Setting the Stage
The start of college basketball is around the corner, which means the best conference in the country is set to tip off. Last season saw 5 ACC teams make the Sweet 16, with Virginia claiming its first National Championship in school history. The conference also managed to produce 10 first round picks in the 2019 NBA draft. Despite the plethora of talent that left for the NBA, the ACC reloaded as usual as the conference raided the top ranked high schoolers and the transfer market. The new season will bring lots of excitement and up to 4 National Championship contenders: Duke, Louisville, North Carolina, and Virginia. The middle of the conference isn’t as strong as usual, but should have enough firepower to produce 8 tournament teams.
- Louisville Cardinals (2018-2019: 6th, 20-14) The Cardinals surprised many in Chris Mack’s first year as head coach, finishing 6th. Now Chris Mack seeks to break into the top tier of the ACC, and likely will do so this season. Louisville returns 6 of its top 7 players from a season ago, only losing guard Christen Cunningham. Preseason ACC player of the year Jordan Nwora elected to return for his junior season, and will lead the way for the Cardinals. Louisville brings in an elite grad transfer form St Joseph’s in Lamarr Kimble (15.6 points per game) in an effort to replace Cunningham’s minutes. Freshman guards Josh Nickelberry and David Johnson join the fold and both can shoot the lights of out of the ball. The Cardinals also add 5* wing Samuell Williamson and 4* big Aidan Igiehon. Louisville has enough talent and experience needed to claim their first regular season ACC title since 2014** and even compete for a National Title. The only question mark could be if the movement of the 3-point line will have an impact on Chris Mack’s defense.
- North Carolina Tar Heels (2018-2019: 2nd, 29-7) There was an influx of talent this offseason as Roy Williams looked to reload after losing Coby White, Nassir Little, and Cam Johnson. In what could have been a slight down year for the Tar Heels, Williams raided the transfer market and signed two of the best names out there: Christian Keeling and Justin Pierce. Both Keeling and Pierce are lights out shooters at 38% and 35% respectively. They immediately give North Carolina stability and experience at the guard position. The Tar Heels were also able to land two high school stars in Cole Anthony (point guard) and Armando Bacot (big). Anthony will lead the way for the Heels at point guard as he will immediately make a large impact on both ends of the floor. He can really do it all: create his shot, find teammates, rebound, and score. It would not surprise anyone for North Carolina to capture an ACC title, but the roster turnover could prevent them from finishing 1st. Either way, slot North Carolina in as a one or two seed in the NCAA tournament.
- Duke Blue Devils (2018-2019: 3rd, 32-6) Duke had one of the greatest recruiting classes ever assembled las year, inking 3 of the top 5 overall recruits. As anyone would expect, all three players were drafted early in the NBA lottery, including human highlight reel Zion Williamson. The Blue Devils managed to reload again with 4 top 50 players, including top 10 center Vernon Carey. Although this is an extremely talented freshman class, it is nowhere near the level of talent seen in years past when Jeff Capel was recruiting as an assistant coach. Fortunately for Duke, they return some key cogs from last season’s team: Tre Jones, Alex O’Connell, and Javin DeLaurier. Jones’s return to Duke was pivotal as it gives the Blue Devils a leader, floor general, and elite perimeter defender. Coach K’s team is talented and a top 2 seed lock in March.
- Virginia Cavaliers (2018-2019: 1st, 34-3) After the loss of Deandre Hunter, Ty Jerome, and Kyle Guy, Virginia was in for a rebuilding year. Or at least that’s what they call it after winning a National Championship. Tony Bennett’s team is far from devoid of talent after returning guard Kihei Clark, forward Braxton Key, and center Mamadi Diakite. In addition, the Cavs raided the transfer market. Virginia reeled in Marquette standout big Sam Hauser and JUCO All-American Tomas Woldetensae. Although not eligible this season, Hauser is an excellent scorer and rebounder, averaging 14.9 points and 7.2 rebounds last season. Woldentensae gives the Cavs an excellent 3-point shooter as he averaged 47% last season from beyond the arc. Tony Bennett also added his best freshman class since 2016 with 2 top 75 players: guard Casey Morsell and big Kadin Shedrick. UVA certainly is not rebuilding and will continue to be in the upper echelon of the ACC.
