The ACC will be a very young league next season.
North Carolina, the almost-certain preseason favorite, is likely to use at least seven (and maybe more) freshmen and sophomores in key roles. Duke, never out of the title picture under Mike Krzyzewski, won't have a senior on the roster.
Georgia Tech could surge into contention, but only if two recruits blossom in key roles. At Boston College, Al Skinner will have to convert a number of young supporting characters into lead performers if he hopes to keep the Eagles in contention. And at N.C. State, Herb Sendek's successor will lead a team that must replace one fourth-year and two fifth-year seniors.
By Al Featherston
April 4, 2006
Poet T.S. Eliot once wrote, "April is the cruelest month."
He must have been an ACC basketball fan in a year when the nation's best basketball conference was shut out of the Final Four.
It doesn't happen often. This is just the fifth season since 1981 in which the ACC has failed to advance at least one team to the NCAA Tournament semifinals. Usually, it's Duke (10 times in that span) or North Carolina (nine times), but Maryland (two times), Virginia (two times), Georgia Tech (two times) and N.C. State (once) also have provided an ACC presence in the Final Four during the last quarter-century.
This season, though, none of the league's four NCAA entries could get past the Sweet 16. Top-seeded Duke suffered a horrendous shooting performance in Atlanta and was bounced by LSU. ACC newcomer Boston College lost an overtime thriller to its old Big East rival Villanova in Minneapolis. North Carolina appeared to have an easy path to at least a regional final, but instead became the second of three big-name victims of giant-killer George Mason, in a second-round game in Dayton. N.C. State, perhaps distracted by the attacks on coach Herb Sendek, couldn't follow an opening-round victory over California with an upset of powerful Texas in Dallas.
All in all, the ACC's NCAA misfortune was a pretty good reminder of just how difficult it is to survive and advance in a one-and-done tournament. And it's not just the ACC. All four No. 1 seeds were bounced short of Indianapolis. Think about that. The four groups that proved over the course of a three-month season that they were the nation's best teams all stumbled in regional play against opponents with lesser credentials.
So the ACC failed to put a team in the Final Four? So did the Big East, proclaimed earlier in March by ESPN commentator Tony Kornheiser as the best league in the history of college basketball. So did the Big Ten, which actually finished the regular season as the nation's top-rated RPI conference.
Meanwhile, the SEC celebrated the placement of two teams -- Florida and Duke-conqueror LSU -- in the Final Four. It was a great achievement and should be celebrated, especially by a conference that hadn't produced a Final Four team in the five previous seasons (since Florida reached the title game in 2000). Over the same stretch that saw the ACC represented in 21 of 26 Final Fours, the SEC showed up just 10 times.
Even that's better than the mighty Big East, which has produced just four Final Four teams since 1990 and has been represented at just nine Final Fours in the modern era. The Pac-10 has been even worse; UCLA's appearance this season marked just the seventh time in a quarter-century that the league that once ruled the NCAA Tournament (thanks mainly to John Wooden) has reached the Final Four. Even the Big Ten, second only to the ACC in NCAA consistency, has missed 13 of the last 26 Final Fours -- exactly half.
The track record of the other power conferences puts the ACC's achievement in perspective and should remind everyone of just how successful the league has been on college basketball's ultimate stage.
Of course, that was cold comfort as four non-ACC teams cavorted in Indianapolis, enjoying the Friday open practices ... the Saturday semifinals ... the endless Sunday interviews ... and, finally, the dramatic Monday night championship game.
To borrow from another well-known American poet:
Oh, somewhere in this favored land, the sun is shining bright (probably Florida, where all they care about is spring football),
The band is playing somewhere (Louisiana?) and somewhere hearts are light (Southern Cal?),
And somewhere men are laughing and little children shout (Fairfax, Va.?)
But there is no joy on Tobacco Road -- the mighty ACC has struck out.
ACC'S FINAL FOUR MISS UNUSUAL
The ACC has not endured a lengthy Final Four drought in the modern era. Every other power conference has had long dry spells.
The SEC not only had a five-year gap between Florida's appearance in 2000 and the LSU/Florida tandem of 2006, but it also went six years between LSU's appearance in 1986 and Kentucky's bid in 1993. A reminder: Arkansas was still a member of the Southwest Conference when the Razorbacks played in the 1990 Final Four.
