The ACC might be America’s best basketball conference. Featuring traditional powerhouses like Duke, North Carolina, Syracuse and Louisville, and up and coming programs like Virginia and Pitt, the ACC could send the most teams to the NCAA tournament of any conference in the country. There are five teams with legitimate chances to make a run at the Final Four, and even more that could crash the Sweet 16.
15. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
Last Year’s Record: 16-17 (6-12)
This Year’s Projected ACC Record: 2-16
Head Coach: Brian Gregory
Key Players: Marcus Georges-Hunt, Robert Sampson, Demarco Cox
There is simply no reason why Georgia Tech was as bad as they were last season. With Trae Golden leading the way and Brian Gregory setting in as coach, the Yellow Jackets had a talented team (as evidenced by their late season upset at Syracuse) but could just never put together any consistency in the conference.
As disappointing as last year was for Georgia Tech fans, this season will be an even bigger disaster. Of the team’s top six scorers from a season ago, only Marcus Georges-Hunt (11.7 ppg) is back. Their next best two players figure to be transfers Robert Sampson (ECU) and Demarco Cox (Ole Miss) who are decent role players, but should not be counted on to carry an ACC team’s scoring bulk.
Chris Bolden will have to take a much larger role after being just a rotation player last season and other players returning such as Stacey Poole Jr. and Quinton Stephens will have to outperform their expectation for Georgia Tech to be competitive, considering the low degree of high impact recruits coming in. For whatever reason, Georgia Tech can’t seem to get its program out of the funk they have been in for the last seven or eight years, and unless Brian Gregory pulls off a coaching miracle this season, that drought is likely to continue.
14. Wake Forest Demon Deacons
Last Year’s Record: 17-16 (6-12)
This Year’s Projected ACC Record: 4-14
Head Coach: Danny Manning
Key Players: Codi Miller-McIntyre, Devin Thomas, Darius Leonard
The good news for Wake Forest? They have brought in a coach who seems to excite the fan base in Danny Manning. Manning should be able to turn the program around at Wake, eventually, if he is given the time and resources he needs to do so. The other good news is that the Demon Deacons return their two top scorers from a season ago in Codi Miller-McIntyre and Devin Thomas.
However, that’s where the good news ends. Wake Forest will struggle this year, due to some key departures. Four-year starter Travis McKie and Coron Williams (both of which averaged over 10 ppg last season) have graduated, and promising young players Tyler Cavanaugh and Arnaud Adala Moto have transferred out of the program. In addition, highly prized recruit Shelton Mitchell decided to go to Vanderbilt after Manning was hired in replace of the departing Jeff Bzdelik.
Wake will have to rely on Miller-McIntyre and Thomas to do it basically all on their own this season, unless someone else emerges from the pack to be its third weapon. The most likely option seems to be stretch forward Darius Leonard, transferring in from Campbell where he put up impressive numbers. Nevertheless, Miller-McIntyre and Thomas will only be able to do so much, and the number of games Wake seems capable of winning this season appears to be limited.
13. Boston College Eagles
Last Year’s Record: 8-24 (4-14)
This Year’s Projected ACC Record: 4-14
Head Coach: Jim Christian
Key Players: Olivier Hanlan, Aaron Brown, Idrissa Diallo
Like Wake Forest, Boston College chose to change their coach in the offseason and will pay the price for it in 2014-15, hoping it’s worth it in the long run. Olivier Hanlan, one of the best players in the ACC, is returning, so the Eagles will not be totally devoid of talent. However, behind him the cupboard is quite bare.
Ryan Anderson, the team’s no. 2 scorer behind Hanlan a season ago, decided to transfer to Arizona, and the no. 3 scorer Joe Rahon transferred to St. Mary’s, both in the wake of Steve Donahue’s firing and the hiring of his replacement Jim Christian. Christian comes over from Ohio University and will try to have the success in the recruiting field that Donahue did not. For this season, however, he faces a tall task.
Hanlan will be the Eagles’ superman and could average north of 20 points, but he will need some sort of help. He may get some in the form of transfer Aaron Brown, who had a successful campaign last season at Southern Miss. Lonnie Jackson and Patrick Heckmann will be relied upon to shoot the ball efficiently from deep, and freshman Idrissa Diallo along with often-injured center Dennis Clifford will be tasked with being the inside presences. BC will be capable of scoring an upset or two (again, Syracuse fell victim to that a season ago) especially when playing at home. However, to expect any consistent success in the ACC with this roster would be foolish.
