College basketball begins today, and while the sports world will honestly not be focused on college hoops for a couple of months and the first conference game will not be played until December 28, the games do count starting tonight.
The ACC is one of the best and deepest leagues in the country, and after sending seven teams to the 2016 NCAA Tournament (plus a Louisville team that would have gone if not for a postseason ban), preseason projections for this coming season estimate nine to 10 ACC teams playing in the Big Dance come March.
The top of the league appears to be much of the same, with Duke, North Carolina, and Virginia as the consensus three best teams in the conference. The bottom three of Wake Forest, Georgia Tech, and Boston College are also pretty much the same on everyone’s radar. The nine teams, in the middle, however, are a complete tossup, and I could see those nine falling in any order.
Only three of the 15 players named All-ACC last year are back this season (Duke G Grayson Allen [first team], Clemson F Jaron Blossomgame [first team], Pittsburgh F Michael Young [third team]), leaving the door open for breakout stars in the 2016-17 season.
That said, the league is still exceptionally talented from top to bottom, with really good players on all 15 teams. The ACC is collectively a little bit younger this year, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, with a very deep field of talented freshman coming into the league, and sophomores poised to break out in their second trip through ACC play.
Without further adieu, here is how the teams stack up, in my estimation, entering the beginning of play tonight.
(And also, as a disclaimer… don’t go to Vegas with these predictions. Last year’s predictions were decent, but I really missed on a couple of teams.)
Records for 2016-17 are projected for the regular season
Statistics are from 2015-16 unless otherwise noted
1. Duke (Media Pick: 1st)
2015-16: 25-11, 11-7 ACC, NCAA Sweet 16
2016-17: 28-3, 16-2 ACC, NCAA National Champion
The Blue Devils are as talented as any team in the country, with the veteran leadership of G Grayson Allen (21.6 ppg, 3.5 apg), G Matt Jones (10.4 ppg) and F Amile Jefferson (11.4 ppg, 10.3 rpg), and two of the top-three rated incoming freshmen in the country, F Jayson Tatum and F Harry Giles. Chemistry could potentially be an issue here, but the Blue Devils are not alone with that issue, and Mike Krzyzewski has made a career out of making sure talented teams play together as one. This team is really good.
2. North Carolina (2nd)
2015-16: 33-7, 14-4 ACC, NCAA National Runner-Up
2016-17: 25-7, 13-5 ACC, NCAA Elite Eight
After losing the national title game to Villanova on Kris Jenkins’ buzzer-beater, the Tar Heels lost Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige, but did not lose a single player to the NBA for the first time since 2011. As a result, while replacing Johnson and Paige is no small task, the lineup is still experienced and primed for success, led by Justin Jackson (12.2 ppg, 2.8 apg), Joel Berry (12.8 ppg, 3.8 apg) and Isaiah Hicks (8.9 ppg, 4.6 rpg). While they aren’t quite on the level of their neighbors in Durham, the Heels were the only other team anyone at ACC Media Day picked to win the league (85 of 91 writers voted for Duke, and the other six voted for North Carolina).
3. Virginia (3rd)
2015-16: 29-8, 13-5 ACC, NCAA Elite Eight
2016-17: 20-10, 11-7 ACC, NCAA Sweet 16
Last year’s Cavaliers got within a win of their first Final Four since 1984, but 58% of the scoring from that team graduated (Malcolm Brogdon, Anthony Gill, Mike Tobey, Evan Nolte). ACC Player of the Year Brogdon was that team’s leader, but London Perrantes (11.0 ppg, 4.4 apg), a four-year starting point guard, should be as effective leading this team, while Memphis transfer F Austin Nichols (13.3 ppg, 3.4 bpg) will be a key addition. Tony Bennett’s philosophy, especially on defense, is based completely around the team, something that can help a group without many established stars to maintain their place as one of the best programs in the ACC right now.
4. Pittsburgh (12th)
2015-16: 21-12, 9-9 ACC, NCAA First Round
2016-17: 20-10, 11-7 ACC, NCAA Second Round
The Panthers, who started 14-1 last year before stumbling to the finish and a first round exit from the NCAA Tournament, are a unique case in predicting this year’s ACC. On one hand, while the Panthers lost NCAA all-time assist-to-turnover ratio leader James Robinson, the four seniors of Michael Young (15.7 ppg, 6.9 rpg), Jamel Artis (14.4 ppg, 3.0 apg), Sheldon Jeter (8.1 ppg, 4.8 rpg) and Chris Jones (6.1 ppg) do return, making this one of the league’s more experienced lineups. On the other hand, former Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings replaces Jamie Dixon, who left for TCU. If the cohesion the Panthers players will have extends to the coach’s chair, they can be a strong sleeper in the ACC, despite being picked 12th by the media.
