ACC Preview: Duke’s back, but what do we make of Miami, Louisville and UNC?
Beginning in September and running up through November 10th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2017-2018 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.
Today, we are previewing the ACC.
The ACC is not as loaded this season as it has been in past seasons.
Part of that is just the simple, cyclical nature of these things. North Carolina, coming off of a national title, lost five of their top seven players. Virginia lost London Perrantes and enters something of a rebuilding year. Syracuse is in full-blown rebuilding mode after six of their seven leading scorers departed. Hell, even a team like N.C. State likes the kind of elite talent that always gave us hope, and left Wolfpack nation bitterly disappointed, under Mark Gottfried.
But there won’t be a lack of intrigue this season, not with Duke finding themselves right back in the same position they were in last season or with Louisville in a position to make a run at the league title. Throw Miami and Notre Dame in mix, along with reigning champs UNC, and what the ACC may lack in star power in should make up for with drama.
FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW
1. Louisville should be fine this season, they just need to find their new Donovan Mitchell: In case you were living under a rock for the last week and haven’t heard by now, the entirety of the college basketball world is imploding and Rick Pitino, along with his prized freshman Brian Bowen, was the first casualty of a scandal that could rock the sport to its core.
OK, maybe there is some hyperbole in there, but the truth is this: The Hall of Fame head coach Louisville had employed for the last 16 seasons was fired three days before the start of practice when it became clear that, at the very least, a member of his staff - and likely Pitino himself - orchestrated a $100,000 payment from Adidas to Bowen to get Bowen to Louisville.
What that means is that the Cardinals will be coached by David Padgett this season while playing under the cloud of more potential NCAA sanctions.
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But that doesn’t change the fact that the Cardinals do have top 15 talent on this roster. Assuming they find a way to maintain Pitino’s principles, this group is going to be very, very good defensively again this season. It seems like they have plus length, plus athleticism and depth at every single position ... expect the point. As well as Quentin Snider played for stretches last season, I have yet to be convinced that he is a true Pitino point guard. He’ll have a chance to prove that this season, as Louisville’s success may ultimately hinge on it.
But the real x-factor this year is going to be finding a player to make ‘the leap’. Donovan Mitchell did it last year, going from prospect to producer to lottery pick in the span of what felt like two months. Will that be Deng Adel this season? He finished last year strong. What about V.J. King? Athletic and positionally-versatile wings are something Pitino is excellent at taking advantage, and reports out of Louisville have been bullish on King’s sophomore year. Maybe this is the year that Anas Mahmoud or Ray Spalding finally takes the leap.
In all likelihood, someone is going to for the Cardinals. I’m just not sure who it is yet.
And I’m not sure that they’ll get to February without self-imposing another postseason ban, or if the team will fully gel under an interim coach.
It’s a nightmare scenario, for sure. But Louisville has the talent to make this ending a happy one, at least in the short term.
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2. Duke is back: I’ll be taking a much deeper dive on Duke later on this fall, but suffice to say, the Blue Devils are going to be the most fascinating team to watch this season. They are the most talented team in college basketball - seriously, their starting lineup will include the No. 1 point guard in the 2017 recruiting class (Trevon Duval), the No. 2 shooting guard (Gary Trent Jr.), the Nos. 1 and 2 power forwards (Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter) and the 2016-17 Preseason National Player of the Year (Grayson Allen). Allen, himself, is must-watch TV, as his talent has been completely overshadowed by the off-the-court issues that have plagued him the last two years.
Then there are the point guard question marks. And the issues with depth. And the concern about trying to shoe-horn elite talents into smaller roles, and whether or not Marques Bolden will be happy coming off the bench for the second straight season.
And that’s before we get into the bigger picture: this is the exact same thing Duke went through last season.
It may be a soap opera, but just like Gossip Girl and the first two seasons of The O.C., I just can’t stop watching it.
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3. Miami can win the league: I may be higher on Miami than anyone else in the country, but I think that it is justified. Let’s start with the obvious - the Hurricanes are going to have arguably the best back court in the country. Sophomore Bruce Brown is the name to know (more on him below), and he’ll be flanked by veteran JaQuan Newton and five-star freshman and projected lottery pick Lonnie Walker; Walker is dealing with a knee issue but should be healthy by the time the season starts. Those are three big, athletic and talented guards, and if we’ve learned anything about the Larrañaga era in Coral Gables, it is that he thrives with players like that.
The front court will be a bit of a question mark, but Dewan Huell is a former five-star recruit that should have a big year after playing behind Kamari Murphy last season. If the Hurricanes can find a way to adequately replace Davon Reed, we might be looking at the best team in the ACC this season. Even if they don’t, they can win the league.