The Big East missed six straight Final Fours between Seton Hall's second-place finish in 1989 and Syracuse's runner-up showing in 1996.
The Big Ten missed five straight Final Fours between Bob Knight's 1981 and 1987 national titles at Indiana. The league has been more consistent since, although it did suffer a three-year gap in the mid-1990s.
The Big 12 missed six straight Final Fours between Oklahoma State's appearance in 1995 (when, in fact, the Cowboys represented the now-defunct Big Eight) and 2002, when Kansas and Oklahoma watched Maryland win the title.
The Pac-10 ended a four-year dry spell with UCLA's appearance this year. But that doesn't match the league's five-year gap between Arizona's appearances in 1988 and 1994, or the seven-year gap between UCLA's 1980 appearance and that 1988 Arizona team. In fact, considering that the Bruins' 1980 appearance later was vacated for rules violations, it's possible to argue that the Pac-10 went 11 years between official Final Four appearances.
In contrast, the ACC has not gone even two straight seasons without a Final Four appearance since 1979-80. That pushes the league's streak back into the era when just two teams per conference could be invited to the NCAA Tournament.
In the modern era, the ACC has yet to suffer back-to-back Final Four shutouts. Not yet. But it is fair to wonder if that nightmare is in the offing.
WAITING GAME INCLUDES QUESTIONS
Consider for a moment just how much trouble most fans and writers have filling out their NCAA Tournament brackets after the field is announced.
Now, how many of you had Florida, UCLA, LSU and George Mason in the Final Four this year? (If you raised your hand, you're lying.) It's obviously ridiculous to make Final Four predictions a year in advance. We can't even start to project the ACC's top teams for next year until we see which underclassmen declare for the NBA draft by this year's April 29 deadline, then which guys pull their names out by the June 18 withdrawal date.
Still, recent NCAA history suggests a new college landscape that might make the ACC's Final Four chances in 2007 look a little brighter.
One new trend is the relative youth of several successful teams in this year's tournament. LSU, a group largely made up of freshmen and sophomores, is perhaps the best example. The Bengal Tigers, getting stellar play from freshmen Tyrus Thomas and Tasmin Mitchell, plus sophomore Glen "Big Baby" Davis, out-fought a Duke team that boasted two senior All-Americans.
"As a coach, you'd prefer to have talent and experience," UNC coach Roy Williams told reporters a week before the 2006 NCAA Tournament opened. "But if I had to choose one, I'd choose talent."
Ironically, Williams' talented young Tar Heel team -- with four freshmen playing prominent roles -- was eliminated by a veteran George Mason squad that lacked a single bona fide NBA lottery prospect. In that game at least, experience trumped talent.
But North Carolina's talent base will increase exponentially next season, when point guard Ty Lawson, power forward Brandan Wright and wing guard Wayne Ellington will join Tyler Hansbrough, Reyshawn Terry, Bobby Frasor and company to give Williams a team that's as least as gifted (though not as experienced) as the one that won the 2005 NCAA championship. UNC's status as a 2007 Final Four contender was cemented just before the 2006 Final Four, when Hansbrough announced that he had explored his NBA options and decided to return to Chapel Hill for his sophomore season.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski can only hope that his talented young big man comes to the same conclusion. True, Josh McRoberts told reporters in Atlanta that he would return to Durham next season, but that declaration came in the locker room just a few minutes after the Blue Devils' crushing loss to LSU. It's hard to take such emotional declarations seriously; remember the future Carolina coach who didn't "give a s**t about North Carolina," when asked about the UNC job in the wake of a loss in the national title game?
Players (and coaches) should be given a cooling-off period before being required to talk about their futures. If McRoberts gets back to Durham, surveys his NBA options, then announces he's staying at Duke, take him at his word. Until then, it's wait-and-see time.
McRoberts has a tough choice to make. While he didn't have nearly as impressive a freshman season as Hansbrough's rookie year at Carolina, most pro scouts consider the Duke forward a better long-range prospect. McRoberts demonstrated his unique skill set during the Blue Devils' postseason run, showing off his athleticism with a series of highlight-reel dunks and his spectacular (for a 6-10 forward) ball-handling in the ACC Tournament and in a second-round NCAA victory over George Washington.
