The ACC has largely been dominated by Virginia over the past decade since Tony Bennett took over and, after taking a slight step back during a “reloading” season in 2019-20, the Cavaliers are expected to regain their perch atop the conference standings.
Accomplishing that will be no small task, however. Virginia is expected to take a step forward as it returns most of the key contributors from a season ago and has an abundance of offensive talent (for UVA standards, at least) – but most other programs are expected to take steps forward, too.
North Carolina has reloaded with the nation’s No. 2 recruiting class and will be a preseason top 25 team after last year’s debacle. Duke has another top recruiting class, too, along with some key returners. Florida State and Louisville are deep with talent and others, like Georgia Tech, Syracuse, and Clemson, are hoping for breakout years.
It is safe to say the ACC will be returning to its competitive norm after a collectively down year in 2019-20.
Though Virginia is the clear preseason favorite, who will be the biggest ACC challengers in the upcoming season?
15. WAKE FOREST DEMON DEACONS
Last season: 13-18 (6-14 Conf); No. 128 in DPI
Head coach: Steve Forbes (1st year with school)
Key returners: Isaiah Mucius, Jahcobi Neath
Notable newcomers: Jalen Johnson, Daivien Williamson
I really like the Steve Forbes hire and think he will do great things for the program sooner rather than later. That said, he is inheriting a mess from a talent standpoint, roster construction standpoint, and recruiting standpoint.
Given Wake’s relatively late decision to part with Danny Manning and the ensuing transfer portal epidemic that hit the Demon Deacons, Forbes had to spend most of his early time on the job convincing current players to return to the program rather than recruiting new ones. The strategy worked somewhat as several players who entered the portal chose to return — Olivier Sarr is one notable exception, which was a severe blow — yet it also resulted in essentially a lost recruiting class (No. 92 nationally and last in the ACC, according to 247sports).
To make a long story short, Wake finished tied for last and has to replace five of its top six scorers — including the top four — without much talent incoming. It’s going to be an uphill battle for the Demon Deacons.
14. BOSTON COLLEGE EAGLES
Last season: 13-19 (7-13 Conf); No. 193 in DPI
Head coach: Jim Christian (7th year with school)
Key returners: Jay Heath, Wynston Tabbs
Notable newcomers: Makai Ashton-Langford, James Karnik
Jim Christian has been the head coach at Boston College since 2014 and is a combined 25-85 in ACC play. The Eagles have never won more than seven conference games in his tenure and have only finished above .500 overall once (19-16 in 2017-18).
Largely due to the pandemic, Boston College let him come back for one more year to prove himself. History hasn’t shown us that there’s reason for hope — especially with losing its two biggest contributions in Derryck Thornton and Nik Popovic — but BC will have two quality backcourt players in Jay Heath and Wynston Tabbs.
The Eagles are returning four starters in total and welcome three grad transfers, so depth shouldn’t be an issue. Having the talent to consistently compete in the ACC, on the other hand, might be.
13. NOTRE DAME FIGHTING IRISH
Last season: 20-12 (10-10 Conf); No. 76 in DPI
Head coach: Mike Brey (21st year with school)
Key returners: Dane Goodwin, Prentiss Hubb
Notable newcomers: Cormac Ryan, Elijah Taylor
Mike Brey is a really good head coach. His recruiting efforts over the last couple of years haven’t been, though, and it’s starting to show.
Notre Dame didn’t sign anyone in the 2019 class and aren’t bringing in a top 199 prospect in 2020, and that’s not great when you have to replace four major contributors from last year’s team, including first team All-ACC big man John Mooney.
The Fighting Irish do have some nice pieces in Prentiss Hubb and Dane Goodwin, but I don’t see where the quality depth is going to come from. I’m keeping Notre Dame 12th because of the respect I have for Brey and his ability to develop players, but I just don’t see the talent level.
12. VIRGINIA TECH HOKIES
Last season: 16-15 (7-13 Conf); No. 91 in DPI
Head coach: Mike Young (2nd year with school)
Key returners: Nahiem Alleyne, Tyrece Radford
Notable newcomers: Keve Aluma, Cartier Diarra
We knew Virginia Tech was rebuilding from the ground up when Mike Young took over the program a year ago, and he did a phenomenal job at the start of the year, leading the Hokies to a 14-5 mark (5-3 in the ACC) out of the gate.
Then the lack of talent and experience caught up with Virginia Tech as it lost 11 of the last 13 games, a number of which were not particularly close. The Hokies still have a way to go to be competitive in the ACC, particularly after losing star Landers Nolley to Memphis, but Young does have something he can build on.
Guard Cartier Diarra transferred from Kansas State and should be their best player right off the bat. Four starters return as well, along with just about every other rotation piece. But this group still lacks anything resembling size and their talent is still developing.