Kendall Marshall, Leslie McDonald, Dexter Strickland.
Those three Tar Heels were supposed to anchor the North Carolina backcourt entering the 2011-12 season. With Reggie Bullock and P.J. Hairston, the Tar Heels figured to have one of the deepest set of guards in the country to pair with a great front line led by Tyler Zeller and John Henson. And that’s before accounting for Harrison Barnes, projected to be one of the best wing players in the country.
But injuries decimated North Carolina’s backcourt, forcing coach Roy Williams to run with little-used freshman Stilman White and jack-of-all-trades Justin Watts in the team’s most important game of the season, an Elite Eight clash with Williams’ old squad, the Kansas Jawhawks, in St. Louis. Who knows what the result would have been if Marshall had not fractured his wrist against Creighton in the third round. But in the end, North Carolina’s championship aspirations ended with an 80-67 loss to the Jayhawks.
Entering the NCAA tournament, the ACC looked poised to make some noise, with North Carolina running almost even with Kentucky as a championship favorite, before Marshall hurt his wrist, of course. In addition, Duke looked dangerous as a No. 2 seed and Florida State was one of the hottest teams in the country as a No. 3 seed. Neither of the Tar Heels’ ACC brethren lived up to expectations.
With their shocking loss to Lehigh in the Blue Devils’ first game of the tournament, Duke became the first No. 2 seed to lose to a No. 15 seed in, well, about four hours when Norfolk State took out No. 2 Missouri. But before Missouri and Duke went down March 16, no No. 15 seed had won since 2001, when Coppin State upset the Jamaal Tinsley-led Iowa State Cyclones.
Florida State at least made it past the team’s first game — barely. The Seminoles needed to rally against No. 14 St. Bonaventure to avoid a heart-braking loss in the second round of the tournament. But Florida State couldn’t get the offense ignited in the third round, in which No. 6 Cincinnati pulled off the upset to end the Seminoles’ season.
NC State had the best showing in the NCAA tournament for the ACC as a No. 11 seed, beating No. 6 San Diego State, then dispatching No. 3 Georgetown. New coach Mark Gottfried had NC State playing like a Final Four-caliber team by the end of the season, and expectations are high in Raleigh.
Virginia was the fifth team to reach the Big Dance from the ACC, though by March, the Cavaliers were slumping after an 18-3 start to the season. Virginia lost six of its final 10 games before getting pasted by Florida, 71-45, in the second round of the tournament.
Among the teams that did not reach the NCAA tournament, Maryland was a pleasant surprise. The Terrapins started life after Gary Williams with a respectable 6-10 finish in the ACC and a winning overall record. That’s more than many experts expected from Maryland, and it provides hope that new coach Mark Turgeon might return Maryland to glory sooner rather than later. Sophomore Terrell Stoglin was a critical piece of Maryland’s success, as he led the ACC in scoring at 21.6 ppg. However, Stoglin left the team for the NBA Draft after learning that he would have been suspended all of next season for violating team rules.
At the bottom of the standings, Boston College, Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest labored to 4-12 records in the conference. All four finished with overall records below .500. Hokies coach Seth Greenberg lost his job in part because of the team’s lack of success, though the university’s athletic director cited a lack of stability as a primary catalyst for the change. Several Hokies assistant coaches have left for other programs in recent years, including former associate coach James Johnson, who signed with Clemson in what could be best described as a lateral move.
However, within a few days of Greenberg’s departure, Johnson returned to Blacksburg after accepting the university’s offer for the head coaching job. He faces the tough task of rebuilding the program after several graduations and transfers, including the departure of Dorian Finney-Smith, a member of the All-ACC Freshman Team and a highly rated recruit entering last season.
1. North Carolina 32-6, 14-2
2. Duke 27-7, 13-3
3. Florida State 25-10, 12-4
4. Virginia 22-10, 9-7
5. NC State 24-13, 9-7
6. Miami 20-13, 9-7
7. Clemson 16-15, 8-8
8. Maryland 17-15, 6-10
9. Wake Forest 13-18, 4-12
10. Virginia Tech 16-17, 4-12
11. Georgia Tech 11-20, 4-12
12. Boston College 9-22, 4-12
Conference tournament notes:
Florida State put an end to Duke’s latest domination of the ACC Tournament, thanks in large part to the outstanding play of junior Michael Snaer. The Blue Devils had won three consecutive tournaments and 10 of the past 13 before losing to the Seminoles in the semifinals in Atlanta. Snaer was huge in that game, hitting a 3-pointer in the closing minutes to give Florida State a lead that the team wouldn’t relinquish down the stretch.
Snaer came up big again in the Noles’ 85-82 championship game win against North Carolina. He finished the tournament averaging 18 ppg and shot 59 percent from the field. Even more impressively, Snaer made 9-of-12 3-point attempts. He had only three turnovers in 99 minutes of ACC Tournament action.
