By Kevin Sweeney
It seems the preseason narratives around the ACC have become repetitive. Every year, we debate whether the ACC will be the nation’s best conference, whether Duke’s elite recruits can topple the experience of clubs like Virginia and North Carolina, and if the league can grab double-digit NCAA Tournament bids.
More of the same this year. Duke brings in a recruiting class as well-regarded as any in recent college basketball history, one that will get much of the preseason attention. Yet hovering among the nation’s elite once again will be Virginia, and Roy William’s UNC club will enter the season with top-10 buzz. This intersection of elite talent and elite coaching makes the ACC perhaps the most enjoyable conference in the nation. Let’s break it down, 1-15.
Before I go into Virginia, I’ll quickly sum up the question you’re probably asking– why not Duke? In recent years, the Blue Devils have mostly struggled to live up to lofty preseason expectations as they dealt with roster turnover and freshmen adjusting to new roles in college basketball. I feel much more comfortable rolling with the Cavaliers, who sport an elite prospect in their own right in De’Andre Hunter, the multi-positional forward who flashed superstar potential. Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy are still rock-solid in the backcourt, and we know Tony Bennett’s defense will elite. There’s even the possibility that Alabama transfer Braxton Key be eligible immediately. It will take a long time to forget what happened in March, but regardless of your opinions of the UVA system’s compatibility with single-elimination basketball, you have to recognize how great they’ve been in regular seasons over the last several years.
3 of the top 5 recruits in the 247 composite rankings will make the one-year run through Durham, a trio of multi-positional wings with oodles of upside. From a rankings perspective, the headliner is RJ Barrett, the Canadian product favored to go #1 overall in the 2019 Draft. However, most of the headlines will go to Zion Williamson, one of the most unique prospects in recent memory. Built like a defensive end, he can do things like this:
Hovering under the radar is Cam Reddish, who some talent evaluators believe to be the most talented of the group. Now THAT is scary. Running the show will be Tre Jones, the brother of Tyus and a 5-star recruit in his own right. The rest of the roster is a bit shaky, and some concerns remain about floor spacing, but the tantalizing talent on this roster alone would be enough to put them among the nation’s elite.
#3. North Carolina
Roy Williams shed the false narrative that he couldn’t recruit potential one-and-done recruits with his 2018 class, landing #2 overall prospect Nassir Little and #25 Coby White. Little’s stock grew throughout the all-star circuit this spring, demonstrating his elite athletic potential and competitive fire that should endear him to the neutral hoops fan this season. However, White may be more important, given the Tar Heels lose their top 2 initiators in Theo Pinson and Joel Berry. If White lives up to his billing, I’m incredibly excited about this team. They have a chance to play free-flowing 5-out basketball with White running the show, Kenny Williams, Cam Johnson, and Little on the wing, and potential All-American Luke Maye playing the 5. That group would have it all– size, shooting ability, versatility on defense, experience.
Kevin and Brad’s “deep dive preview” of North Carolina on their podcast:
#4. Virginia Tech
I feel like I say this every year, but Buzz Williams is a really good coach. He’ll have an incredibly experienced group (5 seniors in the rotation) in tow for the 2018-19 season, and that’s bad news for the rest of the conference. Justin Robinson is one of the most underrated point guards in the country, and he’ll be surrounded by a unit that is versatile and talented. NBA buzz has been percolating about Nickeil Alexander-Walker, the talented sophomore who can score at 3 levels, and his ascent into a potential all-conference player next season will be fun to watch. The margins between teams get incredibly tight once you get to this part of the ACC standings (2 games separated 3rd from 9th last season), so I’ll take my chances on a veteran, well-coached club like the Hokies.
#5. Florida State
Coming off a surprise run to the Elite 8, the Seminoles bring back much of their playing rotation. Like most Leonard Hamilton teams, they’ll feature high-level athleticism and versatility up and down the roster. Phil Cofer’s waiver for a 5th year of eligibility was granted, Terance Mann appears destined for a big senior season, and Trent Forrest was one of the nation’s most underrated players last season. Albany grad transfer David Nichols should solidify the point guard spot, and Mfiondu Kabengele showed a lot of promise down the stretch. I fear that some are overrating the Seminoles due to their deep NCAA Tournament run, but there definitely is top 25 talent on this roster.
