- Our 2018–19 conference preview continues begins with the ACC, where Duke, Virginia and UNC look to reign but a number of other challengers could easily emerge.
As part of SI.com's preview of the 2018–19 college basketball season, we're breaking down each of the seven major conferences, plus the best of the rest. Our predicted order of finish for each league is drawn from our master 1–353 rankings, the full list of which will be revealed later this month. We did the AAC; Next up for our conference previews is the ACC, complete with our analyst's breakdowns of each team and anonymous scouting takes from coaches and assistants around the league.
The Big Picture
After sending nine teams to the NCAA tournament for the second year in a row (and four to the Sweet 16), the ACC remains deep and strong heading into 2018–19. The usual names—Duke, Virginia, North Carolina—look dangerous again, while teams like Syracuse, Florida State, Clemson and Virginia Tech will be gunning for the top three. The potential for at-large bids in March runs even deeper than that, making the conference once again full of compelling storylines.
Conference Player of the Year: Luke Maye, UNC
One of the most versatile frontcourt weapons in the country, senior forward Luke Maye is an absolute machine. The big man became just the sixth Tar Heel in the last 40 years to average a double double for a season last year, all while shooting 43% from three-point range. Despite the departure of the Tar Heels' old guard of Joel Berry II and Theo Pinson, freshman guard Coby White should still set Maye up for monster success this season, especially with star recruit Nassir Little on the wing as well.
Newcomer of the Year: R.J. Barrett, Duke
The 6’7” Canadian is poised for an explosive freshman season as the headliner of the Blue Devils' historic recruiting class. An almost unstoppable scorer, Barrett has already proven himself a formidable foe against elite competition despite the fact that he’s just a freshman. With his unparalleled athleticism, arguably unmatched abilities on both sides of the ball and the enormous amount of talent that surrounds him in Durham, Barrett is set to meet—if not exceed —the enormous expectations that await the ACC newcomer.
Dark Horse Team to Win the Conference: Syracuse
Tyus Battle is back, having carried the Orange to a surprising Sweet 16 appearance as a sophomore last season. With the arrival of some young offensive talent to help him out and the tried and true zone defense, Syracuse has the potential to steal the ACC’s top spot.
Predicted Order of Finish
The Skinny: Duke’s recruits will be hard to beat this season. The Blue Devils' top-ranked recruiting class features three consensus top-five recruits in five-stars R.J. Barrett, Cam Reddish and Zion Williamson, plus Tre Jones, a top-15 point guard, running the floor. Jones is a pass-first floor general who can create with ease—a scary skill considering the tremendous talent of his teammates. Add in four-star forward Joey Baker and the young Blue Devils should be a nightmare to stop offensively.
Scout's Takes: “Duke just keeps reloading. It seems like every year there’s more firepower, more McDonald’s All-American guys. And boy, do that have that this year. What a reload: R.J. and Cam, in regard to their ability to score, and Zion’s athleticism and physicality are unbelievable. But the point guard, Jones, gets overlooked. I think he’s pretty doggone good and that’s a huge get for Coach K. All together they’re going to be a handful.”
“They’ve got three, four really, of the top freshmen in the country so they’re definitely more talented than most.”
The Skinny: Virginia may have ended its season on the wrong side of the worst upset in March Madness history, but the Cavaliers still went 17–1 against ACC opponents in one of the most competitive conferences in the country. Virginia’s backcourt of Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome is locked in after the loss, plus a healthy De’Andre Hunter on the wing bolsters the team’s potential. Virginia’s success comes in strength as a unit, and, with talented playmakers, sharp shooters, the power of the pack line and an arsenal of underrated weapons on the bench, the Cavaliers are poised for another successful season.
Scout's Takes: “It will be hard for Virginia to repeat what it did regular season last year, there are some question marks. They know what they have returning in regards to Ty [Jerome] and Kyle [Guy], De’Andre [Hunter] and Jack [Salt], but there are some question marks at the other positions.”
