ACC favorite Duke leaning on Allen, top recruits

By Greg Peterson  ( 

November 18, 2017 01:00 AM
It will be tough to trip up Grayson Allen-led Duke, which should have a Final Four team with a good shot at claiming the title.
© USA Today Sports Images

This is the last in a series of 32 college basketball conference previews.

It was a strange year for the Atlantic Coast Conference, which had the most teams of any league in the NCAA Tournament with nine, but just one made it to the second week of the dance. Of course, the one to advance was North Carolina, which won the whole thing.  

Perhaps even bigger than that storyline entering this season is what Louisville will do after the FBI’s investigation into corruption in college basketball resulted in coach Rick Pitino getting fired. The program was turned over to 32-year-old interim David Padgett, who has zero experience as a head coach.

Leading scorer Donovan Mitchell is gone with Pitino, but the the vast majority of the rest of the bunch is back. Quentin Snider will he leaned on heavily as a senior after he posted 12.4 points, 4.1 assists and 2.7 rebounds per game as the starting point guard.

Snider and priority reserve V.J. King are also the team's main 3-point shooters as well, drilling 38.5 and 43.2 percent of their 3s, respectively. King is a 6-foot-6 wing who should see an uptick in the 13.5 minutes per game he saw a year ago. He had averages of 5.5 points and 2.1 rebounds as a freshman.

And 6-foot-7 Deng Adel will be counted on, as well, coming off a junior year in which he had 12.1 points, 4.5 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game. They should get additional wing help with 6-foot-5 Dwayne Sutton being eligible this season after sitting out the 2016-17 season after transferring from UNC Asheville. He had 12 points and 7.7 rebounds per game as an undersized forward during his freshman campaign in 2015-16.

The Cardinals also have most of their tall forwards back aside from Mangok Mathiang. Jaylen Johnson, Anas Mahmoud and Raymond Spaulding are all 6-foot-10 or taller and combined to average 19.7 points, 15.3 rebounds and 3.5 blocks per game. With 7-foot Matz Stockman still on the roster, it gives them perhaps the tallest rotation of big men in the country.

Louisville also added a big-time recruit to that stack in 6-foot-11 Malik Williams. He graded out as a five-star prospect by ESPN and could be the best interior player on the roster this year despite his youth.

The team is deep, tall and loaded with tons of talented freshmen. Having a young interim coach with zero prior head-coaching experience makes this uncharted territory, though. Louisville does not have that one guy who can put the team on his back and single-handedly get a team out of a rut, and that could be their demise. That is, if the FBI does not spell this team’s demise.

Louisville has been grabbing some headlines recently, but Duke is the preseason favorite to win the national title. Mike Krzyzewski brings in four of the top 10 recruits of the 2017 class, according to ESPN.

The team has very few contributors back from a year ago, as seven of the Blue Devils’ top eight scorers have departed, but that one guy happens to be guard Grayson Allen.

The 6-foot-4 senior had 14.5 points, 3.7 rebounds, 3.5 assists and nearly a trip of an opponent per game a year ago, but he shot under 40 percent from the floor due to a poor start to the year. He shot 40 percent or worse from the floor in nine of his first 12 games of the year and actually played better after missing a game against Virginia Tech for one of his infamous tripping incidents.

Trevon Duval, who was rated by ESPN as the best point guard in the class of 2017, should help Allen find more open looks. He has good size for a primary ball handler at 6-foot-3 and a wingspan close to 6-foot-10. He isn't the best driver but is quick and very good at passing, so he should help maximize Allen's shooting ability.

He will also be doing a ton of dishing to Gary Trent Jr., who was rated by ESPN as the top shooting guard in the 2017 recruiting class. Unlike Duval, he is a good finisher and has unlimited range. He is far from great on defense, but he could easily score more than 15 points per game.

The true blue chip this team brought in is Marvin Bagley III, who reclassified to 2017 to be eligible this year. ESPN's Paul Biancardi called him a guy with Chris Bosh's outside shooting and the post defense of Anthony Davis. If he can be half that good, Duke will have a dominating force on the floor.

He joins 6-foot-9 freshman Wendell Carter, who was the best forward in the 2017 recruiting class before Bagley reclassified. He is more a traditional big man, weighing in at over 250 pounds, and is the best back-to-the-basket player in the class but can also shoot from beyond the arc.

This will likely leave sophomore big man Marques Bolden as the odd man out again this year after he saw just 6.7 minutes per game a year ago. He was rated by ESPN as the second-best center in the class of 2016 and chose Duke over Kentucky during his recruitment.

Coach K should have a Final Four team with a good shot at claiming another title.

Incredibly, reigning champion North Carolina is flying a bit unheralded due to all the craziness that transpired in the offseason. It could also be because the team has just one of the top five scorers from a season ago returning.

