ACC Offseason Report: Power Rankings and Burning Questions for 2020-21

SI's summer conference hoops check-ins start with the ACC, where Virginia could reign this winter.
Author:
Publish date:

As the midpoint of college basketball’s offseason approaches, it’s time for SI’s annual 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 take a closer look at some of its teams by asking some burning questions that likely won’t be answered until tip-off. Additionally, there's a little more uncertainty around rosters than usual this year, with the new NBA draft withdrawal deadline being Aug. 3 and several key players across the country still undecided.

First up in our conference reports is the ACC, which is looking to rebound from what was one of its weaker seasons—depth-wise—in years.

Summer Power Rankings

1. Virginia: Even in a “down” year last season the Cavaliers went 23–7, but expect to see them return as the class of the ACC in 2020–21 thanks to a good-looking group of freshmen, the addition of Sam Hauser and the natural progress of the Hoos’ returners after another year in Tony Bennett’s system.

2. Duke: To no one’s surprise, Coach K is bringing in another elite recruiting class—one with four five-stars, led by Jalen Johnson. But the Blue Devils also bring back two touted prospects from 2019, Matthew Hurt and Wendell Moore, for a sophomore season. It will be another young and talented team in Durham, but as always, expect some growing pains.

3. Florida State: Leonard Hamilton’s system is built to reload, and has more than earned the benefit of the doubt in recent years. The Seminoles are bringing in one of the nation’s top recruits in SI All-American power forward Scottie Barnes, as well as intriguing JUCO prospect Sardaar Calhoun. There are a couple lineup questions here (namely at point, where the 6' 8" Barnes may handle things), but we’ll trust the gamble that rising upperclassmen like Malik Osborne, RaiQuan Gray and Anthony Polite will transition well into larger roles.

4. North Carolina: After one of their worst seasons in years, the Tar Heels welcome the nation’s No. 2 recruiting class to Chapel Hill. The six-man group will get plenty of opportunities to shine and is particularly loaded up front, but don't forget about returning big men Garrison Brooks and Armando Bacot.

5. Louisville: Significant departures mean the Cardinals won’t enter 2020–21 with the expectations or hype they had a season ago, but this will be a young and talented team that has the potential to contend if all goes right. Look out for sophomore point guard David Johnson, who has NBA lottery potential but spent last season getting back to full health after shoulder surgery.

6. Georgia Tech: The Yellow Jackets went a surprising 11–9 in the ACC last season despite a postseason ban, and while some of that was due to the conference’s overall lack of depth, the bet here is that this team will keep improving thanks to the return of four starters.

7. NC State: The Wolfpack lost some buzz when top recruit Josh Hall opted for the NBA draft, but still boast a top-four incoming class in the ACC led by four-star guard Cam Hayes. Assuming big man DJ Funderburk opts out of the NBA draft (if he stays in, NC State would drop here), there’s enough here to like despite the graduations of Markell Johnson and C.J. Bryce. The development of sophomore center Manny Bates will be crucial—when he and Funderburk shared the court last season, NC State’s defensive efficiency was staunch.

8. Syracuse: The loss of Elijah Hughes is a big one, as he was the Orange’s best and most versatile scorer. Buddy Boeheim and Joseph Girard III will pick up some of that offensive slack but do the majority of their damage from the outside, and Marek Dolezaj returns as well. The level of sophomore leap from Girard and Quincy Guerrier in particular will likely be pivotal to Syracuse’s ceiling. If Illinois transfer Alan Griffin gets a waiver, you could argue bumping the Orange up a spot here.

9. Clemson: Aamir Simms pulling out of the NBA draft to return for his senior year was a massive win for the Tigers and Brad Brownell—especially with touted four-star big man P.J. Hall on the way in to play alongside Simms down low. With starters Al-Amir Dawes, John Newman and Clyde Trapp back as well, there’s enough of a core here to make the NCAA tournament a legitimate goal. Clemson had a roller coaster season in 2019–20—beating Duke, FSU and Louisville but finishing below .500 in the ACC—and needs to find more consistency.

10. Miami: After a couple forgettable seasons, the Hurricanes have the pieces in place to do more in 2020–21. Standout guard Chris Lykes is back to lead a returning core that includes wing Kameron McGusty and guard Isaiah Wong, but it’s Miami’s additions—namely top-40 recruit Earl Timberlake and four-star Matt Cross, plus now-eligible center Nysier Brooks—that bring the most reason to be optimistic for a turnaround. To get there, though, this group must defend much better than its 2019–20 counterpart.