12. Clemson Tigers
Last Year’s Record: 23-13 (10-8)
This Year’s Projected ACC Record: 6-12
Head Coach: Brad Brownwell
Key Players: Rod Hall, Damarcus Harrison, Donte Grantham
There are two schools of thought regarding Clemson this season, and they largely depend on how much you valued K.J. McDaniels. On one hand, Clemson has the makeup of a team that looks capable of making it to the NCAA Tournament. Brad Brownwell had a surprisingly successful season last year, and with his defense-first attitude that he has installed with his team, they should be one of the tougher teams to score against in the country. They still have several players who are returning from last season’s 23-win team, and bring in a top 100 recruit in Donte Grantham.
In the loss of K.J. McDaniels, though, they lose someone who is irreplaceable on both ends of the court. Defensively, he was a lockdown perimeter defender who could shut down the opposing two or three on any given night. Offensively, McDaniels was the entire team last season. He averaged over 17 points and seven rebounds, and it took a historically deep NBA draft to push him into the early-second round — where most believe he was a steal.
There doesn’t seem to be one player ready to takeover the team in the way that McDaniels did. Rod Hall will have an opportunity to do that in his senior season, after somewhat of a breakthrough campaign last year. Grantham is a heavily regarded recruit, but being the guy as a freshman is tough for any player. The most likely candidate seems to be Damarcus Harrison, who finished particularly strong at the end of last season and shoots the ball extremely well from beyond-the-arc.
More likely is that Clemson will be a team who patches together scoring and wins games with its defense. In a lesser league, that might be good enough for an over .500 record and a trip to the NCAA Tournament. However, in a league as deep and talented as the ACC, there just doesn’t seem to be enough offensive talent.
11. Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Last Year’s Record: 15-17 (6-12)
This Year’s Projected ACC Record: 7-11
Head Coach: Mike Brey
Key Players: Jerian Grant, Pat Connaughton, Demetrius Jackson
Most experts would assume that the return of a healthy Jerian Grant would mean substantial improvement to Notre Dame this season, but I would tend to disagree. There is certainly no denying Grant’s talent, as he is one of the most explosive scorers in the ACC and he could easily end up being a first-round draft pick next season. Still, Grant alone will not be enough to propel the Fighting Irish to legitimacy in a league such as the ACC next year.
It’s important not to overlook the fact that behind Grant, the second and fourth leading scorers on Notre Dame have graduated. Both Eric Atkins and Garrick Sherman averaged over 13 points per game and were particularly relied upon once Grant went down with his injury. Without Sherman’s scoring presence, it may be difficult for Notre Dame to score inside, or produce many second-chance opportunities, unless Zach Auguste takes a major step forward.
On the perimeter, Grant will be joined by running mate Pat Connaughton, who will continue to be a reliable second-option, but beyond that there are more questions than answers. Demetrius Jackson struggled mightily in his first season in South Bend, and he will absolutely need to take a step forward for Mike Brey’s club to make it to the NCAA Tournament. Steve Vasturia and V.J. Beachem were quiet last season, but were previously highly prized recruits who Brey will be looking at to take a step forward.
The most glaring problem for Notre Dame is that they were just awful defensively last season. They were 245th (!) in field goal percentage defense, and 334th in the nation (!!) in 3-point percentage defense. Unless the roster decides to start taking defense seriously, Grant’s scoring prowess won’t matter because the other teams in the league will simply outscore them.
10. Pittsburgh Panthers
Last Year’s Record: 26-10 (11-7)
This Year’s Projected ACC Record: 8-10
Head Coach: Jamie Dixon
Key Players: Cameron Wright, James Robinson, Josh Newkirk
For the most part, Jamie Dixon’s teams all manage to look about the same. They feature hungry, aggressive, under-recruited, tough kids that are out to prove themselves among the major players of the collegiate landscape. This year’s team is no different, but the problem is, much of the talent from last year’s 26-win team is now gone. Last year’s Panthers were led by Lamar Patterson and Talib Zanna, who have both graduated. Patterson was an All-ACC performer, while Zanna was an honorable mention. Perhaps, Pitt will have enough players make the leap this season to replace them, but if that is going to happen it would have to be from players who have not yet shown they are ready for that kind of responsibility.
