North Carolina Picked Third

Chip Bremer

The offseason has not been kind to most ACC basketball programs—early defections, coaching changes and various scandals (ooh, that word) have shaken things up a bit, and could make for an interesting season. Some teams did make out fairly well this offseason: Duke got the nation’s top recruit to reclassify and join the team, NC State made a great hire for head coach, and the UNC program surprisingly got a clean bill of health despite the shadow of a long academic scandal. But other conference programs were not so lucky. Here’s a quick look at the contenders and pretenders for the upcoming ACC basketball season:

1. Duke. Mike Krzyzewski’s latest collection of all-star talent figures to make the Blue Devils the team to beat again this year. NBA scouts are already drooling over potential #1 pick Marvin Bagley, and the more op­ponents focus on him, the more likely things will open up for forward Wendell Carter or shooter Gary Trent Jr. to do their damage. Coach K managed to reel in a quality point guard this year in Trevon Duval, and his pairing with day-tripper Grayson Allen gives the Devils a lineup of which most programs can only dream. The only problem is living up to those massive expectations—which Duke hasn’t done very often.

2. Miami. The Hurricanes are a hot commodity this season! Some of that can be attributed to the genius of Jim Larranaga, and some of it to the returning nucleus of Bruce Brown, JaQuan Newton and future NBA prospect Dewan Huell, but most of it is due to the arrival of McD’s All-American wing Lonnie Walker. Even though he’s still coming back from an off-season injury, Walker may very well be the most dangerous player in the ACC. Hopefully, Larranaga will steer clear of trouble from the FBI investigation long enough to reap the rewards.

3. UNC. Thanks to a well-paid legal team and an inept NCAA (R.I.P. academic integrity, the Tar Heels can put that annoying scandal in the rearview mirror and focus on de­fending their national championship. Joel Berry II should recover from his broken hand in time to have another great season (as long as he refrains from further video game-related tantrums), and the perimeter looks strong with the return of Theo Pinson and the additions of freshman Jaleek Felton and former Pitt shooter Cameron Johnson. Their biggest concern is the thin frontcourt of which Luke Maye is the only experienced returnee. They were picked third last year.

4. Notre Dame. What? The Irish have a basketball team? Don’t tell NBC, but Mike Brey has a product that could challenge the Domers’ pigskin culture thanks to the return of All-American candidate Bonzie Colson. Sure, having experienced scorers like Matt Farrell and Rex Pfluger in the backcourt is a good thing, but Colson’s blend of tenacity and Barkley-esque moves makes the Irish a legitimate contender for the ACC title—and watchable team on TV.

5. Louisville. The Cardinals couldn’t escape the consequences of their own little scandal, and now must compete without Rick Pitino at the helm. Interim coach David Padgett does inherit a strong roster with Quentin Snyder, Deng Adel, V.J. King and Ray Spalding, just not a lot of shooting (thanks to the early departure of Donovan Mitchell). It’s a competitive squad for sure, but the impact of the NCAA sanctions will be evident from the void on the Cardinals’ bench. Too bad Pitino couldn’t ensure those prostitutes were available to the entire student population…

6. Virginia Tech. When discussing the deepest teams in the country, the Hokies would’ve been strongly in the conversation if not for the frontcourt’s sudden thinning thanks to center Khadim Sy’s mysterious departure and Chris Clarke’s nagging ACL injury. They still have a great many options on the perimeter with the return of Justin Robinson, Ahmed Hill, Justin Bibbs and Ty Outlaw, and the additions of freshmen Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Wabissa Bede. Maybe Buzz Williams will just play a five-guard lineup. Couldn’t hurt.

7. Virginia. There’s no doubt coach Tony Bennett will miss lead guard London Perrantes (if only because he has such a cool name), but don’t weep for him—he’s still one of the toughest defensive-minded coaches in the country, and he’s got a lot of pieces coming back. Devon Hall will slide into that lead guard role, and he’ll be flanked by sophomore shooters Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome. Keep an eye on the frontcourt, where big man Jack Salt will be joined by a pair of talented redshirts in Jay Huff and DeAndre Hunter. Yeah, not much drop-off there.
OK, now on to the rest of the field…

8. Wake Forest. Everyone keeps talking about how the Deacons will be hurting without center John Collins, who’s now earning paychecks in the pro ranks. But those people forget that Danny Manning still has a strong nucleus led by Bryant Crawford and Key­shawn Woods, and an exciting freshman wing in Chaundee Brown. The Deacs could be a dark horse for an NCAA bid.

9. NC State. Another thing to watch is the new-look Wolfpack under new coach Kevin Keatts, whose disciplined, guard-heavy ap­proach will be a breath of fresh air to Pack fans. Returnees Markel Johnson and Torin Dorn will make room for Baylor transfer Al Free­man in an improving frontcourt, and once forward Abdul-Malik Abu returns from injury, he’ll team with redshirt big man Lennard Free­man to give the Pack an intriguing post combination.

10. Syracuse. As long as Jim Boeheim is coaching, the Orange will be a tough out. Yes, they play the stingiest zone defense in the country, but they also have some exciting young talent in slasher Tyus Battle and lean forward Taurean Thompson. They also have South Flor­ida transfer Geno Thorpe to help with putting points on the board, so it doesn’t look like the Cuse will fall very far.

11. Georgia Tech. If you’re looking for a dark, dark horse, maybe the Yellow Jackets are the ticket. They made it all the way to the NIT finals on the back of big man Ben Lam­mers and his spunky sidekick (and sophomore hotshot), Josh Okogie. The rest of the roster isn’t impressive, but between Lammers and Okogie—and young coach Josh Pastner—they’re worth a good line in Vegas.

12. Florida State. The Seminoles are probably facing the biggest rebuilding job in the conference after losing Jonathan Isaac, Dwayne Bacon and Xavier Rathan-Mayes early to the NBA. Things are looking up though with after early reports on the potential of freshman M.J. Walker to take over games. And of course, Leonard Hamilton still has a way of bringing foreign 7-footers to Tallahassee, so there’s that.

13. Clemson. The Tigers lost Jerod Blos­somgame to graduation, but still have a decent guard combo in Shelton Mitchell and Marcquise Reed. I’m running out of nice things to say.

14. Boston College. The Eagles do have a pair of interesting guards in Jerome Robinson and Ky Bowman, but the interest stops there. Coach Jim Christian, please watch your step as you exit the flight.

15. Pittsburgh. Kevin Stallings, no. Just no.