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2018-2019 ACC Basketball Preview (Updated)

This is my seventh ACC Basketball Preview. To view my previous entries, click on “more” beside my username, then select profile.

The ACC sent 9 teams to last season’s NCAA Tournament, and the 17 win conference champion became part of the biggest upset in the history of college basketball. Since then, the conference lost 12 players that were early entrants to the NBA Draft and landed 19 of the top 100 recruits in the country, while Louisville landed one of the best coaching candidates available and Pittsburgh somehow embraced Sam Hinkie’s process. The 2018-2019 ACC regular season could be one of the most competitive in years, with the possibility of Virginia and Duke taking a step back and Syracuse and Louisville improving to create a closely matched top 5 that will not produce another run away 17 win conference champion, but should produce eight or nine NCAA Tournament berths in March.

Note: This article will be updated for personnel changes through the beginning of the season and will receive additional updates prior to conference play and prior to Tournament play.

Please stop saying Luke Maye was a non-scholarship player; it's literally true, but more than a little misleading.  He was a 4 star recruit, not a walk-on.

Please stop saying Luke Maye was a non-scholarship player; it's literally true, but more than a little misleading. He was a 4 star recruit, not a walk-on.

North Carolina Tar Heels

2017-2018: 26-11, 11-7 (tie for 3rd) in the ACC; lost to Texas A&M in the NCAA Round of 32

Preseason projection: 1st in the ACC; Final Four

Final Standing: 29-7, 16-2 in the ACC (tie for 1st); lost to Auburn in the Sweet 16

Departures: Joel Berry (17.1 ppg., 3.5 rpg., 3.2 apg., 34.4% 3pt.) and Theo Pinson (10.3 ppg., 6.5 rpg., 5.1 apg.) graduated

North Carolina followed their 2017 National Championship with a disappointing second round loss in the NCAA Tournament, and Roy Williams must now replace the two primary offensive facilitators from that squad. He does return three starters, and adds UNC’s best recruiting class in years.

Replacing Berry will be Williams’ biggest challenge this season, particularly considering the most likely candidates are going to be freshmen. Coby White, a 6-5 top 25 recruit and the all time leading scorer in North Carolina high school history, should ultimately become the starter. If White does win the position, he will definitely bring a score first mentality; he’s an excellent perimeter shooter and a multi-speed driver that can finish at the basket in a variety of ways. Joel Berry was a score first point guard, so it wouldn’t represent a huge change for White to take over. Although he likely won’t start, Rechon "Leaky" Black, a 6-8 top 50 recruit, could become the team’s primary facilitator and spend much of his time as the defacto point guard. Similar to Pinson, Black is a pass first player with excellent vision as well as a strong rebounder that excels at starting the break. Also like Pinson, Black doesn’t shoot the 3 well at this point, but that won’t be a problem for the Tar Heels. Junior Seventh Woods will get a look at point guard as well, but his offensive skill set simply hasn’t developed. Regardless of who handles the ball, they will receive significant support from senior wings Kenny Williams and Cameron Johnson. The 6-4 Williams (11.4 ppg., 40.7% 3pt.) is a high end 3 and D wing that took a huge step forward as a junior. The 6-8 Johnson (12.4 ppg., 4.7 rpg., 34.1% 3pt.) struggled slightly with his shot in his first year after transferring from Pittsburgh, but he’s still a career 38.0% shooter from behind the arc for his career. Both Williams and Johnson posted better than 2 to 1 assist to turnover ratios a year ago and will help take care of the basketball, and both are willing contributors on the boards that will help the Tar Heels retain their rebounding edge (the Tar Heels finished 3rd in the country a year ago). Wiry 6-5 junior Brandon Robinson will provide Williams with additional depth as a developing 3 and D wing.

Luke Maye (16.9 ppg., 10.1 rpg., 43.1% 3pt.) was a breakout star for the Tar Heels following his 2017 NCAA Tournament heroics, and should be in the running for national player of the year as a senior. Despite limited athletic ability, he has an innate ability to find or create space for himself as both a shooter and rebounder; combined with a soft and accurate shooting touch and solid vision as a passer, he can capably serve as the focal point of the offense. Maye’s also a smart defensive player that can defend on the perimeter but more than held his own in the post after Williams moved him to center to create more favorable offensive matchups. Joining Maye in the frontcourt will be Roy Williams’ first top 5 recruit since Harrison Barnes. Nassir Little, a 6-7 projected top 5 pick in next year’s draft, should move into the starting lineup as the team’s stretch 4 while spending significant time at small forward. Little is an explosive scorer with an improving perimeter jump shot, and he's already an excellent defensive player whose length and athleticism will also allow him to compete on the boards. The Tar Heels will get larger when they go to the bench, with sophomores Garrison Brooks and Sterling Manley looking to build on better than expected freshman campaigns. Prior to Maye’s move to center in early January, the pair was averaging a respectable combined 30.8 minutes, 11.7 points, 9.7 rebounds, and 1.1 blocks per game. The 6-9 Brooks was the starter to begin the season, and he stepped in seamlessly to help at the defensive end and on the boards. The 6-11 Manley got lost at times, but his size and athleticism give him more upside. He’s already an imposing rebounder and shotblocker. Both should be better able to score in the post as sophomores after working on post moves in the offseason.

