Predicting the 2016-17 ACC College Basketball Standings
Though North Carolina and Virginia are both legitimate candidates to win the men's college basketball national championship in 2017, the Duke Blue Devils are the clear favorites to win the ACC regular-season title.
First things first—this conference is absurdly loaded. Not since the 2010-11 Big East that sent 11 teams to the NCAA tournament has a conference been this deep with talented teams. There are a couple of duds at the bottom of the projected standings, but 12 of the 15 teams in the ACC have sensible hopes of making the Big Dance, and at least half of those teams have realistic aspirations of reaching the Final Four.
Whether you view the 12th-best team in the ACC as Miami, Pittsburgh or Notre Dame, that team would be expected to finish in the top five in just about any other conference. There's no chance all 12 end up making the tournament, but 10 is a real possibility—especially if the SEC struggles to even produce a second team worthy of a bid behind Kentucky.
So buckle up for what's sure to be a wild ride. The Big 12 has been the best (regular-season) conference in the country for the past few seasons, but this year isn't even open for debate. The ACC is where it's at, and here's our projection for which teams finish where in that gauntlet.
15. Boston College Eagles (7-25 overall; 0-18 in ACC)
Boston College should be a little better than last year, but only because it would be hard to get any worse than winless in conference play. Graduate transfers Jordan Chatman (BYU), Connar Tava (Western Michigan) and Maurice Jeffers (Delaware) might each be starters for a team that desperately needs something to change after going 8-46 over the last three seasons.
14. Wake Forest Demon Deacons (11-20 overall; 2-16 in ACC)
In losing Devin Thomas, Codi Miller-McIntyre and Cornelius Hudson, Wake Forest almost made the tumble into last place. Regardless of the order they finish in, let's just say the two games between the Eagles and Demon Deacons aren't high on our 2016-17 watch list.
Head coach Danny Manning did get a nice boost with the pickup of Milwaukee graduate-transfer Austin Arians. The small forward should help bridge the gaping hole in the roster between stud point guard Bryant Crawford and capable center Konstantinos Mitoglou.
13. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (21-15 overall; 8-10 in ACC)
They say the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, but we're not sure what grass head coach Josh Pastner was looking at in choosing Georgia Tech. This could be one of the most challenging seasons in the program's last three decades.
The Yellow Jackets lose all four of their leading scorers to graduation, as Marcus Georges-Hunt, Adam Smith, Nick Jacobs and Charles Mitchell accounted for more than 71 percent of the team's scoring last season. To replace all that lost production, Georgia Tech merely added a couple of graduate transfers from the MAC (Eastern Michigan's Jodan Price and Western Michigan's Kellen McCormick) and a trio of 3-star backcourt freshmen.
Victims of Circumstance
There are going to be a lot of angry comments from these three fanbases. However, that would have been true regardless of the teams, because the ACC has 12 teams that might finish the season ranked in the top 40 on KenPom, RPI and SOS. Finding the proper cut-off point in this conference is going to be the selection committee's biggest challenge this season.
But the 10th-12th place spots have to be occupied by someone. With apologies to these teams:
12. Miami Hurricanes (27-8 overall; 13-5 in ACC)
The Hurricanes have a nice incoming group of players, led by Dewan Huell and Bruce Brown. San Jose State transfer Rashad Muhammad should also make a positive impact.
But this team lost more key members of its rotation than just about any other ACC program. Sheldon McClellan and Angel Rodriguez were the team leaders in every sense of the word. Tonye Jekiri was the primary frontcourt player. Add in Ivan Cruz Uceda, and Miami lost four of its seven leaders in minutes played.
Maybe Ja'Quan Newton and Davon Reed lead the team to a 2015-16 Wisconsin type of miracle, making the tournament as a No. 7 seed in spite of that high degree of attrition. In this year's conference, though, it's going to be tough to for the 'Canes to tread water.
11. Pittsburgh Panthers (21-12 overall; 9-9 in ACC)
No team drew a worse straw from the schedule makers than the Panthers. The four teams they play twice are North Carolina, Virginia, Louisville and Syracuse. And even their single games against Boston College, Georgia Tech and Wake Forest will each come on the road.
That's a downright brutal gauntlet for a team that lost both its head coach (Jamie Dixon) and its starting point guard (James Robinson).
