Predicting the 2015-16 ACC College Basketball Standings

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystAugust 18, 2015

Predicting the 2015-16 ACC College Basketball Standings

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    Hands down, the ACC is the place to be for 2015-16 men's college basketball.

    Most of the major conferences have just one or two legitimate threats to win the national championship and at least three or four teams with no chance of even dancing. It's the opposite in the ACC where at least five teams have a realistic shot at cutting down the nets in April, and there's really only one team that has no hope of making the tournament.

    Sorry, Boston College.

    Don't try to spin that into a prediction that 14 ACC teams will make the tournament, but that's how many candidates there are from a conference that conceivably could send up to 10 teams to the Big Dance.

    We scoured the rosters, offseason "transactions" and unbalanced conference schedules to make an educated guess at each team's primary eight-man rotation and where it will stack up against every other team in the ACC.

    Read on to find out which ones are fighting for a No. 1 seed and which ones might be jostling for position on the bubble.

    This will be the final conference in our summer series. For your mudslinging convenience, here are the links for the other four: Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12, SEC.

The Cellar-Dwellers

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    15. Boston College Eagles (Last Season: 4-14, 13th place)

    I've been very cautious about throwing around phrases such as "Might go winless in conference play" since last year's Davidson snafu, but how in the world is this roster going to win a game in the ACC?

    Boston College lost each of its top four scorers, as well as eight of the 10 players who scored more than two points in the entire 2014-15 season. Eli Carter is a nice addition as a transfer from Florida, but even in-his-prime Vince Carter would have a tough time leading this roster to anything other than a last-place finish.

    14. Virginia Tech Hokies (Last Season: 2-16, 15th place)

    Rome wasn't built in a day, and Buzz Williams might have another year of rebuilding to do at Virginia Tech. This is an undersized roster that doesn't rebound, can't shoot free throws (64.0 percent last season), doesn't record many steals and has a lot of shots blocked. Moreover, the Hokies lost two of their best three-point shooters (Adam Smith and Malik Muller) to the transfer market.

    13. Clemson Tigers (Last Season: 8-10, tied for ninth place)

    The real reason that Boston College could go 0-18 in the ACC is because there isn't another categorically awful team in this conference.

    In the Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC, we can pretty much already write off 30 percent of the teams as exceedingly unlikely to make the tournament. But even the projected 13th-place Tigers could make some noise, as they return some major frontcourt players in Jaron Blossomgame, Donte Grantham and Landry Nnoko.

    However, the backcourt could be a major issue, as a team that already ranked among the nation's worst in assist rate and three-point percentage loses both of its primary starters at the guard positions. Too bad transfers Marcquise Reed (Robert Morris) and Shelton Mitchell (Vanderbilt) won't be eligible until next season, but that makes Clemson a team to watch in 2016-17.

    12. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (Last Season: 3-15, 14th place)

    Georgia Tech lost three key players in Demarco Cox, Chris Bolden and Robert Sampson but also reloads via transfer with Adam Smith, James White and Nick Jacobs.

    If the Yellow Jackets can improve their horrendous 26.7 percent three-point shooting (Smith should help) and improve on their even more horrendous luck in close games (an 0-13 record in ACC games decided by seven points or less is almost impossibly unfortunate), this is a team that could fly under the radar to a .500 record.

    11. Wake Forest Demon Deacons (Last Season: 5-13, 12th place)

    If you're looking for a deep sleeper from a major conference, try Wake Forest on for size. The Demon Deacons had a forgettable overall record of 13-19 in Danny Manning's first season at the helm, but they nearly won home games against Duke and Louisville and came within one possession of road wins against Virginia, Florida State, Syracuse and Clemson.

    They were close to being above average, and they have just about the most intact returning roster in the conference. Seven of Wake Forest's top eight scorers are back for another year, including all five of the ones who scored at least six points per game. Devin Thomas and Codi Miller-McIntyre both have the tools to be All-ACC players in their final season.

    10. Syracuse Orange (Last Season: 9-9, eighth place)

    If Trevor Cooney shoots it well, DaJuan Coleman plays a moderately healthy season and Kaleb Joseph makes a positive impact, watch out for Syracuse. Factoring in their four talented freshmen, the Orange would have a nine-man rotation that can do some serious damage en route to a top-six finish in the ACC.