Just how good this North Carolina team is going to be will be largely determined by how efficiently the offense can run with freshmen running the point. While that will be an imposing task, it will be made significantly easier by the ability of returning starters Maye, Johnson, and Williams to stretch the floor. The Tar Heels also excel at passing as a team; they finished 3rd in the country in assist to turnover ratio a year ago, and everyone outside of their true centers had more assists than turnovers. With the addition of two high end scorers in Little and White to Maye and spot up shooters Williams and Johnson, scoring might actually come more easily to North Carolina, who finished last season 123rd in overall fg.% and 116th in 3pt.%. Otherwise, rebounding should again be a major strength, while the increased length on the perimeter should allow the team to better contest 3 point shooters (they were a dismal 322nd in 3pt.% defense a year ago). While Joel Berry was the most important player on the 2017 NCAA Championship team, Roy Williams will theoretically be putting more talent on the floor than he did a year ago; combined with a strong group of seniors, the Tar Heels should be a favorite to win an ACC title and potentially reach the Final Four.

December 6 pre-conference update: By the numbers, North Carolina is right there among the best teams in the country, and Coby White (15.3 ppg., 3.6 apg. 41.9% 3pt.), has been as advertised and more at times. There have been some growing pains, however, and the team isn’t shooting as well as it could (Luke Maye and Kenny Williams, in particular). Nassir Little’s development will be particularly important as the season goes on; he has struggled in big games and hasn’t passed or defended as well as his teammates, but it may help when his minutes increase as the rotation is shortened. Between the bulk he has added (which he may not have completely adjusted to yet) and his length, he’s actually larger than most stretch fours; as well as Garrison Brooks has played, the Tar Heels’ best lineup could still eventually include Little and Maye at the 4 and 5.

January 2nd update: The UNC fanbase has clamored for more playing time for Nassir Little and Roy Williams has described him as the most explosive player he has ever coached, but despite playing nearly half of each game on average Little has done very little in actual college basketball games to inspire enthusiasm. To this point, he doesn't move quickly or explode off the floor, and he doesn't shoot, pass, or defend particularly well. If he can't live up to expectations this year, then the ceiling for this North Carolina team is much lower. It doesn't help to have the offensively awkward and limited Seventh Woods playing behind work-in-progress Coby White at point guard (coincidentally, Leaky Black has played well in limited minutes, although he is playing exclusively off the ball). The Tar Heels can still be great, but that will require their two blue chip prospects to become comfortable sooner rather than later.

January 31st update: After a breakout performance against Virginia Tech, Little is finally starting to show the sort of explosion that has been long anticipated, although at this point he has mostly been effective attacking the paint and can really only be used as a mobile but not so stretchy four (it should also be noted that the Hokies are almost entirely shorter than Little and like to play up-tempo, which played perfectly to his strengths). He is also helping on the boards and is capable of making positive things happen at the defensive end, so things are looking up for UNC. Unfortunately, the seven or eight minutes a game when Coby White is off the floor have to be concerning and could hurt the team in March; despite being a former top 40 recruit with 3 years with the program, Woods still looks remarkably similar to a football player trying to play basketball when he has the ball in his hands. In a completely related note, Leaky Black has an assist to turnover ratio of nearly 2 to 1 and has shot the ball extremely well in his very brief opportunities.

March 12 pre-tournament update: Lingering injuries to Leaky Black and Sterling Manley have derailed any chance of expanded roles for the pair, and the Tar Heels’ bench has essentially been reduced to Nassir Little and, to a lesser extent, Brandon Robinson. The team doesn’t really have the option to play bigger that they were originally expecting, and Williams has dealt with his Seventh Woods problem by playing Coby White nearly the entire game, 36 minutes, in recent close contests. It is a particularly difficult and impressive thing for White to do considering his activity level at both ends of the floor, and the Tar Heels could face problems if he gets into foul trouble (although they have managed to win almost every game where that has happened). Still, UNC is among the six teams with a very real chance to win a National Championship. The defense has been solid (46th in fg% defense), they are among the best rebounding teams in the country at both ends of the floor (2nd in rebounding margin, 16th in offensive rebounds per game), and their offense is efficient in nearly every measure (64th in fg%, 44th in 3pt., and 13th in assist to turnover ratio). They can get uncomfortable when forced to play offense in the halfcourt (Virginia is obviously a tough matchup for them), but anything short of an Elite 8 would be a huge disappointment for Roy Williams and company.