It will be senior Joel Berry’s team this year after he was the Most Outstanding Player of the 2017 Final Four and averaged 14.7 points, 3.1 rebounds and 3.6 assists a year ago. He achieved all of that and shot 38.3 percent from three last year despite dealing with lower body injuries throughout the back-half of conference play and throughout the NCAA Tournament.

He opened this season with another injury after he broke his hand after losing to teammate Theo Pinson while playing a video game. Berry, however, was back on the floor this week. Pinson, a 6-foot-6 guard, playing a full 2017-18 season as a senior would help because he has battled injuries throughout his time at North Carolina and will likely play some point. Pinson missed 19 games last year due to ailments, but still put together averages of 6.1 points, 4.7 rebounds and a team-high 3.7 assists.

The Tar Heels are going to pin their hopes on 6-foot-3 freshman guard Jake Felton being an instant contributor. He is the team’s lone ESPN-rated top 100 recruit entering the program and is one of the best outside shooters in the 2017 class. The team will also look for more minutes from guards Seventh Woods and Brandon Robinson, a pair of ESPN-rated four stars who could not get off the bench last year.

North Carolina still should still be a Top 25 team, assuming Berry does not have anything linger in regard to his broken hand, but this team will not compete for a championship like the past two years.

Virginia had a bit of a dropoff last season, getting a 5-seed in the NCAA Tournament after being a 1 or a 2-seed each of the past three seasons. The Cavaliers had the nation’s best defense, allowing 56.4 points per game, but they were offensively 317th in D-I basketball with 66.1 points per game.

Now, coach Tony Bennett needs Kyle Guy to step up and be the go-to scorer Virginia lacked last year. The 6-foot-3 sophomore made 49.5 percent of his 3-point attempts and averaged 7.5 points in a reserve role.

Virginia is in danger of being a bubble team this season as the program seems to be declining.

Notre Dame made the NCAA Tournament last year for the seventh time in the past eight seasons and was ranked in the AP Top 25 at some point during the season for an 11th straight year.  

With 6-foot-5 Bonzie Colson back after averaging 17.8 points and 10.1 rebounds as a junior, coach Mike Brey hopes the team can do better than the exit it had in the round of 32 in March. Colson shot 43.3 percent from 3 and was a magnificent defender with 1.4 blocks and 1.1 steals per game a year ago.

Point guard Matt Farrell posted 14.1 points and 5.4 assists per game all while shooting 42 percent from 3. He will need help from sophomore Temple Gibbs and 6-foot-6 junior Rex Pflueger.

The Fighting Irish will slip to the middle of the conference standings, if not further, and could be in danger of missing the dance. Many forecast Notre Dame as a top 15 team due to how tremendous Colson is, but the team around him is far from spectacular.

Florida State busted out last season by getting a 3-seed to the NCAA Tournament. The Seminoles did it with a home record of 17-0 and 82.1 points per game on offense.

But coach Leonard Hamilton will have find a way to replace his top two contributors from a season ago in Dwayne Bacon and Jonathan Isaac. Hamilton is in a spot where he might need to play a bit smaller and will have to rely on one of the nation’s best recruiting classes to do so.

Seven-footer Ikey Obiagu is a strong rebounder with ideal muscle as he weighs 245 pounds. He was an ESPN-rated top 100 prospect in the 2017 class and will likely be joined in the starting lineup by another four-star prospect. Raiquan Smith just missed the ESPN top 100 list, but his 6-foot-8, 260-pound frame should give Florida State a solid rebounding presence down low.

Five-star recruit M.J. Walker is not much of a driver, but at 6-foot-5 he’s one of the best shooters in the conference and figures to be a more efficient version of Bacon. The Seminoles should find their way back to the NCAA Tournament, though they might be sweating on Selection Sunday.

Wake Forest is a bit ahead of schedule with its rebuild as Danny Manning led the squad to the NCAA Tournament last season, its first trip to the dance since 2010.

The backcourt of Bryant Crawford and Keyshawn Woods will have to led the team after both emerged as sophomores a year ago. Crawford had 16.2 points and 5.5 assists as the team’s main ball handler.

With the departures Wake Forest has suffered, and the ACC not looking quite as strong top to bottom as it did last year in comparison to the other Power Five conference, the Demon Deacons will take a tumble. A season of 16-17 or 15-18 is probably in the cards.

It was a rough year for North Carolina State as it had a lottery pick in Dennis Smith Jr., but squandered it by going 15-17 and finishing in a tie for 13th in ACC play. The team also has a new coach as Mark Gottfried was fired and former UNC Wilmington coach Kevin Keatts was hired.

