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Editor’s Note: In part one of a four-part series, Patrick Ronan previews the upcoming basketball seasons for Miami, North Carolina, Pittsburgh and Wake forest below.
The 2015-16 ACC Basketball season is finally upon us, and the ACC Digital Network prepares you for the upcoming season with our “College Hoops Tip-Off Preview” series.
Jim Larranaga and the Miami Hurricanes find themselves in an almost polar opposite position from this time a year ago. The Canes came into the 2014-2015 season with just three returning players and nine new faces. Question marks loomed everywhere and expectations weren’t very high.
The Canes come into the 2015-2016 season with almost the exact same team that reached as high as No. 15 in the AP Poll and reached the finals of the NIT after a mid-season slide cost them a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
Senior guards Angel Rodriguez and Sheldon McClellan will lead the way for a Canes team that expects nothing less than a competitive ACC season and a spot in the NCAA tournament. Rodriguez will need to be more consistent than a season ago, when he started out on fire before falling into an awful slump that sent his season scoring average to a pedestrian 11.9 points a game. McClellan looks to improve on his team leading 14.5 points per game and hopefully play his way into the NBA Draft while getting his team into the NCAA Tournament.
Joining Rodriguez and McClellan in a starting five that rivals North Carolina’s in terms of experience, is senior stretch forward Ivan Cruz Uceda who has gone from 24 percent to 9 percent body fat in the offseason, and senior seven-footer Tonye Jekiri who led the ACC in rebounding last season. Junior guard Davon Reed rounds out the starting five and Oklahoma State transfer Kamari Murphy will lead a deep Miami bench.
The Canes focused heavily on time in the weight room this offseason, and will be one of the most physical teams in the ACC. Miami isn’t in the preseason Top-25 ranking, providing even more fuel to play hard for 40 minutes and contend as a trendy black horse pick to win the ACC.
NORTH CAROLINA TAR HEELS
The Tar Heels head into the 2015-2016 season in a very familiar place, as they have been named the preseason No. 1 team in the country for a record ninth time in program history. UNC represents something that has been a rarity in college basketball in recent years – a top ranked team that is composed mainly of junior and senior talent, with little to no flash from the incoming freshman class. Seniors Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson, and junior Kennedy Meeks will lead the way on a Tar Heel team that returns nine of its top 10 scorers from a Sweet 16 team.
The keys for the Tar Heels will be finding shooters to compliment and lighten the load for Paige and the ability to find a mental toughness that just wasn’t there last season. The 2014-2015 Tar Heels lost eight games where they had leads in the second half, including both Duke games, the ACC championship against Notre Dame and the Sweet 16 match up against Wisconsin.
Roy Williams spoke to the importance of that toughness at ACC Media Day, noting that he thinks his team has the maturity and ability to finish games that plagued them so heavily last season.
“You've got to have some toughness about you, and toughness is not just being willing to fight somebody,” Wiliams said. “Toughness is making a better box out, diving on the floor, getting the loose ball, or simply do what you're told to do.”
That message has been preached heavily in UNC’s looker room and weight room this off-season, with signs that read, “What can you do to help us finish?”
That toughness will tested immediately, as the Tar Heels will open up the first three to four weeks of the season without their leader and point guard Marcus Paige, who broke a bone is his non-shooting hand during practice last week. Barring a major setback or further injury to his hand, Paige being sidelined could prove to be a blessing in disguise for the top-ranked Tar Heels, as less experienced guards like Nate Britt, Joel Berry and Theo Pinson will be forced to step up in light of Paige’s absence.
The Panthers are one of the more interesting teams in the ACC. With five new transfers and one scholarship freshman, Pitt has a number of question marks heading into the 2015-2016 season. The interesting part is that three of the five transfers are graduate seniors, while the other two come from junior college, so the experience is there, just not together and not necessarily on a level as competitive a the ACC.
Head coach, Jamie Dixon, will look to his leader, fifth-year senior point guard James Robinson to mold these newcomers into one unified and dangerous team.
“What might seem young with six newcomers is a little bit more experienced, more physically ready than your typical newcomers because they're fifth-year guys or graduate transfers,” Dixon said. “James provides the leadership as far as the fifth-year, the senior; and then we've got juniors that have all played a lot of minutes. In some ways we went from a very young team into a very experienced team, and that's hard to do in one year.”
Dixon says that he will ask Robinson, who is on pace to set the all-time ACC record for assist-to-turnover ratio, to be more aggressive an a little more selfish.
“I've talked to him about being a little more aggressive, shooting the ball, catching and shooting, and to give him confidence, too, and let him now how much we believe in his decision making,” Dixon said. “I want him to be more aggressive. And if that does turn into a few more turnovers, we can live with it.”
Junior forward and leading scorer from last season, Jamel Artis, will be one of Robinson’s primary options. Artis spent much of his off-season improving his three-point percentage that was already just under 40 percent.
If the Panthers can successfully blend their veteran leaders with their experienced newcomers, Pitt could be a very dangerous team inside the ACC and should contend heavily for a spot in the ACC tournament. We’ll get an immediate chance to see just how good they can be when the Panthers open their season Friday against #9 Gonzaga in the Armed Forces Classic.
WAKE FOREST DEMON DECONS
In his second season at the helm, Danny Manning and the Demon Deacons will look to improve on a 2015 season that saw Wake Forest finish in the bottom five of the ACC with an overall record of 13-19. Demon Deacon faithful are confident that Manning is the guy to get the once-great Wake Forest program out of the ACC cellar and back into the NCAA tournament.
While Manning is likely to be in Winston-Salem for years to come, his two best players and team leaders don’t have the same luxury. Guard Codi Miller-McIntyre and forward Devin Thomas come into their senior season as four-year starters with one chance left to make a serious impact on the long and strenuous rebuilding process that has been taking place at Wake.
Although the two seniors are easily the most experienced players on the team, they both still have some learning to do as leaders to help get Wake over the hump.
Manning called Miller-McIntyre a “guy who leads by example” who “does everything right”, and when a freshman comes in he can tell, “Hey, follow Codi. Do exactly what he does.” For Miller-McIntyre, a naturally quiet and soft-spoken kid, he’s working on being a more vocal leader on the court and in the locker room.
Thomas is working on just the opposite, as he’s focused on channeling his intense passion and energy into a constant positive for the Deacons.
Manning called Thomas the team’s emotional and energy leader, citing Thomas’ level of passion he plays with and how he wears that passion on his sleeve.
“Most of the time that's good, but sometimes he loses a little bit of focus,” Manning said. They're two different leaders. But you want guys to do the things that Codi does and you want guys to play with the passion and energy that Devin plays with.”
If the Deacons want to compete in the ACC, they’ll need players other than Miller-McIntyre and Thomas to step up and play well. The most important of those players might be freshman combo guard Bryant Crawford, who will fill in for Miller-McIntyre until he returns to action in late November or early December from a broken foot.
“I think a lot of times leadership does fall to guys that have a little bit more experience, are a little bit older,” Manning said. “But if a freshman comes in and can handle himself and have a way with his teammates that they know he wants what's best for them, he has a chance to be a leader.”