Last week, as we got set for SEC Media Days, I, as the resident college basketball insider decided to give you an everything-you-need-to-know, full rundown of what was ahead in SEC basketball this season. You can read it here, but the bottom line is this: You all loved it. I got more feedback, response, comments etc. on that article than anything I’ve written in a long time.
That’s also why I decided to bring back the concept, and write today a little bit about the ACC in the lead-up to their media day on Wednesday.
Look, I know that the ACC probably doesn’t carry the same interest level around here as the SEC, but if you’re going to watch college basketball (like everyone who reads these posts does) than you really do kind of have to know what’s going on in the ACC. It is home to some of the best programs – like them or not – in college basketball and a slew of national championship contenders. Even if I don’t think this conference is quite as good as years past, there are still plenty of big storylines.
Speaking of which, I actually think you could argue that the storylines in this league are as compelling as any conference in college basketball. In no particular order: How does Virginia bounce back after a historically embarrassing loss to UMBC? We know Duke’s freshmen are fantastic, but is the rest of the roster championship caliber? What will Chris Mack’s first year be like at Louisville? Is this the best Syracuse team that Jim Boeheim has had since they joined the ACC? Is this the best team Buzz Williams has had at Virginia Tech period? And how the hell is Luke Maye still in college?
Just kidding on that last one. Sort of.
But when you add it all up, it makes for a wildly compelling season in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Here’s what you need to know about the ACC this season:
All-ACC First Team:
Tyus Battle, G, Syracuse
Kyle Guy, G, Virginia
Marcquise Reed, G, Clemson
R.J. Barrett, G/F, Duke
Luke Maye, F, North Carolina
All-ACC Freshman Team:
Tre Jones, G, Duke
R.J. Barrett, G/F, Duke
Zion Williamson, F, Duke
Jaylen Hoard, F, Wake Forest
Nassir Little, F, North Carolina
ACC Player of the Year: Tyus Battle, G, Syracuse
ACC Freshman of the Year: R.J. Barrett, G/F, Duke
1) Virginia Cavaliers
Key Returnees: DeAndre Hunter, Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy, Mamadi Diakite, Jack Salt
Key Departures: Devon Hall, Isaiah Wilkins, Nigel Johnson
Key Additions: Kody Stattmann, Francisco Caffaro, Braxton Key (transfer)
Considering that I have probably been the single most critical member of the national media when it comes to Virginia basketball (forgive me for not gushing over a team that wins all its big games 48-42) you’re probably surprised to see me have them favored to win the league. Still, I think there are two completely fair ways to look at the Cavaliers under Tony Bennett: Because Bennett stubbornly refuses to switch up his style of play when the stakes get higher in March, it makes the Cavaliers susceptible to early NCAA Tournament upsets. Despite it, that style also leads to a lot of easy regular season wins against inferior teams.
Which is exactly what I’m expecting to happen again this year.
Look, no matter what you think about that UMBC loss last March – and trust me, we all have an opinion on it – it doesn’t change the fact that the Cavaliers return their top three scorers off a 31-win team last year, including first-team All-ACC guard Kyle Guy and wing DeAndre Hunter who was injured during that loss to UMBC. They also added Braxton Key late, a transfer who was Alabama’s leading scorer two seasons ago.
It’s reason enough to pick the Cavaliers to again win the regular season conference title – even if I think they’ll again struggle in March.
2) Virginia Tech Hokies
Key Returnees: Justin Robinson, Ahmed Hill, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Chris Clarke, Kerry Blackshear
Key Departures: Justin Bibbs
Key Additions: Landers Nolley
Alright, so part of the reason that I have this Virginia Tech team ranked so high is that they have a WILDLY advantageous schedule this season, where they only play Duke, North Carolina, Louisville, Syracuse and NC State once in ACC play. On the other hand, they get Notre Dame, Georgia Tech and Miami, three of the worst teams twice. Again, I can’t overstate how easy this schedule is by ACC standards.
