Brian Rauf | @brauf33 | 08/20/20
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 rebuilding year, 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 they return most of their key contributors from a season ago and have 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 #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.
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 their biggest challengers in the upcoming season? Here’s a look at our early ACC power rankings:
— THE FAVORITE —
1. Virginia Cavaliers (2019-20 Finish: 2nd | 23-7, 15-5 ACC)
We know what to expect from Virginia on the defensive end, and their excellence in that area gives them an extremely high floor on an annual basis. In reality, we probably saw that floor last year and it was still a quality season for the Cavaliers.
UVA is looking to return to the elite in college basketball in 2020-21, however, and they have the tools to do so. Losing Mamadi Diakite and Braxton Key will be tough (I don’t think either of those guys can be easily replaced), but a returning core of Kihei Clark, Jay Huff, and Tomas Woldetensae gives them a good baseline. Marquette transfer Sam Hauser will be eligible, too, providing the Cavaliers with another offensive spark. And, if Casey Morsell has the breakout season some (including myself) are expecting, Virginia will have a formidable offense to go along with their lockdown defense.
That recipe has won Tony Bennett one national title and four ACC titles already. It could win him a fifth in 2021.
— CHALLENGERS TIER —
2. Duke Blue Devils (2019-20 Finish: 4th | 25-6, 15-5 ACC)
As good as Virginia is, Duke will still be the team in the ACC with the most talent. Their six-man freshman class, all of whom rank in the top 51 nationally, contains four five-star prospects. Two of those five-stars – Jalen Johnson and DJ Steward – are projected to be first round picks in the 2021 NBA Draft, according to ESPN’s Jonathan Givony.
With quality players like Wendell Moore and Matthew Hurt back for Duke, along with Columbia grad transfer Patrick Tape, the Blue Devils figure to have a quality mix of experience (or at least what passes for it in today’s era) and elite talent.
It remains to be seen how the pieces fit together and if those freshmen are as ready for big-time college basketball as we think they are – that learning curve will be steep due to COVID limitations in the preseason – but there’s no denying this group’s ceiling if everything comes together.
3. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (2019-20 Finish: 5th | 17-14, 11-9 ACC)
I know I’m higher on Georgia Tech than just about everyone else, but I’m good with that – mostly because the Yellow Jackets look ready for a breakout season.
Jose Alvarado and Michael Devoe have been one of the ACC’s best backcourts over the last couple of seasons and both should take another step forward. They lead a group that finished 5th in the conference and brings back everyone other than big man James Banks, but appear to have someone ready to step into that rim-protecting role in Moses Wright.
This is the season Josh Pastner has been building for since he took over the Yellow Jackets. With a roster full of upperclassmen, now is the time for them to make their move up the standings. If they can become more consistent offensively, they will.
4. North Carolina Tar Heels (2019-20 Finish: 15th | 14-19, 6-14 ACC)
While I’m higher than most on Georgia Tech, I’m lower than most on UNC. Like Duke, the Tar Heels are bringing in a wealth of talent headlined by five-star point guard Caleb Love. They need it, too, considering we saw how much talent the Tar Heels lacked during last season’s debacle.
Garrison Brooks and Armando Bacot return to form a formidable front line with five-star centers Day’Ron Sharpe and Walker Kessler filling out the rotation. Leaky Black is the only notable returner on the perimeter, meaning the Heels will have to rely on youth at the sport’s most important positions.
And that is perhaps my biggest concern with this team – how their pieces fit together. Roy Williams recently floated the idea of playing Brooks at the small forward spot because of how loaded they are up front and how weak they are on the outside. Expect the Tar Heels to load the paint and dominate the glass, but I don’t know how the offense will work with such a lack of spacing.
5. Florida State Seminoles (2019-20 Finish: 1st | 26-5, 16-4 ACC)
Leonard Hamilton and the Florida State program have gotten to the point where they deserve the benefit of the doubt every season. They’ve proven they can outperform their undeservedly tempered preseason expectations every year.
I think they’ll be a top 25 team, but it will hard to replace what they lost in Trent Forrest, Devin Vassell, and Patrick Williams. They will need MJ Walker to finally become a star during his senior season and for five-star Scottie Barnes to be one of the best players in the conference if they’re going to repeat as conference champions.
But, conservatively, the Seminoles will be extremely deep and excellent defensively yet again, which will make them a definite factor in the ACC race.
6. Louisville Cardinals (2019-20 Finish: 3rd | 24-7, 15-5 ACC)
The Cardinals basically have to replace all five starters from last year’s team, including star wing Jordan Nwora, but Chris Mack has accumulated enough talent to this point in his tenure that Louisville should still be considered a challenger in the ACC.
In order to meet those expectations, however, a number of players will have to step up. David Johnson showed flashes but needs to stay healthy. Samuell Williamson needs to play like the five-star prospect he was, and he’ll have the role that will give him every opportunity to do so. Radford grad transfer Carlik Jones was a two-way star in the Big South but needs to prove he can be as effective in a power conference.
Those three, along with Malik Williams down low, should give the Cardinals a formidable lineup, but all have something to prove. Louisville’s depth took a hit, too, with JUCO star Jay Scrubb opting for the NBA Draft. They’re a team with questions, but a team with talent.
— BUBBLE TIER —
7. Syracuse Orange (2019-20 Finish: 7th | 18-14, 10-10 ACC)
The NCAA’s decision to grant Illinois transfer Alan Griffin’s waiver should give Syracuse one of the nation’s best shooting backcourts. The 6-5 guard averaged 8.9 points per game off the bench for the Illini while shooting 41.6 percent from three. Adding him to the mix with Joe Girard and Buddy Boeheim – who both proved they could be legitimate offensive weapons at the ACC level last season – gives the Orange a dynamic trio.