If you’ve been following me on Twitter for the last several months, I’ve taken a lot of heat for being down on the Orange. My concern has been clear: Syracuse was one of the least efficient offenses in college basketball last season, and it’s hard for me to see that changing drastically. Top recruit Jalen Carey will add more depth and scoring punch to a backcourt that already features Frank Howard and Tyus Battle, but he’s not that high-level passer whose presence will help the efficiency of others. Him and East Carolina transfer Elijah Hughes do provide added depth, which should boost the Orange by allowing Jim Boeheim to take Battle, Howard, and Oshae Brissett off the floor at times. Defensively, the Orange will be great once again. But I see them hovering more in the 7-10 seed range than top 25 nationally with the offensive concerns.
Podcast Deep Dive:
The Tigers’ 25-win season in 2017-18 was enough to earn Brad Brownell some long-term security, and despite missing on Zion Williamson on the recruiting trail, Clemson is well-positioned for another strong season in 2018-19. Marcquise Reed is one of the league’s best guards, and grad transfer Javan White (Oral Roberts) will provide some much-needed depth up front. I’m also high on rising sophomore Aamir Simms, who was thrust into a bigger role after Donte Grantham’s injury last season and performed admirably.
#8. North Carolina State– DARK HORSE
After a hugely successful year one under Kevin Keatts, some heavy roster turnover hits the Wolfpack. 6 players from last year’s 9-man rotation depart via graduation or transfer, and in comes 2 grad transfers (Eric Lockett and Wyatt Walker), 1 immediately eligible transfer (Blake Harris), 1 sit-out transfer (Sacha Killeya-Jones), 1 JUCO transfer (Derek Funderburk), and 3 freshmen (Jericole Hellems, Ian Steere, and Immanuel Bates). In addition, CJ Bryce and Devon Daniels become eligible after sitting out last season. On paper, this team looks very intriguing, as Keatts gets the depth, ball-handling, and wing athleticism to go all-in with his pressing system. I’m fascinated to see how the guard rotation shakes out, with Markell Johnson the clear starter at point guard and Braxton Beverly, Harris, Bryce, Daniels, and Lockett all talented enough to get significant minutes. I expect a lot of smaller lineups featuring Daniels or Lockett as a small-ball 4 to play to the strengths of this guard-oriented system.
A pair of transfers in Zach Johnson (Florida Gulf Coast) and Anthony Mack (Wyoming) provide some much-needed backcourt depth behind Chris Lykes and Dejan Vasiljevic. I’m huge on Lykes, a diminutive dynamo from the DC area who averaged about 12 points and 3 assists in less than 25 minutes per contest in ACC play as a freshman. The experience he got last year after being thrown into the fire thanks to Bruce Brown’s injury should serve him well now, and his defensive liabilities can be covered by the ball-hawking Johnson. That said, the Canes will be small in the backcourt (potentially trotting out a 5’7″/6’2″/6’3″ backcourt trio), a concern for a team that was very good defensively last season. Still, between the guard depth and a nice frontcourt duo in Anthony Lawrence & Dewan Huell, Jim Larranaga’s club should be right back in the NCAA Tournament conversation.
#10. Notre Dame
Especially when dealing with a conference as deep as the ACC, there’s always one team that you feel bad about ranking where you do. Notre Dame is that team for me. Whenever you have one of the premier guards and one of the premier coaches in college basketball, you’re in a pretty good position to win. That’s exactly what the Fighting Irish have in Temple Gibbs and Mike Brey. Around those two are question marks, albeit talented ones. ND brings in the #15 recruiting class in the country per the 247sports composite, while also adding former elite recruit Juwan Durham as a transfer from UConn. Durham and highly-touted freshman Nate Laszewski both showed promise on the Irish’s trip to the Bahamas this summer, but the frontcourt rotation is still unclear with the presence of returners like Elijah Burns, John Mooney, and Nikola Djogo. In the backcourt, Brey needs some guys to step up as secondary scoring options behind Gibbs, with Rex Pfluegger, DJ Harvey, and Prentiss Hubb among the likely options.
