Coach K’s final run highlights upcoming 2021-22 ACC season
By Scott Ratcliffe
For Augusta Free Press
CHARLOTTE, N.C. The major headline at Tuesday’s ACC Men’s Basketball Tip Off was an obvious one. After decades of success, including multiple conference and national championships under his Hall of Fame belt, the 2021-22 season will be the last for legendary Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski.
“Yeah, well, that’s not going through my mind,” said Krzyzewski. “My mind is on this season, and when it’s over, I’ll know that it’s my last. These guys deserve for me to be in their season, so that’s where I’m at. I think they would tell you that that’s where I’m at.”
It has already been announced that Duke assistant John Scheyer will take over the reins at season’s end, but as co-captain Joey Baker puts it, the Blue Devils will cross that bridge when they arrive at it.
“He’s not really thinking about next year,” Baker said of Scheyer, “he’s fully bought into this year, and that goes for the whole team.”
Opposing ACC coaches who have battled with Duke over the years also spoke glowingly of Krzyzewski’s body of work Tuesday, including fellow Hall-of-Famer Jim Boeheim.
“We’ve been friends for a long time…,” the Syracuse coach said. “Just a great basketball partner for me, and what he’s done for the game is immeasurable.”
Pittsburgh coach Jeff Capel, who played and coached for Krzyzewski, also shared his thoughts.
“Well obviously he’s had an unbelievable career in the impact he’s had on the game of basketball and the people within the game of basketball,” said Capel. “Just a really special man, special coach, special leader, special man. He has had a profound impact on my life and on all the people that have been fortunate enough to play for him, so I wish him luck… except for one game.
“And I’m glad he has the opportunity to do it his way. I think he’s earned that.”
When asked by a reporter Tuesday what Coach K would like to share heading into his last run, he joked, “Just be the effervescent people that you’ve been for over four decades, where it’s been so exciting to be with you and hearing your questions and reading what you actually think I said. No, just go for it and let’s see what the hell happens.”
The Blue Devils open up against Kentucky in the Champions Classic on Nov. 9. Coach K will be shooting for his 16th ACC title, and once again struck it rich in the recruiting department, bringing in highly-touted 5-star freshmen Paolo Banchero and Trevor Keels. In years past, Krzyzewski couldn’t manage to translate the exceptional talent into postseason success. Sophomores Jeremy Roach and Mark Williams, along with junior forward Wendell Moore Jr., have all improved in the offseason, so don’t be surprised if the Devils are more competitive than last year’s 13-11, 9-9 team, who failed to qualify for the NCAA Tournament.
That’ll be one of the big questions across K’s farewell season down Tobacco Road, while another will be the coaching transition a few miles down the road in Chapel Hill. Tar Heel alum Hubert Davis assumes the head-coaching responsibilities, replacing another longtime legend, Roy Williams, at UNC.
“Well, for myself, I had always grown up a Carolina fan,” Davis admitted. “My uncle was an All-American at Carolina in the mid-70s, Walter Davis, and so at a very young age that’s all I wanted to do, is that I wanted to be a part of this program. I wanted to run out of that tunnel. I wanted to put on that uniform. I wanted to play on the Smith Center floor.
“To think that I was given the opportunity to play at Carolina, to get an education and graduate at Carolina, and then after playing 12 years in the NBA be able to come back and be an assistant coach at Carolina for nine years, and now for the last six and a half months to be the head coach of Carolina, puts you in a place of humbleness and thankfulness, and it’s just a really cool deal.”
Davis has a few new weapons to work with after losing Garrison Brooks, Day’Ron Sharpe and Walker Kessler, as incoming transfers Brady Manek (Oklahoma) and Dawson Garcia (Marquette) should be able to step right in alongside returning big man Armando Bacot in the frontcourt. Caleb Love (10.5 ppg), RJ Davis (8.4 ppg) and Kerwin Walton (8.2 ppg) are also back, as the Heels — who posted an 18-11, 10-6 record last year — hope to get back to the upper-half of the standings.
From the “Blue Bloods” to the “New Bloods,” Florida State is picked by many to contend with Duke and Carolina for the conference title again this season, and head coach Leonard Hamilton has another roster loaded with talent and size, despite losing Scottie Barnes, M.J. Walker and RaiQuan Gray to the NBA. Redshirt seniors Anthony Polite and Malik Osborne return to lead the way.
The Seminoles (18-7, 11-4 ACC in 2021-22) finished second in the regular-season standings, but captured the ACC Tournament crown in Greensboro.
