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ACC Men’s Basketball Preview: Can Duke and Other League Powers Bounce Back?

The conference took a big step back from its usual prominence in 2020–21, but several reloaded rosters hope to make that an anomaly.

As part of Sports Illustrated’s preview of the 2021–22 men’s college basketball season, we’re breaking down each of the seven biggest conferences (AAC, ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC), plus a “best of the rest.” All will be complete with our analyst’s breakdown of each team, plus a projected order of finish drawn from SI’s master 1–358 rankings, to be revealed before the season’s kickoff. Next up is the ACC.

The big picture

Don’t let Mike Krzyzewski’s last-ride story line distract you from the fact that the ACC was bad last season. Really bad. Yes, Duke’s coaching titan will hang it up after his 42nd season, but 2020–21’s league-wide historical flop makes this season more about redemption than any swan song. Since 1979, the ACC had never not had a team seeded in the top three of the men’s NCAA tournament, but last March, Florida State and Virginia checked in with the highest seeds at No. 4. North Carolina got booted in the first round, as did the league’s tournament champion, Georgia Tech—and Duke wasn’t even invited.

There’s more depth, and more stars top to bottom this season, but no one is scary—a luxury the league usually boasts at the top. To say this season is about showing and proving would be putting it mildly.

Conference Player of the Year: Paolo Banchero, Duke

Even with capable transfers all around the league thanks to the NCAA’s blanket eligibility waiver, Banchero is the clear pick to take the conference by storm with all of the physical tools and the platform to thrive as a freshman. At 6' 11", Banchero plays all five positions, dominates on both ends of the floor and has a motor that remains in overdrive. With those attributes it makes sense that he signed an endorsement deal with 2K Sports to become the first collegiate athlete to appear in any NBA 2K video game. As a senior he was named to the SI All-American first team, averaging 32.5 points, 11.6 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 2.3 blocks a game. Duke needs Banchero to be special to give Krzyzewski his best chance to win his sixth national title in his final season, and good things happen when Banchero is the focal point of the offense.

Newcomer of the Year: Jayden Gardner, Virginia

The 6' 7" forward was a hot commodity in the transfer portal this summer after three dominant seasons at East Carolina. Last year, Gardner averaged 18.3 points and 8.3 rebounds a game for the Pirates and scored 20 or more points in 10 games. His versatility and ability to keep pressure on the opposition in the paint will give Tony Bennett a much-needed boost to the Virginia offense.

Dark-horse team: Virginia Tech

Mike Young returns three starters from last year’s NCAA tournament team that gave Florida everything it could handle in a first-round overtime loss. Keve Aluma took his name out of contention for the NBA draft in June and his presence elevates the Hokies on both ends of the floor. Young will also reunite with Storm Murphy, a grad transfer from Wofford who ranked fourth in the SoCon in scoring (17.8 ppg) and second in assists (4.3 apg). Add in Justyn Mutts and Young easily has one of the top frontcourts in the league.

First-team all-conference

Armando Bacot, North Carolina
Paolo Banchero, Duke
Keve Aluma, Virginia Tech
Buddy Boeheim, Syracuse
Isaiah Wong, Miami

Duke's Paolo Banchero

Banchero is SI's pick to be ACC Player of the Year.

SI’s predicted order of finish

1. Duke

Try as it might, Duke won’t be able to escape the “win it for K” story line this season, but Krzyzewski will have to live up to the GOAT moniker if he’s going to end his career with a sixth national title. The good news is that he’s got Banchero, a 6' 11" matchup problem in every sense of the term. Add in three returning starters—Wendell Moore Jr., Jeremy Roach and Mark Williams—to build around, plus the No. 3 recruiting class in the SI All-American team rankings, and Krzyzewski will have a legitimate shot. Three keys to Duke’s success: Roach’s elevation at the point, Moore’s consistency and Williams’s building on the star flashes he showed toward the end of last season.

2. North Carolina

Following a Hall of Fame coach (Roy Williams) doesn’t typically bode well right away, but first-year head coach Hubert Davis returns a strong core that should earn the trust of the Tar Heel faithful. North Carolina won’t have its traditional frontcourt depth with mass depletions in the paint, but the best of the bunch, Armando Bacot (12.3 ppg, 7.8 rpg), is back to anchor the inside. Transfers Dawson Garcia and Brady Manek should complement Bacot’s power game with versatility, and there’s plenty of firepower on the wing led by sniper Kerwin Walton, who made 42% of his three-pointers last season. The key for Davis’s offense is sophomore guard Caleb Love and how consistent and under control he can be. The answer to that question could be the difference between a deep tournament run and another uncharacteristically dismal season.

3. Florida State

Leonard Hamilton picked a great time to bring in the highest-ranked recruiting class of his Tallahassee reign after losing four of his top-five scorers from last season’s top scoring offense (77.1 ppg.). All three freshmen—Matthew Cleveland, Jalen Warley and John Butler—are capable of contributing right away, as are key transfers Cam’Ron Fletcher and Caleb Mills, the latter of whom proved to be a capable scorer as a freshman at Houston (13.2 ppg) before dealing with ankle injuries last season. Hamilton’s got his trademark versatility, depth and length in the frontcourt (Malik Osborne, Naheem McLeod and Tanor Ngom), plus Anthony Polite and Wyatt Wilkes as shooters on the wing. Hamilton has all the tools to break past the Sweet 16 hurdle he’s failed to clear in the last two tournaments.