Cameron Wright is the leading scorer to return (10.5 ppg) and now in his senior season. It will be on his shoulders to carry the load offensively. Will he be able to handle the pressure? Wright has the ability to get to the basket and create inside, but isn’t much of a shooter. He will need to improve his long-range game if he is going to top the 15 point-mark consistently. The good news for Pitt is that James Robinson is back to play the point. His 3.4 assist-to-turnover ratio will be humongous for Pitt’s ability to limit giveaways, but he isn’t a major scorer and will need help from others.
Who will those others be? That is the major question going into the season for Pitt. There are a few options, but they all have major question marks surrounding them. Chris Jones will be asked to enter the rotation in his sophomore season after a rather unimpressive freshman year. Josh Newkirk has potential but relies heavily on his streaky jump shot. Durand Johnson is talented but is coming off of major surgery.
Down low is an even bigger challenge for Pittsburgh. Replacing Zanna will be largely left up to Michael Young, who averaged just over 20 minutes last season, and Jamel Artis, just 15 mpg. They are tough and talented but totally unproven and even when combined, likely won’t match Zanna’s impact.
Pitt will win its fair share of games due to its tremendous defensive intensity and the coaching pedigree of Dixon. However, the NCAA Tournament may not be in reach for Pitt this season. If they miss out, it will be only the second time in 12 years with Dixon at the helm.
9. Virginia Tech Hokies
Last Year’s Record: 9-22 (2-16)
This Year’s Projected ACC Record: 8-10
Head Coach: Buzz Williams
Key Players: Devin Wilson, Ahmed Hill, Adam Smith
Welcome to a new era of Virginia Tech basketball, ladies and gentlemen. Arguably, no program in the ACC has been more futile in the last decade than Virginia Tech. However, now that Buzz Williams has decided to make the leap from Marquette to replace James Johnson, things appear headed in the right direction. Buzz was able to do wonders with the Marquette program and will bring his reputation for physicality, toughness, and hard-nosed defense over to VA Tech.
The Hokies were horrible last season and managed to win only two ACC games. However, Williams, along with a solid crop of returning and incoming talent, should mean a substantial leap this season. Devin Wilson is the most promising player on the roster and is coming off an impressive rookie season. Wilson is a capable play-maker who can score, pass, and defend and is perfect to lead in Williams’ system.
Joining him in the backcourt is knock-down three-point shooter Adam Smith, and big-time recruits Justin Bibbs and Ahmed Hill. The latter two are both top-70 recruits that Williams was able to land, and even though they might not be at their full potential this season, they will still contribute. If only Ben Emelogu (10.5 ppg last season) had decided not to transfer to SMU, this could be a top-five backcourt in the ACC.
The frontcourt is not as strong, but does feature Shane Henry, who was dominant in the JUCO ranks. He is the prototypical D1 shot-blocker — tall and skinny but with tremendous length and athleticism. If he can bulk up, he could provide serious help on the glass and in interior defense. Joey Van Zegeren is another big body who should expand his role, especially after the departure of C.J. Barksdale.
Virginia Tech ranked below 300 in several offense categories last season, including scoring, field goal percentage, and free throw percentage. Perhaps I am putting too much faith in Buzz Williams, but there just seems to be a new feeling around the Virginia Tech program. The NCAA Tournament is likely a year away, but the Hokies should be majorly improved and at least be on the bubble come Selection Sunday this year.
8. Miami Hurricanes
Last Year’s Record: 17-16 (7-11)
This Year’s Projected ACC Record: 9-9
Head Coach: Jim Larranaga
Key Players: Sheldon McClellan, Angel Rodriguez, Manu Lecomte
After experiencing the highs of an ACC Championship behind Shane Larkin and company, Miami experienced the inevitable down year last season, barely managing to stay above .500. This year, things should go much better for the Hurricanes, as they have the makings of an NCAA Tournament team and the talent to do damage if they get there. Slotting them at No. 8 is somewhat harsh, even for Miami, but that says more about the depth of the ACC than it does about the Hurricanes. Make no mistake, this is a very, very, talented team, albeit one that looks much different than the team on the court a season ago.
