With the start of college basketball season less than a month away, we're previewing each team in nine conferences. Using a statistical projection system developed by economist Dan Hanner and SI's Luke Winn -- read more about it here -- we've projected the conference standings and the top seven scorers from each team. Today we look at the ACC, which welcomes Louisville but has lost Maryland, one of the conference's founding members.
Projected Conference Race
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Coach of the Year: Rick Pitino, Louisville
Pitino has now won 30 games or more three seasons in a row, but this season will be a challenge. Not only are the Cardinals transitioning to the ACC, they also face a brutal out-of-conference schedule, including their annual showdown with Kentucky. With Montrezl Harrell, Chris Jones and Terry Rozier returning, Louisville will be able to score. And if the Cardinals are in the conversation for an ACC title and a top seed in March, expect Pitino to get his fifth career conference coach of the year honor.
Player of the Year: Montrezl Harrell, Louisville
It’d be easy to pick one of the many super-good Duke or North Carolina players who will probably end up grabbing most of the preseason votes (shout out Triangle Media), but I’m not so sure anyone in the ACC is ready for the type of energy and ferocity Harrell is bringing to the conference. Harrell, a bruising 6-foot-8 junior forward, has the opportunity to (borrowing a text from Johnny Football) wreck this league and boost his draft stock along the way.
Freshman of the Year: Jahlil Okafor, Duke
When you’re already drawing comparisons to Blake Griffin, you’re doing something right. Okafor was the nation's No. 1 recruit for a reason, and post players this skilled, this early don't come around all that often. Mike Krzyzewski is terrific at getting his freshmen involved early and often, and Okafor should make an instant impact.
Each team's outlook in 68 words or fewer
Duke is Duke. The Blue Devils have elite talent, a Hall of Fame head coach and the home court advantage that is Cameron Indoor Stadium. It’s almost unfair for everyone else, and this year should be no different. Okafor and fellow freshman Tyus Jones will complement a talented returning core.
It’s been a long and tiresome road, but the Cardinals have finally made their way into the ACC. They lost Russ Smith, but Chris Jones and Terry Rozier will ensure the backcourt remains a strength And Louisville fans get to absorb ACC staples like Bojangles, so really everybody wins.
What will the Cavaliers do for an encore after winning the ACC regular season and tournament titles and winning 30 games? They probably will not win the ACC regular season and tournament titles or win 30 games. That being said, Tony Bennett’s defense-first style should keep Virginia competitive despite losing key guys, and Malcolm Brogdon is a star.
It’s a joy to watch Marcus Paige play basketball, and players like that should be celebrated. The problem is it often seemed like the Tar Heels spent too much time watching Marcus Paige play and not enough time playing with him. That has to change or the Heels will fall behind in a crowded ACC.
After a supernova-like trajectory in their ACC debut, the Orange will try to avoid peaking in late February. Syracuse lost Tyler Ennis, Jerami Grant and C.J. Fair from last year, but Jim Boeheim has a proven track record of picking up the pieces and MacGyvering them into something tangible. Freshman point guard Kaleb Joseph will be the key.
It didn’t take the Panthers long to adapt their physical brand of ball to the ACC, and it certainly didn’t hurt that Pitt had a do-it-all player like departed star forward Lamar Patterson to lead the way. While there might be concerns about where the Panthers will find scoring, defensively this team is as solid as any in the league.
The good news is that Mike Brey gets Jerian Grant back from an academic-related suspension. The even better news is that Fighting Irish fans can finally turn the page on a forgettable 15-17 finish last season that saw Notre Dame lose 11 games by seven points or fewer.
By every discernible roster breakdown and metric, there is no way the Hurricanes should have been able to win seven ACC games last year. So with a little more creativity and Jim Larrañaga’s ability to squeeze every last bit of toothpaste out of the tube this time around, Miami could push for an NCAA tournament bid.
Leonard Hamilton has quietly built Florida State into one of the ACC's most consistent programs. That’s not easy to do at a place where football is clearly king, but Hamilton as crafted the Seminoles into a team that punches above its weight. This year, if they can get finally consistency from the bigs and the backcourt at the same time, they could get back to the NCAAs.
Much of the Wolfpack’s offense last year revolved around waiting for departed All-America T.J. Warren to make a play. With Warren now in the NBA, someone better claim that alpha dog role sooner rather than later. The best bet may be Trevor Lacey, a transfer from Alabama who averaged 9.3 points in two seasons with the Crimson Tide.
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Much like how N.C. State will miss T.J. Warren, Clemson (and people who like college basketball in general) will miss K.J. McDaniels. Brad Brownell’s Tigers will make up for McDaniels' absence by continuing to force the issue with defense and win a few games they shouldn’t as a result.
It’s hard to imagine now, but five years ago the Eagles made their seventh NCAA tournament appearance in nine seasons. Last year Boston College went 8-24, and replaced head coach Steve Donahue with Jim Christian. Olivier Hanlan has star-potential but there isn't enough talent here to get the Eagles back to the Big Dance.
There may have been no bigger surprise in the offseason than Virginia Tech athletic director Whit Babcock finding a way to wrestle Buzz Williams away from Marquette. Williams brings excitement – and a no-excuses attitude – to a fan base that desperately needed it, and that should mask the fact that conference wins will be few and far between in 2014-15.
You may remember Danny Manning from such films as Danny and the Miracles or Oh My Goodness, Tulsa Made The NCAA Tournament, but his most challenging role yet is transforming a once-proud Demon Deacons team back into an ACC contender. Despite the presence of multi-talented guard Codi Miller-McIntyre, Year 1 will be tough, but there is hope again in Winston-Salem.
The Yellow Jackets have been mired in a deep slump for the past few seasons, and a double-digit finish in the league standings is more than likely this year as well. Georgia Tech doesn't have the athleticism to keep up, and Brian Gregory’s welcome is wearing thin with the school's fanbase. Another sub-.500 year could force the former Dayton coach out the door.