    If we instead get a repeat of last season with Cooney shooting 31 percent from three-point range, Coleman failing to appear in a single game and Joseph serving as the least valuable player on the roster, it won't take a self-imposed ban to keep this team out of the tournament again.

    Michael Gbinije had a great breakout season, and Tyler Roberson was very impressive at power forward after Chris McCullough suffered a torn ACL, but it's going to take more than that to get to .500 in this conference.

9. Pittsburgh Panthers

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    Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

    2014-15 Season: 19-15 overall, 8-10 in ACC (tied for ninth place)

    Key Players Lost: Cameron Wright (9.3 PPG; graduated), Josh Newkirk (5.9 PPG; transferred), Durand Johnson (DNP; transferred)

    Key Players Added: Sterling Smith (Coppin State transfer), Alonzo Nelson-Ododa (Richmond transfer), Rozelle Nix (JUCO transfer), Damon Wilson (4-star freshman)

    Projected Starters: James Robinson, Smith, Chris Jones, Jamel Artis, Michael Young

    Top Three Reserves: Sheldon Jeter, Nelson-Ododa, Wilson

    As far as "pure" point guards go, James Robinson has been one of the best in the country. Over the past two seasons, he has averaged 4.6 assists per game and 3.5 assists per turnover while shooting 81.3 percent from the free-throw line. He isn't much of a scorer, but there aren't many players you can trust more with the ball.

    Unfortunately, that wasn't enough last season. The Panthers got some great frontcourt production out of Jamel Artis and Michael Younga combined 27.0 points and 13.3 rebounds per gamebut the 11th-hour decision to suspend Durand Johnson for the entire season left the team searching for a go-to backcourt scorer that never came.

    Might Sterling Smith or Damon Wilson fill that void?

    Last season with Coppin State, Smith averaged 13.9 points while converting on 41.8 percent of his 5.9 three-point attempts per game. We're not exactly expecting to confuse him with Stephen Curry any time soon, but the list of returning players who scored as often or efficiently as Smith did is quite finite. If he can bring that type of production from the MEAC to the ACC, it would be a huge upgrade for a team that didn't have anyone average more than 1.2 made triples per game last season.

    If Smith doesn't pan out, perhaps Wilson can give the Panthers a dual threat. A left-handed, pass-first combo guard, Wilson could join Robinson to form one of the most turnover-free and swing-happy backcourts in the nation. He's enough of a playmaker and defender that he'll inevitably make some sort of immediate impact in the rotation.

    Or maybe they'll even go with Chris Jones as the primary 2 and look to capitalize on their biggest strengthfrontcourt depth.

    Jones made a huge leap in his second season, more than tripling both the minutes and scoring average he posted as a freshman. He shot 35.7 percent from three-point range and led the Panthers in three-point attempts, so it would hardly be a stretch to label the 6'6" wing as a shooting guard.

    As far as the frontcourt goes, we've already mentioned Artis and Young, but the additions of Alonzo Nelson-Ododa and Rozelle Nix mean the Panthers have even more big mouths to feed. Sheldon Jeter, a 6'8" forward, will also figure prominently in the reserves mix, so expect to see a lot of big lineups in front of the Oakland Zoo this season.

    All told, this is a roster with a lot of options and a good amount of talent. Whether the Panthers can get their chemistry rightand how quickly they figure it outwill likely dictate which side of the tournament bubble they fall on. We had them penciled in as the first team out of the projected field back in early July, so they certainly aren't far from either side of that fence.

8. North Carolina State Wolfpack

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    Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

    2014-15 Season: 22-14 overall, 10-8 in ACC (tied for sixth place)

    Key Players Lost: Trevor Lacey (15.7 PPG; went pro), Ralston Turner (12.8 PPG; graduated), Kyle Washington (6.8 PPG; transferred), Desmond Lee (2.8 PPG; graduated)

    Key Players Added: Terry Henderson (West Virginia transfer), Maverick Rowan (4-star freshman)

    Projected Starters: Anthony "Cat" Barber, Henderson, Caleb Martin, Abdul-Malik Abu, BeeJay Anya

    Top Three Reserves: Rowan, Lennard Freeman, Cody Martin

    Few teams around the country underwent as much unexpected offseason transformation as the Wolfpack. When the 2014-15 season ended, it seemed they would be a sexy sleeper with Terry Henderson replacing Ralston Turner in the starting lineup and their trio of freshman forwards making an even bigger impact as sophomores.