The big news in South Beach is that transfers Angel Rodriguez (Kansas St.) and Sheldon McClellan (Texas) are now eligible and should make an immediate impact on the ‘Canes backcourt. Rodriguez was a wonderful talent for the Wildcats two seasons ago, and he ranked in the top five in the Big 12 in steals, assists, and free-throw percentage. McClellan has more raw talent, but is not as proven as he was up and down playing under Rick Barnes at Texas.
Jim Larranaga will have plenty of options behind them as well. Manu Lecomte was impressive as a freshman and returns to the lineup, while Deandre Burnett, a redshirt freshman, and top-60 recruit Ja’Quan Newton should also get ample time to prove themselves. Down low, Tonye Jekiri could have a breakout season if he continues to improve, and Ivan Cruz Uceda is an intriguing JUCO transfer.
The big question for Miami will be how well do all of these newcomers mesh together? If Larranaga could pull off a similar coaching job to what Fred Hoiberg has done at Iowa State, Miami could be a top five contender. If not, they will be right on the fringe of making the NCAA Tournament.
7. North Carolina State
Last Year’s Record: 22-14 (9-9)
This Year’s Projected ACC Record: 10-8
Head Coach: Mark Gottfried
Key Players: Trevor Lacey, Anthony Barber, Caleb Martin
After controversially sneaking into the NCAA Tournament a season ago, NC State looked prone to win its second consecutive game in the big dance before it blew a late lead against St. Louis and bowed out in the 2nd Round. With the loss, superstar T.J. Warren went to the NBA and the rest of the Wolfpack were forced to build a contender with the leftover parts.
The good news is, those parts are pretty darn good. Point guard Tyler Lewis has transferred to Butler, so the lead guard role will now be left up to Anthony “Cat” Barber, who is exciting to watch but a poor shooter. But he is a great defender and should improve with a year under his belt. Transfers will be a huge factor for Gottfried this season. Most notably, Trevor Lacey, a transfer from Alabama, who will have a major role to play this season. He won’t be able to fill T.J. Warren’s shoes, but Lacey is a talented scorer who averaged double figures previously for the Crimson Tide. Ralston Turner is another guard transferring from an SEC school (LSU), and Desmond Lee, a former JUCO transfer, could contribute if he can find his shot again.
A big name to look out for this season for N.C. State is Caleb Martin, a top-50 recruit who, at 6-7, can stretch the floor and provide scoring. He had foot surgery over the summer but assuming he can come back healthy, he should make an impact right away. His brother Cody, also a highly prized recruit, is joining him as well. Abdul-Malik Abu and Kyle Washington fill out the rotation and are both capable shot blockers and rebounders who should protect the rim well.
NC State is all about potential this season. If players like Martin and Barber develop like they should, this team has the potential to win 25 games. If their progress stagnates, then the Wolfpack could conceivably miss the big dance.
6. Florida State Seminoles
Last Year’s Record: 22-14 (9-9)
This Year’s Projected ACC Record: 10-8
Head Coach: Leonard Hamilton
Key Players: Aaron Thomas, Devon Bookert, Boris Bojanovksy
Yes, Florida State has lost some significant players from last year’s team. It won’t be easy to replace the big bad Okaro White nor the deadly shooter Ian Miller. Still, Florida State is a huge sleeper in the ACC this season that has the makeup of one of Leonard Hamilton’s best teams at FSU.
Aaron Thomas was a revelation last year. After getting inserted into the starting lineup, Thomas blossomed into one of the best scorers in the ACC and ended up finishing just behind the top 10 in that category. In Florida State’s run to the NIT semifinals last year, Thomas had games of 22, 26, and 21 in the tournament’s first three rounds.
He is aided in the backcourt by Devon Bookert, who is a lights out three-point shooter who shot a gaudy 52.5 percent his freshman season and a still-impressive 43.1 percent last year. FSU also has a pleothora of point guards ready to emerge, including Xavier Rathan-Mayes, who was ineligible last year due to academics, and JUCO transfer Dayshawn Watkins. Montay Brandon is also in the mix and should get better this year.
Unlike many other teams in the league, Florida State won’t be lacking in big bodies underneath, and they should be one of the best rebounding and shot-blocking teams in the conference. Boris Bojanovsky is a seven-footer who is continuing to get stronger and learn the game. He should take a major step forward this season and could average near a double-double.
