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ACC Preview (10/12)

October 11, 2007
ACC Preview
Teams, Part One

by Ken Pomeroy


For the high-major, or BCS, conferences, we'll be serving up their season previews in three easy slices: one overview and two pieces breaking down each team in the conference. Today, we continue the Atlantic Coast Conference with a look at the first six teams, alphabetically.


What Boston College did well: Win in spite of all sorts of personnel issues.

A decade from now the 2007 BC campaign may not be remembered as anything special. The Eagles, at least the ones who made it to the end of the season, were nevertheless a study in perseverance. The trials began last summer when starting center Sean Williams and forward Akida McClain were suspended for the first two and nine games, respectively. Jared Dudley missed three games around New Year's due to a stress fracture. Five games into the conference season, Williams and McClain were permanently dismissed from the team.

The loss of Williams was big, especially because BC didn't have an ACC replacement-level backup for him. BC's defense immediately went from merely poor to disastrous; the Eagles would give up 1.13 points per possession for the remainder of the season. They scored 1.11 during that time, however, and managed to go 8-8 against a slate that included just one gimme. They even won a game in the NCAA Tournament without the ability to stop anybody. Considering that Tyrelle Blair and Tyler Roche, who weren't even seeing action in some early-season games, were getting serious minutes late in the season, it has to be considered a success that BC was able to hold things together well enough to not have to fret on Selection Sunday.

What we learned in 2007: The Eagles could not have succeeded without Tyrese Rice.

It's stating the obvious to say that Jared Dudley was the most important player on the team, but it shouldn't go unnoticed that Tyrese Rice became one of the best point guards in the conference last season. He wasn't on the level of Sean Singletary or Javaris Crittenton or Ty Lawson, but he was the best of the rest. On a team that needed another scoring option to replace what Craig Smith had given BC for the previous four seasons, Rice became that guy.

While being groomed behind notable low-usage point guard Louis Hinnant in 2006, Rice showed signs of being willing to try to pick up the slack left by Smith. Rice used 24.2% of his team's possessions during his freshman season, the most for any freshman in the ACC. He wasn't inefficient in doing so, posting an effective FG% of 56.6 on the season. In 2006, with Smith averaging 17 points a game, having a low-usage point guard was acceptable. In 2007, when offensive production from the 4 and 5 positions was non-existent, it would not have been.

What's in store for 2008: Sadly for BC fans, Dudley and shooting guard Sean Marshall were both seniors in 2007, so where the Eagles will get their offense from in '08 is a mystery right now. Rice will get the opportunity to take ownership of the team, and should get all of the PR spoils that were lacking while playing alongside Dudley. While Rice can be counted on to produce, the four positions on the floor feature serious questions.

In the tempo-free world, there are two individual statistical categories directly related to scoring: being able to score efficiently, and using a lot possessions. Plenty of guys can score efficiently, fewer use a lot of possessions, and a rare group does both simultaneously. Rice had proved during his freshman year that he could use possessions and fill some of the void left by Craig Smith. The search for players to replace the production of Dudley, and to a lesser extent Marshall, would appear to be more difficult.

Besides Rice, no returning player took more than 16% of BC's shots while they were on the court. That can't continue, of course, because the shots have to some from somewhere. The problem is, that with the exception of swingman Shamari Spears, every Eagle with experience was inefficient on the offensive end, even in a supporting role, while defenses were focused on Dudley or Rice or Marshall.

Up front, BC is especially thin. In the middle, John Oates and Tyrelle Blair both posted usage rates of less than 14% with offensive ratings of less than 100. Blair at least had an impressive block rate of 11% in his limited play last season. Elsewhere on the frontline, BC will rely on freshmen, none of whom come in with expectations that they will have an impact. This is typical of Al Skinner's recruiting classes at BC; neither Dudley nor Smith came into the program with much acclaim, but they left with plenty of impressive accomplishments. So don't be surprised if we hear about guys like Rakim Sanders, Corey Raji, Courtney Dunn and Joshua Southern. They'll definitely have the opportunity to earn playing time.

