On Monday, we looked at the opening stretch of the Virginia Cavaliers’ ACC season. Those four games are all likely wins, which will enable the Hoos to get off to a good start.
Things get more difficult very quickly. The first game in this key stretch is a road game at Cameron Indoor Stadium on a Saturday afternoon. The last game in this stretch is a road game at the Dean Dome on a Monday night. Yeah, it’s gonna be tough. This group of seven games is going to make or break the Wahoo season. If they manage to get through this section unscathed, they’re very likely headed for another #1 seed (deep breath).
Other than those two tough road games, this stretch includes a road game against a strong NC State and a home game against Miami. Oh and they also get Duke at home. They do get a week break near the end of this stretch, which will help with keeping everybody healthy and rested..
Course 2: The Main Meal
@ No. 4 Duke, Jan 19 – When you bring in the top three recruits (according to ESPN) in the country, expectations are going to be sky high. However, Coach K knows that with so much youth there will be growing pains. The entire starting five from last year is gone and the top returnee in minutes played is junior Javin DeLaurier, at about 12 minutes per game.
This season, of course, is not about the returnees but about R.J. Barrett, Cam Reddish and Zion Williams. That trio are going to be counted on to replace the shooting of Grayson Allen, the all-around offensive game of Marvin Bagley, and the interior presence of Wendell Carter. Fellow freshman Tre Jones might actually be the most important player for Coach K’s squad. There isn’t enough basketball for all three of those guys to get their shots. So somebody has to direct traffic. That somebody is going to be Jones. Jones’ basketball IQ is off the charts, but he’s not much of a shooter or scorer. He just needs to put the ball in the right place, and Duke will be tough to stop.
The Pack Line will be a tough defense for Duke to crack, because they simply don’t have a lot of outside shooting. The big three freshman are all big, and strong and athletic, but only Barrett has shown much as a shooter. Sophomore Alex O’Connell can shoot, and he’s like to be the sixth man. As with last year’s team, the questions will be on defense for the Blue Devils. This will be a tough game for the Hoos to win. But last year at Duke was a tough game and they came out on top, thanks in large part to this:
Yes, I just wanted an excuse to include that highlight.
Wake Forest, Jan 22 – This game is a bit of a breather after the battle against Coach K and company. It’s a late tip in Charlottesville, giving the Hoos even more time to rest up.
Wake finished 11-19 last year, including 4-14 in the ACC. From that team, they’ve lost almost everything, returning just 25% of the points and 31% of the minutes. A big recruiting class and several graduate transfers will try to improve on that record, along with returnees Brandon Childress and Olivier Sarr. Those two will be joined in the starting rotation by three newcomers.
The top newcomer is French wing Jaylen Hoard, who is a top 25 freshman. He’s fairly polished on offense, but he needs to add strength and relies too much on his athleticism right now. They’ll make Wake’s offense better, along with the addition of a couple of graduate transfers. But the defense (130th nationally a year ago) is still going to be bad. This will be a welcome break for the Hoos in the midst of such a rough stretch.
@ Notre Dame, Jan 26 - The Irish were riding high early last year, reaching as high as #11 in KenPom rankings. Then Bonzie Colson got hurt and the Irish lost seven in a row. They finished 20-14 (8-10). Colson is gone, as are Matt Ferrell and Martinas Geben.
Mike Brey has brought in four of the top 100 recruits, which will help replace all those guys. The Irish are going to be loaded with shooters, as three of those guys are among the best shooters in the freshman class. They’ll struggle inside without Colson and Geben and they’re going to struggle on the defensive end.
This may be a down year for the Irish as the newcomers get up to speed. But with the ability to space the floor with five shooters, they’ll provide a tough game for the Pack Line. Still, this young team isn’t ready to be a major player yet.
@ NC State, Jan 29 - New head coach Kevin Keatts was a success in his first year, bringing the Wolfpack to their first NCAA Tournament in three years. He instituted an up-tempo offense that became one of the best offensive units in the nation. It was a very deep unit, with eight players averaging over five points per game. Only three of those eight players return, however.
