Operation Basketball Notebook: The Players

Steve Phillips is at the ACC’s Operation Basketball in Charlotte and will provide updates throughout the day’s media session

Kamari Murphy started 28 games for Miami last season, averaging a 5.6 points and 6.0 rebounds per game. 

Perfectly respectable numbers, but the 6-foot-8 Brooklyn native seeks to raise the bar this season as the Hurricanes attempt to fill several missing pieces for the squad that posted 27 wins, including a pair of victories in the NCAA Tournament.

“I think I could have done more,” Murphy said. “I think my role, I played it to the T as far as what Coach L (Jim Larrañaga)  wanted me to do. I had more personal goals that I wanted to accomplish that I really didn't get to, so thankfully I have another year to do so. So just going to take advantage of the opportunity in my last year in college basketball and try to accomplish those goals as well.”

After three seasons at Milwaukee, where he averaged close to 10 points a game, Austin Arians graduated last spring and took advantage of the NCAA transfer rule that allows him to immediately play at Wake Forest this season.

“It's been a lot of fun,” Arians said. “These guys have been really accepting of me, the coaching staff as well. I just look forward to this year. When I asked for my release, you know, a bunch of schools reached out to me, and Wake Forest, Coach (Danny) Manning, Coach (Randolph) Childress. I heard from them a lot. So they really convinced me to take a visit. Once I took a visit and found out how the team was, the family atmosphere and all that, I really felt like Wake Forest was the right fit for me.”

The 6-foot-6 Arians averaged 11.4 points while playing in all 33 of Milwaukee’s games last season, and he hopes to provide the same punch for Wake Forest this season.

“Three-point shooting – that's one of my strengths,” he said. “That was one of the things that Coach Manning and Coach Childress when they recruited me, they were telling me that they need help in. So I'm just hoping that I can add some three-point shooting.”

College basketball has been an interesting ride for Seth Allen, who started out as a freshman at Maryland and enters his senior year at Virginia Tech as the team’s second-leading returning scorer. He owns a spot on the Bob Cousy Award preseason watch list, and expects to be a team leader.

“It’s like day and night,” Allen said. “I was talking to my coach about that not too long ago. My freshman year, I was just happy to be in school. Didn't really know what to look forward to. College Park was a city, so it was always a lot of stuff to do. Me and my teammates were always going go cart racing or going do something fun. But now it's more business with me. I take this game very seriously. I work out once or twice every day, off-day or not. I realized that a lot of that's because of Buzz.”

That would be Buzz Williams, the Hokies’ third-year head coach who guided Virginia Tech to 20 wins an an NIT berth last season and is aiming higher in 2016-17.

“Buzz has helped me realize that in seven months, eight months I'm going to need a job,” Allen said. “So I'm going to have to be able to do what I do best. I think that from freshman year until now just my patience is better, I could read the defense better. I know a thousand times more. I feel like a coach on the floor to my other teammates. And I'm also a better leader.

“My freshman year I was following Alex Len, Dez Wells, guys like that. Now I've got people looking up to me. So I can't slip. If I'm holding other people accountable, I have to be accountable myself.”

A fractured bone in his right foot last December abruptly ended what Amile Jefferson expected to be his senior season. But the 6-foot-9 graduate student from Philadelphia looks at the upside. He is back at Duke this year, and he expects to be a vital part of a team that is expected to be a leading contender for ACC team honors and, if all goes according to plan, for head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s sixth national title.

“I think I'm truly blessed to be here with this group,” Jefferson said. “It was a blessing in disguise to be injured and to miss the season. But now being able to be back and be one of three captains with me, Matt (Jones) and Grayson (Allen), and to lead our group this year is something I'm really honored and privileged to be a part of.
“Adversity happens, it's how we bounce back from it. Really grateful to be able to be playing again with this group and to do something special with the group of guys we have.”

Jefferson was averaging 11.4 points and 10.3 rebounds before suffering his injury in the ninth game of last season.

