Virginia is hungry, Duke needs veteran leadership. Here's 15 things to know about the ACC this season
The college basketball season will be here faster than you know it. And it's never too early to be thinking about your March Madness bracket. To help you out, we are going to break down each conference with storylines to know, predictions and power rankings ahead of the upcoming season.
Here is our preview of the ACC:
15 storylines to watch this season:
1. How can Virginia duplicate an ACC championship season? The Cavaliers were stunned by UMBC in the first-ever 16 over a 1 NCAA tournament loss. That was historic. And it won’t be forgotten. But it shouldn’t cloud that the Cavaliers were the team to beat in the ACC and won both titles — regular season and tournament. Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome both told NCAA.com after the season that they had never worked harder in their life. De’Andre Hunter will be healthy after not playing in the UMBC game. Jack Salt and Mamadi Diakite give the Cavaliers the necessary beef inside. There is no reason why the Cavaliers can’t repeat what they did last season. The one thing they have this season that they didn’t have last year — a major chip on their shoulder after the UMBC game. How Virginia handles its early season games when all eyes are watching will be of major interest.
2. Who will be the veteran leader for Duke? There is no question that Duke will have immense talent — but it mostly resides in the freshmen class with an all-star lineup of Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett, Cam Reddish, Tre Jones and Joey Baker. But I’m interested to see if 6-11 junior Marques Bolden will be the presence the Blue Devils have had and needed to get to a Final Four. Duke has been more about winning in March than the ACC regular season. The Blue Devils want conference titles, but that’s not the end game here. The pursuit is for a national championship. Teams that win titles have at least one veteran player who has been a locker room presence as well as a key contributor. This is Bolden’s chance and time.
3. How fast will Nassir Little shine? The Tar Heels have arguably one of the toughest if not the most difficult schedule in the country. UNC goes to Wofford (who beat the Tar Heels in Chapel Hill last season), travels to Elon (should win but dangerous road game nonetheless), hosts Stanford, plays Texas and either Michigan State or UCLA in Las Vegas, is at Michigan in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, hosts Gonzaga, plays Kentucky in Chicago and then gets A-10 and Ivy League favorites Davidson and Harvard, respectively. The Tar Heels will need the super stud freshman to grow up fast to get through that gauntlet. He has the talent to do so. But how will he hold up in intense game after game?
4. How long will Syracuse continue the momentum of the Sweet 16 run? The Orange went from the first four to the Sweet 16, knocking off Michigan State in a defensive slugfest. Yet, in hindsight, this wasn’t really a fluke. Syracuse just took longer to fully develop and now that all five starters are back, led by Tyus Battle, Oshae Brissett and Frank Howard, this team has every reason to believe it can challenge for the ACC title. The most dangerous thing for opponents is when the Syracuse zone is fine tuned. Scoring won’t be as much of a chore this season with roles more truly defined. There should be plenty of buzz about the Orange and the opportunity to be a consistent top 25 team and shake the bubble status of late.
5. How will Clemson handle success? The Tigers were a surprise team last season. There won’t be any sneaking up on opponents this year. The Tigers are now expected to be a contender, an upper-tier team in the ACC. Marcquise Reed is back to be a leader. Shelton Mitchell is back to help anchor the backcourt. Clemson coach Brad Brownell has a new contract extension. There should no longer be a gap from the end of football season to the start of spring football. Clemson men’s hoops is happening again. The Tigers are in. So now they can’t fall back. They have carved out a spot for themselves in the ACC. Let’s see how they deal with being in that role.
6. How many points/shots will Ky Bowman average for Boston College? Jerome Robinson is off to the NBA, but Bowman is back to put up monopoly numbers for the Eagles. Bowman averaged nearly 15 shots a game and six 3-point attempts. Expect those numbers to climb. He averaged 17 a game. That too could jump up to over 20. Bowman can be a high volume shooter and produce at a high clip on a regular basis. He’s that good. Sure, the Eagles can’t solely rely on Bowman to be a postseason team again. But he has matured enough and as a junior will be savvy to the attention and opposing team’s scout.
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8. Will there be a sophomore slump for NC State’s Kevin Keatts? I don’t think so. Keatts got the Wolfpack to the NCAA tournament before losing to Seton Hall in an 8-9 game. NC State won at North Carolina, beat Arizona and Penn State early in the season, beat Duke, Clemson, Florida State and won at Syracuse. Sure, Allerik Freeman is gone and he was the leading scorer and a prolific 3-point shooter. But Keatts still has key players returning like Braxton Beverly. Will NC State be picked as a lock for the NCAA tournament? No. Will the Wolfpack have to earn its way back toward the top of the ACC again? Of course. But Keatts has instilled confidence in him by his players and the fan base. The expectation is that NC State will once again pluck off key, surprising wins.
