ACC Preview Part 2: Middle of the Pack Pick ‘Em (5-9)

ACC Preview Part 2: Middle of the Pack Pick ‘Em (5-9)
Oct 03, 2006, 03:46 am
The middle of the pack in the ACC is going to be wild this year. This isn’t a particularly deep conference in terms of NCAA Tournament teams, but just about everybody has a chance. And just about everybody in the middle of the pack is gunning for a bid. My guess is that two teams will dance out of this group, and it could just as easily be the last team in this article as the first. The experienced, guard-heavy teams here generally have glaring roster holes and little pedigree, while the talented teams haven’t shown enough in recent seasons to get my full confidence. In the end, there is little separating Florida State, Virginia Tech, Virginia, Maryland, and Clemson.

ACC Preview, Part One (10-12)

Florida State

05-06 Record: (20-10, 9-7)
Coach: Leonard Hamilton (15-15 in one year at Virginia; 95-84 in six years overall)
Postseason: NIT, 2nd Round (def Butler 67-63, def by South Carolina 69-68)

2006 Season Review:

Leonard Hamilton and his ‘Noles were able to bounce back after a disastrous 04-05 campaign, but a weak non-conference slate and some untimely gaffes allowed the NCAA to make Florida State an example for those programs scheduling lightly and the Florida State found themselves wondering what could have been yet again. A non-conference win against Florida would have done the trick, but after taking down Duke in early March, all the ‘Noles likely had to do was survive Wake Forest in the first round of the ACC Tourney. But FSU laid an egg, being outscored 46-26 in the second half and getting the shaft from the selection committee.

The frustrating thing is that this was an NCAA-caliber club. They were drubbing those middle of the pack teams by the end of the season, and actually acquitted themselves quite nicely against the conference elite. If not for the officiating fiasco that would blow up into a hot button topic almost overnight, FSU would have swept the Blue Devils. There were also admirable efforts against North Carolina and Boston College. Big men Alexander Johnson and Al Thornton emerged as a devastating one-two punch, and there was enough talent in the backcourt to make up for some serious shortcomings in the perimeter rotation. Even though the Seminoles clearly took a step forward last season, one can’t help but think that Hamilton’s program still hasn’t put its best foot forward yet. Last year’s guard rotation chucked and chucked some more. Team play and coherent offense were relatively rare occurrences. This was a likely a preseason top 25 team before Johnson capitalized on his breakthrough season by heading pro. This made elite big man recruit’s program rocking drug arrest hurt that much more. The Seminoles enter 2006 with a few question marks to answer, but a roster brimming with talent. Can Hamilton bring it all together and finally give the Seminole faithful that elusive Tourney trip?

Roster (* denotes 05-06 starter; ** denotes projected 06-07 starter)
Players on scholarship:

Key Losses
**PG Todd Galloway, sr (7.5 ppg, 3.1 apg in 28.1 mpg)
G/F Andrew Wilson, sr (6.3 ppg, in 19.6 mpg)
**PF Alexander Johnson, jr, (NBA Draft early entry, 13.2 ppg, 7.4 rpg in 24.9 mpg)
C Diego Romero, sr (3.9 ppg, 2.6 rpg in 15.8 mpg)

Returnees (7)
**6’2 CG Isaiah Swann, jr (8.4 ppg, 2.9 apg, 1.6 spg in 22.4 mpg)*
6’3 CG Ralph Mims, jr (3.8 ppg in 12.4 mpg)
** 6’3 SG Jason Rich, jr (10.0 ppg in 26.9 mpg)*
6’4 SG Jerel Allen, sr (3.3 ppg in 11.9 mpg)
6’8 SF Casaan Breeden, so (6.8 mpg in 22 games)
**6’8 CF Al Thornton, sr (16.1 ppg, 6.9 rpg in 29.0 mpg)*
6’9 PF Uche Echefu, so (7.4 mpg in 29 games)*

Starters: 3
Rotation Players: 6
Redshirts: 0
Sophomores: 2
Juniors: 3
Seniors: 1
05-06 Starts: 88 (5th in ACC)
Career Starts: 237 (8th in ACC)
Scoring: 60.3%
Rebounding: 59.4%

Newcomers: (4)
5’11 PG Josue Soto, Jacksonville, FL ( 4-star)
6’1 CG Toney Douglas, so, transfer (averaged 16.9 ppg as freshman at Auburn)*
6’4 SG Aaron Holmes, St Petersberg, FL ( 4-star)
6’8 PF Ryan Reid, Lauderdale Lakes, FL via Florida Prep ( 4-star in 2005, #92 nationally)

Schedule Analysis:

Non-Conference highlights:

Pretty much everybody was ticked off about Florida State’s schedule in March of last year. The Seminoles were stunned by the snub. The rest of the ACC got on its soapbox, denouncing the lack of respect for the conference. The pundits got self-righteous Florida State, making it look like Leonard Hamilton was trying to trick the committee into letting his team in. The truth is that Hamilton scheduled based on where he thought his team would be, and didn’t want to get too ambitious coming off of a 4-12 ACC season. The teams he thought would help with the SOS largely disappointed, and then the bottom ¾ of the ACC didn’t perform up to par. It all appears more like a case of bad luck than FSU attempting to artificially inflate their record.

Hamilton isn’t leaving his team’s fate in the hands of the selection committee this year though, as a nine day road trip comprised of visits to Pittsburgh, Wisconsin, and Florida will leave little up to doubt in March. Other than that, there isn’t much on tap. The committee probably won’t look back and hold wins over Illinois State, SMU, and Providence in very high regard. But as long as the Seminoles can win one of those three, they should be fine this year.

Conference highlights:
Play once: (@North Carolina, Virginia Tech, Wake Forest, @ Duke, @ Virginia, NC State)

This isn’t a bad draw in the least bit. FSU avoids playing Duke and North Carolina twice, and but travel for both. That means the ‘Noles get Virginia Tech, Wake Forest, and NC State as winnable home games. The games against the ACC powers are spread out nice and evenly, so there isn’t a real killer stretch here.

Roster Analysis:

Backcourt: Replacing Galloway in the backcourt will likely be done by committee. There are plenty of players with ballhandling ability, but not much in terms of true point guard skill. Considering that this team struggled with turnover issues and quick shots a season ago, finding a guard who is willing to pass the ball is an important task for Hamilton this season.

Junior Isaiah Swann would naturally step in at the point, but he makes poor decisions and forces his own offense. His athletic ability is nothing short of jaw-dropping, but Swann is definitely better-suited for a 2-guard role. If Hamilton ever figures out a way to reign him in, watch out. Fellow junior Jason Rich is in the same boat, as a talented but not yet complete player. Rich loves to power his way into the lane and can score in a variety of ways, but rarely passes the ball once he starts one of his forays into the lane. Rich can become a better player by becoming less predictable when he puts the ball on the floor and increasing the range on his jumper.

Transfer Toney Douglas appears to have the inside track on a starting job, after surprising many with a productive freshman season at Auburn two years ago. After a public war of words between Douglas’ father and Jeff Lebo, Douglas declared for the draft and then skipped town for Tallahassee. Douglas claimed the source of friction was Lebo’s unwillingness to let him play point guard, but the problem is that Douglas is really just another 2-guard in a point guard’s body. It will be interesting to see how he fits in with the ‘Noles. Junior Ralph Mims is in line for a bump in playing time, and is more focused defensively than some of his other backcourt mates. Yet another option is senior wing Jerel Allen, who could be a victim of the numbers game. Freshmen Josue Soto and Aaron Holmes are buried on the depth chart, but talented enough to steal playing time from the veterans. Soto, a true point guard, should get a shot - especially if Hamilton can’t find stability at the point guard position.

Frontcourt: For all the depth and athleticism in the backcourt, Alexander Johnson’s departure and stud recruit Jonathan Kreft’s legal troubles leave Florida State perilously thin in the frontcourt. The Seminoles will be forced to go to smaller, Villanova-style lineups early and often, with stud senior combo forward Al Thornton spending most of his time at the 4 or 5 positions.

Thornton burst into stardom as a junior, using monster 37 point efforts against Boston College and Duke to gain national acclaim. Thornton’s perimeter skillset has advanced rapidly since arriving in Tallahassee, and it is now very clear that he has a future at the small forward position in the NBA. He still needs to polish up his ballhandling and become more consistent as a scorer, but the smaller lineups should really help. He should have more space to operate, and bigger, slower players defending him.

