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2020-2021 NCAA Basketball Conference Preview: ACC

The College Basketball season is just a few weeks away, and the schedule is starting to come together. Although there are still many questions to be answered about this season, we are starting to get an idea of what this unique year might look like. As always, intraconference battles will be a key part of this season, especially in the power-five conferences plus the Big East. So over the next few weeks I am giving my predictions for how these conferences will shake out. This week we look at the ACC, a conference that always plays big a role in the national stage of college hoops.

Individual Conference Awards

Player of the Year: Garrison Brooks (North Carolina)

Defensive Player of the Year: Jay Huff (Virginia)

Freshman of the Year: Scottie Barnes (Florida State)

Sixth Man of the Year: Jalen Johnson (Duke)

Coach of the Year: Roy Williams (North Carolina)

First Team All-Conference:

Kihei Clark (Virginia)

Jose Alvarado (Georgia Tech)

Wendell Moore (Duke)

Scottie Barnes 

Garrison Brooks 

Second Team:

Caleb Love (North Carolina)

Jeremy Roach (Duke)

Matthew Hurt (Duke)

Sam Hauser (Virginia)

Armando Bacot (North Carolina)

Third Team:

David Johnson (Louisville)

Michael Devoe (Georgia Tech)

M.J. Walker (Florida State)

Jay Huff 

Aamir Simms (Clemson)

Conference Standings Prediction

  1. Duke (Second in 2019-20)

Given the caliber of the players that Duke lost to the draft this year, one would think that they would be relying heavily on freshmen once again this season. Tre Jones and Vernon Carey Jr. were two of the best players in the conference, and Cassius Stanley really came into his own as the third option towards the end of last season. And yes, Duke does sport the third best recruiting class in the country, and those players will certainly play a role in Duke’s level of success. 

With that being said, the Blue Devils also bring back several players who easily could have declared for the NBA Draft this summer. Wendell Moore and Matthew Hurt were both five-star recruits in 2019, and were key pieces of Duke’s team last year. They both return this season to provide Mike Krzyzewski with the best returning core in the conference. Additionally, upperclassmen Joey Baker and Jordan Goldwire give the team even more experience and leadership. Add this to their eye-popping six four-star or better freshman recruits, and you’re looking at one of the deepest teams in the country. The ACC appears to be much deeper than last year, but this Duke team looks like the clear favorite to take the conference crown.

  1. North Carolina (14th in 2019-20)

The 2019-20 season for North Carolina basketball was one of the worst in the history of the program. Their freshman class underperformed drastically, headlined by Cole Anthony missing roughly half the season and struggling mightily in the games he did play. They ended the season 6-14 in conference play, putting them in front of only Wake Forest in the ACC. For a blue chip program that is often in the mix for the national championship, this was certainly a surprise. 

Despite the lackluster nature of last year’s team, expectations remain high for the Tar Heels. When you look at their roster, it doesn’t take long to see why they are expected to be a heavyweight in the conference once again. They return Garrison Brooks, who was the one bright spot for the team last year, receiving All-Conference honors as a junior. He will be joined in the frontcourt by Armando Bacot, a sophomore and five-star recruit out of high school. He put up a respectable 9.6 points and 8.3 rebounds per game in his freshman season, and is expected to be a force on the interior on both sides this season. The Tarheels also compliment this formidable frontcourt duo with the number two ranked recruiting class in the country, led by three five-star freshmen who should be ready to contribute right away. Not everyone has UNC finishing this high in a conference with this much talent, but their team has all the pieces to challenge the likes of Duke and Virginia.

  1. Virginia (Fourth in 2019-20)

Technically still the reigning National Champions, Virginia has put themselves in position to make it right back to the Final Four this year. Jay Huff and Kihei Clark are both returning for another season, creating a lethal pick-and-roll/pick-and-pop duo. Huff is also one of the best shot blockers in the country. They also added Sam Hauser to the fold, a power forward who transferred from Marquette a year ago, but is only now eligible to compete. He averaged 14.9 points and 7.2 rebounds in his junior season at Marquette. Along with this veteran talent they add two high profile recruits: Jabri Abdur-Rahim, a small forward from New Jersey, and Reece Beekman, a point guard from Louisiana.

This level of talent is more than enough to compete for the top spot in the conference, and many have the Cavaliers above UNC and Duke in their projections. However, this team, as many other Virginia teams do, seems to have a relatively low ceiling on offense. They should once again be a top defensive program, but they lack a Kyle Guy or Ty Jerome level shot creator to put them over the top. Kihei Clark does a lot of great things on the floor, but isn’t who you want as a primary scorer on one of the top teams in the country. This doesn’t mean that in head to head matchups with top 25 teams they won’t be able to win with hard-nosed defensive play, but it makes them look like less of a complete team than many other of the top programs.

