1. Duke Blue Devils
2015-2016 Record: 25-11 (11-7)
Key Departures: Brandon Ingram, Marshall Plumlee, Derryck Thornton
Key Additions: Harry Giles, Jayson Tatum, Marques Bolden, Frank Jackson, Javin DeLaurier
Remember a few years back, pre-Kyrie when there were some that questioned whether Coach K had lost his recruiting edge? Back when Tony Parker spurned Duke for UCLA citing that he didn't like the way they coached big men? Seems as if Coach K heard those rumors and decided to show the world that he isn't/wasn't done. Four top 10 recruiting classes, a few lottery picks and a National Championship later, the Blue Devils are back to where they belong as perennial title contenders. This will be the first year since the 2008-2009 season that there hasn't been at least one Plumlee on the roster. But that shouldn't slow down Duke as they are more talented this year overall than they have been in years, at least on paper.
You could state the obvious in that their incoming recruiting class far outweighs what they lost from last season, but I think the biggest "addition" for this Blue Devil squad is the return of 5th year senior Amile Jefferson. A guy that, lately has started reminding me a lot of Udonis Haslem at Florida, Jefferson's absence was huge for Duke last season. Particularly with Chase Jeter not being as college ready as everyone thought he was. Jefferson was averaging a double double through the team's first 9 games before his injury last season and had finally looked like the player I thought he could become when he was heavily sought after by multiple triangle schools coming out of high school. He along with Grayson Allen give the Blue Devils a lot of experience to add to the young core of freshman and sophomores that should play key roles at some point during the season.
Much like a team a few spots lower on this list, Duke will rely heavily on freshman this season and specifically one coming off of a major injury. Harry Giles is still recovering from knee surgery and likely won't be 100% to start the season. He should play a major role in this team's loaded frontcourt rotation that will include a wide range of skillsets. The team will once again be extremely solid on the wing with Matt Jones and Luke Kennard snatching up minutes at both wing spots with freshman phenom Jayson Tatum being too talented to not see the floor quite a bit this season. The lone spot for Duke that could be a question mark is at the PG spot. Derryck Thornton didn't like the way he was used, nor did he like being recruited over according to some, so he transferred out, leaving the aforementioned freshman Frank Jackson to shoulder the load at the lead guard spot. I would expect to see Allen play significant minutes as the team's PG as well since there isn't a whole lot of depth behind Jackson. Jackson is still a shoot first, ask questions later type of PG and that particular mentality might not fit in on this Duke team full of guys who need/command the ball. But as he has done year in and year out, Coach K will find a way to have everyone buy in and co-exist. Duke is the class of the ACC headed into the season.
2. North Carolina Tar Heels
2015-2016 Record: 33-7 (14-4)
Key Departures: Brice Johnson, Marcus Paige, Joel James
Key Additions: Tony Bradley, Seventh Woods, Brandon Robinson
I'm not as high as some are on the Tar Heels this season. Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige have both graduated and moved on, leaving a massive gap in both numbers and in leadership for Roy Williams' squad. I don't love their incoming freshman, although Bradley has a chance to be really good come season's end. He's going to carve out a big role for himself this season and could be one of the better defensive players in the post in the ACC in a few years. I love the combo of Joel Berry and Nate Britt at the PG spot and I'm a huge Justin Jackson fan. His decision to forego the NBA Draft and come back for his junior season shouldn't be taken lightly. I think it was the best decision for himself as well as his team. He will be more of a focal point on offense with the increased opportunties left by Johnson and Paige.
Theo Pinson would have been the "X" factor for me on this team. That was, before he went down with a fractured bone in his foot that has him out indefinitely. He was a projected starter for this team on the wing and was primed to have the break out type of season that UNC fans have been waiting on for the last two years. His absence, however long it might be, will give some of the younger guys a chance to get some minutes early on which could pay off down the road, but I just don't like the position it puts Ole Roy in with regards to his guard rotations early on. Sophomore guard Kenny Williams played sparingly last season and according to some, could be in line for some of those minutes that the Pinson injury opened up. I don't know a lot about Williams, but some people I trust have said he's looked good in practice and in exhibition games thus far.
