With the additions of Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, and Syracuse in 2013 along with Louisville in 2014, the Atlantic Coast Conference was expected to be the toughest conference in America. Last season the ACC lived up to expectations, sending six teams to the NCAA Tournament with five making the Sweet Sixteen. The ACC is loaded again this season, with ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi putting nine of the 15 schools in his preseason bracket, but I believe as many as 13 have a chance to get there. Here is how each team looks heading into this season.
- North Carolina Tar Heels
2014-15 Record: 26-12
Postseason: Sweet 16
Every few years Roy Williams has a team equipped to win the national championship, and this one is Williams’ best shot since 2012. The Tar Heels return their top four scorers from last year in sophomore Josh Jackson, juniors Kennedy Meeks and Marcus Paige, and senior Brice Johnson. This is similar to the team that won it all in 2009, which also returned its top four scorers. Marcus Paige is the unquestioned leader of this team and will be a force at the offensive end, and has options in Meeks and Johnson. Their biggest hole would be the loss of forward J.P. Tokoto, who was the teams’ best perimeter defender last season. This leaves Theo Pinson to assume the role, as he is the player currently on the roster who most matches his predecessor’s skill set.
- Duke Blue Devils
2014-15 Record: 35-4
Postseason: NCAA Champions
Last year signified the beginning of a new era in Durham. Coach Mike Krzyzewski has adopted the one and one done model, abandoning the old model of experienced veteran teams. This year Duke had the top recruiting class in the country, bringing in four top 25 recruits in guards Derryck Thornton and Luke Kennard, forward Brandon Ingram, and center Chase Jeter. All four should see major minutes, with senior guard Matt Jones being the only returning starter from last years’ championship team.
Luckily for them, they won’t be alone. Sophomore Grayson Allen is poised to have a breakout season after his performance in last year’s national championship, and defensive ace Amile Jefferson will alleviate the pressure Jeter will face in the post. If this team comes together, they could cut down the nets for the second consecutive season.
- Virginia Cavaliers
2014-15 Record: 30-4
Postseason: NCAA Third Round
Last season felt oddly familiar to Cavalier fans. The Cavs won the ACC regular season title for the second consecutive season, only to once again be knocked out of the NCAA Tournament by Michigan State. Yet even with the losses of Justin Anderson and ACC Defensive Player of the Year Darion Atkins, Tony Bennett still has this team in position to make a deep run. Back are leading scorer Malcolm Brogdon and point guard London Perrantes, who lead the team with 4.6 assists a game last season. This strong backcourt tandem will be joined by returning starter Anthony Gill and Evan Nolte, who joined the starting lineup last season while Anderson was injured. Also back is the signature Pack Line defense, which will once again be a nightmare for opponents.
Last season, Virginia had to replace guard Joe Harris and still won the ACC regular season title. There’s no reason to think replacing Anderson and Atkins will stop them from being a threat.
- Notre Dame Fighting Irish
2014-15 Record: 32-6
Postseason: Elite 8
The last time Notre Dame went to the Elite Eight, Michael Jordan was on his high schools’ junior varsity basketball team. Mike Brey looks to continue that momentum this season by leading the Irish to their first back-to-back Sweet Sixteens since they went to six straight from 1974-1979.
The Irish return starters Zach Auguste, Darius Jackson, and Steve Vasturia, but will have to replace Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton, who were the heart and soul of the team last year. Jackson will need to takeover for Grant at point guard, while Auguste will need to continue to play at the level he did last year against Kentucky in the Elite 8. If forwards Vonzie Beachem and Bonzie Colson can step up and take on bigger roles, this team could go far in March.
- Louisville Cardinals
2014-15 Record: 27-9
Postseason: Elite Eight
Losing your top four scorers usually means a rebuilding year, but not for Lousiville. Damion Lee and Trey Lewis arrive from Drexel and Cleveland State respectively, and give the Cardinals one of the better scoring backcourts in the conference. Louisville also brought in a top recruiting class, and forwards Deng Adel and Raymond Spalding will have to fight with returning forward Chinanu Onauku to replace the production of Montrezl Harrell. This team shouldn’t strike you as an ACC title contender, but will certainly keep Rick Pitino from missing his first NCAA Tournament since 2006.
- North Carolina State Wolfpack
2014-15 Record: 22-14
Postseason: Sweet Sixteen
Mark Gottfried’s team shocked fans last year by reaching the Sweet Sixteen, and could be in position to make it back again. In Gottfried’s four years at NC State his teams have all been inconsistent, and this year looks to be no different. Trevor Lacy, Ralston Turner, and Travis Washington are all gone, but Anthony Barber, last year’s number three scorer, and guard Terry Henderson return. Although the backcourt will be strong, the Wolfpack have a lot of questions in the frontcourt. Top returners BeeJay Anya, Abdil-Malik Anu, and Caleb Martin all played less than 20 minutes a game last year and will all have to take a leap forward if NC State is to get back to the NCAA tournament. This is a talented team, but it’s too early to say if they can make it to the Big Dance for the fifth straight year.
- Florida State Seminoles
2014-15 Record: 17-16
Leonard Hamilton’s best recruiting class in years and returning starters Xavier Ranthan-Mayes, Montay Brandon, and Devon Brookert make this season look promising. Guards Dwayne Bacon, Malcom Beasley and Terance Mann were all ranked among the Top 100 players in ESPN’s Class of 2015 Rankings, and should be ready to contribute immediately. The Seminoles also return bench players Phil Cofer and Jarquez Smith, which gives them a solid eight man rotation. With three more top 100 recruits arriving in Tallahassee next fall, there is a bright future ahead.