McRoberts -- along with fellow freshman Greg Paulus -- obviously would provide Krzyzewski with a firm foundation to rebuild another contender in Durham. But for that to happen, McRoberts would have to pass up his status as a projected top-10 NBA pick, and the millions of dollars that go with it. And he's just one of several key ACC performers who could be tempted to enter the most wide-open NBA draft in the modern era.
The problem from the point of view of the college coaches is that the pro league's new labor agreement will prevent players from the prep Class of 2006 from turning pro for one year. Since the top prospects from the prep Class of 2005 were eligible for last year's draft (when seven were taken in the two rounds), and this year's top prep seniors will be ineligible, that means there's a one-year window for college talent to dominate the selections.
Hansbrough and McRoberts were the league's two high-profile undergraduate targets, but pro scouts also like the potential -- and, remember, the modern NBA draft is all about potential -- of such players as Boston College junior Jared Dudley, FSU junior Al Thornton, N.C. State sophomore Cedric Simmons and Miami junior Guillermo Diaz. Indeed, in late March, the physically gifted UM guard became the first ACC undergraduate to announce that he'll test the 2006 NBA draft waters.
Diaz's decision left Miami's Frank Haith without two-thirds of the dynamic backcourt that carried the Hurricanes during the school's first two seasons in the ACC. How many other ACC coaches will face similar defections? Don't be surprised if there are some strange decisions in the coming weeks. Who would have guessed a year ago that Shavlik Randolph, Von Wafer and John Gilchrist all were NBA-bound?
ANOTHER TALENT INFUSION COMING
The ACC will be a very young league next season.
North Carolina, the almost-certain preseason favorite, is likely to use at least seven (and maybe more) freshmen and sophomores in key roles. Duke, never out of the title picture under Krzyzewski, won't have a senior on the roster, and oft-injured junior DeMarcus Nelson will be the only upperclassman on scholarship.
Georgia Tech could surge into contention, but only if two recruits blossom in key roles. At Boston College, Al Skinner will have to convert a number of young supporting characters into lead performers if he hopes to keep the Eagles in contention. And at N.C. State, Herb Sendek's successor will lead a team that must replace one fourth-year and two fifth-year seniors. Even Florida State, which returns a fairly experienced core group, will be trying to integrate a newcomer at the point.
But all of that youth shouldn't obscure the talent that is flowing into the league. Some of it recently was on display in San Diego, where seven (and possibly eight) ACC recruits participated in the McDonald's All-American game.
The heavy ACC presence -- even if New Jersey forward Lance Thomas does pick Rutgers over Duke, the ACC still will have two more McDonald's All-Americans than any other league -- was reminiscent of 2002. That year, in New York, prep stars such as J.J. Redick, Chris Bosh, Eric Williams, Sean May, Rashad McCants and Raymond Felton dominated the prestigious all-star game.
That class provided the core of UNC's 2005 national title team and of Duke's 2004 Final Four team. It provided the point guard for Georgia Tech's 2004 Final Four team and the big man who anchored two top-10 teams at Wake Forest. It provided three of the five starters for Maryland's first ACC title team in more than 20 years. And the McDonald's list doesn't include such stellar players as BC's Craig Smith, Miami's Robert Hite, Wake Forest's Justin Gray and N.C. State's Cameron Bennerman.
Next year's incoming class might be as deep. No one could watch Duke-bound Gerald Henderson win the slam dunk competition or UNC-bound Wayne Ellington take the three-point shooting contest without being impressed with their talent. All of the ACC-bound players in the game had their moments -- whether it was future Yellow Jacket forward Thaddeus Young throwing down a left-handed dunk, Duke signee Jon Scheyer drilling both of his three-point tries, or Lawson blitzing through traffic with the ball.
And the ACC's future is not just dependent on the seven (or eight, depending on Thomas' choice) McDonald's All-Americans who were on display in San Diego. Virginia and Wake Forest also have highly rated recruiting classes coming in this fall. Maryland is adding several promising newcomers. N.C. State finally will get the services of 2005 McDonald's All-American Brandon Costner, a versatile forward who missed last season with an injury. Boston College, Miami and especially FSU are adding transfers of significant impact.
