Moore Hoops: Breaking Down the Hierarchy of the New ACC

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Moore Hoops: Breaking Down the Hierarchy of the New ACC
Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

With Louisville officially joining the ACC last Tuesday, the league took over the title of best basketball conference in America—maybe ever. 

How stacked is the new ACC?

  • Out of the 15 teams, all but two (Clemson and Virginia Tech) have been to a Sweet 16 since 2003, and all 15 have made the NCAA tournament in that time span.
  • Five of the last 12 national championships have been won by schools now in the ACC.
  • The ACC has four teams in the top 10 of our most recent preseason rankings for the 2014-15 season.

The competition during the conference season will be highly entertaining, but until it begins, the bragging rights game for ACC fanbases could be just as competitive. You have four schools that have been historically dominant along with several others with storied histories. 

So in the interest of taking a forward-looking approach, I decided to rank the schools based on how they're set up over the next four or five years, using how current rosters are built for now and in the future along with possible coaching changes as guidelines for the voting.

Here's how they rank over the next handful of seasons. (In parentheses is this coming season's predicted finish.)

15. Boston College (15): Jim Christian made a wise move when he bolted from TCU right before the program's first year in the Big 12. That's one of the most difficult jobs in college basketball. Now Christian is back in a similar place after leaving Ohio for BC, and the program's best player last season (Ryan Anderson) transferred to Arizona. 

14. Georgia Tech (14): Brian Gregory is entering his fourth season at Georgia Tech. He's yet to even be close to making an NCAA tournament; his best ACC record has been 6-12. If Gregory has another similar season, he could be out of a job, as it's rare to make it past year four without a tourney appearance or a clear sign of progress. 

13. Clemson (12): The Tigers couldn't make the NCAA tournament with an NBA talent (K.J. McDaniels) on their roster. Brad Brownwell did get his program trending upward this past year with 10 wins in the ACC and a run to the NIT semis. This season is critical to build off that momentum, or Brownwell could be coaching for his job in a couple of years. 

Joe Robbins/Getty Images

12. Notre Dame (7): The Irish have a chance to get back to the NCAA tournament with one more season of Jerian Grant, who played only 12 games last season before leaving the team because of academic reasons. After Grant and Pat Connaughton graduate, it could be back to rebuilding mode, unless former McDonald's All-American Demetrius Jackson makes a big leap over the next few years. 

11. Florida State (8): Leonard Hamilton's teams are always going to be competitive because of their defense. Hamilton's talent is typically top 30ish in the country as well. He has a promising guard who will make his debut this season in Xavier Rathan-Mayes. The Canadian guard had to sit out last season because he didn't qualify. 

10. Virginia Tech (13): The most perplexing coaching move of the offseason was Buzz Williams to Virginia Tech. Even if Williams wasn't happy, you would think that he could have found a situation better than Virginia Tech. This isn't a knock on the school; it's just that it's going to be extremely difficult to build a program in the ridiculously deep ACC.

But if anyone can exceed expectations, it's Williams. He's great at finding hidden gems in recruiting, and his teams always play with max effort. 

9. Wake Forest (10): Danny Manning did a masterful job at Tulsa, taking a young group to the NCAA tournament in his second season at the school. He proved he can recruit well at the mid-major level. Can he do the same in the ACC?

He'll at least benefit in the first few years by inheriting two nice building blocks in Devin Thomas and Codi Miller-McIntyre. That's something he didn't have at Tulsa where the top two talents in the program (Jordan Clarkson and Eric McClellan) transferred out when he took over. 

8. Miami (6): Jim Larranaga may never have a team as good as the one he had two years ago led by Shane Larkin. Larranaga is trying to build back up with transfers. Sheldon McClellan (Texas transfer) and Angel Rodriguez (K-State transfer) will be go-to guys on this year's team.

But it's hard to consistently have NCAA-caliber rosters at a school without much tradition like Miami. Larranaga proved he could put together a great team once; it'll be interesting to see if he can put together another ACC title contender over the next four years. 

7. North Carolina State (11): Mark Gottfried has recruited really well since he got to North Carolina State, and he's tapped the transfer market as well.

Former LSU guard Ralston Turner and former Alabama guard Trevor Lacey should be his leading scorers this year. But even when Gottfried had one of the most talented rosters in the ACC—in 2012-13—his Wolfpack finished in fourth place. And that ACC wasn't nearly as stacked as it will be going forward. 