There isn’t another proven big man returning. Two sophomores will be relied upon heavily, in Uche Echefu and Cassan Breeden. Echefu has the body makeup of a traditional 4-man, but really likes to turn and face the basket in the post after receiving the ball. Hamilton needs Echefu to help replace Johnson’s rebounding and physical presence in the paint. Breeden has a package of length and athleticism that should get him NBA looks someday, but didn’t play a big role as a freshman. He is really a perimeter player, and could thrive as a perimeter-oriented four or five man in Hamilton’s smaller sets. The only other option is freshman Ryan Reid, a burly 2005 recruit that had to take a prep year to get his grades in order.

Backcourt: B
Frontcourt: B-
Depth: B
Experience: B

Tempo-Adjusted Seminoles:

05-06 Tempo: 70.5 poss/40 min (64th nationally, up from 190th in 04-05, 5th in the ACC)
Opponents’ Turnover %: 24.8 (18th nationally, 2nd in ACC)
Effective Field Goal %: 53.4 (27th nationally, 5th in ACC)
Free Throw Rate: 30.1 (24th nationally, 3rd in ACC)

The quick pace, high number of forced turnovers, great EFG % and top notch free throw rate all indicate a team that is in constant attack mode, unafraid to fire up shots quickly and looking to turn pressure defense into quick scores. The ‘Noles had problems with turnovers, but forced more than they committed. This team went from getting to the line at a relatively low rate to getting there quite often, and this can be attributed to the emergence of both Johnson and Thornton. Surprisingly, Florida State also shot the ball very well. It will be interesting to see if this team can keep up those high percentages with their top outside shooter and top passer graduated.

Recruiting Report:

2007 Commitments (ACC Class Rank: 2nd)
Scholarships available: 3
6’7 SF Jordan DeMercy, Norcross, GA ( 3-star)
6’10 PF Julian Vaughn, Reston, VA via Oak Hill (VA) Academy ( 4-star, 52nd nationally)
7’1 C Solomon Alabi, Nigeria via Montverde (FL) Academy ( 4-star, 42nd nationally)

Hamilton may not be comfortable with his guard-heavy roster in 06-07, but thanks to a couple of recent recruiting victories, size isn’t going to be a problem in Tallahassee for a while. Julian Vaughn was being recruited by the entire ACC, but caught some off guard by pledging to the Seminoles. Alabi was won in a hard-fought battle over Virginia and Arizona, with Hamilton never getting out of the driver’s seat after putting the work in early. DeMercy was a complete unknown before July, but was won over interest from numerous SEC schools. The Seminoles will likely take one more player in this class.

Keys to the Season

Can the juniors be reigned in? Isaiah Swann is one of the most athletic players in the world. If you don’t believe me, find a tape of the NIT game against South Carolina. You won’t believe your eyes. Jason Rich is also a player with some immense natural talent. Both players were regarded as top 50 recruits in their class, but neither has developed to the point where they are actually helping win games. This is a big season for both players, and Hamilton needs a winner’s mentality out of both if the Seminoles want to emerge out of the pack in the ACC.

How does Toney Douglas fit in? Last year’s players complemented each other fairly well. The gunners got their shots, but there was also a true point guard and a shooter. Is Douglas, definitely not a true point guard, the answer as a floor leader?

Can Alexander Johnson be replaced? Johnson’s emergence was a huge part of Florida State’s late season success, and the only reason the Seminoles were even passable on the glass. He brought a toughness that this program had lacked, and now Hamilton must find it again. Thornton will have to be more paint-focused, at least defensively, and Echefu will need to be ready. If these issues can be resolved, Florida State is going to be a very good team in 06-07.

Final Thoughts: Hamilton finally has a roster full of his players, and the pieces are in place for a tourney run. Changes will have to be made, but these are players that thrive when given the green light, and should do well in the up-tempo, guard-heavy lineups that will have to be used. Al Thornton provides the team with a bonafide star, and there should be enough talent around him to make everything work as long as one of the young big guys emerges. This team is certainly capable of laying an egg, but Hamilton has waited a long time to get back to the NCAA Tournament. Don’t be surprised if this is Florida State’s year.

Prediction: 5th

Virginia Tech

05-06 Record: (14-16, 4-12)
Coach: Seth Greenberg (44-45 in three years at Virginia Tech; 258-214 in sixteen years overall)
Postseason: None

2006 Season Review:

After a promising inaugural ACC effort, Seth Greenburg’s program suffered through a trying 2006 season. From family tragedies, to roster attrition, to injuries, to a number of games blown in unfathomable fashion, if it could go wrong for the Hokies in 05-06, it did. The tone for the on-court season was set early in November when freshman AD Vassallo scored the decisive basket of the game right at the buzzer, but put the ball in the wrong basket. Tech’s coming out party should came after a stunning upset at Duke, but Sean Dockery’s halfcourt heave, once again at the buzzer, put the festivities on hold. Off the court, Coleman Collins’ father was dying of cancer. Big men Terrence Vinson and Robert Krabbendam went down for the season with injuries, while starting SF Wynton Witherspoon spent the first half of the season getting back up to speed after fracturing his left foot. The ACC slate featured a series of agonizingly close losses, including playing Virginia down to the wire on three separate occasions, only to fall short every time and end up getting swept by their in-state rivals. The season ended with three consecutive losses by five points or less, including a second heartbreaker to national power Boston College. All in a season’s work, right?

But within the turmoil, hope for the future began to materialize. Long-time backcourt partners Jamon Gordon and Zabian Dowdell both took major steps forward on both sides of the floor, helping the Hokies lead the conference in turnover margin. Coleman Collins battled admirably during his time of loss, emerging as one of the conference’s most productive big men. Meanwhile, AD Vassallo and Deron Washington provided capable punch from the wing. But with Greenberg finally making inroads on the recruiting path and only sophomore Witherspoon not returning, it doesn’t matter how agonizing the 05-06 season was. Things are looking up in Blacksburg, even if year-in, year-out ACC legitimacy is still far off in the distance.

Roster (* denotes 05-06 starter; ** denotes projected 06-07 starter)
Players on scholarship: 11

Key Losses
SF Wynton Witherspoon, so, transfer (George Washington)

**6’3 PG Jamon Gordon, sr (11.4 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 4.4 apg, 2.1 spg, in 34.9 mpg)*
**6’3 CG Zabian Dowdell, sr (15.3 ppg, 3.4 apg, 2.3 spg, in 36.0 mpg)*
**6’5 G/F Markus Sailes, sr (3.7 ppg, 1.2 spg in 21.9 ppg)*
6’6 G/F AD Vassallo, so (6.9 ppg, 1.1 3FG/G in 16.6 mpg)
**6’7 SF Deron Washington, jr (10.5 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 1.6 spg, 1.0 bpg in 31.4 mpg)*
**6’9 PF Coleman Collins, sr (14.5 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 1.3 bpg in 33.1 mpg)*
6’9 PF Cheick Diakite, so (7.2 mpg in 27 games)
6’9 PF Terrance Vinson, fr (redshirt 05-06, will miss 06-07 due to injury)
6’7 PF Chris Tucker, sr (9.5 mpg) – Walk-on
7’0 C Robert Krabbendam, so (medical redshirt in 05-06)

Starters: 5
Rotation Players: 6
Redshirts: 2
Sophomores: 2
Juniors: 1
Seniors: 4
05-06 Starts: 111 (4th in ACC)
Career Starts: 237 (2nd in ACC)
Scoring: 91.4%
Rebounding: 95.9%

Newcomers: (2) (ACC Rank: 9th)
6’0 PG Nigel Munson, Washington DC via Dematha (MD) Catholic ( 4-star, #87 nationally)
6’9 PF Lewis Witcher, Rocky Mount, VA ( 3-star)

Schedule Analysis:

Non-Conference highlights:
This is a schedule that could work out for a lower-tier ACC team with legitimate NCAA Tournament aspirations. The Hokies will participate in the late November Old Spice Classic, which features noteworthy teams like Arkansas, Southern Illinois, Montana, and West Virginia. The next test comes in the BB&T classic against George Washinton, followed by a trip to New York to take on Seton Hall. Travelling to Marshall, especially immediately following Christmas break, is always a dangerous endeavor. Another tourney team test would probably make the non-conference slate even better, but this competition level should prepare without causing too much damage.

