Believe it or not, college basketball season begins tonight, with 12 of the ACC’s 15 teams in action, and all 15 making their season debut at some point this weekend. The opening of college basketball season always seems to sneak up on us, as it comes while college and pro football seasons are in full swing.
Many experts say the ACC has improved since last year, and could have as many as eight or nine teams make the NCAA Tournament. I’m not ready to make that assertion, but I do have seven teams reaching the Big Dance. The opening day of the season, however, is exactly four months from Selection Sunday, meaning a lot is going to change between now and then.
That being said, here’s my best guess as to the season each ACC team will have this winter.
(All player statistics are from last season unless otherwise noted; projected records are through the regular season and do not include the postseason)
1. North Carolina (1st in the AP Poll)
Projected: 27-4, 15-3 ACC, Final Four
Last Year: 26-12, 11-7 ACC, Sweet 16
After runs to the ACC Tournament final and the Sweet 16 last year, the Tar Heels did lose J.P. Tokoto to the NBA Draft, as well as role players Desmond Hubert and Jackson Simmons, but not much in terms of production. As a result, 88.1% of the Tar Heels’ scoring from last year is back, led by senior guard and Naismith Player of the Year candidate Marcus Paige (14.7 ppg, 4.5 apg), although Paige will start the season sidelined with a hand injury, and nightly double-double threat Brice Johnson (12.9 ppg, 7.8 rpg). This is the deepest North Carolina team since the Heels’ last national title in 2009, and this team could very well have a shot to win Roy Williams’ third national title in Chapel Hill. Unlike some of Carolina’s teams in recent years that have been ranked high in November based only on talent, while they had little experience, this team has a lot of both, and is the best team in the league, plain and simple.
2. Virginia (6th in the AP Poll)
Projected: 25-5, 14-4 ACC, Elite Eight
Last Year: 30-4, 16-2 ACC, NCAA Round of 32
The back-to-back defending ACC regular season champions are here to stay in the top tier of the ACC, and although they have lost Justin Anderson to the NBA and Darion Atkins to graduation, this will still be a good team with a shot to repeat as the ACC’s best. Guard Malcolm Brogdon (14.0 ppg) returns as the team’s undisputed leader (those stats don’t fully measure what he means to this club), and pairs up with assist specialist London Perrantes (4.6 apg), and Anthony Gill (11.6 ppg, 6.5 rpg) to produce a very efficient on-court product. While Anderson’s loss will hurt on the offensive end, Tony Bennett-coached teams always defend well, and in doing so give themselves a chance to win nearly every game. On top of depth and experience, this team has a favorable schedule in which the toughest ACC team they play twice is Miami, as the Cavaliers look for a deeper NCAA run than last year’s first weekend exit.
3. Duke (5th in the AP Poll)
Projected: 25-6, 13-5 ACC, Elite Eight
Last Year: 35-4, 15-3 ACC, National Champions
This time last year, Duke had a team that everyone knew would be predominantly driven by a ridiculously good recruiting class, and that team went on to win Mike Krzyzewski’s fifth national championship, with Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow, and Tyus Jones all moving on to the NBA, and Quinn Cook graduating (and turning pro as well). While this year’s recruiting class to replace those outstanding players is also deep, it would be nearly impossible to replicate the strength, and success, of that class. Guards Derryck Thornton and Luke Kennard, center Chase Jeter, and forward Brandon Ingram will all contribute, but it’s hard to say how much success such a young team will have. A lot of that will depend on leading returner Amile Jefferson (6.1 ppg, 5.8 rpg) at forward. The Blue Devils can out-talent anyone, but replicating last year’s national title will be tough, although they certainly could win their first ACC Tournament title since 2011 (yes, that’s a “drought” at Duke).
4. NC State
Projected: 22-9, 11-7 ACC, NCAA Round of 32
Last Year: 22-14, 10-8 ACC, Sweet 16
Mark Gottfried enters his fifth year in Raleigh, and while he isn’t necessarily in the league’s top tier of coaches (the ACC has four Hall of Fame coaches, after all), he has yet to miss the NCAA Tournament with the Wolfpack. The losses of Draft entry Trevor Lacey and graduate Ralston Turner certainly will be felt, although that hole will somewhat be filled by junior transfer guard Terry Henderson (11.7 ppg in 2013-14 at West Virginia), whose numbers in his sophomore season were better than Lacey’s at the same point in his career. Anthony “Cat” Barber (12.1 ppg, 3.7 apg), one of the quickest point guards in the country, will set the pace, while BeeJay Anya (led ACC with 2.5 blocks per game) and Abdul-Malik Abu (6.4 ppg, 4.8 rpg) should be a dominant team inside. This team may not be in the upper tier of the league with the three above them, but they certainly have the talent to be dancing in March yet again.
