After putting two teams into the Final Four and one into the national championship game, ACC basketball should once again be elite in 2022-23.
Throughout last season, numerous media members and college basketball pundits got their jokes off at the ACC. Admittedly, it was for good reason — almost the entire league played dreadfully in nonconference, and typical heavyweights like North Carolina, Virginia and Florida State all failed to live up to expectations early on. Consequently, calls for a “#OneBidACC” permeated the Twitter-sphere.
In late February, however, the script flipped over. UNC started playing like a top-five team, Virginia Tech got healthy, and both Miami and Notre Dame parlayed veteran experience into strong finishes. Duke also continued to play well, as it had all year.
Then, the postseason went swimmingly for the conference. The ACC produced three Elite Eight teams, two Final Four teams, and the national runner-up. Now, entering next season, the league should be back to performing at its normal, elite level.
Still, I concede that the bottom of the league continues to be horrific, grotesque, abysmal — you get the idea. But the teams at the top shake out quite nicely! North Carolina and Duke both have national title aspirations, with UNC coming in as the likely preseason No. 1. Meanwhile, Virginia and Florida State look to be in for bounce-back seasons. The next tier — Notre Dame, Miami and Virginia Tech — all have questions, but barring catastrophic injuries, each should make it back to the Big Dance.
Beyond those seven, it’s a bit of a crapshoot.
Here’s an early preview of the ACC going into the 2022-23 college basketball season.
Projected order of finish
15. Georgia Tech — Life came at Josh Pastner fast. In 2021, the face shield-clad coach led his team to an improbable ACC Tournament title, but that success dissipated in a hurry. The Yellow Jackets got hit with pesticide, finishing 14th in the league. Unfortunately for Tech, this year may be worse without Michael Devoe to keep them afloat.
14. Louisville — New head coach Kenny Payne infuses Louisville with much-needed energy, but the on-court results may take time to materialize. On one hand, the Cards boast a deep frontcourt headlined by Sydney Curry, Jae’Lyn Withers and breakout candidate Brandon Huntley-Hatfield. However, they have just one guard on the roster: microwave scorer El Ellis.
13. Syracuse — Nepotism is dead in Syracuse, New York. Both of the younger Boeheims have moved on, and in their stead, senior Joe Girard and freshman Judah Mintz must give lift with their perimeter scoring. In the post, the Orange need former five-star Benny Williams to deliver on his pedigree.
12. NC State — Terquavion Smith passed on the NBA Draft for one more season in Raleigh, but his team may only marginally improve. Without Dereon Seabron, Smith is the only offensive initiator, and he must rein in his shot selection and value possessions more. Alongside Terq, Kevin Keatts will deploy DJ Burns (Winthrop) and Jarkel Joiner (Ole Miss) — two quality newcomers who salvaged a roster decimated by the transfer portal. Ultimately, though, defensive concerns still abound.
11. Pittsburgh — I don’t know if Pitt’s backcourt will translate to winning basketball, but at least it will be fun! Well-traveled freshman Dior Johnson will get the keys to the offense, and Colgate transfer Nelly Cummings will serve as his running mate. Johnson possesses tremendous body control and court vision, while Cummings functions more as the bucket-getter. Perhaps those two, plus frontcourt stud John Hugley, can finally pull Pitt out of the basement.
10. Wake Forest — Steve Forbes has a case as the best Xs and Os coach in the conference, and that alone will keep the Deacs clear of the bottom. Unfortunately, the staff could not land any highly-touted transfers for whatever reason — be it admissions, NIL or something different. That’s a problem considering they must replace ACC Player of the Year Alondes Williams and top-20 draft pick Jake LaRavia. Wake desperately needs Daivien Williamson and Damari Monsanto to produce in expanded roles.
9. Boston College — In just one calendar year, Earl Grant has brought a semblance of stability to Chestnut Hill. The Eagles return 71.7 percent of last season’s minutes, per Bart Torvik, and they anticipate building off of a solid ACC Tournament run. Makai Ashton-Langford and DeMarr Langford comprise a solid backcourt, while sophomore guard Jaeden Zackery could be in for a breakout season. Maybe this trio can bring BC its first winning season since 2018.
8. Clemson — The Tigers’ fate lies in the hands of their frontcourt. Junior big man PJ Hall does just about everything at a proficient level, including his nimble footwork in the post, his serviceable shooting clip, and his ability to finds open teammates and protect the rim. Unfortunately, a knee injury will sideline him until at least November. Aside from Hall, Clemson has a surplus of uncertainty on its roster — most notably in the backcourt. Brad Brownell will hope one of freshman Dillon Hunter or redshirt freshman Josh Beadle can reliably run the point.
7. Virginia Tech — Though the Hokies lose All-ACC big man Keve Aluma, don’t expect them to fall back into the abyss. Mike Young’s squad retains plenty of talent to get back to the NCAA Tournament. Take the versatile Justyn Mutts, for example. The 6-7 fifth-year senior will anchor the interior on defense and nail beautiful passes on the other end. Plus, the Hokies still possess a good deal of shooting with Darius Maddox, Sean Pedulla and the best sniper of them all, Hunter Cattoor.
6. Miami — No program in the ACC utilized NIL opportunities better than the Canes — though they drew the NCAA’s eye in the process. Both Nijel Pack (Kansas State) and Norchad Omier (Arkansas State) are ready to ride the momentum from last season’s Elite Eight run, but getting back to the second weekend won’t be easy. Pack and Isaiah Wong make for an electric backcourt and should easily take Miami dancing, but losing guys like Kam McGusty, Charlie Moore and Sam Waardenburg lowers the ceiling.
