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October 22, 2007

Down year in the ACC? Not this again

Paul Hewitt doesn't want to hear it this year.

After another offseason of early departures to the NBA, the talk around many watercoolers is that the ACC is headed for a down year.

Georgia Tech lost freshman stars Javaris Crittenton and Thaddeus Young. North Carolina lost Brandan Wright. Josh McRoberts said farewell to Duke. Sean Williams was drafted out of Boston College (after being kicked off the team during the season).

Aside from the early departures, four ACC seniors also were drafted.

With the immense talent departing the league, you could say the league will not be as strong as a year ago; just don't say it if Hewitt is within earshot.

"They say that every year," Hewitt said of the notion that the league is down this year. "Every year that I have been here that's one of the questions and I say this every year: People have got to get past the fact that Michael Jordan is not a junior anymore and Ralph Sampson is not a senior anymore. Those days are gone, those days are gone. The days of great players staying in the league for three or four years are long gone, and they are long gone for everybody else.

"This league has set such a high standard over its history that everybody wants to go back to the early 1980s when James Worthy was running around and Dennis Scott was running around and Mark Price was running around. Those days are gone. Mark Price, Dennis Scott and John Salley would never see their junior years today."

Don't expect Hewitt to feel sorry for himself either, despite losing two of Rivals.com's top seven 2006 prospects after only one year.

He welcomes a recruiting class that includes four-star prospects Gani Lawal and Maurice Miller, in addition to standout shooter Lance Storrs.

Much of the load of replacing Crittenton will fall to Miller, who like Young a year earlier, came to Georgia Tech from Memphis.

"(Miller) is good passer, great distributor," Hewitt said. "He cannot score like Javaris but he definitely is a guy that can run a basketball team. The thing I am going to ask out of him and Matt (Causey) and DeAndre (Bell) - if DeAndre plays the point - is that they have to do a good job guarding the ball. They have to put pressure on the other team's guards."

Georgia Tech paced the conference in steals last year with Crittenton at the top of the defense.

Wright's departure from North Carolina leaves a hole for the Tar Heels to fill as well, although with Deon Thompson and Alex Stepheson waiting in the wings from Carolina's monster 2006 class, don't look for a big drop-off in Chapel Hill.

"Not everybody is as athletic as Brandan, so we're not going to have another player like Brandan who can do a lot of different athletic things like jump up, catch an unbelievable rebound and dunk it, but I think we have players who have really improved who can come in and play well," North Carolina power forward Tyler Hansbrough said. "I think that we'll still run the same offense. I don't think we'll change things up just because Brandan is gone."

Having Thompson ready to step in certainly helps Hansbrough have that confidence. As a freshman, Thompson improved throughout the year, culminating with a 14-point, six-rebound performance in the Tar Heels' loss to Georgetown in the NCAA Tournament.

"He's made some big strides with his body," Hansbrough said of Thompson. "I think it has helped him in a lot of ways. He's quicker, runs the floor better, gets off the floor better. Deon has totally changed his game in different ways and I think it gives him a lot of confidence."

The solution for McRoberts' departure at Duke isn't quite as simple. The Blue Devils have unproven sophomore Brian Zoubek returning, but beyond him their biggest bodies are 6-8 sophomore Lance Thomas and five-star freshman Kyle Singler, who is also listed at 6-8.

Duke probably will look to play more up-tempo this year, with plenty of weapons available on the perimeter to try to create mismatches. However, with McRoberts' 7.9 rebounds per game gone from the interior, the Blue Devils will have to rely on a collective effort to compete on the boards.

Even though McRoberts stayed just two years, he gave Mike Krzyzewski the type of commitment he wishes was legislated by the NCAA.

"The college game is as exciting as it ever has been, mainly because it's based on tradition," Krzyzewski said. "College is the ultimate where you're playing for the name on the front of the jersey instead of the name on the back. College basketball isn't as talented overall as it was 10 years ago or less than that, because it keeps getting younger.

"But what happens is there are more good basketball teams. College basketball is not skewed where you just have this elite 10 or 12. More people can win and win big than ever before. In a lot of ways I think that is better for the game.

"(Early departures) help and hurt. Personally I would like to see kids still being allowed to go to the pros out of high school because I just got through coaching a team where half of them did that and they're pretty good," he said of his latest U.S. national-team experience. "They are doing all right but they were really good (in high school). If you did go to college, I'd like them to stay two years."

Virginia's Sean Singletary certainly could have joined the early entry club last year after his junior season, but opted out of the draft in favor of returning to school. It's a decision that has elevated him to near folk-hero status in the state of Virginia.

It's the kind of decision that adds several gallons of fuel to a program like Virginia that is trying to build on the momentum gained from last year's ACC regular season co-championship and NCAA Tournament appearance.

"What (Singletary) is doing for us and with us right now is where my mind lives in terms of how he can help our team get better and how he can get better and those type of things," Cavaliers coach Dave Leitao said. "You always have a moment in time where you think about somebody's legacy and for us, because we are trying to build our program still to this day, his presence, his name recognition with young kids and kids we are trying to recruit is such that having him around has been really good for all of those other areas."

"He'll go down in history as one of the all-time greats at Virginia, not just for the points or the assists, but for the wins. He's elevated the level of this program from the time he has been here."

But becoming a hero to a school or to a fan base is not what drove Singletary's decision.

"I needed to graduate, set myself up for the future, mature and work on my game," Singletary said. "This way, I can come back to a very talented team and a great coach. I thought it was a win-win situation. I've had a pretty good career at the school and the people in town are real nice to me. (Charlottesville) is one of the top 10 best cities to live in in the country."

And with that decision, Leitao became one of the country's happiest coaches.

That doesn't mean an early departure is always bad news for a coach though, a point Hewitt emphasized.

Though he says he would never recruit a prospect who insisted on being a one-and-done player, Hewitt does support a player's decision to leave early if the time is right.

"With Chris Bosh, I can remember as late as February of his freshman year his family wanted to make an announcement that he was going to stay in school," Hewitt said. "I told him, 'You are not making that announcement. At the end of the year, if you are a top pick, then you're gone, and that's the reality.' He ended up being a top-four pick and he was gone."

But when a player like Bosh or Crittenton or Young or Wright leaves, there are always more waiting to fill in the gaps in the ACC.

Which is why Hewitt insists that anybody who expects a down year from the ACC must be comparing this year's version of the ACC with the 1982 or 1983 version.

"They have to be (comparing the league to 25 years ago), because every year if you look at it, we have more McDonald's All-Americans coming in and we have more first-round draft picks going out. If we're down, then what is everybody else? People in ACC country, and I understand their love for the tradition of the league, they just have to get past the fact that those players aren't going to be here four years.

"It's over."

Randall Thomason is the ACC producer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at randall@rivals.com.

ACC Media Day Notes: N.C. State looking for point guard



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