ACC Summer Reset: Can anyone challenge Duke?
With summer recruiting heating up and summer sessions underway, SI.com is taking a look at the state of each conference. Players are listed by what year they will be in the 2016–17 season. Next up is the ACC:
State of the champion: North Carolina
Coming off the ACC’s regular season and tournament titles (and, of course, one of the most dramatic and heartbreaking losses in national championship game history), the Tar Heels are likely to enter 2016–17 as contenders but not favorites. While the buzz builds around Coach K’s assemblage of blue-chippers down Tobacco Road, the focus in Chapel Hill is on what Roy Williams needs to replace: four-year starting guard/face of the program Marcus Paige and All-America power forward Brice Johnson, the ACC’s top rebounder as a senior.
Fortunately for Carolina, plenty of talent returns to campus. Guard Joel Berry II (12.7 points per game) and wing Justin Jackson (12.1 ppg) are back after ranking second and fourth on last year’s team in scoring. Expect Berry—who scored 20 against Villanova in the national championship game—to up his offensive load after using just 19.1% of his team’s possessions while on the floor as a sophomore. Inside, big man Kennedy Meeks will resume a bigger role after taking a backseat to Brice Johnson in last season’s second half, while fellow senior and reigning ACC Sixth Man of the Year Isaiah Hicks will contend for minutes with 6' 10" freshman Tony Bradley, a consensus top-20 recruit with a good touch around the basket. Six-foot-one combo guard (and former viral dunker) Seventh Woods and 6' 5" wing Brandon Robinson round out a top-15 recruiting class.
Notable newcomer: Austin Nichols
With all due respect to Duke’s monstrous recruiting haul, perhaps the most intriguing new face in the ACC is that of Austin Nichols, a 6' 9" junior who transferred to Virginia from Memphis last fall. After a contentious split from the Tigers, the former All-AAC first-teamer spent last season redshirting and learning Tony Bennett’s Pack-Line defense and Blocker-Mover offense—a year of mid-college prep that served now-graduated stars Malcolm Brogdon and Anthony Gill well during their time in Charlottesville. And it’s those departures that make Nichols’s arrival so pivotal to Virginia’s fortunes. Minus their top two scorers from last season (and most proficient rebounder Mike Tobey), the Cavaliers will need a significant contribution from Nichols, who averaged 13.3 points, 6.1 rebounds, and 3.4 blocks as a sophomore in 2014–15 and has said he is working to extend his range as a shooter. Continuing that level of production in the ACC could help Bennett prevent much drop-off from his recent run of top-level teams.
Notable departure: Cat Barber
Mark Gottfried hasn’t had the best 2016. First his Wolfpack tumbled through a 6–14 finish after entering January with a 10–3 record, then nearly half of his rotation left Raleigh before graduation. The transfers of twin 6' 7" guards Caleb (11.5 ppg last season) and Corey Martin (6.0 ppg) will hurt, but more damaging—if less surprising—was Anthony “Cat” Barber’s early entry into the NBA draft. Barber, who is playing for the Pelicans’ summer league team after going undrafted, not only led the ACC in scoring (23.5 ppg) but was adept at creating much of that offense on his own with the ball in his hands, a quality NC State will surely miss. The good news: Gottfried’s highly touted recruiting class is headlined by Dennis Smith Jr., another attacking guard who can put points on the board.
Boston College: The Eagles will want to forget this dismal past season, in which they were swept by the ACC and won just once away from Chestnut Hill. With Eli Carter gone, a third of the team’s shots are now available. Grad transfer Connar Tava (12.3 ppg at Western Michigan in 2014–15) should provide help at forward, but much more will be needed.
Clemson: The return of first-team All-ACC forward Jaron Blossomgame (18.7 ppg, 6.7 rpg) after NBA flirtations was essential to the Tigers’ hopes of ending a five-year NCAA tourney drought. Now he will get help from newly eligible sophomore guards Marcquise Reed (15.1 ppg as a freshman at Robert Morris) and Shelton Mitchell (4.3 ppg at Vanderbilt).