Conference highlights:
Play once: (Wake Forest, @ Duke, @ Florida State, Maryland, @ Georgia Tech, Clemson)

The Hokies did pretty well here. Tech does have to play North Carolina and Boston College twice, but the single game breakdown is somewhat advantageous. They host the teams they will most likely be competitive with, and go on the road to face teams that they were probably underdogs against regardless of where the game is taking place. Two games each against NC State and Miami is definitely going to help.

Roster Analysis:

Backcourt: Just like Clemson and Virginia, Virginia Tech’s hopes will rest on the shoulders of an experienced lead guard duo. Very similar to Hamilton and Hammonds down at Clemson, lefty seniors Jamon Gordon and Zabian Dowdell do a lot of things well but also leave a lot to be desired in terms of their go-to roles. Gordon tends to be more of the point guard, running the show and utilizing significant explosiveness. Where Gordon struggles as a scorer, Dowdell picks up the slack. He can create his own shot in pretty much any situation, and is a more consistent shooter. Both players have issues with consistency and neither is an ACC contender’s ideal leading scorer, but together they could do the trick in 06-07. They also provide the team’s defensive identity, capable of causing serious problems to any opposing ballhandler. Greenberg does need the two to play more like veterans in crucial moments, this team can’t afford to lose all the close ones if an NCAA Tournament berth is in the cards.

Unlike in previous seasons, it doesn’t appear as though Gordon and Dowdell will doing it by themselves. Sophomore AD Vassallo took his lumps as a freshman, but emerged over the second half of the year and really displayed his potential over a seven game stretch where he scored 13+ points five times. Vassallo had a tendency to shoot a bit too much as a freshman, but has legitimate go-to scoring tools. The release point on his shot is incredibly quick for high it is, and he has a variety of tricks when it comes to scoring in the midrange Vassallo will have to fight it out with senior defensive specialist Markus Sailes for a starting spot. This probably isn’t his breakout year, but look for Vassallo to emerge as an upperclassman. Providing the two seniors with a much-needed breather will be highly regarded freshman Nigel Munson, who made a lot of programs regret overlooking him with his strong senior year play at DeMatha.

Frontcourt: Most believed that interior play would be much more of downfall than it turned out to be, thanks to the emergence of PF Coleman Collins. Now a senior, Collins exploded onto the map with a 25 point effort against Duke and Shelden Williams, and remained a steady offensive presence the rest of the season. A bit undersized, he has just enough strength, athleticism, and skill to match up with the typical ACC big. Collins could certainly get a bit more consistent, but for as good as the weapons in the backcourt could be, the Hokies would headed for conference doormat territory yet again without their big man. Greenberg’s supporting frontcourt options are that bad.

The lanky Deron Washington has been forced to play the PF position quite a bit over the course of his career. While his lack of perimeter polish leaves him as a less than ideal perimeter starter, his lack of strength and unwillingness to get physical certainly make his natural position something other than PF. He is in desperate need of bulk, but probably starts the year there again unless freshman Lewis Witcher is better than advertised. Long and skilled, Witcher is a great pickup for Greenberg, but also needs to add a bit more bulk. The other options aren’t going to provide much. Dutch import Robert Krabbendam was an emergency recruit necessitated by a size-depleted roster and has been injured ever since he signed.Ditto for Terrance Vinson, who recently rent was lost for the season due to injury and Cheick Diakite, who didn’t offer much help a freshman.

Backcourt: B+
Frontcourt: C
Depth: B
Experience: A-

Tempo-Adjusted Hokies:

05-06 Tempo: 65.6 poss/40 min (251st nationally, down from 177th in 04-05, 10th in the ACC)
Turnover %: 16.7 (7th nationally, 1st in ACC)
Opponents’ Turnover %: 24.0 (34th nationally, 3rd in ACC)
Offensive Rebound %: 30.0 (239th nationally, 10th in ACC)

It is tough to conclude too much from Virginia Tech’s tempo-adjusted profile. This team didn’t have a glaring weakness, but was simply below average on everything and was slightly better on offense than on defense.

The one area that really stands out is how well Virginia Tech took care of the ball. They not only protected the ball at an elite level, they also forced their fair share of turnovers. This clearly indicates the presence of a good ballhandler or two. One would think that a team with outstanding ball protection would be able hand out plenty of assists, but this wasn’t the case for Virginia Tech. This team didn’t shoot the ball very well at all, from the field, from behind the arc, or from the line. Considering that the Hokies will likely be a poor offensive rebounding team again, finding another consistent jumpshooter could really make a difference in the standings.

Recruiting Report:

2007 Commitments(ACC Class Rank: 3rd)
Scholarships available: 6
6’3 PG Malcom Delaney, Towson, MD ( 3-star)
6’6 SF Terrell Bell, Stone Mountain, GA ( 3-star)
6’7 PF Jeff Allen, Hargrave (VA) Military Academy ( 4-star)
6’9 C Gus Gilchrist, Fort Washington, MD ( 4-star, #54 nationally)

2008 Commitments
6’6 PF JT Thompson, Kings Mountain NC ( 3-star)
6’3 SG Shamarr Bowden, Charlottesville VA ( 2-star)

Virginia Tech fans have reason to be optimistic about this year, but are just as excited about Greenberg’s results on the recruiting path. Allen is prepping at Hargrave after an outstanding season at Oak Hill. Gilchrist committed, and promptly blew up on the national level. Both are top 100 level prospects, and will shore up a frontcourt that has been lacking for what seems like forever. Delaney has signed on to help replace the outgoing backcourt of Gordon and Dowdell. Scholarships are still available, and Greenberg appears to be looking for another wing. Top 100 member Dorenzo Hudson appears to be a legitimate possibility, as do wings Jordan Crawford and Alvin Mitchell. Greenberg has already dipped into the current junior class for two early verbals.

Keys to the Season

Can a shooter be found? Gordon and Dowdell do a good job of leading the team offensively, but both are streak shooters and will go cold for games at a time. Virginia Tech could really use a reliable third perimeter option on offense. AD Vassallo has given strong indications of being that guy, but must polish the rest of his game to the point where Greenberg can leave him on the court. If Vassallo could emerge as a double-digit scorer and defense-drawing shooter, Virginia Tech could become dangerous offensively in a hurry.

Can this team win a few close games? Close losses are still losses, but last seaoson’s inability to close out games and run of bad luck has many thinking Tech could be in for a big year. Teams with senior ballhandlers usually win, but you would think the same thing about junior ballhandlers. This team did a great job of protecting the ball, so some of the mental mistakes are a bit perplexing. Better free throw shooting and more rest for Gordon and Dowdell should help.

Will somebody step up in the frontcourt? Collins has been invaluable, but it is tough to think that this team is going to make a Tourney run with Deron Washington as the power forward. Greenberg needs to find somebody that can spell Collins and even play alongside him for stretches, and none of the Returneesappear poised to be that guy. It could come down to whether or not Witcher is ready to play.

Final Thoughts: Virginia Tech fans have lived through three years of growing pains with Gordon and Dowdell, and now it is time for the payoff. No program experienced what the Hokies did last season, and hopefully it has made everybody stronger. Gordon and Dowdell are a summer of dedicated shooting work away from being capable of leading this team to the NCAA Tournament. There is finally some young talent and depth as well, with AD Vassallo and Nigel Munson both looking like quality ACC players down the road. A program like Virginia Tech doesn’t get in this position very often, and can’t let a legitimate opportunity for an NCAA Tournament bid slide by. With the veteran leadership in the backcourt, this could be the year that Virginia Tech basketball starts to matter again.

