CHARLOTTE, N.C. — When Virginia seniors Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell arrived at the Ritz-Carlton for a late dinner on the eve of the 2013 ACC Operation Basketball event, something seemed a little peculiar.
“Akil and I were sitting there eating and we looked across to the other table and you’ve got Notre Dame and Syracuse and Pittsburgh sitting in there,” Harris said. “I said, this isn’t right … this is the ACC. What are these guys doing here?”
Might as well get used to it because the three former Big East members made a big splash at the ACC media event Wednesday, with all three teams voted among the top six teams in the league’s preseason poll.
Take that, Tobacco Road.
If that wasn’t enough, the newcomers placed two members on the five-man, preseason All-ACC team, including Player of the Year honors to Syracuse senior forward C.J. Fair, who beat out Virginia’s Joe Harris by one vote.
One thing remained the same, though, as Duke was the overwhelming pick to win the conference with the Blue Devils getting 50 out of a possible 54 first-place votes. Syracuse was second with three and third-place North Carolina got the other.
Virginia, expected to be a preseason Top 25 team when the national polls come out, narrowly beat out Notre Dame for fourth place.
Prior to the vote, Cavaliers coach Tony Bennett was asked about how proud he felt about his program getting attention both nationally and particularly in his own backyard, the ACC. Less than a decade ago, then-UVa coach Dave Leitao pointed out that he had discovered on his first-year recruiting visits that Virginia basketball was no longer relevant around the country.
Bennett, however, has restored faith in the program with back-to-back fourth-place finishes (ties) in the ACC regular season. The fact that his Cavaliers are picked fourth this year with the former Big East heavyweights joining the fray is significant.
“It’s nice wherever you get picked but to know if things come together, then we have a chance to do something,” Bennett said. “With the additional new teams, to have a chance with some guys (Jim Boeheim, Jamie Dixon, Mike Brey) who know what it’s all about, it’s the position you want to try to be in.
“I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I’m excited about this year,” said Bennett, entering his fifth year at Virginia. “Am I realistic? Absolutely. Because if the right things happen, we should expect to be a good ball club. What that means in terms of wins and losses or what place we finish, I can’t tell. But if we play to our full abilities, we’ll be a tough out.”
Finishing just behind the top five in the voting was other newcomer Pittsburgh, followed by Maryland, Boston College, Florida State, N.C. State and Georgia Tech. Defending champion Miami, which lost most of its starting lineup from a season ago, was picked 11th, followed by Wake Forest, Clemson and Virginia Tech in last.
With Duke being selected to finish first, it marked the 18th consecutive year that one of Tobacco Road’s Big Four (Duke, UNC, Wake Forest or N.C. State) has been the media’s preseason pick to take the conference crown. The last “outsider” to garner that honor was Maryland in 1996, but the Terrapins finished fourth.
Joining the Orange’s Fair and the Cavaliers’ Harris on first-team were Notre Dame’s Jerian Grant and two Duke players, Rodney Hood and Jabari Parker. Parker was also selected ACC Rookie of the Year, getting all but two votes. Hood is a transfer from Mississippi State but has been projected by some scouts as a potential NBA lottery pick.
Fair beat out Harris by a single vote for ACC Preseason Player of the Year honors, 17 to 16. Hood (7), Parker (5), and Boston College’s Olivier Hanlan (3) got the other votes.
Many projected Harris would win the vote but came up short, which listening to his comments earlier, isn’t that big a deal.
“It’s cool to be recognized like that but it doesn’t mean anything,” said Harris, who has adorned the cover of some regional preseason basketball magazines and been mentioned in some preseason All-America circles. “What’s important is going forth with the season and how we finish as a team.
“If you get all the preseason accolades and end up with a dismal season or you don’t play well, no one is going to care what was said in the preseason,” Harris added. “So, you can’t put much weight into it. What matters is whether you work hard every day to get better and make your team better and how you finish.”