On to the ACC! With just three top-40 teams and five outside the top 100 in KenPom, I think it’s fair to say the league was down last season. There’s potential for a rebound in 2020-21, but it’s dependent on how the middle of the league fares. Watching teams navigate a shortened non-conference with dueling interests — getting wins and building a resume – will be fascinating.
- Virginia – There’s a fairly strong argument for Duke as the best team in the conference, but I’m betting the Hoos to win the league given their remarkable consistency and experience. UVA found ways to win ugly (even uglier than usual) down the stretch last season, and now brings back the majority of its core and adds a very strong recruiting class to go with it. The biggest-name addition to jumpstart an offense that was putrid last season is former Marquette forward Sam Hauser, who brings elite-level shooting and some playmaking ability at the 4 spot. I’m not quite buying the ACC POY love here, but Hauser’s a career 45% 3-point shooter joining a team that shot 30% from distance last season and is quite simply an offensive weapon on a team that doesn’t have many of them. Pairing Hauser with a college basketball unicorn in Jay Huff who can also space the floor brings tons more dynamism to this Cavalier offense and should allow Tony Bennett to put Kihei Clark in more ball screens. Clark has turned into a steady floor general, and Tomas Woldentensae showed signs during ACC play that he could provide the scoring punched they so desperately needed on the wing. Some combo of him, breakout candidate Casey Morsell, and highly-touted shifty freshman Reece Beekman need to be consistent bucket-getters for this team to reach its full potential.
- Duke – It’s probably LeBron-esque to say “no one is talking about Duke” but it does feel as though the Blue Devils aren’t quite getting the constant pub they usually do nationally as we inch closer towards a season. Why? There’s no flashy name like usual: no freshman like Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett, or Jayson Tatum, no returner like Tre Jones or Grayson Allen. But this team might be just as good as every non-Zion team in recent Duke history, thanks to a recruiting class that fits perfectly together and multiple legit returning pieces. Wendell Moore and Matthew Hurt aren’t Jones or Allen, but each were once seen as first-rounders and were productive as freshmen – Moore in particular seemed to find his stride late in the season after looking lost early on. Freshman Jalen Johnson isn’t Ben Simmons, but he’s a similar mold: the size of a power forward with the passing ability of a point guard. The flexibility Johnson gives Coach K is immense, freeing up fellow freshman guards Jeremy Roach and DJ Steward to score rather than distribute while giving K the option to play veteran defensive specialist Jordan Goldwire as the nominal point guard without as much of a hit to the offense. Where the most questions present themselves are at center: Columbia grad transfer Patrick Tape isn’t your traditional Duke 5-man, but he’s steady around the rim and smart defensively. He works as quite the insurance policy for raw but talented 7-footer Mark Williams or an intriguing small-ball option with Henry Coleman or Hurt manning the 5-spot.
- UNC – I’m confident that the Tar Heels will bounce back in a big way from what was a beyond disastrous 2019-20, though there are some looming questions to be raised about roster construction despite a significant influx of talent. The frontcourt is so deep that at some point one hits diminishing returns – as lovely as it is to have 5 playable big men, only two can realistically be on the floor at once (please don’t try Garrison Brooks at the 3, Roy!) and so at some point having Walker Kessler as your 4th big man only does so much good. Still, Brooks has blossomed into a legit star, Armando Bacot was up and down as a freshman but seems set for a strong year two, and Day’Ron Sharpe is an incredibly impressive big man prospect and likely one-and-done. But frontcourt play was never the issue last season – the offense simply couldn’t make shots and the defense didn’t do enough to make life difficult. Freshman RJ Davis should help solve the shot-making woes – while undersized, Davis plays with the type of energy and confidence that this group so desperately needs. He and fellow elite recruit Caleb Love should re-energize the backcourt (and hopefully stop Williams from having to feed Andrew Platek minutes). Anthony Harris could also give the guard unit a jolt. There will without a doubt be growing pains here, but the promise is immense if Davis and Love can provide competent point guard play to get that stable of bigs their share of touches.
