We conclude our ACC preview heading into the weekend.
What Miami did well: Score while missing shots.
There are many paths to creating a solid offense, and they all start with the ability to make shots. Shot-making doesn't guarantee an effective offense, but it provides the foundation for one. Miami didn't shoot very well, finishing the season just a smidge under 49% in eFG terms, just 47% in ACC play.
Even with all of those misfires, the Hurricanes' offense was the reason they won when they did. It was fairly respectable because they were able to rebound 38.2% of their own misses and commit turnovers on just 18.2% of their possessions. Neither figure is worthy of a double-take, but both are solidly above average. They were enough to allow Miami's offense to be effective against the weaker defenses on their schedule, even if the offense never really looked good to the naked eye.
What we learned in 2007: Predicting what will happen in a single game is difficult.
A core element of the sports-radio business predicting what will happen in a big game, occasionally with logical reasoning behind the call. I'll confess to falling into that trap once or twice a season myself. Every once in a while, a game comes along that defies reasonable explanation. One such game last season took place when Miami traveled to Maryland on January 10. Somehow, the Hurricanes went into the Comcast Center, shot 33.6% (eFG)...and won. Of all D-I teams that shot between 33 and 34% in a game, only seven of 91 came out victorious. Only six teams shot worse than Miami did and won during the 2007 season. What's amazing was what had to happen for Miami to win the game (and fairly easily--they trailed for just 51 seconds in the entire second half).
The Hurricanes were easily the worst defensive team in the ACC, allowing opponents to score 1.17 points per possession in 16 conference games, a figure exceeded only by Penn State among power conference schools. But on that night, on that special night in College Park, Miami put forth a defensive effort that, had they been able to duplicate it for the remainder of their ACC schedule, would have given them the best defense in the country by a wide margin. Maryland scored just 58 points in 71 possessions, their least efficient output of the season, and Miami's best defensive game of the year except for home games against Alcorn State and Florida International in November.
It should be mentioned that these two teams had a rematch in the first round of the ACC Tournament that resulted in another display of offensive ineptitude and another five-point win for Miami. Maybe there was a logical explanation for why Miami could shut down Maryland, but it's hard to imagine why Maryland would struggle shooting against one of the smaller lineups in the league, considering every other team had its way with the Hurricanes.
What's in store for 2008: Miami was brought into the ACC for its football program, and so far it's done well in football. It's not surprising that the hoops team has struggled, posting 18 conference wins in its first three seasons in the league. There is reason for optimism in year four, though, if only because that Miami should be slightly improved and the league as a whole will be not be as strong as it was last season.
Anthony Harris, the third-leading scorer and starting point guard off of last year's team, is gone. Harris shot just 42% from 2-point range, 32% from 3-point range, and rarely got to the free-throw line. It will be fairly easy to replace his points, it's just not easy to say who will do it. The Canes also lost reserve point guard Denis Clemente, who was booted off the team shortly after the end of the season. So needless to say, there is some uncertainty at the point. Junior Jack McClinton can play either the one or the two, and Frank Haith has a couple of newcomers who will compete for minutes at the point. Juco prospect Lance Hurdle joins the team having had a year of experience at UC Santa Barbara two years ago. Considering Hurdle played just 162 minutes at UCSB, he's probably not likely to see significant minutes in ACC play. Miami may get significant minutes from freshman Edwin Rios, who could have played at a more high-profile program, but stuck with a commitment he made to Miami before his junior season at Miami Senior High School.
Miami will continue to maintain its dominance in rebounding. Anthony King should be the starting center after being granted a fifth year of eligibility from the NCAA. He'll be joined by sophomore Dwayne Collins up front, who was one of the best offensive rebounders in the country during his freshman season. Brian Asbury returns to start on the wing, and with junior Jimmy Graham coming off the bench, the Hurricanes have four above-average rebounders at their positions. This is a front line that Frank Haith's mentor, Rick Barnes, could be proud of with respect to rebounding. The big men don't bring much scoring punch, although with the possessions that Harris vacates, it wouldn't come as a shock if Collins develops into a reliable double-digit scorer.
The real problem is still the defense. King can be a deterrent in the lane, and Miami's two-point percentage allowed fell from 39th in the nation in 2006 to 271st last season, a horrific 55.4% during ACC play.