But there’s another reason I have Virginia Tech ranked so highly: They’re really damn good. The deeper you dive on this Hokies team, the stronger the case can be made that they might be the most underrated team in college basketball coming into the 2018-2019 season. And considering they were ranked No. 15 in the preseason AP Poll, that really is saying something.
This is a club that returns five of its top six scorers off last year’s team, a team which finished 10-8 in ACC play. Not bad, yet that also doesn’t tell the whole story since that 10-8 ACC mark came after the Hokies started just 2-4 overall in the ACC. Meaning, they were a significantly better team over the final two-thirds of ACC play (8-4) than they were in the first third. Did I mention that they also beat Virginia, North Carolina and Duke, last season? They were the only team to achieve that trifecta – heck, they were the only ACC team period to beat Virginia.
With so much returning talent, and advantageous schedule and everybody else in this conference losing big pieces, it doesn’t feel like an exaggeration to say that the Hokies have what it takes to compete for a conference regular season crown, and a third straight NCAA Tournament feels like a lock.
The only question now: Can the school make its first Sweet 16 run (or beyond) in 50 years? It seems likely.
3) Duke Blue Devils
Key Returnees: Alex O’Connell, Javin DeLaurier, Marques Bolden
Key Departures: Marvin Bagley III, Wendell Carter, Trevon Duval, Gary Trent
Key Additions: Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett, Cam Reddish, Tre Jones
I’ll be honest: Duke’s play in Canada did change my opinion a bit on the Blue Devils. The simple truth is that R.J. Barrett and Zion Williamson are likely two of the 10 best players in college basketball – and when you have two of the 10 best players in the sport, you’ll be able to compete with pretty much anyone in the country on any given night. And the crazy part is that Cam Reddish (arguably the player with the most NBA upside in college basketball) and Tre Jones didn’t even play in Canada.
Again, whatever you think of the Blue Devils (and we all have an opinion on them), they looked damn good in Canada.
Seriously not trying to throw shade at Duke, because what Coach K in recruiting is doing is incredible. But this is the exact problem they had last year, with Tatum/Kennard and Grayson all essentially playing the same position. As we all remember, it didn't end well https://t.co/IWjiQZTgHm
— Aaron Torres (@Aaron_Torres) January 21, 2018
At the same time, the skill of Barrett, Williamson and Reddish may also mask some of Duke’s big deficiencies, which could catch up to them when the games matter more in March. And those deficiencies are that this team has next to no depth (at best, they’re going to play seven players) and have next to no skill in the low post. Javin DeLaurier is still more an energy/hustle, rebounder/shot blocker guy than he is a true low post force, and three years in Marques Bolden still has no basketball sense at all. Plus, as I’ve stated repeatedly over the last year, Barrett, Williamson and Reddish are all basically the same player: Freakish wings who aren’t great shooters and need the ball in their hands to be effective. In Canada, Duke was keep effective with Barrett and Williamson on the court together. But how does adding Reddish to the mix alter things?
It will be interesting to watch, and it’s why I’m a little lower on Duke than most heading into the year. They have the talent to play potentially win a national championship. And the holes to get upset on the first weekend of the Big Dance.
4) Syracuse Orange
Key Returnees: Tyus Battle, Oshae Brissett, Frank Howard, Marek Dolezaj, Paschal Chukwu
Key Departures: Matthew Moyer
Key Additions: Jalen Carey
Since leaving the Big East, the Orange really have become just a truly bizarre program. Over the last four seasons, the Orange have never finished higher than seventh in the ACC and twice missed the NCAA Tournament (once they were ineligible because of NCAA violations). In the two other years, they snuck in as a 10-seed to the NCAA Tournament in 2016 – and ended up in the Final Four. Last year they were forced to play a “First Four” game as an 11-seed – and then somehow advanced to the Sweet 16.
So yeah, it’s been a strange few years for this team. Yet for the first time in a long time there is actual optimism heading into a season in upstate New York.