  1. Florida State (First in 2019-20)

Few teams, if any in the ACC, lost as much talent this summer as Florida State did last year. Devin Vassell, Patrick Williams, and Trent Forrest were an elite trio on both sides of the ball last year, so much so that they are now all in the NBA Draft pool. So Leonard Hamilton will certainly have some rebuilding to do to get this team to be even close to what they were last year. He has some very solid building blocks to do so though. The most notable of these pieces is Scottie Barnes, the number five ranked incoming freshman on the ESPN 100. He is the only high profile freshman that the Seminoles are bringing in, but they do have a decent amount of returning talent. M.J. Walker is coming into his senior season, and is primed for a leadership role on the court and in the locker room. Malik Osborne and Raiquan Gray also return, two players who were especially key in making Florida State such a dominant defensive team.

This team doesn’t appear to have many high-level offensive players on the team, but in a Leonard Hamilton offense predicated on heavy ball and player movement they should be competent on that end of the floor. How well this team does this season will depend on whether they can match last year’s elite level on the defensive end given the personnel losses.

  1. Louisville (Third in 2019-20) 

Another team that lost several key players to the NBA Draft, Louisville will have a hard time repeating it’s third place finish in the conference. Not only did Jordan Nwora and Steven Enoch leave the program to turn pro, but the Cardinals just learned that big man Malik Williams will miss 12 weeks with a foot injury. To top it all off, the program failed to recruit many freshmen who are likely to be rotational caliber players in their first year, and JUCO commit Jay Scrubb declared for the NBA Draft instead of coming to the school. 

Despite what at first glance appears as a roster devoid of talent, Louisville has several players who should be ready to take on bigger roles. Samuell Williamson, David Johnson, and Aidan Igiehon were all top 100 recruits last year. None of them averaged even seven points per game, but showed flashes of their potential. Alongside senior forward Dwayne Sutton, who is the leading scorer of returners for the program, should create a very solid core with a chance to compete. If Williams can make it back on schedule, and the team gels well, they have a chance to be a top-25 team in the country.

  1. Georgia Tech (Fifth in 2019-20)

Although they were tournament ineligible last season, the 2019-20 campaign was a successful one for Georgia Tech. Led by their high-scoring backcourt of Michael Devoe and Jose Alvarado, they managed to go 17-14 in conference play, good enough for 5th in the conference.

This year they bring back Devoe and Alvarado, along with much of last year’s team. Their biggest loss will be their starting center James Banks III, who is graduating this year after averaging 9.5 points and 7.6 rebounds per game in his senior season. With the transfer of backup big Evan Cole as well, down low is the one place where this team will be pretty thin. So although they bring their top three scorers, along with other key pieces, it will be hard for them to improve on their standing in the conference from last year, as the top five projected teams are all very solid teams.

  1. Clemson (Ninth in 2019-20)

Not a school known for luring top basketball talent, Clemson managed to flip the script and land the fourth best recruiting class in the conference behind Duke, North Carolina, and Virginia. The Tigers come into this season with a nice blend of experience and young talent, pairing their three four-star freshman with a returning group that includes four of their top five scorers from last year.

The Tigers are led by their power forward Aamir Simms who averaged 13.0 and 7.2 rebounds per game last year, earning him All-Conference honors. He declared for the NBA Draft initially, but returned for his senior season. They get an extra boost for their backcourt with the transfer acquisition of redshirt sophomore guard Nick Honor from Fordham. The Tigers definitely have less talent than any of the top five teams, but Brad Brownell can definitely make this program more competitive than it has been in years.

  1. Miami (10th in 2019-20) 

Last season was certainly a disappointing year for Miami. They returned much of their core from the previous season, but failed to improve their standing in the conference. This year, once again with formidable returning talent, and the addition of multiple transfers, the Hurricanes look to get out of their two year slump that began after the departure of Lonnie Walker and Bruce Brown Jr.  

