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Previewing ACC basketball

By Bruce Marshall  () 

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.
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