Prediction: 6th


05-06 Record: (15-15, 7-9)
Coach: Dave Leitao (15-15 in one year at Virginia; 95-84 in six years overall)
Postseason: NIT (def by Stanford 65-49)

2006 Season Review:

Nobody expected Virginia to be competitive this fast. Pete Gillen didn’t exactly leave the cupboard bare, but it didn’t appear that new head coach Dave Leitao would have the horses to make the Cavaliers competitive in his first season. The young Virginia squad would take a few lumps early in the season, but managed a surprisingly successful year on the whole. Sean Singletary emerged as the ACC’s premier point guard, and slowly but surely, JR Reynolds developed into a legitimate go-to scoring option in the backcourt. Leitao had little to work with in the frontcourt, but designed his system around his guards. Able to focus in manning the glass and defending the paint, Jason Cain and Laurynas Mikalauskas did enough to keep the Cavaliers in most games.

The ACC had a clearly defined middle of the pack level a season ago. These teams lost to the contenders and beat other middle of the pack teams at home. Virginia was able to jump up the standings as one of the few teams that didn’t strictly follow this mold. The Cavaliers were able to beat contenders North Carolina and Boston College at home, as well as go on the road to beat Virginia Tech. Headed into the stretch run, Leitao’s squad looked poised for an above .500 finish and a potential NCAA berth. But a lack of depth and offensive balance finally began to take its toll, as Virginia lost five of its final six games. A crucial two game road trip in which the Cavaliers were outscored by 71 points against Clemson and North Carolina really took the wind out of Virginia’s sails.

Nonetheless, Leitao has made the kind of progress in one year that many new ACC coaches fail to make in five. With a state of the art arena opening its doors and numerous-high-level recruits interested, interest in Virginia basketball is as high as it has been since early in the Pete Gillen era.

Roster (* denotes 05-06 starter; ** denotes projected 06-07 starter)
Players on scholarship: 12

Key Losses
PG TJ Bannister, sr, transferred to Liberty (2.1 ppg, 2.3 apg in 13.0 mpg)

*6’0 PG Sean Singletary, jr (17.7 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 4.2 apg, 1.9 spg, 33.9 mpg)**
*6’3 SG JR Reynolds, sr (17.0 ppg, 3.1 apg, 2.00 3fg/g in 33.2 mpg)**
*6’7 SF Adrian Joseph, jr (9.4 ppg, 4.5 rpg in 28.6 mpg)
6’5 SF Mamadi Diane, so (6.0 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 33.7 fg%, in 22.3 mpg)
*6’10 PF Jason Cain, sr (7.4 ppg, 7.6 rpg in 26.4 mpg)**
6’8 PF Laurynas Mikalauskas, so (6.2 ppg, 4.5 rpg in 23.6 mpg)**
* 6’11 C Tunji Soroye, jr (3.5 rpg, 1.2 bpg in 18.4 mpg)

Starters: 5
Rotation Players: 7
Redshirts: 0
Sophomores: 2
Juniors: 3
Seniors: 2
05-06 Starts: 148 (1st in ACC)
Career Starts: 237 (2nd in ACC)
Scoring: 96.6%
Rebounding: 95.8%

Newcomers: (5)
6’9 SF Jamil Tucker, Gary, IN ( 4-star, #67 nationally)
6’5 SF Solomon Tat, Nigeria via Community (GA) Christian ( 3-star)
6’6 SF Will Harris, New York, NY via Brewster (NH) Academy ( 3-star)
6’9 PF Ryan Pettinella, jr, transfer from Penn (originally committed to Cincinnati)
6’9 PF Jerome Meyinsse, Baton Rouge, LA ( 1-star)

ACC Recruiting Class rank: 5th

Schedule Analysis:

Non-Conference highlights:
Virginia is gunning for an NCAA Tournament berth, and Leitao has scheduled a few non-conference tests with that in mind. The Cavaliers start the season off with a bang, hosting Arizona in early November. They travel to West Lafeyette to take on a potentially improved Boilermaker squad as part of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, and then its off to Puerto Rico for the San Juan Shootout. Vanderbilt, Northwestern, and Utah are the other notable teams participating. After Christmas, Gonzaga and Stanford will head to Charlottesville in what should be a good tuneup for ACC play.

Conference highlights:
Play once: (@ North Carolina, @Boston College, Duke, @ Clemson, Florida State, Georgia Tech)

The schedulemakers have been kind to the Cavaliers. Very kind. Virginia plays none of the top tier teams twice, but all of the bottom tier teams. There really isn’t much else to add. Starting off with North Carolina and Boston College will be tough, but then comes home games against Maryland and Wake Forest, followed by a trip to NC State. It is hard not to give Virginia a second look near the top of the middle ACC group after seeing this schedule.

Roster Analysis:

Backcourt: This group is Virginia’s strength, thanks to one of the top returning duos in the country. Sean Singletary and JR Reynolds complement each other nicely, and can put points on the board in a hurry, in lots of different ways. The problem here is when Virginia is too dependent on their elite backcourt duo. The other players had a tendency to stop and watch whenever Singletary got the ball, and the offense really started to stagnate as the year went on. They overdribbled and settled for too many low percentage shots at the end of the possession. This is reflected in the fact that both players struggled to shoot above 40% on the year.

Singletary may be the most explosive returning playmaker in the country. His first step is dynamite, he gets great elevation on his jumper, and he plays the style of hard-nosed defense that Letaio craves from all his players. Singletary is a bit undersized, but takes contact well and always finds a way to get the ball to the rim. His decision making can improve, but his tendency to overdribble may have had more to do with his lack of options and the NBA-style isolation sets Letaio likes to use than any issues Singletary has with moving the ball around the perimeter.

After a horrendous sophomore season, Reynolds really came into his own under Letaio’s tutelage and enters this year as one of the most underrated players on the national level. While he remains a bit too trigger happy at times, he improved his shooting percentages significantly and emerged as a surprisingly complete offensive threat down the stretch. He scored 16+ points in his last 13 ACC games, and topped the 20 point barrier 5 times. Reynolds still has a bit of a hitch in his stroke, but looks very good shooting the ball with a hand in his face. It is hard to cool him down once he gets going. Reynolds is also very difficult to contain when he puts the ball on the floor, and utilizes a variety of different fadeaways, fakes, floaters, and other tricks of the trade to put the ball in the basket. Reynolds doesn’t have a point guard’s mentality, but can certainly handle the ball in a pinch. Expect him to have a huge senior year, perhaps even passing Singletary in terms of importance to his team and national recognition.

One issue here is health and depth. Normally nobody would bat an eye when a backup-level PG like TJ Bannister decides to transfer over the summer. However, Singletary has played his first two years constantly banged up, and last spring’s hip surgery kept him out of action the entire summer. He is only now returning to the court. There are no other guards on the roster and even if there were, the minute either guard goes down, Virginia’s season is done. A 100% Singletary would be a true blessing, but this doesn’t appear to be a very likely occurrence.

Frontcourt: I usually tend to list “threes” with the backcourt, but this team has a large number of small forwards that make things happen with their size and are limited because of their lack of perimeter polish. Leitao will probably rely on several of these players in more post-oriented roles. The key here is for Virginia to achieve a bit more balance on the offensive end. Teams were able to key in on Singletary and Reynolds, and for Virginia to take that next step, a double-digit post scoring option must emerge.

We can start with sophomore Mamadi Diane, who started his career at Virginia with a bang but faded quickly and is clearly lacking in perimeter polish. He has a nice body and is a standout defender at the wing, but his jumper is a mess and his handle is in need of some serious work. The returning starter at SF is actually senior Adrian Joseph, a player with some real scoring tools but a maddeningly one-dimensional game. Joseph has a sweet lefty stroke from deep and will connect in the midrange, but avoids the paint like a plague and is generally lackadaisical in everything but his tendency to fire up shots early in the possession.

Both incumbents will be pushed by a promising trio of freshmen. Former UConn commit Will Harris is reportedly the most likely to make an early contribution. He is an elite level athlete, and improving his perimeter skillset. It is unclear whether he will end up as a true perimeter player, or more of a 3/4. The most highly regarded newcomer is Ohio native Jamil Tucker, a 6’8 athletic specimen with a pure shooting stroke. It may take Tucker some time for Tucker to adjust to playing on the perimeter at the division one level, but his upside is quite formidable. The final freshman to mention is Nigeria native Solomon Tat, who recently cleared up lingering visa issues and was officially admitted into school. Tat picked Virginia over an offer from Texas.

