2018-2019 ACC Basketball Preview (Updated)
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.
-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.
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 regular season record: 26-5, 16-2 in the ACC (tie for 1st)
Current postseason projection: Final Four
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.
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 regular season record: 28-2, 16-2 in the ACC (tie for 1st)
Current postseason projection: Elite 8
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.
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 regular season record: 26-5, 14-4 in the ACC (3rd)
Current postseason projection: Final Four
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.
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 regular season record: 25-6, 13-5 in the ACC (4th)
Current postseason projection: 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.
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 regular season record: 23-7, 12-6 in the ACC (5th)
Current postseason projection: Sweet 16 (with Justin Robinson)
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.
December 13 pre-conference update: With Landers Nolley in NCAA limbo and Chris Clarke’s status with the team unknown (and following Khadim Sy’s final departure), Virginia Tech is missing a significant amount of the limited size they expected to have. The offense is still among the most efficient in the country (11th in overall fg%, 4th beyond the arc, and 19th in assist to turnover ratio), although the only substantial competition Virginia Tech has faced in their first 9 games has been Purdue and Penn St., both of whom outrebounded the Hokies and nearly came away with victories. Personnel losses and disappointing play have watered down the ACC outside of the top 6 teams, so the Hokies should still manage a strong conference showing, but the school’s first Sweet 16 appearance may have to wait unless one or both of the missing players are able to return.
January 12 Update: With Clarke and Nolley out for the year, the Hokies ceiling has definitely been lowered, although they still have the firepower to pull an upset on any given night.
February 10 Injury Update: The sight of Justin Robinson on crutches during Virginia Tech's game against Clemson has to be frightening for Hokies fans. In his absence, the team is really down to 7 players, and one of those, Isaiah Wilkins, wasn't part of the plan before the season. Bizarre victory over NC State aside, there may be legitimate reason for concern; while Wabissa Bede came out of high school with a reputation as a similar player to Robinson, he clearly hasn't shown Robinson's confidence or aggression at the offensive end in his first significant time at the helm, and the team is struggling mightily to score. Four of the Hokies' last seven games are against the bottom half of the league and their record to this point is so strong that they should still be in a good position on selection Sunday if he returns, but at the very least Virginia Tech's seeding will be adversely affected. On the other hand, if the tournament committee doesn't have any assurance that Robinson will play and the team struggles as much as it is likely to in the meantime, there is an outside chance that a Hokies team that had legitimate Final Four aspirations in May could be left out of the field entirely due to injury and eligibility issues.
March 11 pre-tournament update: Considering their complete lack of size, particularly for a power conference team, what Virginia Tech has accomplished this year has been incredible in one sense, and an indication of how perimeter oriented college basketball has become in another. The Hokies have only one big man on their entire roster, yet they have managed to successfully defend inside the arc (37th in fg% defense) and compete on the boards (85th in rebounding margin) in college basketball’s best conference. More recently, they have performed well enough without senior point guard Justin Robinson to indicate that they would likely be an NCAA Tournament team without him (6-4, including a home win against Duke). In Robinson’s absence, Kerry Blackshear emerged as a triple threat perimeter player, dangerous post scorer (24.3 ppg., 11.5 rpg. over one 4 game stretch), and imposing rebounder, while Nickeil Alexander-Walker has added point guard play to his NBA resume. Assuming Robinson’s return, the Hokies will be a threat to anyone in the Tournament, although they are still vulnerable to teams with long and athletic bigs that can run with them (like UVA, UNC, Louisville, and FSU). With their offensive efficiency restored and a tenacious defense, this should be the year Buzz Williams leads the Hokies to their first ever Sweet 16.
2017-2018: 22-14, 9-9 (tie for 8th) in the ACC; lost to Miss. St. in the NIT Quarterfinals
Preseason projection: 6th in the ACC; NCAA Round of 32
Final regular season record: 19-12, 10-8 in the ACC (tie for 6th)
Current postseason projection: NCAA Round of 64
Departures: Deng Adel (15.0 ppg., 5.2 rpg., 35.0% 3pt.) and Ray Spalding (12.3 ppg., 8.7 rpg., 1.5 spg., 1.7 bpg.) entered the NBA Draft; Quentin Snider (11.8 ppg., 4.0 apg., 41.6% 3pt.) and Anas Mahmoud (6.8 ppg., 5.0 rpg., 2.9 bpg.) graduated
Despite a loaded roster, Louisville ended last season in the NIT following the turmoil of a recruiting scandal and Rick Pitino’s subsequent firing. Interim coach Scott Padgett was then replaced by Xavier’s Chris Mack in the offseason. Mack has been among the most successful coaches in the country over the last 9 seasons at Xavier, producing 8 NCAA Tournament appearances, three Sweet 16’s and an Elite 8 during that time; that may not be quite at Rick Pitino’s level, but he also wasn’t coaching at Louisville. Padgett did very little to develop Pitino’s outstanding final recruiting class or to bring in additional players, but there is so much talent remaining from the Pitino era that Mack is still being handed the most promising roster he’s ever had.
Padgett decided to rely heavily on veterans that already knew what they were doing, evidently not trusting his own ability to develop young players (which, upon further review, he was probably right about). One victim of that was Darius Perry, a top 60 recruit a year ago that received just 14.3 minutes per game despite being what appeared to be the heir apparent at point guard. While he struggled to produce under Padgett, the potential is still there; Perry has at least developed his perimeter jump shot, and the quickness that made him a highly regarded recruit didn’t go away. Mack added graduate transfer Christen Cunningham from Samford to supplement Perry and to possibly start by his side. Cunningham missed most of last season due to illness, but when he was last healthy he posted 11.4 points and an impressive 6.3 assists per game while shooting 35.4% from 3. Playing together, the pair should be able to help generate the sort of offensive efficiency Mack’s teams normally feature (Xavier was 42nd in assist to turnover ratio and 14th in overall fg%; under Padgett, Louisville was 117th and 147th respectively). Ryan McMahon (6.1 ppg., 40.8% 3pt.) would have likely been overmatched as a starter, but he will again help spread the floor off the bench. Graduate transfer Khwan Fore could factor into the perimeter equation as well, although he posted modest overall numbers for a struggling Richmond team in the A-10 a year ago. While he doesn't shoot the 3 particularly well, he is at least reasonably efficient with the basketball and can score. At small forward, V.J. King (8.6 ppg.) was projected as a first round draft pick prior to last season, but he actually regressed in some ways under Padgett; he may be happier than anyone that wasn’t a freshman for the regime change. He should improve substantially and resurface as an NBA prospect under Mack.
Malik Williams was also on the NBA’s radar before Padgett took over, but he ended up playing just 10.6 minutes a game over 32 games as a freshman (he did start early but struggled). Williams has added very necessary weight in the meantime; he was a five star prospect that, at 6-11, should provide shot blocking as well as a strong perimeter jump shot and, like King, should again be able to attract NBA attention under Mack. Fellow sophomore Jordan Nwora (43.9% 3pt.), a top 60 recruit a year ago, received just 12 minutes a game in 28 games. When he did get to play, he showed flashes of potential with a smooth perimeter jump shot and a bouncy willingness to contribute on the boards. One newcomer that did make good things happen was 6-5 UNCA transfer Dwayne Sutton; despite playing just 15.2 minutes a game, he was second on the team in both rebounds and steals per minute and third in blocks per minute while also displaying an improved 3pt. stroke. He should see a substantial increase in minutes across multiple positions. 6-11, 250 pound traditional center Steven Enoch, originally a top 80 recruit at UConn, will become eligible after transferring, while 6-8 graduate transfer Akoy Agau, a capable rebounder, returns to Louisville after spending time at Georgetown and SMU, so if Mack needs a larger body than the lean sophomores he will have capable options available.
