Last season was a down one for ACC basketball as whole until three teams made the Elite Eight. What might the 2022-23 season have in store?
ACC basketball is coming off one of the conference’s more … interesting … seasons in its history. The Coach K Farewell Tour was the dominant headline all year, as was to be expected, while a talented Blue Devils team swept the ACC regular-season and tournament titles on its way to a Final Four berth.
However, that may have been the only preseason prediction that actually came true.
There were months in which Duke was the only nationally ranked team in the entire ACC. Wake Forest had a breakout season and won 25 games in its second year under Steve Forbes, capitalizing on unexpected down years by others in the conference. Florida State and Virginia each missed the NCAA Tournament after being ranked in the preseason. Syracuse finished with a losing record (16-17) for the first time in Jim Boeheim’s 46-year tenure.
All that negativity built up for five months — and then the conference sent three teams to the Elite Eight (Duke, Miami, UNC) and two to the Final Four (Duke, UNC). It was the type of postseason performance that the ACC would expect to have in a banner year.
What craziness will ACC basketball provide in 2022-23?
There are in-depth previews on all 15 teams in The Almanac, a comprehensive digital college basketball preview magazine produced by our team here at Heat Check CBB along with The Field of 68, Three Man Weave and Verbal Commits. These team previews will bring you up to speed on every team, but as we see every year, things can change in the blink of an eye.
So, given that information, what do I think will happen this coming season? Here are five bold predictions for the ACC:
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1) Miami finishes as clear third-best team in the conference
The general consensus has UNC and Duke finishing as the top two teams in the ACC. There is some discrepancy in the order depending upon who you read or listen to, but most believe the rest of the conference will finish behind those two bluebloods.
I think there’s a clear top three in the ACC, though, with Miami being that third team.
I don’t know if the Canes will really challenge Duke and UNC at the top, but I do feel confident that Jim Larranaga’s squad can separate from the rest of the pack.
Isaiah Wong returns after leading Miami to the Elite Eight. Wong has an expansive offensive game that allows him to create and make shots at all three levels. He was voted as the player who scares coaches the most in The Almanac’s anonymous ACC Coaches Poll for that reason.
Wong is an all-conference performer, yet what made the Canes dangerous late in the year was how dangerous their entire backcourt was, not just Wong. Kam McGusty and Charlie Moore are gone, but Kansas State transfer Nijel Pack — one of the best shooters in the country and the third-best scorer in the Big 12 last season — has stepped in to be Wong’s backcourt mate.
The transfer portal also brought Norchad Omier, the reigning Sun Belt Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year at Arkansas State, to Coral Gables. He gives Miami a true two-way presence on the interior, something that Larranaga hasn’t had during his 12 seasons with the program.
That trio of Wong, Pack and Omier can be as good as any in the conference. There are some questions about this team’s depth and its lack of size, but the Canes have a starting five capable of making another long NCAA Tournament run.
2) Florida State and Virginia return to the NCAA Tournament
Even if Florida State and Virginia don’t break up those three Elite Eight teams at the top of the conference, both programs appear locked in for bounce-back seasons and top-five finishes in the ACC.
The Seminoles were 13-5 last season — with two wins over Miami and a victory over Duke — before injuries mounted and ultimately derailed them in conference play. Three starters return, headlined by former five-star prospect Matthew Cleveland and Jalen Warley, a former four-star who was voted as the league’s top breakout player in The Almanac‘s anonymous poll of ACC coaches. Cleveland proved to be a quality two-way player as a freshman, while Warley is the team’s leading returning assist man and might be its best perimeter defender.
Those two, combined with Caleb Mills‘ microwave scoring prowess, growth from Cam’Ron Fletcher down low and the promise of 6-11 freshman Baba Miller, should have the ‘Noles competing right back at the top of the conference.
Virginia, on the other hand, returns its top six scorers from last season. Tony Bennett also brought in a quality transfer in Ben Vander Plas (Ohio) and a top-15 recruiting class, giving the Wahoos an immense amount of both experience and depth. And when Bennett has both those things, well, look out.
That’s not to say these rosters aren’t flawed, though. Florida State’s roster is the youngest Leonard Hamilton has had in Tallahassee (there’s only one senior listed on the roster) and still lacks a true point guard. Virginia returns a lot, but it does so from a putrid offense that ranked 13th in the ACC in 3-point shooting.
Essentially, some of the programs that plagued both Florida State and Virginia could limit them again in 2022-23. Both will be good, perhaps Top 25 caliber, yet each could be capped below the top three teams in the league.
3) At least three programs make coaching changes
There were two coaching changes in the ACC this past offseason: Jon Scheyer taking over for Mike Krzyzewski in Durham and Kenny Payne filling the void at Louisville left by Chris Mack.
I expect there will be substantially more turnover — of the firing variety — in this ACC next offseason.
Jeff Capel’s job at Pitt is probably the easiest answer for the hottest seat. He is entering his fifth season with the Panthers yet still hasn’t posted a .500 record or finished in the top 10 in the ACC in any season. Couple that with the fact that three players have been charged with felonies since January 2021 following the charges brought against Dior Johnson this weekend, and it’s hard to imagine this situation lasting much longer – especially with Pitt projected to finish near the bottom of the ACC again.
That said, there are three other marriages also worth keeping an eye on here. Clemson (Brad Brownell), Georgia Tech (Josh Pastner) and NC State (Kevin Keatts) are all facing program inflection points in the upcoming year.