Behind him, there is the strong and physical Michael Ojo (7-1) and Kiel Turpin (7-0), a natural shot-blocker. Take those three and pair them with power forward Jarquez Smith and the incoming Phil Cofer, and you have perhaps the best frontcourt in the ACC. Florida State isn’t going to outscore anybody, but they won’t have to. Their guards apply tremendous defensive pressure, and their bigs will protect the rim in a major way. FSU doesn’t have the talent to win the ACC, but on any given night (especially at home) they are capable of beating any of the big names in this league.
Finally, after getting through the rest of the pack in the super-conference that is the ACC, we have reached the real heavy-hitters. Once you’ve caught up on part one and part two of my ACC predictions, we can move on to the finale.
5. Syracuse Orange
Last Year’s Record: 28-6 (14-4)
This Year’s Projected ACC Record: 11-7
Head Coach: Jim Boeheim
Key Players: Trevor Cooney, Kaleb Joseph, Rakeem Christmas
For Syracuse standards, 2014-15 will be a down season. It won’t sit well with a fan-base with extremely high expectations, especially after the bitter way in which last season ended, but it just is the fact with how the current roster is made-up. Senior C.J. Fair was always graduating, but Jim Boeheim was relying on the return of either standout point guard Tyler Ennis or athletic forward Jerami Grant. They both have left town, and Boeheim hasn’t been shy about voicing his displeasure about it. That being said, a down year for Syracuse will still result in an NCAA Tournament appearance and 20+ wins, something that many coaches in the country would kill for.
Because of Ennis’ absence, it will be freshman Kaleb Joseph who will be expected to run the offense. Despite both being highly talented freshman point guards, the comparisons between Ennis and Joseph are unwarranted. Ennis was a pass first, always under control guard, while Joseph is a score first, high energy player who relies on that athleticism to create offense. He would be wise to slow his game down a little as he gets used to the speed of the college game. Still, Joseph is extremely talented and should end up on the all-rookie ACC team at the end of the day.
Joining him in the starting backcourt is Trevor Cooney, who is as pure of a shooter as you will see in the ACC… when he is on. Cooney can erupt for 25 or he could go 0-12, you just never know. He will need some assistance from the bench this season, something Syracuse didn’t have last year. Michael Gbinije came on strong at the end of last season and played his way into the rotation. However, he will need to play an even bigger role this year in the stagnant Syracuse offense. Ron Patterson, Tyler Roberson, and B.J. Johnson are all in the mix at the three spot, but none of them have proven themselves worthy of taking over Fair’s spot in the lineup.
The strength of the Orange, as it usually is, will be on defense, and they are anchored by their bigs down low in their famous 2-3 zone. Rakeem Christmas may never develop as much of an offensive game as Orange fans would like him to, but he is a monster in the middle of that zone and makes it nearly impossible for opposing teams to get easy buckets. DaJaun Coleman has all the talent in the world at center, but coming off two knee surgeries, his health is a major question mark. If Coleman is healthy and Christmas plays the was he has played in the past, this will be a more than formidable set of bigs for Boeheim to use.
An X-factor could be freshman Chris McCullough who stands at 6-10 and has long arms that should aid in the zone. If ‘Cuse can go Christmas-Coleman-McCullough in their defensive rotation, that will be perhaps the best defensive front court in the league. Still, scoring will be a major issue. The Orange were bitten by the scoring bug several times last year and it led to upsets against Boston College and Georgia Tech (yikes) and that was with Ennis, Grant, and Fair in the lineup. The Orange will win 10+ games in the league if, and only if, players like Joseph, Gbinije, and Christmas can figure out how to score consistently.
4. Virginia Cavaliers
Last Year’s Record: 30-7 (16-2)
This Year’s Projected ACC Record: 13-5
Head Coach: Tony Bennett
Key Players: Malcom Brogdon, Justin Anderson, Anthony Gill
2013-14 could not possibly have gone any better for Virginia. They usurped traditional powerhouses like Duke and Syracuse to win the ACC regular season championship, and then won the ACC Tournament on top of it, earning a no. 1 seed in the NCAA’s. They lost to a great Michigan State team in the Sweet 16, but it was still a banner year for coach Tony Bennett, and this year Virginia will be back and could be even better, or at least more equipped for tournament success. The Cavs could be an Elite 8 team or better next season, which is saying a lot after losing Joe Harris, as almost everyone else who played a major role last season returns.
