College basketball season is here. Games began on Friday, including in (arguably) the best basketball conference in America, the ACC, which has solidified that distinction with the addition of Louisville. Here are how the 15 teams should wind up this season.
1. Duke (Projected: 28-3, 16-2 ACC, Final Four; Last Year: 26-9, 13-5 ACC, Round of 64)
No Jabari Parker and no Rodney Hood for Mike Krzyzewski? No problem, with Quinn Cook Amile Jefferson, and Rasheed Sulaimon returning, and an insanely good recruiting class (ranked #1 by most recruiting services) including 7-footer Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones, and Justise Winslow. This team has a very nice blend of extremely talented youth and steady, experienced veterans, and could be extremely dangerous in March.
2. Louisville (Projected: 15-3, 27-4 ACC, Sweet 16; Last Year: 31-6, 15-3 American, Sweet 16)
Rick Pitino’s Cardinals team joins the ACC after a year in the American (after the breakup of the old Big East), and although the Cardinals lose Russ Smith and Luke Hancock, two big pieces from their national title team in 2013, Montrezl Harrell and Wayne Blackshear are prepared to lead the Cardinals into a new era in the ACC, as is a large recruiting class.
3. Virginia (Projected: 25-5, 14-4 ACC, Sweet 16; Last Year: 30-7, 16-2 ACC, Sweet 16)
For the first time in 45 years, the Cavaliers have an ACC title to defend, and although they lose leaders Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell from last year’s team, Tony Bennett will have his team ready, led by Malcolm Brogdon, Justin Anderson, and Anthony Gill. Expect Virginia to once again be a defensive force, after allowing the least points in the nation last year.
4. North Carolina (Projected: 23-8, 12-6 ACC, Sweet 16; Last Year: 24-10, 13-5 ACC, Round of 32)
Shooting, both from outside and from the free throw line, was an issue for the Tar Heels a year ago, particularly when done by players other than Marcus Paige. The recruiting pickup of guard Justin Jackson will help, Inside, expect Brice Johnson to have a breakout year as he is no longer behind James Michael McAdoo on the depth chart. The Heels are, as usual, very talented, and deep, but there’s just enough missing to keep them behind the top three on this list.
5. Syracuse (Projected: 21-10, 11-7 ACC, Round of 32; Last Year: 28-6, 14-4 ACC, Round of 32)
After an excellent regular season that resulted in the Orange peaking too early (perhaps), only 37% of their scoring is back, as they lose Tyler Ennis, CJ Fair, and Jerami Grant. Trevor Cooney and Rakeem Christmas are back, and are joined by a couple of talented freshmen, Kaleb Joseph and Chris McCullough, who are expected to start. This team is not a national title contender, but will still be very competitive in the ACC.
6. Florida State (Projected: 21-10, 10-8 ACC, Round of 64; Last Year: 22-14, 9-9 ACC, NIT Semifinals)
Only Duke and North Carolina have more ACC wins in the last nine seasons than the Seminoles, and even with Leonard Hamilton’s team losing Ian Miller and Okaro White, they should still be able to earn a winning record in the ACC this season. The team lacks superstars, but Aaron Thomas is a very solid player, particularly defensively, and is joined outside by Devon Bookert and inside by 7’3” center Boris Bojanovsky. This team should be good enough to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in three seasons.
7. NC State (Projected: 22-9, 10-8 ACC, Round of 64; Last Year: 22-14, 9-9 ACC, Round of 64)
At the end of last season, with ACC Player of the Year TJ Warren leaving for the NBA and Tyler Lewis transferring to Butler, many began writing the Wolfpack off for this season. But Mark Gottfried’s team has been written off before (people didn’t expect an NCAA bid last year), and with Trevor Lacey transferring from Alabama, and a big sophomore class now on their second trip through the ACC, as well as a good recruiting class, this team should find themselves back in the dance in March, a place Mark Gottfried finds a way to reach annually.
8. Pittsburgh (Projected: 22-11, 9-9 ACC, Round of 64; Last Year: 26-10, 11-7 ACC, Round of 32)
Pittsburgh has been the NCAA Tournament in 10 of the last 11 seasons, and will try to return this year. It will be a challenge after losing their top two scorers, Lamar Patterson and Talib Zanna. While leading returners James Robinson, Michael Young, and Cameron Wright didn’t have overwhelming numbers a year ago, all should see more responsibility and answer with more production, making Pitt a team that should reach the tournament again this season.
