Men's College Basketball Season in Review: ACC

Who surprised? Who disappointed? Looking back at the year that was in the ACC.
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The 2020–21 men’s college basketball season is in the books, but it’s not too late to look back on the year that was. We’re going conference by conference within the high-major leagues to examine what went right—and what went wrong—along with a brief look ahead to 2021–22. First up is the ACC.

Most important thing we learned

Chemistry is king—even when you’re a blueblood. Duke and North Carolina were picked to finish second and fourth respectively in the league in the preseason, but both teams struggled mightily with young backcourts, seemingly undefined roles and a lack of playmakers on the perimeter. The Tar Heels’ frontline was massive and deep but never seemed to be on the same page. Their size eventually helped them find a respectable stride, but a No. 8 seed and a first-round NCAA tournament exit led to Roy Williams retiring and multiple transfers.

Things were worse eight miles down Tobacco Road until the Blue Devils showed some semblance of gelling after freshman phenom Jalen Johnson left the team in the final month. Duke rode the Matthew Hurt wave as far as it could carry it until a positive COVID-19 test ultimately derailed the train in the ACC tournament. After the season, four players entered the transfer portal. The archrivals had more in common this season than their fanbases could stomach to admit.

UNC's Caleb Love (right) and Duke's DJ Steward

Best game

Syracuse’s 72–70 win over North Carolina. The Orange managed to win a nail-biter over the Tar Heels, which ultimately led to their at-large bid in the NCAA tournament weeks later, where they made an unlikely run to the Sweet 16.

Best player: Moses Wright, Georgia Tech

Wright led the Yellow Jackets to their first men’s ACC tournament title in 28 years, averaging 17.4 points, eight rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.6 blocks and 1.5 steals a game. He went on to win league Player of the Year before being forced to sit out of Georgia Tech’s opening-round loss to Loyola Chicago due to COVID-19.

Best coach: Mike Young, Virginia Tech

The Hokies were picked to finish 11th in the preseason, but Young led them to a 9–4 league record, good enough for third, which was tied for the program’s highest finish in the ACC. Young led the Hokies to two Quad 1 wins and ended up winning ACC Coach of the Year.

Best newcomer: Scottie Barnes, Florida State

Barnes was the engine that drove the Seminoles to the ACC tournament title game and eventually the Sweet 16, averaging 10.4 points and 4.3 rebounds a game. He lived up to the lofty hype as a former SI All-American, winning Freshman of the Year in the league.

Biggest surprise: Justin Champagnie, Pittsburgh

Lost in the Panthers’ sub .500 record (10–12) this season was perhaps the biggest breakout in the league. Champagnie increased his numbers significantly across the board, including his points per game jumping from 12.7 to 18.0. Champagnie’s best game was against Duke on Jan. 19, a 31-point, 14-rebound, five-block performance. He has announced that he would test the NBA draft waters, but if Jeff Capel is able to keep him in the fold, the Panthers could be a scary out for opponents next winter.

Biggest disappointment: Garrison Brooks, UNC

The Tar Heels had one of the most intimidating frontcourts in the country with Day’Ron Sharpe, Armando Bacot and Walker Kessler anchoring the paint with Garrison Brooks. All that firepower didn’t bode well for Brooks, the ACC preseason Player of the Year, who was coming off a junior season in which he more than doubled his points per game (7.9 to 16.8), shot 53% from the field and had a career-high in rebounding (8.5 per game). His production significantly dropped this season, posting just 10.2 points while shooting 47% from the field and grabbing 6.9 rebounds a game. Brooks never meshed with the newcomers and even rode the pine at one point. He’s since transferred to Mississippi State.

Outlook for 2021–22

With normal conference heavyweights like Duke and North Carolina in a down year last season, the ACC didn’t have the intimidation factor working in its favor. The Blue Devils are reloading, bringing in the No. 2 recruiting class in the SI All-American Top 25 team rankings, and Florida State currently has the No. 4 class. In all, ACC teams occupy six spots in the team recruiting rankings, which will make the talent pool deeper in the league. Also, the influx of key transfers like Noah Locke (Louisville), Jayden Gardner (Virginia) and Brady Manek (North Carolina) will enhance the conference’s overall profile.

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