“As much as Virginia has experience in its backcourt, it's got some questions marks on its roster in regards to its depth and its interior play. It's got to be ready for a challenge from everybody, every time. It sounds crazy, but we’ll see De’Andre [Hunter] in a new role this year. He was a sixth man last year and in all likelihood he’ll be a starter, which will be new. Mamadi Diakite has to step up to help try to replace what Isaiah Wilkins did defensively and give [the team] a punch in scoring.”
3. North Carolina
The Skinny: North Carolina followed its 2017 national championship with a disappointing season and a blowout second-round loss in the NCAA tournament. Roy Williams lost his two primary facilitators in Joel Berry II and Theo Pinson, but with the return of three starters and the addition of UNC’s best recruiting class in years, the Tar Heels' high-tempo offense will remain alive and well this season. With Nassir Little, a five-star recruit and wildly talented small forward, Carolina should continue to contend with the conference elite. The Little-Luke Maye duo in the frontcourt is going to be difficult for defenders to contain, especially when coupled with freshman Coby White running point.
Scout's Takes: “[Little is] a versatile forward, he can play some on the perimeter or if they want to go small ball like Roy [Williams] did last year with Cam Johnson and Theo Pinson, Little will allow them to do that as well. He’s 6’ 7”—a good-sized kid. He’ll allow them some versatility if they want to play him at the four slot. Then Luke Maye, man, he stretches the floor, he really shoots the ball. He’s got range. He knows how to play—a very skilled kid. Kid is just a winner, he’s tough. But really it’s his ability to shoot and stretch the floor that creates all kinds of problems.”
“They’ve got Maye who’s really good—he’s very physical, he’s very strong, and he can shoot. He shoots it well from the perimeter and is just a physical guy. And they have Little who’s one of the better freshmen, but a lot will depend on their guard play and what Williams does at point guard will be crucial.”
4. Florida State
The Skinny: Florida State finished the 2017–18 season with an unexpected Elite Eight appearance. The Seminoles improved as the season went on and should be set up to continue doing so this year with a ton of returning talent. With the return of Trent Forrest, a key offensive facilitator for Florida State during the end of his sophomore season, Terance Mann and Christ Koumadje, combined with the added eligibility of forward Phil Cofer, Florida State should continue to succeed at both ends of the floor moving forward.
Scout's Take: “As the year went on, they were as unified of a group as I’d seen in a long time from a team down there. They played together, they seemed unselfish. Defensively, were just a tough group and it came together at the right time. There’s always talent there, but I think they figured out how they had to play. I know [Coach Ham] is going to push those guys to play together and be unselfish and really pester you defensively, which makes it hard to run your stuff. They’ve always done that and will do it again this year.”
5. Virginia Tech
The Skinny: Buzz Williams is doing big things down in Blacksburg with his Virginia Tech team. After leading the Hokies to their second consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance in 2018 after a nine-year absence, expect Virginia Tech to continue to trend upward into 2019. With almost all of the Hokies' key contributors returning to one of the most efficient offensive teams in the country alongside the team’s incoming talent, seniors Justin Robinson and Chris Clarke can continue to lead Tech to another strong season.
Scout's Take: “Justin Robinson is a pitbull at that point guard position. He and Buzz are one in the same, he feeds off of Buzz and he’s got that pitbull in him. He’s a challenge because he’s so quick. He can shoot it. Chris Clarke is a challenge too because he can rebound and push. When those two are out in transition and they’re getting paint touches, they’re a handful.”
The Skinny: The Orange have a history of being sneaky good every season, taking an average regular season record and magically turning it into deep March Madness runs. With star guard Tyus Battle returning to lead an experienced Syracuse team, the Orange should be optimistic about the upcoming season. Expect Boeheim’s defense to be staunch as ever, while the addition of a pair of talented freshman perimeter players to the duo of double-digit scorers Oshae Brissett and Frank Howard provide hope for significant improvement on the offensive end.