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Jay Huff has finally arrived at UVA.

Jay Huff has finally arrived at UVA.

Virginia Cavaliers

2017-2018: 31-3, 17-1 (1st) in the ACC; lost to 16 seed UMBC in the NCAA Round of 64

Preseason projection: 2nd in the ACC; NCAA Sweet 16

Final Standing: 35-3, 16-2 in the ACC (tie for 1st); National Champions

Departures: Devon Hall (11.7 ppg., 4.2 rpg., 3.1 apg., 43.2% 3pt.), Isaiah Wilkins (6.0 ppg., 6.2 rpg., 1.4 bpg.), and Nigel Johnson graduated

Last season, Virginia won their third ACC regular season title in five years – and followed that by becoming the first 1 seed to lose to a 16 seed in the history of the NCAA Tournament. The challenge of recovering from that humiliation will be taken on by the same group of players, minus two senior leaders and without the addition of any newcomers likely to contribute immediately.

With Hall’s departure, even more pressure to create offense will be placed in the hands of the junior backcourt of Kyle Guy (14.1 ppg., 39.2% 3pt.) and Ty Jerome (10.6 ppg., 3.9 apg., 37.9% 3pt.). There is every reason to believe the pair can do more; both can create off the dribble and find teammates as well as create their own shot, and both are excellent shooters. The pair improved significantly as sophomores, with Guy being named first team All-ACC and Jerome being named to the third team. Bennett is particularly high on 5-9, 155 pound freshman Kihei Clark as an on the ball defender; he could allow UVA to continue to keep two point guards on the floor at all times. Guy and Jerome should receive significantly more help from redshirt sophomore De’Andre Hunter, the team’s best NBA prospect and a likely first round pick in next year’s draft. Hunter was heating up at the end of the year, and averaged 12.1 points and 4.9 rebounds while shooting 60% from 3 over his last 8 games prior to his wrist injury. His long arms and athleticism should make him the team’s best perimeter defender after Hall’s departure, and he could also emerge as the teams leading scorer with his rapidly developing game both inside and outside the arc. The remainder of the perimeter minutes should go to 6-4 redshirt sophomore Marco Anthony, who played well in very limited opportunities last season and should be able to hit an open 3 and contribute defensively with his length and athleticism.

Virginia was gifted a potential starter when the NCAA granted Braxton Key, a 6-8 former All-SEC Freshman Team member at Alabama, immediate eligibility. Key struggled with a knee injury as a sophomore and hasn't shot well from the perimeter to this point, but he should benefit from a more organized approach at the offensive end. His arrival will give Bennett the opportunity to play lineups with four or even five players with perimeter skills at times. The Cavaliers can also look for more points from 6-9 Mamadi Diakite, who started to emerge as a capable and entertaining post scorer as a sophomore. Diakite’s contributions should also increase both on the boards and in protecting the rim as he continues to add strength. 6-11 senior Jack Salt returns to anchor the defense and help closeout defensive possessions, although his contributions beyond that will remain limited. The most interesting member of the frontcourt rotation could again be 6-11 redshirt sophomore Jay Huff, who was unable to gain playing time a year ago (evidently for defensive reasons) despite his unique athleticism, shot blocking ability, and perimeter shooting. He should split time with Salt (and possibly Diakite) at center, but if he isn’t going to be a part of the rotation as a sophomore he should probably go elsewhere sooner rather than later; he would be a major contributor for most programs. If he is able to gain playing time, Virginia becomes a much more dangerous team at the offensive end of the floor.

Last year’s Cavaliers were highly efficient (5th in assist to turnover ratio and 41st in 3pt.%) and featured three point guards in the starting lineup with a fourth coming off the bench; without someone with a similar skillset available to fill Hall's role, offensive efficiency is going to drop. The team also lost its two best defenders (Hall and Wilkins), but those minutes will go to players that are also excellent fits into the defensive scheme, so they should continue to dominate at that end (they were 3rd in fg% defense and 10th in 3pt.% defense a year ago), at least against non-conference competition. However, what will almost certainly effect the team’s defensive dominance in the ACC will be the arrival of a second coach teaching the pack line defense in Chris Mack. UVA should still feature a stronger version with Louisville’s players all being new to the system (and Mack’s team’s haven’t been as successful at that end, in part due to their wish to push the ball more offensively), but with teams now facing the system 2 to 6 times a year instead of 1 to 3 they are eventually going to become more comfortable against it. This is a crucial year for the Virginia program; if they double down on last year’s humiliating loss in the NCAA Tournament, it could shake people’s faith in Bennett’s ability to eventually win in March, which would in turn hurt recruiting. A Sweet 16 appearance seems like a must for UVA to continue to compete at the top of the ACC. They certainly have the talent to do that, but another failure in March remains a very real possibility. Nothing hurts offensive flow more than placing artificial restrictions on the offense, and that is exactly what Bennett does; despite having superior talent, the team was never able to establish any kind of rhythm at that end against UMBC, and the results were historic in the worst possible way. If some of those restrictions are removed, then UVA could eventually contend for a National Title; if not, the team could regress and fall back to the middle of the pack in the ACC over the next few years.