4. Virginia

Tony Bennett will certainly have his work cut out for him with the losses of Trey Murphy III, Sam Hauser and Jay Huff—who accounted for 59% of the Cavaliers’ offense—plus three capable contributors to the transfer portal (Casey Morsell, Justin McKoy, Jabri Abdur-Rahim). As the lone two starters returning, Kihei Clark and Reece Beekman will be asked to produce more offensively while applying their trademark defensive pressure on the perimeter. Still, Bennett will be heavily reliant on key transfers Jayden Gardner and Armaan Franklin to produce immediately. Gardner has all the tools in the paint (18.3 ppg, 8.3 rpg at East Carolina), and Franklin pumped in 11.4 points a game serving as lead sniper at Indiana last season.

5. Virginia Tech

Reigning ACC Coach of the Year Mike Young downplayed expectations after last season’s third-place finish, but the Hokies return a talented core that could have them challenging to be a mainstay around the top of the league this season. Aluma (15.2 ppg, 7.9 rpg) is back, which bodes well for the Hokies in multiple facets, and versatile point guard Murphy reunites with Young after transferring from Wofford. Add in key guards Nahiem Alleyne and Hunter Cattoor and capable forward Mutts (9.5 ppg, 6.4 rpg), and Young has a solid core with talent and experience in key positions.

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6. Louisville

Chris Mack lost significant firepower in Carlik Jones and David Johnson (29.4 ppg combined) but has a potential breakout star in Jae’Lyn Withers and capable bigs in Samuell Williamson (9.6 ppg, 8.1 rpg) and Malik Williams (5.0 ppg, 6.0 rpg). Still, the Cardinals will need the newcomers in the backcourt to provide much-needed offensive punch after finishing a cringeworthy 12th in the league in scoring (68 ppg) last season. The good news for Mack is he’s got talented options in top juco guard El Ellis and key transfers Jarrod West and Noah Locke, the latter of whom ranked fifth in the SEC in three-point field goals at Florida last season.

7. Syracuse

The Orange lost three starters and a couple of key reserves from last season’s surprising run to the Sweet 16 but brought back one of the top returning scorers in the country in Buddy Boeheim, who averaged 22 points over Syracuse’s final 12 games. Freshman wing Benny Williams has the talent and skill set to make a major impact from Day One and key transfers Symir Torrence, Cole Swider and Jimmy Boeheim will keep the Orange in the hunt.

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8. Miami

Jim Larrañaga’s squad was one of the worst teams in the league at scoring the ball (66.4 ppg) last season but brings back one of the league’s most dynamic guards and Miami’s leading scorer, Isaiah Wong (17 ppg), to start anew. Wong should have help in the backcourt with capable transfers like Charlie Moore (14.4 ppg, 4.2 apg at DePaul) and Jordan Miller (15.8 ppg and 6.1 rpg at George Mason), plus a strong recruiting haul. Anthony Walker will anchor the paint, but the Hurricanes will sink or swim in the backcourt and on the wing.

9. Notre Dame

The Irish return their top three scorers from last season, including dynamic guards Prentiss Hubb (14.6 ppg, 5.8 apg) and Dane Goodwin (11.8 ppg). Plus, Trey Wertz and Cormac Ryan should add firepower in expanded roles this year. Still, perhaps the most intriguing part about Mike Brey’s offense will be the frontcourt duo of Nate Laszewski and Yale transfer Paul Atkinson; both are capable scorers who provide matchup problems with their versatility.

10. NC State

Kevin Keatts will rely heavily on a talented recruiting class, which appeared in SI All-American’s top-25 team rankings, and two transfers to be ready to produce immediately after losing Devon Daniels and D.J. Funderburk. Scoring guard Cam Hayes will see an expanded role for the Pack as will 6' 11" forward Manny Bates.

11. Georgia Tech

The reigning ACC tournament champs lost their two biggest guns—Jose Alvarado (15.2 ppg) and Moses Wright (17.4 ppg)—but welcome back a budding star in guard Michael Devoe, who seems primed for a breakout season. Devoe has averaged 15.5 points a game over the last two seasons and shot 40% from the three-point line. The Yellow Jackets will need consistency from senior Khalid Moore, while transfers Deivon Smith and Rodney Howard could provide an instant impact. Josh Pastner adds the No. 18 class in the SI All-American team rankings.

12. Clemson

The Tigers have a tall order replacing all-everything forward Aamir Simms, who led the team in points (13.4), rebounds (6.4) and assists (2.7). The problem was Simms didn’t get much help, and the Tigers had the worst offense in the league (64.9 ppg). This season they’ll take a committee approach behind capable pieces like forward Hunter Tyson (7.5 ppg, 4.2 rpg) and guards Al-Amir Dawes (9.0 ppg), Nick Honor (8.1 ppg) and South Florida transfer David Collins.

13. Wake Forest

A mass exodus is never a good thing—unless, of course, you were one of the worst teams in the league offensively (66.2 ppg) and defensively (71.9 ppg allowed). Steve Forbes does return three of his top-four scorers—Tariq Ingraham, Daivien Williamson and Isaiah Mucius—and adds four capable transfers to go along with a talented six-man recruiting class.

14. Pittsburgh

The Panthers went 2–10 in their final 12 games and lost All-ACC first-teamer Justin Champagnie, the conference’s second-leading scorer and leading rebounder. Now, Jeff Capel will need sharpshooter Ithiel Horton to elevate his production (8.9 ppg) in addition to guard Femi Odukale (6.6 ppg) and forward John Hugley (5.1 ppg, 4.3 rpg).

15. Boston College

The Eagles lost 80% of their scoring from last season and will have to improve drastically defensively after giving up a league-worst 79.5 points a game. That means a lot rides on the shoulders of floor general Makai Ashton-Langford (9.6 ppg., 3.3 rpg and 3.2 apg). DeMarr Langford Jr. (6.7 ppg, 4.2 rpg) will need to elevate his production as well, but if Boston College is going to be competitive, it will require big contributions from transfers Brevin Galloway, T.J. Bickerstaff and Quinten Post. 

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