- Miami (Fla.) Hurricanes
2014-15 Record: 25-13
Postseason: NIT Runner Up
For a team that started out in the preseason top 25, last year was a disappointment. Jim Larranaga is entering a make or break season, as the Hurricanes have only gone dancing once in his four years at the U. This team returns four starters from last year, but lacks depth on the bench after top reserves Omar Sherman and DeAndre Barnett transferred. Redshirt seniors Angel Rodriguez and Sheldon McClellan will have to play big roles again, and McClellan already averaged 33 minutes a game last season. This will be McClellan, Rodriguez and senior Tonye Jekeri’s last chance to make a run at the NCAA Tournament and leave a legacy behind at the U. But with a thin bench, getting to March Madness could be a tough task.
- Syracuse Orange
2014-15 Record: 18-13
This will be another hard year for the Orange, who will not have legendary coach Jim Boeheim for nine conference games due to sanctions from NCAA violations. These violations were released near the end of last season, and the university imposed a postseason ban that caused Syracuse to miss the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2008. The Orange will be down three scholarships for the next four seasons, and Boeheim has said he will resign in 2018.
Luckily, they return their number two and three scorer in Trevor Cooney and Michael Gbinije, as well as point guard Kaleb Joseph. They also return their second leading rebounder in Tyler Roberson, who will step into the starting lineup. The frontline of the classic 2-3 zone is solid, but questions remain about the backline. Gone is center Rakeem Christmas, who ranked in the top three in the ACC in points, rebounds, and blocks per game last season. Center Dajuan Coleman is back after redshirting, but is injury prone. The only other center on the roster is Chinoso Obokoh, who played only 6.8 minutes per game last year. If the Coleman goes down, so does the 2-3 zone, which could mean a long season in the Carrier Dome.
- Pittsburgh Panthers
2014-15 Record: 19-15
Postseason: NIT First Round
Last season the Panthers failed to make the NCAA Tournament for just the second time in Jamie Dixon’s 13 seasons as head coach. The Panthers will be looking to get back to the Big Dance, and return two of the better forwards in the ACC in Jamel Artis and Michael Young. They also bring back point guard Aaron Robinson, who might be one of the best ball handlers in the country. The Panthers lacked a backcourt scorer after suspending Durand Johnson for the season, and need either Coppin State transfer Sterling Smith or freshman Damon Wilson to step in to that role. This team lacks the talent to finish at the top of the ACC, but should still be able to fight for an NCAA Tournament berth.
- Wake Forest Demon Deacons
2014-15 Record: 13-19
In Danny Manning’s second season as head coach, Wake Forest has a chance to be the surprise team in the ACC. This team had a few close calls last season and could have been much better than their 13-19 record. They return their top five scorers from last year, including leading scorer Cody Miller-McIntyre and leading rebounder Devin Thomas. On the recruiting trail, they brought in center Doral Moore from Montverde Academy and he could see time in the starting lineup. Manning has this program headed in the right direction, and could guide the Deacs to their first NCAA Tournament since 2010.
- Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
2014-15 Record: 11-22
Head coach Brian Gregory enters this season on the hot seat for all the right reasons. In his four seasons as head coach, the Yellow Jackets have only one winning season and have gone 19-51 in conference play. Leading scorers Marcus Georges-Hunt and Charles Mitchell return, but gone are Chris Bolden, Demarco Cox, and Robert Sampson. Georgia Tech will be relying on transfers Nick Jacobs and James White to make up for the loss of Coz and Sampson, who provided depth in the post. These transfers may not be enough to save Gregory’s job, as this team is at the bottom of a loaded ACC.
- Clemson Tigers
2014-15 Record: 16-15
This team could compete in other Power 5 conferences, but has the misfortune of competing in a stacked ACC. Leading scorer and rebounder Jaron Blossomgame returns, and he will be the centerpiece of a strong frontcourt along with Donte Grantham and Landry Nnoko. The frontcourt will have to dominate games in order to make up for a backcourt that according to Bleacher Report had one of the worst turnover rates and three point shooting percentages in the nation last season. Blossomgame will have to flourish and Grantham and Nnoko will have to step up if the Tigers want to have a winning record in conference play.
- Virginia Tech Hokies
2014-15 Record: 11-22
Buzz Williams built a highly competitive program at Marquette, but just doesn’t have the talent yet to do it in Blacksburg. The Hokies welcome back guards Justin Bibbs and Ahmed Hill, but leading scorer Adam Smith transferred to Georgia Tech and leading rebounder Joey van Zegeren to Northwestern. The loss of van Zegeren leaves an already weak rebounding team depleted, as no other Hokie averaged more than four rebounds a game in 2014. Maryland transfer Seth Allen will be ready to step into the starting lineup at shooting guard, but his addition will not be enough to make Williams’ squad relevant in conference play.
- Boston College Eagles
2014-15 Record: 13-19
It’s hard to believe it’s been almost ten years since Craig Smith and Jared Dudley made Chestnut Hill a feared location in college basketball. The Eagles have fallen steadily since, and are now the cellar dwellers of the ACC. They lose all five starters from last season’s team that managed just a 13-19 record, and returns only one player in Garland Owens that played more than ten minutes a game. Expect this team to be the whipping boy of the conference.