One of those is junior PG Markell Johnson, who was sixth in the nation in assists per game. He’ll lead all the fast breaks they run, but most of the shooters are gone. They’ll have trouble scoring in the half court without Allerik Freeman and Omer Yurtseven, their top two shooters. Yurtseven is actually a huge loss because the 7-footer could shoot the rock, rebound and block shots — basically, everything you want from a modern big man. He’s transferred to Georgetown to play for Patrick Ewing. Bad for NC State, good for the rest of the ACC.
The Pack bring in a couple of talented freshmen, led by 7-footer Manny Bates. Right now, Bates is mostly just a big guy who can run and jump.
Torin Dorn is the best player on this team, and one of the more underrated in the ACC. NC State will really go as far as Johnson and Dorn will take them. This could be a tough game, but we’ve seen that it’s tough for up-tempo teams to beat the Pack Line and NC State doesn’t have a lot of outside shooting.
Miami, Feb 2 - February begins with the Hoos returning home to face a very good Miami team. The Canes were incredibly young last year with nearly 70% of their minutes going to underclassmen. Unfortunately for them, the top two of those youngsters, Lonnie Walker and Bruce Brown are gone (Walker to the Spurs and Brown to the Pistons). They also haven’t brought in anything this offseason.
This year’s team will be led by junior big man Dewan Hernandez and sophomore PG Chris Lykes. Hernandez is the leading returning scorer, after averaging 11.4 last year. If his name isn’t familiar to you, it’s because he used to go by Dewan Huell. Lykes is a fun player, and at 5’7” 160 pounds, he was one of the top PG recruits last year. He’s super quick, has quick hands and is a very good passer. He wasn’t a very efficient scorer though, at just over 40% from the field. He took well over half his shots from downtown and made under 35% of them.
Outside shooting is going to remain a weakness for this team, but they do have two proven shooters on the wings, senior Anthony Lawrence and junior Dejan Vasiljevic.
This will be a bit of a homecoming for Jack Salt and Kody Stattmann, as Miami has two Aussies and a Kiwi on the roster.
Under Jim Larranaga, Miami has been very strong defensive team and that should continue. WIth Walker and Brown gone, Miami is going to have trouble scoring. And because of that, Virginia should come out on top in this home game.
No. 4 Duke, Feb 9 - If the earlier game at Cameron Indoor didn’t host College GameDay, then this one probably will.
Coming into this game after a full week break will give the Hoos an advantage. Duke will be coming off back to back home games against St John’s and BC, which isn’t exactly exhausting, but the Hoos have a good chance to regroup and get read for the stretch run.
Getting two cracks at Duke this year will be fun for the fans and good for the ACC in general. There’s a good chance the teams will split the two games.
@ No. 8 UNC, Feb 11 – Ugh, coming off what will certainly be a tough game against Duke on Saturday, the Hoos have just one day off before they face UNC at the Dean Dome. That’s not fun.
UNC had a down year last year, finishing 26-11 (11-7 ACC). They entered the NCAA Tournament as a 2-seed. Apparently that’s a down year in Chapel Hill. The starting five includes 3 seniors, all of whom averaged at least 11 points per game last year. Luke Maye is an ACC Player of the Year candidate and both Reggie Williams and Cam Johnson are efficient perimeter players. But UNC also lost leading scorer Joel Berry and leading assist-man Theo Pinson. Those two were the facilitators, and will need to be replaced if UNC is going to continue to run as much as they’d like to.
As always, UNC has re-tooled with a top-10 recruiting class. This includes Rivals’ No. 2 overall recruit Nassir Little. He’s a long and skilled wing with outstanding athleticism, but he’s still developing his game. He’s not much of an outside shooter, so he could struggle in the half-court. As we saw with Duke, their top recruit may not be their most important one. Freshman PG Cody White will replace Berry as the lead guard. White is the leading scorer in NC High School history, but isn’t really a facilitator. Roy Williams needs to find somebody who can run the break and distribute the ball to the plethora of weapons he has on offense.
As with the road game against Duke, this is going to be a tough win. The Hoos have played UNC very well of late, largely by controlling tempo. That’ll be the key here. If UNC can get out and run, they’ll probably win.
As mentioned, these seven games are the season. It’s probably as tough a stretch as anybody in the nation in going to have. Over three weeks, the Hoos will play three games against pre-season top 10 teams. Tough games against NC State, Miami and Notre Dame are no joke as well. Check back Friday for our preview of the stretch run.