- Notre Dame Fighting Irish (2018-2019: 14th, 14-19) Notre Dame had a surprising 14th place finish in the ACC in Mike Brey’s worst season as head coach. The Irish added 0 (yes ZERO) high school recruits in the offseason, which means they return virtually everyone. The only departure of note is DJ Harvey, who opted to transfer to Vanderbilt. Notre Dame will start 3 seniors including preseaon All-ACC first team big John Mooney. TJ Gibbs, Rex Pflueger, and Prentiss Hubb will anchor down the back court, while Nate Laszewski will occupy the forward position alongside Mooney. This team should improve significantly year over year, and easily prove that last season was a fluke.
- North Carolina State Wolfpack (2018-2019: 8th, 24-11) The Wolfpack are experienced as their starting lineup will be comprised of exclusively upperclassmen. They will be led by senior guards Markell Johnson and CJ Bryce. Braxton Beverly will round up NC State’s starting guards as he provides the Pack with 3-point shooting and excellent vision. Coach Kevin Keatts was able to raid the transfer market and acquire forward Pat Andree from Lehigh. Andree is a good rebounder and shot 42% from 3 in his last two seasons at Lehigh. Although suspended for the first few games, junior big DJ Funderburk rounds out NC State’s starting lineup. Kevin Keatts’s squad should be able to score at will, especially from deep with 4 highly capable 3-point shooters. The main concern for the Pack is on defense, especially in the paint. If NC State can have a formidable post defense, compounded with their elite perimeter defense, they were will be a force this season in the ACC.
- Florida State Seminoles (2018-2019: 4th, 29-8) This will be a new look Seminoles squad as 6 of their top 8 players from a season ago graduated or declared for the NBA draft. Of the players that played significant minutes last season, just guards Trent Forrest and MJ Walker return. Look for Devin Vassell to take a big step forward as the third guard in FSU’s starting 5, as he was very productive in his limited minutes as a freshman. In addition, he is FSU’s best returning 3-point shooter. JUCO forward RaiQuan Gray and freshman big Balsa Koprivica were key offseason additions for the Noles. Florida State will likely regress on the offensive end due to an exodus of talent, but the biggest regressive impact will occur on the defensive end. The defensive prowess of both Mfiondu Kabengele and Christ Koumadje will be sorely missed. Even still, FSU has enough talent to reach the NCAA tournament for a 4th consecutive time.
- Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (2018-2019: 10th, 14-18) Despite a potential (hopefully not) post-season ban, Georgia Tech is poised to surprise much of America. The Jackets return their top 4 scorers, including James Banks who could find his way onto an All-ACC team this season. In addition, Tech added 3-point marksman Bubba Parham from VMI. 3-point shooting has been something the Jackets have desperately been missing in the Pastner era, but Bubba will provide that at high percentage and volume (3.6 per game at 40%). Pastner also added USC transfer Jordan Usher, who will be eligible in December. Usher will provide energy and effort on both ends of the floor with his defense, rebounding, and ability to get to the basket. This is the strongest team Georgia Tech has had in years, with front court depth the only glaring weakness. Tech has an incredibly difficult schedule, but should be vying for a bid to the NCAA tournament come March if eligible.
- Miami Hurricanes (2018-2019: 12th, 14-19) After head coach Jim Larranaga’s first losing season since 1998, the Hurricanes have promise this year led by junior guard Chris Lykes. Lykes should see benefits from the NCAA moving back the 3-point line due to having more space for his mid-range jump shot and passing lanes. The Canes also return senior Dejan Vasiljevic and transfer Kameron McGusty is now eligible. Vasiljevic and McGusty should spread the floor with their shooting and open up lanes to drive for Lykes. Defense could be an issue for Miami, but if Lykes is able to push the tempo in transition with his electric speed to get easy buckets, it may not matter. The Hurricanes should at least be a bubble team this season.
- Syracuse Orange (2018-2019: 7th, 20-14) Syracuse will look to replace a trio of key contributors from the 2018-2019 season: Oshae Brissett, Frank Howard, and Tyus Battle. The Orange also lose Paschal Chukwu - their best interior defender. Jim Boeheim returns senior starter Elijiah Hughes, while Buddy Boeheim, Marek Dolezaj, and Jalen Carey are expected to step up. Cuse also brings in two 4*: Brycen Goodine and Quincey Guerrier. In addition freshman guard Joe Girard was a prolific scorer and excellent 3-point shooter in high school. The Orange will likely struggle with interior defense and rebounding. Cuse was 215th in the country in defensive rebounding last season, and that is likely not getting better with Bourama Sidibe and Dolezaj. At 6’10 180, Dolezaj will likely have a difficult time rebounding and with interior defense if he is forced to play it. Having to replace a trio of studs is not easy and should result in a step back for the Orange this season, as the NCAA tournament is far from a lock.