Malcom Brogdon leads the way, coming off a season in which he had a 3.4 assist-to-turnover ratio, and averaged nearly 15 ppg in ACC play. ACC Sixth Man of the Year, Justin Anderson, is back too and he can make plays on both ends of the floor. London Perrantes is an absolute stud at the point guard position and can knock down a jumper from anywhere in the gym and Devon Hall is a top-80 recruit who should get some minutes as well.
In the frontcourt, Anthony Gill will be the anchor. The sharp-shooting transfer from South Carolina played less than 20 minutes a game but still nearly averaged double figures. With Akil Mithcell graduated, his minutes will go up, and so should his production. Playing alongside him will be Mike Tobey, who can score in the low-post, and Evan Nolte, who is a stretch four that plays a crucial role in the rotation. Their bigs won’t be a strength, but if they can rebound effectively and stay out of foul trouble, they should be competent enough to make up for Mitchell’s absence.
Virginia is susceptible to more defeats in league play than, say, North Carolina. Still, when it comes to the tournament, Virginia’s defensive style of play should wear down teams from other leagues that aren’t used to playing that style. This is a very dangerous team this upcoming season.
3. North Carolina Tar Heels
Last Year’s Record: 24-10 (13-5)
This Year’s Projected ACC Record: 14-4
Head Coach: Roy Williams
Key Players: Marcus Paige, Brice Johnson, Justin Jackson
With a great group of returning talent from a 24-win team a season ago, plus some tremendous recruits that make-up perhaps the deepest class in the country, Chapel Hill has the buzz of a potential Final Four team again. Although I have them third in my ACC rankings, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see the Tar Heels achieve that feat in 2015.
James Michael McAdoo and Leslie McDonald have left, but Roy Williams has more than enough parts to replace them. It starts with Marcus Paige, who might just be the best player in the league this season. Coming off a year in which he averaged over 17 points per-game, Paige now has the reigns to completely take over, and his potential this season is endless. He is a tremendous three-point shooter and can get past his defender too.
Joining him in the backcourt will be several talented players who will be battling each other for minutes. Joel Berry is a McDonald’s All-American that is a tremendous passer and floor general, and could start right away. Justin Jackson is a lights out shooter and top-10 recruit who could start or provide a huge spark off the bench. Freshman Theo Pinson is a phenomenal athlete who won the High School Slam Dunk contest (just to give you an idea of what he brings to the table). This is without mentioning Nate Britt, a starter a season ago who is certainly capable if he can beat out the rookies.
And that’s just their guards. The forwards are just as loaded, led by J.P. Tokoto who can hit the three-ball, but is also the best defender on the team. Brice Johnson is another big name coming back. The 6-9 junior averaged 10.3 ppg and 6.1 rpg a season ago and should be an anchor down low along with Kennedy Meeks, who was on the ACC All-Freshman list a season ago and is a great rebounder.
The Tar Heels do have a pair of glaring shortcomings. UNC is an awful free-throw shooting team. They shot just 62.6% a season ago, and in the one-and-done format of the NCAA Tournament, that can easily come back to bite you. Their defense is still below the best teams in the conference. They ranked just 164th in the country last year, and 12th in the ACC. The new names coming in will certainly provide scoring prowess, but will their defense and foul shooting help boost the Tar Heels in those two crucial categories? That remains to be seen. If they do, North Carolina could win a National Championship. If they don’t, they could suffer an upset come tournament time.
2. Louisville Cardinals
Last Year’s Record: 31-6 (15-3, AAC)
This Year’s Projected ACC Record: 15-3
Head Coach: Rick Pitino
Key Players: Chris Jones, Wayne Blackshear, Montrezl Harrell
Coming off a national title, Louisville fans were left bitterly disappointed after a Sweet Sixteen loss to rival Kentucky last season. Even after losing star Russ Smith, the Cardinals reload in a major way this year and could easily make another trip to the Final Four.
For veteran Louisville players, the ACC will be their third conference in three seasons. After the old Big East dismantled, Louisville jumped ship for a season to the AAC and predictably dominated the competition. The step up in class will be a challenge for Rick Pitino, but one that he and his talented roster should be more than able to conquer. It starts with the somewhat surprising return of Montrezl Harrell to the Louisville frontcourt. Harrell posted six double-doubles in the last six Cardinal games a season ago, and will be the focal point of the Louisville offense now that he has returned. He has the ability to power his way through inferior opponents and score around the basket with either hand. He will be a dominant force in the ACC and seems sure of an All-ACC First team performance.