That’s because for the first time in a long time, the Orange were actually winners at the NBA Draft deadline, when Tyus Battle – a player projected as a late first round pick – decided to remove his name from the draft and come back to the school. With his return, Syracuse not only has a legitimate ACC Player of the Year candidate back (he averaged 19 points per game a year ago) but also brings back its entire starting five.
There isn’t much depth behind those starters, but again, that’s not the point. The point is there is stability at Syracuse for the first time in a long time. There’s also a team that’s equipped to have a big regular season and postseason for the first time in a long time as well.
5) North Carolina Tar Heels
Key Returnees: Luke Maye, Cam Johnson, Kenny Williams, Sterling Manley, Garrison Brooks
Key Departures: Joel Berry, Theo Pinson
Key Additions: Nassir Little, Coby White, Rechon Black
Truth be told, I’m not sure that North Carolina is a true national championship contender – and it probably isn’t a great sign that they already got run out of the gym in a preseason exhibition against Villanova last week (although then again, maybe Villanova is just that damn good… again). At the same time, I also feel like the Tar Heels are quietly a tiny bit underrated coming into the season.
Villanova tops North Carolina by 10 in a 50-minute scrimmage, per release. 41 for Phil Booth and 24 for Eric Paschall, including six made threes. Cam Johnson led the Tar Heels with 19.
— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) October 20, 2018
Seriously, when you think about the ACC entering this season, what do you think about? For most folks, it’s about how will Virginia bounce back post-UMBC, Duke’s incoming freshman class and the arrival of Chris Mack at Louisville, and because of it, it feels like the Tar Heels are flying way under the radar coming into the season. In terms of talent, they probably have the best blend of skill and experience of anyone in the league, with a legit National Player of the Year candidate in Luke Maye (who averaged 17 and 10 a season ago), one of the better wing scorers in the league (Cameron Johnson) and the school’s first truly elite, one-and-done type freshman since Harrison Barnes with the arrival of Nassir Little. Sterling Manley and Garrison Brooks should add size down low.
Sadly for Tar Heels fans, they’re probably a great point guard away from being a team that’s good enough to win six straight games when it matters in March. But that shouldn’t stop them from winning a whole lot of regular season games, and again being a threat to make it to the second weekend of the Big Dance.
6) Florida State Seminoles
Key Returnees: Trent Forrest, M.J. Walker, Terance Mann, Mfiondu Kabengele, Phil Cofer
Key Losses: CJ Walker, Braian Angola
Key Additions: None
The Seminoles are an interesting case study on how to evaluate preseason teams. They came in at No. 17 in the preseason AP Poll, which – in theory – makes sense, considering that they return five of their top seven scorers off a team which made a surprising run to the Elite Eight last year. At the same time, if Florida State hadn’t made the Elite Eight run would anyone have them ranked as high? It seems unlikely considering they went just 9-9 in league play, 2-4 against the top four teams in the conference, and took advantage of an easy schedule in which they played Virginia, North Carolina and Duke just one time each.
Point being this will be a good team, a group which once again creates problems for opposing teams with their size and length defensively. Phil Cofer will be All-ACC type talent after being granted an extra year of eligibility, and M.J. Walker (a former Top 25 recruit) could be a breakout star.
But is this really a Top 20 team, one capable of making a run at the ACC title? Probably not.
7) Clemson Tigers:
Key Returnees: Marcquise Reed, Shelton Mitchell, Elijah Thomas, AJ Oliver, Aamir Simms
Key Losses: Gabe DeVoe, Donte Grantham, Mark Donnal
Key Additions: John Newman, Javan White (transfer), Jonathan Baehre (transfer)
What a difference a year can make in college basketball. A season ago Brad Brownell was on the hot seat at Clemson after missing six straight NCAA Tournaments. Fast-forward one year later and Brownell is coming off the school’s first Sweet 16 appearance in 20 years and the head coach enjoyed a fat contract extension this off-season.
The life of a college basketball coach, huh?