4. North Carolina is going to have a hard time defending their titles: I love Joel Berry II.
I don’t see any way that he is going to have anything other than a frustrating senior season.
The Tar Heels have had a terrific amount of success the last two years. They’ve gone 66-14, won back-to-back regular season titles, an ACC tournament title and came one Kris Jenkins buzzer-beater away from winning back-to-back national titles. But that came with a typical Roy Williams team, one built around a big, powerful, veteran front line. With Tony Bradley going one-and-done, UNC’s lone veteran presence up front is Luke Maye, who is more of a stretch four than anything, and their freshmen aren’t exactly considered to be game-changing talents this season. Berry is a winner. He’ll keep them competitive, just not at the top of the league.
5. Notre Dame is the most underrated program in college basketball: No one has a better recent track record of developing talent than Mike Brey. He keeps kids in his program, lets them ride the bench for a year or two as they develop and then unleashes them on an unsuspecting ACC that thought it was finally the year the Irish were rebuilding. With Matt Farrell and Bonzie Colson already proven, and Temple Gibbs and Rex Pflueger chomping at the bit to get more minutes, we’re not yet at the Notre Dame rebuild.
PRESEASON ACC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Grayson Allen, Duke
I can hear you scoffing at this pick from here, but facts are facts. As a sophomore, Allen was a second-team NBC Sports All-American, and we were far from the only outlet to have him slotted there. Prior to last season, he was the NBC Sports Preseason National Player of the Year, and again, we were far from the only outlet that made that prediction. After battling through injuries and the off-the-court distractions he created for himself, Allen had offseason surgery and, according to Mike Krzyzewski, is finally back to being healthy. That should mean that, this season, we’ll see the Grayson Allen we all expected to see last season.
THE REST OF THE ACC FIRST TEAM
- Joel Berry II, North Carolina: Coming off of a national title, Berry is going to have to shoulder much of the load for the Tar Heels this year.
- Bruce Brown, Miami: I am the conductor of the Bruce Brown hype train. Get aboard now while there are still seats available.
- Bonzie Colson, Notre Dame: Colson averaged 18 points and 10 boards for the Irish last season as a junior. Expect that, at minimum, to be repeated this season.
- Marvin Bagley III, Duke: I’m not convinced he’ll be the best player in college basketball off the bat, but he is a big time talent that fills a role Duke badly needed filled.
FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW
- Matt Farrell, Notre Dame
- Tyus Battle, Syracuse
- V.J. King, Louisville
- Deng Adel, Louisville
- Ben Lammers, Georgia Tech
BREAKOUT STAR: Bruce Brown, Miami
There are a couple of other names to like in this league - namely Notre Dame’s Temple Gibbs and Brown’s teammate Dewan Huell - but Brown is the clear-cut favorite for me to be the ACC’s breakout star. The 6-foot-3 combo-guard showed flashes of his potential down the stretch of last season, but he may be the best two-way guard in the country and he plays for a coach that has thrived with lead guards that operate well in ball-screen actions. He’ll have to share the limelight in the back court with JaQuan Newton and Lonnie Walker, but there should be more than enough shine to go around for a team that has a real shot of winning the league.
COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Brad Brownell, Clemson
It’s not often that you see a coach at the high-major level go six seasons without getting to the NCAA tournament and keep his job, but that is exactly what has happened with Brownell. He reached the Big Dance in his first season with the program and, since then, has managed just a pair of NIT appearances. The good news for Brownell is that the success of Clemson’s football team might mean that no one has noticed ... yet. Seven years without an NCAA tournament would likely be the nail in the coffin.
ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING ...
The only No. 1 seed from the ACC this season is the Miami Hurricanes?
I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT
Watching Duke try to figure it all out. There is an absurd amount of talent on that roster, and while the rest of the country will likely end up with Duke fatigue, the drama that inevitably creates is always going to be interesting.
FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR
- 11/14, Michigan State vs. Duke, Champions Classic (Chicago)
- 11/29, Miami at Minnesota, ACC-Big Ten Challenge
- 11/30, Notre Dame at Michigan State, ACC-Big Ten Challenge
- 12/3, Seton Hall at Louisville
- 12/29, Louisville at Kentucky
1. Duke: The Blue Devils are the most talented team in the conference. Does that mean it will translate to the being the best team in the conference? It did in 2015. It didn’t in 2017. However it does turn out, the presence of Grayson Allen and Marvin Bagley III on this roster will mean that Duke is one of the most talked about teams in the country. So get used to it.
