Luke DeCock

Turmoil atop the ACC, as crazy April changes league landscape

In the space of a week, Virginia went from repeat favorite to rebuilding project, Duke reloaded with another class of freshman free agents and North Carolina landed the missing piece it so desperately needed.

It’s been a crazy April at the top of the ACC, and just when it looked like Duke and North Carolina might take a step back and Virginia might be entering an era of dominance, the Cavaliers’ three best players all took their rings to the NBA while the Blue Devils not only got Tre Jones back for his sophomore year but added two more top recruits in the past few days to add 2019 to the No. 1 recruiting class banner in Cameron.

Cole Anthony’s commitment to North Carolina on Tuesday was more or less expected at this point, but the Tar Heels would have been in trouble without the explosive combo guard, and they added another depth guard in Anthony Harris before the day was out.

As Aprils go, this one has seen almost dizzying in its momentum swings. Virginia figured to lose De’Andre Hunter to the draft even before it won the national title, but no one expected Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome to exit as well. With two of those three, Virginia would have been predicted to win the ACC again. With none of them, Tony Bennett has some work to do — and that’s assuming Mamadi Diakite stays.

That leaves the door open for the blues, an old story retold with one last flurry of one-and-dones before the NBA starts to close that door in a few years. Duke added one-year hybrid big man Matthew Hurt and four-star shooting guard Cassius Stanley to its class in a four-day span, while Anthony replaces Coby White in the one-year scoring guard hole in the North Carolina lineup.

Meanwhile, the grad-transfer market churns away, Jalen Lecque ponders whether to skip N.C. State entirely and go directly to the NBA and college basketball’s offseason continues to look more like the NBA’s, where you can retool (or lose) your entire roster in the space of a few months.

Some fans will grump about that, and that’s fine, but this new market is the outgrowth of players being more willing to leave early for the NBA and more willing to use the power at their disposal to change schools. After decades of dictatorial coaches restricting transfers, it’s a natural correction. Eventually, like any system in a state of chance, we’ll reach equilibrium.

While the NCAA ponders silly, overreaching rules to handle it – like the (fortunately) rejected proposal to count the second year of a grad transfer’s scholarship against the school – it has adopted some common-sense liberations, like the new rule allowing an incoming freshman to transfer out of summer school if the coach who recruited him leaves.

Call that Braxton’s Law, for Wolfpack guard Braxton Beverly, who battled with the NCAA for months to be eligible for his freshman year at N.C. State after he enrolled in summer school at Ohio State before Thad Matta quit, an infuriating instance of the NCAA trying to punish someone for going to class.

All of this together, along with the increasing propensity of some top recruits to drag the process out until after the Final Four, when they can see the true lay of the land, just means that this portion of the offseason will only become more volatile – especially in a few years when 18-year-olds are once again given the choice to stick with their college commitments or jump straight to the draft, adding another element of uncertainty into the process.

It’s hard to believe things could get crazier than they have been the past few weeks. But they will be.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered the Summer Olympics, the Final Four, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.
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