Duke: While Mike Krzyzewski is tied up in Rio for much of the summer, his five-star-studded class of frosh—headlined by likely one-and-done forwards Harry Giles and Jayson Tatum—will be getting acclimated to college life. Helping ease the transition will be guard Grayson Allen, who returns after a third-team All-America sophomore season.
Florida State: Malik Beasley is gone to the pros after just one season, but former classmate Dwayne Bacon returns after leading the Seminoles in scoring as a freshman. Improved three-point shooting would make Bacon (28.1%) and Xavier Rathan-Mayes (28.5%) more efficient offensive centerpieces with Beasley and Devon Bookert gone.
Georgia Tech: Turnover reigns as new coach Josh Pastner inherits a roster that graduated its top four scorers. One of the ACC’s worst-shooting teams last season (48.0% effective field-goal percentage, 13th in the league), the Yellow Jackets will need to quickly find some scoring—along with pretty much everything else.
Louisville: While they await the NCAA’s word on the ongoing escorts-for-recruits scandal, Rick Pitino’s Cardinals must hope forward Mangok Mathiang’s surgically repaired left foot heals in time to help offset the loss of big man Chinanu Onuaku to the NBA. Lone incoming freshman VJ King, an athletic five-star wing, should contribute immediately.
Miami: A new starting backcourt of Ja’Quan Newton and Davon Reed will get help from 6' 9" freshman forward Dewan Huell, a hometown McDonald’s All-American selection who can score inside and from midrange. Huell will also need to help fill the rebounding void left by Tonye Jekiri’s graduation.
North Carolina: Among the many ways the Tar Heels will miss departed first-team All-America Brice Johnson: his ability to mask others’ misses. According to Synergy Sports, his 1.483 points per possession on offensive rebounds was in the 95th percentile nationally. While Hicks wasn’t far behind (1.378, 89th), Meeks and Jackson were only in the 40th percentile. Finding second-chance offense will be crucial.
NC State: Smith is not the only newcomer capable of restocking the Wolfpack’s roster with talent, as he’s joined by recently reclassified guard Markell Johnson and five-star Turkish seven-footer Ömer Yurtseven. But if the youngsters can’t defend better than last year’s team, which ranked 15th in ACC play in defensive efficiency, they could be in for a long freshman year.
Notre Dame: Is VJ Beachem ready for his close-up? The 6' 8" wing averaged 16.7 points during this past postseason and was second among Irish regulars over the course of the season with a 121.3 offensive rating, per kenpom.com, while using just 16.5% of Notre Dame’s possessions. With Demetrius Jackson and Zach Auguste gone, expect Beachem’s role to grow.
Pittsburgh: New coach Kevin Stallings inherits a roster returning four of its top five scorers but losing the steady hand on its rudder, four-year point guard James Robinson. Determining a successor at the helm of the offense—likely sophomore reserve Damon Wilson or four-star freshman Justice Kithcart—will be an early priority.
Syracuse: A consistently engaged Tyler Roberson and a well-integrated Paschal Chukwu (a 7' 2" transfer from Providence), combined with Tyler Lydon, would give the Orange a formidable frontcourt. But at guard—where Colorado State transfer John Gillon joins little-used sophomore Franklin Howard and highly touted freshman Tyus Battle—there may be little room for error.
Virginia: Sans Brogdon, the Cavaliers need to find a second outside shooting threat alongside senior point guard London Perrantes. Top candidates include junior Marial Shayok (43.6% in a low-volume role last season) and incoming freshman guard Kyle Guy, who made 43.2% of his treys while earning McDonald’s All-American honors as a high school senior.
Virginia Tech: Year 2 of the Buzz Williams regime saw the Hokies jump from 184th to 57th nationally in overall efficiency, per Kenpom.com—a good sign for a team returning seven of its eight rotation players. Seth Allen regaining the shooting form he showed at Maryland (28.0% from three last year, 38.0% as a Terp in 2013–14) would help boost them further.
Wake Forest: Fourteenth in offensive efficiency during ACC play and 13th in defense, only BC’s conference oh-fer topped the Demon Deacons’ futility last season. Avoiding turnovers (Wake ranked 295th in offensive turnover percentage) and forcing them (it ranked 327th on the defensive end) would be as good a place as any to begin a turnaround.