The losses of Johnson and James in the frontcourt is what really scares me. James was a nice role player while Johnson was a star for the Heels last season. Kennedy Meeks and Isiah Hicks will shoulder much of the load with Luke Maye getting some run off the bench, but none of those guys are on the same level as Johnson which is why I'm not on board with this team at the moment. I still think they finish fairly high in the standings due to the lack of proven players and teams below them in the ACC, but it wouldn't surprise me if they ended the season behind Duke, NC State, Virginia, Syracuse and Louisville.
3. North Carolina State Wolfpack
2015-2016 Record: 16-17 (5-13)
Key Departures: Anthony Barber, Caleb Martin, Cody Martin
Key Additions: Dennis Smith Jr., Torin Dorn, Omer Yurtseven, Ted Kapita, Markell Johnson
The 2015-2016 season is one that Wolfpack fans likely want to forget. After going four for four on NCAA Tournament appearances under Mark Gottfried, including two trips to the Sweet 16, last season was a nightmare for most Wolfpack fans who had at least semi-high hopes headed into the season. An opening night injury to West Virginia transfer Terry Henderson that kept him out the entire season put a damper on those expectations pretty quickly. That injury, left the team with only one "true" guard in Cat Barber. That, combined with a lack of quality depth up and down the roster left Gottfried with limited flexibility and a team that relied on Barber entirely too much to win games.
Lack of depth and limited guard play won't be an issue for the Wolfpack this season. Henderson is healthy and is joined this season by one of the top freshman in the country in Dennis Smith Jr, Charlotte transfer Torin Dorn and late signee Markell Johnson. All four figure to play a major role in the perimeter now that both Martin twins have transferred and with Barber in the NBA. They also add Turkish forward Yurtseven, who will serve a nine game suspension to start the season for volation of NCAA rules and Ted Kapita a highly regarded forward from Florida. Add that to returning front court players in Beejay Anya, Abdul Malik Abu and sharpshooter Maverick Rowan and the Wolfpack have one of their deepest rosters in recent memory. Freshman Darius Hicks and sophomore Shawn Kirk will also factor into the mix early on without Yurtseven and with the news that senior forward Lennard Freeman will likely redshirt this season due to a leg injury.
The NCAA's decision on Yurtseven and eventually Kapita have and will weigh heavily on the Wolfpack's season. Early on it looks as if Gottfried will institute a small ball lineup with three guards on the floor most of the time. Even when Yurtseven returns from suspension, I would expect the Wolfpack would trot that lineup out most nights. That their most effective lineup on the offensive end and will create matchup nightmares most nights. Dennis Smith is a nightmare of his own as he's arguably the most talented freshman in the NCAA this season. After sitting out his senior season due to a torn ACL, he's itching to get back on the floor for meaningful games. All signs point to him being back to 100% including some solid showings at Adidas Nations this past summer. If that's true, this might be the best and most talented team top to bottom that Wolfpack fans have seen in recent memory.
4. Virginia Cavaliers
2015-2016 Record: 29-8 (13-5)
Key Departures: Malcolm Brogdon, Anthony Gill, Mike Tobey, Evan Nolte
Key Additions: Austin Nichols, Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome, DeAndre Hunter, Jay Huff
Much like the Tar Heels, I'm not as high on the Cavaliers as some are and it wouldn't surprise me at all to see them end the year a few spots further down on this list. The return of London Perrantes alone puts them in this spot. And while I'm a huge Tony Bennett guy, the Cavaliers are going to have to replace over 41 points, 15 rebounds and 4 assists per game this season. Memphis transfer Austin Nichols isn't a bad start, but he is having off the court issues of his own and is suspended for the team's opener against UNC Greensboro. Virginia returns three of five starters which should keep them in the thick of things in the ACC, but only Perrantes scored more than 5 points per game last season.