The three-point defense (300th last season) is likely to improve just by regressing to the mean, and the two-point percentage is likely to improve with the presence of King, so overall the defense will get better. The only question is by how much. Miami should have an offense in the ballpark of last season's team and the odds are heavily stacked that they'll be luckier in terms of their performance in close games than last season. At this time, the schedule appears to be pretty much average. If the schedule tilts heavily their way, Miami could be the surprise story of the conference.
What North Carolina did well: Just about everything.
When you finish the season with one of the most efficient offenses and one of the most efficient defenses in the nation, you have to do a bunch of things well. The Tar Heels ranked in the top 100 in all but one of the four offensive and defensive factors. There was only one other team in the game that could claim that, Notre Dame.
North Carolina did just about everything well, yet they didn't dominate in any single area. Collective strength across a bunch of different categories is one way to win a championship. However, Carolina had to settle for a conference championship instead of a national one, and even then they lost five ACC games, including one to 5-11 NC State. How could a team that looked so good on paper have such an unspectacular season?
For one thing, the Tar Heels were no good at pulling out close games. In their seven losses, they were outscored by a combined 27 points during regulation. They were 5-7 in games that were decided by single digits or went to overtime. Keep in mind that this team missed its last nine field goal attempts in the regional final against Georgetown, which turned a game in which UNC had a comfortable margin into a nailbiter, and one they eventually lost in OT after Jonathan Wallace nailed a three on Georgetown's last possession of regulation. Had something a little different happened in the final minutes of regulation, the tone of a 2007 Tar Heel season review might be much different.
What we learned: Sometimes you deserve bad luck.
It's a little simplistic to say that fate got in the way of another Tar Heel title run. For one thing, the collapse against the Hoyas was partly the result of a glaring weakness--the lack of any perimeter shooting. As Carolina tried to milk the clock and earn a trip to Atlanta, it was settling for jumpers. It was not only playing into its own weakness but into Georgetown's defensive strength.
While the Heels' offense was consistently devastating--they failed to score a point per possession in just two games all season--the lack of an outside threat or two was the biggest difference between this team and the 2005 version that won a national title. And yes, their record in close games had much to do with circumstances beyond their control. But favorable circumstances also allowed their weakness to mean little before the NCAA Tournament.
UNC was fortunate to play in a conference that, considering it was arguably the conference with the most talent last season, wasn't known for its fierce front lines. Maryland and Virginia were the only ACC teams to rank in the top 50 nationally in two-point percentage defense. Even though Clemson and Boston College had prolific block percentages, both tended to give up easy baskets against all levels of competition. UNC, with Tyler Hansbrough and Brandan Wright up front and a host of slashing wings and guards, didn't shoot threes as a first option. As a result of rarely being forced into a perimeter shot as a second or third option in conference play, the Tar Heels were one of only ten teams in the nation that got fewer than 20% of their ponts from beyond the arc.
There were signs during an early-season loss to Gonzaga that the UNC offense could not survive if they had to settle for jump shots. Amazingly, the contest against the notoriously soft 'Zags defense was one of the two games in which UNC didn't score a point per possession. This was something that could have been dismissed, because Roy Williams was still working on the backcourt rotation at the time. Then they struggled a little with Maryland and Virginia in ACC play. Reality hit with a draw in the NCAA Tournament that forced UNC to battle their shooting demons against three outstanding defensive front lines in consecutive games.
They passed the first test against Michigan State by getting Marquise Gray in foul trouble and thriving on free-throw shooting. In the regional semifinal against USC, the Heels went 2-for-14 on threes and 5-for-24 on two-point jumpers, and tneeded to overcome a 16-point second half deficit to advance. That led to the legendary collapse against Georgetown, which featured Carolina missing 21 consecutive field-goal attempts before Wayne Ellington made a meaningless three-pointer on the Heels' final possession in overtime.
Of those 21 shots, nine were three pointers and four were jumpers inside the arc. Certainly some of the shot selection was due to playing catchup in overtime, but even at the end of regulation, only one of UNC's last nine field-goal attempts--all misses--was classified as a lay-up by the official scorer.