6. Pittsburgh (9): Jamie Dixon's teams almost always exceed expectations. It'll be a surprise if anyone outside of the top four ACC programs—Duke, North Carolina, Syracuse and Louisville—wins an ACC title in any year, but Dixon and the next coach on this list have the coaching chops to pull it off with the right group. 

5. Virginia (3): A case could be made to put the Cavaliers in the top four. That's a compliment in itself to even be considered with the big four behemoths in the conference. Tony Bennett is one of the best young coaches in college basketball. He also has the benefit of a starting backcourt, London Perrantes and Malcolm Brogdon, who will be together for at least two more years. 

Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

4. Syracuse (5): Jim Boeheim is the oldest coach in the ACC at 69. He doesn't like questions about retirement, but they come up every year. Syracuse has a coach-in-waiting, assistant Mike Hopkins, and that provides some stability. Hopkins has more responsibility than your average assistant already, and not much will change stylistically when he takes over. 

So that stability will be good. But more so than the final three teams on the list, Syracuse could be in rebuilding mode the next few years after losing Tyler Ennis, C.J. Fair and Jerami Grant.

3. North Carolina (1): There's some uncertainty in Chapel Hill. The P.J. Hairston saga last summer wore on Roy Williams, and Williams is again dealing with the negative this summer with the reopening of the academic-fraud investigation at UNC.

Williams cares a lot about how he and his program are perceived, and the fight ahead could take its toll. It wouldn't be shocking if Williams starts considering retirement, especially if more is revealed from the investigation.

If Williams does leave in the next few years, whether UNC stays in the Carolina family or not could determine whether the program falls off or remains strong. A smart play could be to go outside the family with someone such as Shaka Smart, or the Heels could be looking at another Matt Doherty-like tailspin.

2. Louisville (4): When Louisville lost to Kentucky in the Sweet 16, Rick Pitino called it the end of an era. The Cardinals went to two Final Fours, won a national title and 96 games over a three-year span. Pitino thought he was losing the core of that group. Unexpectedly, Montrezl Harrell returned to school and should help bridge the gap to a new era of Louisville basketball.

The Cardinals have a solid young point guard in Terry Rozier, and Pitino continues to recruit well to his system. That system--particularly the full-court press--will take some getting used to going against for ACC teams and could be a nice advantage for the Cardinals early on.

1. Duke (2): Mike Krzyzewski has said he's going to coach Duke at least through 2016. It's difficult to imagine what Duke would beor will beonce Coach K retires. He is Duke basketball. He's the brand. The only fair comparison would be UCLA post-John Wooden, and it took the program 20 years to win another title after Wooden retired.

But as long as Coach K is around, the Duke brand will be strong. He's still recruiting at a high level, and he isn't losing touch with young guys as he gets older. If anything, his tie to USA basketball has given him a hipness that most 67-year-old coaches lack.

Sam Forencich/Getty Images

Another reason to like Duke over the next four seasons is incoming freshman point guard Tyus Jones. Jones isn't a one-and-done prospect in my estimation like Jahlil Okaforin fact, I've been a little underwhelmedbut he's much more likely to stick around four years than one or two.

He's more Bobby Hurley than Kyrie Irving. That sort of a stability at a key position is rare these days. And there's no doubt Coach K will be able to continue to recruit around him. He already has one of the top shooters in the 2015 class, Luke Kennard, lined up to be a Blue Devil.

 

***

Those Who Should Have Stayed in School

It's sad to see that players who made poor decisions on coming out of school are not allowed to return when they go undrafted or fall farther than anticipated. It's past time that basketball give real thought to adopting some form of baseball's model where a player can be in the draft but return to school if he isn't pleased with where he was drafted. 

Here are some players who probably wish they could return to school: 

  • Chane Behanan, Louisville: If Behanan had someone advising him to go to the draft, that adviser did Behanan a real injustice. He had absolutely no shot of getting drafted. He had planned to transfer to Colorado State, which would have been a great fit. 
  • Jahii Carson, Arizona State: Carson, like Marcus Smart, made it known before his sophomore season that it would be his last year in school. That's understandable for a lottery pick like Smart. But what made Carson think it was such a given he'd be ready to bolt? He went undrafted last Thursday. 
  • James Michael McAdoo: After interviewing James Michael McAdoo in February, I was convinced he was planning on coming back to school. McAdoo even made reference to his senior season. Some will say he should have left after his freshman season, but he probably wouldn't have had much of a shot of staying in the league after his first contract. I still think he has a shot to catch on as a backup big man because of his athleticism and size. The Heels have a shot to be one of the best teams in the country this year. Had McAdoo helped them to a Final Four, it's hard to envision he wouldn't have impressed some team enough to draft him in 2015. 
  • LaQuinton Ross, Ohio State: Ross has talent but was inconsistent during his junior season. In a stacked draft, there's nothing about him that made him stand out from the other wings. He needed to show consistency and would have had the chance as a senior, as there's no doubt he would have been featured in Thad Matta's offense. 
  • Khem Birch and Roscoe Smith, UNLV: The Rebels have a nice recruiting class coming in, and the frontcourt duo would have had a good shot at being part of a tourney team had they returned. Excelling on a tourney team could have gotten them some looks.