10. Notre Dame Fighting Irish (24-12 overall; 11-7 in ACC)
The Fighting Irish could do some damage with V.J. Beachem, Steve Vasturia and Bonzie Colson leading the way as veterans. Unfortunately, they picked a rough year to lose both Demetrius Jackson and Zach Auguste.
But where Pittsburgh was hurt by its schedule, Notre Dame should be a threat to go .500 in conference play because of the teams it will face. Its "double dips" are against Boston College, Georgia Tech, Florida State and Louisville, and it gets a home game against Wake Forest. Those are the kind of minor details that could play a major factor in the final ACC standings.
9. Florida State Seminoles
2015-16 Season: 20-14 overall, 8-10 in ACC (tied for 11th place)
Key Players Lost: Malik Beasley (15.6 PPG), Devon Bookert (9.5 PPG), Boris Bojanovsky (6.1 PPG), Benji Bell (3.8 PPG)
Projected Starters: Xavier Rathan-Mayes, Dwayne Bacon, Forrest, Isaac, Jarquez Smith
Top Three Reserves: Phil Cofer, Terance Mann, Chris Koumadje
Florida State has the ingredients to be special. Jonathan Isaac might be the most athletically gifted freshman in the country. Pairing that big man with backcourt studs Dwayne Bacon and Xavier Rathan-Mayes will give the Seminoles one of the best primary trios in the ACC.
Whether they can turn that into a spot in the top half of the conference standings and a trip to the NCAA tournament will be determined by the supporting cast, particularly in the frontcourt.
One might think that Isaac would be their best option to play center. But the 6'10" star was a guard until a recent growth spurt. Even listing him as the primary 4 might be a bit of a stretch, as he's much more Justin Jackson than Harry Giles.
Beyond that, it's a rotating group of tall role players.
Of the bunch, Jarquez Smith had the best 2015-16 season, and even he only played 14.4 minutes per game. Phil Cofer played 11 games due to injury, but he was barely getting half as many minutes as he did in 2014-15. Chris Koumadje is 7'4" but played 6.1 minutes per game and finished last year with more personal fouls (36) than points (33). And while Michael Ojo might get a fifth year of eligibility, career averages of 1.9 PPG and 2.2 RPG hardly put him atop opposing scouting reports.
But if Leonard Hamilton can find something that works with that quartet, look out for the Seminoles. They'll need more efficient seasons than they just got out of Bacon and Rathan-Mayes, but there's more than enough firepower here to win at least 10 ACC games.
8. Virginia Tech Hokies
2015-16 Season: 20-15 overall, 10-8 in ACC (tied for seventh place)
Key Players Lost: Jalen Hudson (8.4 PPG)
Key Players Added: Ahmed Hill (returning from injury), Ty Outlaw (JUCO SF), Seth LeDay (JUCO PF)
Projected Starters: Seth Allen, Justin Robinson, Justin Bibbs, Zach LeDay, Kerry Blackshear Jr.
Top Three Reserves: Hill, Chris Clarke, Outlaw
This should be the most talented team in Virginia Tech history.
However, for a program that has never been to the Final Four, hasn't been to the Sweet 16 since 1967 and only had one season (1995-96) in which it spent any time ranked in the AP Top 10, "greatest team in school history" isn't exactly a high bar to set. Still, big things are expected for a team with six of the seven leading scorers returning from a 20-win season.
Unfortunately, the Hokies may have picked the wrong year to make their stand, as their best only seems good enough to finish in the middle of the conference standings.
Getting Ahmed Hill back should be a nice boost for a team that was pedestrian from three-point range in 2015-16. Outside of Justin Bibbs (45.0 percent), they didn't have any good options. But Hill shot 38.6 percent two years ago as a freshman, so he might help reduce the need for Seth Allen (28.0 percent last year) to shoot the long ball.
Other than that, the one thing that might move the needle in Virginia Tech's favor would be a big sophomore year from Kerry Blackshear Jr. The 6'10" forward is one of the only true frontcourt options on the roster. If he can give the Hokies 27-30 quality minutes per game, that would strengthen one of the only weak links in this rotation.
Defense will be the biggest key, though. VT will occasionally score in bunches, but it is best suited to win games played in the high 60s or low 70s. Too often last season, opponents ran away from the Hokies in track meets. Limiting those up-and-down affairs with momentum-stalling turnovers and defensive rebounding might be enough for 10-11 ACC wins.
