January 3, 2014 - by
ACC Intrigue Begins

Jan. 3, 2014

By Bob Thomas, Seminoles.com

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Now in his 12th season at the helm of the Florida State men’s basketball program, coach Leonard Hamilton has been on the Seminoles’ bench for more than of program’s life as a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference.

It’s safe to say that Hamilton isn’t prone to many surprises, nor should he be. He led the Seminoles to the 2012 ACC Championship and a season later watched his former program, Miami, thumb its nose at college basketball’s aristocracy and claim the 2013 title.

Who’s next?

The quest for the 2014 ACC Championship begins in earnest this weekend, with seven conference games on tap, including the Seminoles, who play host to Virginia on Saturday. For a league that has long been the haunt for perennial heavyweights Duke and North Carolina, the first full weekend of conference action is also historic. Syracuse, Pitt and Notre Dame will all make their first forays into ACC play after distinguished runs as members of Big East. It’s also the farewell season for Maryland, a founding conference member who moves on to the Big 10 next season, and will be replaced by Louisville.

Over the next 10 weeks there will be no shortage of surprises from the 15-team league. That much is certain after a quick review of the non-conference schedule, which saw talent-laden North Carolina knock off three ranked opponents – equaling Syracuse – but also lose to Belmont. Florida State and Duke have a pair of wins over ranked foes as well, as those four schools combined for all 10 of the league’s ranked wins to date.

As the conference season begins, the 15-team league boasts 14 schools with winning records and a combined 138-53 record (.723) against non-conference competition. The strong winning percentage aside, there have already been some shake-ups based on the preseason prognostications.

Hamilton’s Seminoles might be the most notable of the group as their 9-3 record includes a two-point, overtime loss to Michigan and a one-point road loss at Florida, as well as routs of VCU and UMass. Not bad work for a team the Operation Basketball assembled media selected to finish ninth in the ACC.

Fox television analyst and long-time ACC observer Dan Bonner offered his view on what can be expected as the conference season unfolds.

“I think there are some things we can take as givens,” Bonner said, after calling FSU’s win over Charleston Southern. “I don’t think Notre Dame, particularly after losing (Jerian) Grant, is going to be as good as they were picked to finish in the preseason, which was fifth.

“I think, clearly, Florida State isn’t going to be ninth. I don’t know where they’re going to be, but they’re not going to be ninth. I don’t think Virginia (tabbed for fourth) is as good as people thought they were going to be.”

Bonner has called games involving seven of the league’s 15 teams throughout the non-conference schedule, so he has a pretty good handle on the personnel.

“North Carolina is talented enough that if they just make a reasonable amount of free throws, they’re undefeated and the No. 1 team in the country,” Bonner said.

The Tar Heels are 10-3, but missed a combined 38 free throws in mind-numbing losses to Belmont and UAB, perhaps revealing a flaw that could provide some difficulty throughout the season. Of course they also have wins over Louisville, Michigan State and Kentucky.

“I think that what we see is teams like Florida State and North Carolina State, who are under-valued in terms of the preseason rankings,” Bonner said. “I see teams like Virginia and Notre Dame who are over-valued. It’s going to be very interesting. I’m not sure that overall the ACC is as strong as everyone expected it to be when we announced that Syracuse, Pitt and Notre Dame were coming in. I just don’t think the league has performed that well as a league in non-conference play. They’ve got 10 wins against ranked teams overall, so I think they’ve been solid, but they just haven’t been overwhelming.”

Duke has undoubtedly the league’s most talented freshman in Jabari Parker, and while Mike Krzyzewski’s squad currently counts losses to top-five foes Kansas and Arizona, their lack of an inside game has led to closer-than-comfortable encounters with East Carolina and Vermont.

Jim Boeheim’s Syracuse Orange, picked to finish second in the ACC, are the league’s only unbeaten (13-0) team heading into conference play. Led by star C.J. Fair and their pesky match-up zone, the Orange figure to make life uncomfortable for a few folks along Tobacco Road and beyond.

So where will the Seminoles fit into the equation? Surely they are vastly improved from last season’s team which finished 9-9 in the league, thanks in large part to improvement on defense and in the post, and no shortage of scoring threats. Sophomores Aaron Thomas and Devin Bookert, veterans Okaro White and Ian Miller have provided a big boost to a team that was offensively challenged a year ago, but now ranks fourth in scoring offense among ACC teams (77.0 ppg).

More importantly, the `Noles emerge from the non-conference schedule ranked second in field goal defense (.373) and blocked shots (6.7), third in steals (8.1) and sixth in scoring defense (64.3 ppg).

Those aren’t numbers associated with a team that was pigeon-holed to finish in the bottom half of the ACC. Of course, Hamilton has long asserted that the days of North Carolina and Duke running roughshod over the league, are no longer guaranteed. He should know. The Seminoles have crafted a 52-30 ACC record over the past five seasons, with last year’s 9-9 record the low mark in that stretch.

“For a long period of time, the ACC has been viewed as Duke, North Carolina and everybody else,” Bonner said. “With the addition of those teams and then Louisville coming in next year, you’re not going to be able to do that. Over a period of three or four years, particularly with recruiting, the other teams are going to benefit from the fact that it’s not just Duke and North Carolina.”

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