Given all of the inexperience, it's almost certain that the BC offense will no longer be one of the most productive offenses in the nation, as it was for the last three seasons. The good news is that there is lots of room for improvement in the defense, an aspect that was neglected as the combination of Smith and Dudley, and then Dudley and Rice, became reliable offensively. Al Skinner is one of the best offensive coaches in the game, and his version of the flex offense gives BC a chance to be competent offensively despite how things may look on paper going into the season. However, because the offensive output will be a lot less certain, it's reasonable to assume that the defensive coasting that recent BC teams were known for will come to an end.

With Rice running the team on the court and Skinner implementing his fantastic offensive scheme from the sidelines, there's a chance BC can be good enough to win half its ACC games. But with the minutes expected to be given to inexperienced or unproven players, this is the type of team that should have more modest goals than those of the past three seasons.


What Clemson did well: Play effective half-court D.

Yes, yes, Oliver Purnell prides himself on the pressing defensive philosophy, and Clemson gave us what we'd expect from that approach: lots of steals and turnovers. Lost in the hype over the Tigers' defense last season was that they're not playing under the Forty Minutes of Hell approach. Clemson pressed more in 2007 than they did in 2006, but Purnell was willing to drop into a half-court defense as the quality of opponent increased. Clemson has not reached the point of being an elite defensive team with the reputation of Kansas or UCLA, but they are getting there.

What we learned in 2007: Trevor Booker can play.

As Clemson marched towards becoming the nation's last unbeaten team in '07, a few Clemson players were given their due publicity for their role in the Tigers' surprising start. Of all the contributions Clemson received last season, the most unexpected was from Booker, a true freshman who received little adoration from recruiting gurus a summer ago.

Booker's freshman season comes out eerily similar to Josh Boone's of three seasons ago. Of course, the 6'10" Boone was widely viewed as never realizing his potential at UConn. Booker, at 6'7", isn't blessed with the size of Boone, but does all the same things without the expectations. He's an efficient offensive role player while being a disruptive defender on Clemson's back line. Booker's exceptional rebounding ability, especially on the offensive end, is not to be minimized either. He had the second-highest offensive rebound percentage in the ACC (13.2%, exceeded only by Miami's Dwayne Collins). Unlike those of some teammates, Booker's contributions didn't suffer during conference play.

What we don't know is whether Booker is capable of taking on a larger role in the Clemson offense. Boone didn't make that leap for UConn in his sophomore season. With Clemson returning just about everybody, Booker's role in the offense shouldn't have to change much this season. That's a good thing for Clemson, because he was quietly one of the best role players in the league last season.

What's in store for 2008: With so much parity in the ACC last season, conference records for a few teams were as much the result of the schedule they played as how well or poorly they played. Clemson received the gift of playing the second-most difficult conference schedule in the ACC, so going 7-9 in conference play shouldn't be viewed as harshly given the context. With a few teams that finished ahead of them--namely Virginia Tech, Virginia and Boston College--expected to slide this season, even a slight improvement by the Tigers should result in a few more wins.

Clemson has positioned itself to surprise in 2008. The Tigers lose only one player from their nine-man rotation. That player, point guard Vernon Hamilton, was one of their least efficient scorers, a 31% 3-point shooter and a 49% free-throw shooter. Most importantly, center (as much as Clemson can have a center) James Mays decided to remove his name from the NBA Draft list after testing the waters. Mays is the type of guy who would have received abundant ridicule for staying in the draft. He averaged just 12 points and six boards a game, which aren't the numbers that you expect from an NBA prospect. Mays, however, excelled in areas that don't show up in the box score. OK, actually they do show up in the box score, but not in the part that people take the time to check when they're in a rush to label someone a draft-day bust. Mays gets steals in bunches and blocks a few shots also, a couple of things that tend to translate well to earning NBA money. Mays also has one of the best assist rates for someone his size. Make no mistake, James Mays would almost surely have been drafted had he left his name in and he likely would have stuck on an NBA roster. Without a guarantee, though, Mays made the decision to come back, and that makes Clemson's first NCAA Tournament appearance in a decade a strong probability.