11. Virginia Tech: Mike Young’s first season in Blacksburg went better than expected, but the young Hokies ran out of gas in the second half to finish .500. Landers Nolley is a notable loss from what was an undersized frontcourt, and there will be a lot of responsibility on grad transfers Cordell Pemsl (Iowa) and Justyn Mutts (Delaware). Kansas State transfer Cartier Diarra and four-star freshmen Joe Bamisile and Darius Maddox will give Virginia Tech’s backcourt a boost, but for now, we’re tempering expectations overall.

12. Notre Dame: After multiple key departures, including double-double machine John Mooney, the onus will be left on the Prentiss Hubb-led junior class and grad senior Juwan Durham to lead the way. Former four-star recruit Cormac Ryan is a popular breakout candidate who’s now eligible, and the Irish will need it if they’re to make noise this winter.

13. Pittsburgh: The transfer of Trey McGowens hurts, especially from a young team trying to build after another rough season. Forward Justin Champagnie had a quietly strong freshman season and is a name to watch in the ACC, but—like the Panthers as a whole—he’ll need to get better with his outside shot. Until Pitt shoots better (342nd nationally in effective field goal percentage, per KenPom), significant improvement will be tough. The ACC’s sixth-best 2020 recruiting class could help.

14. Boston College: After another lackluster season in Chestnut Hill, it’s tough to see things getting particularly better overnight. Nik Popovic was a key loss and three other players transferred out, though three grad transfers—James Karnik (Lehigh), Rich Kelly (Quinnipiac) and Frederick Scott (Rider)—and now-eligible guard Makai Ashton-Langford, a former top-50 recruit, could shake things up in a good way. Kelly (39.6% from three) and Scott (40.0%) bring the promise of outside shooting, which would be a welcome sight for Boston College.

15. Wake Forest: The firing of Danny Manning brought in ETSU coach Steve Forbes, but he’ll have his work cut out for him in 2020–21. A flurry of transfers plus the normal graduation departures have spurred major roster turnover in Winston-Salem (including bringing grad transfers like UNLV's Jonah Antonio and Tennessee's Jalen Johnson), but for at least next season, it will be a tough climb out of the ACC basement.

Louisville's David Johnson, Virginia's Kihei Clark and Duke's Matthew Hurt

ACC Burning Questions

Was last season’s down year across the conference a fluke?

The 2019–20 season was not one to look back on fondly for the ACC. While the conference had multiple national contenders and a strong top four (Florida State, Duke, Louisville, Virginia), its depth pretty much stopped there. Before the NCAA tournament was canceled, NC State was the only other league team with even a remote shot at an at-large bid, and only five of 15 teams finished with a conference record above .500.

In the past, the ACC has been considered the deepest league in the country, and the conference would surely love to get back to that label as soon as possible. But how much will change in one year? It’s hard to imagine things not improving, and the conference seems to be set up better this time around. Still, a lot of the projected middle- and lower-tier teams have crucial question marks that will ultimately determine how many teams dance in 2021.

How much will Virginia's offense improve?

It was no secret what the biggest thing holding back Virginia last season was. One season after having the nation’s second-most efficient offense (per KenPom) during its run to a national title, the new-look Cavaliers had a dismal 234th ranking on offense in 2019–20. The Hoos’ three-point shooting in particular dropped off a cliff, and without playmakers like Ty Jerome, De’Andre Hunter and Kyle Guy, Tony Bennett’s team struggled to consistently put the ball through the hoop, surviving on the back of the nation’s most-efficient defense.

The Cavaliers did show improvement down the stretch, even winning 11 of their final 12 games, but eight of those victories came by three points or less. Mamadi Diakite and Braxton Key are gone, but Kihei Clark, Casey Morsell, Jay Huff and Tomas Woldetensae headline a promising returning core. The biggest reason many think Virginia can return to national contention next season, though, is the additions. Former Marquette forward Sam Hauser is now eligible, bringing experience, scoring ability, defensive rebounding and proven three-point shooting (Hauser has shot at least 40% from deep in each of his three college seasons). Bennett’s incoming class, meanwhile, contains top-40 wing Jabri Abdur-Rahim, top-70 guard Reece Beekman and three-star guard Carson McCorkle. Additionally, 6’ 11” center Kadin Shedrick, a former four-star recruit who redshirted as a freshman, will suit up this fall as well.

Post-Vernon Carey, what will Duke get out of its center spot?