Chris Mack utilizes a pack line defense similar to the one deployed by Tony Bennett at Virginia, although his version hasn’t been nearly as suffocating (Xavier was just 119th in overall fg% defense and 97th in 3pt.% defense last season). That should eventually improve at Louisville with longer and more athletic players, although it will be interesting to see how quickly those players pick up the system in his first year (Bennett often redshirts players, or at least doesn’t play them very much, until they can learn his system). One thing that Xavier did do was compete on the boards (12th in rebounding margin), and with that length and athleticism Louisville should at least be able to do that as well (it somehow didn’t happen under Padgett; the Cardinals were 215th in rebounding margin despite playing larger than almost everyone). Overall, Mack is adopting a talented roster even by ACC standards, and the Cardinals should be substantially better than they were a year ago even if there are growing pains as players adjust to new offensive and defensive systems. Mack should ultimately be tremendously successful with the program moving forward, particularly after the haze of the Pitino scandals wear off and recruiting recovers, and there remains a very real possibility that his first Louisville team will get its act together and be a tough out by Tournament time.
January 1 pre-conference update: Jordan Nwora (17.8 ppg., 8.4 rpg., 38.6% 3pt.) has emerged as a star for the Cardinals; he is currently the only player on the team averaging double figures. Steven Enoch won the starting center job and has provided mobile size and a perimeter threat, but Malik Williams is improving rapidly and is becoming the rebounding and shotblocking force he was projected to be and could eventually force his way into the starting lineup. At small forward, Dwayne Sutton (9.1 ppg., 5.9 rpg., 42.5% 3pt.) has played so well (including a now dependable perimeter jumper) that V.J. King’s role has actually diminished further, so Louisville’s frontcourt should be among the best in the ACC. Unfortunately, the backcourt has not been quite so impressive, as Christen Cunningham (9.6 ppg., 3.2 apg., 41.9% 3pt.) has been the only consistent performer and is the only player Mack can really trust with the offense. Louisville does look like a potential Tournament team, but guard play is not a good place to struggle in today’s college basketball.
March 5 pre-tournament update: Louisville came crashing back to reality with the second half of a seriously backloaded ACC schedule, but overall what Chris Mack has accomplished in his first year is remarkable considering the Cardinals only have one guard (graduate transfer Christen Cunningham) that is a triple threat offensively and is good (but not great) at both ends of the floor. Thanks to strong player development under Mack, Louisville does boast one of the best (and largest) frontcourts in the country, and Jordan Nwora, Dwayne Sutton, Steven Enoch, and Malik Williams do provide enough offense both inside and out that, in combination with a strong defense, the Cardinals could still make a run in the Tournament, although without strong guard play their ceiling is probably limited to the Sweet 16. The Cardinals will be particularly vulnerable to teams that apply pressure and get the ball out of Cunningham’s hands.
2017-2018: 23-14, 8-10 (tie for 10th) in the ACC; lost to Duke in the Sweet 16
Preseason projection: 4th in the ACC; Elite 8
Final regular season record: 19-12, 10-8 in the ACC (tie for 6th)
Current postseason projection: NCAA Round of 32
Departures: Matthew Moyer transferred to Vanderbilt
The Orange were a controversial addition to last year’s NCAA Tournament but responded by winning three games to reach the Sweet 16. Jim Boeheim’s zone was one of the best defenses in the country (at two ACC schools – it was used at Duke as well), while the offense was one of the worst (they finished a remarkable-for-a-NCAA-Tournament-team 318th in overall fg.%, 328th in 3pt.%, and 308th in assist to turnover ratio), which made Syracuse games difficult to watch at times. The defense should again be staunch (they finished 5th in fg% defense, 22nd in 3pt.% defense, and 57th in rebounding margin), while the addition of a pair of talented freshman perimeter players and the surprising return of Tyus Battle provide hope for significant improvement at the offensive end.
After struggling with inconsistency the first two years of his career, Frank Howard (14.4 ppg., 4.7 apg., 1.8 spg.) took over the point guard position by default yet performed admirably with very little help after Geno Thorpe left the program. His numbers weren’t great, but he was the only member of the team to average over 1.5 apg. while also maintaining a positive assist to turnover ratio. Howard’s an excellent passer, a disruptive defender, and he can get to the rim. Although still maddeningly inconsistent with his jump shot, he is improving as a perimeter shooter, which will be much easier with better floor spacing and a little rest. With few other options at point guard, Howard was forced to play an average of 38.4 minutes a game last year; with much needed help arriving, he could emerge as a star as a senior. Freshman combo guard Jalen Carey, a 6-4 top 40 recruit, should take some of the pressure off of Howard. Carey is incredibly fast and can create off the dribble and find open teammates. It’s possible that he could get out of control at times and turn the ball over, but the additional ball movement and improved spacing created by his drives should at least help improve the team’s dismal shooting percentages. Tyus Battle (19.2 ppg.), a 6-6 junior who would have been drafted at some point had he kept his name in, should benefit from the arrival of the freshmen as well. Battle’s shooting fell off last year due to limited ball movement, scoring options, floor spacing, and rest (Battle played a team leading 39 minutes per game); again, all four should improve, and Battle should go from second team All-Conference to first and improve his draft stock as a result. The second potential impact freshman is Buddy Boeheim, the coach’s son, who was only a three star prospect due to limited athleticism but is 6-5 and one of the best perimeter shooters in his class. His length will help him fit into the team’s zone, which he is quite familiar with, and his shooting ability will provide much needed floor spacing for the offense. He should help right away. Jim Boeheim has been particularly optimistic about the potential offensive contributions of Elijah Hughes, a 6-6 sophomore transfer from East Carolina, but that optimism is based largely on his performance in practice; Hughes' production was limited (partially by injury) and his shooting unimpressive in his lone season in the AAC.
The breakthrough star for last year’s Orange was 6-8 forward Oshae Brissett, who plays with one of the highest motors in college basketball and is now projected as a first round pick in next year's draft. Brissett’s a dominant defensive rebounder that allows the team to close out possessions quickly, and offensively he attacks the rim as well as anyone in the conference. Perhaps most impressively, he somehow manages to do both without getting into foul trouble (he was the third Syracuse player to average over 38 minutes per game). Brissett (14.9 ppg., 8.8 rpg.) also struggled to hit shots at times, but again that was largely because limited offensive options left him to force bad shots and his legs were tired by the end of games. His shot selection should improve with the arrival of the freshmen. Marek Dolezaj had a strong freshman year as well; he came in with a reputation for scoring, but his contributions were primarily at the defensive end and on the offensive boards despite weighing under 200 pounds at 6-9 last year. With added strength, he should improve in every aspect of his game as a sophomore, including providing more scoring as he did during the ACC and NCAA Tournaments when he averaged a combined 11.2 points per game. The Orange’s stifling defense was anchored by their centers, where Paschal Chukwu (6.8 rpg., 2.5 bpg.) was able to play in every game and provided outstanding rim protection and rebounded well at both ends of the floor. Combined with rising sophomore Bourama Sidibe, Syracuse totaled 10 rebounds and 3.2 blocks per game from the center position.
Syracuse should again be one of the premiere defensive teams in the country. Offensively, the addition of more weapons should result in improved shot selection and shooting percentages; while they won’t suddenly become an offensive juggernaut, the Orange should be substantially improved from last year at that end of the floor. An expanded rotation will help the team at both ends as well, as Boeheim was down to using six players by the end of the year. After what could be considered a pair of rebuilding years that somehow included a Sweet 16 appearance, Syracuse should again compete at the top of the ACC and, with their tendency to seriously mess people up at the defensive end in the NCAA Tournament, have the potential to advance even further in March.
December 13 pre-conference update: Understandably, the Orange struggled mightily at the offensive end without Frank Howard to open the season, but he has posted a nearly 4 to 1 assist to turnover ratio since his return to help right the ship (Syracuse ranked 316th in overall fg%, 348th in 3pt.%, and 261st in assist to turnover ratio through 4 games, but they have climbed to 180th, 185th, and 115th respectively in the five games since). As a spot up shooter, Buddy Boeheim in particular needs to be set up by a passer; he shot 2 for 16 beyond the arc without Howard, but has his 4 of his last 10 since Howard’s return. Elijah Hughes has seen similar improvement and is developing into a strong complement to Tyus Battle; he shot 25% from 3 without Howard and is shooting 41.2% since. Syracuse is well on their way to developing the type of improved offense envisioned prior to the season, and should be among the best teams in the conference once ACC play begins.
