Though the hierarchy remains mostly intact in the Atlantic Coast Conference, it was not quite business as usual last season. North Carolina’s swift and comprehensive collapse was reminiscent of Duke’s brief dive 25 years ago, when the Blue Devils sank beneath .500 and finished 2-14 in league play. That was the year coach Mike Krzyzewski was sidelined before conference play due to serious back problems, and Pete Gaudet actually gets credit for the disastrous ACC performance. Krzyzewski was back to the NCAA tournament the next season and has qualified every year since. Duke’s 1994-95 season was just a blip. We’ll see if North Carolina’s 2019-20 campaign will prove much the same. It’s worth noting that every program in the league has experienced real success in the recent past. But once dropping out of the top tier in this conference, it can take awhile to recover. Boston College, once a factor in the Big East, has been trying to stay afloat since moving to the ACC 15 years ago. Wake Forest was a Big Dance regular for years but has been an afterthought for much of the last decade. Georgia Tech, Pitt, Notre Dame, Miami, Virginia Tech and Clemson have made moves at various points, yet each eventually surrendered those gains. Even Syracuse, once considered a shoo-in for the NCAA tournament, has been more likely to be involved in the bubble discussion in recent years. This league cannibalizes any sign of weakness. Even brand names can be susceptible. Those in Chapel Hill would be wise to remember that there are no guarantees a program can’t slip. And it can take years to recover in the ACC. The reason is that the conference almost always has national contenders that present a barrier for those looking to break into the upper tier. And 2020-21 should be no different. Familiar names once again figure to dominate. Virginia, which has sustained excellence for Tony Bennett for much of the last decade and was the last crowned national champion in 2019, appears to wear the biggest target. That has often applied to Duke, and even if not this season, underestimate Krzyzewski at your own peril, especially with another crop of blue-chippers ready to make immediate contributions. Some might not recall that Florida State actually won the ACC regular-season crown a year ago for what might have been Leonard Hamilton’s best chance to reach the Final Four since he moved to Tallahassee 18 years ago. The Seminoles should again be formidable. Louisville was ranked No. 1 for a short spell last season and was looking at a protected seed had the Big Dance proceeded as usual. We have always thought the next tier of the ACC holds the most intrigue. These are the teams looking to break through into the elite class. Candidates this season? Maybe Georgia Tech, which has the sort of veteran core that has been peaking for a big season and looked menacing in March. Jim Larranaga has had contenders at Miami and, after a brief respite a year ago, might be ready to make another run with perhaps the top backcourt in the league. After its dip below .500 last season, North Carolina now rates in this category, and history suggests Roy Williams is capable of a bounce-back year if his new perimeter weapons can emerge. Downgrading Syracuse is always a risk, and Jim Boeheim apparently thinks a lot of his backcourt. (Boeheim should; his son, Buddy, is a starter.) The ACC will probably look a lot like it usually does, with familiar contenders dominating. In an upside-down year such as 2020, that seems almost reassuring.
TOP 10 PLAYERS
1. Kihei Clark, Junior, G, Virginia
2. Chris Lykes, Senior, G, Miami
3. Garrison Brooks, Senior, F, North Carolina
4. Jalen Johnson, Freshman, F, Duke
5. Jose Alvarado, Senior, G, Georgia Tech
6. Michael Devoe, Junior, G, Georgia Tech
7. Prentiss Hubb, Junior, G, Notre Dame
8. Sam Hauser, Senior, F, Virginia
9. Scottie Barnes, Freshman, F, Florida State
10. Justin Champagnie, Sophomore, F, Pitt
By the end of last season, Tony Bennett’s Cavaliers were peaking and likely to have made considerable noise in the Big Dance. Bennett has added Marquette transfer Sam Hauser, a forward, and ballyhooed 6-7 freshman wing Jabri Abdur-Rahim to a lineup that features cagey junior point guard Kihei Clark, a key cog in the 2019 national title run, and 7-1 senior center Jay Huff, a menacing presence on the blocks. With Bennett’s Pack Line, the Cavs are also a good bet to lead the nation in scoring defense for a fourth straight year.
2. Florida State
The Seminoles were the regular-season champs a year ago and return three starters from that 26-win team, though the departure of floor general Trent Forrest must be addressed. As usual, FSU will be long, with three 7-footers on the roster, and touted 6-9 freshman forward Scottie Barnes is likely to make an immediate impact. Look for 6-5 guard M.J. Walker to blossom as a senior after improving each of the previous three years.
Mike Krzyzewski’s best teams have blended blue-chip freshmen with established components. It’s the latter that concerns the Blue Devils this season. Duke lost more than 46 ppg with the departures of Vernon Carey, Cassius Stanley and Tre Jones. Of the newcomers, freshman point guard Jeremy Roach could be an instant star, as might 6-8 forward Jalen Johnson. But Coach K will need holdovers like sophomore forward Wendell Moore Jr. and 6-9 sophomore Matthew Hurt to assume more featured roles.
Sure, Chris Mack lost a lot of firepower from last year’s 24-win team that briefly topped the national rankings in December. But big things are expected from sophomore point guard David Johnson, who began to emerge at the end of last season, and 6-7 sophomore Samuell Williamson, rated by regional observers as one of the league’s potential breakout performers. Mack will also surely find a role for the instant offense offered by grad transfer Charles Minlend, who averaged 15 ppg last year for San Francisco.