Chris Lykes will likely be their leading scorer for the third straight season, with extra help in the backcourt this year by way of transfer guard Elijah Olaniyi from Stony Brook who should take some of the scoring burden off Lykes. Another huge transfer acquisition is Nysier Brooks from Cincinnati, who should start at center for the team, and be a great paint presence for the team. This won’t be a banner year for Miami, but they should be able to get out of the basement of the ACC

  1. Syracuse (Sixth in 2019-20)

Syracuse has struggled in the last half-decade to lure elite talent to their program. These struggles appear to have continued this year, with only one incoming four-star or better recruit, and no notable incoming transfers. And with Elijah Hughes now gone, the Orange are unlikely to be a major factor in the conference this year. Their highest scoring returner is Buddy Boeheim, head coach Jim Boeheim’s son. For them to have a successful season they will need breakout years from sophomores Joseph Girard III and Quincy Guerrier. The Orange won’t be a regular season juggernaut, but always have a chance to make some noise in March.

  1.  NC State (Sixth in 2019-20)

Another team that relied heavily on its backcourt last year for much of its success last year, both starting guards on NC State have now graduated. Markell Johnson and C.J. Bryce collectively accounted for 26.1 points, 10.7 rebounds, 9.1 assists, and 3.2 steals per game last year. This will make it very hard for the Wolfpack to improve on last year’s performance. However, they do return two key seniors in starting center D.J. Funderburk and guard Devon Daniels. Both were double digit scorers for Kevin Keatts last year. The program also brings in two guards to try to replace the two they lost. Cam Hayes is a 6-foot-1 point guard, and the 68th ranked freshman this year. Thomas Allen is a transfer guard from Nebraska who is eligible for his redshirt junior year this season after sitting out a year. This is another team in the ACC that is still one or two pieces away from being truly competitive in the power-five realm.

  1.  Pittsburgh (13th in 2019-20)

A team that often struggles to compete in the ACC, this doesn’t appear to be the year that Pitt breaks out of the cellar. They lost junior guard Trey McGowens to Nebraska, and their highly touted transfer that they brought in to replace him, Nike Sibande, won’t be eligible until next year. There is some light at the end of the tunnel though. The main reason for that is their sophomore wing Justin Champagne. Only a three-star recruit, he came out of nowhere last year as a freshman to lead the Panthers in scoring and rebounding. He will be a key piece for the program for the next few years if he stays. Pitt also nailed down a very solid recruiting class considering their standing in the conference, bringing in two four-star recruits. This will likely be a building year for Jeff Capel’s team, but they are going in the right direction.

  1.  Virginia Tech (10th in 2019-20)

Last season was one of rebuilding for Virginia Tech, with the loss of Nickeil Alexander-Walker to the NBA. However, the team looked like it would be competitive soon rather than later with the superb play of freshman wing Landers Nolley II. The Hokies bright future took a hit when Nolley transferred to Memphis this offseason, but there is still a lot of young talent for the program to be excited about. This may be a team that has almost an entire rotation of freshman and sophomores this season. There will certainly be growing pains, but players such as Tyrece Radford and Nahiem Alleyne have already shown flashes of possible All-Conference talent. With the addition of two top 100 recruits to their young core, the Hokies could be a real force in the ACC in a year or two. 

  1.  Notre Dame (Seventh in 2019-20)

The farthest fall in ranking from the previous season in this projection, Notre Dame finds themselves in a serious talent deficit coming into this year. John Mooney was one of the most dominant rebounders in the country last year, and a double double machine. This All-Conference big man for the Irish has now graduated. Their second leading scorer, guard T.J. Gibbs, is in the same boat. To make matters worse, the program failed to attract much new talent at all, leaving them with one of the worst recruiting classes they have had in years. They are going to rely heavily on upperclassmen guards Prentiss Hubb and Dane Goodwin. Those two, along with the continuously steady leadership of Mike Brey, will at least do enough to keep them out of the bottom two spots.

  1.  Boston College (12th in 2019-20)

After going 7-13 in conference play a year ago, things aren’t trending in the right direction for Boston College. Their starting point guard, Kentucky transfer Derryck Thornton, is graduating from the program. He was the most efficient player and consistent player offensively for the team. Considering that even with him the team struggled on that side of the ball, significant improvement there will be tough for the Eagles. Most of their hope has to lie with two incoming transfers, well rounded big man Frederick Scott from Rider and scoring guard Rich Kelly from Quinnipiac. Those two need to step up in a big way for BC to not be a bottom dweller this season.

  1.  Wake Forest (15th in 2019-20)

The worst team in the conference last year, losing All-Conference center Olivier Sarr to Kentucky definitely didn’t help Wake Forest’s chance at relevancy this year. Leading scoring Brandon Childress graduated this year as well, making the Demon Deacons possibly one of the worst power-five teams in the country. This season will be about developing the few promising underclassmen that they do have, and keeping the team together through what promises to be a turbulent season.

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