Nichols and returning wing Marial Shayok should slide into the starting roles left by Brogdon and Gill but it will be a lack of quality depth that concerns me for Virginia. Four incoming freshman and sophomore Jarred Reuter all figure to have prominent roles off the Cavaliers bench this season. There's not a lot of experience there with most of these guys learning on the fly. Over the last few years, Tony Bennett squads relied on a lot of experienced players that knew his system and were comfortable in that system to win as many games as they have. I don't doubt that these newcomers will learn to fit in eventually, I just firmly believe that the trio of guys that are no longer on this roster are going to leave shoes too big to fill this season.
The potential success of this team rides squarely on the shoulders of Perrantes, who is one of the best guards in the ACC and is particularly dangerous from behind the arc. But he's always had other scoreres around him and has always been that third or fourth option offensively. Whether or not he can carry the load on a nightly basis with teams no longer having to focus defensively on Brogdon and Gill, is the biggest question mark for this team in the early going. If he can prove early in the season that he is capable of taking that next step in terms of being one of the team's go-to players then they are deserving of this ranking. I'm just not a believer 100% just yet.
5. Syracuse Orange
2015-2016 Record: 23-14 (9-9)
Key Departures: Malachi Richardson, Michael Gbinije, Trevor Cooney
Key Additions: Andrew White III, John Gillon, Tyus Battle, Matthew Moyer, Taurean Thompson, Paschal Chukwu
Stop me if you've heard this before...Syracuse is losing a lot of firepower from last year's squad. It seems like quite a few ACC squads are having to replace some key contributors from last years' squad. Up and down this list, teams are going to have huge holes to fill because of graduates, early entry candidates and transfers and the Orangemen are no different. Coach Jim Boeheim will have some shuffling to do with his roster as their top three returning scorers have all moved on and are playing professional basketball elsewhere. Syracuse wasn't a particularly deep team last year with each of it's top five players averaging at least 31 minutes per contest with Richardson, Cooney and Gbinije all playing over 34 minutes per night. I'm not sure that Coach Boeheim was expecting to lose Richardson to the draft after just one season, but that's what deep tournament runs can do to young players when they get maximum exposure to NBA teams and scouts. Richardson played so well late in the season and in the NCAA Tournament that his stock would have likely never been higher and he cashed in.
Tyler Lydon and Tyler Roberson are both back this season along with DaJuan Coleman who has been somewhat of a bust since stepping on campus. Kansas/Nebraska transfer Andrew White is eligible to play right away and will be one of the more exciting and impactful transfers to watch in the ACC this season. He averaged close to 17 points per game with the Huskers last season and should slide into that do everything combo forward role that was vacated by Gbinije's graduation. He's been a journeyman for most of his college career and is now with his third team in the last four seasons but he is a talented player with a nack for scoring the basketball. He and Lydon should spearhead an offensive unit that could be one of the tougher ones to defend.
John Gillon transferred in from Colorado State and will step right into starting PG duties with incoming freshman Tyus Battle rounding out what should be a solid guard rotation for Syracuse. Much like last year, they will rely heavily on their starters most nights, but they have as solid of a starting unit as any team in the conference outside of Duke as long as the tranfers can fit in and the freshman can contribute. Sophomore Franklin Howard is a guy to keep an eye on as he is a guy who could slide into the role left behind by Cooney and become the team's go-to threat on the perimeter as he's a guard that can do a little of everything when given the chance. I feel like Boeheim is at his best when his team can slide in under the radar pre-season without all of the hype and expectations. He's got one of those type of teams this year and I believe he'll get the most out of this squad and get them back to the NCAA Tournament.