Hamilton, who will become one of the ‘elder statesmen’ among ACC coaches, began his press conference Tuesday with a few words of praise for Krzyzewski and Williams.
“There’s no doubt that those two guys have been the pillars of our league,” Hamilton said. “They are icons. We’re going to really miss them. Not only what they brought to us, the conference on the court. I thought their leadership in legislations and the respect that they brought to the game of basketball will be missed.
“But because they’re such rich traditions and successful programs, I expect the guys that are replacing them could not have been selected better. I expect Scheyer and Davis to step right in and keep the beat going. They have probably two of the most successful programs in the history of basketball.”
Miami’s Jim Larranaga may have said it best regarding the retirements of Coach K and Williams.
“Well, you have two of the great coaches of all time, legendary coaches, Hall of Fame coaches, and one of my goals when I came to the ACC was to outlast them,” said Larranaga. “At the end of next year I will be able to say I accomplished my goal.
“But you’re talking about also two of the great leaders of college basketball, role models who really set the example of how to run a program, how to develop your players and prepare them for life after basketball. So hats off to two guys that I consider friends and contemporaries, but certainly two men that deserve all the accolades that they’ve earned throughout the years.”
Virginia coach Tony Bennett admitted that going against guys like Krzyzewski and Williams played a big part in his decision to leave the West Coast and try his hand in the ACC.
“You want a chance to test yourself against the best,” said Bennett. “They’ve done a lot for the game of basketball, they have storied programs, so I was just grateful for their impact on the game that’s helped out coaches and made college basketball what it is and the ACC what it is.”
UVA, which finished atop the regular-season standings at 13-4, lost seven players, but a couple of transfers — PF Jayden Gardner and SG Armaan Franklin — should ease some of the burden. Kihei Clark and Reece Beekman return to lead the Cavalier backcourt, while bigger things are expected out of redshirt sophomore forward Kadin Shedrick after sitting out most of last season.
Virginia Tech has made some noise in its first two seasons under Mike Young, and with forward Keve Aluma returning for one more year, the Hokies are in good shape to keep it rolling. Tech finished third last season with a league record of 9-4.
“To see what he’s done in our time at Virginia Tech, this will be his third [season] — he sat out the first, so it’ll be his second playing, is nothing short of amazing to me,” Young said of Aluma, whom he also coached in his previous stint at Wofford.
“Can’t say that I’m shocked because of who he is and the time and effort and how passionate he’s become as a basketball player, but I think it goes without saying I feel like a lucky human being to have had the opportunity to coach him.”
Aluma (15.2 ppg, 7.9 rebounds) and Justyn Mutts (9.5 ppg, 6.4 rebounds), along with sharpshooting guard Hunter Cattoor (43.3 percent from 3-point range) will be key pieces for the Hokies, who lost talented guard Tyrece Radford in the offseason.
Syracuse returns the deadly backcourt duo of Buddy Boeheim (17.8 ppg) and Joe Girard (9.8 ppg), and brought in Villanova transfer Cole Swider to help fill the losses of Quincy Guerrier and Marek Dolezaj. Senior big man Bourama Sidibe is back to man the middle. The Orange finished 8th in the ACC standings, but advanced to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament as an 11-seed.
Clemson will have to find someone to fill the shoes of Aamir Simms (13.4 ppg, 6.4 rebounds), but the Tigers return Al-Amir Dawes (9.0 ppg) and Hunter Tyson (7.5 ppg), and as Brad Brownell added, the transfer portal was useful.
“We’re going to miss a lot about [Simms],” Brownell said. “Obviously there’s not one player that you’re going to go recruit or sign that’s going to be like him. But I do think we have brought in some guys like Naz [Bohannon] and David Collins that are experienced and older players, and we’ve got a player like Hunter Tyson who’s been in our program for four years and understands our culture and what’s important to Clemson to win and be successful.”
Louisville struggled to a 13-7 overall finish (8-5 in conference play) last season, and the Cardinals would love to get back into the contender conversation. Senior Malik Williams (5.0 ppg, 6.0 rebounds) is back at center, along with junior Samuell Williamson (9.6 ppg, 8.1 rebounds) and redshirt sophomore Jae’Lyn Withers (10.1 ppg, 7.7 rebounds), to lead the Cards.
Georgia Tech overachieved and finished in the top four a year ago, thanks in large part to the play of Moses Wright and Jose Alvarado, who combined for over 30 points a night. Those two are gone, but Michael Devoe (15.0 ppg) and Jordan Usher (11.6 ppg) are back to try and keep the Yellow Jackets relevant.
