With the Final Four set for this weekend, I am thinking about how far we have to climb out of the hole in which we find ourselves after this dismal season. I say dismal because of the record, but I actually feel better right now than I did immediately after Hewitt's final season at Tech. I am going to briefly look back at this season, then project what I think are reasonable expectations for next year. I welcome your criticisms and comments.
This year the ACC had three groups of teams - three teams worthy of national ranking, four more just below (two of which got NCAA invites), and five stinkers at the bottom. I think we should set our sights on the middle group for next year. I will make my forecast below the fold.
Carolina will likely have several freshman starters next year. While talented, they will not match the group that just departed. I think UNC will drop into the middle group. Duke may fair a bit better if they are able to sign Shabazz Muhammad or Amile Jefferson, but neither is certain at this point. Without them, this recruiting class will be thin by Coach K standards. Tony Parker may help, but I don't see him making Duke a lot better. The jury is still out on Duke for next year - maybe the middle group if these recruits go elsewhere, or barely in the upper group if two of them come to Durham.
Florida State has everybody that mattered on this year's team coming back for another run. I am picking them to win the conference championship next year. Four starters return and a JC transfer will fill the slot vacated by graduation. They should be better next year by quite a lot.
The middle group of Virginia, NC State, Miami and Clemson could see their fortunes change a lot next year. All are betting on newcomers to fill key spots on their rosters. The Cavaliers need a lot of help. Three starters graduated, including Mike Scott, so there is no combination of subs and rookies that can make this team as good next year. I sometimes thought they were more tenacious than good this past year. I doubt they will be as good next. I could see them slipping a bit if their three 4-star signees cannot all contribute. They especially need a talented, but skinny, Mike Tobey to make a difference inside.
The Wolfpack are still a mystery. They could be the best team in the conference if all their stars are properly aligned, but don't hold your breath. C J Leslie would have to stay, but I think he will leave for the NBA. It's hard to imagine his draft status improving with another year at State. Also, State needs to convince Amile Jefferson to come to Raleigh instead of Durham, Lexington, or Columbus. I think State will hang in the middle of the conference unless everything works in their favor. They return three starters, in addition to Leslie, and Mark Gottfried played deep into his roster at times. He had some talent on the bench.
Miami is another question mark team. They could have four starters and their sixth man returning for next season. They could also lose three of those guys to the NBA. I would not be surprised to see Reggie Johnson and Durrand Scott declare for the draft. Both are 22 years old and physically very mature. Kenny Kadji will be 24 in May and I do not see him getting any better if his the other two leave. He could go as well. None will be high draft picks, but dreams are what got these guys this far. With them in the lineup, Miami is very good and could rise into the top group. Without them, this team slides down into the stinking muck.
Clemson was a lot like UVA last year. They were not so much talented as they were a tough hustling team that gave everything a lot of the time. Three starters return from a veteran team. I expect them to remain right in the middle.
The bottom group is where stuff really needs to happen. Maryland got a huge shot in the arm when Terrell Stoglin announced his plan to return for next season. I expect he will bring his 21.6 points with him. If Pe'Shon Howard can return from a torn ACL and two highly regarded freshmen can deliver, this could be a good team next year. Three starters return, so the young guys will not be called on to do too much. Shaquille Cleare could be a big difference for the Terps if his 6-9 270 pound presence in the middle delivers even partially on expectations. I am looking for Maryland to make the climb out of the bottom group. If Pe'Shon had been healthy all year, they might have been in the middle group last season. This is not a big leap for them.
VPI returns three starters, but that may not be enough to make them a lot better. I like Seth Greenberg, but he could be looking at his last season in the ACC.
The good news for Wake Forest is they have a really good recruiting class coming in. The bad news is they have four starters returning. They will likely sit one of the starters and play two freshmen, including PG Codi Miller-McIntyre. We have seen freshmen point guards in the ACC before. While some have been great, they are usually frustrated most of the time. I think the Deacons are more than a year away from moving up.
Boston College was the youngest team in the ACC last year and their results showed it. All five starters return and nobody of consequence was signed. The Eagles will be better, but not much. Like Wake Forest, they will spend one more year in the cellar group.
OK. Now what about us. I said our goal should be to move into the middle group. Four starters return, but we had trouble finding points when Glen Rice Jr was suspended (or on the court but not playing). I wonder who will step up and provide scoring next year. Carter will take Rice's spot in the starting lineup and we will be better than we were at times this year. Not so good as we were on other nights. Even so, this team will be more successful at season's end than Gregory's first team.
Assuming the ACC remains unchanged for next season (Pitt and Syracuse stay in the Big East), we will have 16 league games and about 14 non-conference games. For us to move up, we need to find 3-4 wins in the conference that we lost this year. In theory, the ACC should break into three top teams, six in the middle and three at the bottom. I am calling this "normal." More likely, it will be three, five and four. I will call this "probable."
With the "probable" distribution, if we are in the middle, we should be able to beat the four at the bottom, split with the teams in the middle and lose to the bigs. This is complicated a bit by the unbalanced scheduling used in the ACC. This year we played five teams at home & away; three teams only at home; and three teams only on the road. The home & away teams were three of the other four teams in our bottom group plus NC State and Clemson. Of those tens games, we won four. We lost the rest. Next year, we play a VERY different schedule. The five Home and Away teams are Duke, UNC, FSU, Clemson, and Wake Forest. We play BC, NCSU, and VPI at home while traveling to Maryland, Miami, and Virginia.
Of the five home & away teams, only Wake forest appears likely to be in the "probable" bottom group, with Duke and FSU likely in the top group. For us to be in the middle, we need to win four of these games. Of the home only teams, BC and VPI are destined for the bottom, so we need to win those games. Of the away games we need to win one of the three. That is seven wins. Our seventh win is what will determine whether we are in the middle group or again at the bottom. It's doable, but not a certainty.