ACC Basketball Preview: Duke poised to repeat as champs


Thomas Yang | Assistant Visual Editor

Head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s Blue Devils are poised to win the 13th ACC title of his tenure.

By Kyle Saxon, Staff Writer

With just three weeks until tipoff of the 2019-20 college basketball season, the nation’s strongest conference is wide open. While the top four teams are abundantly clear, the rest of the ACC is largely up for grabs. The 2019 offseason left several teams decimated by departures, while others made remarkable progress. Here’s how the ACC should shake out if all goes according to plan in the upcoming season.

1. Duke  

The Blue Devils are no stranger to the top of the conference standings, and head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s team is poised to win its 13th outright ACC title in his tenure. The departure of last year’s star-studded first-year trio — Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett and Cameron Reddish — as well as several others, has left Duke with just one returning starter, sophomore point guard Tre Jones.

But Duke once again reeled in a phenomenal group of first-year talent, boasting the No. 3 recruiting class in the country. Vernon Carey Jr., a 6-foot-10 first-year center, will be the player to watch for the Blue Devils, coming in ranked as the No. 6 player in his class by 247Sports. With three other top-40 recruits, a seasoned All-ACC candidate operating the offense and several quality returning role players, Duke is still the favorite to take the conference.

2. Louisville  

The Cardinals are prepared to ascend back to dominance in head coach Chris Mack’s second year. Louisville returns three starters from last season, including junior Jordan Nwora, the preseason ACC Player of the Year. The Cardinals complimented their core of key returners with the No. 12 recruiting class in the nation, headlined by five-star forward Samuell Williamson and four-star center Aidan Igiehon. The Cardinals’ collection of versatile forwards should propel them to match their best ACC season ever with a second-place finish.

3. Virginia  

The reigning ACC and national champions will have their work cut out for them this year. The Cavaliers lost their three best players — De’Andre Hunter, Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome — to the NBA after their NCAA title victory last season. But all that really matters for Virginia is that head coach Tony Bennett is still at the helm.

Bennett has emerged as one of the best coaches in the country and has consistently found tremendous success in the ACC with rosters that don’t necessarily have the talent of other blue-blood programs. The Cavaliers return two starters in sophomore point guard Kihei Clark and senior center Mamadi Diakite, who should be an All-ACC first-teamer in 2019-20. Virginia also brings in a solid recruiting class — junior forward Jay Huff is a breakout candidate. The Cavaliers will have the best defense in the conference as usual, and there’s no reason why this team should fall out of ACC contention.

4. North Carolina  

North Carolina returns just one starter in junior center Garrison Brooks, and Roy Williams’ team may take a while to find its identity. First-year point guard Cole Anthony, ranked No. 2 nationally in his class, is tasked with carrying the load for the Tar Heels. Anthony is spectacular, and may challenge Nwora for ACC Player of the Year honors.

But relying heavily on rookies is rarely a first-place recipe. The Tar Heels obviously have some of the best talent in the country, but their returners must prove they can fill the holes left by last year’s departures. UNC brings in the second-best recruiting class in the ACC, and will remain a top-20 team in the nation this season. It’s highly unlikely that the Tar Heels repeat last season’s 16-2 record within the ACC.

5. Florida State

Florida State takes the No. 5 spot on this list somewhat by default. There is a significant drop-off in talent between the top four teams and the rest of the conference. Though they lost a couple stars to the NBA, the Seminoles return an experienced group. Head coach Leonard Hamilton always has his team prepared to compete with top talent, and this season should be another good one for Florida State. Senior point guard Trent Forrest is an All-ACC candidate and one of the best perimeter defenders in the conference. The Seminoles are long, athletic and defensively sound, and they won’t be an easy matchup for any team in the ACC.

6. North Carolina State

The Wolfpack are coming off a disappointing snub from the NCAA tournament, but they should comfortably return to the field of 68 this season. Head coach Kevin Keatts’ squad has struggled to beat big-name opponents, but with one of the most experienced teams in the ACC this season, that should change in 2019-20. NC State returns one of the best backcourts in the conference with junior guard Braxton Beverly and star senior point guard Markell Johnson. While many other ACC teams will struggle with depth, the Wolfpack return four starters and are poised for a vast improvement on last year’s turbulent campaign.