Miami’s Isaiah Wong (17.1 ppg) had a breakout season in 2020-21, and he and Kameron McGusty (13.3 ppg) will be the straws that stir the Hurricanes’ drink this season. Talented point guard Chris Lykes transferred out of the program, but the Canes hope to see more of a couple sixth-year redshirt seniors — 7-footer Rodney Miller Jr., who missed 22 games due to injuries, and 6-10 forward Sam Waardenburg, who missed the entire season with a foot injury in preseason practice.
Notre Dame finished with a sub-.500 record but returns its entire roster for a second consecutive season, something that’s rather unheard of in today’s college sports landscape. Coach Mike Brey’s name has been mentioned in the same breath as “hot seat” more than a few times in recent years, but having experienced guys like Prentiss Hubb (14.6 ppg, 5.8 assists), Nate Laszewski (13.3 ppg, 7.3 rebounds) and Yale transfer forward Paul Atkinson Jr. (17.6 ppg, 7.3 rebounds) in the mix, the Fighting Irish should not be looked at as an easy opponent.
“You know, you look at Prentiss and certainly Nate, these two guys, they’ve been joined at the hip for a while,” said Brey. “We invested in them as freshmen and played them a lot of minutes. We took our punches because of it, but we felt we were going to get return, and I’m really excited about this senior year, specifically Prentiss has just gotten stronger, older.”
NC State senior Manny Bates is one of the nation’s top interior defenders and should rack up a ton of blocked shots, while Jericole Hellems (12.9 ppg) and Cam Hayes (7.8 ppg) are two talented guards that will pace the Wolfpack attack.
State coach Kevin Keatts is happy to have Bates (2.7 blocks per game last season) back in the mix after rumors of him transferring surfaced in the offseason.
“He’s been able to make shots from outside,” Keatts said of Bates’ improved offense. “You will see him take some threes. The more he makes, the more opportunities I’ll give him. The more we miss, then we’re going to have to have a conversation. But I’m excited.”
Pitt lost several players from last year’s roster, most notably point guard Xavier Johnson (transferred to Indiana), marksman Justin Champagnie (Toronto Raptors) and Au’Diese Toney (transferred to Arkansas), but the Panthers return Nike Sibande and Femi Odukale with hopes of staying out of the ACC cellar.
Speaking of the cellar, Wake Forest fans haven’t had much to cheer about over the past few seasons, as the Demon Deacons finished in 14th place with a record of 6-16 (3-15). In fact, the last time Wake finished in the top five was 2009-10. The Deacs’ ranking since: 12th, 12th, 9th, 11th, 12th, 14th, 10th, 14th, 13th, 12th, 14th.
Isaiah Mucius (10.3 ppg), Daivien Williamson (12.9 ppg) and Indiana State transfer guard Jake LaRavia will be looked to for leadership in the second year under Coach Steve Forbes.
“We’re all about togetherness,” Mucius said. “Nobody is going to ever accomplish anything individually, and I think when we all come together as one, we’re unstoppable.”
Boston College finished dead last in the ACC (4-16, 2-11), resulting in the conference’s other coaching change. The Eagles, who lost its top two scorers in Jay Heath and Wynston Tabbs, hired Earl Grant from the College of Charleston, replacing Jim Christian. Grant, once an assistant at Clemson for four years under Brownell, was 127-89 in six seasons in Charleston, leading the Cougars to an NCAA Tournament appearance in 2018. The Eagles haven’t been to the Big Dance since 2009, as they’ve also struggled to climb out of the ACC basement. Senior guard Makai Ashton-Langford will play a key role for Grant and the Eagles.
“I don’t take any shortcuts trying to build a program,” said Grant. “Understanding that we’re not going to turn this program in one week. It’s going to take time, and these guys, these seniors, I have a lot to do with the first initial phase of us trying to move the program forward.”
As of about a month ago, ESPN “Bracketologist” Joe Lunardi had seven ACC schools in his most recent 2022 Bracketology field — Duke (projected 3-seed), UNC (5), Florida State (6), Louisville (7), Notre Dame (8), Virginia (9) and Virginia Tech (9) — with Syracuse being listed as one of his “Next Four Out.”
The preseason All-ACC teams and the league’s projected order of finish, as well as preseason Player of the Year and Freshman of the Year, will be revealed on Packer & Durham (ACC Network) on Tuesday, Oct. 19 at 9 a.m.