- Pittsburgh Panthers (2018-2019: 15th, 14-19) Coach Jeff Capel’s inaugural season went as predicted by the national media as the Panthers finished last in the ACC. Capel inherited a complete dumpster fire from Kevin Stallings, but despite the finish the Panthers exceeded expectations. Pitt was extremely young in 2018-2019 evidenced by Capel playing 3 freshmen over 25 minutes per game. The Panthers return several key components of last season’s team, including their starting backcourt: Xavier Johnson and Trey McGowens. Forward Au’Diese Toney and big Terrell Brown should take steps forward this season and round out Pitt’s core. However, the loss of now graduated guard/forward Jared Wilson-Frame will hurt Pitt’s chances of taking a big step. Wilson-Frame was by far their most dangerous 3-point shooter (3.1 a game at 39.5%) and the Panthers lack a worthy replacement. This could clog the lanes for slashers Johnson and McGowens.
- Wake Forest Demon Deacons (2018-2019: 13th, 11-20) Wake Forest was picked to finish last in the ACC by the media, but the Deacs should be able to outperform that expectation. Danny Manning’s team returns 77% of the scoring from last season’s team, just losing Jaylen Hoard early to the NBA. Wake’s backcourt will be led by two seniors: leading scorer Brandon Childress and Charlotte transfer Andrien White. White should give Wake Forest added 3-point shooting as he shot 38% in 3 season with Charlotte. Olivier Sarr is another player to watch as the junior big looks to take a big step forward as Wake’s primary post player/rim protector. With a senior transfer and every key contributor a year older, it’s easy to see how the Deacs can improve on a 13th place finish in 2018-2019. However, if Manning fails to show improvement this season, he could be on his way out of Winston Salem.
- Clemson Tigers (2018-2019: 9th, 20-14) The Tigers are in for a rebuild year after losing 4 of their top 5 players, including their two best: Marcquise Reed and Elijah Thomas. Brad Brownell’s squad returns just 26% of their scoring, and even less after the unfortunate ACL injury to their best returning guard, Clyde Trapp. Clemson was able to hit the transfer market, acquiring a go-to scorer with Tevin Mack from Alabama. Mack averaged 17.5 points and 6.5 rebounds per 40 minutes last season, but will need to become a more efficient scorer for the Tigers. Junior forward Aamir Simms seems poised to take a big step forward as Clemson’s second best player. The acquisition of Mack may keep Clemson out of last place in the conference, but they are still poised for their worst finish in the ACC under Brownell and worst overall since the 1947-1948 season.
- Virginia Tech Hokies (2018-2019: 5th, 27-9) This is a completely different Hokie team than the one a season ago that reached the Sweet Sixteen. Head coach Buzz Williams dipped to College Station to coach Texas A&M. The seniors Ahmed Hill, Justin Robinson, and Ty Outlaw are all gone as well. Kerry Blackshear is playing his senior year at Florida. Nickeil Alexander-Walker? He bounced early to the NBA. Virginia Tech made a great hire with Mike Young from Wofford, but there is so much uncertainty for his inaugural season in Blacksburg. Young consistently has an efficient motion offense with sharpshooters (10th in adjusted offensive efficiency per Kenpom in 2018-2019), but the youth and lack of elite shooters will prevent VT from having significant success in year one. However, Landers Nolley, Wabissa Bede, and Isaiah Wilkins are decent shooters that will give the Hokies enough firepower to win several games in the ACC.
- Boston College Eagles (2018-2019: 11th, 14-17) No team lost a more critical component early to the draft than Boston College did when Ky Bowman elected to forgo his senior season to play in the NBA. Bowman was the jack of all trades for the Eagles last season, leading the team in points (19), rebounds (7.5), assists (4), 3-point percentage (37.4%), and steals (1.4). His presence will be sorely missed along with now graduated guard Jordan Chatman. To make matters worse, BC’s best returning guard, Wynston Tabbs, tore his ACL and is out for the season. Fortunately for head coach Jim Christian, Boston College was able to sway former 5* guard Derryck Thornton to transfer. This will give the Eagles a nice high low game with Thornton and senior big man Nik Popovic. However, this is not enough talent to get Boston College out of the ACC cellar. With Christian firmly on the hot seat, his days in Chestnut Hill are probably numbered.