9. How will Mike Brey pull off another bubble season? The Irish didn’t get into the NCAA tournament last season. The reason? Bonzie Colson got hurt and when he came back there wasn’t enough meat on the resume to push the Irish over the edge. They were close, within a few spots. Now, Colson and Matt Farrell are gone. But Rex Pflueger and TJ Gibbs Jr. are back to give the Irish the necessary veteran presence. This will be a clear work in progress and the Irish won’t be the same team in November as they will be in March. Good. Because the March Irish should be a team that is pushing for the postseason. Doubt Brey’s chances to turn a team that isn’t expected to compete for an NCAA tournament berth if you must. But he never falls too far short. The Irish will always be in the mix.
10. How can Florida State use the Elite Eight finish as a springboard for this season? The Seminoles were a pain to play in March last season. Terance Mann is back and there is no reason why the Seminoles shouldn’t be a pest again. Florida State has its usual length, athleticism and ability to disrupt at the defensive end. The question will be can the Seminoles avoid some of the potholes in the ACC. That’s hardly abnormal for any team. Yet, Florida State has tended to make things very interesting on a yearly basis. The upsets of No. 1 seed Xavier and No. 4 Gonzaga en route to an Elite Eight loss to Gonzaga proved that the Seminoles can be one of the tougher teams to face. Leonard Hamilton’s teams always get better. The only issue sometimes has been digging out of a hole early in the season. That may not be an issue in 2019.
11. What are the chances this is Buzz Williams’ best team at Virginia Tech? Pretty, pretty good. The Hokies faded late losing four of the final five games with maybe the most crushing one blowing a lead to Notre Dame in the ACC tournament. But the Hokies’ Justin Robinson gives Virginia Tech a legit ACC player of the year candidate. I could have and maybe should have had Robinson on the first-team all-ACC list. Robinson will be extremely tough to keep out of the lane and could be one of the top lead guards in the country since the ball will be in his hands quite a bit.
12. How will Miami handle the departure of key early-entrants to the NBA? The Hurricanes had a chance to be a possible ACC title contender but losing Lonnie Walker IV and Bruce Brown early to the NBA draft is a set back. Yet, Jim Larranaga’s program has dealt with this before and has done a sensational job of finding talents and developing them. Who becomes the Hurricanes’ go-to player early will be a key preseason discussion. Sleeping on Miami has proven to be the wrong call under Larranaga. But this is a team that could figure itself out, and they might do it under the radar. When they emerge from their own discovery by the start of the ACC tournament the Hurricanes should/will be a factor.
13. How will Jeff Capel settle Pitt? Capel has put his imprint on this program early and often since coming from Duke’s bench. Taking the Panthers to DC for an educational and emotional trip this spring was one of many steps. Capel says he is a different coach now than when he was at Oklahoma and VCU. The Panthers program needed someone who was going to give it a reset after the Kevin Stallings era ended abruptly. Losing, deflections and apathy had taken over the program. The Oakland Zoo needed a reboot. Capel should give it a pop with complete buy in from the players. How fast he has an impact will be an intriguing watch this season.
14. How will Danny Manning handle the most challenging year of his Wake Forest tenure? The Demon Deacons were a work in progress last season that was never completed. I saw them early in the season, even after a few stunning home losses. There was potential with scoring options, size and length. But it never fully clicked. Bryant Crawford and Doral Moore surprised everyone by declaring and staying in the draft. Keyshawn Woods transferred to Ohio State. So, the top three scorers from last season are gone. Maybe addition by subtraction will help the Demon Deacons. We won’t know until at least a month or so into the season. Still, Manning remains optimistic. He has had success in each stint along his journey so there is no reason to believe he can’t turn this back around.
15. Will Georgia Tech bounce back? Josh Pastner had the surprising team in his first season, reaching the NIT final against TCU. But last season the Yellow Jackets fell back, six games under .500 overall and in the ACC. Josh Okogie stayed in the draft and bolted. Ben Lammers is gone. There will be a new identity with the Yellow Jackets. The outside noise has dissipated, allowing Pastner to focus on rebuilding the brand. Pastner has been able to survive and advance at Memphis and early on at Georgia Tech. Let’s see how he deals with this latest curve ball. History says he can still put it in play.
NCAA tournament bound: Virginia, Duke, North Carolina, Syracuse, Virginia Tech, Clemson, Florida State.
On the bubble: Louisville, Miami, NC State.
Don't cout out: Notre Dame, Boston College.
Here's our summer ACC power rankings:
- North Carolina
- Virginia Tech
- Florida State
- NC State
- Boston College
- Notre Dame
- Wake Forest
- Georgia Tech
Here's our list for the First Team
Kyle Guy, Virginia
Tyus Battle, Syracuse
Luke Maye, North Carolina
Ky Bowman, Boston College
Zion Williamson, Duke