6. Florida State Seminoles
2015-2016 Record: 20-14 (8-10)
Key Departures: Malik Beasley, Devon Bookert, Boris Bojanovsky
Key Additions: Jonathan Isaac, Trent Forrest, PJ Savoy, Braian Angola Rodas, Mfiondu Kabengele
Year in and year out, I can't help at respect the job that Leonard Hamilton has done/is doing/will do with the Florida State basketball program. While the NCAA Tournament success hasn't necessarily been there, the conference wins and potential has been. The FSU program had just one NCAAT appearance since 1992 before Hamilton took the reigns and he has led them to four NCAA appearances and eight 20 win seasons during his tenure. He recruits extremely well and is always in the mix in the ACC at the end of the day. He had his biggest offseason "win" when Dwayne Bacon decided to hold off on his dreams of playing in the NBA and return to Tallahassee for his sophomore season. He and junior guard Xavier Rathan Mayes form one of the more potent wing duo's in the ACC.
In what has become a theme of this preview, the team will have to make up for the losses of a few key contributors from last season, specifically first rounder Malik Beasley. Talented freshman big man Jonathan Isaac should help soften the blow of losing Beasley as well as the return of Michael Ojo who is back after missing the entire 2015-2016 season with a knee injury. And while Ojo isn't a guy who is going to come in and put up eye popping numbers, he is a serviceable big man that will be relied upon to fill some of the holes left on this young roster.
Isaac was the prize of Leonard Hamilton's six man recruiting class this season and is one of the more intriguing freshman prospects in the ACC with his length, athleticism and versatility. He's going to see time at both the 3 and 4 spots this season but he's a matchup nightmare when he can draw bigs outside of the paint. Florida State will be carried most nights by Rathan-Mayes and Bacon which will be enough to keep them in the top half of the ACC if not even higher depending on how well Isaac develops over the first few months of the season. Spots 5-9 in these rankings are almost interchangeable as there are serious question marks around each and every team even though they have the talent to overcome them if everything falls into place.
7. Clemson Tigers
2015-2016 Record: 17-14 (10-8)
Key Departues: Jordan Roper
Key Additions: Shelton Mitchell, Elijah Thomas, Marcquise Reed, David Skara, Scott Spencer
Jaron Blossomgame is the real deal. And this year, so is Clemson. Let's call them "Transfer U", at least as far as this season is concerned because outside of Blossomgame, they will run out a talented trio of transfers on a nightly basis that will really bolster and already solid returning core of players. Thomas (Texas A&M), Mitchell (Vanderbilt) and Reed (Robert Morris) are all quality transfers with Thomas and Mitchell being two highly rated players coming out of high school. Reed is probably the best pure scorer of the three and will try and take some of the scoring load off of Blossomgame this season.
I really liked Roper as a player and a leader on the court and he will be missed but the addition of the three transfers will overshadow any void that Roper's graduation left behind. And that's not a knock at Roper, just more of a compliment to the players that Brad Brownell has coming in. Donte Graham and Avry Holmes both return after averaging double figures for the Tigers last season giving Brownell a plethora of options on any given night. This is one of the more deep and talented Clemson rosters that I've seen since the Booker days and I think they will challenge the traditional powerhouses this season in the ACC.
The Tigers haven't been to the NCAA Tournament since 2011 when they had their streak of four straight appearances come to an end. After surprising a lot of people last season, including yours truly, with a 10-8 record in the ACC, I don't see why this team can't get back to the NCAA Tournament and make some noise come tournament time. Star players shine brightest come March and Blossomgame is just that. They won't truly get tested, outside of a few matchups with middle of the road SEC teams, until they get into conference play, but that could be just what they need to go on a run late in the season as the team learns how to click and gel together with the new faces playing big roles.
8. Louisville Cardinals
2015-2016 Record: 23-8 (12-6)
Key Departures: Damion Lee, Trey Lewis, Chinanu Onuaku
Key Additions: VJ King, Tony Hicks
The aura surrounding this Louisville program at the moment isn't a good one. I'm not here to judge or expound upon any of the reports that this team is having to deal with because I don't have all of the answers. But what I do know is that it has created a proverbial black cloud over this program and team. Recruiting has taken ad hit over the last two seasons with a lack of depth (one recruit this season) and a lack of top tier players coming in either of the last two seasons. Shaqquan Aaron transferred out before last season, Onauako left after only two seasons and VJ King is the only player of note aside from Ivy League transfer Tony Hicks. Not to take anything away from any of these guys as they are all good players, but all of the allegations, NCAA investigations and subsequent punishments have seemed to take their toll on this roster and on Pitino himself.