Scout's Take: “[Battle] can shoot the three, he can create off the bounce, he’s just a good athlete. You’ve just got to make it difficult on him. He and Brissett and Howard, man, they make it hard. You’re not going to be able to contain [them] always so you just have to make it tough. Make them shoot contested shots because they’re really, really good individually making one-on-one plays. Tyus in particular, with his ability to shoot and touch the paint and pull up, he’s unique. He’s got a three-point shot, he’s got a mid-range shot, he gets out in the open floor. He’s a handful. So you’ve just got to make it difficult. You won’t always stop him, but you’ve got to contest everything.”
The Skinny: Clemson has one of the most experienced backcourts on the East Coast in Marcquise Reed and Shelton Mitchell. With four returning seniors from the starting lineup of the Tigers' Sweet Sixteen team, Clemson is poised for another strong season on both sides of the ball. Its rugged defense should return with their starting five—who are also all capable shooters—but Clemson’s bench brings more questions than answers. Who emerges at the team’s sixth man will be key to ascertaining the Tigers' ceiling.
Scout's Take: “[Reed and Mitchell] can both shoot and they can both make plays. They’ve got a lot of experience and experienced guards are always good for a team to have but [are] bad for opponents. What they can do will determine the ceiling for Clemson.”
8. Notre Dame
The Skinny: It looks like another bubble season is in the cards for the Irish after the departure of Bonzie Colson and Matt Farrell. Veterans Rex Pflueger and TJ Gibbs will help push Notre Dame toward the postseason come spring, but with an otherwise inexperienced lineup, coach Mike Brey will have to work a little harder to make that possible this year. Brey desperately needs to build a backcourt as the base for this year's team. Which unproven players emerge as the early contenders to fill those floor general slots will say a lot about the future of the Fighting Irish.
Scout's Take: “I think Notre Dame will be better than people think, they’ll probably surprise people the most in our league. With who, we don’t really know yet outside of a few vets.”
9. NC State
The Skinny: The Wolfpack enter their second season under head coach Kevin Keatts with eight new players on their roster. Without the team’s leading scorer and most prolific three-point shooter Allerik Freeman, NC State needed scorers this season. With key players like Braxton Beverly and Markell Johnson in the backcourt and veteran Torin Dorn to fill the four slot, Keatts could pull off a surprisingly strong season if he can get his incoming transfer talent to mesh with last season’s starters.
Scout's Take: “They’ve got eight new players but some of those kids have played and transferred in and man, they can play. They’ve got talent. They’re going to be tough because of the small ball that they play. They’ll put four guards on the floor and switch and push the tempo. [The ACC] got a taste of what Kevin [Keatts] could do last year and look [at] the talent he’s got at NC State this year.”
The Skinny: Miami lost a talented trio with the departure of Bruce Brown Jr., Lonnie Walker and Ja’Quan Newton. Unfortunately for the rest of the conference, all 5’7”, 161 pounds of sophomore Chris Lykes will still be around to run the Hurricanes backcourt in his absence. The Hurricanes still have junior big man Dewan Huell—now Hernandez—and senior Anthony Lawrence, who form a formidable frontcourt, but the team will still look drastically different from the Miami team of 2017–18. It will need new playmakers to emerge to accommodate for the team’s losses and the absence of any true freshmen faces.
Scout's Take: “Miami is always, always a threat. Coach [Jim Larrañaga] is a winner. He’s done this a long time. He recruits well. He recruits talented players. He got Chris Lykes … and he is a handful. They’ve got experience coming back, they can shoot it, [and] they’ve got length. They’re always tough. You look up and Miami is always right there, and they should be right there again this year.”
The Skinny: The Cardinals enter a new era under first-year head coach Chris Mack, putting a tumultuous year behind them after all the Pitino fallout. While its new identity remains a bit of a mystery, Louisville’s lineup still has enough holdover talent to challenge even the conference’s most tested teams. How the Cardinals play under another new coach undoubtedly adds uncertainty, but the potential is at least there on paper.
