- After a season spent in the orbits of Duke and Virginia, how will the rest of the ACC reload for a new-look race?
As the midpoint of college basketball’s offseason approaches, it’s time to check in on every major conference. Every team in the country has questions at this point of the summer, some more pressing than others. So in addition to power-ranking each league, we’ll be asking some burning questions about the conference that won’t be answered until tip-off. Last week, we opened with the AAC, where Penny Hardaway and Memphis have hogged the headlines. Up next: the ACC, the home of the reigning national champs.
ACC Summer Power Rankings
1. Duke: Tre Jones will run the floor for another group of talented youngsters in Durham, as Vernon Carey, Matthew Hurt & Co. try to top the exploits of Zion Williamson’s team.
2. Louisville: The Cards look like legitimate ACC contenders with Jordan Nwora, incoming freshman Samuell Williamson and graduate transfer Lamarr Kimble leading the way.
3. Virginia: It’s Kihei Clark time. Virginia won’t look the same this season, but don’t sleep on them—Clark, Mamadi Diakite and incoming recruit Casey Morsell should still do big things.
4. North Carolina: No. 4 overall recruit Cole Anthony will be coming in hot for the Tar Heels, but Carolina’s ceiling will closely mirror his. Although Roy Williams will be relying on a lot of new faces this season, the talent is still there to contend for a league title.
5. Florida State: The Seminoles will look for a fresh start this season as Trent Forrest leads a new-look team in Tallahassee. Don’t hold your breath for another surprising Sweet 16 run.
6. NC State: With former signee Jalen Lecque jumping straight to the NBA, the Wolfpack bring in an underwhelming recruiting class but return most of last year’s rotation outside of leading scorer Torin Dorn. They should continue to progress in Kevin Keatts’s third season.
7. Virginia Tech: New head coach Mike Young has his work cut out for him in Blacksburg, but a decent incoming class should help the Hokies hang among the middle of the pack as they do some serious rebuilding.
8. Syracuse: The Orange also lost most of their starting core, but they bring in a pair of four-star wings and a trio of three-stars who should help Jim Boeheim start anew without falling too far.
9. Clemson: With a wave of talent coming in the form of both freshmen and transfers, the Tigers will try to make up for the loss of almost all of last season’s starting five. This young team will need time to rebuild.
10. Boston College: The Eagles return a decent portion of last year’s team, and four three-star recruits are on their way to Chestnut Hill.
11. Georgia Tech: The Yellow Jackets should continue to take baby steps in the right direction, but the ACC’s depth is still a hurdle Georgia Tech has to navigate.
12. Notre Dame: A fifth season in South Bend for Rex Pflueger means the Irish will get a chance to fight their way out of the cellar.
13. Miami: A pair of four-star recruits and two transfers could help the electric Chris Lykes lead Miami without the other two of its three top scorers from 2018–19.
14. Pittsburgh: A decent recruiting class should help Pittsburgh’s youngsters make some progress, but another tough season could still be in store as the Panthers attempt to claw their way back from a 3–15 conference record.
15. Wake Forest: The Demon Deacons hoped five-star Jaylen Hoard would begin a rebuild last year, but another disappointing season should be expected after he elected to stay in the draft, where he went unselected and signed with the Trail Blazers. They return most of the remainder of their rotation, but Danny Manning hasn’t been able to make it work as a head coach yet.
What does Duke look like in the post-Zion era?
Duke will not be as dominant or nearly as sensational without Zion Williamson on the floor anymore. That’s a given. With Williamson, R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish all off to the NBA, Tre Jones is just about the only familiar face that’ll be on the floor for the Blue Devils next season. But Jones’s return also means that Duke could still look just as good as it did at times last season, even if they don’t dominate in quite the same way they did with Williamson at his peak. Jones will bring some experience to an otherwise inexperienced group that will again be reliant on freshmen, something Mike Krzyzewski is used to at this point.
Coach K brings in another talented recruiting class, which came in at No. 4 in the nation thanks to commitments from five-star big men Vernon Carey and Matthew Hurt along with four-star wings Cassius Stanley and Wendell Moore. While these youngsters aren’t of the same caliber as Williamson & Co. were, they can be just as successful. The incoming class gives Jones a variety of weapons to choose from as the main distributor. They’ll be stronger from the perimeter and should mesh a little better and be more cohesive all-around. Duke struggled last season almost every time one of its stars was off the floor. This season’s group should be a little less dependent on individual stars and a little more adaptable in maximizing its accumulated talent.
How does Virginia rebuild after the national title and draft departures?
Like Duke, Virginia will look a lot different than it did last year, when it took home the program’s first national title just one year after a humiliating first-round tournament exit. Gone are Tony Bennett’s big three of De’Andre Hunter, Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy, but emerging stars Kihei Clark and Mamadi Diakite return to lead the team. They might not rack up as many conference wins as Cavaliers fans have grown accustomed to in the last two seasons, but there’s no reason to expect a serious slide.
