ACC season preview pt. 1: It only gets tougher - Tucson News Now

ACC season preview pt. 1: It only gets tougher

NC State Wolfpack sophomore T.J. Warren, right, works against a defender in an Oct. 26 practice. (Source: Jack Tarr/NC State Athletics Communications) NC State Wolfpack sophomore T.J. Warren, right, works against a defender in an Oct. 26 practice. (Source: Jack Tarr/NC State Athletics Communications)

This is the first of a three-part series previewing 2013-2014 ACC basketball, which kicks off Friday. Follow RNN's coverage and analysis of the Atlantic Coast Conference all season.

(RNN) - The superconference is here. Three prestigious programs have been added to the ACC lineup, expanding the conference's presence and promising several new rivalries.

Big East transfers Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and Syracuse bring a combined 75 wins, three NCAA tournament appearances and one Final Four from a season ago. All of them have reputations as perennial contenders on the national stage, and they come into their first season in their new home expecting to challenge the standard bearers for the crown.

For fans, it means more marquee matchups than ever before. For the top schools, it means more seasoning to prepare them for the field of 68 in March.

For the teams struggling to establish themselves, it means an unprecedented challenge to climb their way to the top of college basketball's top conference.

The following list projects how the ACC standings will turn out at season's end. Part 1 gives the outlook of teams 15 through 11.

Look for the release of Nos. 10 through six Tuesday, with the top five on Wednesday.

15. Virginia Tech Hokies

Last season: 13-19 (4-14 ACC). Key returnees: C.J. Barksdale, Jarell Eddie, Cadarian Raines.

It's hard to imagine the Hokies will improve on last year's last place finish, with the nation's No. 1 scorer in Erick Green gone and little in the way of additions.

The biggest issue a season ago was Virginia Tech failed to stop anyone from scoring; the team gave up an ACC-high 74.8 points per game. The breakdown in defense was complete - they provided little help near the basket, allowed players to drive into the lane with ease and gave wide open looks from 3-point range. Head coach James Johnson, in his second season at the helm, must get his guys to collapse on the ball in the interior and slide over to get a hand in the face of jump shooters.

Barksdale ended the 2012-13 campaign on a strong note, showing he could be an efficient scorer and rebounder. If that improvement carries over, he may become the team's top option.

Eddie's shooting touch went ice cold down the stretch, but a tweak to his mechanics could make him a sharpshooter from behind the arc again (44 percent in 2011-12). North Carolina-Wilmington transfer Adam Smith figures to make the starting lineup as well; he showed his shooting could stretch a defense in his freshman season.

14. Florida State Seminoles

Last season: 18-15 (9-9). Key returnees: Devon Bookert, Kiel Turpin, Okaro White.

The offseason started bad and then got worse in Tallahassee. The ‘Noles looked like the favorite to land No. 1 recruit Andrew Wiggins, but he decided to take his considerable talents to Kansas instead. Former Wiggins teammate Xavier Rathan-Mayes, also a highly-touted high school player, signed with Florida State but was ruled ineligible for the season in August.

That leaves coach Leonard Hamilton with almost the same team from a year ago but minus top scorer Michael Snaer. White, the second-leading scorer, showed he could be an asset on both ends of the court but also got frustrated easily, losing focus and becoming ineffective.

FSU has some pieces that showed flashes of potential, though. Bookert got a late start and didn't round into form until the end of the season, thanks to an off-court injury. Turpin is one of a trio of 7-footers along with Boris Bojanovsky and Michael Ojo; if any one of the three could provide some consistency along with that size it would be a substantial advantage over nearly all other teams.

The Seminole defense was uncharacteristically bad for a Hamilton-led team. That leaves this team with two options: run more to increase its possessions or slow down to decrease their opponents' shots. With the players they have, they may be best served with a measured pace to letting their trees take roots around the hoop.

13. Clemson Tigers

Last season: 13-18 (5-13). Key returnees: Jaron Blossomgame, K.J. McDaniels, Jordan Roper.

Brad Brownell's team was one of the conference's best on defense last season. However, their 61.5 points per game average was the worst in the ACC, and this year's squad is without two of the top three scorers from a year ago.

McDaniels showed what an elite all-around defender he is by averaging a league-leading 2.1 blocks and more than a steal per game. He also displayed his athleticism on offense with nearly 11 points per contest. Brownell's only concern with his two-way star may be that he wears himself out; the coach could limit his minutes played early on.

Blossomgame, a borderline top 100 recruit in 2012, missed the season after having surgery on his leg. The 6'7 forward appears at full strength now and should help upgrade the anemic Clemson offense. He possesses a solid jump shot, has shifty moves with his back to the basket and finishes strong at the rim.

With Devon Booker and Milton Jennings gone, the team has to find someone else to clean up the missed shots. Booker in particular was a good source for offensive rebounding, something a team that struggles to score severely needs.

The 6'10" Landry Nnoko should get a lot more minutes than the 6.6 he averaged as a freshman, and his ability to fill the void could play a major role in the team's success.

12. Miami Hurricanes

Last season: 27-6 (15-3). Key returnees: Garrius Adams, Rion Brown, Tonye Jekiri.

There may not be another team in all of basketball that is dealing with more turnover than the ‘Canes. The defending ACC champs lost its top six guys in terms of minutes - five seniors and point guard Shane Larkin to the NBA.

That leaves the team in the basement, according to most predictions. But the one thing the team still has - head coach Jim Larranaga - led the 2012-13 incarnation from a bunch of unknowns to a top-5 ranking.

Coach L should have his guys ready to play the same type of defense that held opponents to fewer than 61 points per game.

The 6'6 Brown goes from 22 minutes a game to top scoring option. He did not post good percentages as a junior (37 percent shooting, 29 on 3-pointers), but some of that can be attributed to inconsistent floor time and shot opportunities. His ability to increase the attempts and the ratio of makes could be the difference between a lost season and another surprise run.

Helping Brown and others get open looks will be freshman point guard Manu Lecomte. The then-17-year-old posted gaudy stats while leading Belgium's U-20 team to the semifinals of the 2013 European Championship: 21.6 points, 6.6 assists, 4.1 rebounds and 1.9 steals.

11. NC State Wolfpack

Last season: 24-10 (11-7). Key returnees: Tyler Lewis, Jordan Vandenberg, T.J. Warren.

The Wolfpack were favored to win the ACC in 2012 with a talented, experienced lineup. Their year fell below expectations with a fourth-place conference finish and a loss in their opening NCAA tournament game.

Now, coach Mark Gottfried finds only two on his roster that played meaningful minutes. Jordan Vandenberg saw sparse time a season ago, but an injury is expected to keep him out until mid to late December.

T.J. Warren may be the most likely candidate for ACC scoring champion. The sophomore used a smooth jumper on the perimeter and his 6'8, 215-pound frame near the basket to average more than 12 points per game on 62 percent shooting. He will probably double the amount of attempts he got last year with no other top scoring threats around.

Anthony "Cat" Barber, NC State's top-rated newcomer, should see heavy minutes alongside Lewis in the backcourt. The freshman has impressive speed with the ball, and his style as a slasher to the basket should fit well with the Pack's fast-tempo play.

Gottfried's club was marred by overall sloppy play, leading to turnovers and too many points allowed. The team could still be among the conference leaders in scoring, but they must improve on both of their main issues to have a chance to contend.

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