Will the ACC produce its fifth national champion since 2010?
Will the conference crown leave Tobacco Road?
Are the nation’s best defenses found in the ACC?
As it is every year, the level of excitement for ACC hoops is rather high. Excitement looms as North Carolina looks to defend its national champion, a new group of baby Blue Devils suit up in Cameron Indoor Stadium and many other teams are looking toward March to see how many ACC team can punch a ticket to the Big Dance.
Best player: Joel Berry II, UNC
[Note: Berry will miss four weeks with a broken hand.]
It’s astoundingly easy to see the value Berry brings to Roy Williams’ team as he enters his fourth and final season as a Tar Heel.
Berry, a back-to-back All-NCAA Tournament selection, averaged 14.7 points per game last season, a career high, and capped off his second straight year with a PER of at least 19.0. He’s an efficient scorer, shooting 37.7 percent from deep and 80.9 percent from the free throw line throughout his career, and is an ample playmaker as well, averaging 6.8 assists per 100 possessions.
He’s also shown defensive growth throughout his three years on campus; even as his minutes per game more than doubled from his freshman to his junior seasons, his defensive rating improved by over five points per 100 minutes.
And when you take into account the myriad intangible skills he brings to the floor — his leadership as a senior Tar Heel, his in-game experience after consecutive championship runs — it’s hard to overrate how valuable Berry will be this season.
It’ll be like having a second coach on the floor for Williams, and one who score 20 points on any night.
Best team: Duke
The top of the conference is crowded, to be certain. Between Miami and North Carolina returning absolute stud players, Duke’s eye-catching freshman class, and teams like Louisville and Notre Dame remaining dangerous, there is no head-and-shoulders-above best team in the conference.
But Duke’s mix of youth (see: the league’s freshman to watch in a few paragraphs) and experience (Grayson Allen and his tremendous shooting) makes for an enticing team that should be able to beat opponents in a variety of ways.
Adding freshman point guard Trevon Duval, a five-star player, should free Grayson Allen up to catch and shoot, his best skill, while incoming power forward Wendell Carter, a slab of a human being at 6-9, 259 pounds, should be able to compete with more experienced big men from the jump.
There’s room for disappointment here, but there’s also room for huge success, and when a team with boom-or-bust potential is coached by Mike Krzyzewski, it’s normally safest to count on the upside.
Sleeper team: Miami (Fl.)
Don’t expect Miami to finish outside the top three in the conference this season: the Hurricanes are for real, and they’re going to make noise.
Following his stellar freshman season, sophomore guard Bruce Brown is worth watching as one of the best players in the ACC, a versatile player who recorded the Hurricanes’ second-ever triple double last December. Brown will continue to learn from senior guard Ja’Quan Newton, but he could become Miami’s go-to guy in his second year on campus.
And adding freshman Lonnie Walker IV to the mix will only take up Jim Larrañaga’s offense another notch, to the point where the Hurricanes should be able to run and compete with any team in the ACC and beyond. Watch out for Miami in March.
Freshman to watch: Marvin Bagley III, Duke
The gem of this year’s impressive Duke freshman class, Bagley III might be the best freshman in the entire country.
Standing a sinewy 6-11, Bagley is a lean, athletic “forward” in the mold of former Texas standout Kevin Durant. Bagley’s a forward in the traditional sense, in that he’s nearly seven feet tall, but also compares favorably to wing players in terms of his ability to stretch the floor with his jump shot.
With Luke Kennard’s time at Duke over, the Blue Devils need a player who can threaten opponents from deep. If that same player is also a threat to get to the rim a dozen times each night — well, it certainly can’t hurt.