
Tim Pickett, Florida State
2nd Team All-ACC:
B. J. Elder, Georgia Tech
John Gilchrist, Maryland
Sean May, North Carolina
J. J. Redick, Duke
Shelden Williams, Duke
Note: I don't rate freshmen because I have not seen them play.
Player of the Year: Julius Hodge, NC State
Coach of the Year: Leonard Hamilton, Florida State
Question for the Jury: Tell me what you think of my predictions. Which player or team did I rate too high or too low? Let me know at email@example.com. Everyone I heard from regarding my last question about the Enormous East and the ACC felt that the ACC would NOT be overshadowed and continue to be one of the best conferences in the nation.
CourtMaster Briefs: ACC teams continued their pre-season exhibition contests last week with a varying level of success.
The biggest surprise was Wake Forest's 77-75 loss to Athletes in Action. Freshman Chris Paul put the Deacons ahead 75-74 on a three-point play with two seconds left, but AIA's Donte Quinine hit a 30-foot shot at the buzzer. I guess you could say he threw up a prayer and it was answered. For the game, AIA made 17 of 29 three-point attempts, led by former Penn State star Joe Crispin, who knocked down 8 of his 12 threes and finished with 28 points. Justin Gray led the Deacons with 15 points.
Virginia Tech fell to the EA Sports team 86-82. The Hokies were done in by Ricky Price, the former Duke player, who led EA Sports with 27 points. Freshman Coleman Collins paced Tech with 21 points, and Bryant Matthews contributed 20 points and 10 rebounds.
Nike Elite dropped two games to ACC opponents, 100-89 at Georgia Tech and 85-68 at Clemson. The Yellow Jackets were led by Isma'il Muhammad with 21 points and 10 rebounds off the bench. B. J. Elder also scored 21 for Tech, which shot 56% for the game. Clemson was paced by an outstanding all-around effort from Olu Babolola, who totaled 11 points, 8 rebounds, 9 assists and no turnovers. Chey Christie and Chris Hobbs led the Tigers with 15 points each. Clemson held a staggering 58-26 advantage in rebounds, pulling 26 down on the offensive glass.
Florida State got past Global Sports 83-68 on the strength of a defensive effort that held Global to 35% shooting. Anthony Richardson led the Seminoles with 19 points while Nate Johnson connected on all five of his three-point attempts on his way to 17 points.
North Carolina breezed by North Carolina Central 97-59. Rashad McCants returned to the court for the Tar Heels, scoring 26 points and making 5 steals. Raymond Felton dished out 12 assists, came up with 4 steals, and did not commit a turnover. Sean May added 15 points and 10 rebounds for the Heels, who were outrebounded 22-10 on the offensive glass.
Exhibition play continues this week, and Wake Forest opens the season for real with a game against Memphis in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic at Madison Square Garden Thursday at 7 PM on ESPN2.
That's what I think, let me know what you think on the message board or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please let me know where you saw my column.
I am very passionate about ACC basketball. Next time, I'll share some reasons why. Until then, court is adjourned!
ACC Basketball: 2003-04 Predictions
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