What's in store for 2008: Brandan Wright's decision to move to the NBA does raise a bunch of questions for UNC. For one thing, Wright's replacement, some combination of Deon Thompson and Alex Stepheson, almost certainly will provide less production on both ends of the floor this season. The graduation of Reyshawn Terry will open up minutes on the wing for Marcus Ginyard, Danny Green or redshirt freshman William Graves. Ginyard was nearly invisible offensively last season, taking barely more than one of every ten UNC field-goal attempts while he was on the floor and just 11 threes all season. Green, on the other hand, does just about everything a basketball player can do, though perhaps none of them good enough to get a lot of attention. Terry was one of two legitimate long-range threats last season (Wayne Ellington being the other) and it figures that it will be less easy to hide a lack of three-point offense with opposing defenses more likely to double Tyler Hansbrough.
With the dire warnings out of the way, UNC still has Hansbrough. Despite the early murmurs of his game having regressed last season, Pyscho T almost exactly duplicated his freshman production and efficiency.
Tyler Hansbrough Career Stats
Season FGM/40 FGA/40 TO/40 FTM/40 FTA/40 Pts/40
2006-07 8.0 15.3 2.6 8.5 11.1 24.6
2005-06 8.4 14.8 3.3 7.9 10.7 24.9
It's easy to look at his field-goal percentage (52.8% last season compared to 57.1% in 2006) and claim that he took a step back, but that was offset by a reduced turnover rate and an uptick in his free-throw shooting. Make no mistake, he'll miss having Wright on the floor, especially defensively where Hansbrough is a bit limited and Wright was outstanding.
The backcourt of Lawson and Ellington will be one of the best in the conference, and given their youth, this is one area to expect improvement from this team. Will it be enough to offset what should be a step back at the three and four positions? Maybe not, but in a year when the top of college hoops will be down, UNC will still have enough to challenge for a Final Four appearance.
What N.C. State did well: Make shots.
Somewhat secretively, N.C. State gave us the tallest team in college hoops last season. In a few ways, the Wolfpack didn't adhere to the stereotypes of being tall, but in most ways they did. The most obvious was that they shot very well from the field. I'm reluctant to describe them as a good shooting team because this club didn't really exhibit any kind of touch, being an ordinary three-point shooting team and a team that, in contrast to teams of the Herb Sendek era, didn't shoot the three much, anyway.
What we learned in 2007: Sidney Lowe won't be a disaster as a college coach.
When Sendek departed Raleigh for the head gig at Arizona State, it was viewed in one of two ways by folks around the Wolfpack program. There was one faction that saw it as a chance to clean the state and start over after ten seasons of mediocrity. The often faction posited that State's mediocrity was relative to the expectations of the rest of Tobacco Road, that this was a team that had made five consecutive appearances in the NCAA Tournament.
Then came the search for a replacement, which athletic director Lee Fowler took as a challenge to find someone that could rival Roy Williams or Mike Kryzyzewski in terms of name recognition. Upon failing in his quest, Fowler had to settle for Sidney Lowe, at the time a Detroit Pistons assistant. Lowe brought with him a 79-228 record as an NBA head man in three separate stints, and no coaching experience at the collegiate level.
Lowe had to deal with Cedric Simmons' jump to the NBA and Andrew Brackman's defection to baseball, and on top of that lost a couple of Sendek's recruits after his hiring. It seemed that the media was justified in picking State to finish last in the ACC at the pre-season media day.
But given the dire outlook last summer, the Wolfpack proved over the course of the season that they weren't the worst team in the conference. They finished the regular season 5-11 against a tougher than average conference schedule. But when you include their ACC tournament run, with every game against the top half of the league, they went a credible 8-12. Nice stuff for a team that a few thought might struggle to win a couple of conference games. Lowe wasn't considered for ACC coach of the year. That doesn't happen when you finish one game out of the cellar. But as far as coaching surprises go, Lowe's effort in 2007 was one of the best.
It's too early to have a good idea whether Lowe can accomplish want Jim Valvano or Norm Sloan did in the past - put a team on the court that will contend for a national title. But based on what took place during his first season as a college head coach and this season's recruiting class, Lowe will have the opportunity to build towards that elusive goal.
What's in store for 2008: State brings everyone of note back, except point guard Engin Atsur. And they bring in at least one impact recruit in power forward JJ Hickson. So improvement is all but guaranteed. The go-to guy for Lowe this season will once again be Brandon Costner. A 6-9 forward that redshirted the 2006 season after suffering a leg injury in November, Costner finished third in ACC freshman of the year voting in 2007, behind first-round picks Javaris Crittenton and Brandan Wright. Costner came to prominence in the ACC tournament, with a 30 point performance against Duke in the first round and a 28 point effort in the championship loss to North Carolina. But in reality, Costner was the Wolfpack's offensive stud from the beginning of the season.