    However, April 15 ended up being extremely taxing on NC State's outlook for the upcoming season, as Trevor Lacey declared for the draft and Kyle Washington decided to transfer within hours of each other. The Wolfpack got a rebate a few months later when Maverick Rowan reclassified to 2015 and signed with them, but it's a sizable net loss compared to where they were after reaching the Sweet 16.

    Let's not pretend this is a lost cause, though. Lacey and Washington may be gone, but there are still some great bones from the team that we had at No. 13 in our way-too-early top 25 right after the tournament  ended.

    There's much more pressure on Henderson and Cat Barber as the only established threats in the backcourt, but it would hardly be a tragedy to have those two talented players on the court for 35 minutes per game.

    In the frontcourt, Abdul-Malik Abu was already going to be regarded as one of the top breakout candidates in the conference, and Washington's departure only increases the amount of minutes Abu will have to display his talent. And while neither BeeJay Anya nor Lennard Freeman profiles as a full-time player, NC State could have the type of one-two punch at center that Final Four-bound Michigan State had last season in Gavin Schilling and Matt Costello.

    Rowen could be the difference-maker that propels the Wolfpack into the tournament and into the top third of the ACC standings.

    We're projecting Caleb Martin as the team's starting small forward, but that might make Rowen the front-runner for the ACC's Sixth Man of the Year. A 6'7" wing with plenty of range, Rowen gives Mark Gottfried some roster flexibility and enough scoring to potentially weather the storm of all that was lost from last season.

7. Notre Dame Fighting Irish

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    Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

    2014-15 Season: 32-6 overall, 14-4 in ACC (third place)

    Key Players Lost: Jerian Grant (16.5 PPG; graduated), Pat Connaughton (12.5 PPG; graduated)

    Key Players Added: Matt Ryan (4-star freshman), Rex Pflueger (4-star freshman)

    Projected Starters: Demetrius Jackson, Steve Vasturia, V.J. Beachem, Bonzie Colson, Zach Auguste

    Top Three Reserves: Austin Torres, Ryan, Pflueger

    Arguably the biggest unknown in the ACC is just how far Notre Dame will fall without Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton.

    Duke and Louisville also lost a lot of crucial pieces, but at least the former reloaded with a quartet of 5-star freshmen while the latter added two of the best graduate-transfers in the country to remain among the nation's elite. Other than picking up a pair of below-the-radar freshman wings, what exactly did Notre Dame do to combat its attrition?

    I'm all aboard the "Demetrius Jackson for 2015-16 ACC Player of the Year" bandwagon, but can we really trust the Irish to keep chugging along without their two best players from last season when they couldn't even tread water without one of them two seasons ago?

    After Grant was ruled academically ineligible, Notre Dame completely fell apart without him, posting a record of 5-13 over the final 18 games of the 2013-14 season.

    Sure, Jackson and Zach Auguste were reserve underclassmen on a roster that Bonzie Colson wasn't even a part of yet, but those Fighting Irish still had Connaughton and seniors Garrick Sherman and Eric Atkins. The fall from grace shouldn't have been nearly that pronounced, but they really looked helpless during the only window in the past four years that we've seen them play without Grant.

    Jackson is a stud, but will Auguste and Steve Vasturia be as efficient without benefiting from one of the most flawless orchestrators of the pick-and-roll offense in recent history? Will Colson and V.J. Beachem be able to replicate their impressive per-40 numbers from last season while more than doubling their minutes played?

    Notre Dame just had one of the most efficient offensive seasons we've ever seen, carrying a fairly average defense to a pretty great all-around year. Mike Brey is an excellent, underrated coach, but there has to be some degree of regression here, right?