December 6 pre-conference update: Kihei Clark has given the Cavaliers the third skilled point guard that they needed to retain most of their offensive efficiency from a year ago, and he’s been a difference maker as an on-the-ball defender. In addition, De’Andre Hunter (16.4 ppg., 5.5 rpg., 47.6% 3pt.) has emerged as the star and go-to scorer that the team needed. UVA will again have an excellent opportunity for a deep run in March, although Duke has become the favorite to win the ACC. Jay Huff still isn’t part of the rotation, but there is no indication that he’s going anywhere just yet.

March 5 pre-tournament update: With the emergence of Jay Huff as a dunking, passing, 3pt. shooting threat at the offensive end, the continued improvement of Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy as a triple threat backcourt and Mamadi Diakite as a post scorer, and the development of De’Andre Hunter as the possible (hopefully less crazy) second coming of Kawai Leonard, Virginia will actually enter the NCAA Tournament with more offensive threats than they had a year ago and a track record to prove it (they currently rank 25th in overall fg%, 4th in 3pt.%, and 5th in assist to turnover ratio). The defense is, of course, stifling; with Kihei Clark stealing precious seconds from opponent’s offensive possessions by pressuring the ballhandler and Huff and Diakite providing additional rim protection, this may be Bennet’s best defensive team as well (UVA is currently 3rd in fg% defense, 1st in 3pt. % defense, and 22nd in rebound margin). Virginia is as good as anyone and should be among the favorites to win a national title. That being said, the Cavaliers will still be more vulnerable than the nation’s other 5 elite teams teams due to their pace of play; the decreased number of possessions essentially decreases their own margin for error, and smaller, quicker teams will still be a threat in the early rounds if they hit their shots.

Marques Bolden is now the most experienced Blue Devil with a total of 530 minutes of Division I playing time.

Marques Bolden is now the most experienced Blue Devil with a total of 530 minutes of Division I playing time.

Duke Blue Devils

2017-2018: 29-8, 13-5 (2nd) in the ACC; lost to Kansas in the Elite 8

Preseason projection: 3rd in the ACC; Sweet 16

Final Standing: 32-6, 14-4 in the ACC (3rd); lost to Michigan St. in the Elite 8

Departures: Grayson Allen (15.5 ppg., 4.6 apg., 1.7 spg., 37.0% 3pt.) graduated; Marvin Bagley III (21.0 ppg., 11.1 rpg., 39.7% 3pt.), Gary Trent Jr. (14.5 ppg., 4.2 rpg., 40.2% 3pt.), Wendell Carter Jr. (13.5 ppg., 9.1 rpg, 2.1 bpg., 41.3% 3pt.), and Trevon Duval (10.3 ppg., 5.6 apg., 1.5 spg.) entered the NBA Draft

Last year’s Duke Blue Devils were the youngest in Mike Krzyzewski’s tenure, with four five-star freshmen starters to go along with a lone senior and more youth coming off the bench. The team was able to meet the expectations that came with the nation’s premiere recruiting class by reaching the Elite 8, but Krzyzewski will be starting from scratch, once again with the advantage of college basketball’s top recruiting class, following the departure of his entire starting lineup.