Wayne Blackshear is another staple of the past two seasons that is back and now, in his senior year, will be asked to step his game up, especially if he wants to keep his role as a starter away from talented freshman Shaqquan Aaron. At center, Louisville will stay big with the return of Mangok Mathiang, who can’t score a lick, but can certainly be a defensive force. Chinanu Onuaku will be his understudy and should play into the rotation.
The guard play will have a lot of questions to answer now that Russdiculous isn’t there to bail them out anymore. Chris Jones will be the key to Louisville’s success this season. If he can enhance his scoring ability while maintaining his excellent assist-to-turnover ratio, then Louisville’s offense won’t miss a beat. If he stumbles, Louisville could turn to freshman Quentin Snider and move Jones over to the shooting guard spot, but they would prefer if Jones could take the reigns and Terry Rozier could step in in the other guard spot and continue his deadly long-range shooting.
The real key for Louisville is their ability to create turnovers and apply defensive pressure. Once again, Pitino has assembled a roster more than capable of causing havoc on that end of the floor, and their shear athleticism will be too much for most ACC teams to handle.
Louisville has the make-up of a potential Final Four team if all of the pieces click, but even if they don’t, they are too talented to not finish with 25+ wins.
1. Duke Blue Devils
Last Year’s Record: 26-9 (13-5)
This Year’s Projected ACC Record: 16-2
Head Coach: Mike Krzyzewski
Key Players: Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones, Rasheed Sulaimon
Anyone who knows me knows that my two least favorite college basketball teams are Kentucky and Duke, but try as I might, I couldn’t think of a reason good enough not to put the Blue Devils at the top of the ACC this season.
Last year, the team was uber talented, but they relied too much on Jabari Parker to win them games down the stretch. This year, they won’t have that problem as the scoring will be more spread out and Duke has four or five players capable of taking over late in close games. It starts with the two biggest recruits to come to Duke since… well last year when Parker signed to play in Cameron. Still, you can’t overstate the hype that Jahlil Okafor and Tyus Jones have coming into this season.
Okafor is drawing comparisons to former Duke legend Elton Brand as well as NBA All-Star Al Jefferson, high praise for any post player. Okafor was the No. 1 recruit in the nation, and Coach K being able to land him should give the Blue Devils the inside track at an ACC title. Okafor is 6-11, 265 lbs. and could run roughshod over the post defenders on many teams in the conference. He can do it all — rebound, score, defend and pass. Even if he is only at Duke for a season, it could be a very memorable stint.
Jones is a top-five recruit who is drawing comparisons to guards as high up on the talent scale as Chris Paul. He is extremely quick, a tremendous passer, but also can light it up when he wants to. Those two will be the most talked about freshmen in the ACC, but it doesn’t stop there for the Dukies. Grayson Allen and Justise Winslow are two more McDonalds All-Americans that complete the class. Allen will compete for minutes in the backcourt relying on his play-making abilities and Winslow will get time at the three and four positions, using his body and athleticism to get to the basket and score.
And that’s just the freshman. Quinn Cook and Rasheed Sulaimon have had up and down starts to their careers, but they both are tremendously talented and will be leaders on this team. Cook will likely come off the bench and might be one of the best sixth men in the nation, while Sulaimon will look to find his rhythm again after falling off slightly last season. Both can shoot, plain and simple, and should benefit from having play-makers around them freeing them up for open shots.
Joining Okafor and Winslow in the paint will be Amile Jefferson, who is still finding his game offensively but is a defensive force, and the third Plumlee brother, Marshall, who is a quality big off the bench, but lacks the talent of his two older brothers. For those coming back after last season’s stunning loss to Mercer, Duke players and coaches will be extremely motivated to get the bad taste out of the mouth once the NCAA Tournament comes around. Give Coach K 35 games to figure out the strengths of four of the youngest players in the country and watch out come March. I’ll take a bold stance and say Duke will not be losing in the Round of 64 in this year’s tournament.
Ross Bentley (@ImRossBentley) is a contributor for The High Screen. He is a Graduate Sports Journalism student at Quinnipiac University and a graduate of SUNY Oswego.