***

Could Gonzaga be a No. 1 Seed Again? 

Donald Miralle/Getty Images

It's way early, but let's start considering the possibility. 

Gonzaga point guard Kevin Pangos recently told Rob Dauster of NBCSports.com that he was "playing at 60 percent" last season. Pangos' health is just one reason to bet on the Zags in 2014-15. A healthy Pangos is a potential All-American. The other reason to take Gonzaga seriously is the ridiculously deep roster Mark Few has built. 

The Zags return three starters and also add Kentucky transfer Kyle Wiltjer (a McDonald's All-American who averaged double digits as a sophomore), USC transfer Byron Wesley (led Trojans in scoring last year), Vanderbilt transfer Eric McClellan (led Commodores in scoring through 12 games last year), freshman point guard Josh Perkins (a four-star recruit, per 247Sports) and skilled freshman big man Domantas Sabonis (son of Arvydas Sabonis). Add in Kyle Dranginis and Angel Nunez and that's a roster with talent comparable to the team two years ago. 

Go ahead and start preparing the "they don't play anyone" arguments because the Zags are going to have a shiny record come March. Considering how much the ACC and Big 12 will likely beat up on one another, the Zags could end up getting a top seed again. 

Of course, much of the population isn't going to consider Gonzaga one of the top programs in the country until Few takes the team to a Final Four. That group two years ago was definitely capable of getting there. Remember, Wichita State rallied from an eight-point deficit and needed 14 three-pointers to knock off the Zags. The Shockers then made the Final Four. 

Gonzaga's going to get there eventually, and this team has the potential to end up as one of Few's best if all the transfers are able to blend in with Pangos and the other returners.

 

***

Random Observations

*VCU coach Shaka Smart had a really good take on recruiting that sheds some light on why I think Smart will eventually leave VCU for the right opportunity.

Smart, via the Daily Press in Hampton Roads, Virginia said: "Recruiting is very hierarchical. It's always been. I think we have moved up slightly in the hierarchy, but we're certainly not where we want to be. Change is slow. I think the perception of our program is enhanced, certainly compared to where it was four years ago. We've got to keep growing it.

"We're not in one of the, quote-unquote, power conferences, but at the same time, our conference got as many (teams) in the NCAA tournament as any other conference. But I don't know if you asked the average recruit out there that they would know that."

Like Smart said, he's slowly moving up the hierarchy, but you can only get so far at a school like VCU. There are some kids he'd probably love to recruit but has no shot of landing. Eventually, it will be hard to pass up a job where he can be in contention for just about any player in the country.

*It was good to see that Mitch McGary got drafted in the first round. It's ridiculous that the NCAA pretty much made McGary's decision to leave school because of a failed drug test during the NCAA tournament. McGary would have had to sit out a year because he tested positive for marijuana during the tournament.

I wrote about drug testing when I was in college and came away flabbergasted by the absurdity of the entire system. Do I think it's fine for college athletes to smoke pot? No. But the penalty makes absolutely no sense.

USA TODAY Sports

Somehow, the suspension for a first-time offender using a street drug (like marijuana) is the same for a first-time offender using steroids. So willingly cheating (using steroids) and smoking something that is now legal in several states is the same thing. Got it. If the NCAA wrote our laws, getting caught speeding would get you the same fines and penalties as a DUI.

And that's not the most troubling part of the NCAA's guidelines. Had McGary been tested by Michigan during the season and tested positive, it would have up to the school whether he would have missed even one game. Yep, he could have kept right on playing in games like nothing happened. And Michigan would not have had to alert the NCAA.

On top of that, McGary tested positive when he wasn't even able to play because of a back injury. He was basically a spectator with a really good seat for the Wolverines.

Again, I'm not defending McGary's decision to smoke. It was obviously a poor choice. But is it a choice that should get any kid suspended for a year? Heck no.

 

C.J. Moore covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @CJMooreBR.

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