The Blue Devils will feature another star-studded roster this winter, but that doesn’t always equal balance one-through-five. There’s a reason coach Mike Krzyzewski made the rare step of bringing in a grad transfer this spring, landing Columbia big man Patrick Tape, and that’s because the only true center on board was incoming five-star 7-footer Mark Williams. Even among five-stars, freshman bigs often take time to develop—not everyone can be Vernon Carey, who was a consensus top-10 recruit. Tape posted some quality numbers back in 2018–19 for Columbia, but making the jump from the Ivy League to the ACC should always come with a level of caution. Defensive rebounding could be a concern for this group, and neither that nor interior defense was a strength of returning 6’ 9” forward Matthew Hurt. Coach K has plenty of options at power forward and in setting his lineup, but center is a position to watch.

Is Georgia Tech ready to break out?

Freed from its postseason ban of 2020, Georgia Tech can set its sights on bigger tangible goals again. A realistic one is trying to earn the program’s first NCAA tournament bid since 2010, and first under coach Josh Pastner. With four starters back—including backcourt duo Michael Devoe (who took a big leap as a sophomore) and Jose Alvarado—the Yellow Jackets are in position to build on last season, and will be an experienced bunch with three senior starters.

There are a couple of major questions though: 1) what becomes of the center position after the graduation of James Banks? and 2) how much can the offense improve? Transfer center Rodney Howard will need a waiver to be eligible this fall, and without him, a lot will come down to how quickly three-star freshmen Saba Gigiberia (a 7-footer) and Jordan Meka can get up to speed with the college game. As for the offense, the Jackets boasted a top-20 defense (per KenPom) last season but just the 171st-best offense, weighed down by a major turnover problem and streaky outside shooting—though the latter improved during conference play. Cutting down on the giveaways will be a must, though.

What will Carlik Jones bring to Louisville?

One of the ACC’s most intriguing additions for 2020–21 is Radford transfer guard Carlik Jones. Jones was one of the bigger fish on the grad transfer market this spring, and Louisville won the sweepstakes for his commitment back in April. His play should have a big impact on the Cardinals’ ceiling, and the backcourt potential alongside David Johnson is high.

Sometimes, mid-major players who transfer to a power conference don’t pan out, but Jones has a few things working in his favor as he makes the jump to the ACC. For one thing, he was an extremely efficient player at Radford, ranking in the top 100 nationally on KenPom in offensive rating despite carrying a heavy offensive load for the Highlanders. The 6’ 1” guard had a high assist-to-turnover ratio while playing the point, and shot above 50% from two, 40% from three and 80% from the free throw line. Those are excellent numbers that should give Louisville fans a lot of optimism, and while Jones still has to go out and prove it on the court, he has the ingredients to more than hold his own.

How will UNC’s revamped roster come together?

North Carolina can’t forget its 2019–20 season fast enough, but Roy Williams's program is already back to having high expectations. Cole Anthony is obviously gone, but highly-touted point guard Caleb Love headlines an elite recruiting class, and he should slide right into taking the reins of the offense from Anthony. There’s also no question that the Tar Heels are stacked down low, with five-star centers Day'Ron Sharpe and Walker Kessler joining returnees Garrison Brooks, Armando Bacot and Sterling Manley to form what should be one of the nation's best frontcourts. But what about at shooting guard and on the wing?

Leaky Black returns, but he’s more of a defensive standout than an offensive one. Four-star guards R.J. Davis (who can play both the one and two) and Kerwin Walton also arrive, and four-star 6’ 7” wing Puff Johnson rounds out the class. Andrew Platek is back and promising guard Anthony Harris returns after an ACL tear, but the latter has just five college games under his belt. That’s a lot of inexperience in the backcourt, and floor spacing could be an issue, with only Kessler serving as a true stretch threat among the bigs. It’s fair to wonder how all the pieces will fit together, and how quickly.

Which projected bottom-half team is most likely to overachieve?

If we consider the bottom half anyone outside the top eight, it’s a tough call on paper between Clemson and Miami. Both have arguments in their favor, but we’ll give the slight edge here to the Tigers, if only because they’re incorporating fewer new pieces. This team showed potential in big wins over ACC heavyweights last season, and even finally got the “win-in-Chapel-Hill” monkey off its back (still notable despite UNC’s struggles!). With the majority of the Tigers’ core returning, improving the offense—particularly their outside shooting—will be key.

More From SI.com Team Sites:

Rashad McCants Opens Up on the Past, UNC Fans and More
Does Duke's Early 2022 Recruiting Focus Show a Shift in Approach?
Florida State Hoops' Home Record Best Nationally of Late
New Teammates Impressing Louisville's Samuell Williamson