“I was at Duke all summer, so I got to really take my time (with rehab),” Jefferson said. “My body's at 100% now. Now being back, being a leader for our group is something that me, Matt and Grayson really cherish. We don't take it lightly. One of our mottos for our group is "earn everything." Me, Matt and Grayson are the catalysts to instill that in our young guys. We want to do something truly special. We want to leave Duke after this year knowing that we gave it our all and knowing that we really lived in our moment with the group we have.”

Kevin Stallings’ winning record at Vanderbilt was known commodity when he accepted the Pitt head coaching job last spring, and senior Michael Young had a better understanding of why after getting to know his new leader.

“My first impression was just that he was truthful, he was honest,” Young said. He was straight to the point. Had a meeting with him, me and Jamel (Artis). It was our first meeting with him. We were throwing a lot of questions at him, really trying to get a grasp of who he was, and what he was about. He was very honest with us. When we got to the court, he was preaching and putting in a play what he was telling us. From that point on, it was kind of a smooth transition.”

Stallings will try to build on a legacy that has seen Pitt reach postseason play each of the past 16 seasons – but with his own style.

“Yes, the team has definitely changed,” Young said. “New coach, new coaching staff. You've pretty much got new everything - new uniforms, new arena. Everybody, once Coach Stallings was hired, we all went into our meetings with him, and went into it what he wanted with an open mind. The team has definitely changed. He's starting Jamel at point. Everybody else, that's pretty much that will start will be between 6-6 and 6-9 We're switching everything on defense and denying passes, which will be different. The up-tempo style will be different.

“So same players, but definitely it will be a different team.”

If positive first impressions count for anything, Josh Pastner has filled the bill, since stepping in as head coach at Georgia Tech.

“Man, he came in and let us know he's a really energetic guy,” senior forward Quinton Stephens said. “He's going to demand excellence from everyone on the team and himself. He's going to do his best to make this team as good as it can get, and we're all going to do it together. So I'm looking forward to it.”

Pastner, who guided Memphis to five postseason berths in seven seasons, seeks to push Georgia Tech to its first NCAA Tournament berth since 2011.

“I think you definitely want to try to meet that goal,” senior point guard Josh Heath said. “At the end of the day, if we go out there and play our hardest and do everything that Coach asks of us, I'll be satisfied with that. But, yeah, we definitely want to get into postseason play, for sure.”

NC State freshman Dennis Smith Jr. is already considered the nation’s top guard by many observers – including Wolfpack head coach Mark Gottfried. And Smith said he wasn’t all that surprised.

“I'm thankful that he believes it,” said Smith, a native of Fayetteville, North Carolina, and the highest-ranked recruit NC State has signed (No. 4) since the Recruiting Services Consensus Index began ranking prospects in 1998. It shows he has a lot of confidence in my abilities. I work hard, he sees it, and I have a lot of confidence in myself. My team has a lot of confidence in me and vice versa. So I'm just thankful for the recognition from my coach.”

Though Smith graduated high school early and enrolled at NC State last January, he still assumes the traditional freshman role in deference to some of the Wolfpack upperclassmen. Junior forward Abdul-Malik Abu, he says, is like “a big brother.”

“We're really close,” Smith said. “I don't even want to tell you how long we stayed up yesterday just talking about different things on the court or in reality. Just we're really close. We were close before I even committed. We were building a relationship then and it just carried on and progressed from there. So the Malik that you all see here on the podium is the same Malik that's in the locker room and on the court. He's a great guy, and a team-first type player.”

As the “big brother,” does Abu sometimes try to pull rank?

“Definitely,” Smith said. “I'm all the way okay with it. You learn something new every day, and sometimes little brothers tell big brothers what to do. That's just a part of the game. So we're going to help each other, and like I said, we're going to maximize potential with each player on this team.”

Virginia loses three of its top four scorers – Malcolm Brogdon, Anthony Gill and Mike Tobey – from last season’s squad that reached the ACC Tournament finals and advanced to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA. But the Cavaliers are ranked among the top 10 nationally of most preseason polls, and senior point guard London Perrantes believes that speaks to consistency the has come to define the program under eighth-year head coach Tony Bennett.