5. Florida State (8th)
2015-16: 20-14, 8-10 ACC, NIT Second Round
2016-17: 20-11, 10-8 ACC, NCAA Second Round
Florida State loses Malik Beasley, their first ever player to leave for the NBA as a freshman, and Devon Bookert, but still returns a very strong and well-balanced roster, led by G Dwayne Bacon (15.8 ppg, 5.8 rpg) and G Xavier Rathan-Mayes (11.8 ppg, 2.3 apg), as well as highly-touted freshman F Jonathan Isaac. The Seminoles under coach Leonard Hamilton have been to four NCAA Tournaments, but none since 2012, a fact that could change come March.
6. Louisville (4th)
2015-16: 23-8, 12-6 ACC, postseason ban
2016-17: 20-11, 10-8 ACC, NCAA Second Round
The Cardinals’ championship-caliber team last year could not participate in the postseason due to a self-imposed ban due to NCAA investigation. While Louisville lost their top three scorers when Damion Lee and Trey Lewis graduated and Chinanu Onuaku left for the NBA, the Cardinals did dodge a bullet when the NCAA did not punish them further when the investigation into the program’s escort scandal concluded. G Quentin Snider (9.4 ppg, 3.5 apg) and F Mangok Mathiang (7.1 ppg, 5.7 apg) provide a solid one-two, backcourt-and-post combo, and the Cardinals have their typical depth under coach Rick Pitino, so they should return to March Madness this year.
7. NC State (6th)
2015-16: 16-17, 5-13 ACC
2016-17: 20-11, 10-8 ACC, NCAA First Round
The Wolfpack had a rough year last season after some (including me) picked them as high as fourth in the ACC. Even with league scoring champion Cat Barber leaving for the NBA and the Martin twins, Cody and Caleb, transferring, the Pack are the wild card of this year’s ACC. F Abdul-Malik Abu (14.2 ppg, 8.8 rpg) turned down the NBA to come back for his junior year, G/F Maverick Rowan (12.9 ppg) should improve as a sophomore and G Terry Henderson returns after a season-ending injury in last year’s opener. In addition, NC State boasts solid freshmen in G Dennis Smith Jr., who is already drawing Chris Paul comparisons, and Turkish C Omar Yurtseven. If Mark Gottfried can put it together, the Wolfpack have the talent to return to the NCAA Tournament.
8. Virginia Tech (10th)
2015-16: 20-15, 10-8 ACC, NIT Second Round
2016-17: 18-12, 9-9 ACC, NCAA First Round
Buzz Williams’ rebuilding project in Blacksburg took a step ahead of schedule last year, going over .500 in league play and returning to the postseason in the NIT. The top four scorers are back, led by F Zach LeDay (15.5 ppg, 7.9 apg), G Seth Allen (14.7 ppg, 2.5 apg), and G Justin Bibbs (11.7 ppg), and with the momentum the program has, they have a realistic chance to make their first trip to the Big Dance since 2007.
9. Notre Dame (7th)
2015-16: 24-12, 11-7 ACC, NCAA Elite Eight
2016-17: 17-12, 9-9 ACC, NIT
The Fighting Irish nearly qualified for the Final Four last year, something they have not done since 1978, but repeating that feat will be difficult this season. Zach Auguste and Demetrius Jackson have graduated, and it will be up to VJ Beachem (12.0 ppg), Steve Vasturia (11.4 ppg, 3.2 apg) and Bonzie Colson (11.1 ppg, 6.7 apg) to step up. I’m not necessarily doubting their leadership, but I’m not sure the Irish have the depth beneath them to duplicate the great success of the last two seasons.