Besides Florida State’s run, NC State was the next most impressive team, cementing an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament with wins against Boston College and Virginia in the opening and quarterfinal rounds. Many experts thought NC State needed to beat North Carolina in the semifinals, but the Wolfpack’s impressive effort in a 69-67 loss apparently helped the team sneak into the NCAA tournament. The team’s play in Atlanta was a harbinger of a great run in the Big Dance.
Player of the Year: Tyler Zeller, North Carolina
Rookie of the Year: Austin Rivers, Duke
Defensive Player of the Year: John Henson, North Carolina
Coach of the Year: Leonard Hamilton, Florida State
- Tyler Zeller, North Carolina
- Mike Scott, Virginia
- John Henson, North Carolina
- Austin Rivers, Duke
- Harrison Barnes, North Carolina
- Kendall Marshall, North Carolina
- Terrell Stoglin, Maryland
- Michael Snaer, Florida State
- C.J. Leslie, NC State
- Erick Green, Virginia Tech
- Seth Curry, Duke
- C.J. Harris, Wake Forest
- Lorenzo Brown, NC State
- Kenny Kadji, Miami
- Mason Plumlee, Duke
- Austin Rivers, Duke
- Ryan Anderson, Boston College
- Dorian Finney-Smith, Virginia Tech
- Shane Larkin, Miami
- Nick Faust, Maryland
- John Henson, North Carolina
- Bernard James, Florida State
- Jontel Evans, Virginia
- Michael Snaer, Florida State
- Andre Young, Clemson
What we expected:
Duke and North Carolina battled for the regular-season title, with the Tar Heels edging the Blue Devils for the title with a win at Cameron Indoor Stadium in the teams’ last game of the regular season. Austin Rivers delivered one of the highlights of the season with a game-winning 3-pointer in Chapel Hill in the teams’ first meeting, giving Duke a remarkable 85-84 win even though Duke trailed by double digits with two and a half minutes to go. North Carolina got its revenge a couple of weeks later when the Tar Heels body-slammed the Blue Devils at home, 88-70.
Austin Rivers, son of Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers, entered the season with lots of hype, and he mostly delivered, averaging 15.5 ppg, 3.4 rpg and 2.1 apg. Some criticized his killer instinct and shot selection, but Rivers looks like a bona fide NBA lottery pick in this year’s draft.
While Rivers was slicing and dicing his way through most opponents, he struggled against Florida State, shooting less 40 percent from the field in three games. But that’s not a big shock, considering the Seminoles had one of the best defenses in the entire country once again. With Bernard James and Michael Snaer leading the way, the Seminoles finished with the 15th-best defense based on points per possession.
The success of Duke, Florida State and North Carolina often came at the expense of Boston College, Georgia Tech and Wake Forest. Not surprisingly, those three teams struggled. Boston College had an extraordinarily young team after losing most of its roster to graduation the previous season. Wake Forest lacked proven talent, while Georgia Tech failed to live up to its potential.
What we expected but failed to happen:
Miami struggled a little more than anticipated in Jim Larranaga’s first season as the Hurricanes’ coach. Only one Hurricane, Trey McKinney Jones, played every game for Larranaga, and several key players battled injuries throughout the season. That includes Reggie Johnson, who missed the first 10 games while rehabbing a knee injury that limited his effectiveness most of the season. With Johnson healthy and several shooters returning, Miami could be in store for a surge toward the top of the standings next season.
Miami wasn’t the only underwhelming team in the ACC this past season. Virginia Tech also failed to live up to expectations, which weren’t terribly high in the first place. Nearly half of the Hokies’ games came down to the final minute, with Virginia Tech going 6-9 in games decided by five points or less. Besides Erick Green, former coach Seth Greenberg didn’t have many reliable options on offense. Dorenzo Hudson was the only other player to average in double figures at 10.9 ppg. That’s a big drop-off from his 15.2 ppg a couple of seasons ago. With a struggling offense and inconsistent defense, the Hokies struggled to get out of the ACC’s basement.
It seems unfair to knock the leading scorer from the regular-season champion. But Harrison Barnes failed to wow scouts and fans this season. Although Barnes led North Carolina with 17.1 ppg, he often tended to disappear for stretches. His shooting wasn’t particularly eye-catching either at 44 percent from the field and 36 percent from 3-point range. Those are only modest improvements compared to his freshman season. Most importantly, Barnes did not demonstrate that he could take over a game on his own, especially when the Tar Heels needed him to do so. That weakness was glaringly apparent when Marshall was not on the court.
What we didn’t expect:
After several consecutive disappointing seasons under former coach Sidney Lowe, NC State delivered a nice surprise by playing up to its potential this season. New coach Mark Gottfried finagled a fantastic finish out of C.J. Leslie, Lorenzo Brown, Richard Howell and company, and the Wolfpack now look like a truly elite ACC team. The Wolfpack came painfully close to knocking off the Tar Heels in the ACC Tournament, and NC State channeled that energy into upset NCAA tournament wins against San Diego State and Georgetown.