January 14 Update: Jim Boeheim's current insistence on starting Marek Dolezaj at center because of the floor spacing and offensive possibilities he presents has had a clear impact on Syracuse's ability to defend the paint, and was among the main reasons for the team's home loss to a struggling Georgia Tech team that does feature a strong starting center in James Banks. Paschal Chukwu and Bourama Sidibe average a combined 8.5 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per 29.5 minutes of playing time, while the still very lean Dolezaj's defensive production works out to just 4.8 rebounds and .6 blocks per 30 minutes. It's an interesting choice for Boeheim, and considering how important defense has been to their recent NCAA success one that could limit their ceiling in March.
January 31st Update: The attempts to shoehorn the 180 pound Dolezaj in at center seems to have come to an end for the most part after a fairly horrifying attempt to stop a charging Zion Williamson against Duke. Paschal Chukwu has stepped up and the defense has improved substantially, while Dolezaj is serving as a secondary facilitator from a forward spot for most of his minutes. More importantly, Tyus Battle has emerged and become an effective distributor as the team's second point guard, and, combined with the emergence of Buddy Boeheim, the Orange are now a competitive threat beyond the arc and a reasonably efficient offensive team. Jalen Carey is the odd man out of the rotation; he could still be the point guard of the future, but he has shot poorly and has had significantly more turnovers than assists as a freshman, so for the time being the offense is more efficient without him.
March 5th pre-tournament update: Despite obvious improvements in their scoring capabilities, the Orange have not shown significant improvement in offensive efficiency (they currently rank 281st in overall fg%, 263rd behind the arc, and 192nd in assist to turnover ratio). While the team has won NCAA Tournament games with defense over the past two years, Syracuse has fallen off at that end of the court as well, and has particularly struggled with keeping teams off of the offensive boards. The team is down to 261st in rebounding margin after finishing 57th a season ago, and that is largely due to the continued insistence on shoehorning the 180 pound Marek Dolejaz in at center for 15 to 20 minutes per game. Dolejaz is skilled offensively, hustles, and is willing to throw his body around, but the reality is that he can be pushed off the block by most big guards. Syracuse is likely to face a tough first round opponent and a one or two seed if they reach the second round of the NCAA Tournament, and they will be particularly vulnerable to teams that crash the offensive boards, pass the ball, and shoot well behind the arc. The talent is available for the team to advance farther than they did a year ago, but that doesn’t seem likely at this point.
2017-2018: 25-10, 11-7 (tie for 3rd) in the ACC; lost to Kansas in the Sweet 16
Preseason projection: 11th in the ACC
Final regular season record: 19-12, 9-9 in the ACC (tie for 8th)
Current postseason projection: NIT
Departures: Gabe DeVoe (14.7 ppg., 4.7 rpg., 39.6% 3pt.), Donte Grantham (14.2 ppg., 6.9 rpg., 41.9% 3pt.), and Mark Donnal (47.6% 3pt.) graduated; Anthony Oliver (34.6% 3pt.) decided to transfer
In a season where their coach’s job may have very well been at stake, the Clemson Tigers made a seemingly improbable run to the Sweet 16, granting Brad Brownell a reprieve from the warden. They must now try to approach those same results without two key players and with only one clear replacement.
Brownell will welcome back two thirds of his three guard perimeter from last season in 6-3 seniors Shelton Mitchell (12.2 ppg., 3.6 apg., 36.8% 3pt.) and Marcquise Reed (15.8 ppg., 4.7 rpg., 3.3 apg., 1.7 spg.). Both players are respectable perimeter shooters and solid defensive players, with Reed more likely to generate a steal. Neither is a great distributor (Clemson was 137th in assist to turnover ratio last season). 6-8 junior David Skara is long and mobile and seems like he should make good things happen at the offensive end, but he doesn’t. He does, however, play excellent defense at small forward. The only options to replace DeVoe's minutes will be freshmen: Hunter Tyson, a 6-7 4 star recruit, will be in the mix because of his ability to shoot the basketball, while John Newman III, a 6-4 4 star recruit, should eventually provide athleticism and aggression at both ends of the floor.
Elijah Thomas (10.7 ppg., 8.1 rpg., 2.3 bpg.) returns for his senior year at center where he excelled a season ago, proving to be an excellent rebounder and shot blocker as well a capable post scorer. Javan White (10.2 ppg., 9.0 rpg. at Oral Roberts), a 6-10 graduate transfer with two years of eligibility remaining, is a solid rebounder in his own right and a developing inside out scorer. He will take the 12.5 mpg. that Mark Donnal provided and hope to take over at center when Thomas graduates. 6-7 Aamir Simms took over at power forward following Grantham’s injury, and while his overall numbers were modest he did shoot 36.7% from 3 over the last 16 games and averaged 1.6 blocks over the last 9. He should see an increase in scoring opportunities as a sophomore, although he doesn’t have Grantham’s athletic ability or offensive skills. 6-8 fellow sophomore Malik William could eventually provide a contribution similar to Simms.
Clemson finished the season 9-7 following Donte Grantham’s injury, and 5 of those wins were against the bottom 4 teams in the ACC; they were inconsistent, but sometimes great, without him. They will now be playing without Gabe DeVoe as well, and he was tremendously important to Clemson’s success a year ago, particularly during their NCAA Tournament run when he was clearly their best player of the floor (25 ppg., 5 rpg., 3.3 apg., 47.8% 3pt in 3 games). DeVoe was a well rounded guard that had a tremendous senior year and averaged 34.3 minutes per game; while one of two players may be able to replace his perimeter shooting, they won’t do the other things he did to help the offense, and that’s a problem considering the starting backcourt doesn’t really distribute the ball that well. Clemson isn’t going to score the way that it did a year ago, and they weren’t an exceptional offensive team then. They should still defend and rebound (they were 21st in overall fg% defense, 28th in blocks, and 96th in rebounding margin), but that may not be enough for a return to the NCAA Tournament.
January 1 pre-conference update: Clemson has replaced Gabe Devoe’s offense with a larger contribution from senior David Skara (9.2 ppg., 4.5 rpg., 41.9% 3pt.), who at the very least has emerged as a respectable spot up perimeter shooter, while fellow senior Clyde Trapp has provided an additional veteran presence to the backcourt. Unfortunately, the Tigers have struggled mightily shooting the 3 (279th in 3pt. fg%) and for some reason the defense is down as well (one reason may be that Aamir Sims isn’t quite as mobile as Grantham at power forward; Clemson is 328th in 3pt. fg.% defense). The Tiger’s best non-conference wins were against Georgia and South Carolina, two SEC teams facing down years. While a middle of the pack ACC finish is well within the realm of possibility with roster issues effecting so much of the conference, Clemson will have a great deal of work to do to return to the NCAA Tournament.
North Carolina State Wolfpack
2017-2018: 21-12, 11-7 (tie for 3rd) in the ACC; lost to Seton Hall in the NCAA Round of 64
Preseason projection: 7th in the ACC; NCAA Round of 32
Final regular season record: 21-10, 9-9 in the ACC (tie for 8th)
Current postseason projection: NIT
Departures: Allerik Freeman (16.1 ppg., 4.2 rpg., 38.5% 3pt.), Lennard Freeman (7.9 ppg., 4.3 rpg.), Sam Hunt (41.8% 3pt.), and Abdul-Malik Abu graduated; Omer Yurtseven (13.5 ppg., 6.7 rpg., 1.8 bpg., 50.0% 3pt.) transferred to Georgetown
Kevin Keatts came aboard an apparently sinking ship (albeit one with quite a bit of returning talent) and returned the Wolfpack to the NCAA Tournament in his first year as coach. The season was followed by significant roster turnover due to a large senior class, but the overhaul will provide him more players that are ideal fits for his style of play.
