Back to Tobacco Road

As the leaves in Charlottesville signal the start of autumn, many students take walks outside to appreciate the beauty of their surroundings. Some take pictures of the brightly colored leaves. Other sit on the steps of Old Cabell to admire the Lawn in all its glory.

But not me. I post up near the TV because the arrival of fall means one thing: College basketball is on its way.

I have a relationship with college basketball that dates back to my birth. Way back in 1992, I was born during the NCAA Tournament. It was sometime between the Duke-Kentucky game that has been called the greatest college game ever and the start of a Final Four that saw Coach K and Duke knock off Michigan’s Fab Five for their second straight title.

My dad, a Virginia grad himself, has always been a huge college basketball fan, as evidenced by the home-video footage of him — in scrubs — watching the tournament at the hospital. I guess it comes as no surprise, then, that I was raised to believe ACC basketball was king.

You may point out that UCLA has won the most NCAA titles, with 13, or theorize that Kentucky has become the dominant power in college basketball. You may even subscribe to the popular notion that the Big East has overtaken the ACC in the last several years. You would be right about all those things.

But I offer two rebuttals. First, in my lifetime, the ACC’s seven basketball championships with three different teams are more than any other conference. Second, even if I concede that the ACC was not the dominant force in NCAA basketball for a stretch, that stretch is ending — if not now, then certainly by the time Notre Dame, Syracuse and Pitt defect from the Big East to the ACC. As Dick Vitale might say: The ACC is back, baby.

Let’s start with the traditional powers, North Carolina and Duke. Both teams failed to live up to expectations in the 2012 tournament, and both lost crucial players — guard Austin Rivers for Duke and the quartet of forward Harrison Barnes, point guard Kendall Marshall and big men Tyler Zeller and John Henson for the Tar Heels. All five were first-round draft picks. You’d think that teams losing such talent would struggle in the coming season, right?

But both teams restocked in recruiting. The two teams brought in a combined total of five players who made either the McDonald’s All-American Game or the Jordan Brand Classic to complement returning cogs such as Duke’s Ryan Kelly and North Carolina star James Michael McAdoo. The new crops are led by Duke signee Rasheed Sulaimon, a shooting guard from Houston who claimed ESPN’s No. 12 national ranking, and new Tar Heel Marcus Paige, an Iowa native who came in at No. 22 nationally and earned acclaim as the country’s top available point guard.

The ACC’s recruiting dominance didn’t stop there. In addition to Duke and North Carolina, four other schools, including Virginia, ranked in ESPN’s top-25 recruiting classes. Perhaps the best haul of all went to N.C. State, who made impressive runs in both the ACC and NCAA tournaments. Not only do the Wolfpack return all of their key players — point guard Lorenzo Brown, three-point gunner Scott Wood and star power forward C.J. Leslie — but they also nabbed the top three prospects in North Carolina: Raleigh guard Rodney Purvis, Durham forward T.J. Warren and point guard Tyler Lewis of Oak Hill Academy, all of whom participated in the McDonald’s game. The Tar Heels and Blue Devils may be the traditional icons of North Carolina basketball, but after grabbing the state’s premier recruits, it was N.C. State that came out atop the ACC coaches’ poll Monday.

Virginia sat seventh in the poll, sandwiched between Maryland and Clemson. The Cavaliers finished fourth in the conference last year, but after an unceremonious exit from the NCAA tournament, the Cavaliers lost three players to graduation — namely ACC Player of the Year runner-up Mike Scott. Last season Scott often seemed like the entire Virginia team, so the obvious question for Virginia fans is: What now?

Coach Tony Bennett has brought in a heralded recruiting class, ranked 20th nationally, but questions remain. The youth “problem” Virginia experienced last year has not gotten any better; only senior point guard Jontel Evans, junior swingman Joe Harris and junior forward Akil Mitchell played significant minutes last season.

In addition, the logjam at the wing positions has worsened. Harris should be penciled in at one starting spot, but there are three candidates to suit up at the other spot. If he is fully recovered from his late-season injuries, sophomore Malcolm Brogdon will likely get the nod. Freshmen Justin Anderson, an athletic slasher similar to Brogdon, and Evan Nolte, a shooter like Harris, are also in the mix.

Meanwhile, the lack of depth in the post has gone brutally unaddressed. For the second season in a row, Bennett will trot out just three scholarship big men: Mitchell, sophomore Darion Atkins and freshman Mike Tobey. Reports are positive about Tobey’s progress, but if Virginia gets into foul trouble we could see much more of the same forced small ball as last year.

Given the questions about Virginia’s experience and depth and the abundance of talent and experience on other conference squads it’s unlikely the Cavaliers will claim the ACC crown.

But the start of a new season is always a time for relentless optimism. After all, college basketball is back and so is the ACC.

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