At 6'5", G/F K.C. Rivers got starter's minutes all of last season, but didn't move into the starting lineup until February. Rivers is known as a sniper, hitting just a hair under 40% of his three-point attempts. He was also a 55% two-point shooter, and his extremely low turnover rate made him the Tigers' most efficient offensive player last season. He'll likely be playing more at the two-guard this season, since there is no obvious replacement for Hamilton. Senior Cliff Hammonds can play the point, and should get the bulk of the minutes there; Clemson is hoping that freshman Demontez Stitt can be a capable backup at the position.

The battle for the small forward position is somewhat up for grabs, but regardless of who wins the job, the Tigers won't be expecting much offensive production from the spot. Senior Sam Perry has the most playing time of any of the contenders, but had a miserable 45.8 eFG% in limited shots last season. David Potter and Julius Powell will get some playing time at the position but both had eFG's in the 30s. The two went a combined 20-for-95 from three-point range.

For a team that presses a lot, Clemson doesn't have a lot of depth, at least not quality depth. The starting five is among the best in the league, and that makes the Tigers capable of taking a run at the top of the conference. If Mays makes strides towards having an offensive game that impresses NBA scouts, this team will be very dangerous come March.


What Duke did well: Defend the 3-point line.

Three-point defense is more than just forcing the opposing team to shoot a poor percentage. It's about preventing a team from scoring on three-pointers. Duke, under Mike Kryzyzewski, has consistently done that better than any other team in the nation. In 2007, Duke opponents scored just 20.4% of their points from beyond the arc, the fourth-fewest total in the country. That figure was up from the 17.5% in 2006, when they led the nation in this particular version of three-point defense for the second consecutive season.

What we learned in 2007: It doesn't matter how much coverage your team gets, it can still be misunderstood.

There's a group of teams that have such rabid fan bases feeding on so much coverage that it seems like nothing could be said about them that hasn't been said before. In this decade, Duke rises above all of those teams. With nearly every on of their games on national television, the Blue Devils have not only a rabid fan base, but an equally intense faction of critics. All of them have opinions, and with all of the coverage given Duke, most of those opinions are well-informed even if they get clouded by emotion.

The 2007 Duke team was fun because it was a sub-elite team that was so obsessively covered and yet so mis-covered. Take two storylines that The Man didn't want you to hear about last season:

  • Let's start with the idea that the offense went through DeMarcus Nelson rather than the more celebrated Josh McRoberts. There was a consensus that McRoberts should have shot more in 2006, one that continued through last season. McRoberts did shoot more last season. Not as often as Nelson, but more frequently than he did in his freshman season, when he posted a 61.8 eFG% and a gaudy points-per-weighted-shot of 1.27 while taking just 15.5% of Duke's shots during his playing time. The thing is, guys that rarely shoot don't usually become an offensive force overnight, or even within one season. Last year, McRoberts took 30% more shots per minute played (11.2 FGAs per 40 minutes in 2007 compared to 8.6 in 2006) and his accuracy plummeted, barely clearing an eFG% of 50. No, it was DeMarcus Nelson that carried the offensive load for Duke. Of course, he led the team in scoring, which is kind of a giveaway. But he took 37 more shots despite playing fewer minutes than McRoberts.
  • Duke's defense last season was comparable to its D in any season during the Shelden Williams era. It's true in raw efficiency terms and it's true when the schedule is taken into account. A counterargument against Duke's solid D was that they just played ugly. This wasn't really good defense, the argument goes, it was ugly basketball. It's true that Duke's pace plummeted last season, when they played about five possessions slower per 40 minutes than they did in 2006. Even per-possession, though, this Duke team shut opponents down.