10. Syracuse (5th)
2015-16: 23-14, 9-9 ACC, NCAA Final Four
2016-17: 18-13, 8-10 ACC, NIT
A legitimate case can be made that the Orange should not have made the NCAA Tournament last year, but once they were in they stunningly advanced to the Final Four, falling to North Carolina in the semifinals. Graduates Michael Gbinije, Malachi Richardson and Trevor Cooney are gone, and it’s up to sophomore sensation F Tyler Lydon (10.1 ppg, 6.3 rpg) and senior F Tyler Roberson (8.8 ppg, 8.5 rpg) to lead. Depth could be an issue, as the Orange’s NCAA penalty of a scholarship reduction can be seen in a razor-thin roster.
11. Miami (9th)
2015-16: 27-8, 13-5 ACC, NCAA Sweet 16
2016-17: 17-13, 8-10 ACC, NIT
Under the leadership of the senior trio of Angel Rodriguez, Sheldon McClellan and Tonye Jekiri, Miami was ranked as high as eighth last year and made just the third trip to the Sweet 16 in program history. It’s now up to the less-polished senior trio of former “sixth man” G Ja’Quan Newton (10.5 ppg, 2.5 apg), F Davon Reed (11.1 ppg, 4.1 rpg) and F Kamari Murphy (5.6 ppg, 6.0 rpg). It typically isn’t wise to underestimate Hurricane coach Jim Larranaga, but he has less depth with this team than either his 2013 or 2016 Sweet 16 squad.
12. Clemson (11th)
2015-16: 17-14, 10-8 ACC
2016-17: 16-14, 8-10 ACC
The Tigers have one of the league’s best players in senior F Jaron Blossomgame (18.7 ppg, 6.7), a newly-renovated home arena at Littlejohn Coliseum, and the most underrated coach in the league in Brad Brownell. In addition to Blossomgame, last year’s other double-figure scorers are also back in F Donte Grantham (10.2 ppg, 4.1 rpg) and G Avry Holmes (10.0 ppg, 2.6 apg), although they will miss the leadership of Jordan Roper and Landry Nnoko. The league’s depth is why they are this far down this list, but the Tigers are perfectly capable of playing their way back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011.
13. Wake Forest (13th)
2015-16: 11-20, 2-16 ACC
2016-17: 14-16, 6-12 ACC
Four year starters Devin Thomas and Codi Miller-McIntyre have graduated, and while the Deacons will certainly miss their production, that means that every player playing significant minutes is a Danny Manning import, either via recruiting or transfer. Point guard Bryant Crawford (13.8 ppg, 4.4 apg) and F Dinos Mitoglou (9.2 ppg, 5.4 rpg) lead the returners, while the team adds transfer shooters Keyshawn Woods (Charlotte) and Austin Arians (Milwaukee) and freshman G Brandon Childress, the son of Deacons legend and assistant coach Randolph Childress. Arians is the only rotation player who won’t return next year (barring transfers), so the rebuilding Deacs can not only focus on this season, but next.
14. Boston College (15th)
2015-16: 7-25, 0-18 ACC
2016-17: 10-21, 3-15 ACC
The Eagles literally have nowhere to go but up after a winless ACC campaign last year, although they did lose their best player, Eli Carter, to graduation. The roster still lacks in proven players beyond G Jerome Robinson (11.7 ppg), but does feature incoming transfers Connor Tava (Western Michigan), Maurice Jeffers (Delaware) and Jordan Chatman (BYU), meaning this team isn’t necessarily as strong at the top, but could have slightly more depth than last year’s disaster. Still, it will be an uphill climb for the Eagles.
15. Georgia Tech (14th)
2015-16: 21-15, 8-10 ACC, NIT Quarterfinals
2016-17: 9-22, 2-16 ACC
The Yellow Jackets turned a strong finish last year into Brian Gregory’s first postseason bid there, an NIT trip. Now, former Memphis coach Josh Pastner replaces Gregory, as the roster has little resemblance to a season ago. The Jackets have lost 78 percent of their scoring from last year and their top four scorers, including team leader Marcus Georges-Hunt, while leading returning scorer Quinton Stephens only averaged 5.0 ppg last year. None of the incoming freshman are viewed as impact players, and it could be a long debut season for Pastner in Atlanta.
My Preseason All-ACC First Team: Duke G Grayson Allen, Clemson F Jaron Blossomgame, Virginia G London Perrantes, North Carolina G Justin Jackson, Florida State G Dwayne Bacon
Media Preseason All-ACC First Team: Allen, Blossomgame, Perrantes, North Carolina G Joel Berry, NC State G Dennis Smith Jr.