Former Florida State guard Luke Loucks, a starter on last season's ACC tournament championship team, spoke with me this week to help preview the ACC. Here's his scouting report on the league next season:
1. North Carolina lost four first-round draft picks and Duke lost Austin Rivers, which is probably good and bad in some ways. Do you see those programs reloading and being as good as ever or could either be in for a down season?
College Hoops Countdown, No. 4: ACC
• ACC Capsule Preview: NC State hopes to emerge from the shadow of its Tobacco Road rivals
• Ranking the ACC's 15 most intriguing non-league games
• Ex-Florida State guard Luke Loucks projects the ACC
• A bounce-back season from Quinn Cook is essential for Duke's hopes
For more news on the ACC, visit Rivals.com
LL: North Carolina and Duke will still be North Carolina and Duke. Every year people say "North Carolina lost this guy and that guy…" but these people forgot about the 3-5 McDonald's All-Americans who were patiently waiting their turn on the bench the previous year. Carolina will have a very strong group of returning players with Strickland, Bullock, McDonald, McAdoo, and Hairston. They also have a sensational freshman point guard in Marcus Paige. Even though many of the previously mentioned players are either inexperienced, coming off of injuries, or haven't been [Roy] Williams' go-to guy, talent will certainly not be an excuse for North Carolina.
Duke will have to replace Austin Rivers, an incredible talent, but they will replace him by getting back to Coach K's system and not relying on 1-on-1 isolations and a variety of high ball screens which Rivers thrived off of. I think that Duke is at its best when they wear down their opponents with extra ball movement, find the open man on offense, play forty minutes of overly-aggressive defense, and play fundamental basketball. As good as Rivers was, he struggled, at times, in all of these categories. Seth Curry has the potential to lead the ACC in scoring; Kelly and Plumlee could both achieve double-doubles regularly, and Coach K is one of the best in the world at getting every ounce of talent out of his players. With all that being said, there is a bit more wiggle room than most years for a few teams to dethrone UNC and Duke from their stronghold on the ACC.
2. Who would be your preseason favorite in the ACC? Do you think NC State is deserving of the preseason hype?
LL: My biased preseason favorite would be Florida State, obviously. I know the guys very well on this team and it's impossible for me to pick any other team in the ACC over them. My unbiased favorite would be NC State. They had a great run to the Sweet 16 and return a wealth of talent. Lorenzo Brown and C.J. Leslie could both be on NBA teams right now and Scott Wood is a sniper from downtown. Add in three very talented McDonald's All-American's and NC State fans will have something to cheer about. Coach Gottfried has done an incredible job turning this program around. I wouldn't be surprised if they played in the Final Four.
3. Florida State returns Michael Snaer and a handful of other key players from last season, yet as usual it seems they're flying under the radar a bit. What do you see as the strengths and weaknesses of your alma mater and how good can they be?
LL: It's hard to get a whole lot of respect in the ACC when your school is outside of Tobacco Road and your tradition as a basketball school doesn't mirror the excellent history of UNC, Duke, and NC State. However, sometimes it's OK to fly under the radar because it can be used as motivational tool, especially for a young team.
Florida State will be more talented than last year's ACC championship team. Even though we lost six seniors from last year, FSU still returns four out of their top five scorers. Michael Snaer has the tools to be the ACC POY, but more importantly he has the tools to be the leader that Florida State will need to be successful. Okaro White is an athletic specimen who is posed for a breakout type season. Ian Miller can score with the best of them, Terrance Shannon is back from a shoulder injury, and shooting specialist Terry Whisnant is ready for an increased role. As always, Florida State will thrive on the defensive end due to Coach Hamilton's masterful defensive system mixed with his athletically gifted youngsters.Coach Hamilton and his staff have also quietly amassed a very nice recruiting class that fits exactly what they need.
Overall, FSU's strengths will be strong guard play, athleticism, defense, and leadership from the upperclassmen. Florida State's potential weaknesses could come from a variety of areas. With six newcomers experience is an obvious concern for a large portion of the roster. The center position is still a question mark as not one of the three new 7 footers has played a minute of major college basketball. The beginning of the year could be up and down as the team endures some growing pains with the young players, but Florida State could win its first regular season title and surely win another ACC tournament if the pieces fall into place. We know that Snaer will be excellent, but Florida States ceiling is as high as the productivity of the role players, especially at the point guard and center positions.
4. Is there a dark horse you could see contending in the ACC this year besides those four schools?
LL: I think Miami is a dark horse in the league. They really shouldn't be a dark horse, because they are going to be good. They have what I believe to be the best front court in the league with Kenny Kadji and Reggie Johnson. Shane Larkin played well last year as a freshman. He and Durand Scott should be a very productive back court. When you add in a bevy of athletic shooting guards and wings, Miami has a real shot at doing some damage in the ACC this year.
5. Give me your thoughts on the ACC player of the year race. Is there an early favorite in your mind?
LL: Again, it's hard for me to imagine someone in the league to be more valuable to his team or a more complete player than Michael Snaer. He works harder than anyone of both ends of the court and has the talent to dominate the ACC this year. Call me biased because I know him very well, but I predict he will win player of the year. Aside from Mike, C.J. Leslie, Lorenzo Brown, Mason Plumlee, Seth Curry, Kenny Kadji and James McAdoo could all potentially win the award. I think we will see McAdoo make a huge jump this year. He doesn't necessarily have great post moves, but his motor is great and his athleticism give him a good chance to put up huge numbers in UNC's up and down system. He reminds me a little of a young Thomas Robinson.
6. Which ACC school has the best home-court advantage and why?
LL: When our arena at Florida State is sold out it is very hard to come into Tallahassee and escape with a win. Other than Florida State, Duke, North Carolina, Maryland, NC State, and Clemson have the best home court advantages, in that order. Clemson may seem odd to some because they don't always sell-out, but their arena is in the middle of nowhere… pretty much on a farm, and they yell loud. Maryland is the only place in the ACC I've never won a game in so that's why they're on the list, and NC State does that annoying wolf call all game that really gets old. Their fans are pretty obnoxious too. Duke and Carolina are the obvious best home court advantages, because they both sell-out and have great cheers and chants all game.
7. If you could go back and play for one ACC coach besides Coach Hamilton, who would it be and why?
LL: Hands down, Coach K. He is one of the best coaches in history of basketball in my opinion. You can see how much he cares about his players and how competitive he is. He almost single-handedly built the Duke basketball tradition into what it is today. Other than Coach Ham, Coach K gets the most respect from me in the ACC for his coaching, motivating, and teaching.