The ACC brass are stoked that the conference will be on television a record 182 times this upcoming year. Fans of the Big East and other power conferences complain that the ACC gets preferential treatment despite being a “weak” league. Right, a conference that has won five of the last ten natty champers is pitiful.
Here are some of the highlights of what promises to be another exciting year in ACC basketball. As the season draws closer, we will be back with full team previews. But for now, check out five of the best non-conference matchups before the New Year.
NOVEMBER 15: Miami at Memphis
Young Memphis Tigers coach Josh Pastner breathed a big sigh of relief when the best recruit of his short tenure, Will Barton, was declared eligible on August 20. I’m really impressed with what Pastner has been able to do in Calipari’s stead (how much he “learned” from the former Memphis coach remains to be seen). Miami’s sparkplug Durand Scott nearly beat Duke by himself in last year’s ACC Tournament, and young big man Reggie Johnson will fill in nicely for departing beast Dwayne Collins, who finally graduated. Look for Memphis to come out on top on sheer talent, but I’m impressed that Frank Haith has the cojones to schedule this type of game.
DECEMBER 1: Duke v. Michigan State
This game continues to lose its luster, as the Spartan guards are dropping like flies. First it was the transfer of Chris Allen to Iowa State after being kicked off the team in East Lansing. More recently, the twenty-year-old Korie Lucious, hero of the Maryland game, was caught over the legal limit while driving. Tom Izzo is probably my second favorite NCAA coach, mostly because he doesn’t put up with stuff like this. Lucious will likely be suspended for the first half of the season at the least. That leaves more of the burden on Kalin Lucas, who is rehabbing his torn ACL, and 2010 Big Dance star Durrell Summers. Yet this will be billed as the best game of the ACC-Big 10 Challenge. Look for Kyrie Irving to get after it against Lucas—a player to whom he has been compared in the past. I had hoped Duke would face MSU at full strength; nonetheless, Izzo is a gamer and this could be the highlight of Duke’s early season schedule.
DECEMBER 1: Virginia Tech vs. Purdue
Perhaps this is the year that Virginia Tech lives up to expectations. Many pundits think it’s a battle for second place in the conference between the Hokies and the Heels. Much of that advance praise for VT rests on do-it-all guard Malcolm Delaney, who wisely chose to return for his final year. Meanwhile, Purdue returns everyone but hard nosed point guard Chris Kramer. Pat Forde even put them ahead of Duke in his preseason rankings (but he has a hard time with such predictions). This would be a statement game for Seth Greenberg’s program—which returns everyone—and until I see Robbie Hummel play as well as he did pre-torn ACL, I think the Hokies have a good shot. Just don’t let Jeff Allen loose on JaJuan Johnson…that won’t end well.
DECEMBER 4: North Carolina vs. Kentucky
In a battle of the teams I hate the most, UNC and UK face off yet again in this home and home series. Recently, ESPN’s sometimes knowledgeable college hoops blogger Eamon Brennan stated that UK has a slight edge in this matchup. It’s tough to say. Both teams have the same problem: a lack of proven size. Kentucky’s frontline is thin: 6’8” frosh Terrence Jones, Florida transfer Eloy Vargas, and perhaps Turkish semi-pro Enes Kanter, if he is ruled eligible. UNC has the sometimes healthy Tyler Zeller, the “wet noodle” John Henson, and Mr. Barnes, who’s supposed to be a guard anyway. I think the game hinges on Kanter’s eligibility. If he plays, he will be too much to handle down low, and combined with UK’s superior guard play led by Brandon Knight, I think Kentucky squeezes this one out. Look for UNC’s season to be a reverse of last year’s: a slow start with a more productive second half.
DECEMBER 4: N.C. State at Syracuse
The ‘Cuse shocked a lot of people last year by reaching #1, but that’s mostly because people weren’t familiar with Wes Johnson and/or didn’t have respect for the Orange’s experience. Now most of that depth is gone, and for once in his life, Sidney Lowe has something to be excited about in Raleigh. All the hype has been loaded on CJ Leslie, but we think incoming point guard Ryan Harrow will determine State’s success as much as anyone. The frontcourt favors the ‘Cuse (remember the name Fab Melo), but the Wolfpack have an early chance to prove that they belong in the same breath as Duke and UNC for the first time since, I don’t know…Julius Hodge?