Without Atsur, minutes at the point will be up for grabs. The most likely possibility is Farnold Degand, a transfer from Iowa State who bolted to Raleigh when head coach Wayne Morgan was fired after the 2006 season. Degand redshirted that season, so he'll be playing his first college game this season. The other option is freshman Javier Gonzalez, but a thumb injury will keep him from playing until December at the earliest. The uncertainty is viewed as no small matter, since Atsur appeared to give NC State a boost when he returned in January from a foot injury. State lost his first game back against Virginia, but then won at Virginia Tech and beat North Carolina in Raleigh. Atsur's impact gained legendary status at that point. But Atsur's influence was equal parts Engin Atsur being an above average ACC point guard and the fact that Sidney Lowe did not have a backup point guard. Let's look at NC State's adjusted efficiency with and without Atsur in the lineupů
Adj. OE Adj. DE
With Atsur (23 games) 115.2 96.4
Without Atsur (13 games) 107.9 99.7
With Atsur playing, State's Pythagorean winning percentage was .886 which would rank in the 50s nationally. Without Atsur, it was .711, or just out of the top 100. I don't think State will be that poor without Atsur this season. They'll have someone capable of running the point. The worst case scenario is that the point guard will be ineffective, but at least they'll be a point guard. So I'd still bet the farm on an improvement out of the Pack. Unless the point-guard play surprises or Costner vaults himself to All-American material, around .500 in conference is a reasonable expectation. Keep in mind the conference schedule has State playing UNC, Duke, and Clemson twice, so a breakthrough 10 or 11 win season would be very impressive and probably mean State is deserving of a top four seed in the NCAA Tournament. Obviously, it's possible that could happen, but it's a big jump to make in a year.
However, with Sidney Lowe establishing himself as a solid recruiter, and based on last season, a solid game coach, it may not be long before State is a fixture near the top of the conference.
What Virginia did well: Get production from its backcourt.
Sean Singletary and JR Reynolds dominated their offense like few other backcourts in the country. So much so that there wasn't another player on the Cavalier roster that used his fair 20% share of possessions while he was on the court.
Singletary and Reynolds did just about everything a backcourt could do offensively - they shot the 3 well and often, but they also attacked the hoop plenty. Reynolds was three free-throw attempts short of making the Reynolds/Singletary duo the second set of teammates to get to the line 200 times each last season (the Wyoming backcourt of Brandon Ewing and Brad Jones was the only one.) Singletary was one of only five players in the country to take at least 200 shots from the free throw line, 2-point range, and 3-point range, a feat that can only be accomplished by having a balanced game, playing a lot, and being heavily involved in the offense.
But even with the top-heavy offense, UVa had no problem scoring. Which says a lot about Singletary and Reynolds. Opposing defenses knew it was a two-man offense and for the most part still couldn't do anything about it. That said, the offense wasn't perfect. There was the notable trip to Puerto Rico in December, where the offense struggled against Appalachian State and the mighty Tarzans of Division II Puerto Rico-Mayaguez. But overall, it was the defense that let this team down more often than not. A balanced offense is usually difficult to stop. Amazingly, the starting backcourt was able to provide that balance all by itself.
What we learned in 2007: Schedule means a lot.
Virginia fans will say, "Hey we beat the teams that were on our schedule!" as any fan base would when some other explanation besides talent is used to explain their success. Yes, the Cavaliers did beat the teams on their schedule, but that schedule was the easiest in the conference. The point here is not that UVa wasn't the second-place team in the ACC. The point is that they weren't the second-best team in the ACC. They had the luxury of playing the 11th and 12th best teams in the conference twice. They also got to play the 10th place team, N.C. State, twice. Once with their only point guard, Engin Atsur, out due to injury. Without Engin Atsur, the Wolfpack was not any better than the 11th and 12th best teams.
On top of that, Lady Luck was also generous to UVa in conference. (Out of conference play was another matter, where UVA suffered last-possession losses to Stanford and Gonzaga.)Point differential isn't as good of an indicator of team strength in college basketball as it is in other sports, but it's still somewhat informative. The Cavaliers outscored their opponents by only 26 points during conference play, suggesting a record of 9-7 suited their play more. But such is the nature of the ACC regular season since the powers-that-be refuse to attempt to balance the schedules through a divisional format.
