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The ACC could be the best conference in the country again, with defending national champions Duke, defending conference tournament champions Notre Dame, defending regular season champs Virginia and preseason No. 1 UNC battling.

By Brian Hamilton
May 27, 2015

With spring recruiting having closed and nearly every transfer player in place, is here to catch you up on the state of each conference heading into the summer. Click here for the AAC. Below, the ACC:

State of the champion(s): Virginia, Notre Dame & Duke

In the country’s best conference, there are three champions to discuss. Regular-season winner Virginia is coming off a 30-win season that nevertheless felt like a stinging letdown. Justin Anderson never quite recovered from a broken thumb suffered in late January, and the Cavaliers couldn’t escape the first weekend of the NCAA tournament, losing to Michigan State in the Round of 32. And now Anderson is gone, taking his versatility and offensive punch (12.3 points per game) to the NBA. A Malcolm Brogdon-Anthony Gill-Mike Tobey core won’t be a bad place to start for 2015-16. But without a star incoming freshman, the Cavaliers will need some major leaps from bit players last year in order to contend again.

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As for the ACC tournament champions, Notre Dame will regroup after losing two of the most dominant personalities the program has seen. Jerian Grant was an All-America guard around which everything revolved, and Pat Connaughton was perhaps the best leader in Mike Brey’s 15-year tenure in South Bend. They fueled an unexpected run to the Elite Eight and a near-upset of then-unbeaten Kentucky. The cupboard is not bare for 2015-16. But to avoid a backslide, guard Demetrius Jackson (12.4 ppg, 3.1 apg) must develop into an All-ACC caliber performer, at minimum. Center Zach Auguste (12.9 ppg, 6.5 rpg) has to be assertive instead of complementary. And the list of relative unknowns—V.J. Beachem, Bonzie Colson, Martinas Geben, incoming top 100 freshman Rex Pflueger—must be reliable enough for Notre Dame to be a greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts outfit.

Then there’s Duke, which won neither the regular season title nor the conference tournament championship but hoisted a national championship trophy in early April. The Blue Devils lost basically everyone, from All-America freshman Jahlil Okafor to Final Four hero Tyus Jones to senior stalwart Quinn Cook. Mike Krzyzewski and Co. promptly replaced them with the top recruiting class in the country. In come four five-star prospects, led by 6’10” center Chase Jeter, 6’8” forward Brandon Ingram and 6’1” point guard Derryck Thornton. Add transfer Sean Obi (11.4 ppg, 9.3 rpg as a freshman at Rice) and title game legend Grayson Allen, and the Blue Devils are riding that one-and-done wave: There’s plenty of talent on hand to compete for another title, and there are plenty of questions about whether it will coalesce to do so.

Notable newcomer: Damion Lee, Louisville

Take your pick of the Duke freshmen, really—especially Thornton, who reclassified to the 2015 recruiting class in order to run the show in Durham—but let’s talk instead about Damion Lee, who fills a glaring need for Louisville. The 6’6” wing was probably the most valued transfer on the market after scoring 21.4 ppg for Drexel last season, the fourth-best rate in the country. Off-season departures for various reasons left the Cardinals basically bereft of scoring—all four double-digit producers from 2014-15 are gone. And at times Rick Pitino’s club wasn’t terribly lovely to watch with those guys. In order for Louisville to push to the top of the ACC, Lee must be more than just a product of his level of competition. In four games against Power Five conference teams last year, he averaged a more modest 16.5 points per outing. That’s not bad, but that might not be enough for the Cardinals.

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Notable departure: Justin Anderson, Virginia

We could point out that Rasheed Sulaimon, kicked off of the Duke roster in January, has a chance to make former rival Maryland the Big Ten’s next national title contender. And J.P. Tokoto’s early exit to the NBA draft was a surprise, but it doesn’t undermine North Carolina’s aims at a Final Four. So we’ll go with Justin Anderson, the 6’6” swingman whose return might have put Virginia atop most of the preseason top 25s. Anderson’s offensive game blossomed as a junior; notably, he shot 45.2% from 3-point range. No Virginia player returning for 2015-16 is as reliable from long range. Rarely are teams truly one player from a national title, but that could apply to the Cavaliers next season. Tony Bennett starts the search for Anderson’s replacement with Marial Shayok (3.8 ppg). It will help immensely to get more from forward Isaiah Wilkins (9.4 minutes in 28 games), a four-star recruit who barely registered on the radar as a freshman last season.

