Five-star, one-and-done type recruits get all the hype, but when it comes to ultimate NCAA tournament success, veteran guard play trumps high-ceiling talent nearly every year. I’m not saying NC State is going to cut the nets down this year, but the Pack can boast a redshirt senior, senior, redshirt junior, and junior in its backcourt. State’s experience should bode well for, at minimum, a return to March Madness and upper third finish in the ACC this year. You, long-suffering Wolfpack fan, have a genuine reason to get excited, and you might not even get let down this time.
But before we look ahead, let’s look back. Over the past 10 seasons, Kentucky’s one-and-done factory produced one NCAA championship. Every other team that’s won it has had stellar, veteran guard play. In 2019, Virginia was led by two juniors at the guard spots. In 2018, Villanova was also led by two junior guards. Sandwiched between two Villanova championships was a North Carolina team that won it starting three juniors and two seniors. The year before, the Wildcats won it with a senior point guard and junior shooting guard leading the way. Duke has morphed into a one-and-done machine in Kentucky’s ilk, but even with a blue chip-laden roster in 2015, the Devils were led by a senior point guard. The second of UConn’s two improbable championship runs over the last decade featured a team with a senior point guard. In fact, the Huskies top five scorers were all seniors or juniors. In 2013, Louisville had a battled-tested (and stripper-satisfied) senior and junior starting in the backcourt. The Kentucky aberration befell the college hoops world in 2012; the previous year saw senior guard Kemba Walker nearly single-handedly will the Huskies to an unlikely title. And 10 years ago, before Coach K peddled in the one-and-done business, a Duke squad whose three leading scorers were a senior point guard, junior shooting guard, and junior wing cut down the nets.
Experienced guards. That’s what you gotta have if you want to dream big, June dreams.
Back when you had a flip phone and a full head of hair—during the good old days when I used to contribute to this clown-blogging outfit on the regular—I did a basketball preview focusing on each team’s returning win shares. It turned out that simply ordering the teams based on that one stat was pretty accurate in predicting how the league would shake out when the sneakers started squeaking. How different were you at 21 compared to 18? Experience, especially when we’re talking about incredibly young and still-developing humans, is pretty damn valuable.
Spoiler alert: THIS IS REALLY GOOD NEWS FOR NC STATE!
The chart below, which clearly identifies the Pack as far and away the best team in the ACC, shows the returning starters, backcourt upperclassmen (juniors and seniors) who have played significant minutes in the past, and total returning win shares for each program. Win shares numbers from transfers eligible to play this season have also been figured into the total. That’s a little imperfect, as who knows how someone from Alabama State will adjust to life in the ACC, but the goal here is to account for experience. Transfer backcourt players were not considered returning starters (for obvious reasons), but they are counted as backcourt upperclassmen in the chart.
You probably shouldn’t go and bet the house on Pittsburgh and Notre Dame to go from tied for last to the upper echelon of the league, but both teams return the bulk of their contributors from a year ago. The Irish get an extra year of Rex Pflueger after what would’ve been his senior season was cut short due to an ACL tear. Xavier Johnson and Trey McGowens give the Panthers two potential sophomore sensations to build around. The Irish and Panthers won’t be at the bottom again, but the Virginia Tech through Syracuse bottom four on the chart may well play out. Don’t look at those rosters if you’ve just eaten. It’s truly a testament to how bad Wake has been that they return so much and still slot in at 13th. Experience can’t totally make up for lack of talent and inept coaching.
Duke won’t finish 11th. But the program was much better when they had four-year college stars who couldn’t quite cut it in The League instead of Zion Williamson types whose primary focus is to get paid. The Devils will be in the top five of the conference but not in the final four. Virginia won’t drop off a cliff thanks to Tony Bennett, but this is definitely a rebuilding year for the Hoos. Also, GTHC.
I really wouldn’t be at all surprised if it is in fact Louisville and NC State battling it out for conference supremacy in the end. Experience (with a dash of talent and competent coaching) is everything. I just wish the Pack would be at full strength (damn you, Funderburk) for the opener against what looks like—based on win shares returning—a tougher Georgia Tech team than you might’ve expected.
The Pack tip off the 2019-20 season Tuesday at 8:30 against the Yellow Jackets.