While Duke’s freshman class includes the top 3 recruits in the country, the most important member of the class could be point guard Tre Jones. Jones is a top 12 recruit nationally and the brother of Tyus Jones, who helped bring Duke a National Title in 2015. He’s a pass first point guard that can create, which will be particularly important considering the talent of his teammates and the possibility that the team won’t stretch the floor as well as Duke normally does (Jones may not help in that area either; he struggled shooting from the shorter high school 3 point line as a senior). The only other traditional point guard on the roster will be sophomore Jordan Goldwire, who may be able to take care of the basketball and defend his position but will provide little offensively off the bench. Jones will be joined in the backcourt by 6-7 R.J. Barrett, the number 1 recruit in college basketball and a potential number 1 pick in next year’s draft. Barrett is physically explosive and can do everything well with the possible exception of shooting from the perimeter. In addition to scoring, he’ll help Jones facilitate the offense and contribute on the boards. Cameron Reddish, the number two recruit and a potential lottery pick, will step in at small forward. Like Barrett, he’s an excellent athlete that will help at the defensive end and he’s an unselfish player that can create and will keep the ball moving. Reddish is really the only one of the 4 elite recruits that has an established ability to shoot from the perimeter, so he’ll be the most likely candidate to lead the team in scoring. He also spent time at point guard for the Team USA U-19 team, so if Jones falter he would provide another option. Due to the limited number of perimeter threats, 6-6 sophomore Alex O’Connell, a top 90 recruit a year ago that averaged just 10.4 minutes a game despite being the first perimeter player off the bench, will suddenly find himself incredibly important to Duke’s offensive success after establishing himself as a dangerous perimeter threat (48.9% 3pt.) as a freshman. O’Connell is a capable athlete in his own right and should be able to help more in every way after adding strength to his wiry frame. Duke welcomes another similar wing in 6-7 top 40 recruit Joey Baker, but he will be a redshirt candidate as an early college entrant.

Zion Williamson, the number three recruit in the class of 2018 and a potential top 5 draft pick, may generate the most excitement among Duke’s newcomers. At a physically explosive 6-6, 275 pounds, Williamson is reminiscent of a young Charles Barkley (assuming you’re old enough to remember that), although Williamson is bigger and isn’t quite that fast. He should excel as a rebounder and post scorer, he’s another willing passer, and he’ll aid in protecting the rim. Again, Williamson doesn’t shoot the 3 at a high percentage to this point (although it is a work in progress), and Duke started 5 players that could shoot from the perimeter a year ago. Marques Bolden will likely move into the starting center position. Bolden doesn’t really have the physical explosiveness or motor to live up to his original top 10 recruiting ranking, but he’s a solid big man that should be able to rebound, block shots, and score in the post as a junior. Even though Krzyzewski simply doesn’t use his bench much at this point, Javin DeLaurier had a breakthrough sophomore year and even started a few games due to the length it gave the front line once the team switched to a zone full time. DeLaurier is another outstanding athlete and established himself as a strong rebounder (4.0 rpg. in just 12.7 minutes) and a capable defender both in the paint and on the perimeter. Finally, while he won't provide much scoring, 6-7, 222 pound junior Jack White can offer an active and mobile body at both ends of the floor from either forward spot. With all of their size and athleticism, Duke will have a very real chance to lead the ACC in rebounding in 2018-2019.

Duke will actually be younger than they were a year ago, when they started four freshman but still had a senior NBA prospect to run the point for extended periods of time. Even though the four freshmen are all willing and capable passers, without an experienced guard turnovers could be an issue, and that will be compounded by the fact that this team may not shoot the 3 particularly well either. Also, after the freshmen began to struggle in his man defensive system midway through last year (they lost 3 of four, including giving up 81 points to St. Johns and 82 to UNC in losses), Krzyzewski switched to the zone he had picked up from Jim Boeheim to take advantage of the team’s length and to allow his starters to play more minutes (it worked: the team went from a strong 34th in overall fg% defense and 38th in 3pt. % defense over their first 24 games to a dominant 17th in overall fg% defense and 29th in 3pt.% defense by the end of the season). Duke doesn’t have the length of Bagley and Carter this year, so a move back to man seems likely, and that could see the return of problems with late game defensive fatigue due to the increasingly short bench, meaning the defense might not be as effective as it was a year ago either. Krzyzewski will be facing a new and unique challenge at both ends of the floor (although it’s a remarkably similar challenge to what John Calipari faced a year ago at Kentucky), and it’s hard to project this team as a contender for either an ACC or National Title. On the other hand, Duke does have the top 3 recruits in this class as well as the top rated point guard, and they’re coached by Mike Krzyzewski, so the best case scenario for the Blue Devils will again be a National Championship.

December 6 pre-conference update: Duke’s big 3 is as good as advertised, and two of them would be top 5 picks if last year’s draft were it held again without the one and done rule. With Jones, Bolden, and White able to provide complementary scoring on occasion, offense isn’t going to be an issue, and with only one true rotation player (Jones) under 6-7, loads of athleticism, and two high energy difference makers (White and DeLaurier) at the defensive end coming off the bench, the Blue Devils are going to excel defensively regardless of what system they choose to play. Duke is going to be hard to beat all year, and are among the 3 heavy favorites (along with Gonzaga and Kansas) to win a National Title.