I like what Mangok Mathiang brings to the table and he should be fully recovered from the broken bone in his foot that kept him out for most of last season. He's a big body on the inside that had really gotten off to a solid start before his injury last season. Quentin Snider is a talented guard that is ready to take over for Lewis and King is a freshman with a ton of upside. There are some pieces on this team that make them a formidable opponent in the ACC but there are rankings that have Louisville in the Top 15 and I honestly don't see it. I don't think they have the horses to keep up with the top half of the ACC and are simply a middle of the road ACC squad.
Outside of a home game against Purdue later this month, I could see the Cardinals starting off the season without any hiccups but those will all be false returns as I don't think they can sustain it long term. But at the end of the day, they are Louisville and there is talent on the roster. They also still have Rick Pitino at the helm so it is hard to completely write them off.
9. Virginia Tech Hokies
2015-2016 Record: 20-15 (10-8)
Key Departures: Jalen Hudson
Key Additions: Ty Outlaw, Khadim Sy
Buzz Williams has this program on the upswing, but they just don't have the overall talent to be a major factor in the ACC...yet. Seth Allen transferred over from Maryland last season and had a great first year with the Hokies, almost every player of note is back for the Hokies this season on a team that went 10-8 in the ACC just a year ago. And while they didn't get any worse, I don't believe they got any better either. Williams hasn't been able to hit on the recruits he needs to to get into the thick of things in this conference, but I have faith that he will. What he was able to do with the talent on this roster at Marquette was nothing short of amazing. He relied on transfers and under the radar players to get things done and it worked year in and year out. He's on the right track with the Hokies and is already up to his old tricks by adding Allen and Zach LeDay via transfer to a team that was void of talent when he took the reigns.
I believe in what Williams is doing and I believe that this will be one of those teams that no one wants to see on their schedule come February and March, especially if they have to go to Blacksburg. They are well on their way to being a solid team in this league, but their time isn't now.
10. Notre Dame Fighting Irish
2015-2016 Record: 24-12 (11-7)
Key Departures: Demetrius Jackson, Zack Auguste
Key Additions: Temple Gibbs, John Mooney, Nikola Djogo
Have I mentioned yet that a team is having to replace key players on its roster? Because that's what Notre Dame is going to be doing this season without seniors Demetrius Jackson and Zack Auguste, two players that have been mainstays on this Fighting Irish team for the last four years. I never count out a Mike Brey coached team, but this year will be a rebuilding one if I've ever seen one. VJ Beachem and Bonzie Colson are talented enough themselves to keep this team out of the ACC's basement no matter how many players from last year's team they are losing but that duo along won't be able to keep them at the top of the ACC either.
Freshman Temple Gibbs will have some big shoes to fill but he should be used to it by now as he's had to follow in his two brothers' (Ashton and Sterling) footsteps for his entire life. If he turns into the player that both of his brothers were, it won't be long before Notre Dame is back where they belong in the top half of these rankings.
11. Miami Hurricanes
2015-2016 Record: 27-8 (13-5)
Key Departures: Sheldon McClellan, Angel Rodriguez, Tonye Jekiri
Key Additions: Rashad Muhammad, Dewan Huell, Bruce Brown, Rodney Miller, Dejan Vasiljevic
I could almost copy and past everything that I wrote about Virginia and Syracuse here except that the returning roster for the 'Canes isn't anywhere near as talented as those of the Cavaliers and the Orange. This will be a rebuilding year for Miami and Head Coach Jim Larranaga. Guard play won't be an issue as both Davon Reed and Ja'Quan Newton are both capable players, but the real challenge will be on the interior as Jekiri will no longer be manning the paint and with very little outside of Kamari Murphy to replace him.
There is some talent coming in with both Brown and Huell so the cupboard isn't bare my any means. But as far as the 2016-2017 goes, it will be a long one for Miami as they hit the reset button and start rebuilding for the future.