    They should still make the tournament, but it would take something extra special to finish in or near the top three in the ACC again.

6. Florida State Seminoles

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    Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

    2014-15 Season: 17-16 overall, 8-10 in ACC (tied for ninth place)

    Key Players Lost: Kiel Turpin (4.9 PPG; graduated)

    Key Players Added: Dwayne Bacon (5-star freshman), Malik Beasley (4-star freshman), Terance Mann (4-star freshman), Benji Bell (JUCO transfer)

    Projected Starters: Xavier Rathan-Mayes, Devon Bookert, Bacon, Montay Brandon, Jarquez Smith

    Top Three Reserves: Phil Cofer, Boris Bojanovsky, Beasley

    Florida State might have the deepest and most talented collection of guards in the country.

    A lite version of Providence's Kris Dunn, Xavier Rathan-Mayes isn't a prolific shooter, but he's the type of multi-threat player (14.9 PPG, 4.3 APG, 3.5 RPG, 1.1 SPG in his first collegiate season) who could come to be regarded as one of the nation's best guards if he ever cuts down on his turnovers.

    Now that he has an extremely skilled running mate in the backcourt, it might really be time to see how bright Rathan-Mayes can shine.

    That partner in crime is Dwayne Baconthe only 2015 5-star recruit to sign with an ACC team other than Duke. A wing who can play any position 1 through 3, Bacon gives the Seminoles another elite scorer and the ability to have the type of shape-shifting backcourt that the past few national championship teams have possessed.

    FSU also has senior Devon Bookert in the mix as a surefire starter. At 39.3 percent, he was one of the best three-point shooters in the ACC last season and has converted on 43.3 percent of his career attempts.

    And Florida State's JUCO transfer and pair of 4-star freshmen? All shooting guards. Do you suppose Leonard Hamilton was bothered by last year's shooting? Take Bookert out of the equation and the rest of the Seminoles made just 28.1 percent of their long-range attempts. In theory, that shouldn't be a problem this year.

    However, just ask last year's Indiana Hoosiers or Michigan Wolverines what happens when you have an exceptionally talented backcourt and no big men worth bragging about.

    Montay Brandon led the Seminoles in rebounds last season, but he's anything other than a prototypical power forward. They signed him as a point guard in the class of 2012, so he's really a point forward who just so happens to corral a good number of loose balls because he's now 6'8" and plays a ton of minutes.

    As far as conventional frontcourt players go, there's certainly no shortage of options. Phil Cofer, Jarquez Smith, Michael Ojo and Boris Bojanovsky each stand 6'8" or taller and could make a significant impact in the paint, but we have yet to see any of them really established as the potential anchor of a tournament team.

    If one of those big men makes "the leap" this year, this team could be scary good.

5. Louisville Cardinals

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    2014-15 Season: 27-9 overall, 12-6 in ACC (fourth place)

    Key Players Lost: Terry Rozier (17.1 PPG; went pro), Montrezl Harrell (15.7 PPG; went pro), Chris Jones (13.7 PPG; dismissed midseason), Wayne Blackshear (11.6 PPG; graduated), Anton Gill (2.5 PPG; transferred), Shaqquan Aaron (1.3 PPG; transferred)

    Key Players Added: Damion Lee (Drexel transfer), Trey Lewis (Cleveland State transfer), Donovan Mitchell (4-star freshman), Deng Adel (4-star freshman), Raymond Spalding (4-star freshman)

    Projected Starters: Quentin Snider, Lewis, Lee, Chinanu Onuaku, Mangok Mathiang

    Top Three Reserves: Mitchell, Adel, Spalding

    If we include transfers as part of a team's recruiting class, there's a case to be made that Louisville ended up with the best haul in the entire country.

    Based solely on their incoming freshmen, 247 Sports has the Cardinals down for the eighth best 2015 class. Toss in a shooting guard who averaged 16.3 points per game last season with Cleveland State and another who put up 21.4 per game with Drexel and it's not hard to argue they belong at No. 1.

    However, it might be even easier to argue that they needed that type of splash more than any other team in the ACC, given all that they lost.