Keatts was able to convince ESPN top 100 recruit Lavar Batts to enter the program and he will likely be the team's starting point guard. Keatts has done a good job of luring transfers to the school, though, as former North Carolina A&T guard Kevin Hunt and former Baylor guard Allerik Freeman enter the program and will be eligible immediately. Both figure to be a big help to 6-foot-5 junior guard Torin Dorn, who had 9.5 points and 4.6 rebounds last season. He is also the squad's top returning 3-point shooter, converting 36.4 percent from deep.

The Wolfpack's depth is not where it needs to be to be a tournament team this year, but N.C. State should be around .500 this season and in position to make the 2019 NCAA Tournament. Keatts has former UNC Wilmington standout C.J. Bryce entering the program next season and that should elevate the program.

Syracuse went 10-8 in ACC play, but an RPI of 83 and a 33-point home loss to St. John's likely cost this team a trip to the NCAA Tournament.

The main scorer could be graduate transfer in Geno Thorpe, who is coming off a junior year at South Florida in which he averaged 15.1 points. Jim Boeheim also will lean on 6-foot-6 four-star postgraduate freshman Oshae Brissett. The Orange also hope they have brought in their point guard of the future in Howard Washington.

Boeheim's 2-3 zone appears to have gotten less effective with the evolution of small-ball as his team allowed 71.1 points per game last year and allowed the fifth-most offensive rebounds of any team in the country. It should be another rollercoaster ride for Syracuse fans as they will likely be on the bubble for most of the year and end up in the NIT.

Miami made it to the NCAA Tournament last year and went 21-12 with a team that relied on defense. Sophomore Bruce Brown, who was one on the nation's most highly recruited guards in the 2016 class, will need to be a force in the backcourt after he had 11.8 points, 5.6 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game as a freshman.

The Hurricanes hope to get a massive shot in the arm courtesy of ESPN-rated five-star shooting guard Lonnie Walker and four-star point guard Chris Lykes. Miami has a chance to be a Top 25 team.

Georgia Tech vastly overachieved last year, going 21-16 and reaching the NIT final after many thought the team would be neck-and-neck with Boston College for last place in the conference. Josh Pastner won ACC Coach of the Year honors for his efforts and is looking for more as a lot of his core guys return.

Josh Okogie, a 6-foot-4 guard, was a diamond in the rough as he was an unrated recruit by ESPN and turned into the team’s top scorer with 16.1 points while making 38.4 percent of his 3s. Tech looks like a team that will not be able to make the NCAA Tournament due to its lack of scoring options.

A bit of a conference dark horse is Virginia Tech, which increased its win total for a third straight season in 2016-17. The team overcame hurdles to get back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2007.

Buzz Williams must replace his top two scorers, Zach LeDay and Seth Allen. Senior guard Justin Bibbs became a team leader toward the end of the 2016-17 season and will need to be one of the top producers this year. He had 12.3 points and shot 50 percent from 3 in the team’s final 12 games. He will have the benefit of playing alongside point guard Justin Robinson, who had 10.4 points per game as a sophomore.

The Hokies jave all the ingredients needed to be a Top 25 team and there should be Sweet 16 aspirations in Blacksburg with this deep roster.

There will not be Sweet 16 aspirations in Pittsburgh, which went 16-17 in the first year of the Kevin Stallings era. Four of the team’s top five scorers last season were seniors, meaning the rebuild is on and Stallings is trying to bring in his guys to try to get the Panthers back into the field of 68 by the time 2020 hits.

Cameron Johnson is the team's lone reliable contributor from last year, after the 6-foot-7 guard had 11.9 points, 4.5 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game. It would not be surprising to see Pittsburgh finish last in the league.

Clemson had a golden opportunity to make the NCAA Tournament last year but went 0-8 vs teams in the RPI top 25 and went 1-7 in games decided by seven points or fewer in February and March.

Points guard Shelton Mitchell will be the team's main leader this year after he ran the point with 10.8 points and 3.6 assists per game and shot 45.3 from 3-point range. An NCAA appearance might be out of reach.

Boston College finished last in the ACC for a second straight year and went 2-34 in ACC play the past two seasons. On a brighter note, coach Jim Christian has a trio of young guards to build around, and the team did not go winless in conference play last year, which was the case in the 2015-16 season.

Illinois State graduate transfer Deontae Hawkins should elevate the team's post play as he stunned many by going to Christian's program. He had 14 points and 6.5 rebounds per game. He also shot 44.3 percent from 3 for a team that had a 17-1 conference record.

Duke is the clear favorite in the conference with North Carolina and Louisville trailing the Devils with a bevy of questions. From there, it's a free-for-all league race.

Greg Peterson’s Atlantic Coast Conference forecast:

1. Duke

2. Louisville

3. North Carolina 

4. Miami

5. Virginia Tech

6. Notre Dame

7. Virginia

8. Florida State

9. Georgia Tech

10. Clemson

11. Syracuse

12. Wake Forest

13. N.C. State

14. Boston College

15. Pittsburgh

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