ACC Basketball Preview: Heavyweights Ready to Tangle at the Top

Change is the theme of the year in the ACC, but a Louisville team that brought back plenty could be the class of the conference.
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As part of SI.com's preview of the 2019–20 college basketball season, we're breaking down each of the seven major conferences, plus the best of the rest. The AAC can be found here; next up for our conference previews is the ACC, complete with our analyst's breakdowns of each team and a projected order of finish.

The Big Picture

Navigating conference play has become as difficult as pulling off a deep NCAA tournament run. Last year, three ACC teams were awarded No. 1 seeds, tying a record originally set by the Big East in 2009. Of the seven teams to earn a postseason bid, five reached the Sweet 16. More of the same is expected this season, although things look different now. Many programs are in flux, attempting to recoup from an unusual amount of talent loss and replenish their rosters after a year which featured a record six ACC players being selected in the lottery of the NBA draft. The top four look elite. The next tier hosts challengers. Many of the rest have a lot to play for.

Conference Player of the Year: Jordan Nwora, Louisville

Of the 20 players who earned a spot on one of the conference’s postseason teams last season, only a pair of All-ACC third-team selections and one honorable mention are back to compete. That leads to Nwora, the league’s Most Improved Player, being an early favorite to take the mantle. The race is wide open, but the edge goes to the junior forward after finishing sixth in scoring (17.0) and tied for eighth in rebounding (7.6) among the conference a year ago. A common knock on his game has been questionable decision-making, which seems warranted after he recorded nearly twice as many turnovers as assists. But with many of the Cardinals’ volume shooters returning to school, Nwora will have help out of double teams. The increase in his numbers won’t be staggering, but smarter play and team success could reward Nwora.

Newcomer of the Year: Cole Anthony, North Carolina

If Nwora is the safe pick for player of the year, consider Anthony the most dangerous threat to his candidacy. The 6’3” point guard from Oak Hill Academy (Va.) has been under the microscope of major college programs since he was a high school freshman and now sets foot in Chapel Hill with the athleticism, court vision and speed to be a top-five selection in next year’s NBA draft. Coach Roy Williams helped develop Coby White into a lottery pick last year. He inherits a more talented facilitator this year in Anthony. He averaged 18 points, 9.8 rebounds and 9.5 assists as a senior, while taking home MVP awards at the 2019 Jordan Brand Classic and McDonald’s All-American Game. In three of the previous five seasons, a freshman has scoffed at being limited to the best newcomer and went on to earn ACC Player of the Year honors. Anthony may do the same.

Dark Horse Team to Win the Conference: Florida State

It would be seriously impressive for any team outside of the conference’s top four to win the ACC this season. But this is college basketball so let’s state the case: The Seminoles hit their highest win total in program history last season but lost a lot of key contributors, including their top scoring options, Mfiondu Kabengele and Terance Mann. The two had the second- and third-highest three-point percentages on a team which ranked 238th nationally in that category. Where was this going, again? Oh, right. Florida State’s biggest asset is the guidance of coach Leonard Hamilton, who enters his 18th season in Tallahassee. That kind of experience—along with next-level improvements from guard Trent Forrest—should keep the Seminoles pushing boundaries in a wide-open year for the conference.

First-Team All-Conference

Tre Jones, guard, Duke
Cole Anthony, guard, North Carolina
Markell Johnson, guard, NC State
Jordan Nwora, forward, Louisville
Vernon Carey Jr., center, Duke
Sixth Man of the Year: Ryan McMahon, guard, Louisville

Predicted Order of Finish

1. Louisville

Even those with the loftiest aspirations for the Cardinals couldn’t have seen this coming. In just Chris Mack’s second season since taking over as head coach, he has reshaped Louisville and put the team in position to contend for the ACC’s top spot and possibly a national title. The Cardinals have the luxury of peaking at the right moment with many programs in the conference looking to retool, but Jordan Nwora has to elevate their play after being bounced from the NCAA tournament in the first round last season. Five of the Cards' top six players returned to school, and bringing in the country’s No. 12 recruiting class (per 247Sports) provides even more reinforcements. This is the greatest opportunity that Louisville will get in an airtight ACC.