NC State is really only returning three productive players from a year ago, but that includes one of the best, and likely most improved, returning backcourts in the ACC. Junior point guard Markell Johnson (8.9 ppg., 7.3 apg., 1.7 spg., 40.9% 3pt.) is a star in the making; he’s the best passer in the ACC, and he’s lighting quick both off the dribble and at the defensive end. He’s also a very capable scorer either hitting an open three or attacking the paint when that’s what the defense gives him, making him a nearly impossible player to defend. He’s joined by another outstanding point guard in Braxton Beverly. While he certainly doesn’t have Johnson’s athleticism, Beverly (9.5 ppg., 3.9 apg., 38.5% 3pt.) is a smart player at both ends of the floor, a strong perimeter shooter, and an excellent passer in his own right (he averaged 6.3 assists per game over an early 9 game period, including time when Johnson was unavailable). With a backcourt including a sophomore and a freshman, the Wolfpack were highly efficient offensively in Keatts first year (56th in overall fg%, 70th in 3pt.%, and 36th in assist to turnover ratio), and that stands to improve with a year of experience for the young duo. Blake Harris, a top 100 recruit that left a crowded backcourt situation at Missouri to join another one, will allow Keatts to keep two point guards on the floor at all times if he wants. The most likely candidate to take over as the third perimeter player will be C.J. Bryce, a 6-5 guard that was a star at UNC Wilmington and followed Keatts to Raleigh. Bryce (17.4 ppg., 5.4 rpg., 3.0 apg., 33.1% 3pt. at UNCW two years ago) is an outstanding scorer with an improving perimeter shot that competes on the boards and helps keep the ball moving. His arrival means that the Wolfpack may very well become one of the best offenses in the country. Another transfer, 6-5 Devon Daniels (9.9 ppg., 4.6 rpg., 40.0% 3pt.) from Utah, will provide yet another perimeter weapon after a particularly promising freshman year in the Pac 12. 6-5 graduate transfer Eric Lockett (14.3 ppg., 6.5 rpg. 3.1 apg., 1.2 spg. at Florida International) isn't a perimeter threat, but he will help rebound and pressure the ball for what will often be a lineup with four perimeter players.
Keatts made an unheralded yet incredibly important late addition to his roster with the signing of graduate transfer Wyatt Walker (12.9 ppg., 9.7 rpg. two years ago; he missed last season with a leg injury) from Samford. While Walker won’t provide the floor spacing or rim protection of Yurtseven, he’s a solidly built 6-9, 240 pound player that pursues the ball relentlessly on the boards and can score in the post on occasion. His rebounding is particularly important for the Wolfpack because they were in position to be horrible at it as a team. They finished 181st in rebounding margin a year ago, and that was with Yurtseven, Abu, and Freeman, all strong rebounders at some point in their college careers, in the fold; there was reason to doubt the ability of the other frontcourt newcomers to grab rebounds, while Walker may actually be an upgrade to all of the departed players in that one area of the game. Torin Dorn returns to his role as an undersized stretch 4. Dorn (13.9 ppg., 6.3 rpg.) is overmatched at times trying to defend much larger players, but he’s a tough player that competes on the boards well enough to make playing out of position workable. At the other end of the floor, his offensive skill and overall productivity more than makes up for what the team sacrifices by choosing to play small even by today’s standards. If Keatts wants to use a more traditional power forward, he will have one with loads of potential available in transfer Derek Funderburk. Originally a top 50 recruit in the class of 2016, the 6-9 Funderburk redshirted as a freshman, then spent a year at junior college following the firing of his chosen coach Thad Matta. He’s a great athlete and another dangerous scorer both inside and out, although he may not offer much more than Dorn on the boards at this point. With freshman Immanuel Bates redshirting, Funderburk will see time in the post as well, which means the Wolfpack will still be at a huge disadvantage on the boards for extended periods of time.
NC State has the potential to be an outstanding offensive basketball team. Defensively, Keatts likes to pressure the basketball (the Wolfpack were 45th in steals last year), and their ability to do so will only increase this year as they become even more athletic. They also defend the 3pt. line extremely well (18th in 3pt. % defense a year ago), but in exchange leave themselves vulnerable in the paint (296th in overall fg% defense – a frankly amazing dichotomy), a logical trade off considering the way the college game is evolving, but one that does leave them vulnerable to teams that pass well and play with size. While their limited frontcourt and style of play will occasionally put them at risk, the Wolfpack are good and getting better, and Kevin Keatts now seems capable of matching or even surpassing the early NCAA success of his predecessor (Mark Gottfried had 4 NCAA Tournament appearances and 6 Tournament wins in his first 4 years).
December 21 pre-conference update: In just his second year with the Wolfpack, Kevin Keatts has created one of the most statistically impressive teams in the country. With their two high efficiency point guards and collection of shooters, the offense has been among the most efficient in college basketball (5th in fg%, 8th in 3pt.%, and 55th in assist to turnover ratio). Markell Johnson (13.6 ppg., 4.3 apg., 50% 3pt. on 48 attempts) is a legitimate star that should eventually draw NBA interest after adding a strong and confident perimeter jumper to his ability to penetrate, pass, and defend. What has been a surprise is the Wolfpack’s ability to rebound (albeit against a weak, often undersized non-conference schedule); with Torin Dorn, C.J. Brice, and Devon Daniels helping the team compete on the glass at both ends of the floor, NC State is 15th in the country in rebounding margin. Wyatt Walker has been merely adequate in the post, so the Wolfpack will struggle to defend the paint, but in many ways they’re similar to the Loyola Chicago team that reached the Final 4 a year ago (that team has fallen off since the wings that allowed them to compete on the boards graduated). Their performance in the ACC will have a lot to say about it, but a similar run for NC State could actually be within the realm of possibility.
Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
2017-2018: 13-19, 6-12 (13th) in the ACC
Preseason projection: 14th in the ACC
Final regular season record: 14-17, 6-12 in the ACC (10th)
Departures: Josh Okogie (18.2 ppg., 6.3 rpg., 1.8 spg., 38.0% 3pt.) entered the NBA Draft; Ben Lammers (11.7 ppg., 8.1 rpg., 2.4 bpg.) and Tadric Jackson (12.7 ppg., 3.7 rpg.) graduated
After a promising first year under Josh Pastnor, Georgia Tech suffered a setback last season, and the team is likely to do so once more this year after being hit hard by graduation and the early departure of Josh Okogie for the NBA.
Even with the losses, Georgia Tech has talent, particularly on the perimeter. Point guard Jose Alvarado was among the bright spots for the Yellow Jackets prior to an elbow injury that ended his season prematurely. As a sophomore, he will suddenly find himself as the only established major contributor on the squad. Alvarado (12.1 ppg., 3.1 apg., 1.7 spg., 37.0% 3pt.) is a tough and aggressive 6-0 player in the mold of Virginia Tech’s Justin Robinson, and he will provide a strong foundation for a suddenly very young Georgia Tech team. He will likely be joined in the backcourt by 6-4 freshman Michael Devoe, a lean and athletic top 50 recruit that is a pass first point guard with a solid shooting stroke that could allow Alvarado to play off the ball at times. Without a go to scorer in Okogie, the extra ball movement will be very necessary for the team to find open shots. 6-3 junior Shembari Phillips, who provided limited production in extended minutes at Tennessee before transferring (6.2 ppg. In 20.9 mpg. 2 years ago), will at least provide an experienced hand in the backcourt. Curtis Haywood II, a 6-5 four star recruit a year ago, was playing extremely well (he put up 11.7 points, 5.7 rebounds, 4.7 assists, and 1.8 steals while shooting 52.4% behind the arc during a five game stretch) prior to the lower leg injury that eventually ended his season after just 15 games and will likely return to small forward where he was the starter early in the year. Brandon Alston still has one more year of eligibility after transferring from Lehigh; he provides another capable spot up shooter at 6-5 and is becoming more assertive under Pastnor's direction.