- Florida State – Leonard Hamilton leading the Noles to an ACC title after back-to-back seasons of reaching the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament is yet another statement of just how good a job he has done in recent years in Tallahassee. Can he continue the momentum in 2020-21? All that begins with how his offense adapts to the loss to its three most talented players. Expect elite recruit Scottie Barnes to be thrown into something of a point forward role – Barnes is without a doubt a gifted distributor in transition and from the elbows, but how he fares in what could be a primary initiator role at times is worth watching. Veteran RayQuan Evans is the other option to create offense. What Barnes also brings is incredible defensive prowess. He’s capable of guarding all five positions on the floor in Draymond Green-esque fashion, and pairing him with another elite defender in RaiQuan Gray could make for some real headaches for opposing offenses. I’ve long been down on MJ Walker, but it’s 100% his time to shine offensively as a featured threat from the wing. Another guy who could provide a scoring boost is highly-touted JUCO recruit Sardaar Calhoun, who shot a blistering 46% from deep at Missouri State-West Plains.
- Louisville – Chris Mack desperately needed to add some veteran help this offseason to a roster that didn’t return a single double-figure scorer, and he couldn’t have done much better with the two he pulled from the mid-major realm. Carlik Jones (Radford) was one of the most in-demand players this spring, with over 1,500 career points to his name and a skillset as a playmaking combo guard that could help virtually every team in America. Meanwhile, Mack also swooped in for wing help with Charles Minlend (San Francisco), a polished wing scorer who has averaged over 14 points per game for a top-75 team in back-to-back seasons. These two additions bring the pressure on sophomores David Johnson and Samuell Williamson down a notch, though that duo will still need impressive breakout campaigns for this team to reach its potential. Johnson feels like one of the more obvious breakout candidates in the country: a physical combo guard, Johnson recovered from preseason surgery to finish strong in 2020, averaging 9 points, 4 rebounds, and 4 assists in his final 15 games while shooting 50% from the field. His big weakness is as a shooter, and Jones should insulate those woes well. What makes this Louisville team fun to project is how many potential breakout guys they have. Mack has recruited so many top-150 recruits in the last two seasons – I don’t have super strong feelings about whether Aidan Igiehon, JJ Traynor, Jae’Lyn Withers, or Quinn Slazinski winds up being the guy who takes the reigns at the 4, but all are talented enough to do so and few teams have that many options to choose from. As long as Mack keeps recruiting at this level, the Cards will be tough to beat.
- Syracuse – Elijah Hughes’ jump from nice under-the-radar transfer pickup to NBA Draft early entrant kept ‘Cuse afloat last season amid what virtually everyone who follows the program would have called a transition year, and now even without Hughes the Orange are much better positioned for the future than they were a year ago. That’s mainly due to the growth of Joe Girard and Buddy Boeheim into legit starting-caliber guards in the ACC. Girard in particular was so critical for a team whose offense looked putrid early in the 2019-20 season – he brought with him a certain swagger that being New York State’s all-time leading HS basketball scorer gives you, and his deep range from three helps spark something from nothing offensively. The addition of two bigger guards to provide even more offensive firepower as well as fit in with the zone in Illinois transfer Alan Griffin and highly-rated freshman Kadary Richmond also should give this offense life. Griffin was used primarily in a 3&D capacity for the Illini but can do more, while Richmond is wired to score and attack the rim coming out of Brewster Academy. Somewhat surprisingly, the Orange had the 4th-worst defense per KenPom in the conference last season, a mark that should improve with more experience for what was such a young team. It wasn’t always smooth, but this Syracuse team was a lot more fun than recent iterations in 2019-20… can they build off that into a 2020-21 to remember?
