ACC basketball: Front courts may take a back seat this season

Former Georgia Tech forward Derrick Favors is now with the New Jersey Nets in the NBA, as one of many front-court talents to leave the ACC for the pros after last season.
Former Georgia Tech forward Derrick Favors is now with the New Jersey Nets in the NBA, as one of many front-court talents to leave the ACC for the pros after last season. (Bill Kostroun/associated Press)
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By Steve Yanda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 5, 2010; 11:03 PM

Iman Shumpert and other ACC guards understand that the teams that have lost imposing big men to graduation or professional riches eventually will adapt or replenish. But until then, Shumpert and his back-court brethren plan to take advantage of the absence of front-court players who made life miserable for smaller opponents.

"It will feel a lot better to attack the lane knowing [former Clemson forward] Trevor Booker's not there to put you on your backside," said Shumpert, a junior guard at Georgia Tech.

The ACC, players and coaches said, will have a different feel this season. In addition to three new coaches - each of whom will implement styles foreign to what league opponents have come to expect from their respective schools - the conference also will look to replace the crop of skilled forwards who anchored it last season.

Of the nine ACC players selected in the 2010 NBA draft, eight competed in the front court. The league will be without six of last season's top 10 rebounders and shot blockers as it enters the 2010-11 campaign.

When asked how Georgia Tech will be different without forward Derrick Favors - who averaged 8.4 rebounds (No. 4 in the ACC) and 2.1 blocks (No. 2) per game last season before becoming the No. 3 overall pick in the NBA draft - Shumpert deadpanned, "Just one less 6-10 guy."

If only that were true. After finishing 23-13 and earning a No. 10 seed in the 2010 NCAA tournament, the Yellow Jackets - without Favors and fellow big man Gani Lawal - were predicted to finish ninth in the ACC this season. Shumpert acknowledged that Georgia Tech will be more guard-oriented this season and will have to adjust accordingly.

"Really, the biggest thing from Favors is the way he altered shots we won't be able to replace," Shumpert said. "Just having Fave standing in the lane, a guy may have a clear layup, but be looking out the corner of his eye because they know Fave might come across to block it. That, we won't be able to fix. . . . The little chances that we took last year maybe reaching, we have to fight that temptation of reaching and keep the ball in front of us."

Georgia Tech is far from the only ACC squad that is going through such a transition. Florida State will be without Solomon Alabi - who led the conference in blocks last season - and Ryan Reid. The ACC's leading rebounder, Al-Farouq Aminu, departed Wake Forest two years early for the NBA. North Carolina lost Ed Davis and Deon Thompson. Dwayne Collins no longer plays for Miami, and - as Shumpert pointed out - Booker no longer suits up for Clemson.

The ACC's three new coaches - Clemson's Brad Brownell, Boston College's Steve Donahue and Wake Forest's Jeff Bzdelik - also will contribute to the league's altered look. Clemson will go from a pressing squad to a half-court defensive unit. Boston College is transitioning from a flex offense to a Princeton-style approach. Bzdelik also would like to run a Princeton offense, but - at least for this season - he'll work more within the confines of an up-tempo lineup.

From a makeup standpoint, the conference has undergone considerable change since March, but that does not mean the ACC is bereft of big men. Virginia Tech Coach Seth Greenberg said leaguewide front-court depth - like everything else - "goes in cycles."

"Florida State is huge. Honestly, even [North] Carolina is big," Greenberg said, rattling off the names of Tyler Zeller, John Henson and Harrison Barnes.

"N.C. State is big. [The ACC] lost a lot of good players, but there still is front-court depth in our league. There will be some smaller teams. Our front-court depth isn't good, BC's front-court depth isn't good. I don't know where Wake [Forest] is at, but there's still depth within the league."

Indeed, North Carolina - which was picked to finish third in the conference behind Duke and Virginia Tech - features a slew of talented, if unproven, big men. Zeller stands 7 feet, but he has dealt with several significant injuries during his college career and said he doesn't envision himself playing solely in the post this season. Henson (6-10) was one of several Tar Heels freshmen who struggled at times last season. Barnes, a 6-8 freshman, was named a first-team preseason all-American by the Associated Press.

Despite losing Alabi and Reid, Florida State still possesses 6-11 Xavier Gibson and 6-9 Chris Singleton, a preseason all-ACC first-team selection. Another preseason first-team pick was Maryland sophomore forward Jordan Williams, who ranked No. 2 in the conference in rebounds last season.

N.C. State forward Tracy Smith - one of the ACC's top returning big men - said he thinks he'll have an easier time navigating the post this season because "it will be hard for anyone my height or shorter to stop me."

Even a player as relatively unheralded as Virginia forward Mike Scott surveyed the list of front-court players he'll no longer have to contend with and acknowledged his excitement for the season to come.

"Those guys were beasts," Scott said. "Still got Tracy Smith, still got other players, but now it's looking more open. I'm seeing more green. The green light is going off in a lot of places."

Staff writer Mark Giannotto contributed to this report.

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