January 15 post-injury update: While the loss of Tre Jones is a significant setback, tales of the Blue Devil's demise have been grossly exaggerated. The big 3, with help from Alex O'Connell and Jack White as spot up shooters and Marques Bolden as a supplemental post scorer, will still give Duke one of the most unguardable (albeit moderately inefficient) offenses in the country (Cam Reddish was also notably absent in the team's loss to an improving Syracuse team). While the on the ball pressure Jones provided will be missed, the team will be playing with even more length at that end with everyone on the floor standing 6-6 or taller (it's unclear how much Jordan Goldwire will actually play); Duke is currently 9th nationally in fg% defense, 32nd in 3pt. fg% defense, 15th in rebounding margin, and 1st in blocked shots, and those numbers should remain strong (particularly rebounding and shot blocking). If Jones returns by Tournament time, the Blue Devils will obviously still be among the favorites for a National Title; if not, they should still be in the conversation and at least be a heavy favorite to reach the Final Four.

March 7 pre-tournament update: Concerns about Duke’s inability to shoot the 3 have become somewhat overblown; their floor spacing, ball movement, and shot selection improve substantially with Zion Williamson, and the difference is substantial. The Blue Devils have shot 24.2% from 3 in the 5 games Zion has missed, which would rank dead last in Division I (i.e. 351st); with Zion, the Blue Devils hit nearly a third of their 3’s, 32.2%, which would rank a more respectable (but still bad) 291st. Regardless, the team still ranks 29th in the country in overall field goal percentage, so they aren’t exactly struggling to score. In Williamson’s absence, Jack White has finally gotten past his shooting slump and Alex O’Connell has gained significant confidence as a supplemental scorer, so Duke’s offense may actually improve upon his return. A larger concern for the Blue Devils may be Tre Jones, who has become so much of a non-factor as a scorer that teams have begun to abandon him completely when he’s off the ball. He will have to hit some open shots at some point for Duke to win a championship. Still, Duke is clearly among the six teams most likely to win the title, and can probably even be considered the favorite due to their talent level. If Duke is at all vulnerable to an early upset in the NCAA Tournament, it would likely be the result of pushing the pace against a team that wants to do the same thing, has several athletic wings, and shoots the 3 better than the Blue Devils. Duke’s defensive and rebounding advantages (their overall length) exist primarily in the halfcourt; in that scenario, they would risk being outscored.

Mfiondu Kabengele's uncle didn't shoot 3's like he does.

Mfiondu Kabengele's uncle didn't shoot 3's like he does.

Florida State Seminoles

2017-2018: 23-12, 9-9 (tie for 8th) in the ACC; lost to Michigan in the Elite 8

Preseason projection: 6th in the ACC; NCAA Round of 32

Final Standing: 29-8, 13-5 in the ACC (4th); lost to Gonzaga in the Sweet 16

Departures: Braian Angola (12.5 ppg., 3.9 rpg., 3.0 apg., 37.6% 3pt.) graduated; CJ Walker (8.0 ppg., 35.5% 3pt.) transferred to Ohio St. and Ike Obiagu (2.1 bpg.) transferred to Seton Hall

Florida State ended their 2017-2018 season with the deepest NCAA Tournament run of Leonard Hamilton’s career and the programs first Elite 8 appearance since the 1992-1993 season under Pat Kennedy. In doing so, the Seminoles proved that the offensive numbers from the prior season were no fluke, and that the team should continue to succeed at both ends of the floor moving forward.

The emergence of sophomore Trent Forrest keyed much of the Seminole’s late season success. Forrest stuffed the stat sheet down the stretch, averaging 12.6 points, 5.2 rebounds, 4.8 assists, and 2 steals per game over the final 10 games. He uses his 6-5 length to his advantage at both ends of the court and, while he isn’t a thread from behind the arc, the offense operates efficiently when he’s running the show. Hamilton added graduate transfer David Nichols from Albany to provide depth, so the Seminole’s eggs won’t all be in one basket at point guard following the departure of CJ Walker. At 6-0, Nichols (14.6 ppg., 4.3 rpg., 3.5 apg., 1.2 spg., 36.5% 3pt.) pressures the ball and competes on the boards as well, and he actually is a threat from beyond the arc. Angola’s departure should mean increased opportunities for M.J. Walker, a 6-5 top 25 prospect a year ago that showed flashes of what he could be as a freshman. Walker (7.0 ppg., 34.5% 3pt.) ended the season in a shooting slump, but he’s an athletic perimeter threat that could lead the team in scoring and establish himself as an NBA prospect as a sophomore. PJ Savoy will again serve as a designated gunner off the bench; with Walker struggling, his role expanded after returning from a knee injury, and he contributed a much needed 9.5 ppg. on 40% shooting from 3 over the team’s last 11 games. Even with all of the players that stepped up for FSU last season, small forward Terance Mann (12.6 ppg., 5.4 rpg.) will be the Seminoles second leading returning scorer as well as the leading returning rebounder after improving in both areas as a junior. Wyatt Wilkes, a 6-8 four star recruit a year ago, could see more opportunities off the bench as a sophomore.

