Last season was a down year for the ACC, as the conference sent just four teams to the 2006 NCAA Tournament. North Carolina and Duke qualified with ease, going 14-2 and 12-4 in conference play, respectively, but only Boston College and NC State joined them in the Madness. Sure, both Florida State and Maryland made a decent argument to the tournament committee, but neither the Seminoles nor the Terrapins can claim they did enough down the stretch to curry favor with Craig Littlepage and company.
Once in the tournament, the top two Tobacco Road teams flamed out with a whimper. The LSU Tigers pasted J.J. Redick and the rest of the Blue Devils, while the Tar Heels messed around with Murray State in the first round before bowing out to the Cinderella kids of George Mason. The Wolfpack at least won a game before getting pounded by Texas, and Boston College advanced to the Sweet 16. But alas, the Eagles were a trendy pick to come out of the soft Minneapolis Region and make it to Indianapolis.
The underachieving at the top coupled with a striking lack of depth made for one of the worst years in the Atlantic Coast Conference I’ve ever seen.
Enter the 2007 recruiting class.
That’s right, folks. This year’s crop of diaper dandies will lift the ACC to new heights and will also determine both the conference standings and national rankings come the end of the season. If you have not yet familiarized yourself with the heralded 2007 class, rest assured you will be hearing about a bunch of these guys sooner rather than later.
It all starts in Chapel Hill, where Roy Williams has welcomed the best recruiting class in the nation. Guards Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington, along with forward Brandan Wright, instantly make the Tar Heels odds-on favorites to run away with the conference title. Obviously Tyler Hansbrough is the leader of this team, but it’s the supporting cast led by the three freshmen that will determine just how far North Carolina goes in March. So far, that would appear to be good news. Wright already chalked up his first ACC Rookie of the Week award, averaging 14.3 points in 5.3 in rebounds in three wins over Sacred Heart, Winthrop, and Gardner-Webb. The slick-shooting Ellington, who can also take it to the basket with authority, is averaging 14 points per game and enjoyed a 19-point effort against Gardner-Webb. Lawson, meanwhile, is currently coming off the bench behind PG Bobby Frasor, but he would be starting on almost any other team the nation has to offer.
While North Carolina boasts the most talented group of freshmen, no team’s fate hinges more on its newcomers than that of the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. Last season the Jackets limped to a 4-12 conference record that was almost entirely due to the fact that coach Paul Hewitt did not have a true point guard on his roster. That problem has been instantly solved by Javaris Crittenton, who is already exceeding lofty expectations. The 6-4 freshman straight out of Atlanta, GA is averaging more than 17 points per game (as of the Jacket’s opening-round win over Purdue at the Maui Invitational) and is without question the glue that holds this young squad together. Without Crittenton on the floor, the Jackets are bordering on being lost, but when the flashy frosh is running the show, this is one of the most explosive and exciting teams in the business.
And I haven’t even gotten to Thaddeus Young, even more highly-touted than Crittenton. Young would be playing for big bucks in the NBA right now had it not been for the league’s new age limit, but both Georgia Tech and the ACC will be reaping the benefits of the rule for at least the 2006-2007 season. At 6-8, Young has been blessed with a body that NBA scouts are salivating over, and he can really make the most of his physical gifts. The small forward can slash to the hole like no other and can also knock down the outside shot when called upon to do so. Young went 5-for-6 from beyond the arc in 103-74 win over Georgia State last week.
Mouhammad Faye and Zach Peacock have mostly been lost in the hoopla surrounding Crittenton and Young, but these two will also be vital to Georgia Tech’s success. Peacock is actually starting at center over Ra’Sean Dickey right now, as he shows no fear under the basket and can stretch defenses with a soft touch from the outside. Faye is a remarkable athlete and sweet shooter who will be called on to hound the ball on the defensive end of the floor. With these four freshmen in the fold, anything is possible for the Yellow Jackets in 2006-2007. A repeat of the 2003-2004 Final 4 season is not out of the question.
The Duke Blue Devils will also be counting on freshmen of their own to return the team to glory. OK, they didn’t exactly fall from grace last season, but the premature departure in the NCAA Tournament was a shocking disappointment for Redick, Shelden Williams, and the rest of the Devils. Duke was ranked outside the top ten in the preseason rankings, but the incoming class has the talent to prove doubters wrong.
Gerald Henderson, a 6-4 wingman who starred in the McDonald’s All-American, headlines the group with his ridiculous athleticism. While newcomer Jon Scheyer is a very different type of player, he might be able to create even more of a buzz inside Cameron Indoor Stadium with his Redick-esque tendency to dial it up from downtown. Helping the Blue Devils overcome their other significant loss in Shelden Williams will be 7-1 center Brian Zoubek and 6-8 forward Lance Thomas. Both are monsters on the glass while Zoubek possesses a surprisingly deft scoring touch. The Blue Devils are capable of making a deep run in the NCAA Tournament, and this recruiting class is the reason why.
Boston College, Virginia, and Florida State don’t have the same kind of talent in their freshmen classes, but both squads welcomed some valuable additions who could determine whether or not these two squads can challenge the top dogs at the upper echelon of the ACC. Watch out especially for Solomon Tat of the Cavaliers and the Eagles’ Shamari Spears. Spears, replacing Craig Smith in the starting lineup, is already averaging 18 points and 5 rebounds per game.
While BC, UVA, and FSU have veterans that should be able to pave a rather clear path to the NCAA Tournament, the Clemson Tigers will rely on some freshmen to fill a void down low and propel them to an elusive NCAA Tournament berth. Trevor Booker, a 6-7 forward, is the most talented of the bunch and he scored in double digits in three of Clemson’s first five contests, all of which were wins. Virginia Tech, meanwhile, is led by a group of upperclassmen who have led the Hokies to respectability in recent years but at the same time have left the program teetering on an unforgiving edge of bona fide goodness. Perhaps it will be two freshmen who get them over the hump this season and into the NCAAs. Nigel Munson provides much-needed depth at point guard and is able to display an uncanny knack for dishing the rock. Lewis Witcher, a 6-9 power forward, can get it done from anywhere on the court and is capable of scoring in bunches.
When all is said and done, the league’s 2006 freshman class should elevate the conference to the cream of the crop in college basketball this season. We’ll find out next week when the boys from the Big 10 could get a nightmarish close-up look at the new and improved ACC in the annual Big 10-ACC Challenge.
Those experiences should have the diaper dandies primed to accomplish bigger and better things later in the season. You can bet your life savings on the ACC sending a lot more than four teams to the NCAA postseason proceedings this year. You can also bet your life that when conference tournament time rolls around, no ticket will be hotter and no tournament will be more exciting than that of the Atlantic Coast Conference. They’ll come from far and wide to see kids they’ve never seen before rule the college basketball world.