No one expects injuries to derail a season. Yes, they are part of the game. But the injuries that North Carolina encountered this season derailed a potential championship campaign. Leslie McDonald would have provided another reliable long-range shooter, while Dexter Strickland, one of UNC’s best defenders, missed the end of the season. John Henson’s injured wrist could have been the difference in the Tar Heels winning the ACC title against Florida State, but it didn’t hurt the team’s performance too much in the NCAA tournament. At least not in comparison to Kendall Marshall’s injury. Marshall fractured his wrist against Creighton in the third round, and North Carolina’s offense sputtered to a grinding halt a couple of games later in the second half against Kansas. With Marshall, North Carolina’s offense was a thing of beauty. Without him, the Tar Heels looked lucky to score at times.
Perhaps the biggest shocker of the season was Duke’s loss in its first tournament game. No. 2 seeds are supposed to be pretty much safe bets. But No. 15 Lehigh and C.J. McCollum had other ideas, pulling off an amazing 75-70 win. McCollum outplayed the much more highly touted Austin Rivers, putting up 30 points on the Blue Devils. Rivers played well, with 19 points. But Mason Plumlee was the only other Blue Devil to score in double figures. Duke’s primary supporting weapons, Seth Curry and Andre Dawkins, were nearly invisible with a combined 12 points on 3-of-18 shooting.
Team on the rise:
We might have picked Miami a year too early by tabbing the Hurricanes for a third-place finish this past season. However, the Canes look like they should be up to the challenge of moving toward the top of the standings in 2012-13. Miami has a fairly stable roster, minus the graduation of Malcolm Grant and DeQuan Jones. Although Grant could score in bunches, he also was one of the worst shooters on the team at 34 percent from the field this past season. With a healthy Reggie Johnson joining Kenny Kadji in the frontcourt and Durand Scott, Shane Larkin and Trey McKinney Jones holding down the backcourt, Jim Larranaga’s crew looks to have one of the best starting fives heading into next season.
Team on the decline:
North Carolina would seem like an easy choice here considering that the Tar Heels are losing 60-80 percent of their scoring, rebounding and assists. But coach Roy Williams has another great recruiting class joining James Michael McAdoo, Reggie Bullock, P.J. Hairston, Dexter Strickland and Leslie McDonald. The Tar Heels shouldn’t fall too far.
Clemson might not be so fortunate. The Tigers flew under the radar much of the season, with the team’s only great win coming early in conference play at home against Florida State. By losing Andre Young, Tanner Smith, Catalin Baciu and Bryan Narcisse to graduation, the Tigers will lose a lot of their starting and supporting playmakers. Devin Booker and Milton Jennings will remain productive players, but the Tigers might not have enough weapons around those two to remain anywhere near the middle of the pack in the ACC.
Next season outlook:
After nearly a decade of pain and suffering at the hands of hated North Carolina, NC State might finally be in position to surpass their Triangle rivals. The Wolfpack return plenty of talent and import a great recruiting class that should allow NC State to compete with Duke and Miami for the ACC championship. In fact, the Wolfpack will probably enter the season as the favorite. It will be interesting to see how coach Mark Gottfried gets his team to handle the pressure of being a frontrunner after successfully embracing the underdog role this past season.
In addition to NC State, Duke and Miami have a good shot of joining the Wolfpack as regular fixtures in the top 25 polls. North Carolina will probably fluctuate wildly as its infusion of young recruits adjusts to Division I competition. With the arrival of another pass-first point guard in Marcus Paige, the Tar Heels might not fall too far back toward the pack.
A few relatively new coaches will be looking to make strides this season, especially Georgia Tech’s Brian Gregory and Maryland’s Mark Turgeon. Gregory returns the core from last season’s team, though that might not make much difference unless the whole team drastically improves its shooting during the off-season. For Turgeon, the Terps must overcome the loss of Terrell Stoglin, the ACC’s leading scorer this past season.
Toward the bottom of the standings, Wake Forest’s Jeff Bzdelik could in some hot water if the Demon Deacons don’t show some serious progress in the coach’s third season. Bzdelik was hired to bring greater consistency to Winston-Salem after the university dismissed Dino Gaudio because his teams wilted late in the season. But I don’t think the Wake Forest top dogs had consistent mediocrity in mind when they made the switch. Bzdelik hasn’t had much success in recent years, with a 57-100 record in five seasons at Wake Forest and Colorado.
Come Selection Sunday, look for NC State and Duke to receive solid seeds somewhere near the top of the S-curve. Miami and North Carolina also look like good bets to earn tournament bids, and Florida State could overcome some losses to graduation if the Seminoles continue to play Leonard Hamilton’s brand of suffocating defensive ball. Besides those five, it’ll take an unexpectedly strong season from another team to reach the tournament. Maryland and Virginia could be in line to make that happen as their coaches bring in players to fit their coaching styles.