Florida State’s outlook improved significantly when Phil Cofer was granted a medical redshirt for a sixth year of eligibility. Cofer (12.8 ppg., 5.1 rpg., 37.5% 3pt.) had a breakthrough first senior year, emerging as the team’s leading scorer and second leading rebounder as a dangerous 6-8 stretch four while also successfully guarding multiple positions defensively. The Seminoles best lineups featured Cofer along with breakout freshman Mfiondu Kabengele, who should emerge as a star and potentially an NBA prospect as a sophomore. Kabengele (7.2 ppg., 4.6 rpg. in 14.8 mpg.) provides the mobility and perimeter shooting to serve as a stretch 4, but at 6-9, 235 pounds with very long arms, he was by far the best rebounder on the team. He’s big enough to hold his position in the post and he provides solid rim protection as well, and by the end of the year he was serving as the team’s stretch 5 to close out games and give the Seminoles all sorts of versatility at both ends of the floor. He should see a significant bump in playing time and production. Although he won’t finish games, agile 7-4 center Christ Koumadje (6.5 ppg., 4.1 rpg., 1.5 bpg.) was the starting center for much of last season and could be again as a senior; he improved significantly as a junior, particularly on the boards, and will of course continue to provide intimidating rim protection. 6-9 sophomore RaiQuan Gray is another likely candidate for a spot in Hamilton’s rotation after playing sparingly as a 4 star recruit a year ago.

With the emergence and continued development of Trent Forrest and Mfiodu Kabengele, the Seminoles should improve defensively and on the boards after performing well a year ago (they were a solid 53rd in overall fg% defense and 84th in rebounding margin last season). At the offensive end, the increase in efficiency should continue after finishing 63rd in overall fg% and 119th in assist to turnover ratio last season; they’re not Virginia Tech by any means, but they’re now thoroughly respectable after struggling for years. The top 8 teams in the ACC will be extremely competitive, but Florida State will be able to match up with any of them, and they will again have the talent to produce a deep run in March.

December 21 pre-conference update: The Seminoles have not quite been themselves defensively (182nd in FG% defense) and overall offensive efficiency is down (289th in assist to turnover ratio), but they have performed as well as anyone in their non-conference schedule and are only now getting back Phil Cofer. They are dominating teams on the boards, which should continue in ACC play with Cofer’s return and most of the league playing smaller. Both centers and MJ Walker have shown improvement, while David Nichols has found success at the offensive end after appearing to press at the beginning of the year. Florida State could finish anywhere in the top 5 of the ACC and will be a legitimate Final 4 contender at the end of the year.

March 12 pre-tournament update: Based on their record, FSU has been one of the hottest teams in NCAA basketball to close the season, winning 12 of their last 13 in ACC play-- although only one of those games was against the top 3 teams in the conference, and that was a loss to UNC. Still, they play with as much depth, size, athleticism, and experience as anyone, and their best lineup can stretch the floor 1 through 5. That being said, they were affected by the offseason loss of CJ Walker; David Nichols has emerged as a dangerous scorer off the bench as the backup point guard, but he is the distributor that Walker was, and the Seminoles offense can become stagnant at times as a result. The team dropped to 220th in assist to turnover ratio from 84th a year ago, and consequently their overall shooting percentage has gone from 64th to 166th and their 3 point% has dropped from 177th to 244th. Fortunately, their length, athleticism, and depth, which includes the best center combo in the country, result in a defense that can make up for any offensive shortcomings on most nights (currently 29th in fg% defense and 49th in rebounding margin). FSU can make a deep run, possibly even to the Final Four, but their journey will likely end when a team that can handle their size and athleticism can force them to play in the halfcourt and pressure the basketball, while foul trouble for Trent Forrest could hasten their exit.

Chris Clarke could still be a key figure in Virginia Tech's first NCAA Sweet 16 appearance - if it happens next year.

Chris Clarke could still be a key figure in Virginia Tech's first NCAA Sweet 16 appearance - if it happens next year.

Virginia Tech Hokies

2017-2018: 21-12, 10-8 (7th) in the ACC; lost to Alabama in the NCAA Round of 64

Preseason projection: 8th in the ACC; NCAA Round of 64

Final Standing: 26-9, 12-6 in the ACC (5th); lost to Duke in the Sweet 16

Departures: Justin Bibbs (13.3 ppg., 39.8% 3pt.) and Devin Wilson (2.8 ppg., 1.9 rpg., 23.5% 3pt% in 16.4 mpg) graduated; Chris Clarke (8.2 ppg., 6.3 rpg., 3.0 apg., 42.4% 3pt.) was suspended for the season

As he continues to build a program that finished last in the ACC for the second consecutive time just four years ago, Buzz Williams took last year’s Virginia Tech team to a second consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance following a nine year absence. With all but one major contributor returning to one of the most efficient offensive teams in the country and the addition of a player that was missing last season as well as two highly regarded freshmen, the ceiling will again move higher for the Hokies.