Perhaps the best news for the new ACC is the upgrade at the most important position in college basketball -- point guard. The league clearly suffered a season after losing Felton, Gilchrist, Chris Paul and Jarrett Jack to the pros. Virginia sophomore Sean Singletary was probably the league's best playmaker in 2005-06, but the Cavs' lack of scoring punch forced him to carry a heavy offensive burden. Two freshmen -- Duke's Paulus and UNC's Frasor -- battled for the ACC's assist title, with Paulus finally winning via the lowest assist average for a league leader (5.2) since Virginia's Jeff Jones set the pace in 1979 with 4.9 per game.
The competition at the point should be conducted on a much higher level next season. UNC is adding Lawson, rated the top playmaker in the Class of 2006, while Georgia Tech expects to hand the vital position over to prep All-American Javaris Crittenton, who was once the floor leader of an AAU team that featured Dwight Howard, Josh Smith and Randolph Morris. Maryland and Wake Forest, two teams that especially struggled with erratic point guard play in 2005, expect to upgrade the position with recruits Eric Hayes (compared in some Maryland circles to ex-Terp star Steve Blake) and Ishmael Smith, respectively.
Then there's Toney Douglas, who earned freshman All-America honors at Auburn in 2005 before transferring to Florida State. He was more of a scorer in the SEC (16.9 ppg), but when he tried to turn pro, he was advised to return to college and polish his playmaking skills. He's worked so hard on that phase of his game that FSU senior Andrew Wilson recently predicted to the Tallahassee Democrat that Douglas "will be the best lead guard in our league next season -- hands down."
The holdovers all should be better next season, too. Coach Dave Leitao's new talent up front ought to take some of the scoring burden off Singletary and allow him to return to more of a playmaking role. Paulus, who played all of last season with an injured wrist that required postseason surgery, ought to be a more effective player in his second campaign.
That all bodes well for the ACC's chances of returning to the Final Four next season. Strong playmaking is a valuable commodity in March.
And keep in mind one other thing.
The ACC is not the only league that is struggling to cope with the new college landscape. Top teams in other power leagues also are facing the modern conundrum: It almost always takes NBA-quality talent to win the NCAA Tournament, but you can't keep NBA talent for very long.
Duke certainly missed its chance to capitalize on the presence of two senior All-Americans -- don't expect that to happen very often in the next decade -- but UConn also missed its chance to cash in on Rudy Gay's brief stop in Storrs. It's very unlikely that LaMarcus Aldridge, P.J.Tucker and Daniel Gibson all will be around next season to team with Kevin Durant at Texas. And does anybody care to guess how long the Greg Oden era is going to last at Ohio State?
College basketball is in greater flux than at any time in modern memory. That means strong teams can emerge very quickly. Memphis went from an NIT team in 2005 to a No. 1 seed in 2006. George Mason, also a 2005 NIT participant, was a bubble team in early March before becoming a Final Four team in April. Florida lost a bunch of underachieving stars and actually got better with a younger, less-known group.
Rapid improvement is almost the norm now. Two years ago, Georgia Tech rebounded from a 16-15 season to reach the NCAA title game with a junior-dominated team led by a young point guard.
Is it possible that Paul Hewitt can engineer another postseason run in 2007, with what will be a junior-dominated team, led by a young point guard? Can Williams continue to build on last season's surprising success at UNC? Can Krzyzewski reload as quickly as he did in 2000 and 2003? Can Gary Williams recapture the cohesion and the toughness that made the Terps so formidable in the early part of this decade? Can State find a coach who will unite its divided fan base? Will Leonard Hamilton finally cash in on all the talent he's been assembling in Tallahassee?
These are some of the questions that will shape the future of ACC basketball. They will help determine whether the league's absence from the Final Four this spring was a one-year aberration, or the beginning of the league's decline as the nation's most consistent winner in college basketball.
Al Featherston, formerly of the Durham (N.C.) Herald-Sun, has covered ACC basketball for 36 years. A regular contributor to the ACC Sports Journal and ACCSports.com, he is the author of the recent release "Tobacco Road:Duke, Carolina, N.C. State, Wake Forest, and the History of the Most Intense Backyard Rivalries in Sports." The book, which is available in bookstores and at Amazon.com, is excerpted on pages 18-19 of this edition of the Sports Journal.