“I think it's a program that Coach Bennett has built,” Perrantes said. “He's been recruiting the same type of guys, high-character guys, people that want to do everything they can to win. I feel like that puts us in a perfect position to win during the season. As long as we instill that program into the young guys, I feel like we put ourselves in a great situation as well.”

Perrantes, who averaged a career-high 11 points last season and led the ACC in 3-point shooting percentage (.488) may be assume more of a scoring role this season. But he says his goal for the past four season has simply been to provide whatever is needed.

“I didn't know how much I was going to play my freshman year, but I wanted to come in and help the team win with any aspect,” Perrantes said. “Just knock down one shot, get a steal, make an assist, something like that. I just wanted to do that. My mindset hasn't changed, but my role has increased every year. I've been having to score more or get other people involved more or play better defense, things like that.”

Many skeptic scoffed at Syracuse last season when the Orange were awarded an NCAA berth as a No. 10 seed, but no one was laughing in early April, when coach Jim Boehem’s team reached the Final Four . Few are selling the Orange short this season – they’re ranked among the top 25 of many national preseason polls – but senior Tyler Roberson and his teammates are anxious to silence any remaining doubters.

“It shows that we're capable of getting there,” Roberson said of last year’s run. “We think we're just as good as last year if not better. So I think we feel like we have an even better chance of getting back there. We have some guys on the team back from last year that have been to the Final Four, so we know what it takes to get there, and we can maybe guide some of the younger players or new players that don't know as much about the system or the team throughout the season.”

But first, the Orange would like to put the squeeze on the rest of the Atlantic Coast Conference. The ACC Tournament is set to played for the first time at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. While that isn’t a true home court for Syracuse, Roberson believes it’s the next best thing.

“It's definitely to our advantage,” Roberson said. “We have a lot of fans upstate New York and in the city. We can definitely use that momentum in the games. When they cheer us on, it's always a huge help.”

It is not uncommon for friendships to stretch beyond school and team boundaries in every sport, and that is particularly true when in college basketball. Boston College’s A.J. Turner’s strong bond with Syracuse forward Tyler Lydon survived a season of ACC wars last season when both were freshmen, and it will undoubtedly endure in the years ahead.

“Last year, actually, we talked the day before (BC played Syracuse), but obviously not the day of,” Turner said. “He's been my best friend ever since I got to prep school. We roomed together. We talked about our goals and our dreams together. Obviously, playing against him was different, but it was a lot of fun.”

Not that a spirit of one-upsmanship was lacking.

“There was obviously some smack talk,” said Turner, who played in 27 games for the Eagles last season and started 24. “It was a lot of fun. He had a couple dunks on us, and he'd look at me afterwards, so I wasn't too happy about that. But, yeah, we'll always be friends. We'll be good friends and I'm excited to play (Syracuse) again this year.”

Clemson senior Jaron Blossomgame took advantage of the NCAA rules which allowed him to place his name in last spring’s NBA Draft, but then withdraw it from consideration and retain his eligibility because he did not hire an agent. 

“The experience is really fun, going to the Combine and working out with a few teams is very fun, very challenging.” Blossomgame said. “It was something I definitely learned a lot from. Being able to learn from some of the top players in the country and being able to be coached by some of the guys you see on TV. It was really fun. I learned a lot in that whole process.

“But with the uncertainty of the Draft, I felt like being able to come back and improve and play on a better team will do me a lot of good with the whole NBA thing.”

Blossomgame, who averaged 18.7 points per game as a junior to rank third among ACC players, has been named to several preseason All-America teams. As a senior, he will get to play his final season of home games in sparkling renovated Littlejohn Coliseum. The team played last season in Greenville, South Carolina, while the facility was updated.

“It will be big time for us,” he said of the coming year. “Obviously, we played our games 45 minutes from campus last year, So we had to drive 45 minutes just to play a game and then drive back. 

“So being on campus will be really good for us. Obviously, Littlejohn is complete this year and a lot of fans are definitely excited about it, as we are too. We were very good at home in Greenville last year, but I think we can be even better at home actually being on campus.”