One of Letaio’s biggest accomplishments last season was getting something out of his inexperienced frontcourt. Senior Jason Cain had a breakthrough year, while Laurynas Mikalauskus used his bulk and low center of gravity to effectively score in the paint. Cain emerged as one of the conference’s top rebounders, and is a lot tougher than he looks at first glance. Mikalauskus didn’t put up huge numbers, but really knows how to seal his man on the block and has plenty of tricks up his sleeve when it comes to getting his shot off over taller defenders. Look for Mikalauskus to really emerge this season and provide the post scoring threat that will make life easier on Singletary and Reynolds. The other returning big man is rawer-than-raw junior Tunji Soroye, who can make an impact altering shots but a liability when it comes to most everything else. Two newcomers may have to wait their turn. Jerome Meyinsse is an unheralded late signee out of Louisiana, while Ryan Pettinela is well-traveled since first deciding to transfer from Penn to Cincinnati and then going JUCO when Bob Huggins was fired.

Backcourt: A-
Frontcourt: C+
Depth: B
Experience: B

Tempo-Adjusted Cavaliers:

05-06 Tempo: 66.6 poss/40 min (222nd nationally, down from 110th in 04-05, 9th in the ACC)
Pythagorean Win %: .699 (88th nationally, 11th in ACC)
Offensive Efficiency: 103.1 (124th nationally, 11th in ACC)
Ast/FGM: 48.1 (302nd nationally, 11th in ACC)

The tempo-adjusted stats don’t paint a pretty picture for the Cavaliers. Despite finishing 7-9, Letaio’s squad won quite a few close games and was absolutely demolished several times near the end of the season. This could be a warning sign to all those who are so bullish on Virginia’s chances, but it could also be a sign that Singletary and Reynolds know how to manage end game situations.

At any rate, the one thing everybody has to agree on is that this was a lousy offensive team last season. There was little ball movement, and whatever Singletary or Reynolds did in the halfcourt they pretty much had to create for themselves. Even knowing this from watching the games, it was surprising to see a team with a pair of guards this dynamic finish so low in Assists/FG. Part of the problem last season was that the two guards didn’t have anybody to pass the ball to in the paint, but there was still very little effort to get any of the interior players decent looks. With more talent and better depth in the frontcourt, Letaio will have to find a way to balance out the offense a bit. When he does, the efficiency of Singletary and Reynolds, and the entire team will skyrocket.

Recruiting Report:

2007 Commitments(ACC Class Rank: 8th)
Scholarships available: 2
6’0 PG Sam Zeglinski, Philadelphia, PA ( 3-star)
6’2 CG Calvin Baker, so, transfer from William & Mary (walk on)
6’4 SG Jeff Jones, Drexel Hill, PA ( 4-star, #68 nationally)

Virginia received a blow when top 100 wing Eric Wallace backed out of his verbal, but Letaio was already overloaded at SF. Jeff Jones is a major coup for the program. He can score from anywhere, and is the heir apparent to Reynolds. It isn’t clear what kind of a future Baker has within the program. After a moderately successful freshman year, he decided to risk walking on for a season in order to move up a level. Zeglinksi is probably more of a roleplayer at the ACC level. Letaio is attempting to add one more player, and can afford to swing for the fences after having significantly upgraded the program’s talent level after just one season. Virginia is involved with stud PF Patrick Patterson, though Patterson’s signature will be a tough one to obtain. Hargrave PF Mike Scott might be the backup plan. Letaio will be pulling out all the stops for two elite 2008 big men: area standout Ed Davis, and Dematha (MD) product Chris Braswell.

Keys to the Season

Will the newcomers actually make a difference in the win/loss column? Letaio’s 2006 freshman class is outstanding, but every significant player returns from last year’s surprising team. Every newcomer on the roster will have to beat out a veteran for playing time. We see this almost every season in every conference, and the veterans will almost always win out. These kids are good, but that doesn’t mean they are ready to beat out experienced ACC veterans or put the team over the top in terms of getting that Tourney bid. Players like Harris, Tucker, and Pettinela will help out with depth, but shouldn’t be expected to be difference makers in year one.

Is Sean Singletary 100%? If so, can he stay healthy? Singletary’s health is the most concerning aspect of this team at the moment. He didn’t play all summer, so don’t expect him to come blowing out of the gates. But this team can’t afford even a short stretch without Singletary in ACC play. If he can keep healthy, Singletary should be back in stride by the start of the conference slate. Singletary’s ability to keep from getting banged up could be the difference between the NCAA and the NIT this year.

Will some offensive balance emerge? Virginia was a terrible halfcourt offensive team last year. There was little movement once the ball was in the hands of Singletary or Reynolds, and teams could focus in on them because there was no doubting who would end up taking the shot. Laurynas Mikalauskas is a serviceable scorer in the paint, and a player like Jamil Tucker could really thrive next to the two standout guards. Somebody, preferably a big man, needs to take the heat off of the two gaurds. And the two guards need to make sure they look for their teammates every time down the court.

Final Thoughts: Are big things finally happening at Virginia? The early success of Dave Leitao, the opening of John Paul Jones Arena, and the new level of talent within the program would indicate so. Leitao has proven in just one season that he can relate to his players and develop them. However, I can’t be as amped up on the chances of this team as many prognosticators are at the moment. Virginia probably wasn’t as good as their record indicated last season, and the middle of the pack has been relatively easy to enter but downright impossible to break out of over the past several seasons. Singletary and Reynonlds are spectacular talents, but must find a way to involve their teammates more. Singletary’s inability to stay healthy is a problem, but the easy schedule is a huge feather in Leitao’s cap. Virginia remains near the bottom of my middle of the pack, but probably deserves to be higher than this based on the kindness of the schedulemakers.

Prediction: 7th


05-06 Record: (19-13, 8-8)
Coach: Gary Williams (353-191 in seventeen years at Maryland; 560-319 in 28 years overall)
Postseason: NIT (def by Manhattan 87-64)

2006 Season Review:

It really seemed like 05-06 would be Maryland’s year, even without John Gilchrist returning. There were veteran producers at every position, and a nice variety of talent. Athleticism was at a premium, and after 4 consecutive wins to open conference play, it appeared that everything was going to be OK. Then the hammer dropped. Senior leader Chris McCray, who had established himself as the team’s best player, didn’t make the grade 3 ½ years in. McCray was the team’s most dependable scorer and top one-on-one defender, and Maryland’s early-season momentum slowly dissolved behind increasingly confused team defense and mounting frustration from all levels of the program. A third straight NCAA Tournament absence and struggles on the recruiting path have an obviously rattled Gary Williams and his Terps under some fairly significant pressure, less than half a decade after Maryland’s fairytale season. If Gary Williams can’t right this season, Maryland basketball could be in for a rough stretch.

Roster (* denotes 05-06 starter; ** denotes projected 06-07 starter)
Players on scholarship: 12

Key Losses

PG Sterling Ledbetter, sr (1.9 apg, 14.4 mpg)
*SG Chris McCray, sr (15.2 ppg, 3.6 apg, 2.2 spg in 30.7 mpg, 16 games)
*SF Nik Caner-Medley, sr (15.3 ppg, 6.3 rpg in 32.4 mpg)
PF Travis Garrison, sr (8.0 ppg, 5.3 rpg in 18.0 mpg)

6’1 PG Parrish Brown, sr (2.7 ppg, 1.8 apg in 8.6 mpg)
*6’5 CG DJ Strawberry, sr (10.3 ppg, 4.0 apg, 1.8 spg in 30.9 mpg)**
6’5 SG Mike Jones, sr (10.5 ppg, 1.9 3fgpg in 23.7 mpg)**
*6’9 PF Ikene Ibekwe, sr (11.1 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 1.3 rpg in 23.5 mpg)**
*6’8 PF James Gist, jr (8.4 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 1.6 bpg in 22.1 mpg)**
6’7 PF Dave Neal, so (3.4 mpg in 13 games)
7’1 C Will bowers, sr (2.1 ppg, 1.3 rpg in 11.1 mpg)

Starters: 3
Rotation Players: 6
Redshirts: 0
Sophomores: 1
Juniors: 1
Seniors: 5
05-06 Starts: 101 (7th in ACC)
Career Starts: 148 (5th in ACC)
Scoring: 57.9%
Rebounding: 62.6%

Newcomers: (5)
6’3 PG Eric Hayes, Dumfries, VA ( 4-star, 96th nationally)
6’5 CG Greivis Vasquez, Venezuela via Montrose (MD) Christian ( 4-star)
6’7 SF Landon Milbourne, Roswell, GA via Oak Hill (VA) Academy (Scout.com3-star)
6’9 PF Jerome Burney, Atlanta, GA ( 3-star)
6’6 PF Bambale Osby, Paris (TX) JC (5.0 ppg, 5.0 rpg)

Schedule Analysis:

Non-Conference Highlights:

Gary Williams seems to always find a nice balance with his non-conference slate, and this year is no different. The Terps will participate in the 2K EA Sports College Hoops Classic, which also includes Michigan State, Texas, and St. John’s. Maryland gets Illinois for the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, and plays a dangerous Fordham team in the region-based BB&T classic.