Fortunately for UVa, the NCAA Basketball Committee has too little time during the selection process to understand this. They rewarded the 'Hoos with a four-seed in the tourney, even after a first round loss in the ACC Tournament. And in a normal season, that's what the second-place ACC team would deserve.
What's in store for 2008: One thing seems certain - Virginia won't be a two-man team anymore.
Replacing Reynolds' scoring will be difficult enough, but there also is a need to replace his ability to break down the defense. Reynolds was not a spot-up-and-shoot type of guy. He was often at his best penetrating, and even playing off-guard he was better than a lot of point guards at setting up his teammates (although often that was Singletary).
Dave Leitao signed an incoming class of four, at least three of whom will be expected to jump start the offense. It may actually be good news for Virginia that Jeff Jones is coming back. Not that Jeff Jones, the head coach that succeeded the legendary Terry Holland and has been exiled in the Patriot League for the past seven seasons. The new Jeff Jones is a shooting guard out of Philadelphia that will have every opportunity to absorb the minutes left by Reynolds. Incoming freshman Mustapha Farrakhan (yes, related) will also compete for minutes at SG while spelling Singletary for two or three necessary minutes each game.
The Cavs also lose PF/C Jason Cain who was the team's best rebounder the last two seasons but was offensively limited. At 6-10, he was unable to shoot over 50% from the field in each of the last two seasons. Enter 6-8 PF prospect Mike Scott, who should get the opportunity to play on what was an offensively challenged frontline.
Virginia will need one of the returning players to increase his contribution significantly to maintain the offensive production of last season. Sophomore SG/SF Will Harris is probably the most likely to do that. Nigerian Tunji Soroye was the starter in the middle down the stretch, but Soroye had the ignominy of being the most infrequent shooter in the conference, both in terms of per minute (3.6 FGA/40 minutes) and relative to his own team (6.2% of his team's shots while he was on the floor). Adrian Joseph got a lot minutes at the 3 and the 4, but preferred perimeter jumpers and almost never got to the free throw line. He took 199 shots and made it to the line eight times, the lowest ratio in the nation for anyone taking at least 150 shots.
About the only guarantee is that Singletary will get a lot of attention from the defense. Without a scoring threat at the 4 or 5 positions, this will again be a perimeter-dominated team offensively. So there's little reason to think that Virginia won't again lead the conference in the percentage of shots they take from beyond the arc. Which means that the O will continue to run hot and cold. Without Reynolds, it's reasonable to expect a little more cold this season.
One thing going against Virginia is that the conference schedule is not so generous any more. If the freshmen are able to contribute, Virginia will be fighting it out in the middle of the conference. If not, this will be a rebuilding year in the truest sense of the term.
What Virginia Tech did well: Steal games.
Literally. The Hokies led the nation in steal margin per possession. It's basketball anathema to play defense with your hands instead of your feet, but that's what Tech's senior backcourt did, and did well. Both Zabian Dowdell and Jamon Gordon ranked in the top 100 nationally in steals per 100 possessions. Dowdell's rate of 3.7 ranked 77th and Gordon ranked 7th overall and 1st in the conference with a steal rate of 5.3. As a team, the Hokies had the 22nd best steal rate nationally, and with the ball largely in the hands of sure-handed Dowdell and Gordon, their own steal rate was the 6th lowest in the nation.
The difference between the Hokies and opponents steal rates was 5.3 steals per 100 possessions. Overall, this was Tech's calling card, as they were not impressive in categories unrelated to turnovers. They provided a four-factor profile that led one to believe they relied on perimeter play - they forced and didn't commit turnovers, and didn't rebound well or get to the free throw line a lot. Yet they rarely shot 3-pointers - only two other D-I teams took a lower percentage of their shots from beyond the arc. This was out of necessity, since neither starting guard ever exhibited the ability to consistently make the 3.
What we learned in 2007: There are two ways to acquire talent in the ACC.
You can either rent the guys that will be drafted into the NBA after a year or two of college. Or you can develop the talent yourself. I think every program prefers the former method, because whether we like it or not, the teams that do that seem to have consistent success. But only certain teams can get the few players that fall into that category. If you're Virginia Tech, you're not in the group that goes after Brandan Wright, Javaris Crittenton, or Josh McRoberts. You have to develop talent to succeed. And that's what Seth Greenberg did, reaping in 2007 what he sowed by starting Dowdell, Gordon, and center Coleman Collins for the previous three seasons.
