Around the ACC: Operation Basketball Blog


The ACC's Steve Phillips takes you through Operation Basketball.
(Posts will be added throughout the day as players and coaches complete their interview sessions.)



After averaging double figures and earning All-Big 12 honors as a sophomore in 2012-13, Angel Rodriguez transferred to Miami and hopes to do similar things for the Hurricanes this season. But Rodriguez does not expect to sneak up on any ACC opponents when Miami begins ACC play come January.

“By the time you start conference play, everybody knows the scouting report and everybody will know what you like to do and what don't you like to do,’ Rodriguez said. “It's just a matter of players, whether they want to pay attention to the scouting report or not.  Some players don't appreciate it as much.  I take it serious.  I think it gives you an advantage if you pay attention to it.  It's up to whoever is looking at the scouting report.”

After sitting out last season in accordance with NCAA rules, Rodriguez got a chance to assess the ACC and compare and contrast the league with the Big 12.

“The Big 12 has a lot of very good teams, so I think the level is still going to be the same” Rodriguez said.  It's going to be as high.  But it's a new experience because pretty much every team I have not played against yet besides Virginia Tech my freshman year.  So there's a lot of new faces, maybe a new style of play.  I don't know if the tempo is faster or whatever the case might be, but I'm still playing at the highest level, so there's not much you should have to adjust to.”



Wake Forest’s returning players weren’t quite sure what to expect from former All-American and NBA standout Danny Manning when he took over as the Demon Deacons’ head coach last spring. But they soon found out.

"He' very assertive, oriented to detail,” Wake guard Codi Miller-McIntyre said. “He's humble, but he can get on us like no other. When he tells us something, we have to listen.”

Miller-McIntyre said Manning has quickly blended into the Wake Forest University and Winston-Salem communities.

“He is a people person,” Miller-McIntyre said. “I say that because I've been walking around campus with a group of friends, and he will come up and sometimes won't even speak to me first  won't even say, ‘What's up, Codi?’  He'll introduce himself to my friends and ask them about their majors and little things like that.  I think that's one big thing that he does which will get the community more involved and coming out and supporting us because now the fans aren't really looking at him as, ‘This is Danny Manning.’  It's more, ‘Okay, I met him at Subway or met him at Benson or in The Pit’ or little things like that.”



Virginia Tech guard Adam Smith knows most aren’t expecting big things from the Hokies this season. That doesn’t mean he or his teammates have to accept that assessment.

“We're at the bottom of the conference, we have like a lot of doubters, and not too many supporters,” he admitted.  “But I think it's more about proving ourselves right than kind of proving everybody wrong.

Most look at this season as the beginning of a rebuilding project for first-year head coach Buzz Williams, who inherits just two starters from last season’s team that finished 9-22 and posted a 2-16 mark in ACC play. But Smith said he and his fellow upperclassmen don’t have the luxury of extended that time. That is more than enough motivation to try to make something positive happen quickly.

“We don't want to look at it as a rebuilding year, because rebuilding, it takes a long time,” Smith said. “It's a process.  We're ready now.  We're trying to make noise now as soon as possible."



Duke forward Amile Jefferson says the Blue Devils’ stunning loss to Mercer in the second round of last year’s NCAA Tournament still burns. And he and his teammates are on a season-long mission to make sure nothing similar happens again.

"March is brutal, and if you're not hungry things like that will happen,” Jefferson said. “We want to have that hunger now so in March it's in our nature."

The Blue Devils will regroup behind a strong veteran cast and a recruiting class of Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones, Grayson Allen and Justise Winslow that nearly all analysts rate as the best in the nation. Jefferson, noted that the incoming freshmen were well-familiar with one another from travel teams and  All-Star games, displayed an instant, positive chemistry.

“The balance has been great,” Jefferson said. “ I think that's partly due to how close those guys were when they came in.  You know, their bond was something special even before coming to Duke.  They were already best friends.  So it was kind of like we just all fit around that, around that real close‑knit bond that they had, instead of it being vice versa. I think that really helped for everyone to become really, really tight and really, really good friends on and off the court.