5. Notre Dame — As is custom, Notre Dame returns a number of quality pieces. All-ACC wing Dane Goodwin helped ignite last season’s turnaround with his atomic shooting (45.3 percent from distance), and he suits up for a final fifth year. But it’s not just the veteran who shows off 3-point marksmanship; the entire Irish team will once again bomb away, as they have for years under Mike Brey. The biggest concern is whether either Trey Wertz or five-star JJ Starling can thrive as the primary lead guard.
4. Virginia — Last season, the Hoos’ offense probably made you wish Vecna would blind you while you’re stuck in an entranced state. Anything to keep from watching that monstrosity. But a new season offers hope! For one, Tony Bennett reeled in stretch-4 Ben Vander Plas from Ohio, giving the roster some much, much, much-needed floor spacing. On the perimeter, all eyes will be on Reece Beekman, who enters Year 3 — but also keep tabs on sophomore Taine Murray. A former top-100 recruit, the New Zealander played sparingly as a frosh. Despite that, he fits the mold of the prototypical Bennett guy who explodes out of nowhere.
3. Florida State — Throw out the tape from last season. The ‘Noles suffered so many injuries that they had a walk-on average 18 minutes a game over their last 11 contests. This year, Leonard Hamilton & Co. should rebound with a strong roster that meets the staff’s standards of size and athleticism. Sophomores Jalen Warley and Matthew Cleveland are both poised for success, with Cleveland looking especially ready for stardom. Spanish freshman Baba Miller, a 6-10 wing with bounce and a nice shooting stroke, gives Hamilton another potential pro in the rotation.
2. Duke — Jon Scheyer has already followed in Mike Krzyzewski’s footsteps, showing an ability to recruit the highest level of talent to Durham. Dereck Lively and Kyle Filipowski provide the Blue Devils with two top-10 freshmen in the frontcourt, while wing Dariq Whitehead brings an enticing combination of explosiveness and shot-making. However, Jeremy Roach will function as the most important cog. The junior floor general must get the new guys on the same page as Scheyer adjusts to his new job.
1. North Carolina — After rising from the depths of mediocrity, UNC morphed into one of the best squads in the country over the last six weeks of the season. With four starters back, continuity should be no issue in Chapel Hill. Armando Bacot returns as the ACC Player of the Year favorite, while Caleb Love and RJ Davis will again create baskets late in the shot clock. The returners are nice, but it’s versatile forward Pete Nance, formerly of Northwestern, who makes this the roster into the best unit in the country.
Virginia Tech — Several holes pepper this Hokies’ roster; for example, much like last year, they lack athleticism and proven depth. However, Mike Young has executed his offense almost perfectly, regardless of the pedigree of his players, and he likely does that again. Sophomore point guard Sean Pedulla could blossom in a bigger role. The unheralded recruit inspired confidence down the stretch of his rookie year, scoring in double figures in eight of Hokies’ final 10 contests. Additionally, he is a dog on the defensive end. Meanwhile, the aforementioned shooting of Darius Maddox and Hunter Cattoor gives the offense a high floor, should Pedulla need some time to adjust to starters’ minutes.
Breakout player to watch
Matthew Cleveland, Florida State — After earning honors as the ACC’s top sixth man, Cleveland may seem too qualified for this category. However, the 6-7 wing has Player of the Year upside, and thus, he merits selection here. Even as a freshman, Cleveland demonstrated an excellent understanding of spacing, often breaking free for a dunk by moving effectively without the ball. As a result, he ranked 11th in the ACC in dunks. As an on-ball player, he pressured the rim, converting a sterling 65.4 percent of his shots at the basket, per Hoop-Math. If he progresses as a 3-point shooter, he could easily score 17 points per game — which would be a rarity in Florida State’s egalitarian offense.
Dariq Whitehead, Duke — The Montverde Academy product possesses all the tools to become the next great Duke wing. Throughout his prep career, he showcased a quick first step and a special burst. In addition, he comfortably plays on the ball and, consequently, will shoulder the bulk of the Blue Devils’ perimeter scoring. Whitehead’s one glaring weakness is a streaky efficiency from distance. Still, that’s nothing out of the ordinary for a freshman. While Lively and Filipowski are also extremely high-level recruits, Whitehead has a chance to outperform both of them this season.
Best transfer addition
Nijel Pack, Miami — Jim Larranaga has historically given his guards a ton of freedom, from Shane Larkin to Angel Rodriguez to the Wong-McGusty duo. Now, Pack will be the latest benefactor. The K-State transfer lights it up from long range, incinerating the nylon off the catch and off the bounce. With 95 makes from downtown last season, he might be the best shooter in the conference. Moreover, Pack’s shot creation will ignite the Canes’ offense and take some of the burden off of Wong.
Player of the Year prediction
Armando Bacot, North Carolina — The double-double machine comes back to Chapel Hill as both a conference and a National Player of the Year contender. With a relentless motor, Bacot snatches up boards on both ends of the court. His acumen on the offensive glass proves especially important to UNC’s success, as it gives Caleb Love and RJ Davis a safety cushion for any difficult shot they take. But Bacot isn’t completely tied to the paint; last year, he showed adeptness at taking slower-footed big men off the dribble, and he even hit a few jumpers. (And, as a final note, his signature “Mondo Burger” is delicious.)