Justin Robinson returns to serve as Virginia Tech’s heart and soul as a senior. He aggressively attacks off the dribble, finds open teammates, shoots clutch 3’s, and relentlessly pursues at the defensive end. Robinson (14.0 ppg., 5.6 apg., 1.2 spg., 39.8% 3pt.%) had an outstanding junior year, leading the team in points, assists, and steals, while also shooting a high percentage beyond the arc. His backup Wabissa Bede, a top 80 recruit a year ago, saw limited opportunities as a freshman, but when he did he took good care of the basketball and shot well from behind the arc. He’s a similar player to Robinson and should be prepared to take over for him next year. Williams added another 4 star point guard in 6-4 Jon Kabongo, but he could be a redshirt candidate thanks to a late growth spurt. Joining Robinson in the backcourt will be sophomore Nickeil Alexander-Walker, a 6-5 top 25 recruit a year ago that projects as a first round pick in next year’s NBA Draft. Alexander-Walker (10.7 ppg., 39.2% 3pt.) posted solid numbers as a freshman, but should be prepared to take over as the team’s leading scorer this year. At small forward, 6-5 Ahmed Hill, another long and active wing that is dangerous behind the arc, returns for his senior year. Hill (10.6 ppg., 41.0% 3pt.) is capable of more, particularly at the defensive end. Freshman Landers Nolley, a top 60 recruit, fits the same mold, although he enters college with even more of a reputation as a threat from behind the arc. Nolley is up to 6-7, 210 pounds after a late growth spurt and a summer in the weight room and may also be able to help with the team's rebounding problem.

The key to Virginia Tech’s frontcourt will again be 6-6 senior Chris Clarke, who was able to play in every game for the Hokies last season after suffering through injuries his first two years at the program. He’s the team’s best rebounder and a strong defender with good hands, and he helps Robinson facilitate the offense. Clarke (8.2 ppg., 6.3 rpg., 3.0 apg., 42.4% 3pt.) has been working on his perimeter shot, and may even become a more potent scoring threat as a senior. The Hokies will also see the return of senior Ty Outlaw from the knee injury that cost him last season; when he last played, Outlaw put on a ridiculous display (he hit 32 3’s at a 64% clip in the 8 games prior to his injury) from 3 point range. Now the second largest likely rotation player at 6-6, 220 pounds, he should see time at both forward spots. 6-10 junior Kerry Blackshear (12.5 ppg., 5.9 rpg.) will again start at center; he’s a respectable post scorer that is slowly expanding the range on his jump shot, and he held up reasonably well as a post defender last season. Unfortunately, more bizarre decision making from former starting center Khadim Sy means that 6-5, 215 pound sophomore Paris Horne will again be forced into action as the team's backup center during the 15 minutes or so when Blackshear is off the floor, which could of course increase if Blackshear gets into foul trouble (which at least doesn't happen often). Horne is strong enough to at least get in the way in the post and grab an occasional rebound, but he obviously can't provide rim protection and is at a huge disadvantage against taller post scorers and larger rebounders. An injury to Blackshear, who missed the 2016-2017 season with a shoulder injury, would be devastating for Virginia Tech; as it is, the Hokies will again struggle to defend the paint and compete on the boards (even Blackshear doesn't excel in those areas) after finishing last season 112th in overall field goal % defense and a disturbing-for-an-ACC-team 259th in rebounding margin.

Virginia Tech finished last season 6th in overall field goal%, 30th behind the arc, and 26th in assist to turnover ratio, and if anything there is reason to believe they will be better in every category (Devin Wilson’s 16.4 minutes per game will go to players that will be much more helpful at the offensive end). The team could also see some marginal improvement at the defensive end and on the boards with another year of physical development for returning players and Wilson’s minutes going to larger players that are more productive rebounders. While their severe size limitations will again limit their ceiling, Virginia Tech will have a very real chance to be better than they were a year ago. With what should be one of the premiere offenses in college basketball, and barring an injury to lone big man Kerry Blackshear, this could still be the year that Buzz Williams takes the program to the Sweet 16 for the first time in school history.

October 31 Update: Virginia Tech has suspended Chris Clarke indefinitely and removed him from their online roster. If he is eventually suspended for the year or dismissed, the Hokies could become the worst rebounding power conference team in the country. They would drop to eighth in this projection, although their offense could still carry them to a short lived NCAA Tournament appearance.