    That is, until their last four games, which to some extent that justifies the naysayers. In losses to Maryland, NC State and VCU, opponents inexplicably made 20 of 39 three-pointers. The fourth loss was to North Carolina, who shredded most teams and relied on the three-pointer as little any major conference team.

What's in store for 2007: A dynamic trio of freshmen enters the scene with the hope of returning Duke's offense to a quality that can contend for a conference title. Six-foot-eight Kyle Singler gets the most attention with a reputation as an athletic scorer. Taylor King, at 6'7", and 6'3" Nolan Smith will also get some minutes in supporting roles.

The early defection of McRoberts leaves a hole in the middle that won't be filled by any of the new guys. Say what you want about McRoberts' offensive game--and it wasn't spectacular--his defense was a strength that will be sorely missed. His minutes should get divvied up by sophomores Brian Zoubek and Lance Thomas and, to some extent, Singler. Zoubek, unlike McRoberts, showed a willingness to get involved in the offense during his freshman season. Unfortunately, his involvement often resulted in a turnover. Zoubek posted an astounding turnover rate of 6.3 per 40 minutes, the seventh-highest rate of anyone who played at least 200 minutes last season. Zoubek does a lot of good things: he gets to the line a lot, is willing to shoot as much as McRoberts was, and he rebounds well. Zoubek's numbers came in a small sample, so we can't be too sure that he'll be able to grab offensive boards (16.8 OR%) at the rate he did last season. In fact, he surely won't, but even a small drop would put him in an elite category. If there is any improvement in turnover rate, he could see his minutes take a big leap from last season.

Then there's the point-guard slot. Coach K has backed Greg Paulus in both his talk and his actions by not seeking a point guard on the recruiting trail. Paulus became a productive offensive player in 2007 mainly on the strength of 45% three-point shooting. He was still a turnover machine, and he saw his assist rate drop from his freshman season with fewer weapons around him. Paulus was satisfactory on the offensive end, and may even improve a little this season, but he's still limited. He'll have the occasional Eric Maynor-type nightmare game, referring to the first-round NCAA game in which the VCU point guard repeatedly wreaked havoc on the Duke defense by burning Paulus (and, in fairness, a couple of other teammates). The last time Duke didn't have a shot-blocker in the middle was during the Carlos Boozer era, an era when they had solid defensive guards. Paulus won't be able to hide defensively like he has the last couple of seasons.

Overall, the Duke defense figures to take a step back. It's just too difficult to maintain the type of defense they played after losing the team's best defensive player. The offense will be in better shape, however, and with a little less bad luck, this Duke team should fare better than last season's.


What Florida State did well: Put together a decent at-large resumé.

The NCAA Tournament selection process is a complicated and subjective one. When the field was revealed on the second Sunday in March 2007, there was little sympathy for Florida State, omitted from the field. Why didn't the Seminoles situation get as much attention as, say, Syracuse? Somehow Jim Boeheim ended up on national talk shows on the following Monday through Wednesday, while little was heard from Leonard Hamilton, even though there's a reasonable case to be made that Florida State's case deserved as much review.

                                   Florida State     Syracuse
Wins vs. Tourney teams               4 (1 road)     3 (1 road)
   Tourney seeds of those victories   1,4,5,6          2,8,9
Losses vs. non-postseason teams          0               2
Conference road wins                     2               4

Obviously, the selection process is more complicated than just evaluating these four categories, but I think you can see where maybe Syracuse's plight received an unusual amount of attention. The knock against the Seminoles was their road play. However, Syracuse was able to get wins at South Florida and Rutgers, and Florida State wasn't fortunate enough to have teams that poor in the ACC.