Conference Highlights
Play once: (@ Boston College, Miami, @ Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, @ Wake Forest, North Carolina)

This schedule could be worse, but Maryland still has to play Duke twice and has a nasty second half of ACC play. After a home game against Duke, Maryland will hit the road for games at NC State and Clemson. Then it is Florida State, North Carolina, and Duke. It is easy to see another late season collapse with this slate.

Roster Analysis:

Backcourt: Things really haven’t been the same since Steve Blake left. John Gilchrist should have been the answer, but he never bought into what Gary Williams was selling. Last season’s backcourt was a mess, with an out of place Strawberry and two out of place mid-major players attempting to run the point. Chris McCray was the one player who was playing up to his potential, and then the academic hammer fell. Minus McCray, this same group is back. Williams has recruited a pair of ballhandlers, but whether they are ready to contribute is anyone’s guess.

DJ Strawberry is the anchor of this team, and should get to slide over to his natural wing position for significant chunks of time this winter. Strawberry is an excellent defender, using quick hands and a linebacker mentality to effectively guard pretty much any perimeter position. He has struggled a bit as a scorer, and should be able to improve at least as an outside shooter now that he doesn’t have to focus on running the team full-time. The other wing is senior Mike Jones, offering perhaps the polar opposite of what Strawberry brings to the table. Jones has every NBA tool a player could ask for, from elite athleticism and an explosive first step to a naturally beautiful long range jumper. But Jones appears lackadaisical on the court, oftentimes sending Williams into fits with an ill-advised three-pointer. His midrange game is nonexistent, and his ballhandling sub par. But Jones is the closet thing Williams has to go-to scorer, and even a little progress in terms of focus, intensity, and well-roundedness as a player could mean a breakout senior season.

The new guards are the key here, with AAU teammates Eric Hayes and Greivis Vasquez prepared to become Williams’ backcourt of the future. Hayes gets the inevitable Steve Blake comparisons for being white and relatively unathletic. Word is that he has some of Blake’s ability to run a team as well. Vasquez can play just about anywhere in the backcourt, and should offer consistent outside shooting and a nice secondary ballhandling presence right away. Also still around is senior PG Parrish Brown.

Frontcourt: Since Lonny Baxter and Chris Wilcox finished stopped roaming the paint in College Park, Williams hasn’t been able to develop too many big men. He has signed several talented ones, but never found the right mix. Travis Garrison was a McDonald’s All-American, but his career ended in relative anonymity. Top 100 center Hasan Fofana transferred out of the program. Ekene Ibekwe and James Gist have stuck around, but neither has shown the type of progress that we are used to seeing from players under Williams’ tutelage.

06-07 represents the last chance for Ibekwe. He is an NBA athlete, and strong enough to knock people around down low. But he has very little offensive ability, and makes the easy things seem difficult. With poor hands and turnover problems, Ibekwe just hasn’t emerged the way he should have by now. He will always contribute as a shot blocker and rebounder, but Maryland needs more from the senior. James Gist is nothing more than a slightly smaller version of Ibekwe, with all the lift in his legs but similar tendencies whenever he gets his hands on the ball. Gist lost his starting job late in the year, and these two unskilled big men really don’t complement each other well.

The rest of the frontcourt is rather muddled. Senior Will Bowers has size, but no back to the basket game and even less athleticism. Sophomore David Neal didn’t contribute as a freshman. There are three newcomers, in long combo forward Landon Millbourne, project Jerome Burney and hustling JC transfer Bambale Osby. None of the three project as immediate contributors, though Millbourne was quite highly regarded at one time. He is another excellent pure athlete that doesn’t really have a natural position at this point. Burney needs time develop into an ACC-caliber player, and was at one time headed to Miami before the two parties mutually parted ways. Osby was a bit player at New Mexico as a frehman, and averaged just 5 points per game at the JC level last year. The signings of the two latter players raised some eyebrows around Maryland circles.

Backcourt: B-
Frontcourt: C+
Depth: B
Experience: B

Tempo-Adjusted Terrapins:

05-06 Tempo: 74.9 poss/40 min (4th nationally, down from 2nd in 04-05, 1st in the ACC)
Turnover %: 22.0 (218tth nationally, 8th in ACC)
Free Throw Rate: 30.7 (14th nationally, 2nd in ACC)
EFG %: 48.6 (203rd nationally, 11th in ACC)

Maryland’s tempo-adjusted profile has changed very little over the past three seasons, somewhat surprising when one considers just how bad things have gone. The Terps play at breakneck pace, and I’m not sure this was the correct way to do things given the personnel Williams had to work with. Even though Maryland got to the line more regularly than every ACC team but Duke, the Terps were so bad offensively in nearly every other area that their season EFG % still managed to come out looking terrible. The inexplicably low 2-PT FG % confirms what I already believed – that the Maryland bigs can’t convert around the rim to save their lives, and that none of Williams’ post-championship era recruits have developed effective midrange or offense creating tendencies.

Given Maryland’s obvious advantages in strength and athleticism and apparent lack of skill, did it really make sense for Williams to try running with North Carolina and Duke? Maybe the new additions will give the fast-paced offense a more realistic chance of succeeding.

Recruiting Report:

2007 Commitments(ACC Class Rank: 8th)
Scholarships available: 6
6’2 G/F Adrian Bowie, Rockville, MD ( 3-star)
6’9 PF Shane Walker, Alexandria, VA ( 3-star)
6’7 PF Dino Gregory, Baltimore, MD ( 3-star)
6’9 C Braxton Dupree, Baltimore, MD ( 4-star, #75 nationally)

Things seemed to be headed in the right direction recruiting wise after top 100 wing Jeff Jones followed highly regarded space eater Braxton Dupree in committing to the Terps. But Jones rocked the Terrapin program this summer by decommitting and eventually pledging to Virginia. Dupree fell in the post-summer rankings, and if Williams can’t get a blue chipper or two with his remaining scholarship slots, the Maryland talent level is going to begin looking more like it did in the pre-championship era than it has since. The Terps are aggressively pursuing elite 7-footer Anthony McClain, and definitely remain one of the top contenders for the services of speedster Jai Lucas, son of John and national top 50 recruit. There has also been some speculation that Maryland remains one of the few schools still looking after talented PF Herb Pope. It is hard to understand why Maryland hasn’t been able to turn the championship into a more elite level of recruiting, but this could also simply be Gary Williams returning to his roots in terms of his types of players.

Keys to the Season

Can a big man develop some offense? Maryland wasn’t able to affectively score in the paint last season, and Williams certainly needs more out of James Gist or Ekene Ibekwe this year. If not an offensive threat, at least somebody that can make a difference by knocking some bodies around and that won’t blow the easy ones around the rim.

Can the offense bounce back with a natural PG available? It is hard to count on the contributions of non-elite freshmen, but if there was ever a freshman who could help out more by contributing right away it would be Eric Hayes. If he is ready to go physically, the entire Maryland offense will benefit. DJ Strawberry can show us what he’s really made of at his natural position, and players like Jones, Gist, and Ibekwe will suddenly find life a lot easier. If Hayes can’t make an immediate impact, it is likely to be another long season in College Park.