Incoming freshman Casey Morsell, one of two four-star recruits for Tony Bennett’s class, should slot in alongside Clark in the backcourt and help make up for some of the scoring lost to the draft. He’s a capable outside shooter, as is juco transfer Tomas Woldetensae. Much of Virginia’s offensive identity last season was rooted in stellar perimeter play, and those two additions should help maintain at least some of that. Four-star recruit Kadin Shedrik adds depth up front, and returners Jay Huff and Braxton Key will be called upon to do more in the paint, but one of Bennett’s biggest strengths lies in getting the most out of his guys. If he can get this roster to step up and stick together as well as he did with his last, Bennett’s team should still find success, even if it won’t look quite the same.
Can Louisville crack the ACC’s upper crust?
During Chris Mack’s first season, Louisville finished tied with Syracuse for sixth in the ACC with a 10–8 record in conference play. As Virginia and North Carolina retool, this could be the season that Louisville returns to the ACC’s top tier. Duke will still be the favorite to win the conference, but getting top scorer Jordan Nwora back combined with the Cards’ highly-ranked incoming recruiting class—which is led by McDonald’s All-American Samuell Williamson, a five-star small forward, along with four-star big man Aidan Igiehon–Louisville could make the leap.
The addition of St. John’s transfer Lamarr Kimble provides the answers to both Mack’s point guard problem and his points-scoring problem. Kimble averaged 15.6 points per game last season, and Nwora’s return is huge in the scoring department. Add in returners like Dwayne Sutton, Steven Enoch and Malik Williams who will help the talented freshman fit into the program, and it’s easy to see how the mix of veteran players and young potential sets Mack’s crew up for a real shot at contending with the elites.
How far can Cole Anthony carry North Carolina?
Cole Anthony will run the floor for Roy Williams as soon as he arrives in Chapel Hill, and the success of this team hinges on how far its new 6'3", 185-pound guard can take it. The Tar Heels are going to look much different than they did last season, which means that whoever is charged with making all the pieces fit together on the floor will have his work cut out for him. All five starters from last season are gone.
They’ll need Anthony to set the tone when it comes to scoring—something he has shown he can do after leading Team USA to a 93–87 victory over the World Team at the Nike Hoop Summit in April with a team-high 25 points and eight rebounds—and then they’ll need other new additions like William & Mary grad transfer Justin Pierce and Charleston Southern grad transfer Christian Keeling to slot in alongside the freshman in the backcourt and add some needed points on the wings.
UNC should have enough talent and the shooters to remain atop the ACC, but the ceiling of this team’s most touted recruit should determine how deep into the tournament it can go. Garrison Brooks and five-star freshman center Armando Bacot will figure in up front, but how Anthony brings it all together as the primary facilitator will dictate the Tar Heels’ 2019–20 success.
What does Virginia Tech do without Buzz Williams at the helm?
The Hokies did last season what Louisville hopes to do this season, nipping at the heels of the ACC’s top teams. But this offseason Virginia Tech has lost not only coach Buzz Williams to Texas A&M but also almost their entire rotation to the draft, graduation or graduate transfers in the wake of Williams’s decision. New head coach Mike Young has his work cut out for him in Blacksburg, but a decent incoming recruiting class headlined by four-star point guard Jalen Cone should help him start to develop a new identity for Hokie basketball.
Young’s teams at Wofford ran a fast-paced offense but always came back to compete on the defensive end. He brought the Terriers to new heights during his tenure and can do the same in Blacksburg, but it’ll take some time. Cone, though undersized, arrives with a trio of capable three-star recruits who can all help on the scoring front and fit into Young’s system well should they hit the ground running. How–and when–the Hokies’ new coach and new players find their stride will determine how much time Virginia Tech needs to truly contend within the conference again.
How does the middle of the conference shake out?
The middle of the ACC is always a bit of a toss up, and this year is no different. With the losses that programs like Virginia Tech, Florida State, Syracuse and Clemson are facing, however, the usual upper-middle class may not look the same as it did last season. With Trent Forrest still running the floor for Florida State, the Seminoles should have less rebuilding to do than, say, Virginia Tech. NC State seems more poised for success than the likes of Syracuse, although the Orange always somehow manage to sneak out a big win or two en route to an at-large NCAA tournament bid.
The schools mentioned above should all still end up solidly within the middle of the standings, but with Louisville positioned to run with ACC powerhouses like Duke, North Carolina and Virginia, it leaves more question marks about the order in which these schools will follow the conference’s elite.
Who will be the ACC Player of the Year?
All five players named to last season’s All-ACC first team have left the collegiate ranks for the NBA, as have all but one of the conference’s second-team selections. The lone holdout is Virginia Tech’s Kerry Blackshear Jr., who could have contended for Player of the Year honors had he not entered the transfer portal. Instead, there will be a completely new list of contenders for the conference’s top honor. Should Duke’s Jones have a breakout season playing outside the shadow of Williamson, Barrett and Reddish, the sophomore floor general could be an early front-runner.
His incoming teammate Vernon Carey Jr. should also be on that list. The 6'10", 275-pound freshman could be just the type of positionless talent that makes him one of the conference’s best. Louisville’s Nwora will also make a case as he looks to improve on an impressive sophomore campaign in which he averaged 17.0 points per game while shooting 44.6% from the field. Depending on where Anthony takes North Carolina, the highly-touted freshman point guard could also make the cut.