Of course, comparing a team that didn't make the tournament to another one that was excluded doesn't bolster the Seminoles' case much. Given that so many bracketologists had the Orange in the field of 65, and with Florida State having a similar portfolio, it stands to reason that with a different set of people determining the field (and ones that didn't get hung up on a sub-.500 conference record), Florida State could have been a tournament team.

What we learned in 2007: Al Thornton will be missed.

Al Thornton was the best basketball player in the ACC last season. There, I've said it.

OK, so that's not going out on too shaky a limb. In official ACC media-member voting, Thornton finished runner up to Boston College's Jared Dudley, which speaks to just how good Thornton was, since Florida State finished league play at 7-9. It's not often that players on losing teams are given serious consideration for their conference's player of the year honors, so you know Thornton had to be pretty good. Record aside, though, this is another example of defensive considerations being thrown out the window. Dudley did a lot of good things, all of them on the offensive side of the ball.

In the 12 statistical categories that I compute for individuals, Thornton ranked in the top 500 in 11 of them. Sure, it's not like ranking in the top 500 in a single category is something to brag about, but there were about 2000 players last season that qualified for those rankings, and Thornton was in the top quarter in the country in every one, except assist rate. Thornton is the type of guy who I'd want to be selfish. He can shoot, he can drive, he can get to the line, rebound, block shots and force turnovers.

In retrospect, one can only wonder how Thornton had to fight for playing time during his sophomore year with the likes of Anthony Richardson and Adam Waleskowski, because he showed he could do all that stuff back then, too.

           Al Thornton Career Stats
Season  MPG  Pts/40  OR/40  DR/40   eFG%   PPWS
Fr.     7.9   14.1    2.9    6.2    55.1   1.08
So.    18.0   20.2    3.7    6.1    55.4   1.11
Jr.    29.0   22.2    4.0    5.6    54.8   1.19
Sr.    31.2   25.3    3.9    5.3    57.0   1.23

Thornton was a late bloomer, getting just a handful of minutes during his freshman season even though he was already 20 by the time conference play started. He exploded during his sophomore season, producing stats per minute that weren't far off from what he did last season. His points per minute led FSU in '05, and on a team that was offensively challenged, it's a wonder he spent more time on the bench that on the court.

What's in store for 2008: For all the gushing about Al Thornton, the fact is that FSU went 16-16 in conference the past two seasons. Interpreting what that means can vary from the two extremes of "the supporting cast must have been very poor" to "Al Thornton was not a winner." Frankly, I subscribe to the former explanation given how efficient Thornton was with his ball-hogging, and that he did so much more than just score. We get to settle this debate in 2008, because the Seminoles bring back everyone besides Thornton and Jerel Allen, who was one of the first players off the bench for Leonard Hamilton, part of that weak reserve unit.

Junior Toney Douglas will return as the starting point guard. Douglas burst onto the scene his freshman season at Auburn and quickly became known as a high-volume scorer from the shooting guard spot, so much so that he decided to float his name into the NBA Draft before withdrawing it and deciding to transfer. Douglas missed five games during conference play due to a broken wrist, and FSU went 1-4 in that span, another mitigating factor in FSU's at-large case.

Even though Douglas' scoring average dipped nearly five points a game from his freshman year, that can be mostly explained by his decrease in playing time. At Auburn he averaged 35.6 minutes per game. At Florida State last season, that fell to 28.8 mpg. Hamilton has always used his bench liberally, so even though a healthy Douglas should see an increase in minutes, it's unlikely he'll get the kind of time he got at Auburn, even if he's the Seminoles biggest offensive threat.

Seniors Isaiah Swann and Jason Rich will get the bulk of the remaining time at the guard positions, with Swann filling in at the point as necessary. Rich will tend to spend more time at the wing, where 6'3" senior Ralph Mims will also compete for time. Florida State will be playing what is functionally a three-guard lineup most of the time; whichever three are on the court are versatile enough offensively to cause matchup problems for the opposition.