My concerns about Syracuse, though, are about what the depth behind those three looks like and how limited this group might be defensively. Marek Dolezaj continued his steady improvement but is still very much a role player, and it remains to be seen how players like Bourama Sidibe and Quincy Guerrier progress in their second seasons as rotation pieces.
Syracuse will need at least one of them to step up as no incoming freshman looks to be a slam dunk immediate contributor (wing Kadary Richmond is probably the closest thing to that). This group will still have their limitations defensively, even in their zone, so finding reliable secondary scoring options will be key.
8. Clemson Tigers (2019-20 Finish: 9th | 16-15, 9-11 ACC)
Clemson was close to the challenger tier but will have to sit here for now as a team that could have a real breakout season. With leading scorer and rebounder Aamir Simms back for his senior year, the Tigers return four of their five starters and seven of their nine major rotation players.
Simms’ return is huge in itself as he gives Clemson a legitimate All-ACC caliber performer that can match up with anyone. Throw in the progression of what was an all-freshman backcourt (Al-Amir Dawes and Alex Hemeway) and there is legitimate reason for optimism.
The key will be improving offensively. Clemson ranked 13th in the conference in offensive efficiency a year ago and have been outside the top 100 nationally in six of Brad Brownell’s 10 seasons. Crack that mark while maintaining their play on the other end and the Tigers could be a factor in the ACC.
9. NC State Wolfpack (2019-20 Finish: 6th | 20-12, 10-10 ACC)
The Wolfpack were hampered by obvious shortcomings a year ago. A team built to play fast under head coach Kevin Keatts did not have anywhere near the requisite depth to do so (dropped from 39th in tempo in 2018-19 to 103rd in 2019-20), and their record suffered. NC State will be deeper this coming season, but they also have more questions.
With Markell Johnson and CJ Bryce both gone, the Wolfpack will be looking to find new go-to offensive weapons. Devon Daniels and DJ Funderburk, both of whom return after testing NBA Draft waters, are the most likely candidates to make that jump, but both have been inconsistent throughout their careers in Raleigh. Top recruit Josh Hall would’ve been huge for them in this regard, too, but he chose to bypass college altogether for the NBA Draft (that refrain has become far too common for NC State fans).
There are also questions about how effective their depth will be behind them. Braxton Beverly needs to prove he can stay healthy and Manny Bates – who led the nation in block percentage as a freshman – needs to prove he can stay on the court by avoiding foul trouble. They need to find some immediately contributions from the freshman class, too, given Hall won’t be suiting up (I’m really high on Cam Hayes, but I digress). All that uncertainty puts the Pack in this middle tier.
— HOPEFUL TIER —
10. Miami Hurricanes (2019-20 Finish: 10th | 15-16, 17-13 ACC)
The good news for Miami is that Chris Lykes is still around and is still really, really good.
The bad news is that he’s still 5-7 and can’t play all five positions on the court.
Miami has struggled to build a true tournament contender with Lykes as the leader, yet there are some positive signs going into 2020-21. Harlond Beverly and Isaiah Wong showed flashes of promise as freshmen and either (or both) could have a breakout season. Kam McGusty is a nice piece on the wing and the combination of Sam Waardenburg and Rodney Miller gives them some rim protection.
The downside is that all of those guys were just, well, guys last season and have been for most of their career. When you lack scoring depth AND finish second to last in the ACC in defensive efficiency, you don’t have a recipe for success. Jim Larranaga’s best teams at Miami have ranked in the top 50 nationally in defensive efficiency, and this group is a long way from that.
11. Pitt Panthers (2019-20 Finish: 14th | 16-17, 6-14 ACC)
It felt like Pitt was taking a significant step forward in Year Two under Jeff Capel before they lost eight of their last nine games. That, coupled with the decisions of Trey McGowens and Ryan Murphy to transfer out of the program, has killed a lot of the positive buzz that was building around this program.
Having to replace two of your top five scorers is tough, especially when you’re still building depth as a program and were already one of the conference’s worst offensive teams. But Pitt isn’t re-starting from scratch, as Xavier Johnson and Justin Champagnie are back. Johnson looked like a future superstar as a freshman before taking a step back, and Champagnie was Pitt’s leading scorer as a freshman last year.
If both of those players can take a step forward, the Panthers will have something to work off of. There’s some talent outside of that, but also a lot of youth. The contributions of freshman John Hugley and William Jeffress inside will be telling about the potential of Pitt’s season.
— LET’S NOT FINISH LAST TIER —
12. Notre Dame Fighting Irish (2019-20 Finish: 8th | 20-12, 10-10 ACC)
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 good 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.
13. Boston College Eagles (2019-20 Finish: 11th | 13-19, 7-13 ACC)
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).
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 them losing their two biggest contributions in Derryck Thornton and Nik Popovic – but they 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.
14. Virginia Tech Hokies (2019-20 Finish: 12th | 16-16, 7-13 ACC)
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 they lost 11 of their last 13 games, a number of which were not particularly close. The Hokies still have a ways 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. They’re still about a year away from moving up a tier.
— WAKE FOREST TIER —
15. Wake Forest Demon Deacons (2019-20 Finish: 13th | 13-18, 6-14 ACC)
I hate to single out Wake Forest like this because 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.
Brian Rauf is a college basketball writer for HeatCheckCBB.com. His content has been featured by Sports Illustrated, Bleacher Report, and FanSided, among other publications. Rauf is also a current USBWA member and Rockin’ 25 voter.