2. Duke

It’s been 10 years since Duke last claimed a share of the ACC regular season title. (Two national championships along the way have surely eased its suffering.) This year’s roster isn’t a typical makeup of what Blue Devils fans have come to expect, but four top-50 recruits still provide coach Mike Krzyzewski with flexibility. The question is: How much? Center Vernon Carey Jr. leads the talented class of newcomers alongside Matthew Hurt, Wendell Moore Jr. and Cassius Stanley, but none of them go without Tre Jones, who returns as one of the best guards in the country and perhaps the very best on the defensive side of the ball.

3. North Carolina

The Tar Heels are no exception to this year’s theme. UNC sported the third-highest scoring offense in the country last season, but lost six players in the offseason who combined for 80% of the team’s points per game. This is the toughest rebuild Roy Williams has faced in years, but incoming point guard Cole Anthony has enough talent to keep the Tar Heels in contention by himself. Five-star center Armando Bacot Jr. and a pair of grad transfers help round out the roster. UNC has been awarded either a one or two seed in the NCAA tournament each of the previous four seasons. None of those teams had to prove themselves as much as this year’s squad.

4. Virginia

The Cavaliers validated years of elite-level play by winning their first national championship last season. It will be difficult for them to repeat that success, but Tony Bennett has proven to be the living embodiment of persistence. Virginia has ranked first in scoring defense in five of the previous six years (second in 2015–16). This season should yield similar results with senior forward Mamadi Diakite leading the charge. The turnover on the offensive end is the main point of concern after the departures of DeAndre Hunter, Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome. Diakite is the highest-scoring returner, averaging just 7.6 points per game last season.

5. NC State

The Wolfpack looked like they were close to turning a corner last season. Then conference play began. NCState rattled off a 13–1 record through Jan. 3, including an upset over eventual Final Four guest Auburn, but a brutal second half of the season decimated its hopes of reaching the NCAA tournament. The Wolfpack managed to win just one of nine games against conference opponents who finished higher than them in the standings. Retaining six of their top seven scorers should make a difference in some of those games this season. Markell Johnson enters his senior year as one of the best guards in the ACC after converting 42.2% of his three-point attempts as a junior, good for eighth in the league. The team’s 2019 recruiting class suffered overall after Jalen Lecque declared for the draft in April, but veteran guards C.J. Bryce, Braxton Beverly and Devon Daniels bolster a talented backcourt.

6. Florida State

A huge variable for the Seminoles is incoming freshman forward Patrick Williams, the No. 26 overall recruit in the 2019 class. The team hasn’t landed a recruit of his caliber since Jonathan Isaac, and his size fills an immediate need on the wing. If he progresses quickly, Florida State seems like a lock to finish among the ACC’s five or six best teams. But if he needs a lot of time to adjust, the team could face trouble early in a conference schedule that features two road meetings at Virginia and Louisville and a home matchup against Virginia during its first seven games of ACC play.

7. Notre Dame

Last season was a complete free-fall for the Fighting Irish. They endured one of their worst spells in history, winning just three conference matchups. That says a lot for a program that fielded a few teams back in the 19th century. But things are looking up for coach Mike Brey. He’s getting back four of his starters from a year ago, including walking double-double John Mooney and guard Rex Pflueger, who only appeared in 10 games last season before tearing his ACL. Notre Dame is an outlier in the ACC in that regard. That continuity should drive the Irish back into the NCAA tournament discussion after sitting at home each of the previous two seasons.

8. Miami

Two ACC teams failed to record a single win in a hostile environment last season: Miami and Pitt. That can’t sit well with Jim Larrañaga. The program has been largely successful during his tenure, but it’s still in recovery from the implications—which were later dismissed—in the NCAA corruption scandal in 2017. This may not be the roster that pushes the Hurricanes into ACC contention once again, but it shouldn’t be difficult to improve upon last year’s results after Miami surrendered more points per game (71.1) than it had in any season since 2006–07. Guard Chris Lykes is the conference’s only returning top-10 scorer aside from player-of-the-year favorite Jordan Nwora, and Florida transfer Keith Stone will see immediate playing time in the frontcourt once he is fully recovered from an ACL tear suffered last season.