Scout's Takes: “Coach Mack has done a hell of a job over at Xavier. I have to imagine the transition will be seamless, obviously there will be certain ‘x’ and ‘o’ things they do differently. Make no mistake though, he’s a hell of a coach and his record speaks for itself. They’ve got the talent and he’s going to get them to play hard. And it’s Louisville—they’ve got a tradition that rivals a lot of teams in our league. Because of what’s gone on in basketball, they are just going to get on the floor and try to put all of this behind them.”
“They’ve got so many new pieces it’s really hard to predict what’s going to happen there. They’ve got the talent but it’ll be about how they come together.”
12. Boston College
The Skinny: A Jerome Robinson-less Boston College will have to contend in ACC play with just Ky Bowman leading the backcourt. Not to say that Bowman isn’t a gifted ball handler himself, but the loss of Robinson means a little rebuilding at the perimeter for Boston College. The Eagles return the rest of their starters and still have plenty of potential at the guard spot and on the wing to replace Robinson’s production. A few new faces should step up this season as Boston College continues to trend upward.
Scout's Take: “[The Eagles] will absolutely look differently without [Justin Robinson], but I also think they’ve got some guys who are ready to step up. They’ve got some freshmen who are pretty good and will have to play a big role, but I am so glad Jerome Robinson is gone. He was a nightmare to guard. They’ll still be right there though, still competing, and the expectation is that they’re really ready to turn the corner. That’s the mentality, even without Robinson.”
“Bowman is very, very good. He’s a very good player and he’ll take it up to another level this year. He can shoot it, he’s strong, physical. He can get to the basket. He’s just a good player. [Boston College] had a pretty successful season, have four starters back so I think they’ll be a better team than people might expect.”
13. Wake Forest
The Skinny: The Demon Deacons struggled on both sides of the court last season under Danny Manning, failing to find any substantial success shooting and finishing 259th in the nation in defensive rebounds. Five-star freshman forward Jaylen Hoard is a versatile addition to a team that needs help all across the board, but Wake Forest is desperate for depth so it’ll need a little more rebuilding than one player can bring, no matter how talented.
Scout's Take: “Hoard is a talent—he’s one of those forwards with great size and skill. He can put it on the floor, he can shoot it and I usually caution those young guys to not put too much pressure on themselves because it’s a process, but he might be different. He’s a heck of a player … I think he’ll help [Wake] and help Coach Manning make up for some guys who left early and unexpectedly. There’s also a chance for some returners to step into different roles and have different responsibilities. They’ve got a good mix: veteran guards, a lot of young wing talent and young bigs that are talented too like [Olivier] Sarr.”
14. Georgia Tech
The Skinny: Georgia Tech only managed 13 wins last season before losing three of its top four scorers. Sophomore guard Jose Alvarado will run the point for coach John Pastner but his help is limited without Josh Okogie or big man Ben Lammers under the basket. They’ve got a solid starting frontcourt but lack scorers capable of posting big-time points. Unproven players will have to step up for the Yellow Jackets as they adjust. While it looks like improvements are on the way, Georgia Tech will need a year or two to pull it all together.
Scout's Take: “They’ve got a lot of holes that will be hard to fill, so [success] will depend on how they fill in there, it’s hard to know when we really don’t know who they’ll be relying on most.”
The Skinny: Pittsburgh failed to secure even a single conference win in 2017–18, but the arrival of Jeff Capel should provide reason for a cautious optimism. Capel convinced several talented transfers to join the Panthers along with two four-star guards who reclassified to play for Pitt a year earlier than expected. How that plays out in the backcourt is yet to be seen, but with solid starters returning on the wing, Pittsburgh should see improvements this season—even if that still means only a few ACC wins.
Scout's Take: “My guy says the Zoo will be rockin’ with the excitement of Jeff [Capel] being there. Quite honestly, Pitt had some really good young talent last season. They were just that: young. In this league, it’s a hard thing to be that young night in and night out. A lot of those first year guys they had last year are going to grow, they’ve got experience now. And they’ve got [Malik] Ellison now who was sitting out [last season]. He transferred in from St. John’s and he’ll be a huge piece of what Pitt does.”