We previewed Notre Dame back in July on the podcast:
I love me some Chris Mack, but it’s hard to see the Cardinals being much better than 11th this season. Mack has done a good job getting Louisville back on the right track from a recruiting perspective for 2019, but didn’t bring in any elite talent for this season. Grad transfers Christen Cunningham and Kwhan Fore should provide adequate backcourt play alongside returner Darius Perry, while VJ King and Jordan Nwora have a lot of upside on the wing. The frontcourt is dicey at best, with Akoy Agau, Steven Enoch, and Malik Williams the only options. Any optimism with this team has to be betting on all-conference-level play from King and/or Nwora. Otherwise, this looks like an NIT team.
#12. Boston College
Jim Christian brings in his best recruiting class yet at Boston College, but it comes the year after star guard Jerome Robinson departs for the NBA. Ky Bowman is still there, and should put up monster numbers in his junior campaign. With the addition of top-100 recruit Jairus Hamilton to a frontcourt that already had Nik Popovic and Steffon Mitchell returning, BC should be strong up front. But losing a hyper-efficient and consistent scorer is too much for me to pencil in the Eagles for a big jump this season despite the talent bump.
#13. Wake Forest
It’s amazing how quickly public opinion can move on a coach. Fresh off an NCAA Tournament bid and a summer in which he landed a pair of elite recruits for the 2018 class, Danny Manning looked in great shape at Wake and got a contract extension to boot. But thanks to some unfortunate early NBA departures over the last 2 classes, optimism isn’t exactly booming at Wake. Jaylen Hoard and Isaiah Mucius are the future of the program, but there isn’t enough around them to have much optimism in the Demon Deacons this season.
#14. Georgia Tech
Josh Pastner enters a critical year 3 in Atlanta with little returning talent. Jose Alvarado is a strong PG who’ll control that spot for the next 3 years, and elite recruit Mike Devoe will pair nicely with Alvarado in the backcourt. Beyond that duo, it’s hard to see who’s going to put the ball in the basket. Khalid Moore and and Kristian Sjolund are both solid recruits, but seem a bit raw, and former top recruit Shembari Phillips (a transfer from Tennessee) hasn’t lived up to the hype so far in his college career. Without big offensive improvements, it’s hard to see much improvement from Pastner’s bunch.
Pitt put the Kevin Stallings disaster behind them this offseason and started anew with Jeff Capel at the helm. Capel did as well as he could have entering an impossible situation, bringing in some solid guards in Xavier Johnson, Trey McGowens, and Au’Diese Toney to compliment returning pieces like Jared Wilson-Frame, Shamiel Stevenson, and Terrell Brown. It’s still hard to project much success given how little talent Capel inherited, but the Panthers should win a couple games they shouldn’t.
All-Conference First Team:
- Ky Bowman– Boston College (17.6 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 4.7 apg, .422/.362/.807)
- De’Andre Hunter– Virginia (9.2 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 1.1 apg, .488/.382/.755)
- Luke Maye– North Carolina (16.9 ppg, 10.1 rpg, 2.4 apg, .486/.431/.624)
- RJ Barrett– Duke (FROSH)
- Zion Williamson (FROSH)
Player of the Year: RJ Barrett
The expected #1 pick in the upcoming NBA Draft, Barrett can do it all on the floor. He’s a dominating force in the open floor, can defend multiple positions, pass, and rebound. I’ve been sold on him as a prospect ever since I saw him do this to a USA team that featured many current and future college stars:
NEWCOMER OF THE YEAR: BARRETT
Breakout Player: Jordan Nwora (Louisville)
Betting on a player to break out depends on 2 factors– talent and opportunity. Nwora will have plenty of opportunity with Louisville in a rebuilding campaign, and he showed a lot of promise playing with Nigeria in Africa World Cup Qualifiers, averaging over 20 points per game. Nwora has great size, can really shoot the ball, and was a former top-100 recruit. I expect a big year from him.