As seems to be the case every season, Hamilton has enticed a high-profile newcomer to the program, one who will be expected to make an immediate impact. This season, 7-1 Solomon Alabi brings in a reputation as defensive stud with room for growth on the offensive side. Juniors Uche Echefu and Casaan Breeden are the other players that will see significant time up front. Both were able to hit more than 50% of their shots, but just barely, and will have no choice but to shoot more often this season.

Trying to fill the gaping hole that Thornton leaves would figure to alter the makeup of the Seminole team significantly. This team will play a little differently than the past couple of editions, for sure. It will be a little more dependent on a perimeter game and its defense. But the script could well be the same. Florida State is capable of scraping together enough wins to get into the at-large discussion, but not enough to get to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in six seasons under Leonard Hamilton.


What Georgia Tech did well: Grab offensive rebounds.

While this team had nobody taller than 6'9" getting significant minutes, it did manage to grab a higher percentage of available offensive rebounds than all but two teams in the country. This continued a remarkable four-year trend under Paul Hewitt.

Season	OR%	Nat'l Rank
2004	31.1	203
2005	33.1	125
2006	37.5	27
2007	41.7	3

On a position-by-position basis, Georgia Tech was one of the tallest teams in the country. Even though their tallest players weren't seven-footers, Tech had taller-than-average players at every position. However, Georgia Tech's strength also highlights its weaknesses. While they shot extremely well and grabbed so many of their own misses, a complete lack of free throw attempts and a high turnover rate kept their offense from being, well, Georgetown's, the only team in the country with a superior combination of shot making and offensive rebounding. The Yellow Jackets were a surprisingly average rebounding team on the other end of the floor. Jeremis Smith, Ra'Sean Dickey and occasional starter Mouhammad Faye were merely adequate in that area and they had no help from anybody else. It's no secret that Paul Hewitt loves his offense to push the ball after an opponent's miss, and you can't send five guys to the defensive boards under that philosophy.

What we learned in 2007: Talent doesn't always win.

I just have to concede that I don't get the Yellow Jackets. After a 2004 season in which Tech vaulted from obscurity to the AP top five by Christmas, then into the Final Four by season's end, I would have bet the boat that we'd see Paul Hewitt's teams regularly making deep tournament runs in the coming years. Yet over the last three seasons, Georgia Tech has won just one tournament game.

Last season was the most perplexing one yet. The Jackets had two players taken in the first round of the NBA draft over the summer, and yet the season was mixture of flashes and flubs. Georgia Tech's season seemed to follow the standard script of one led by NBA-bound freshmen. For the first two-thirds of the season Tech was dominant in wins against Memphis and Duke. It also fell on its face a few times, most notably in a January loss at Wake Forest that dropped the Yellow Jackets to 2-6 in conference play. From that point on, though, this looked like a team that was reaching its potential. They went into the postseason having won seven of their last nine, with many of those victories of the convincing variety.

They couldn't win another game. They did make it to the second day of the ACC Tournament, but only because their late-night opening-round game against 11-seed Wake Forest went into double overtime and extended well past midnight. It was a game as maddening as the season was. Georgia Tech couldn't get a stop when they needed it--or even when they didn't need it--and Wake had an uncanny shooting night on top of it, even when they did face a semblance of half-court defense.

What's in store for 2008: Remember the 2006 Georgia Tech team? I hope you do because it's a good reference point for this season. The Yellow Jackets will have an inexperienced point guard with a supporting cast of Anthony Morrow, Jeremis Smith, Lewis Clinch and, possibly, Ra'Sean Dickey. That team went 11-17, 4-12 in the ACC. The supporting cast has an additional year of experience, so you might expect them to avoid the kind of disaster that 2006 was. However, that year of experience was different than what the foursome can expect this season.