5. Florida State
Projected: 22-8, 11-7 ACC, NCAA Round of 32
Last Year: 17-16, 8-10 ACC
The Seminoles were more competitive at times last year than their record would indicate, and that should only improve this season, as Leonard Hamilton has 87.2% of last year’s scoring returning for this campaign. That returning productivity is led by Xavier Rathan-Mayes (14.9 ppg, 4.3 apg), who is one of just two of last year’s ACC All-Freshman team to return, and is one of the best and most explosive players in the ACC. Rathan-Mayes will be supplemented by guards Montay Brandon (11.8 ppg, 5.5 rpg), and Devon Bookert (10.1 ppg), both of whom are coming off of quietly solid campaigns. The Noles are looking for their first NCAA appearance since a Sweet 16 run in 2012, and they should have the talent and experience to get there this season.
Projected: 21-9, 11-7 ACC, NCAA Round of 64
Last Year: 25-13, 10-8 ACC, NIT Runner-up
Last year, just two years removed from winning the ACC regular season and tournament titles, the Hurricanes’ roster seemed like an island of misfit toys, yet they still managed to win over half their conference games and reach the championship game of the NIT. This year, Jim Larranaga’s team is led by a terrific trio of seniors who should have the ‘Canes even more competitive. In the backcourt, Angel Rodriguez (11.9 ppg, 3.9 apg) and Sheldon McClellan (14.5 ppg, 4.7 rpg) work very well together, and down low center Tonye Jekiri (8.6 ppg, 9.9 rpg) may be the league’s best returning big man, yet he isn’t getting much attention outside of South Florida. As solid as the Hurricanes program has become over the last decade, only two of their seven postseason appearances were in the NCAA Tournament, but that can change this year, as this roster is good enough, especially at the top, to make the field of 68.
7. Notre Dame (19th in the AP Poll)
Projected: 18-12, 9-9 ACC, NCAA First Four
Last Year: 32-6, 14-4 ACC, Elite Eight (ACC Tournament Champions)
The Irish won their first conference championship (in any league) last year, in just their second season in the ACC, beating North Carolina in the final in Greensboro for the title before nearly upsetting Kentucky in the Elite Eight. This team that finished last year eighth in the AP Poll is ranked way too high at 19th going into this season, however, because very few programs can rebound that well from the loss of Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton to graduation. The Irish clearly still have a talented roster, led by guard Demetrius Jackson (12.4 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 3.1 apg), forward Zach Auguste (12.9 ppg, 6.5 rpg), and Steve Vasturia (10.1 ppg). However, the depth that was evident last year isn’t as strong now, and in the tough ACC, that will show. The Irish can still make the NCAA Tournament, but I’m expecting if they do it will be as a bubble team.
Projected: 19-12, 9-9 ACC, NIT
Last Year: 27-9, 12-6 ACC, Elite Eight
This season was going to be hard enough for Rick Pitino’s team, after losing Montrezl Harrell and Terry Rozier to the NBA, Anton Gill to transfer, and Wayne Blackshear to graduation. On top of that, this year’s Cardinals team is now dealing with the program’s recent scandal, a distraction hovering over them as the season gets underway. The Cardinals’ leading returning players are guard Quentin Snider (4.1 ppg) and center Mangok Mathiang (2.6 ppg, 4.7 rpg). While Pitino did sign a decent recruiting class, freshman are generally an unknown variable, meaning a big key for how well the Cardinals season goes will be how well transfer guard Damion Lee (21.4 ppg last year at Drexel) transitions to the ACC. If Pitino can coach his team to play at their best and avoid the distractions, they could finish better than mid-pack, but it will be tough.
Projected: 17-14, 8-10 ACC, NIT
Last Year: 18-13, 9-9 ACC
Speaking of a team dealing with distractions, the Orange didn’t do the best job of that last year, which may be a problem entering this season. As the result of NCAA violations, coach Jim Boeheim is suspended for the first nine conference games, and announced in the offseason he will coach three more years before retiring, as this year is his 40th season at the helm of the Orange. On the court, the Orange have to deal with the loss of forwards Rakeem Christmas and Chris McCullough, although they are solid in the backcourt with returning guards Trevor Cooney (13.4 ppg, 2.2 apg) and Kaleb Joseph (5.9 ppg, 3.8 apg). Forward Michael Gbinije (12.7 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 3.6 apg), who is one of the league’s best all-around players, is a bright spot in an otherwise depleted frontcourt. A lack of depth, along with the continual distractions, doesn’t spell much better of a season for the Orange.
Projected: 19-12, 8-10 ACC, NIT
Last Year: 19-15, 8-10 ACC, NIT
Jamie Dixon’s team was squarely on the NCAA bubble for much of the season, but crumbled down the stretch before losing in the first round of the NIT. Departures include guard Cameron Wright, one of the more underrated players in the conference last year, along with role players Derrick Randall and Josh Newkirk. The returning group is led by inside threats Jamel Artis (13.6 ppg, 6.0 rpg) and Michael Young (13.4 ppg, 7.3 rpg), and skillful guard James Robinson (8.9 ppg, 5.1 apg). This team isn’t necessarily going to take a step back, as 76.5% of its scoring from last year returns, but I don’t think its ready to take a big step forward, and as a result the Panthers could once again end up in the NIT instead of the NCAA Tournament.
