By Kevin Sweeney
It was another strong year for the ACC in 2018-19. Six teams in the top 25 and nine in the top 41 nationally will work, as will having the national champion (Virginia) and the best player in the country (Zion Williamson). Can the league maintain its status as perhaps the best in the country into 2019-20? We’ll see, but with three clear preseason top-10 teams and the potential for a fourth, the conference should be just fine.
#1. Louisville– The Cardinals have some point guard questions, but have one of the most complete rosters in the nation and all the experience necessary to compete for a national title. Jordan Nwora is one of the nation’s premier players, a legit three-level scorer with efficiency, and the addition of McDonald’s All-American Samuell Williamson provides another elite option on the wing. Saint Joe’s grad transfer LaMarr Kimble will be critical, especially with freshman David Johnson out into the season with a shoulder injury.
#2. North Carolina— Despite losing their top five scorers from last season, the Tar Heels reload nicely with a top-10 recruiting class and a pair of elite grad transfers. Potential #1 overall pick Cole Anthony will take the reigns at point guard and be one of the nation’s best players after dominating the EYBL circuit last season, while Justin Pierce (William & Mary) and Christian Keeling (Charleston Southern) help plug backcourt holes. Add in a deep and athletic frontcourt, and this profiles as a prototype Roy Williams team.
#3. Duke– The Blue Devils should have one of the more dynamic offensive frontcourts in the nation thanks to the freshman duo of the elite-shooting Matthew Hurt and skilled five-man Vernon Carey. Add that unit to a point guard in Tre Jones that should be one of the nation’s best, and the always-young Blue Devils have a great core in place. If Wendell Moore can be a consistent wing bucket-getter, Duke should compete for a national title.
#4. Virginia-– The defending national champs profile to struggle scoring the ball– that’s no secret. The question is whether the Cavs can score enough to consistently win games with their elite defense. Personally, I’m optimistic that the trio of Casey Morsell, Jay Huff, and Mamadi Diakite can provide enough offensive pop, but it’s unrealistic to expect these ‘Hoos to seriously contend for another national title.
#5. Florida State– Like any Leonard Hamilton team, the Seminoles have length in droves. Adding 6-8 wing Patrick Williams and a trio of 7-footers to the mix should ensure the Noles are elite on the defensive end, but on paper FSU lacks a primary scoring option. Can Trent Forrest jumpstart his scoring ability and become more than an elite role player? Does MJ Walker put it all together and remind people why he was a 5-star recruit out of high school? Or does Williams step into the role as a freshman? Watch out for Devin Vassell, one of my favorite breakout candidates in the country.
#6. NC State– Most discuss the Wolfpack’s easy non-conference schedule as the primary reason for Kevin Keatts’ club missing the NCAA Tournament last season. In my mind, it had more to do with a structural roster flaw– free throw margin. In conference play, no team gave up more free throws than NC State, and the Wolfpack had the lowest free throw rate in the conference on offense. That led to a gap over more than 7 free throws per game in conference play– a massive disparity given the competitive nature of the ACC. 12 of NCSU’s 20 ACC games last season were decided by 7 points or fewer. Fix that problem, and the Pack will have no issues Dancing in 2020.
#7. Notre Dame– The Irish offense went from average to one of the worst in the country when Rex Pfluegger went down with a season-ending knee injury in December, a loss that caused Mike Brey to throw his freshman class into the fire. That experience should help Brey’s team this season, as Pfluegger returns along with star big man John Mooney and steady guard TJ Gibbs to give the Irish a veteran core to complement young pieces like Prentiss Hubb, Nate Laszewski, and Dane Goodwin.
#8. Syracuse– Losing Tyus Battle, Frank Howard, and Oshae Brissett may not be quite as big a blow as some will make it out to be, given how all three struggled to score efficiently during their time in Syracuse. Young guards Jalen Carey and Brycen Goodine will be looked to for consistent production, and Elijah Hughes will step into a starring role for Jim Boeheim’s group. The x-factor: Quincy Guerrier, a potential matchup problem as a slashing combo forward with an intriguing combo of athleticism and physicality.