    Even with an all-time great coach getting a plethora of good recruits, it could be a challenge to replace the production of all four of last year's leading scorers. But Damion Lee and Trey Lewis are an obvious and massive step in the right direction.

    Oftentimes with these wholesale rebuilds, the biggest error in judgment is assuming either incoming freshmen will be ready, willing and able to contribute early and often or that the returning players will automatically experience a drastic uptick in minutes and assertiveness.

    In Louisville's case, Chinanu Onuaku and Mangok Mathiang were just about the least assertive regulars in the nation, playing more than 40 percent of possible minute, but responsible for fewer than 9.0 percent of the team's shots while on the court.

    Yes, there's enough room for both of them to start now. No, we're not expecting them each to suddenly average 10 field-goal attempts per game.

    That's why Lee (responsible for 29.1 percent of his team's shots while on the court) and Lewis (26.3 percent) were such crucial additions. This roster needed players who are wired to score and it certainly got two of them.

    Also, with both Onuaku and Mathiang presumably playing a ton of minutes, Louisville should remain one of the best defensive teams in the country. The Cardinals probably won't force as many steals without Terry Rozier and Chris Jonesthough, don't sleep on the defensive potential from Lee and Lewisbut good luck finding a more formidable frontcourt to try to score against.

    As was the case last season, expect a lot of Louisville games played in the high 50s or low 60s. With Lee and Lewis potentially good for at least 35 combined points per game, it'll only take a little offense from the rest of the rotation to put together a sixth consecutive season with 25 or more wins.

4. Miami Hurricanes

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    Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

    2014-15 Season: 25-13 overall, 10-8 in ACC (tied for sixth place)

    Key Players Lost: Manu Lecomte (7.9 PPG; transferred), Deandre Burnett (7.0 PPG; transferred)

    Key Players Added: Kamari Murphy (Oklahoma State transfer)

    Projected Starters: Angel Rodriguez, Sheldon McClellan, Davon Reed, Murphy, Tonye Jekiri

    Top Three Reserves: Ja'Quan Newton, Omar Sherman, Ivan Cruz Uceda

    As it was happening, it felt like Miami was having a ridiculously up and down 2014-15 season.

    The Hurricanes started well below the radar before winning their first eight games to climb as high as No. 15 in the AP poll. They proceeded to get blown out at home by both Green Bay and Eastern Kentucky. Then they got hot again, including a 16-point win at Duke before stalling out with losses to Georgia Tech, Florida State and Wake Forest in the span of two weeks. But they closed strong and nearly won the NIT, pushing Stanford to OT in the title game.

    In retrospect, those early wins over Florida and Illinois weren't all that impressive, but they caused us to overvalue a team that gradually improved as the season progressed. Angel Rodriguez was unstoppable early in the season, but it wasn't until Sheldon McClellan really hit his stride and Davon Reed was fully integrated into Miami's rotation that the Hurricanes began to show what they were capable of doing.

    And that was before adding a second legitimate big man in Kamari Murphy.

    Last year, Miami's interior strategy pretty much boiled down to Tonye Jekiri or bust. While he had a pretty solid season (8.6 PPG, 9.9 RPG, 1.4 BPG), it wasn't so great as to make up for the fact that Joe Thomas, Omar Sherman and Cruz Uceda combined to create a pretty ineffective power forward.

    Murphy wasn't exactly a monster in the paint for Oklahoma State, but at least he could play in the paint, unlike Sherman and Cruz Uceda who didn't rebound well and attempted more than 50 percent of their shots from three-point range.

    Now, those two stretch 4s can be used as a change of pace from what might be the most experienced starting five in the country. Jekiri is a regular ol' fourth-year senior, but Rodriguez and McClellan are both fifth-year seniors, thanks to a 2013-14 season spent on the bench after transferring. Murphy is a fourth-year junior and Reed is the youngest of the bunch as a conventional junior.

    The importance of veteran leadership in the tournament is very often overstated, but it's such a plus to have those elder statesmen throughout the course of the regular season. That alone should score the Hurricanes the extra win or two needed for a fourth-place finish.