11. Wake Forest
Projected: 14-16, 7-11 ACC
Last Year: 13-19, 5-13 ACC
Year two of Danny Manning’s rebuild at Tulsa was huge, as the Golden Hurricanes made huge strides and landed in the NCAA Tournament, landing Manning the Wake Forest job. Year two in Winston-Salem may be a bit more difficult. On the positive, 79.8% of the team’s scoring from last year is back, with the only significant losses coming from role players Aaron Rountree III and Darius Leonard. Two senior leaders stand out for the Demon Deacons in guard Codi Miller-McIntyre (14.5 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 4.3 apg), who is among the deep list of big-time guards in the ACC, but will miss some early-season time with a foot injury, and double-double machine Devin Thomas (12.0 ppg, 8.8 rpg). They’re supplemented by a nice set of sophomores who have now been through the ACC once, plus the school’s best recruiting class in a while. This team is going to be improved, and could even be a sleeper in this league and make the NIT, but the hole that was dug during the Jeff Bzdelik era will take time to dig completely out of. That being said, even at their worst they’ve always been competitive at home, so visiting teams at the Joel need to look out.
12. Georgia Tech
Projected: 14-17, 6-12 ACC
Last Year: 12-19, 3-15 ACC
Coach Brian Gregory is still at Georgia Tech, much to the dismay of much of the Yellow Jackets fan base, after Tech has won a third or less of its conference games in Gregory’s three years. However, the Yellow Jackets’ rebuilding effort could potentially turn a corner this year, with five seniors on the team, which is actually one of the more experienced teams in the conference. The effort will be led by guard/forward Marcus Georges-Hunt (13.6 ppg, 5.5 rpg) and forward Charles Mitchell (9.8 ppg, 7.0 rpg), and the team also got a talent boost from the transfer of former Virginia Tech guard Adam Smith (13.4 ppg in 2013-14). 10 of the Jackets’ 15 conference losses last year were by five points or less or in overtime, so with the experience of this team, they should be able to win a few more of the close ones, and potentially save Gregory’s job.
13. Virginia Tech
Projected: 15-16, 6-12 ACC
Last Year: 11-22, 2-16 ACC
Another ACC coach in the second year of a rebuild is Buzz Williams at Virginia Tech. Last year the Hokies won just two conference games, but took games against North Carolina, Duke, and Virginia down to the wire, showing how competitive they can be as they garner more experience. Justin Bibbs (11.4 ppg), Ahmed Hill (8.7 ppg, 3.7 rpg), and Jalen Hudson (6.9 ppg) should all be improved as sophomores in their second trip through the ACC, and Devin Wilson (6.5 ppg, 4.2 apg), whose numbers actually dipped as a sophomore, should have a better junior year after Malik Muller left to play professionally in Europe. This team should be much better and more competitive, although with three straight last-place finishes, an improvement will still have them most likely finish in the bottom third of the conference.
Projected: 14-17, 5-13 ACC
Last Year: 16-15, 8-10 ACC
This team is a tough one to project. On one hand, Brad Brownell’s teams always play good defense, and the team does have a decent returning core of forwards Jaron Blossomgame (13.1 ppg, 8.2 rpg) and Donte Grantham (8.8 ppg, 4.6 rpg), along with center Landry Nnoko (7.6 ppg, 5.4 rpg, was second in ACC with 2.0 blocks per game). On the other hand, the loss of guards Rod Hall and Demarcus Harrison really hurt, as backcourt depth is going to be an issue. On one hand, I’ve picked Clemson in a similar spot the last two seasons, yet they’ve combined to win half their conference games over the last two years (18-18). On the other hand, I still don’t see them continuing that moderate level of success this season.
15. Boston College
Projected: 9-21, 2-16 ACC
Last Year: 13-19, 4-14 ACC
Last year, in Jim Christian’s first year in Chestnut Hill, I thought the Eagles could be sleepers in the ACC, with eight seniors, plus excellent guard Olivier Hanlan, on the roster. Instead, they struggled to only four conference wins, although they did play better at the end of the season. Now Hanlan, Lonnie Jackson, Patrick Heckmann, Alex Dragicevich, Aaron Brown, and Eddie Odio, among others, are all gone, and the team’s leading returner in the three major stat categories is center Dennis Clifford (yes, even in assists: 6.9 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 0.9 apg). Florida transfer Eli Carter (8.8 ppg, 2.0 rpg) will help, but this team is going to have to do a lot of learning on the job, without a lot of depth. This roster would struggle in any Power Five league but in the ACC, it’s going to be an especially tough road for the Eagles.