“That really helped the balance, so it wasn't like upperclassmen head‑butting with the younger guys.  It was just like everybody coming in as a collective unit.”



Georgia Tech guard Corey Heyward receiving some strict orders from head coach Brian Gregory at the end of last season. Heyward took them to heart – and to stomach.

“Coach told me to lose weight and body fat,” Heyward said. “I lost about 20 pounds. I can't tell you the last time I was at McDonald's."

Heyward doesn’t mind missing a few meals if it helps the Yellow Jackets improve on last season’s 16-17 showing that included a 6-12 mark in ACC play. Heyward emerged as one of the players the Yellow Jackets were counting on in the future, starting 14 of the Yellow Jackets’ final 15 games with a 2-1 assist-to-turnover ratio and committing zero turnovers in seven of his 15 ACC starts.

“I see ourselves as a team that's fighting to make an imprint, especially in the ACC and college basketball, and we are a team of guys that want to fight and sacrifice and kind of your guys that will ‑‑ blue collar, definitely,” Heyward said in sizing up this season “We have something to prove, especially with the new guys coming in, as well, have something to prove and kind of be a big impact on the team and the conference, as well.” 



Pitt found ACC basketball to its liking in its first year as a conference member. Coach Jamie Dixon’s troops won 26 games, including 11 in league play, and advanced to the semifinals of the ACC Tournament. The Panthers earned their second straight NCAA Tournament berth and their 10th in 11 seasons under Dixon’s watch.

"Basketball is basketball,”  senior guard Cameron Wright said. “But play in the ACC is a little faster, which I like."

Wright, the recipient of the 2014 Skip Prosser Award as the league’s top-scholar athlete for men’s basketball, hopes to keep the Panthers running full steam despite the losses of standouts Lamar Patterson and Talib Zanna  from last season. Wright is capable in contributing in many ways, as he proved last season by averaging 10.5 points while ranking first on the team in steals (66) and ranking third in assists (92). Wright’s scoring average was a 6.2 ppg improvement over the 4.3 he averaged as a sophomores.

Wright doesn’t dwell much on personal stats as he sizes up how the Panthers can be a stronger squad in 2014-15, but he does aim high.

“A successful season would be having great practices every day, taking it one step at a time, and obviously everybody wants to be No. 1, at the end of the year, being the conference champions and then going to Greensboro (at the ACC Tournament) and finishing at that No. 1 spot and going to the NCAA Tournament,’ Wright said. “And it would be ideal to win that as well. 



Ralston Turner began asserting himself as an NC State leader last season

"He's Mr. Consistency and a humongous leader on and off the court," teammate Kyle Washington said. “He's a big brother to me in a lot of different ways.  He was my roommate on the road last year.  He just taught me all the ropes.  He said coming to practice every day, and he said, ‘I expect you to be a leader in a lot of different ways, but I expect you to go hard and show energy.’"

Turner played some of his best basketball down the stretch of the 2013-14 season, his first with the Wolfpack after transferring from LSU. Though often overshadowed by the presence of ACC leading scorer and All-American TJ Warren, the Muscle Shoals, Alabama, native emerged by scoring in double figures 19 times, including three games with 20 points or more. He averaged 16.5 points and 4.0 rebounds in NC State’s two NCAA Tournament games.

Turner knows he may be asked to take on more of the scoring load in Warren’s absence, but he hopes to contribute in other ways as well.

“I think that's one of the things I will need to do is step up my scoring a little bit,” he acknowledged. “But also, TJ, he did a lot of things well. He  got rebounds, he was in a defensive spot.  (I need to) not only score, but also be able to rebound more and do other things, as well.”

Washington is confident Turner will help provide whatever the Wolfpack needs.

“You can look at his stats, you can look at his tenures at LSU and NC State, he's just a huge leader and he leads by example, Washington said. “I'm extremely proud to be his teammate.”



Syracuse junior guard Trevor Cooney is known for his outside shooting accuracy. It is a reputation well-earned, as his ACC-leading 2.65 made 3-pointers per game last season will attest. In one eye-opening game against Cornell last season, Cooney knocked down 10-of-12 shots from the field, including a 7-of-8 effort from 3-point range.