North Carolina is hopeful of seeing junior guard Theo Pinson back in action by the time ACC play begins in earnest come January. But classmate Joel Berry II says Pinson, who suffered a broken bone in his right foot earlier this month, will be sorely missed in the interim.

“Theo brings a lot of energy for us,” Berry said. “That's one thing we're going to miss a lot. I mean, he's a great player. I know a lot of people see Theo in the social media and in the press conferences and stuff. And I know he's an outgoing guy, but I don't think everyone has gotten a chance to see him as a player. I know what Theo can do.”

Even with the departures of seniors Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson from last season’s ACC championship and NCAA runner-up team, the Tar Heels are expected to again vie for high honors in 2016-17. But the absence of Pinson leaves another void, at least in the early going.

“You know, it just sucks because we were expecting a lot from him this year with Marcus and Brice leaving,” Berry said. “We needed someone to step up into that starting role, or if he was going to start. He was going to have a great year. Just to see that happen to him kind of makes us a little sad. But I know when he comes back, he'll be good.”

Back-to-back trips the Elite Eight round of the NCAA Tournament have understandably raised expectations for those close to the Notre Dame program. Senior forward V.J. Beachem is anxious to get the new season officially started, but he isn’t among those thinking “big picture” just yet.

“I just skim over it,” Beachem replied when asked if he had looked at the Fighting Irish’s 2016-17 season in depth. “As far as the ACC schedule, I really didn't look much at that. I kind of looked more at our non-conference schedule. So I tried not to look too far ahead and take it day by day, and worry about who our next opponent is when it's time to watch film on them.”

Beachem made himself known throughout college basketball circles last March, when he averaged 17.5 points and shot .429 from 3-point range in four NCAA Tournament games en route to earning NCAA East Regional all-tournament honors.

That’s had its upside, Beachem admitted, for how it seems that his teammates are practically begging him to put up shots from beyond the arc. 
“Yeah, everybody's given me the green light, especially Coach (Mike) Brey,” Beachem said. He even gets on me when I turn them down now.”

Contributions from first-year players have become commonplace at Florida State, and Dwayne Bacon followed suit last season. The 6-foot-7 Lakeland, Florida, native made a big splash in Tallahassee by averaging 15.8 points and 5.8 rebounds per game. In the process, he became the first freshman in school history to lead the team in both of those categories.

But the young talent keeps flowing in. Coach Leonard Hamilton’s six-man freshman class, highlighted by highly-toured 6-10 forward Jonathan Isaac, is ranked by almost all analysts to be among the nation’s finest.

“It's been pretty amazing to me,” Bacon said. “We lost a lot of guys, and to bring six in that can compete at very high levels is just amazing. Those guys come in and they compete. They want to learn. They want to get better. They want to take knowledge from the guys that have been here before them. So it's just been amazing to have those new guys come in and want to learn right away.”

Last season’s self-imposed penalties kept Louisville out of the NCAA and ACC Tournaments despite a 23-8 and a fourth-place conference finish. Senior leaders Damion Lee and Trey Lewis have departed from that squad, but the Cardinals’ returning cast seeks to make amends in 2016-17.

“It's definitely motivation,” said junior Quentin Snider, who expects to make even more of a contribution after averaging 9.4 points and a team-high 3.5 assists while making 24 starts last season. “Last year it was heartbreaking for Trey and Damion for not going to the Tournament. But this year we're definitely motivated. You can tell this team is very hungry, because we want to go back to the ACC Championship and NCAA. So that's the main focus, just try to win it.”

Sophomore Donovan Mitchell is another player who expects to step up his game after a solid debut season in which he averaged 7.1 points while appearing in all 31 games.

“Last year I played behind Trey,” Mitchell noted. “I had the opportunity to watch him lead the team in not just points, but on and off the court. I've taken that upon myself to become a leader not just with scoring and offense, but taking a stand defensively, talking more in practice, becoming more serious. Last year I was just having fun, trying to figure out and enjoying your first year of college, figure out what you have to do, figure out your spots and know your role.”