Brownell led the Tigers to the NCAA Tournament in 2021 but has finished in the bottom half of the conference in three of the last four seasons and is sub-.500 (103-111) in his 12 years at the helm. Brownell’s name has been listed on the hot seat for most of his tenure at Clemson but has consistently managed to do just enough to stick around. This season is no different.
Pastner, meanwhile, enters his seventh season with the Yellow Jackets, and it looked like he had the program on the right track just a year and a half ago. Georgia Tech had back-to-back winning seasons in ACC play in 2019-20 and 2020-21, culminating in an ACC Tournament title in 2021 — the program’s first since 1993. Nevertheless, last season produced a dismal 12-20 record. Now, there are signs the rebuild that is starting all over again. Plus, the school will be bringing in a new athletics director.
Those two have past success they can lean on, though, and there are extra factors that will play into any firing decision for Brownell or Pastner.
Brownell’s contract runs through 2025-26 and has a roughly $3 million buyout which, while not crippling, makes a football school like Clemson think twice before making a move. It’s the classic “what exactly do we want our basketball program to be?” question. Georgia Tech just fired its football coach and are paying him a $11.3 million buyout. Will they want to dig even deeper into their pockets to part with Pastner if he has another bad season?
Speaking of large buyout numbers, that’s largely what kept Kevin Keatts at NC State. The school’s administration was split on whether to part with him or let him return for a sixth season; ultimately, those that wanted his return got their wish. However, that doesn’t mean his situation is settled.
The Wolfpack haven’t made the NCAA Tournament since his first season and have progressively gotten worse each year, resulting in a disastrous last-place finish in the ACC in 2021-22. It was the first time the program had ever lost 20 games in a single season. If those struggles continue for another season, it’s hard to imagine NC State bringing Keatts back again — even at a substantial buyout price.
4) Louisville finishes in bottom three
Speaking of Louisville, a new coach doesn’t necessarily bring newfound optimism when it comes to the immediate future of the Cardinal program.
Kenny Payne has a proven track record as a recruiter and assistant from his time on John Calipari’s staff at Kentucky (2010-2020) before spending nearly two seasons as an assistant with the New York Knicks. He’s also a Louisville alum who helped lead the Cardinals to the 1986 national championship. Payne checks every box you could want from someone who has never been a head coach before, and he already has Louisville in the running for a handful of top high school prospects.
The problem? He missed out on those high-end prospects and transfers this past offseason, leaving the Cardinals with some major question marks. El Ellis is the only guard on the roster expected to receive consistent playing time, though freshmen Fabio Basili and Hercy Miller might be forced into action because there is literally no other depth behind Ellis. The 6-3 senior also hasn’t proven he can be a point guard at this point in his career — though, in fairness, he hasn’t been asked to play that role — giving Louisville significant questions on the perimeter.
The Cardinals should be fine up front, but there are a lot of unproven players there, too. They’re counting on players like Sydney Curry, Tennessee transfer Brandon Huntley-Hatfield and freshman Kamari Lands to become go-to guys capable of carrying the scoring load. To this point, though, none of the three have proven to be anything more than a role player.
Louisville’s 6-14 record in conference play put them in a tie for 11th in the ACC standings last season. Given the personnel losses and a lack of immediate reinforcements, the Cardinals are going to get worse before they get better.
5) UNC wins the league by multiple games, wins national title
Enough negativity — let’s close on a positive with North Carolina, the team I’m picking to win the national championship.
The reasons behind my pick should be obvious, especially considering the Heels are a consensus preseason top-three team. UNC returns over 75 percent of its production from a team that made it all the way to the title game, and the Heels added one of the best transfers available in Pete Nance (Northwestern), who will slide right into the starting lineup. They also have the best player in the conference (Armando Bacot) and perhaps the best backcourt in the nation.
I don’t think this Carolina team is simply going to be good. I think it’s going to be great — maybe a team we look back on and say, “Wow, remember how good they were?“
I know your immediate reaction to this is likely to yell at your computer screen that the Heels were a No. 8 seed last year, a team that simply got hot late and is unlikely to repeat the deep run without Brady Manek, a huge key to their success this past March.
However, the secret truth is North Carolina was not just a one-month wonder. The Heels went 17-4 over the season’s final two and a half months following a loss to Wake Forest on Jan. 22. They ranked 11th nationally in efficiency during that stretch, per Bart Torvik, ahead of teams such as Villanova, Kentucky, Arizona, Arkansas and Auburn.
The Heels also ranked in the top 20 in both offensive and defensive efficiency after Jan. 23. That high level of play was maintained for about half of the season, not just a few weeks!
There are tangible reasons for that change, too. Hubert Davis’ inexperience likely played a role in UNC’s inconsistency early in the season and in some of those troubling losses. This is his first head coaching job at the Division I level, and he went from being an assistant with this group to following in the footsteps of the legendary Roy Williams. At some point, though, the substitute teacher vibe wore off, and he settled in. He made adjustments later in the year — tightening his rotation, defensive assignments, offensive sets, etc. — that experienced coaches implement.
The tightening of the rotation was also helped by the departure of Dawson Garcia, who left the team after that Jan. 22 loss to Wake Forest. A former five-star prospect who transferred from Marquette, Garcia struggled to find his footing in Chapel Hill and cut into Manek’s minutes. There were also some rumblings about chemistry concerns with him in the fold.
No matter what the exact issue was — or if it was simply a combination of everything — UNC was a high-quality team for a good portion of the season, with metrics that were indicative of the surprise run it ended up making. With so many key pieces back, the Heels have a chance to dominate an ACC full of question marks.