Last season, it was Crittenton and Young who were the top two weapons in Georgia Tech's offense. Everyone else filled a role, and with limited shots to go around, those four guys each posted blistering shooting percentages. Morrow was the "bricklayer" of the group with a 55.1% rate in eFG terms, including 41.8% from 3-point range. With Crittenton and Young playing in the NBA, the reference point for 2008 is 2006, when four sophomores were required to supply Tech's offensive firepower. Tech's adjusted offensive efficiency ranked 113th in the nation in 2006, while last season it jumped 15th.

In '06, Tech's point guard was a sophomore by the name of Zam Frederick. To put it politely, Frederick did not have a productive season, then transferred to South Carolina to make room for Crittenton. In '08, Paul Hewitt may again struggle to fill the point guard slot with productive minutes because he doesn't have one in waiting. Mario West, a senior last season, picked up most of the minutes at the point when Crittenton rested. This season, duties will be entrusted to some combination of NAIA transfer Matt Causey, rising senior D'Andre Bell, and incoming freshman Maurice Miller. Causey put up impressive numbers in two seasons at North Georgia, and averaged about 13 minutes a game in his freshman season at Georgetown in 2004, so he has D-I experience. Bell has only dabbled at the point in the past and it's not his natural position. He's racked up a high turnover rate and low assist rate in each of his three collegiate seasons and is much more of a defensive specialist.

Thaddeus Young will be missed for his ability to take care of the ball while being highly involved in the offense. Georgia Tech was a turnover-prone team, but Young was an exception. And given the increasing duties that everyone will be taking on this season, it's hard to imagine the turnover rate improving much.

Clinch is the wild card. The 6'3" junior was devastating in early play last season, averaging 17.3 ppg in 30 mpg during the Maui Invitational. Over the Yellow Jackets' first nine games, Clinch averaged 17.4 ppg on a 70.3 eFG%. Then his playing time started to diminish and the Internet rumors started flying. After five minutes against Winston-Salem State on January 3rd, Clinch was declared ineligible (by Georgia Tech) to play during the second semester. He's back on the team and he's the kind of possession eater who could allow Dickey, Morrow, and Smith to stay within their comfort zone offensively. Dickey's status on the team is up in the air, though. At the end of summer school, he, too was declared ineligible by the school and will not be able to play during the fall semester.

If Dickey comes back to the team, this Georgia Tech squad will be a fun team to watch. The uncertainties at the point are disconcerting, but the pass-first point guard that this team needs isn't a position that requires experience to fill. An NCAA Tournament bid is a reasonable expectation, even if winning a couple games once there may not be.


What Maryland did well: Give the tempo-free cause a shot in the arm.

It's simple: Maryland was a fast-paced team that played excellent defense. They allowed just seven teams all season to score more than a point per possession. They had the eighth-best block rate in the nation. They were one of only three teams to rank in the top 15 of both two-point field goal defense and three-point field goal defense (Texas A&M and Georgetown were the others).

The frenetic style employed by Gary Williams will generally prevent his team from getting much acclaim for its defense because opponents will score a lot of points. Yet without anyone that could be classified as a superstar, last season's edition of the Terps was arguably the most well-rounded defensive team in the country. They weren't compared to teams like UCLA and Texas A&M in mainstream circles, but in terms of effectiveness, they legitimately could have been. Whether it was playing against their press or their half-court defense, opponents had a very difficult time scoring.

Let's give credit to the ACC media, which selected point guard D.J. Strawberry and center Ekene Ibekwe for the conference's all-defensive team at season's end. Of course, that team was filled out by the conference's top two shot-blockers and conference's top three in steals. So the voters' minds may have been less than pure in giving credit to Maryland's defense. The counting stat that matters in most people's minds in assessing team defense--points--is hurt by a fast pace, while the counting stats that influence people's minds about individual defense--blocks and steals--are helped by a fast pace.