12. Pittsburgh Panthers
2015-2016 Record: 21-12 (9-9)
Key Departures: James Robinson, Jamie Dixon (Head Coach)
Key Additions: Corey Manigault, Justice Kithcart
Had they held onto Jamie Dixon then that would have vaulted the Panthers up at least two to three spots on this list, but he has moved on to Fort Worth after seemingly feeling underappreciated at Pitt. I don't blame him since his expectations will be lower at TCU and his roster at Pitt was/is in a state of flux at the moment. Another year or two of missing the NCAA Tournament and his stock might have dropped. He knew it was time to move on and the Panthers' record will show that this upcoming season. Add the loss of Dixon, the team's general on the sidelines to the loss of Robinson, the team's general on the floor and that has all the makings of a down season.
13. Wake Forest Demon Deacons
2015-2016 Record: 11-20 (2-16)
Key Departues: Codi Miller McIntyre, Devin Thomas
Key Additions: Austin Arians, Samuel Japhet Mathias, Brandon Childress, Donovan Mitchell WF
The Demon Deacons being so far down on this list isn't a reflection of where I think they are headed, but rather a reflection on where they are coming from. Danny Manning is the right head coach for the job and if given time, will turn this thing around. Look no further than their 2017 recruiting class and how well it has already begun to shape up. But 2017 recruits won't help Manning and the Deacons win games this season.
With the loss of Thomast and Miller-McIntyre, this could easily be the worst team in the ACC talent wise if it weren't for the two programs below being in such shambles. My advice for Wake fans would be to set their sights on the development of freshman Brandon Childress and hope he becomes the player his father was for the Deacons back in the 1990's. If you don't know who I'm referring to, just Google "Randolph Childress crossover" to refresh your memory.
14. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
2015-2016 Record: 21-15 (8-10)
Key Departues: Marcus Georges Hunt, Charles Mitchell, Nick Jacobs
Key Additions: Josh Pastner (Head Coach), Christian Matthews, Josh Okogie, Justin Moore GT
Finally the Athletic Department at Georgia Tech realized that they were going nowhere fast with Brian Gregory at the helm and made a change. And they brought in a young, enthusiastic head coach in Josh Pastner that has had success at the Division 1 level before. That's the good news. The bad news is that this roster is completely void of talent and might not win an ACC game this season. There just isn't much to like about this team other than the fact that they are finally headed in a different direction, something that a lot of Georgia Tech football fans wish they were doing as well.
Pastner has the backing of the Athletic Department and the new Athletic Director. He will be given ample amounts of time to turn things around and I think he has the ability and drive to do so. It just won't be this year and likely won't be next year unless he can land a prized recruit or two. He does have a talent rich area in metro-Atlanta at his disposal though. Now, if he can only keep that talent in State.
15. Boston College Eagles
2015-2016 Record: 7-25 (0-18)
Key Departues: Eli Carter, Dennis Clifford
Key Additions: Nik Popovic, Ty Graves
Can anyone outside of Massachusetts name me anyone on the Boston College men's basketball roster? Someone? Anyone? Maybe give me the Head Coach's name? No?
I'm not exactly sure where the future of BC basketball is headed and I'm not sure the folks in charge know quite yet either. They don't have a single player coming in ranked in the Top 250 in the country and they don't really have anyone on the roster currently of note either. Eli Carter is gone so there will be plenty of scoring opportunities available for the guys on the roster but who steps up and becomes that player is beyond me. Jerome Robinson is their leading returning scorer at 11.7 points per game but that's about all I can tell you about him at this point.
None of those things bode well for Head Coach Jim Christian and company.
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I like your insight on the conference as a whole but disagree where you placed Louisville. I predict they'll be the 3rd or 4th best team in the ACC maybe even better. The Cardinals are unique this year, they play extremely quick and will be one of the better squads Pitinos has had in recent memory pressuring the ball.
They will be one of the toughest teams in the conference..