As important as the loss of Okogie was to the Yellow Jackets, Ben Lammers’ graduation likely leaves the biggest void. When Georgia Tech has won over the past two years, it has won with defense, and the rim protection and rebounding Lammers provided was the key to that success (the Yellow Jackets were a respectable 108th in overall fg% defense and an imposing 11th in blocks last season). He also played big minutes (36 mpg.), and the Yellow Jackets will struggle to replace those contributions. However, the NCAA did gift Pastnor a big body with potential by granting a surprise waiver to James Banks allowing him to play immediately after transferring from Texas. At 6-10, 240 pounds, Banks provides size comparable to Lammers and, as a former top 50 recruit, he could still develop into a similar player despite his limited success with the Longhorns. 6-9 senior Abdoulaye Gueye (5.9 ppg., 4.4 rpg., 1.1 bpg.) will take some of those minutes at center as well, but his game is still a work in progress. He took a large step forward last season and does provide some rim protection, but at just 215 pounds he isn’t able to rebound or hold his position like Lammers. 6-8 Evan Cole took over at power forward late in the season and will return there as a sophomore; he improved as the season progressed and put up 6.3 ppg., 5.3 rpg., and shot 38.5% from behind the arc over the team’s last 8 games. 6-9 Moses Wright may have the highest ceiling of the frontcourt candidates; he was the subject of a significant late growth spurt and didn’t have a chance to fill out before his freshman year. He was forced into action anyway due to the team’s lack of depth, and the results were understandably disappointing. Wright developed the skills of a guard prior to he rapid increase in height, and after having time to add weight could become a solid contributor as a skilled and athletic stretch 4.
While Georgia Tech lost three major contributors and suddenly finds itself very young, player development has been excellent under head coach Josh Pastnor, and the team has been able to remain competitive even when a rash of injuries decimated the roster. While the defense will take a step back without Lammers and rebounding will become even more of a challenge (they were just 193rd in the country with him), this team may actually improve at the offensive end with improved point guard play and a solid collection of perimeter shooters (Georgia Tech struggled mightily with offensive efficiency last year due in part to all of the injuries, finishing 283rd in overall fg%, 325th in 3pt.%, and 223rd in assist to turnover ratio). While the Yellow Jackets are likely a year away from being good again, they should still represent the conference well in non-conference play and remain competitive in the ACC.
December 21 pre-conference update: Thanks in large part to the addition of James Banks (a potential all-conference player averaging 13.6 ppg., 10.8 rpg. and 2.8 bpg. over his last 5 games) as a suitable replacement for Ben Lammers, the Yellow Jackets are again playing outstanding defense (19th in fg% defense, 18th in 3pt.% defense). Unfortunately, the offense has been a horribly inefficient work in progress (201st in fg%, 296th in 3pt.%, and 261st in assist to turnover ratio). There is, however, hope for improvement as Pastnor settles on a rotation that includes offensively efficient freshman Khalid Moore. A more assertive Curtis Haywood would help.
March 6 pre-tournament update: Josh Pastnor’s compulsory youth movement had predictable consequences at the offensive end of the floor, as the Yellow Jackets’ offense was at times embarrassingly inefficient in every possible way (they currently rank 235th in overall fg%, 333rd in 3pt%, and 266th in assist to turnover ratio). Still, the team should be optimistic about the future, as the backcourt of Jose Alvarado and Michael Devoe has improved as the year has gone along and the roster is loaded with long and athletic wings, at least some of whom should find their shooting touch by next season. Even with the offensive frustration, the defense has been suffocating (currently 21st in fg% defense and 7th in 3pt% defense), and, anchored by what should be an All-ACC center next season in James Banks, could get even better. Barring unexpected defections, Pastnor should have the Yellow Jackets competing for their first NCAA Tournament appearance in 10 years in 2020.
Boston College Eagles
2017-2018: 19-16, 7-11 (12th) in the ACC; lost to Western Kentucky in the 1st Round of the NIT
Preseason projection: 12th in the ACC
Final regular season record: 14-16, 5-13 in the ACC (tie for 11th)
Current postseason projection: coaching change
Departures: Jerome Robinson (20.7 ppg., 3.6 rpg., 3.3 apg., 40.9% 3pt.) entered the NBA Draft
Last year Boston College played postseason basketball for the first time since 2011, but the NIT appearance was a disappointment relative to the preseason expectations created by their dynamic backcourt and the arrival of graduate transfer Deontae Hawkins, whose injury largely derailed the Eagles’ efforts. With both Hawkins and Jerome Robinson now gone, Jim Christian must find a way back to the postseason or risk the fate of his predecessor Steve Donahue.
With Robinson gone, Ky Bowman will be left to do his best Trae Young impression as the center of everything BC does at the offensive end. Bowman (17.6 ppg., 6.8 rpg., 4.7 apg., 1.5 spg., 36.2% 3pt.) was honorable mention All-ACC as a sophomore despite posting incredible numbers much more impressive than those of his backcourt mate Robinson, and he was already averaging a seemingly impossible 38.2 minutes per game; it’s hard to imagine him doing more. He was second on the team in points and rebounds (at 6-1, he’s the best rebounder 6-2 or under in college basketball) and led the team in assists and steals, and he also somehow managed to shoot well without any rest. If BC is going to even maintain their success from a year ago, the improvement necessary to compensate for Robinson’s departure will have to come from someone else. 6-5 senior Jordan Chapman (12.9 ppg., 39.5% 3pt.) will join him in the backcourt, and he can score more (although he was already averaging 36.8 minutes per game), but he is primarily a (very good) spot up shooter and won’t be able to do much to help Bowman facilitate the offense. If Christian needs a third traditional guard, the next man up will likely be 6-3 freshman combo guard Wynston Tabbs, a 3 star recruit that comes in as a relative unknown but might be able to help with scoring. Otherwise, beyond those two being asked to play nearly ironman minutes, Christian’s rotation will likely consist of much larger players.
Steffon Mitchell burst onto the scene as a freshman and was able to provide much of what was lost with the injury to Hawkins. At 6-8, he’s an outstanding athlete that can defend in the post or on the perimeter, and he led the team in rebounding and blocks. Mitchell (6.4 ppg., 8.3 rpg.) was also third on the team in assists and posted a nearly two to one assist to turnover ratio, so he could be the player that helps Bowman facilitate the offense in the way that Theo Pinson was able to for UNC. His perimeter shot is still a work in progress, but there is reason for optimism. Along with Chapman, Mitchell should see the largest increase in scoring in Robinson’s wake. The Eagles add a very similar bookend forward with 6-8 top 60 recruit Jairus Hamilton. Hamilton is physically explosive and farther along as a scorer both inside and out than Mitchell at the same time a year ago, and the Eagles can only hope he can provide a similar effort defensively and on the boards. Once he begins to fill out his frame, 6-7 sophomore Vin Baker Jr., who came in at 177 pounds after a late growth spurt, should provide Christian with an additional skilled forward. In the post, 6-11 junior Nik Popovic (9.9 ppg., 6.2 rpg.) took a major step forward as a sophomore and is still getting better. He’s surprisingly mobile and competes on the boards, while he should become a double digit scorer with his ability to score inside the arc. 6-10 Luka Kraljevic showed similar potential in limited opportunities as a freshman, and with a year in the weight room should be ready to provide more help as a sophomore.
This was a team that was just getting by at the offensive end even when they did have a potential future NBA backcourt (the Eagles finished 158th in overall fg%, 122nd behind the arc, and 142nd in assist to turnover ratio). With no secondary ballhandler to take Robinson’s place, they are probably going to have scoring issues against the better defenses. What Boston College will have will be more length and athleticism than even most ACC teams, and with their only rotation player under 6-5 a fierce competitor on the boards there is no reason the Eagles shouldn’t be able to dominate that aspect of the game (they were 103rd in rebounding margin a year ago). Although it has never been a strength of Jim Christian teams (they were 211th in overall fg% defense and 257th in 3pt.% defense last season), BC could become competitive at the defensive end as well. Unfortunately, those changes would require a change in focus by the coaching staff, and the more likely scenario is another coaching change in the not too distant future in an attempt to get back to (I mention this every year) the success of the good ole’ days under Al Skinner.
December 6 pre-conference update: The Eagles shortened their rotation to six players in just their second game in an attempt to avoid an upset against St. Francis of Brooklyn, a move that seemed to indicate a coach that is very concerned about his job. While Wynston Tabbs (14.9 ppg., 4.8 rpg.) has played admirably beside Ky Bowman, the team has shot poorly from the perimeter (278th in 3pt.%) due to the lack of ball movement, although the continuing improvement of Nik Popovic as a post scorer could help open things back up. Thanks in large part to a strong defensive effort against Minnesota in the ACC-Big Ten challenge the Eagles have put in a respectable non-conference showing to this point, but Jim Christian could still be concerned about his job at the end of the season.