7. Notre Dame

Notre Dame has been plagued with injuries the past two seasons, but if the Irish can stay healthy this season they will find themselves in NCAA tournament play. Graduate forward Rex Pflueger enters his fifth season after being granted a medical redshirt last season. Pflueger is an All-ACC level player, and if the Irish end up exceeding expectations, he could find himself in ACC Player of the Year conversation. Head coach Mike Brey also returns a great backcourt featuring senior guard Temple Gibbs and sophomore guard Prentiss Hubb. With All-ACC forward John Mooney also entering his senior season, a No. 7 prediction may be modest for a highly talented Fighting Irish team.

8. Miami

After an uncharacteristic year in 2018-19, the Hurricanes should be positioned firmly on the NCAA tournament bubble when March rolls around. Junior point guard Chris Lykes is absolutely electric, and will be an experienced leader for this Miami team. Junior wing Kameron McGusty will be a nice addition after sitting out last season due to his transfer from Oklahoma. Miami should have a nice season, but is still a year away from competing for any of the top spots in the conference.

9. Pitt

Pitt is somewhat of a wildcard in the ACC this season. The Panthers return one of the most dynamic backcourts in the country with sophomore guards Xavier Johnson and Trey McGowens. Incredibly, head coach Jeff Capel is only in his second year and the Panthers have an outside chance at a 20-win season. Capel brought in a solid group of first-year players and added a lethal outside shooter in junior transfer guard Ryan Murphy. If the Panthers have developed and progressed as they should, they are a team with a serious chance of sneaking into the NCAA tournament.

10. Syracuse

The Orange are certainly not used to being this low in the ACC rankings, but the reality is that Syracuse lost three of its four leading scorers and returns just one starter. That starter is junior wing Elijah Hughes, who head coach Jim Boeheim will rely on to carry the load on offense. There is hope for the Orange to fight their way up the rankings and into NCAA tournament play, as sophomore guards Jalen Carey and Buddy Boeheim, as well as first-year guard Joe Girard, all have phenomenal offensive potential. The new-look Orange will have much to prove in 2019-20.

11. Georgia Tech

The outlook is grim for the Yellow Jackets. Although they return the majority of their key players from last year, namely junior point guard Jose Alvarado, the Yellow Jackets simply lack the overall talent to compete with high-level ACC teams. Additionally, Georgia Tech received a postseason ban for the upcoming season. The Yellow Jackets will be a respectable team, and may steal an impressive win or two, but they will not make much noise in the ACC.

12. Clemson

Clemson is a prime example of a team decimated by departures from last season. The Tigers lost their three best players to graduation, and the 2019-20 season will be one of transition for head coach Brad Brownell and his team. Junior forward Aamir Simms is a great foundational piece for the future, but when it comes to the season at hand, the Tigers simply do not appear to have the personnel to contend in the ACC

13. Boston College

After going winless in the ACC just three years ago, Boston College accumulated high-level talent and was competitive for a couple years. Unfortunately, those talented pieces have now moved onto the NBA, and the Golden Eagles are left with a roster of role-players. Graduate transfer point guard Derryck Thornton is a player to watch as the former Duke and USC starter will look to lead the Eagles to some wins this season. But Boston College seems to be in a rebuilding phase once again. The outlook is extremely unfavorable for head coach Jim Christian’s team.

14. Wake Forest

Head coach Danny Manning is firmly on the hot seat in Winston-Salem, and unfortunately for him, he likely won’t win many games this season. The Demon Deacons showed flashes of talent last season and brought back some talented players, such as sophomore forward Jaylen Hoard. But overall, this is not a good basketball team — and certainly not one that will contend in an extremely competitive conference. This will likely be Manning’s last season at Wake Forest.

15. Virginia Tech

Virginia Tech had perhaps the most disastrous offseason of any team in the country. After losing head coach Buzz Williams to Texas A&M, as well as essentially all of their significant players for a multitude of reasons, the Hokies are left in a state of rebuilding. New head coach Mike Young is a great basketball mind, but simply doesn’t have anywhere near the type of talent he needs to win in the ACC. The Hokies will likely win a couple of ACC games, but they are the clear-cut last-place team in the conference.