Can the post national championship recruits reverse course before it is too late? Maryland suddenly was able to recruit with the big boys after the national championship run, but the new talent has brought a whole lot of nothing in terms of wins and losses. There is the school of thought that Gary Williams simply doesn’t relate well to the big egos and high-maintenance personalities that are often unavoidable when picking from the elite talent pool. At any rate, this is the last chance for those high-level recruits who picked Maryland because it appeared to be an emerging elite program. There have been chemistry problems, roster attrition, and a real lack of on-court cohesion going on three years now. If this group of once highly regarded seniors can’t get Gary Williams back to the dance, even the biggest Maryland supporters will be forced to admit that their program has taken a backward step or two.

Final Thoughts: This is it, folks. Does Gary Williams still have it? It might not be politically correct to ask that question right now, but you can bet that people are going to be asking it in waves if this program ends up in the NIT again. It is hard to put a finger on exactly what is wrong, but Williams has appeared more volatile and less connected to his players every year, and the Maryland system just doesn’t seem to be as affective as it used to be. Household names like Blake, Dixon, and Baxter would be unknown if not for Williams, but hardly a player has truly developed under his guidance since. Maryland can finish higher than 8th and should finish higher than 8th. But if I were a betting man…I would have lost a lot of money on the Terps over the past three years. The bandwagon will still be there once Williams has proven his program isn’t on the decline.

Prediction: 8th


05-06 Record: (19-13, 7-9)
Coach: Oliver Purnell (Clemson, 45-47 in 3 years; career, 301-238 overall)
Postseason: NIT 2nd round (def. Louisiana Tech 69-53, lost to Louisville 74-68)

2006 Season Review:

Over his first three seasons, Oliver Purnell has slowly pushed the Clemson basketball program back to the verge of respectability. And while it has been a two steps forward, one step backward type of process, things were oh so close last spring. Despite the graduation of longtime feature big man Sharrod Ford and the transfer of cornerstone recruit Cheyenne Moore, the Tigers managed to win their first eleven games of the season. Akin Akingbala emerged to replace Ford, and bouncy sophomore James Mays looked like a star in the making. Purnell’s up-tempo, pressure defense-based system clicked better than it ever had before, with explosive lead guards Vernon Hamilton and Cliff Hammonds combining to average nearly 4.5 steals per game.

While the Tigers would quickly fall back to earth once the ACC slate began, Clemson very easily could have gone dancing. Mays’ promising sophomore season would end at the semester break, an academic casualty. While Akingbala would continue to develop as the season went on, the size-challenged Tigers couldn’t overcome their inability to convert at the stripe. Clemson shot just 61% from the line as a team, and that included shooting specialist Shawan Robinson’s ACC leading (surprised it wasn’t JJ Redick?) 91.3% mark. Over the second half of the conference slate, Clemson was competitive on the road, achieved a couple of emphatic victories at home, and even the true conference powers couldn’t take the Tigers lightly. If Mays makes the grade or the foul-generating penetrators Hamilton and Hammonds were even average free throw shooters, we could be speculating on whether the Tigers are capable of making a return trip to the NCAA’s, instead of wondering if that breakthrough season will ever come…

Hamilton and Hammonds return to keep the pressure cooking, but the post presence (Akingbala) and the shooter (Robinson) are now history. Breaking out of the bottom tier in the ACC is a difficult bordering on impossible task, and many coaches don’t get more than one chance. It is now or never for Oliver Purnell and his Clemson Tigers…

Roster (* denotes 05-06 starter; ** denotes projected 06-07 starter)
Players on scholarship: 11

Key Losses
PG Troy Mathis, so (2.9 ppg)
CG Shawan Robinson (12.3 ppg, 91.3 FT%, 26.4 mpg)
*PF Akin Akingbala (12.1 ppg, 8.2 rpg, 1.3 bpg, 27.4 mpg)
C Steve Allen (3.1 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 0.9 bpg in 12.4 mpg)

*6’0 PG Vernon Hamilton, sr (12.0 ppg, 3.0 apg, 2.7 spg in 30.2 mpg)**
*6’3 CG Cliff Hammonds, jr (10.1 ppg, 3.3 apg, 1.8 spg in 29.7 mpg)**
*6’5 SF KC Rivers, so (7.1 ppg, 4.8 rpg in 25 mpg)**
6’7 SF Julius Powell, so (5.5 ppg, 2.7 rpg, in 16.8 mpg)
*6’5 CF Sam Perry, jr (6.3 ppg, 3.0 rpg, in 19.1 mpg)**
6’9 PF James Mays, jr (9.2 ppg, 7.6 rpg, 1.5 bpg)**
6’9 PF Raymond Sykes (6.6 mpg)

Starters: 3
Rotation Players: 7
Redshirts: 0
Sophomores: 3
Juniors: 3
Seniors: 1
05-06 Starts: 115 (3rd in ACC)
Career Starts: 202 (4th in ACC)
Scoring: 63.0%
Rebounding: 63.9%

Newcomers: (4)
6’6 SF David Potter, Washington DC via IMG (FL) Academy ( 3-star)
6’7 PF Trevor Booker, Union SC ( 4-star,
6’9 PF AJ Tyler, Palm Harbor, FL ( 3-star)
6’11 C Karolis Petrukonis, Lithuania via Norfolk (VA) Collegiate School ( 3-star)

ACC Recruiting Class rank: 10th

Schedule Analysis:

Non-Conference highlights:

Purnell hasn’t overwhelmed his generally young teams with challenges in the non-conference slate, and he really can’t be blamed for it the way that certain Tourney-snubbed ACC coaches were last spring. He clearly understands his team’s status in the ACC, and realizes that the NIT is more concerned about a winning record than a good non-conference RPI. This year’s schedule is a bit tougher than last season’s, but the Tigers yet again rarely travel out of the southeast.

Clemson will participate in a season-opening tournament hosted by CAA mainstay Old Dominion, and the ACC-Big Ten Challenge game is at Minnesota. We get a good chance to find out what this team is about when up and coming Mississippi State travels to Clemson on 11/21. The rest of the notables are regional matchups. The South Carolina game is in Columbia this year, while Western Carolina, Georgia and Georgia State are in town to end the slate.

Conference highlights:
Play once: (@ NC State, North Carolina, Virginia, @ Wake Forest, Miami, @ Virginia Tech)

Once again, January is not going to be an easy month for Oliver Purnell. The Tigers play all the contenders, and must travel to Tallahassee, College Park, and Durham. An early road game against NC State will be a must-win. The second half of conference play will be much easier, but it is easy to see this team in much too deep a hole by then. On the other hand, if they do manage to pull off a couple of upsets early in the season, Clemson will have positioned itself well for a potential Tourney run.

Roster Analysis:

Backcourt: Purnell basketball is all about pressure, and that requires quick, conditioned guards that don’t mind focusing on defense. He hasn’t managed to hit the home run on the recruiting path, but has done a good job of developing the lead guards who have signed on. Clemson will have to find a replacement for Shawan Robinson’s outside shooting presence, but no there is no obvious answer here. More than ever, as go Hamilton and Hammonds, so go the Tigers.

Senior Vernon Hamilton and junior Cliff Hammonds comprise one of the top returning lead guard duos in the country. They complement each other fairly well, and are nearly the sole reason Purnell’s pressure defense was even somewhat effective a season ago. Hamilton became a game-changing presence last season, leading the ACC in steals and breaking Clemson’s career record in just his third season. His physicality, quick hands and relentless ability to anticipate was quite fearful considering Hamilton’s elite speed with ball in hand. Hammonds is much more of a combo guard, a thick-bodied standout individual defender and superb shot creator on the offensive end. A great open-court passer, Hammonds loves to get into the lane and toss up his patented midrange floater. Simply put, Hamilton and Hammonds represent the turbocharged engine that powers Purnell’s system, and the reason for Tiger fans to keep up hope.

The issue here is that neither is a particularly good shooter. Hammonds has decent form, but shot just 40.2% from the field and 28.3% from beyond the arc last year. Hamilton shot 35.5% from three, but nobody would ever mistake him for a shooter as defenders rarely play the speedster honestly. The two should be able to penetrate and draw fouls at will, but neither was able to manage even 60% from the free throw line a season ago. If the Tigers want to go anywhere this season, the lead guards must become reliable free throw shooters, and Purnell must find a defense-stretching perimeter shooting presence to replace the graduate Shawan Robinson.