5. North Carolina
Another campaign like the 14-19 of last season and Roy Williams will be ready to retire to his favorite golf course. Williams got subpar work from his perimeter components last season and hopes for an immediate upgrade from a touted group of freshmen led by ballyhooed 6-3 point guard Caleb Love and 6-7 wing Puff Johnson. How well they can complement front-line holdovers Garrison Brooks, who averaged 17 ppg a year ago, and Armando Bacot will go a long way to determining if the Heels can reassume their usual perch in the ACC — and nationally.
6. Georgia Tech
Not everyone is convinced Josh Pastner is a prime-time coach, but if he’s ever going to make a breakthrough, this is the season. He has most everyone back from a team that caught fire in February and again features do-everything senior guard Jose Alvarado in the engine room. Explosive 6-5 junior wing Michael Devoe, who averaged 16 ppg a year ago, is Robin to Alvarado’s Batman, while 6-9 forward Moses Wright emerged as a legit post scoring threat. The best news is that Georgia Tech’s one-year NCAA suspension was served without missing much since the Big Dance was canceled.
While it might seem as if Jim Larranaga has lost something after back-to-back down seasons, the Hurricanes have a deeper look than the NCAA penalty-pared rosters of the last two years, when Larranaga went 12-26 in the ACC. He should improve considerably with perhaps the ACC’s best returning backcourt led by 5-7 energizer bunny Chris Lykes, an All-ACC playmaker whose running mate, 6-5 Kameron McGusty, scored double digits in 20 games last season after transferring from Oklahoma. If another couple of consistent scoring options emerge, Miami can make it back to the Big Dance for the first time in three years.
Jim Boeheim was hit by COVID-19 in November, and his expected recovery will be the second bit of good news at the Carrier Dome after 6-5 guard Alan Griffin was granted a waiver and became immediately eligible after transferring from Illinois. That added another dagger-thrower to the perimeter alongside Boeheim’s son, Buddy, who averaged 15 ppg last year, and Joseph Girard III, another double-digit scorer. The caution is that Boeheim’s traditional zone was not nearly as sticky a year ago, and the Orange now push the pace a bit more as Boeheim plays to the weaponry on hand.
9. NC State
Kevin Keatts has averaged 22 wins in his three seasons in Raleigh and has solidified the Wolfpack in the middle of the ACC. The return of 6-10 senior D.J. Funderburk, who toyed with entering the NBA draft, provides a needed front-line anchor. But newcomers will be key this season, especially on the perimeter. The best of those, Cam Hayes and Shakeel Moore, will likely man the point, while 6-5 senior Devon Daniels assumes more of the scoring load after averaging 13 ppg last year.
Jeff Capel is making progress with the Panthers, who have moved from zero ACC wins for Kevin Stallings in the year preceding Capel’s hire to three in Capel’s first spin to six a year ago. The talent upgrades are apparent, as 6-3 junior Xavier Johnson is now an established ACC force at the point, while 6-6 sophomore wing Justin Champagnie played with plenty of flair when scoring 13 ppg last year. Now Capel adds Miami (Ohio) transfer wing Nike Sibande, who averaged 15 ppg last year for the RedHawks, along with a promising freshman class led by 6-9 John Hugley. Possible breakthrough year for Capel.
11. Notre Dame
Though this edition might be hard-pressed to get to the Big Dance, Mike Brey’s teams are rarely easy outs. Staying competitive in this rugged conference might be a bit harder without graduated forces like rebound machine John Mooney and smooth guard T.J. Gibbs. But Brey thinks 6-3 junior point guard Prentiss Hubb is poised to handle more of the burden. Stanford transfer Cormac Ryan also figures to pick up some of the load at forward, while 6-6 wing Dane Goodwin can bomb. But Mooney’s absence will be hard to replace on the blocks.
Though flying under the radar a bit last season, the Tigers had a national-best three wins over teams ranked in the top six (Duke, Louisville and Florida State) and their first win at North Carolina after 59 straight losses. Clemson still barely reached .500, but four starters return, and depth should be improved by point guard Nick Honor, a Fordham transfer. But 6-8 forward Aamir Simms will need some help down low if Brad Brownell hopes his team can get into the bubble mix.
13. Virginia Tech
No one was expecting much after Buzz Williams left for Texas A&M and ex-Wofford coach Tom Young inherited a depleted roster. But Young molded the Hokies into a competent scoring outfit that could shoot the 3-pointer. The roster has a deeper look despite the transfer of 6-7 wing Landers Nolley to Memphis. A couple of transfers who produced points at their previous stops, ex-Kansas State guard Cartier Diarra and ex-Delaware forward Justyn Mitts, loom as pre-cooked contributors. On certain nights, the Hokies are likely to be a handful.
14. Boston College
This looks like the last stand for Jim Christian, who has forged just one winning record in six years and was fortunate to survive a 13-19 spin a year ago. To save his job, Christian hit the grad transfer market hard and will cross his fingers that 6-9 ex-Lehigh forward James Karnik, 6-8 ex-Rider forward Frederick Scott and 6-1 ex-Quinnipiac guard Rich Kelly can translate their games to the ACC. But unless junior point guard Wynston Tabbs is beyond recent knee problems, this is likely Christian’s last shot with BC.
15. Wake Forest
Steve Forbes, fresh from a decorated run at East Tennessee State, tries to pick up the pieces from the failed Danny Manning regime and enters the season as the only new coach in the ACC. It won’t be easy. Several of Manning’s recruits transferred, forcing Forbes to scramble for reinforcements in the grad transfer market. The best is likely ex-Houston Baptist guard Ian DuBose, who led Southland scorers at 19 ppg last year.