#9. Miami– The Canes have the potential to be elite on the offensive end, thanks to a loaded backcourt that adds a pair of top-75 recruits in Harlond Beverly and Isaiah Wong and a high-level transfer in Kameron McGusty to a unit that already featured Chris Lykes and Dejan Vasiljevic. Florida transfer Keith Stone adds some needed experience up front, and steady rim protection from Stone would be huge in helping a defense that was dreadful last season. I predict a lot of shootouts in Coral Gables this season.
#10. Pittsburgh– Jeff Capel landing star point guard Xavier Johnson late last spring was massive, giving Capel a guy to build around at the point guard position. Young pieces like Trey McGowens, Au’Diese Toney, and Gerald Drumgoole along with a veteran shooter in JUCO transfer Ryan Murphy (New Mexico JC) should give the backcourt enough firepower. Can some combination of Terrell Brown, Karim Coulibaly, and Eric Hamilton provide competent ACC-level frontcourt play?
#11. Georgia Tech– A postseason ban for the Yellow Jackets ends all optimism in Atlanta. I was fairly excited about the roster– with a senior in James Banks to anchor the paint and a veteran guard in Jose Alvarado to run the show in the backcourt, Josh Pastner has a few anchoring pieces to go along with a young star in Mike DeVoe. Adding USC transfer Jordan Usher at the semester break should help, as should the eligibility of scoring guard Bubba Parham (VMI).
#12. Clemson– The Tigers already faced significant roster turnover entering the offseason, and the inexperience that this roster faces was only exasperated by the loss of presumed starter Clyde Trapp to an ACL injury this summer. A pair of grad transfers in Curran Scott (Tulsa) and Tevin Mack (Alabama) should be able to play a role, and Aamir Simms is a bright young talent up front. Consistent point guard play from freshman Al-Amir Dawes is a must.
#13. Virginia Tech– This begins the true bottom tier of the league, with four teams that I could see finishing outside the top 100 nationally. The Hokies are in full-blown rebuild mode, and while Mike Young has done a great job on the recruiting trail in the 2020 class, there’s not enough talent on this roster to consistently win games. Reclassified freshman PG Jalen Cone will combine with Wabissa Bede to make a solid backcourt, and Landers Nolley is a nice wing piece. The talent level quickly drops from there, and it will take time for Young to get it back where it needs to be.
#14. Wake Forest– Wake’s KenPom capsule for the 2018-19 season pretty much tells the story:
As you can see, a whole lot of red on that page– being the worst field goal percentage offense and defense in the conference is pretty much all you need to know. The talent level isn’t overly high, and save for the John Collins team of 2017, Danny Manning has done little to inspire in Winston-Salem.
#15. Boston College– Losing Wynston Tabbs for the season with a knee injury was a crushing blow to BC and perhaps the final nail in Jim Christian’s coffin in Chestnut Hill. Tough injury and NBA Draft luck notwithstanding, Christian simply hasn’t recruited at a high enough level to sustain an ACC program– finding under-the-radar gems like Tabbs, Ky Bowman, and Jerome Robinson is great, but the Eagles have consistently had too much “dead weight” at the bottom of the roster. Grad transfer Derryck Thornton should put up huge numbers at point guard, and Nik Popovic is an excellent big, but it won’t be close to enough to win consistently.
All-Conference First Team:
- Tre Jones (Duke)
- Cole Anthony (North Carolina)
- Xavier Johnson (Pitt)
- Jordan Nwora (Louisville)
- Mamadi Diakite (Virginia)
Player of the Year: Jordan Nwora (Louisville):
Jones and Anthony should make serious runs at this one, but I’ll give the nod to Nwora, an experienced star who spent the summer playing against pros at the FIBA World Cup for Nigeria. His efficiency, shooting, and ability to defend multiple positions make him incredibly valuable.
Breakout Player: Devin Vassell (Florida State):
It’s often a next-man-up operation on the wing for Florida State, and Vassell seems primed to take the next step in 2019-20. He showed flashes of brilliance as a freshman, and his combination of length and shooting ability make him intriguing in the 3&D mold.
Newcomer of the Year: Cole Anthony (North Carolina)– The best freshman in the ACC not playing at Duke is an interesting twist, but Anthony elected to head to Chapel Hill for his college hoops career. That career will likely be short-lived, as he profiles as an elite NBA prospect thanks to his elite athleticism and intelligence at the point guard position.