March 11 pre-tournament update: With only a single winning record and NIT appearance to show for a five year tenure, it would be surprising if Jim Christian retains his position at BC. The team did actually compete defensively this season (68th in fg% defense and 57th in 3pt% defense), but that didn’t happen on the boards (255th in rebound margin) despite playing with more size than most of the conference and featuring a point guard that excels at it. The offense would have been better with a healthy Wynston Tabbs, but it was a mess (270th in fg%, 297th from 3, and 198th in assist to turnover ratio) and realistically it wasn’t great with a backcourt that featured two future professionals a year ago. While the program can’t realistically expect for a new hire to suddenly be able to compete for top prospects, BC should be able to find someone to better organize their efforts and take advantage of the talent they do have. The type of success the program experienced under Al Skinner, which included successful seasons mixed with rebuilding years at the end of his tenure, should be a welcome sight after making just two NIT appearances since his departure.
2017-2018: 22-10, 11-7 (tie for 3rd) in the ACC; lost to Loyola-Chicago in the NCAA Round of 64
Preseason projection: 10th in the ACC; NIT
Final regular season record: 13-17, 5-13 in the ACC (tie for 11th)
Departures: Lonnie Walker (11.5 ppg., 34.6% 3pt.) and Bruce Brown Jr. (11.4 ppg., 7.1 rpg., 4.0 apg., 1.3 spg.) entered the NBA Draft; Ja’Quan Newton (8.8 ppg.) graduated; Dewan Hernandez (11.4 ppg., 6.7 rpg.) was declared ineligible by the NCAA
Jim Larranaga took Miami to their third consecutive NCAA Tournament last season, but the loss of two players to the NBA Draft could find the Hurricanes searching for answers that aren’t yet on the roster.
Chris Lykes (9.6 ppg., 34.5% 3pt.) will take over at point guard, and he’s an interesting work in progress. He’s quick enough to get off a midrange jumpshot anytime he wants it, but at 5-7 he often heads to the basket with little regard for larger defenders that are nearby; the result is predictable, as he gets his shot blocked fairly often. Lykes can also create for his teammates in the open floor, but it becomes more difficult when he has to find passing angles in halfcourt sets. Jim Larranaga will need for him to learn what he can and cannot do in Division I basketball; Justin Bibbins of Utah was of a similar size and athletic ability, and if Lykes could emulate that production then Miami’s outlook would be substantially improved. Larranaga added a solid supplement to Lykes in the backcourt in graduate transfer Zach Johnson (16.1 ppg., 3.0 apg., 39.2% 3pt.), a productive scorer from Florida Gulf Coast with a nice perimeter jumper who can also generate steals. Johnson is only 6-2 himself, so the Hurricanes are going to be vulnerable to perimeter shooting (that was a strength for the team last year, when they were 59th in 3pt.% defense). Dejan Vasiljevic (9.0 ppg., 41.1% 3pt.) is still around as a bomber off the bench; he isn’t really an option to start because he only begrudgingly passes the ball and wouldn’t give Lykes the support he needs. If Miami is going to even approach the offensive efficiency and scoring ability they featured a year ago, the player that would have to step up would be Anthony Lawrence (8.8 ppg., 6.5 rpg., 43.2% 3pt.). He had a respectable all around year as the team’s stretch 4, but he will need to move to small forward and help more with scoring and even facilitating the offense as a senior. He is capable of both, and the opportunities will be there. Miami's perimeter rotation will be thin after the dismissal of transfer Miles Wilson. 6-6 transfer Anthony Mack, a former 3 star recruit, could see minutes out of necessity after redshirting as a freshman at Wyoming due to injury.
6-11 junior Dewan Hernandez (11.4 ppg., 6.7 rpg.; formerly Dewan Hewell) returns for an unexpected third year at center. While he hasn’t lived up to his 5 star credentials to this point, he did improve substantially as a sophomore, although he still wasn't a dominant inside presence and he still needs to get stronger. After getting feedback from the NBA, this could be his year. Ebuka Izundu returns to provide depth; at 6-10, he provides energy defensively and on the boards, but his game hasn’t progressed offensively. Another year in the weight room should help Sam Waardenburg (43.8% 3pt.) take over as the team’s stretch 4; at 6-9, he flashed the ability to hit the 3 as a redshirt freshman, but he wasn’t strong enough to be effective in other areas. 7-0 Deng Gak, an athletic but raw top 100 recruit a year ago, may be ready to compete after a very necessary redshirt year in the weight room.
The early departures are going to hurt Miami at both ends of the floor; offensive efficiency could plummet substantially, while defending the 3 point line will become more of a challenge as well. Brown was also the team’s leading rebounder, so that could become even more of a problem than it already was (the Hurricanes were 169th in rebounding margin). Overall, Miami will still have enough talent to be competitive, but another influx of talent may be necessary for the Hurricanes to return to the NCAA Tournament.
December 13 pre-conference update: The season ending knee injury to Deng Gak, combined with the unclear status of Dewan Hernandez, will leave the Hurricanes with only six players that would ideally be a part of the rotation as they enter ACC play. Anthony Mack will be forced into action as well, but to this point he looks like a work in progress. Miami has struggled horribly to defend (257th in fg% defense) and rebound (241st in rebound margin), which will only get worse as they get smaller and face larger competition. Unless Hernandez is granted eligibility, the Hurricanes are looking at a potentially difficult rebuilding year.
March 7 pre-tournament update: Miami’s season was derailed early on with personnel losses and a shallow bench. If Dewan Hernandez had gained eligibility, or even if Deng Gak had remained healthy, the team might have been able to compete for a ninth NCAA bid for the conference. The roster should be in good shape with regards to perimeter depth entering next season, but, even with the return of a healthy Gak, Jim Larranaga will likely need to be active in the graduate transfer market if the Hurricanes are going to avoid similar problems with frontcourt depth a year from now.
Wake Forest Demon Deacons
2017-2018: 11-20, 4-14 (14th) in the ACC
Preseason projection: 13th in the ACC
Final regular season record: 11-19, 4-14 in the ACC (13th)
Departures: Bryant Crawford (16.9 ppg., 4.9 apg., 1.5 spg. And 35.8% 3pt.) and Doral Moore (11.1 ppg., 9.4 rpg., 2.0 bpg.) entered the NBA Draft; Keyshawn Woods (11.9 ppg., 37.4% 3pt.) transferred to Ohio St.; Mitchell Wilbekin (8.6 ppg., 42.5% 3pt.) and Terrence Thompson graduated
Wake Forest suffered through a somewhat disappointing fourth year under Danny Manning following the program’s first NCAA Tournament berth in six years. The season was followed by a shocking mass exodus of players, and despite the arrival of an excellent recruiting class Danny Manning may be forced into another rebuilding year.
Although Bryant Crawford had problems with turnovers as a junior, possibly due to attempts to impress NBA scouts, his departure in particular leaves the Deacons in a lurch. Brandon Childress (9.1 ppg., 3.6 apg., 37.9% 3pt.) will slide into his place, and while he’s quick and skilled and will be able to lead the offense competently, he doesn’t have Crawford’s size or athleticism. That could ultimately slow things down for an offense that already had issues with efficiency (the Deacons were 215th in overall fg% and 185th in assist to turnover ratio last year). That is compounded by the departure of Woods, which may have been precipitated by the odd decision to move him to the bench in favor of underachieving freshman Chaundee Brown. Brown, a top 40 recruit who did play well at times (during one five game stretch he averaged 14.6 points, per game on 46.2% 3pt. shooting), may slide into the backcourt, although that job may ultimately need to go to one of two 4 star freshman guards to give Childress the support he needs. One of those options will be 6-3 point guard Jamie Lewis, a physically strong driver and solid passer that draws fouls like Crawford at times. Sharone Wright Jr., a 6-5 (and growing) 4 star combo guard, is the other option; he’s an excellent passer and a solid perimeter shooter. Either could be a solid complement to Childress in the backcourt.