But Cooney does not think of himself as a shooter first.

"I hang my hat on defense,” Cooney stated. “That's what keeps me in games and helps win games"

It went unnoticed by many, but Cooney had the numbers to back up that statement last season as well. His 1.88 steals ranked second in the ACC, trailing only teammate Tyler Ennis.

“If you can play good defense, you're going to be in any game that you're playing in,” Cooney said. “ That's what Coach Boeheim tells us, and we go out there and we want to execute the 2‑3 zone well. If you're going out there and playing hard, defense is going to win you games.”



Clemson point guard Rod Hall doesn’t deny the obvious: Replacing K.J. McDaniels won’t be easy. No one loses 17.1 points, 7.1 rebounds and 100 blocked shots off a 23-13 team and pretends it is simply business as usual.

But Hall believes the Tigers can collectively fill the void as they move forward without their departed All-ACC performer in 2014-15.

“K.J. is going to be a tough loss because you can't replace the blocked shots and the put‑back dunks that brought the energy to the team,” Hall said. “ But we have to focus on the team we have now.  Everybody got better over the summer, and we moved the ball pretty well.  I think it's going to be a better opportunity for everybody to just take a chance with the ball and just get a good shot.”

Will Hall, who averaged 9.7 per game last season, emerge as Clemson’s next “go-to” scoring guy?

“I mean, I don't think anybody really averages 17 points this year,” he said. “I think it's just going to be pretty much balanced out.  I think I'm just going to take care of the things I've been doing, getting everybody shots and taking shots when I'm open.  So that's going to be my main focus.”



To outsiders, Leonard Hamilton often appears to be taking an “all business” approach to the game. But junior guard Montay Brandon says the veteran Florida State coach keeps the Seminoles laughing and loose.

"I know he doesn't smile much to you guys in the media but off the court he's always cracking jokes,” Brandon said.

Hamilton’s burning desire to win is no joke – nor is it a secret to those who follow the ACC. In addition to the 2012 ACC Championship, Florida State is the league’s third-winningest program over the past nine years. Hamilton needs just 18 wins to become the winningest coach in school history, and he already ranks among the top 12 winningest coaches in the history of the ACC.

“We  play as hard as we can for him, because we know he truly cares about all of us,” Brandon said. “On the court we know that once we step out there it's war.  With the pregame talks he gives us, we're all out there ready to prepare for battle.”



Last season’s ACC Operation Basketball preseason media poll tabbed Virginia for a fourth-place finish. Not disrespectful to the Cavaliers by any means, but junior guard Malcolm Brogdon and the Cavaliers felt they were even better. They proved as much by winning both the ACC regular-season and tournament championships, tying a league record with 19 total wins against ACC opposition and reaching the NCAA East Regional semifinals. The Cavaliers finished 30-7 ovearall.

With key seniors Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell having graduated, Brogdon does not expect Virginia to be picked at the top of the 2014-15 preseason poll either. But Virginia returns a talented nucleus, led by Brogdon himself, who was voted first-team All-ACC by the league’s head coaches after averaging 14.8 points in conference games and ranking second in the league in free-throw percentage. And he believes he and his teammates are ready to surprise again.

"This program thrives on being underdogs and being underestimated,” Brogdon said. “We have a chip on our shoulder."



Montrezl Harrell grew up in Tarboro,  N.C., as an ACC basketball fan. Now, thanks to a unique set of circumstances and the two-year winding road that brings Louisville into the conference for his junior season, the Cardinals’ preseason All-American will be playing in the league with which he is so familiar.

“ My transition into Louisville was kind of crazy,” Harrell said Wednesday. “Coming out of high school I really wasn't heavily recruited like that by any big teams, either in North Carolina or outside of it, honestly.”

Harrell attended Hargrave Military Academy with designs on enrolling at Virginia Tech. But after the Hokies made a head coaching change at the end of the 2011-12 season, he reconsidered his options.