9. Syracuse

The last time the Orange lost 13 games or more in three consecutive seasons was the beginning of Jim Boeheim’s career at Syracuse—as a student. 2018–19 marked the Orange’s fifth straight season with as many losses. Although they’ve remained competitive in March, Boeheim’s teams have just a 46–44 record in ACC play since 2014. The games won’t become any easier this season after losing Tyus Battle and others. It’s another young group overall, but the play of junior forward Elijah Hughes will largely determine if Syracuse can avoid being stood up on Selection Sunday.

10. Clemson

Brad Brownell enters his 10th season leading the Tigers, and while they’ve had some of their better moments in recent years, it’s going to be harder to reach 20 wins again. Brownell is tasked with replacing 74% of his scoring in an offense that ranked 274th nationwide in points per game. But only once in his tenure has Clemson finished lower than third among the conference in points allowed. Transfers Tevin Mack and Curran Scott will receive no shortage of minutes, but the Tigers will likely have to wait a year to add former Texas Tech four-star Khavon Moore to the mix once he gains eligibility in 2020.

11. Pitt

The Panthers are trending upward for the first time in years. Jeff Capel’s first season at the helm managed just three conference wins for the team, but the benefits are soon to come as it returns five players who started 16 games each, combining for 126 games of a possible 165. The 2018 recruiting cycle is shaping up to be the program’s most promising over the last half-decade after the sophomore trio of Xavier Johnson, Trey McGowens and Au’Diese Toney tallied 34.6 points and 12.7 rebounds per game. The Panthers may not be ready for a postseason run yet, but they’re well suited with Capel.

12. Virginia Tech

Lost its coach. Lost its five best players. Those things don’t typically make for a tournament bid at season’s end. But with that comes a new regime under the ACC’s lone first-year head coach, Mike Young. The program previously strung together four straight seasons with at least 20 wins, its longest streak since the 80s. Now, Young will have to build up after Nickeil Alexander-Walker went in the first round of the draft and Kerry Blackshear Jr. left for Florida as a graduate transfer. At 6’7”, redshirt freshman Landers Nolley II has an opportunity to see minutes at both spots on the wing. Things look different in Blacksburg for the first time in a while. This season could merely be a brief venture toward the bottom of the ACC before the Hokies return to prominence.

13. Wake Forest

The odds are stacked against the Demon Deacons. They ranked 281st and 278th, respectively, among the nation last season in points scored and points allowed per game. Danny Manning has pulled together just one winning season during his five-year run as head coach. But if there’s anything going for Wake Forest, it’s roster depth. The team retained as much talent as any program in the ACC with seven of their top nine players coming back to school. Brandon Childress is the best of them. The senior guard ranks third in scoring and tied for fourth in assists among the conference’s returning players from last season.

14. Georgia Tech

Since Josh Pastner arrived in Atlanta three seasons ago, the Yellow Jackets haven’t been able to match their success during his first year. Having the 120th ranked national recruiting class in 2019 doesn’t provide promise either, although veteran leadership is a strength for the Yellow Jackets. Their top three players from last season—Jose Alvarado, James Banks III and Michael Devoe—are back to compete, but, barring a successful appeal, a one-year postseason ban handed down by the NCAA in September halts any chance of Georgia Tech playing past its season finale on March 6.

15. Boston College

When All-ACC second-team selection Ky Bowman passed on his senior season to declare for the draft, it dealt a crucial blow to the Eagles’ hopes of reaching the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2009. Then, sophomore guard Wynston Tabbs underwent knee surgery in September, which will keep him out the entire season. Uncertainty remains. Bowman played a staggering 39 minutes per game last year—three more on average than any other player in the ACC—and Winston’s 13.9 points per game was the team’s third-best. Senior big man Nik Popovic will hear his number called more than ever. The Eagles begin the season with more questions than answers.