Even with all of the departures, there will still be reason for excitement at Wake Forest because of the arrival of Manning’s first five star recruit, 6-8 forward Jaylen Hoard. Hoard is a dangerous scorer from all over the floor, although he can disappear at times. If the Deacons are going to have any sort of success, he will need to live up to expectations sooner rather than later and take over as the team’s leading scorer. Even though he still needs to add strength, Hoard will step in as a stretch 4 due to the limitations of Wake Forest’s personnel; with everyone playing smaller, he won't find himself at a significant disadvantage inside very often. Isaiah Mucius, a 6-8 top 60 recruit, will most likely take over at the other forward spot despite needing to add weight; he’s more physically explosive than Hoard, but doesn’t nearly have his skillset. The job of replacing Moore will fall to Olivier Sarr. If Manning has done anything well during his tenure at Wake Forest, it has been developing big men, and Sarr is next in line. Already a more skilled offensive player than Moore, he is slowly adding strength that will allow him to compete more aggressively on the boards. While he is a mobile big man, he lacks the explosive athleticism of Moore and Collins and won’t be able to replace all of the rebounding or shot blocking lost with Moore’s departure. The Deacons were 138th in rebounding margin a year ago, and, unless Sarr gets help from the freshman forwards, that stands to get worse.
If Jaylen Hoard immediately lives up to expectations, then Wake Forest will at the very least be entertaining to watch in 2017-2018. Unfortunately, the unplanned youth movement will almost certainly lead to offensive inefficiency, and the Deacons haven’t really defended well under Manning either (they finished 186th in overall fg% defense and 317th in 3pt% defense last year, with the former actually representing an improvement). If Hoard then leaves early as expected (he’s a projected top 10 pick), then the Deacons could find themselves in the same place next year. If the team doesn’t improve, particularly at the defensive end, then Manning’s tenure could come to an end sooner rather than later.
December 6 pre-conference update: Wake Forest has simply been terrible against a weak non-conference schedule (they were even the team left out of the ACC-Big Ten challenge), and it’s hard to imagine them righting the ship once ACC play begins after struggling against the likes of Houston Baptist. Offensive efficiency has been horrible (295 in assist to turnover ratio) despite a solid effort from Childress (17.4 ppg., 4.4 apg.-2.6 tpg., 51.4% 3pt.), and the defensive effort has been nothing short of embarrassing (270 in overall field goal percentage defense and 293 in 3pt.% defense). Sarr simply doesn't have the physical explosiveness to emulate Collins and Moore at the defensive end, and with the team struggling as much as it has Manning has even been experimenting with expanded minutes for graduate transfer Ikenna Smart. It’s possible Jaylen Hoard (16.0 ppg., 8.3 rpg.) may be playing well enough to maintain his first round projection, so Danny Manning may not be able to point to next year to hold on to his job either. The Demon Deacons could suffer a humiliating year in the ACC in what has quickly become a lame duck season for Manning at Wake Forest.
March 6 pre-tournament update: Danny Manning’s job appeared to be very much in jeopardy, but an at times feisty 3-5 end of year run that includes a 1 point loss at Duke (to be fair, the other four losses were blowouts by 20 or more point margins), combined with a premature contract extension that included lots of guaranteed money, may allow him to return for one more opportunity to take Wake Forest back to the NCAA Tournament. His future may at least partially depend on how NBA general managers currently view freshman Jaylen Hoard. If he is still projected to be a first round pick and departs, the school may be best served by cutting their losses and moving on, as recruiting has dried up with the possibility that Manning is a lame duck coach. However, if Hoard returns, the Demon Deacons should have their top 6 players back and could return to respectability next year. Despite the team’s struggles, Brandon Childress has had an outstanding junior year, and could contend for an All-ACC team as a senior if the team improves; conversely, he could logically transfer if his father is no longer a member of the coaching staff. Otherwise, Hoard and fellow freshmen Sharone Wright Jr and Isaiah Mucius, along with sophomores Chaundee Brown and Olivier Sarr, have shown potential at times and should be much better players a year from now. The future of the Demon Deacons will be much clearer in a couple of months.
Notre Dame Fighting Irish
2017-2018: 21-15, 8-10 (tie for 10th) in the ACC; lost to Penn St. in the 2nd Round of the NIT
Preseason projection: 9th in the ACC; NIT
Final regular season record: 13-18, 3-15 in the ACC (tie for 14th)
Departures: Bonzie Colson (19.7 ppg., 10.1 rpg., 1.7 spg., 2.2 bpg.), Matt Farrell (16.3 ppg., 5.5 apg., 37.7% 3pt.), and Martinas Geben (11.1 ppg., 8.0 rpg.) graduated; Elijah Burns decided to transfer
With national player of the year candidate Bonzie Colson missing over half the season due to injury and senior point guard Matt Farrell struggling through multiple injuries of his own, Notre Dame suffered through a tragic season of what could have been a year ago. Both players will now have to be replaced, and head coach Mike Brey will need to develop depth from what is at least a strong recruiting class.
If Brey has anything clearly in place for the year ahead, it’s the heir apparent to Farrell in junior point guard T.J. Gibbs. Gibbs (15.3 ppg., 3.0 apg., 40.3% 3pt.) has already proven to be a capable number one option for the Irish at the offensive end. He averaged 37.4 minutes per game as a sophomore, and played nearly every minute at point guard when Farrell was forced to miss time. Gibbs has become accustomed to being forced to make things happen on his own at times, but he should be surrounded by more spot up options as a junior. He will be joined in the backcourt by 6-6 athletic defensive stopper Rex Pflueger (8.0 ppg., 4.3 rpg., 3.2 apg.) who has struggled to become more assertive at the offensive end but can help Gibbs run the offense with his ability to pass the basketball. If he shoots the ball with more confidence as a senior, then the Irish might be able to retain their normally high level of offensive efficiency. 6-3 combo guard Prentiss Hubb, a top 100 recruit nationally, will need to provide backcourt support for the seniors. While he is considered a smart offensive player with an ability to make shots at multiple levels and help facilitate an offense, it is rare for freshmen to play and be effective in Brey’s offensive system (both Gibbs and D.J. Harvey struggled to help with ball movement during their first year despite their strong offensive potential); however, due to limited options he should receive plenty of opportunities. D.J. Harvey (5.8 ppg., 33.3% 3pt.) had his season cut short as well, but he did prove helpful as a scorer at times as a freshman. At 6-6, he will take over at small forward, and he should be more capable of helping to keep the ball moving as a sophomore with a year in Brey’s offense under his belt. Dane Goodwin, a 6-5 top 80 recruit, is among the best perimeter shooters in his class and provides a skill that should be useful even if he doesn’t fully understand the offense. Robby Carmody, a 6-4 top 90 recruit, will offer more of the same, so Brey should be able to find someone that can at least stretch the floor to fill out his rotation.
The most exciting addition for the Irish will be Juwan Durham, a long and athletic UConn transfer that oozes with potential as a mobile, 6-11 shot-blocking stretch 4. Durham was originally a top 50 recruit but was passive and unproductive in limited opportunities as a freshman before transferring. He has added weight since then and, because he already has a year of experience in the program, will be in significantly better position to be productive immediately than the freshmen. His length and mobility will at least help the Irish close out on shooters, something they have sometimes struggled with in the past (they were 185th in 3pt.% defense a year ago, which is actually above average for them). The addition and success of Durham is particularly important to 6-9 center John Mooney. Mooney (5.6 ppg., 3.9 rpg.) proved to be a strong rebounder with a smooth shooting stroke beyond the arc as a sophomore; unfortunately, he’s quite slow and limited athletically, and can really only be successful paired with a power forward that can cover for his defensive shortcomings. That is exactly what Durham should do, and, if Brey has gotten Durham to be aggressive enough to live up to his original billing, then he and Mooney will complement each other perfectly and potentially replace much of the ridiculous production of Bonzie Colson and Martinas Geben. Otherwise, the only other size Brey will have available will be another highly regarded freshman shooter in 6-10 top 60 recruit Nate Laszewski. Laszewski enters college noticeably thin and would likely be given a year to get stronger under ideal circumstances, but he could still be productive as a spot up shooter with ideal length at the defensive end.