“I ended up getting my letter of intent back and reopened my recruiting, and that's when I started getting recruited heavily by a lot of North Carolina teams,” Harrell said. “But I just looked at the roster and just looked at all the teams and the key pieces that they had, and I really felt that Louisville was a better choice for me.  I went up there and took a visit, and I kind of felt the same way I did when I went to Virginia Tech.  I kind of felt like it was a home away from home.”



A knee injury has stalled Boston College center Dennis Clifford’s collegiate basketball career for nearly two full years, but the redshirt junior believes he is finally healthy and set to make a contribution as the Eagles launch the 2014-15 campaign under first-year head coach Jim Christian.

“I think I've learned a great deal,” Clifford said.  “When you have to sit out and watch the game, it kind of teaches you a lot of lessons, just like seeing what was going on with our team and stuff like that.  I kind of learned how to slow myself down when I'm on the court personally.  I think that was very important for me to learn, and that was definitely the first, like, major part of adversity that I've ever faced on the basketball court.  I've always been pretty successful in my individual play and my team.

“I think it taught me to be grateful, definitely, every second that I'm on the court.  So I think that's definitely pushed me harder in the last few months that I've been healthy. “

Clifford is hoping his improvement picks up where he left off as freshman in 2011-12, when he was one of five Eagles to appear on all 31 games and ranked third on the team with 25 starts. He averaged 9.1 points and 4.7 rebounds per game.

“He had a bumpy year last year,  but had one of the best summers in terms of getting better, getting back on the court,” teammate Olivier Hanlan said.  “He's been playing pain‑free and he's been having a good time with it, so I'm happy to see him out there.   And it just makes it so much easier on everybody when you have a seven‑footer in the key.”



After countless hours in the weight room over the summer, North Carolina junior forward Brice Johnson enters this season bigger and stronger. But more than anything else, Orangeburg, S.C., native wants to establish himself as a more consistent player in 2014-15.

"Coach (Roy Williams) has been preaching that to me for two years,” Johnson said. “This year I want to do good things without taking steps backward."

Johnson took made strides in that direction as a sophomore, scoring in double figures 19 times, including 10 times versus ACC opposition. He shot 66 percent from the floor and blocked at least two shots in 13 games.

Now Johnson, who ranked fourth among UNC players in scoring and second in rebounding last season, wants to constantly deliver those kinds of numbers over the course of 30-to-35 games.

“I've had good times, and I've been doing some great things, and then all of a sudden one day I just go backwards,” Johnson said. “I just need to be consistent with my play and keep doing those great things and not go backwards and just show (Williams) that I can be that player that he really needs.”



Notre Dame senior guard Pat Connaughton had several options after being selected by the Baltimore Orioles in the fourth round of last June’s Major League Baseball Draft.

After a solid collegiate pitching career for the Fighting Irish, Connaughton proved more than capable in a six-game minor league stint for the Aberdeen IronBirds. Connaugton worked 14.2 innings and compiled a 2.45 ERA while striking out 10 batters for the Class A short-season squad.

That was all good with Notre Dame head basketball coach Mike Brey, a Maryland native and an Orioles baseball fan. But Brey planned on having Connaughton back as a senior leader on this year’s Irish basketball team. Connaughton, who has not ruled out pursuing an NBA career path, was happy to oblige.

"I wanted to see what I could do in basketball this year,” he told reporters Wednesday at the ACC’s 46th annual Operation Basketball. “I wasn't ready to end my basketball career."

Connaughton has done plenty in basketball already. He enters the 2014-15 season with the longest streak of games started among active ACC players (82). He is coming off a junior season in which he averaged 13.9 points per game and led the Irish in rebounding (7.1). He needs just 10 points to reach 1,000 for his career.  

“My  baseball definitely helps my basketball, just because when you're on the mound pitching, you're really the only one out there, so no matter how you perform, you have to learn how to pick yourself up and learn how to calm yourself down in important spots and really focus on how you're going to proceed and succeed, even when you're not having the best of success,” Connuaghton explained.

“And then vice versa, you just don't see as many athletic pitchers, and I think basketball has really helped me with that, just to show my athleticism, gain my athleticism, and incorporate it on the mound.”