9. Notre Dame (Projected: 20-11, 8-10 ACC, NIT; Last Year: 15-17, 6-12 ACC)
While the Irish lost leading scorer Eric Atkins and big man Garrick Sherman to graduation, the talk on campus is who they get back for this season. Jerian Grant averaged 19.0 ppg in the first 12 games of last season before he was ineligible due to an academic issue, and now as he returns to join Pat Connaughton and the rest of his teammates, he is expected to have a big impact, as he was voted to the preseason All-ACC team. Still, it will be an uphill battle in this tough league if Mike Brey wants to take his team the NCAA Tournament, although the Irish should find themselves in the NIT.
10. Miami (Projected: 19-13, 8-10 ACC, NIT; Last Year: 17-16, 7-11 ACC)
The Hurricanes lost a combined 39.4 ppg as four of their top six scorers graduated, leaving only one player remaining from the 2013 ACC Champions. Jim Larranaga hit the recruiting trail in multiple ways, signing four high school players, a junior college transfer, and three transfers, including Sheldon McClellan (from Texas) and Angel Rodriguez (from Kansas State). Team chemistry, not talent, could be their biggest hindrance, as Larranaga faces a stiff test in the ACC, but this team should make the NIT field of 32.
11. Wake Forest (Projected: 17-14, 7-11 ACC; Last Year: 17-16, 6-12 ACC)
Coach Jeff Bzdelik resigned from Wake after a less than stellar four-year stint with only one winning record and no postseason trips, and was replaced by the hero of the 1988 Final Four, Danny Manning, who comes to Winston-Salem from Tulsa. He inherits a strong one-two punch of Codi Miller-McIntyre and Devin Thomas, along with a bevy of other role-playing veterans, and a decent recruiting class. They’re projected to fall short of the postseason, but with a couple more wins could find themselves in the NIT in March.
12. Boston College (Projected: 13-17, 6-12 ACC; Last Year: 8-24, 4-14 ACC)
After a horrid 8-24 season where they were expected to be much more competitive, Steve Donahue was fired, leading to the questionable hire of Jim Christian. Donahue’s loss led to the transfer of Ryan Anderson and Joe Rahon, but those are the only personnel losses facing the Eagles. The returning players in Chestnut Hill are very experienced, in addition to a pair of transfers, and the team will be led by Olivier Hanlan, the ACC’s leading returning scorer. This team is hard to predict, with a new coach and a veteran team, but my best guess is that there will be struggles.
13. Clemson (Projected: 14-16, 4-14 ACC; Last Year: 23-13, 10-8 ACC, NIT Semifinals)
I’ve actually already seen the Tigers live, as they played an exhibition against Anderson (my school), winning 64-36. Defensively, Brad Brownell will have his team ready as always, even without KJ McDaniels, who left for the NBA. Offensively, the loss of McDaniels will hurt, with no double-digit scorers returning. Rod Hall, Sidy Djitte, and Jaron Blossongame will have to step up to avoid a disappointing year after last season’s 23 wins. (Note: I picked Clemson similarly last year, and they proved me very wrong.)
14. Georgia Tech (Projected: 11-19, 3-15 ACC; Last Year: 16-17, 6-12 ACC)
The Yellow Jackets have lost three of their four double figure scorers from last year, as they are looking for their first winning conference record in 11 years. Brian Gregory’s leading returners are Marcus Georges-Hunt and Chris Bolden, and the team does have four transfers from mid- to high-level Division I conferences, but it will be an uphill battle for Tech in the stacked ACC. If the team performs as poorly as expected, by year’s end Gregory’s seat could be very warm.
15. Virginia Tech (Projected: 11-20, 2-16 ACC; Last Year: 9-22, 2-16 ACC)
The good news for the Hokies is they made the biggest splash of the coaching carousel after last season, firing James Johnson and hiring Buzz Williams away from Marquette. The bad news is that Williams has very little talent to work with. Five players transferred and Jarrell Eddie graduated, leaving the Hokies without three of the best five players on an already bad team. Devin Wilson and Adam Smith should be solid, but with no depth behind them it’s going to be a long maiden voyage for Williams.
Preseason First Team All-ACC:
My Ballot: Marcus Paige (Jr., G, North Carolina), Malcolm Brogdon (Jr., G, Virginia), Jerian Grant (Sr., G, Notre Dame), Olivier Hanlan (Jr., G, Boston College), Montrezl Harrell (Jr., F, Louisville)
Actual: Paige, Brogdon, Grant, Harrell, Jahlil Okafor (Fr., C, Duke)