And the good news for Tigers’ faithful is that it looks like Brownell has a squad that should advance to back-to-back NCAA Tournaments for the first time in his tenure. Guard Marcquise Reed is back after averaging nearly 16 points per game last year, and he’ll be joined by Shelton Mitchell (12 points per game in 2017) and bruiser Elijah Thomas who averaged 10 and eight a year ago. The trio will make up one of the most experienced starting lineups in the ACC. Transfer Javan White should help bolster the front court, after averaging 10 and nine a season ago at Oral Roberts.
It’s probably unrealistic to expect Clemson to finish in the Top 4 of the ACC like they did last year. But a second straight NCAA Tournament is absolutely in play.
8) Louisville Cardinals
Key Returnees: V.J. King, Darius Perry, Dwayne Sutton, Malik Williams, Jordan Nwora
Key Losses: Anas Mahmoud, Quentin Snider, Ray Spalding, Deng Adel
Key Additions: Christen Cunningham (transfer), Khwan Fore (transfer), Steven Enoch (transfer)
Look, I know it’s easy to bash and overlook Louisville here. The Cardinals are in the midst of their second major scandal in the last couple years and lost four starters off a team last year that didn’t make the NCAA Tournament. Yet on the flip side, I also think there is more reason for optimism right now than this program has had in a while.
The bottom-line is that for as bad as the end of the Rick Pitino era was, the beginning of the Chris Mack era has been the exact opposite. It’s impossible to know how Mack will perform in the ACC (although after his run at Xavier, my hunch is “pretty good”) but so far he has done everything right since taking the job. Recruiting is on an uptick, and in a totally positive sign, no players left the program after he took over. To me, that means the guys who are still there believe in what Mack is selling.
On the court, there will be lumps, especially with a brutal out of conference schedule that includes games with Kentucky, Tennessee, Michigan State, Indiana and either Kansas or Marquette, plus a loaded ACC schedule. But I do think this program finds a way to get enough quality victories to make the NCAA Tournament. Look for Jordan Nwora to be a breakout star, and Christen Cunningham to be a surprise at point guard.
Most importantly though, for the first time in a long time, there is stability at Louisville. And dare I say, a likeable coach running the show?
9) NC State Wolfpack
Key Returnees: Torrin Dorn, Braxton Bevelery, Markell Johnson
Key Losses: Omer Yurtseven, Abdul-Malik Abu, Allerik Freeman, Lennard Freeman
Key Additions: C.J. Bryce (transfer), Devon Daniels (transfer), Wyatt Walker (transfer), Eric Lockett (transfer) Blake Harris (mid-year transfer)
It was a banner first season for Kevin Keatts in Raleigh, as the new NC State coach picked up the smoldering pile of garbage left by previous coach Mark Gottfried and turned it into an NCAA Tournament team. The question now is what does Keatts have in store for year two?
In theory, the Wolfpack should be more talented top to bottom this season, but the problem is size, and injury, after it was revealed that guard Braxton Beverly is out indefinitely with a broekn hand. As for everyone else, just about every player projected to play meaningful minutes is a guard, with returnees Torrin Dorn (last year’s second leading scorer at 13.9 ppg) and Markell Johnson joined by transfers Devon Daniels, who averaged nine points per game at Utah two years ago and C.J. Bryce who followed Keatts from UNC-Wilmington after averaging nearly 18 a game there in 2017. Transfer Wyatt Walker provides just about the only size on this roster after averaging just under 13 points and 10 rebounds two seasons ago at Samford.
Still, despite the smallish roster, it is fair to wonder if that lack of size could somehow work out to the advantage of Keatts. Remember, his teams at UNC-Wilmington were small and fast, pressed, created turnovers and hit a ton of three-pointers on their way to back-to-back NCAA Tournaments. This team should mirror those clubs, although it’ll be interesting to see if – in the rough and tumble ACC – Keatts can have similar success.
10) Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Key Returnees: T.J. Gibbs, D.J. Harvey, Rex Pflueger
Key Losses: Bonzi Colson, Matt Farrell, Martinas Geben, Austin Torres
Key Additions: Dane Goodwin, Robby Carmody, Prentiss Hubb, Juwan Durham (transfer)
It’s hard not to feel a tiny bit bad for the Irish after last season, when Mike Brey had a team built to compete for a Final Four berth, only to see those dreams go up in smoke with an injury to star forward Bonzie Colson. The team was 12-3 when Colson went down with a foot injury was and just 18-13 when he returned. When they got eliminated in the ACC Tournament quarterfinals, it sent one of the 20-or-so most talented teams in college basketball to the NIT.
Point being, opportunities like last season just don’t come around very often at Notre Dame, and now the Irish are left picking up the pieces with Colson and fellow star Matt Farrell (16 points, 5.5 assists) gone.
Admittedly, this team will still have talent, with the return of T.J. Gibbs (15 points per game). D.J. Harvey – a former Top 50 recruit – could make one of the biggest leaps of anyone in the ACC. Durham, a transfer from UConn, should immediately contribute in the front court.
Still, for a program that is used to making NCAA Tournaments, they might be headed to the NIT for the second straight season.
11) Boston College Eagles:
Key Returnees: Ky Bowman, Jordan Chatman, Nik Popovich
Key Departures: Jerome Robinson, Deonte Hawkins
Key Additions: Jairus Hamilton, Chris Herren Jr.
To Jim Christian’s credit he has quietly built Boston College back to respectability in his four seasons at the school, with the Eagles finishing with a solid 19-16 record last season.
Unfortunately, that just might be the high-water mark for this program for the foreseeable future.
That’s because in a move that no one could have seen coming, last year’s leading scorer Jerome Robinson (who averaged over 20 points per game in 2018) became one of the single most shocking NBA Draft stories of the last few seasons. After Robinson declared for the draft for the sole purpose of getting feedback and returning to school, he blew NBA personnel away in pre-draft workouts and ended up staying in. A player who was projected as a late second round pick when the process began ended up as the last pick of the NBA Draft lottery instead.
But while that’s good for Robinson, it also means the Eagles will be without a cornerstone they planned on having this season. Ky Bowman should help ease Robinson’s departure after averaging 17 points per game last season, and Jordan Chatman and Nik Popovich are good pieces. Freshman Chris Herren Jr. should provide some outside scoring depth.
Still, this program is definitely not the same without Robinson. A program which had dreams of a return to the NCAA Tournament in 2019 will now almost certainly miss the Big Dance for the 10th straight season.
12) Pitt Panthers
Key Returnees: Jared Wilson-Frame, Shamiel Stevenson, Khameron Davis, Terrell Brown
Key Losses: Ryan Luther, Marcus Carr, Parker Stewart
Key Additions: Trey McGowens, Au’Diese Toney, Xavier Johnson, Malik Ellison (transfer), Sidy N’Dir (transfer)
The Panthers probably aren’t going to finish above .500 and there’s a chance they once again finish toward the bottom of the standings. Still, make no mistake: Jeff Capel is a miracle worker.
To say that Capel inherited a “grease fire” when he arrived at Pitt is an insult to grease fires. Remember, immediately after the season nine of 11 players asked to transfer and while the Panthers still lost some guys (most notably Ryan Luther to Arizona), Capel convinced quite a few to stay. That included leading scorer Jared Wilson-Frame, who averaged over 13 points per game last season. Guard Malik Ellison, who was reportedly one of the Panthers best practice players a year ago while sitting out as a transfer, also decided to stick around.
In addition to just holding together the roster, Capel also put together a patch-work, solid recruiting class, which included Trey McGowens, a Top 100 prospect in the class of 2019 who decided to reclassify and enroll in school a year early. Xavier Johnson, a guard who had offers from schools like Georgetown and NC State also signed up late and Sidy N’Dir a big, shot blocking presence with NCAA Tournament experience at New Mexico State signed on as a grad transfer.
Admittedly, Pitt has a long way to go to even be competitive in the ACC, let alone a top-half of the league type team. But that shouldn’t take away from how far they’ve already come under Capel.