3. Virginia Cavaliers

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    Rich Barnes/Getty Images

    2014-15 Season: 30-4 overall, 16-2 in ACC (first place)

    Key Players Lost: Justin Anderson (12.2 PPG; went pro), Darion Atkins (7.6 PPG; graduated)

    Key Players Added: Darius Thompson (Tennessee transfer), Jack Salt (redshirt freshman)

    Projected Starters: London Perrantes, Malcolm Brogdon, Marial Shayok, Anthony Gill, Mike Tobey

    Top Three Reserves: Isaiah Wilkins, Thompson, Evan Nolte

    Two years ago, Virginia went 16-2 and won the ACC. After losing a great shooting guard (Joe Harris) and an underrated, defensive-minded power forward (Akil Mitchell) from that roster, I was thoroughly unconvinced of the Cavaliers' staying power among the ACC's elite.

    They proceeded to perfectly replicate that season, going 16-2 and winning the ACC once again. And nearly identical to one year past, they lose a great shooting guard (Justin Anderson) and an underrated, defensive-minded power forward (Darion Atkins) who was named the ACC's Defensive Player of the Year.

    You'd think I would learn my lesson and just plug them in as the projected ACC champions, but Duke and North Carolina are just too strong for that to happen.

    Baby steps, though. I'm now at least willing to trust in Tony Bennett's genius and accept that the Cavaliers deserve the top-10 ranking with which they will almost certainly open the season. Like a modern-day Jim Boeheim 2-3 zone, it doesn't seem to matter who the players are in Bennett's pack line D; the system just works.

    But it's because the players are very talented that Virginia gets on the short list of conceivable national champions.

    London Perrantes was one of just 13 players to post an assist-to-turnover ratio of 3.0 or better. Mike Tobey struggled to get consistent playing time behind Atkins and Anthony Gill, but he was pretty efficient (16 points and 12 rebounds per 40 minutes.)

    Malcolm Brogdon was overshadowed by Justin Anderson's unexpected quest for the Wooden Award, but he and Gill had outstanding individual seasons, spending the vast majority of the year ranked in the top 10 of the Player of the Year standings.

    Gill was featured in ESPN's "Welcome Back" series in which Eamonn Brennan wrote, "Gill is one of the very best interior players -- and one of the most important returning veterans, at any position, on any team -- in college basketball. He is the 2015 offseason's least heralded, most slept-on All-American candidate."

    The biggest unknown for Virginia heading into next season is how effective the primary small forward will be. Whether that player is Marial Shayok, Darius Thompson, Isaiah Wilkins or Evan Nolte is yet to be determined, but the smart money is on Shayok winning the job and potentially becoming the most important defender and three-point shooter on the roster.

    One way or the other, though, Bennett will find something that works and keeps his team as the most frustrating in the conference to prepare to face.

2. Duke Blue Devils

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    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    2014-15 Season: 35-4 overall, 15-3 in ACC (second place)

    Key Players Lost: Jahlil Okafor (17.3 PPG; went pro), Quinn Cook (15.3 PPG; graduated), Justise Winslow (12.6 PPG; went pro), Tyus Jones (11.8 PPG; went pro), Rasheed Sulaimon (7.5 PPG; dismissed midseason)

    Key Players AddedBrandon Ingram (5-star freshman), Derryck Thornton (5-star freshman), Chase Jeter (5-star freshman), Luke Kennard (5-star freshman), Sean Obi (Rice transfer)

    Projected Starters: Thornton, Grayson Allen, Matt Jones, Ingram, Jeter

    Top Three Reserves: Amile Jefferson, Kennard, Obi

    Most teams would be in a world of hurt after losing all five of their players who averaged at least 7.0 points per game.

    Most teams don't add four 5-star recruits in one offseason either.

    Duke doesn't have time for rebuilding years. Instead, the Blue Devils had a couple of reloading months and figure to be in better shape to defend their national championship than any team since Florida pulled off the repeat in 2006-07.

    Quite the opposite of Miami and Virginia, who are absolutely teeming with veterans, Duke will be one of the youngest teams in the nation. But before you try to use that against the Blue Devils, keep in mind they just won the title while ranking 331st in experience. Kansas won its 11th straight Big 12 title while ranked 338th, and Kentucky nearly went undefeated with the sixth-least experienced roster in the country.