Again, Brey doesn’t normally play freshmen very much, but he will have little choice than to turn to them for big minutes this year. However, last year’s team had a similar level of backcourt experience and, even with all of the injuries and an extreme lack of perimeter depth, still managed to finish 14th in the country in assist to turnover ratio. Also, if the incoming class can do anything it is shoot the basketball, and the Irish had an off year in that regard last season, finishing 193rd in overall fg% and 130th beyond the arc. If Durham is ready to assert himself, the returning players continue to improve (which they normally do), and one or two of the freshmen are able to contribute right away (and the team has better luck with injuries), then Notre Dame could very well return to the NCAA Tournament where Brey has taken them in 12 of his 18 seasons as coach; however, the top of the ACC will again be loaded, and asking Durham and Mooney to turn into a poor man’s Colson and Geben presents an awfully big if.
December 17 pre-conference update: The loss of Rex Pflueger to a knee injury is devastating for the Irish. Pflueger was leading the team in assists, and along with TJ Gibbs and Prentiss Hubb was essential to allowing Notre Dame to continue to take excellent care of the basketball (the Irish are currently 25th in assist to turnover ratio). His minutes will likely go to freshmen or a post player, and ball movement will definitely suffer. He was also one of only three players hitting over 35% from behind the arc, and the Irish were already struggling with perimeter shooting (231st in 3pt%). He was, of course, also the team's best defensive player, although increased minutes for Juwan Durham, who has had trouble earning playing time but has been incredibly productive when on the court, particularly as a shot blocker (2.7 bpg. in just 11.7 minutes per game), could help make up for Pflueger's absence at that end. Freshman Robby Carmody is also out for the season, so the Irish are one injury away from Nikola Djogo again being forced into major minutes, which did not work out well a year ago. Any hopes the Irish may have had for a return to the NCAA Tournament would seem to have already been dashed by injury before conference play has even begun.
March 6 pre-tournament update: Rex Pflueger’s injury did indeed derail the Irish’s chances for any type of success for this season, but it may turn out to be a blessing in disguise next year. Everyone should be back, including Pflueger due to a medical redshirt and a group of rising sophomores that received significantly more experience in his absence. With another year in Mike Brey’s offensive system under everyone’s belts, offensive efficiency (Notre Dame was among the worst shooting teams in the country, currently ranking 342nd in fg% and 307th behind the arc) should improve substantially. With better luck, the Irish could again compete for a top 4 finish in 2019-2020.
2017-2018: 8-24, 0-18 (15th) in the ACC; postseason coaching change
Preseason projection: 15th in the ACC
Final regular season record: 13-18, 3-15 in the ACC (tie for 14th)
Departures: Ryan Luther (12.7 ppg., 10.1 rpg., 38.7% 3pt.) transferred to Arizona, Marcus Carr (10.0 ppg., 4.0 apg., 33.3 % 3pt.) transferred to Minnesota, and Parker Stewart (9.1 ppg., 38.6% 3pt.) transferred to UT Martin
After an entirely predictable 0-18 finish in the ACC, head coach Kevin Stallings was fired following the season because not everyone in college learns.
What was a promising roster is now back to square one. Point guard will again be handed over to a freshman, in this case either Xavier Johnson, a 6-3 4 star recruit and a true point guard, or 6-3 combo guard Trey McGowens, a top 100 recruit. 6-6 transfer Malik Ellison, who came to the school to play for Kevin Stallings and is now essentially stuck unless he wants to sit out yet another year, should take over at shooting guard after posting respectable numbers at St. John’s two years ago (7.4 ppg., 34.1% 3pt.). Because the team lacks size, Ellison will likely play significant minutes at forward. The Panthers will also have Sidy N’Dir, who struggled with offensive efficiency at New Mexico State, and 6-4 sophomore Khameron Davis, who produced all of 4 points in 24 minutes per game as a freshman, to provide depth. Jared Wilson-Frame (13.0 ppg., 3.5 rpg.), a capable, high motor athlete that led last year’s team in scoring, will start at small forward. He shot horribly from the field (37.5% overall and 32.0% behind the arc) due to the limited number of offensive options the team had a year ago; those options won’t be increasing this year.
6-10 sophomore Terrell Brown was one of the success stories of Stallings’ coaching a year ago, as he went from being forced to play because he’s big to eventually competing on the boards and showing potential as a future inside out scorer. 6-6 Shamiel Stevenson might be the best player on the roster after averaging 8.5 ppg. and 4.4 rpg while shooting 37.5% beyond the arc. He’s a tough and interesting player that plays at a slower pace in the mold of Boris Diaw or Roosevelt Jones at Butler, and like those players he is able make good things happen. Because of the limited number of frontcourt options, Wilson-Frame and Ellison will be the forwards at times. At 6-9, 215 pounds, junior Kene Chukwuka will again see minutes at center out of necessity after providing almost nothing statistically in 17 minutes a game last year. Pittsburgh will again find itself dramatically undersized and overwhelmed at times in conference play.
Three years ago, Pittsburgh managed to drive off Jamie Dixon despite the fact that he was by far the best coach in the history of the program and took them to the NCAA Tournament almost every year, which somehow wasn’t good enough. The program doubled down on that mistake by firing Kevin Stallings after just two seasons despite the fact that, due to his history of successful player development, he was the perfect coach for their developing young roster. The team was outmanned but still competed last season, staying close to superior teams multiple times down the stretch despite their record and managing defensive numbers (179th in fg% defense and 98th in 3pt.% defense) that weren’t horrible (coincidentally, two teams that did not continue to compete were Jeff Capel’s last two (post-Blake Griffin) Oklahoma teams, both of whom were among the worst defensive teams in the country in every major category). With the return of Ryan Luther and a group of rapidly improving (thanks to Stallings, who they were loyal to) rising sophomores, the team could have been in line for a four to six win season in conference play. That will not happen now. While Capel was successful recruiting at Duke, he won’t have a Duke education and the coach of the Olympic team to entice recruits with; if anything, Pittsburgh without Jamie Dixon is a significant step below Oklahoma with regards to reputation, and things didn’t go well for Capel there. It seems impossible that a team that finished 0-18 in the ACC could get worse, but Pittsburgh’s athletic department has evidently decided to give it the old college try.
December 6 pre-conference update: Jeff Capel has gotten his athletic young team to play aggressively at the defensive end, and they have enough length on the perimeter to bother people (they are currently 26th in the country in field goal % defense). The Panthers also have some talent at the offensive end, particularly point guard Xavier Johnson (16.3 ppg., 5.2 apg., 43.3% 3pt.). There are certainly vulnerabilities that were revealed in their loss to Niagara; savvy guards can handle their pressure and get the ball to players with more size, and their shooting likely won’t travel well with such a young team. Still, Capel has the Panthers playing competitively, and they should be able to win a few games, particularly at home, and at least avoid a last place finish.
December 20 pre-conference update: While Jeff Capel has gotten the most out of his newcomers, he has also chosen to marginalize any players that showed improvement under Stallings in a move similar to what NFL and NBA general managers often do to avoid sharing credit for success. Despite being the team's second best player, Jared Wilson-Frame comes off the bench, as does Terrell Brown, the team's best center. Towards that end, Shamiel Stevenson chose to transfer to Nevada, a current top 5 team, after being left out of the rotation. His size and style of play could have definitely helped the Panthers in the ACC, but Capel wanted a fresh start.
March 6 pre-tournament update: After a 12-5 start that included home wins over Louisville and Florida State, it seemed extremely unlikely that Pitt was heading for another basement finish in the ACC, but the team has lost every game it has played since then. There will be reason for optimism for next season, as freshmen Xavier Johnson, Trey McGowens, and Au’Diese Toney all gave indications that they will eventually be very good college basketball players, while sophomore Terrell Brown continued to develop as well. The team competed at the defensive end all season (they finished a respectable 54th in overall fg% defense), and their shooting should travel better as the team becomes more experienced. Still, it’s hard to believe that the Panthers wouldn’t have been more successful with Kevin Stallings and his roster of promising sophomores, and reality has set in with regards to the differences between recruiting at Duke and recruiting at Pittsburgh. In completely unrelated news, TCU is currently on the bubble and looking for its second consecutive Tournament appearance after a 20 year absence. If they don’t make it, they will return to the NIT, where they won a title of their own two years ago. As an alumnus of a school that had never been to the NCAA Tournament by the time I graduated, that sounds pretty great.