13) Miami Hurricanes
Key Returnees: Dewan Huell, Chris Lykes, Dejan Vasiljevic, Anthony Lawrence
Key Departures: Lonnie Walker IV, Bruce Brown, JaQuan Newton
Key Additions: Zach Johnson (transfer)
It’s hard to see any scenario where Miami doesn’t take a step back this season after losing a pair of NBA Draft picks (Lonnie Walker and Bruce Brown), players who also doubled as their first and third leading scorers respectively. It also didn’t help that a player expected to help with those losses – transfer Miles Wilson – was booted from the team this fall for violating team rules.
Like NC State above, most of the Hurricanes scoring will likely come from the backcourt. Returnees Chris Lykes (9.6 points per game last year) and Anthony Lawrence (8.8) should see increased roles and they’ll be joined by transfer Zach Johnson, who averaged 16 per game at Florida Gulf Coast last year.
Still, despite the addition of Johnson, this will probably be a season where a program which has gotten used to playing in the NCAA Tournament (they’ve been three straight years) will watch from the sidelines.
14) Wake Forest Demon Deacons
Key Returnees: Chaundee Brown, Brandon Childress, Olivier Sarr
Key Losses: Bryant Crawford, Doral Moore, Keyshawn Woods, Mitchell Wilbiken
Key Additions: Jaylen Hoard, Isaiah Mucius, Torry Johnson (transfer), Ikenna Smart (transfer)
Danny Manning is entering year five at Wake Forest, where he has had a career that is actually worse on paper than it seems in reality. The Demon Deacons have never finished higher than 10th in the league standings, and the one year he did make the NCAA Tournament at Wake, it was at 19-13 and the Demon Deacons proceeded to lose in the “First Four.” Point being, he doesn’t exactly have a resume that screams “I deserve more time to figure this out.”
Nor does he have a team this year that will seemingly get him off the hot seat. Wake Forest finished 11-20 and 14th place in the ACC last year, and lost their top three scorers off that team. By the way, did I mention ALL THREE HAD ELIGIBILITY REMAINING!!!! Bryant Crawford (16.9 ppg) and Doral Moore (11.1 points, 9.4 rebounds) both left for the pros even though each knew they had no chance to get drafted (neither did), and Keyshawn Woods transferred to Ohio State. So yeah, when it rains it pours… and it is pouring in Winston-Salem right now. They return just one player who averaged more than eight points per game last year.
If there is one tiny glimmer of hope it comes with the arrival of Jaylen Hoard, a legitimate Top 25 recruit and potential NBA lottery pick – but even that’s a Catch-22. Wake needs Hoard to play well, but if he plays too well, he could leave after one year. The Demon Deacons will also need a big season from transfer Torry Johnson (who averaged 11 points per game at Northern Arizona last year) and sophomore Olivier Sarr just to keep their heads above water in the ACC – let alone compete for the top half of the conference standings.
15) Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
Key Returness: Jose Alvarado, Abdoulaye Gueye, Brandon Alston
Key Losses: Josh Okogie, Tadric Jackson, Ben Lammers
Key Additions: Michael Devoe
There really is no other way to put it: At least on paper, the Yellow Jackets have the worst roster in the ACC. Georgia Tech wasn’t all that good to begin with last year finishing 13th of 15 ACC teams, and then lost three of their top four scorers in the off-season. That included the surprising departure of Josh Okogie to the pros, a player who declared for the draft without an agent but played his way into first round discussion after the NBA Draft Combine in May. He made the right decision to stay in the draft and ended up as a first round selection of the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Still, with Okogie’s departure, it means that there is next to nothing coming back in Atlanta this year. Lead guard Jose Alvarado is just about the only bright spot after averaging 12 points per game as a freshman, and he should get help from Michael DeVoe, a Top 50 recruit in last year’s class. Unfortunately beyond them there isn’t all that much “ACC caliber” talent on this roster.
A team which already wasn’t very good last year should only fall further in 2019.