    Veteran players are great to havethere's no denying the positive impact that Quinn Cook had on last year's freshman classbut who needs seniors when you have an incoming point guard, shooting guard, small forward and power forward who are all ranked in the top five nationally at their position by 247 Sports?

    The most crucial newbies are Derryck Thornton and Brandon Ingram.

    Before those two signed in April, Duke had a fringe top-25 roster with no point guard and a bunch of role players from which Grayson Allen absolutely needed to become a star. They'll still need plenty of production out of Allen, but he won't need to be an Austin Rivers-type of primary ball-handler who leads the team in scoring. In fact, he won't have to play either of those roles, as Thornton will run the offense and Ingram will be one of the highest scoring freshmen in the nation.

    If you accept that the freshmen will live up to expectations, the biggest question for Duke is who replaces Cook as the team leader? Marshall Plumlee is the oldest player on the roster, but unless he has a Brian Zoubek senior season up his sleeve, it's going to be tough for him to lead from the bench. And neither Amile Jefferson nor Matt Jones has played with a fraction of the swagger that Cook brought to the court.

    Maybe Ingram comes in like Jabari Parker and immediately becomes "the guy," but there might be a game or two where the going gets tough and the freshmen are looking around at one another trying to figure out who's going to put the team on their back. It's enough of a concern to keep the Blue Devils behind their loathed rivals for the projected top spot.

1. North Carolina Tar Heels

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    Gerry Broome/Associated Press

    2014-15 Season: 26-12 overall, 11-7 in ACC (fifth place)

    Key Players Lost: J.P. Tokoto (8.3 PPG; went pro)

    Key Players Added: Kenny Williams (4-star freshman)

    Projected Starters: Marcus Paige, Justin Jackson, Theo Pinson, Brice Johnson, Kennedy Meeks

    Top Three Reserves: Isaiah Hicks, Williams, Joel Berry

    The gap of more than seven months between the last game of the 2015 NCAA tournament and the first game of the 2015-16 regular season is roughly 60 percent finished, and it's still pretty quiet on the Wainstein front. In fact, the 2015-16 Tar Heels got some good news disguised as bad news on August 14 when the university reported additional violations involving the women's basketball and men's soccer programs.

    How is that good news, you ask?

    Because it resets the clock on when the school needs to respond to the NCAA's notice of allegations. They had 90 days to respond to the letter received on May 22, and it's hardly a coincidence that they reported these new findings on the very last Friday afternoon of that 90-day period.

    They'll now have an additional 60 days to investigate those findings before likely receiving an amended notice of allegations that they will have another 90 days to respond to. As Gary Parrish of CBS Sports noted, "The timing basically ensures UNC won't be punished before National Signing Day for football or the 2016 NCAA Tournament."

    Long story short, we can almost completely stop mentioning that off-the-court legal drama and focus solely on the fact that the Tar Heels have quite possibly the most talented roster in the entire country. A plethora of "minor" injuries derailed what could have been a Final Four season last year, and they return everyone except for J.P. Tokoto.

    Theo Pinson is the only projected starter that probably isn't an extremely strong candidate for a preseason All-ACC roster spot, and that's only because the third-highest-rated small forward in last year's recruiting class was stuck behind Tokoto on the depth chart before missing nearly two months with a broken foot.

    Pinson is a potential breakout star and could prove to be the difference between a very good North Carolina team and one that earns the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament.

    As was the case with Kentucky last season, perhaps the scariest thing about the Tar Heels is the amount of talent that they'll have no choice but to bring off the bench. They have six McDonald's All-Americans, and Brice Johnson isn't even one of them, meaning Isaiah Hicks and Joel Berry are two of the most talented benchwarmers in the country. Throw in Nate Britt, Kenny Williams and Joel James and North Carolina has a pretty solid reserve at every position.

    That type of depth combined with the team-wide urgency to get it done this season before the wrath of the NCAA comes crashing down on the university should be enough to end UNC's "slump" of three years without an ACC title.

    Recruit rankings courtesy of 247Sports. All advanced stats courtesy of

    Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter at @kerrancejames.