- Miami – Back-to-back sub-.500 seasons for Jim Larranaga’s club haven’t slowed down the Canes on the recruiting trail (being in Coral Gables helps, I suppose) but it does present something of a critical year for program trajectory given how winnable games in the middle of the ACC should be this season. Defense and rebounding have been a big part of those struggles, though help should be on the way on the interior with the addition of Cincinnati transfer Nysier Brooks. Brooks is the definition of a “do-your-job” center: he hammers the glass, sets hard screens, and posted an 8.4% block rate in his final season at Cincinnati. The Canes add another guy unafraid to do the dirty work in physical combo forward Earl Timberlake. Timberlake’s body doesn’t fit the average freshman – he’s a cut 6-6 who plays with tremendous physicality and a “bull in a China shop” mentality. Add in a pair of breakout candidates at guard in Isaiah Wong and Harlond Beverly and returners like Chris Lykes, Kameron McGusty, and Sam Waardenburg, and there’s a really impressive core here that could make some noise in this conference.
- Clemson – Perhaps Virginia Tech could lend one Clemson a guard from its ridiculously deep stable. The Tigers found ways to win ugly despite lacking firepower, with home wins over Duke and Florida State enough to keep Brad Brownell’s seat relatively cool for the time being. One piece to help jumpstart the offense is Fordham transfer Nick Honor, a shot-making ‘ball guard’ who’ll team up with Al-Amir Dawes and John Newman to give the Tigers three capable scorers. Much of the offense will still run through Aamir Simms, a unique player capable of impacting the game in so many ways: creating for others, stretching the floor, protecting the rim, and more. Our friends at Three Man Weave consider him a dark horse POY candidate for a reason. To me though, the key will be Dawes, who had a typical season for a fringe top-100 recruit being thrown into the fire: some bright moments and some ugly ones. Dawes clearly has the potential to be a high-level scorer in the ACC, but can he get over the efficiency and turnover troubles he dealt with as a freshman? If he can, this offense is capable of a significant jump and this team is capable of getting to the NCAA Tournament.
- Virginia Tech – If you predicted Virginia Tech beating Michigan State and North Carolina while being swept by Boston College, kudos to you. It was a strange, strange year one for Mike Young in Blacksburg, highlighted by memorable wins for an undersized squad with low expectations before eventually coming crashing back to Earth in the back end of conference play. The big news of the offseason was without a doubt Landers Nolley transferring out of the program: Nolley’s RS freshman campaign mirrored VT’s season: incredible at the start, ugly by the end. However, he’s still an NBA prospect, and the loss of that type of piece isn’t easy at a program like VT. That said, Young did do a terrific job on the recruiting trail this spring, beefing up the frontcourt with a pair of grad transfers in Justyn Mutts (Delaware) and Cordell Pemsl (Iowa) and adding one of the better pieces available in do-it-all guard Cartier Diarra (Kansas State). Between that trio and the additions of two top-100 guards in Joe Bamisile and Darius Maddox, there’s no doubt this roster is more talented than it was a season ago and more physically ready to compete against ACC teams on a nightly basis. While Mutts, Pemsl, and Wofford transfer Keve Aluma will solidify the frontcourt, this team’s ceiling will still be determined by its guards. Diarra, undersized rebounder extraordinaire Tyrece Radford, veteran ballhandler Wabissa Bede, and young snipers Nahiem Alleyne and Jalen Cone form a deep, multitalented unit without even mentioning the likes of Bamisile, Maddox, or Hunter Catoor. Is there a true star among them? Maybe not. But the sheer number of shooters and smart decision-makers here should make this offense a headache for opponents to prepare for.
- Georgia Tech – Perhaps nothing more clearly iterates the relative weakness of the ACC compared to recent years in 2019-20 than the 17-14 Yellow Jackets finishing alone in 5th in the ACC. It wasn’t pretty at all on offense, but it didn’t need to be thanks to a defense that ranked 16th nationally in adjusted efficiency. Part of the defensive success was undoubtedly due to strong rim protection, and the Yellow Jackets had two strong shot-blockers in Moses Wright and James Banks manning the 4 and the 5. But losing Banks doesn’t guarantee defensive regression: GT played inspired defense all season long, with great energy on the perimeter and the ability to switch between man and a junk 1-3-1 zone that baffled opponents all year. Michael Devoe has blossomed into one of the conference’s best players, and I’m frankly surprised that he hasn’t receive more NBA buzz yet. The scorers around him need to raise their game – Wright and Jose Alvarado are capable auxiliary options, but Jordan Usher and Bubba Parham were relatively disappointing. Perhaps USC transfer Kyle Sturdivant can return home to make an impact in his home state at guard. Georgia transfer Rodney Howard will need to hold down the fort at the 5.