What we learned in 2007: If you're compared to LeBron, you'll eventually produce. Mike Jones was rated by at least one respected recruiting service as the second-best shooting guard prospect in the high-school class of 2003. LeBron James was the only player ahead of him, so Jones was the top talent at the position headed to college. He was the kind of guy who you might have thought would be leaving college early.

Yet for his first three seasons, Jones failed to deliver on that potential. He always had a good shooting touch, but the rest of his game was not up to the standards of an ACC starter (which he wasn't, except for the first half of the 2006 season). In 2007, Jones became the player that the recruiting gurus expected him to be. Part of his production was due to increased playing time. After all, his points-per-minute production wasn't much different that during his sophomore season. But he shot the ball much better inside the arc and reduced his turnover rate drastically. All of this made for a more efficient Mike Jones.

         Mike Jones career stats
      MPG   P/40   eFG%  TO/40   ORtg   %Poss
Fr   10.0   19.5   50.5   2.7   114.0    21.9
So   13.7   21.0   50.3   2.8   104.6    22.9
Jr   23.7   17.8   52.7   3.4   103.2    20.4
Sr   26.0   21.2   58.3   2.2   116.6    20.8

Had Jones left early, Maryland fans wouldn't have missed him. Now that he's left on time, he leaves a tough hole to fill.

What's in store for 2008: Maryland was hit hard by graduation, losing Jones, Strawberry and Ibekwe off of last season's team. All three will make money playing basketball professionally, but it's unlikely to be in the NBA (although Strawberry was taken late in the second round by Phoenix). Nonetheless, this was a team that earned a four-seed in the NCAA tournament, and was one of the few ACC teams to be seeded correctly, so that trio had to be pretty good.

Considering those were the three most important players for the Terps, there figures to be an adjustment period. However, there is hope with a couple of starters returning. Though just 6'8", James Gist posted the third-best Block rate in the country and has the ability to be the offensive leader of this team. Last season he teamed with Ibekwe to anchor the stout Maryland D, which as a team posted the eighthbest block rate in the country, rejecting 16.2% of opponents' two-point attempts. They won't block as many as a team in '08 because Ibekwe's replacement in the starting lineup will be Bambale Osby. Osby is the size of a small house, and his limited time in two previous D-I seasons (one of those was at New Mexico) has indicated that he'll be recognized as an elite rebounder on both ends of the floor given starter's minutes. The good news is that Ibekwe was not a force on the offensive end, shooting a bit worse than 50% from the floor. Osby should be able to replace that and may even exceed it.

Sophomore Greivis Vasquez is the other returning starter. Having a 6'5" player who can fill either of the guard positions is a nice luxury. Vasquez developed nicely as a complementary player to the seniors while also holding up his share of the Terps defense. The combination of Vasquez, Strawberry and Jones--all listed at 6'5"--held opponents to the sixth-lowest three-point percentage in the country. Vasquez's role will undoubtedly increase this season, and what Maryland accomplishes will depend on how he handles the situation.

The only other player on Maryland's 2007 roster who got significant minutes and is back in 2008 is sophomore point guard Eric Hayes. As a freshman, Hayes took only one of nine Maryland shots while he played. Hayes can distribute, and is accurate three-point shooter when he does launch, but he doesn't have the well-rounded game that Strawberry had. Filling in around Gist, Osby, Vasquez, and Hayes will be a group of unfamiliar players. The rest of the roster is made up of five true freshmen, one redshirt freshman and two other returning scholarship players who averaged less than five minutes a game last season. So the remaining minutes will go to players with almost no experience, and not much of a pedigree either.

There's enough talent here for Maryand to chase an NCAA Tournament bid if things go right, but the defense is going to have to be equally as dominant as last season. On the offensive end, this is a team that hardly ever shot the three in 2007, and without Mike Jones, Maryland figures to be slightly more one-dimensional, so points will be hard to come by. At least, once you consider their fast pace.

Ken Pomeroy is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Ken by clicking here or click here to see Ken's other articles.

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