The Hokies didn't get to the NCAA Tournament on the strength of those three seniors alone, but it does make one wonder how consistently Tech can chase at-large bids when it took Dowdell and Gordon four years to be the dynamic backcourt that consistently outmatched conference opponents. Does it mean that the Hokies have to wait another four years to go dancing?
What's in store for 2008: If any ACC team can be described as rebuilding, it is Virginia Tech. They lose three starters and their top reserve to graduation. The Hokies return both wings in Deron Washington and A.D. Vassallo, and they will almost surely end up as the team's top two scorers. Washington can best be described as "active". Much of his activity is positive - forcing steals, getting to the line, grabbing offensive boards, blocking shots, leaping Duke's Greg Paulus on a dunk. The activity comes at a price, though, and Washington's foul rate remained on the high side in his sophomore season. He got whistled for 4.45 fouls per 40 minutes, down only slightly from 4.55 in 2006. Vassallo on the other hand is somewhat one-dimensional. He hasn't seen a shot he didn't like, but he made 41.5% of his 3's last season, so that's not a bad quality. Both Vassallo and Washington will score this season, how efficiently is yet to be determined.
Also yet to be determined is how those two guys will get the basketball. Not only have Dowdell and Gordon moved on, but Seth Greenberg also loses Markus Sailes who provided valuable reserve minutes at both the 1 and the 2 last season. That leaves the door wide open for backcourt minutes. Sophomore Nigel Munson did get meaningful minutes at the point last season, most notably 17 of them in the Hokies home victory against North Carolina, when Munson had a tidy 10-point, 3-assist line.
However, Munson unexpectedly left the program over the summer, meaning that Tech will not just be starting a backcourt without any previous college experience, but will see true freshmen handle nearly all of the minutes at the two guard positions. The trio of Malcolm Delaney, Hank Thorns, and Dorenzo Hudson will be entrusted to distribute the ball for Seth Greenberg, with Delaney and Hudson being the more highly touted of the three.
The center position will also be characterized by inexperience, just not to the degree that the backcourt will be. Junior Cheick Diakite and sophomore Lewis Witcher are the only returning candidates to fill the vacancy of departing senior Coleman Collins. Neither was heavily involved offensively in their rare minutes last season, but then again, there weren't many shots to go around when some combination of Dowdell, Gordon, Washington, and Vassallo was on the court. Diakite has at least proven that he can block shots, and thus should have the upper hand on the starting spot. He swatted about one of every 11 opponents' 2-point attempts, a rate only exceeded by one starter in the conference, Maryland senior Ekene Ibekwe.
The Hokies don't want to be in the position to have to score a lot of points. They don't have the fire power to do so. If Diakite can develop into a defensive impact player to go along with Washington in that category, Tech will at least be in position to win a few games with its defense. But most of the 2008 season will be reserved for seeing if the unheralded backcourt can develop into something that can lead the Hokies to back to the top half of the conference in 2009 and beyond.
Note: With the sudden and shocking passing of head coach Skip Prosser in July, the tone of Wake Forest's off-season became completely different from the other 11 teams in the conference. This preview was written before Prosser's death. It was tempting to rewrite it, since Wake's 2008 season will be an emotional one. However, analytics don't handle emotion well, and once Wake's season tips off on November 9th, no opponent will be feeling sorry for them, nor will any member of the Demon Deacons feel sorry for themselves. This preview is not intended to avoid the impact Skip Prosser had on the Wake Forest program. But like any other team preview, it is meant to provide an objective look at Wake Forest's 2008 season.
What Wake Forest did well: Um, this is a toughie.
Yes, I'd like to keep it positive in this section, but the honest truth is that Wake struggled in a bunch of different areas. They have a recent history of being defensively deficient, a malady that has become more obvious since Chris Paul left town. The story in 2007 was that the Wake offense was about as bad as the defense. And that shouldn't come as a surprise considering the Demon Deacons only had one capable offensive option. Even though they were two wins better in conference play than the previous season, there's a case that they were better two seasons ago. And actually, that case is very strong.
Season Record PF PA Opp ACC Record
2006 3-13 1155 1248 126-114
2007 5-11 1090 1228 119-121
The conference schedule was friendlier last season, and Wake had a worse point differential anyways. Wake's two-game improvement was more the result of circumstances beyond their control than any real improvement in their play.