- NC State – Kevin Keatts has been in Raleigh for three years. He has lost exactly 12 games in each of those seasons. Will that streak continue? It’s certainly possible, as this roster seems quite bubblicious once again. The questions begin at point guard: Markell Johnson had his flaws as a shooter, but his high-level passing, quickness, and toughness made him one of the better floor generals in the ACC. Replacing him will require more natural scorers like Nebraska transfer Thomas Allen or veteran Braxton Beverly to step into a distribution role, or one of a pair of freshmen in top-75 Cam Hayes or fringe 4-star Shakeel Moore will get significant work at lead guard from day one. But even answering those PG questions doesn’t make this a clear-cut tournament team: Keatts’ aggressive defensive style is difficult to prepare for, but it has led to fouling woes and struggles to contain teams on the offensive glass. Those types of flaws can cap a team’s ceiling, no matter how many well-regarded recruits you bring in. Another thing that has hurt the upside is without a doubt Keatts’ tough luck, as for the second straight year he managed to land a verbal commitment from the only player to go prep-to-pro spring – this time losing versatile forward Josh Hall.
- Notre Dame – The Irish have cooled off on the recruiting trail in the last two classes, which means a once-young core that has turned into juniors and seniors need to continue to make strides to get this team back to perennial NCAA Tournament contention. At the same time, it’s hard to peg just how good this core actually is: the Irish played an incredible number of close games last season, going 6-8 in the 14 games decided by 5 points or less. Swing a couple of results one way or another and we are either talking about a 23 win team set to Dance before the pandemic or a 16-16 group that leaves one question what you actually have. Replacing John Mooney will be a major hurdle: the big man was the heartbeat of this team, and a key offensive weapon for a group without a clear piece to step in to replace him. TJ Gibbs had an up-and-down career in South Bend, but he shot the lights out last season and was also a big reason for ND’s incredible ball control last season. Stepping into Gibbs’ off-guard role is Stanford transfer Cormac Ryan, a big combo guard with elite pedigree as a recruit but who struggled with efficiency as a freshman in Palo Alto. Ryan loves to shoot the three though, and we should expect him and this ND team to fire plenty of long jumpers this season once again. Ryan and junior stretch big Nate Laszewski feel like the keys to this group’s success or failure.
- Pitt – The year two jump for Jeff Capel’s Pitt club didn’t happen: in fact, Capel’s club actually dropped 10 spots in KenPom from the 2018-19 campaign. Why? The offense. Making shots was a massive challenge: the Panthers ranked 330th in 3PT% and 321st in 2PT% nationally last season. A backcourt that some expected to become one of the conference’s best never quite clicked: chemistry between Xavier Johnson and Trey McGowens never quite clicked, and while Johnson was solid, he didn’t take the jump into top-5 ACC player and potential draft pick that some expected. With McGowens gone, we’ll see if Delaware transfer Ithiel Horton meshes better with Johnson. The fit is more natural: Horton won’t need the ball as much and can absolutely stroke it from deep, which obviously fills a critical need for a team that had no player shoot over 33% from beyond the arc last season. Stock-rising freshman Femi Odukale could help at guard as well if he can come back healthy from a summer injury. Justin Champagnie was one of the nation’s bigger surprises as a recruit: it’s rare that guys rated outside the top 200 get big minutes on ACC teams as freshmen, let alone average 12 points and 7 boards. Capel will hope another young player can help solidify the center position in physical post player and top-100 recruit John Hugley, one of the bigger recruiting wins of the Capel tenure thus far. There’s a lot of ‘ifs’ with this team, but the talent level is rising as expected with a recruiter like Capel at the helm. Time will tell if it’s enough to make significant strides in the ACC race.