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Summer syllabus

Boston College: It will be a wholesale rebuild for Jim Christian in Year 2 after a 13-19 first season. Dennis Clifford, at 6.9 points per game, is the leading returning scorer. Pretty simple gameplan here: The Eagles need everything and have a few months to find it.

Clemson: There are nice young parts with experience in Jaron Blossomgame and Donte Grantham. To be anything but a middling club hoping for a spot on the NCAA tournament bubble, the Tigers must improve their shooting (40.9% as a team last year) and ball movement (just 10.6 assists per game).

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Duke: The uncommon chemistry the Blue Devils had last year owed to the leadership of senior Quinn Cook and the camaraderie and selflessness of Jahlil Okafor and Tyus Jones. Forging similar bonds with an entirely new core is the short- and long-range challenge.

Florida State: The Seminoles were 17-16 last year, but four double-digit scorers return. Add five-star recruit Dwayne Bacon and two four-star prospects in Terrance Mann and Malik Beasley, and coach Leonard Hamilton can spend the summer finding roles for all that talent to forge a surprise ACC contender.

Georgia Tech: Brian Gregory survived a 12-19 season—including a 3-15 conference mark—but he probably can’t survive anything like that again. The Yellow Jackets shot 40.8% as a team, 293rd in the country, which is a good place to start trying to reverse course.

Louisville: Rick Pitino will have to empower Quentin Snider to run the operation at the point, convince the holdovers that Damion Lee can be a go-to scoring option after just showing up as a grad transfer and also work in three four-star freshmen led by top 30 shooting guard Donovan Mitchell.

Miami: Sheldon McClellan and Angel Rodriguez performed as expected after sitting out a year as transfers, and 7-footer Tonye Jekiri almost averaged a double-double. But after beating Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Jan. 13, the Hurricanes lost all five games against ranked teams. To make a leap to contender status, you could start with Rodriguez improving his shooting (33.7% last year).

North Carolina: Urgency, urgency, urgency. The NCAA’s notice of allegations has arrived. The only significant departure from last year’s roster is J.P. Tokoto, and senior guard Marcus Paige rediscovered his All-America form late last season. The Tar Heels—the No. 1 team in SI colleague Luke Winn's most recent off-season Power Rankings, must approach the coming months with a title-or-bust attitude, because who knows when the program will have another shot.

North Carolina State: With Trevor Lacey gone to the NBA, coach Mark Gottfried can rely on Anthony “Cat” Barber (12.1 ppg) to run the show. He then must demand more from a trio of former four-star recruits—forwards Caleb Martin, Cody Martin and Abdul-Malik Abu—who were role players last season.

Notre Dame: Demetrius Jackson’s freshman year was a bust because he wasn’t comfortable grabbing the reins, even as a backup point guard. His sophomore year was a huge leap because his teammates demanded he speak up. This summer is about the junior point guard making the team his own.

Pittsburgh: Jamie Dixon’s crew lost five straight to end 2014-15. The program that was a perennial Big East contender slipped to 202nd nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency last season, which undermined a top 30 offense. Given that the Panthers didn’t lose much talent, can Dixon teach old dogs new defensive tricks?

Syracuse: The Orange's first full season post-NCAA infractions committee smackdown will start their rebuild. A quartet of four-star freshmen led by top 40 guard Malachi Richardson arrive, sanctions be damned. The best thing that can happen? Veterans like Trevor Cooney and Michael Gbinije imbue some resolve in the newcomers for the long road ahead.

Virginia: Youngsters don’t get much run in Charlottesville, given the defensive demands of Tony Bennett’s system. The summer should be spent putting Isaiah Wilkins, who was mostly invisible as a freshman, through an accelerated learning program. The Cavaliers need him.

Virginia Tech: Buzz Williams’s first season in Blacksburg went as expected, which is to say, not well: Just 11-22 overall and 2-16 in ACC play. More rebuilding awaits; Justin Bibbs (11.4 ppg) is a good start, but Williams must draw more out of former four-star recruit Ahmed Hill (8.7 ppg) while facilitating the growth of incoming freshmen Chris Clarke and Justin Robinson.

Wake Forest: The Demon Deacons will welcome two top 100 recruits in center Doral Moore and point guard Bryant Crawford. After a 13-19 season, Danny Manning must groom that nice (if green) help for leading scorer Codi Miller-McIntyre (14.5 ppg) and Devin Thomas (12.0 ppg, 8.8 rpg).

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