What we learned in 2007: Ishmael Smith is fascinating.
While Wake finished near the ACC cellar for the second season in a row, it wasn't without some interesting storylines. No player was more intriguing that Ishmael Smith. With arguably the quickest feet in the conference, the 5-11 Smith burst onto the conference scene as one of the more dynamic playmakers in league. This was Smith's rep as a recruit, but he wasn't expected to be a good shooter. Yet miraculously, he was able to make 35.4% of his 3-point attempts.
Now, 35.4% accuracy on 3-point shots is nothing special - it's barely above the national average for last season, and Smith was very discriminating in his shot selection, taking only 65 attempts over the 31 games he played. Smith is going to be fun to watch for years to come, and Wake fans might be hopeful that he'll be not only be a premier playmaker but also a point guard whose jump shot must be respected. Well, I'm here to dash the shooting aspect of that equation.
The glaring red flag to Smith duplicating his freshman accuracy over more attempts is that he made just 46.2% of his free throw attempts. Finding players that miss more free throws than they make is difficult, but not impossible. Of the 1,697 players that took at least 50 free throws last season, 62 of them (or roughly one in 27) shot worse than 50%. But point guards are a little different that the general population.
I'm not man enough to meticulously determine who played point guard for all 336 D-I teams in 2007. But I can apply a filter to everyone's college stats to quickly find a large group of players that contains mostly point guards. Only players that have an assist rate above 20%, and offensive rebounding percentage below 3% and played at least 24 minutes per game are included. There were 211 players in this category last season, and Ishmael Smith was the only one who didn't make half of his free throws.
Unfortunately for Ish, such a poor free throw percentage is usually a giveaway for a lack of touch. It's not impossible that Smith could eventually become a 3-point threat, but chances are he won't. It's imperative that Smith is surrounded with good shooters or Wake can expect to see more zone over the next three seasons in an effort to contain Smith's strength as a drive-and-dish point guard.
What's in store for 2008: Wake suffers two player losses of note. Michael Drum spent the past two seasons as an occasional starter after transferring from Division II Presbyterian College. Drum was a solid 3-point shooter who actually shot better outside the arc than inside it in 2007. However, he didn't provide much else and the case can be made that if a team has D-II transfer getting starter's minutes, that team probably won't be successful against ACC competition.
The other departure is that of center Kyle Visser. In 2006, Visser was a guy that received audible groans from the Joel Coliseum regulars when he went to the scorer's table to check in. In 2007, he was a guy that emerged as a viable NBA prospect. Visser could well have been the most improved player in the nation offensively. Certainly, if that discussion is limited to big men, it's no contest. Visser shot 45.6% from the field in 2006, an absurdly low figure for a guy that's 6-11 and doesn't shoot 3-pointers. In 2007 that figure rose to 58.4%. You just don't see guys improve their shooting percentage by over 10% in one season AND increase their role in the offense substantially at the same time. Visser will be difficult to replace, but then again, a season ago it seemed like Eric Williams would be difficult to replace, and Visser essentially became Williams.
But Visser didn't quite fall into the project category in 2006, he was just forced to play out of position occasionally. This season's candidates to play the post, sophomores David Weaver and Chas McFarland, are a different story. Weaver's rebounding numbers look positively small-forwardish and he only took about 12% of Wake's shots while he was on the floor. McFarland didn't play enough as a freshman to allow his stats to be used reliably.
Elsewhere on the frontline, sophomore Jamie Skeen, junior Cameron Stanley, and freshman James Johnson will share time. Of this group, the most should be expected of Skeen, who started most of his freshman season at the 4. Stanly and Johnson will get minutes, just because they have to.
The backcourt has to be considered the strength of this year's team, and there's such a logjam of quality players that a 3-guard lineup should become pretty popular. Smith will handle most of the minutes at the point, but sophomore Shamaine Dukes and freshman Jeff Teague will fight for the remainder of the point duties and may get a little time at shooting guard as well. Though he averaged only 17 minutes a game last season, Junior Harvey Hale is the smart pick to be Wake's leading scorer. Sophomore LD Williams will play the wing and is going to need to produce offensively.
The bottom line is that Wake Forest is going to need a couple of players to surprise in order to match its win total from last season.
Ken Pomeroy is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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