- Boston College – People probably won’t bring up Boston College in the conversation about the biggest winners on the transfer market this spring and summer, but Jim Christian has to be pleased with the depth he added. While the pandemic has created questions about what the coaching market will look like next spring, Christian recruited like a man who needs to win now by adding three mid-major grad transfers to the mix. Sharpshooting point guard Rich Kelly (Quinnipiac), versatile combo forward Fred Scott (Rider), and steady post presence Andre Adams (Southern Utah) should give this roster some usable depth for the first time in awhile while filling some key holes. Unfortunately, a September season-ending injury for Adams leaves some questions up front, though a waiver for James Karnik (Lehigh) could help. The backcourt is deep: Wynston Tabbs and Jay Heath have each averaged 13+ PPG in the ACC, Kelly is a wizard in ball screens with great touch from deep, and Makai Ashton-Langford is the perfect buy-low, swing-for-the-fences piece for a program like BC. Ashton-Langford was a disaster at Providence, but he’s an athletic point guard capable of getting downhill, and if nothing else should be a very good defender for Christian’s bunch. There’s no Jerome Robinson or Ky Bowman here, but the talent level isn’t bad for BC and there are a lot of winnable games in the middle of the conference. Can Christian pull a rabbit out of his hat and save his job yet again?
- Wake Forest – I’m still not sure how Wake Forest navigated buying out Danny Manning’s albatross contract in the midst of a pandemic causing belt-tightening everywhere else in the country, but the upgrade in on-court coaching by going from Manning to Steve Forbes is massive. Forbes is one of my favorite coaches in the country: he has won everywhere he has been (and quicker than expected in most cases), never leaves a stone unturned on the recruiting trail, and plays an exciting brand of basketball. Having said that, while I’d love to see Forbes win this year, it’s hard to expect much with the talent left on this roster. Simply put, this is the worst roster in the league, and maybe be a long shot. Younger Manning holdovers like Jahcobi Neath, Isaiah Mucius, Ismael Massoud, and Ody Oguama will have to be built around, while veteran reinforcements from the transfer market in Jonah Antonio (UNLV), Jalen Johnson (Tennessee), Ian DuBose (Houston Baptist), and Isaiah Wilkins (Virginia Tech) plug some holes. Forbes and company will win a few games they shouldn’t and set the tone for the future, but this is a multi-year rebuilding job.
All-Conference First Team:
- Garrison Brooks, North Carolina
- Scottie Barnes, Florida State
- Sam Hauser, Virginia
- Jay Huff, Virginia
- Jalen Johnson, Duke
Player of the Year: Garrison Brooks, UNC – Brooks isn’t you’re traditional ACC POY candidate. He’s not a surefire NBA player, he’s not flashy. But what he is without a shadow of a doubt is productive, Perhaps the lone bright spot for the Tar Heels in the disaster that was 2019-20 was Brooks, who blossomed into one of the nation’s best power forwards. He’s a menace on the offensive glass, great around the rim, and plays incredibly hard. With a better, more cohesive roster around him, there’s a chance the scoring numbers drop. But make no mistake: Brooks is an elite player on what should be a top-3 team in the league.
Breakout Player: Casey Morsell, UVA – I was all aboard the Morsell wagon last preseason, an unfortunate move in retrospect given how UVA freshmen tend to struggle. Sophomore jumps have been a common theme though in Charlottesville, and Morsell has all the makings of a long-term stud for the Hoos. I’m not panicked by the shooting woes, which seemed more related to confidence than ability. Morsell plays super hard, defends, and improved as his freshman season went on.
Newcomer of the Year: Sam Hauser, UVA – It’s between Hauser and Jalen Johnson (the Duke one), but to me, the impact that Hauser will have on the Cavalier offense is too great not to slot him in here. Hauser’s gravity as a shooter will open things up for everyone: more driving lanes for Morsell and Kihei Clark, more space in the post for Jay Huff, etc. He also will bring a consistency to this UVA offense that was lacking last season. The fit here is just fantastic.