Unfortunately, the other options are somewhat limited here. Beefy sophomore KC Rivers will get the call at SF, after a mildly productive freshman season. Rivers has a strength advantage against most perimeter players, but too often forced his offense as a rookie and must continue to polish his perimeter skillset. As far as that shooting specialist goes, freshman wing David Booker will get his chance early and often. If not Booker, sophomore 6’7 SF Julius Powell will once again be allowed to drift around on the three point line, mostly wasting his length and formidable athleticism.

Frontcourt: Who replaces Akingbabla in the paint? We asked this same question a season ago after the graduation of Sharrod Ford, and Akingbala went above and beyond the call of duty in providing the answer. It looked like Purnell would actually have a few options in the paint early in the season, but then James Mays got the academic axe. Mays will have all the weight on his shoulders this season, with a group of inexperienced underclassmen will have to fill in the gaps.

After a 19 point outburst that keyed a blowout win over South Carolina, it appeared that James Mays was a star in the making. Unfortunately, Mays would play in just 5 more games on the season, never making it to ACC play. Mays is a freak athlete and the other key cog of Purnell’s full-court pressure, capable of putting up the type of well-rounded numbers that make fantasy basketball fans blush on draft night. He turned things around in the classroom and is back on the team. If James Mays can provide Purnell with a double-double presence, Clemson is going to do some damage in the ACC this year.

In terms of other options, junior combo forward Sam Perry and freshman Trevor Booker are probably the frontrunners for playing time. Perry is probably the best athlete on a team full of athletes, but at 6’5 is yet to show the skill necessary to play full-time on the perimeter. Booker, a borderline top 100 recruit, is a lefty PF who would provide a huge lift if he was capable of helping out right away. PF Raymond Sykes didn’t earn a consistent role last season, but is capable of stealing some minutes. Two little-known freshmen will get their chances to contribute. AJ Tyler is perimeter-oriented PF that probably needs a year of physical development, while Lithuanian big man Karolis Petrukonis may qualify as the only true C on the Clemson roster. Petrukonis didn’t make too many waves on this side of the ocean after playing a season at Norfolk (VA) Collegiate, but he did join Tywon Lawson, Cenk Akyol, Kevin Durant, and Rudy Gay on the All-Tournament Team at the 2005 Nike World Juniors, held in Douai, France.

Backcourt: B
Frontcourt: C
Depth: C+
Experience: B

Tempo-Adjusted Tigers:

05-06 Tempo: 71.0 poss/40 min (50th nationally, down from 39th in 05-06, 4th in the ACC)
05-06 Opponents’ TO %: 25.9 (9th nationally, 1st in the ACC)
05-06 TO%: 20.5 (138th nationally, up from 290th in 05-06, 6th in ACC)
05-06 FT Rate: 22.3 (262nd nationally, 12th in ACC)

Clemson’s unique play style leads to a lot being revealed in their tempo-adjusted profile. The first thing to notice is that the pressure defense was doing its job in terms of creating turnovers and forcing tempo. As far as creating turnovers, the Tigers were the second best high-major team in the country. Clemson didn’t allow many 3-pointers (5th in opponents’ 3FGA/FGA), stifled ball movement (20th in opponents’ A/FGM), and the Tigers ranked 29th in overall defensive efficiency, despite opponents shooting the ball very well and getting to the line a lot. These are all signs that the pressure D was doing its job.

Unfortunately, Clemson had one monster of an Achilles heel. They shot just 61.4% from the line, a staggeringly bad 327th place amongst D1 teams.

The issue here lies in the inability of Hamilton and Hammonds to effectively convert at the stripe. With all the breakaway opportunities this duo created and their ability to get into the lane, one would have expected the Tigers to shoot a lot of free throws. They did not, indicating that the inability to make shots at the line made Hamilton and Hammonds less aggressive in attacking the basket. This can also be seen in Clemson’s over-reliance on the 3-pointer (lots of attempts in spite of a poor percentage).

Statistically, this issue shows up in the FT Rate stat. Clemson shot poor from the line and didn’t get there enough, leading to a horrendous 262nd place in that stat. Their opponents shot poorly as well, but not as bad and got to the line more often.

My take: if Purnell wants his pressure defense to result in more wins instead of just more steals, he better teach his guards to make the freebies.

Recruiting Report:

2007 Commitments(ACC Class Rank: 7th)
Scholarships available: 3
6’2 CG Demontez Stitt, Matthews, NC ( 3-star)
6’1 CG Terrence Oglesby, Cleveland, TN ( 3-star)
6’8 PF LaRon Dendy, Greer, SC ( 4-star, #72 nationally)
6’8 PF Jerai Grant, Hyattsville, MD ( 3-star)
2008 Commitments
6’0 PG Pierre Jordan, Dunwoody, GA ( 3-star)

Purnell probably needed to bring in some talent for next fall, and has done a decent job with his 2007 class. The feature recruit would be in-state big man LaRon Dendy, certainly your typical Clemson-mold big man, but also the most highly regarded recruit Purnell has signed since taking over. Oglesby will eventually step into Robinson’s role, as an undersized shooting specialist with range. Stitt, another Clemson-style floor general in that he is athletic enough but will have to shoot the ball better, picked the Tigers even though a hot summer brought new offers from schools like Memphis and Oklahoma. The latest commitment reaffirms that the ties between Clemson basketball and its most storied family are still strong. Jerai Grant, son of former NBA player Gerald and Chicago Bull Horace, is a still-developing PF out of powerhouse Dematha (MD) High.

Purnell appears to be over the scholarship limit already, but continues to heavily recruit top 100 wings Dorenzo Hudson and Jason Henry.

Keys to the Season

Will a shooter emerge in the backcourt? Shawan Robinson had a downright crummy year shooting the ball. But his graduation is still an issue, because of how poorly everybody else shot it as well. While sophomore Julius Powell can shoot it, Purnell needs his size down low. Freshmen David Potter and AJ Tyler are being billed as shooters, but neither has the type of pedigree that usually indicates being ready to contribute as a newcomer. Beyond somebody out this group stepping up, Cliff Hammonds needs to start shooting the ball like everybody knows he can.

Who replaces Akin Akingbala? It is déjà vu for Clemson fans, as they have been left wondering who will take over for Purnell’s latest departed scoring presence. James Mays is going to be a big contributor, but he is more of a hustle type than a post scorer. And do you really want your most experienced big man’s claim to fame to be 9 points and 7 rebounds over an 11 game stretch against mostly low-major competition? Trevor Booker could provide some scoring pop, but he is anything but a given as a freshman. It would be a godsend if Purnell could rely on incoming freshman Karolis Petrukonis for 20 minutes per game.

Can this team shoot free throws? The Tigers lost quite a few close games last year, and don’t think for a minute that free throw shooting wasn’t a factor. It is understandable that the Tigers would be a below average free throw shooting team, but not this bad. The shooting in general was bad, so maybe better conditioning could help. But the fact of the matter is that Vern Hamilton and Cliff Hammonds shooting better than 70% from the line last year probably would have resulted in a couple of extra wins for this team. Now, the ACC’s worst free throw shooting team loses the ACC’s best free throw shooter. Given Clemson’s style of play, a turnaround at the stripe is an absolute must.

Final Thoughts: There is still reason for optimism at Clemson. Purnell is a great coach with a unique, fun-to-watch brand of basketball. He recruits the right players for his system, and they generally buy in to his philosophies. It is hard to say that Purnell hasn’t done a good job in his three years at Clemson. But at the same time, it takes more than just a good job to get a program out of the bottom tier of the ACC. Purnell must go above and beyond the call of duty within the next couple of seasons, or people are going to start getting antsy. Last season was one opportunity, but poor free throw shooting and the loss of Mays midway through the year ended any those thoughts. The Tigers should be able to match last season’s record, but it is time for that next step. While Hamilton and Hammonds are now cut from the mold of experienced ballhandler that usually wins games, Clemson also lost their contributor in several of their weakest areas from a season ago. A summer of hard work could be the difference, but quite a few things will have to go right for Clemson to finally get back to the Dance. Health, the development of key returnees, the emergence of a reliable contributor at several positions, and the contribution of the freshman class are all musts if Clemson wants to find itself back in the NCAA Tournament this coming March. Anything less, and some may start to wonder just how much progress is being made. Another sub .500 season certainly won’t be viewed as a step in the right direction.

Prediction: 9th

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