Christie led the team in steals last season and will again need to be an effective defender this year.
Duke: Shelden Williams—Williams is clearly not the best player on Duke's roster, but he is the only one who gives the Blue Devils a strong inside presence. More importantly, he brings a toughness and attitude that Duke will sorely miss from the departed Dahntay Jones.
No player on the Devils' roster improved more during last season than Williams, who averaged 10.5 points, 9 rebounds, and 2.5 blocks in his last nine regular season games. His continued improvement will give Duke the balance they need to stay at the top of the ACC.
Florida State: Tim Pickett—Last season, Pickett became one of the very few junior college players who made a major impact their first season in the ACC; Bob McAdoo and Steve Francis come to mind. Pickett led the ACC in steals (2.8 per game) and was the Seminoles top scorer (17.1 ppg) and rebounder (5.7 rpg). At times, he did it all for Coach Leonard Hamilton.
With a deeper roster this season, all the pressure won't fall in Pickett, which should help to improve his 38% shooting. His skills are so diversified that two or three players would have to pick up the slack in his absence.
Georgia Tech: B. J. Elder—Elder is referred to by Coach Paul Hewitt as "The best kept secret in college basketball" after a season where he scored 15 points per game and became the Yellow Jacket's main scoring option down the stretch. Importantly, Elder is not only a good perimeter shooter (Tech has plenty of those) but he can also create his own shot off the dribble. Elder is the team's best individual defender, and his ability to match up against taller wing players will be critical to the success of the three-guard lineup Coach Hewitt will likely employ often this season.
Maryland: John Gilchrist—Gilchrist had already emerged as the leader, perhaps the very heart, of this young Terrapin squad before practice had even started. Stories from this season's incoming freshmen pointed to the opportunity to play on the same team with him as a major factor in their decision to come to Maryland. The Terps will be his team this season.
Beyond that, he is indispensable because there are no other pure point guards on the Maryland roster. Coach Gary Williams has a very versatile squad this season and does have other players who could fill in at the point, but no one who could even approach Gilchrist's ability to run the team.
North Carolina: Sean May--Ask Matt Doherty how important Sean May is to the Tar Heels' success. Carolina was rolling along with a 7-2 record and wins over Kansas and Stanford when May broke his foot against Iona on December 27. The Heels were 12-14 the rest of the season, which featured only a brief appearance by May in the ACC Tournament.
Like Gilchrist, May is critical to coach Roy Williams' squad for two reasons, he is an outstanding player and there is no one else on the roster that can come close to matching his production. With May, the Heels can stand up against teams like Duke, Maryland, and Wake Forest that feature strong front lines. It is no coincidence that these are four of the top teams in the ACC. Without his low-post scoring and rebounding, Carolina could be frighteningly similar to last year's team.
(Editor's Note: Of course, Raymond Felton is just as indispensable, but Jim had to pick just one.)
North Carolina State: Julius Hodge—How can a team get along without a player that can do it all like Hodge? Not very well, thank you. He led the Wolfpack in scoring (17.7 ppg) and rebounding (6.1 rpg) last season, and also posted strong numbers in assists, blocks, and steals.
In my opinion, Hodge is the best player in the conference. He matured into a leader last season and will continue to be the backbone of his team this season. He was able to put up his numbers while still keeping talented teammates like Marcus Melvin and Scooter Sherrill involved in the offense. He may even be pressed into action at point guard, so perhaps he'll add the Pack's assist title this season.
Virginia: Todd Billet—Billet had his hands full last season, a natural wing guard forced into playing significant minutes at the point. The dismissals of Keith Jennifer and Jermaine Harper thinned out the Cavailers' backcourt rotation, forcing Billet to play 34 minutes per game. He stepped up and handled the extra responsibility capably, leading the team in assists and finishing second in scoring. He was an outstanding three-point shooter, knocking down 41.8% of his 225 attempts. That percentage rose to 45.4% in conference games.
As Coach Pete Gillen tries to put his team back on the winning track, integrating five new players and redefining roles for others, Billets reliability and versatility will be a critical part of any success Virginia may have this season.
Wake Forest: Vytas Danelius—The Demon Deacons are such a balanced team, one player does not clearly jump out for this distinction. I chose Danelius because of his versatility. He is Wake's leading returning scorer and rebounder who can block shots, make his free throws, and extend his game out to three-point range. On a team with several good all-around players, Danelius fills more roles than anyone and would be the hardest to replace.
With Josh Howard now in the NBA, Danelius will need to develop into a go-to-guy for the Deacons. His ability to both play with his back to the basket and convert perimeter shots makes it very difficult for teams to match up with him defensively. Danelius' defensive prowess also makes him a key part of Coach Skip Prossers' schemes on that end of the floor.
We media types like to talk about senior leadership, but it is interesting that of the consensus picks for the top five teams in the ACC, none of their MIP's are seniors. I think this speaks to the growing stable of young talent in the conference that will be competitive nationally this season, but could dominate the polls next season.
Question for the Jury—Who do you think should have been on this list that wasn't? Let me know on the message board or by e-mail at email@example.com
I saw some spirited debate on the message boards about my recent coaching rankings. As I expected, there were some loud complaints about ranking Gary Williams ahead of Roy Williams. The most intense discussion/debate centered on Herb Sendek, with the result of a hung jury. The responses I received were nearly split down the middle with positive and negative comments.
The injury bug is already biting conference teams. Wake Forest's Chris Ellis, counted on to be a part of the Deacons' front-line rotation, broke a bone in his foot and could be out into January. Coach Prosser also has to be concerned about Vytas Danelius' knees, where tendonitis has flared up and limited his practice time.
NC State lost guard/forward Cameron Bennerman for 6-8 weeks with a broken hand. Freshman Wolfpak guard Engin Atsur will sit out the first three games of the season because of his involvement with a European pro league. With Jordan Collins out until mid-December due to grades, and Ilian Evtimov still limited coming back from a sever knee injury, State will have a very thin roster early in the season.
Interesting notes from the ACC's Operation Basketball media day:
- Jawad Williams, a North Carolina forward, not only believes the early season hype about the Tar Heels, he doesn't think it's enough. According to the AP, he said "I think we have a chance to be one of the best teams ever…the best team in NCAA history." Will someone please hose him down!?
- ACC coaches met with Commissioner John Swofford to discuss the impact of conference expansion on basketball. Speaking out against splitting the ACC into divisions, Coach K told the Washington Post "I think it would be bad, because it divides a brand. You start thinking ‘You're in the East, and I'm in the West.' Forget about it if we started naming them North and South." You go K! I couldn't agree more.
Let me know what you think on the message board or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. In my next column, I'll name the Mystery Men of the ACC, important players on each team who could be key players or big-time busts this season.
Until then, court is adjourned.