2. Miami: I’m very, very in on Miami this year. I love their back court, I think they have a ton of young talent on the roster, and when you give Jim Larrañaga talented guards and athletic big men, good things usually happen. Remember the name Bruce Brown. He’ll be an all-american and a first round pick by the time April rolls around.
3. Louisville: There are so many question marks surrounding this team, not the least of which is the potential for a self-imposed postseason ban. Given the amount of turmoil this group of kids has gone through in the last two years, I can’t begin to predict what this season will hold.
4. Notre Dame: At this point, we might as well just look at Notre Dame as the new Wisconsin. Regardless of who is on the roster or what the program has lost, just slot them into the top 25 somewhere. The good news for Irish fans is that, this year, both Matt Farrell and Bonzie Colson are back, meaning that the Irish look like they will once again be in the mix for the top four in the league. The big question? Will Temple Gibbs, Rex Pflueger, Martinas Geben and D.J. Harvey be enough of a supporting cast?
5. North Carolina: Joel Berry II might end up being the ACC Player of the Year this year, but if the Tar Heels are going to have a shot at winning the league title, they’re going to need that kind of season out of him. With three of their top four players gone, this wasn’t unexpected, but the real killer was losing Tony Bradley. For a program that thrives on pounding the ball inside, UNC will have a real lack of experience - and, frankly, talent - up front.
6. Virginia: This will probably come back to bite me, but I think this is the year Virginia takes something of a step back. The Wahoos lost London Perrantes, and while there is quite a bit of promising young talent in the program, those players - Kyle Guy, Ty Jermoe, Jay Huff, De’Andre hunter - seem like they’re a year away.
7. Virginia Tech: Despite losing Zach LeDay and Seth Allen, I still think the Hokies are an NCAA tournament team. They bring back an impressive supporting cast, get Chris Clarke healthy and add a pair of talented and promising freshmen in Wabissa Bede and Nickeil Alexander-Walker.
8. N.C. State: I’m actually bullish on this N.C. State team this season. Just like last year, there is enough talent on the roster - Abdul-Malik Abu, Omer Yurtseven, Allerik Freeman, Torin Dorn, Markell Johnson, Lavar Batts - to make some noise in the league. It’s almost as if the coaching staff put the talent on the roster to waste. We’ll see if new head coach Kevin Keatts can make a difference.
9. Florida State: The Seminoles are a tough team to project. They lose their three best players off of last year’s team, but they bring in five-star freshman M.J. Walker and return a handful of talented pieces. There is also a ton of size up front, as we’ve come to expect of FSU.
10. Georgia Tech: Somehow, the Yellow Jackets went 8-10 in the ACC last season. Josh Pastner returns a pair of talented pieces in Ben Lammers and Josh Okogie, meaning that, for the first time in a few years, there should actually be some expectation for success for Georgia Tech.
11. Boston College: I think BC is going to sneak up on some people. Between Jerome Robinson and Ky Bowman, they have one of the best back courts in the league. Throw in Illinois State transfer Deontae Hawkins, and that’s not a bad top three. Depth, clearly, is the issue, but when you’ve won two ACC games in the last two years, almost anything is an improvement.
12. Syracuse: I’m very curious to see how this season plays out for the Orange. After finishing last year 19-15, the Orange lost six of their top seven scorers. Tyus Battle is back and is going to be asked to carry a massive load. There are pieces here - Geno Thorpe is a fifth-year senior at the point, Paschal Chukwu was once a promising prospect, Matthew Moyer has the tools to be good in a 2-3 zone and Jim Boeheim did bring in a promising recruiting class - but this roster looks a lot different than the rosters you expect to see from the Orange.
13. Wake Forest: Danny Manning has been getting things done on the recruiting trail, but to date that has earned the Demon Deacons a trip to last year’s play-in game thanks to the unexpected emergence of John Collins. He’s gone, as is Dinos Mitoglou. This year’s group will have some back court talent - Bryant Crawford, Brandon Childress, Chaundree Brown - and a four-guard group was how Manning had his most success as a head coach, when at Tulsa.
14. Clemson: The Tigers were better last season than their 6-12 ACC record would indicate. The lost six games by a single possession and three more by less than five points. That would normally be a good sign, except that the Tigers lost Jaron Blossomgame, the best player on their roster the last few years. I’m not sure who on this roster would worry me as an opposing coach, but I also think there are enough quality pieces that, say, finishing eighth would not be an insane prediction.
15. Pitt: The Panthers went 4-14 in the ACC last season then lost their top five scorers, including all-ACC talents like Jamel Artis and Michael Young. They were the easiest team to pick in these power rankings, easier even than picking Duke to win the league.