7. North Carolina State Wolfpack
2015-16 Season: 16-17 overall, 5-13 in ACC (13th place)
Key Players Lost: Cat Barber (23.5 PPG), Caleb Martin (11.5 PPG), Cody Martin (6.0 PPG)
Key Players Added: Dennis Smith Jr. (5-star PG), Omer Yurtseven (5-star C), Terry Henderson (returning from injury), Torin Dorn (Charlotte transfer), Ted Kapita (4-star PF), Markell Johnson (4-star PG)
Projected Starters: Smith, Henderson, Maverick Rowan, Abdul-Malik Abu, Yurtseven
Top Three Reserves: Dorn, Kapita, BeeJay Anya
Early in the offseason, it looked as though the Wolfpack were destined for another year of battling for last place in the ACC. Cat Barber declared for the draft, Caleb and Cody Martin were transferring, and it sounded as though Abdul-Malik Abu was going to remain in the NBA draft, as well.
But in the span of less than six weeks, they signed Omer Yurtseven in mid-May, found out a few days later that Abu would be coming back and signed both Ted Kapita and Markell Johnson in late-June. As a result, despite opening the month of May with little hope of a bounce-back year, they now sit as one of the legitimate candidates to break up the Duke-UNC-Virginia party atop the ACC standings.
The biggest reason for optimism is stud freshman point guard Dennis Smith Jr. Even when the Wolfpack had barely half of the nine-man rotation they'll now enter the season with, Smith gave them a chance to make some noise. Now that the likely lottery pick has more and better toys to play with, he could make even more of an impact than Barber did in ranking sixth in the nation in points per game.
The forgotten factors that could push NC State over the top are Terry Henderson and Torin Dorn.
Dorn scored 12.0 points per game as a freshman with Charlotte and should be a solid reserve. Henderson sat out the 2014-15 season after transferring from West Virginia and played just seven minutes last year before suffering a season-ending injury. But his three-point shooting (38.7 percent in two years with the Mountaineers) will be crucial on this roster.
If Turkish center Yurtseven is anywhere near as good as advertised, the Wolfpack will be tough to beat.
6. Clemson Tigers
2015-16 Season: 17-14 overall, 10-8 in ACC (tied for seventh place)
Key Players Lost: Jordan Roper (8.8 PPG), Landry Nnoko (8.1 PPG)
Key Players Added: Shelton Mitchell (Vanderbilt transfer), Marcquise Reed (Robert Morris transfer), Elijah Thomas** (Texas A&M transfer), Scott Spencer (3-star SG)
Projected Starters: Mitchell, Avry Holmes, Donte Grantham, Jaron Blossomgame, Sidy Djitte
Top Three Reserves: Reed, Thomas, Gabe DeVoe
**Available second semester
In addition to their surprising January stretch of consecutive wins over Florida State, Syracuse, Louisville, Duke and Miami, did you know the Clemson Tigers only lost four games last season by a margin of more than seven points, and they didn't suffer a single ACC loss by more than 11 points?
A terrible nonconference strength of schedule that included losses to Massachusetts and Minnesota kept this team from making a serious run at a postseason berth, but Clemson turned a major corner in the middle of last season to become an opponent that no one wanted to face.
Can the Tigers keep that train rolling while adding three transfers?
Because of the additions of Shelton Mitchell and Marcquise Reed, Jordan Roper isn't a big loss. Reed will fill the void of Roper's on-ball defense, and the combined force of those sophomore guards should make up for his ability to run the offense.
Replacing Landry Nnoko is the much bigger concern, as the 11th-best shot-blocker in the nation was the anchor of the defense that repeatedly stifled high-powered offenses in conference play. But Elijah Thomas was a plus shot blocker in his limited time with Texas A&M, and Sidy Djitte might even be an upgrade over Nnoko if his per-40 numbers (14.0 points, 13.9 rebounds, 1.7 blocks and 1.6 steals) translate well in added playing time.
But Clemson starts and ends with Jaron Blossomgame. A power forward who shot 44.1 percent from three-point range last season, he will enter the season as one of the top candidates for ACC Player of the Year. If he can remain as lethal as he was in 2015-16, the Tigers should spend some time in AP Top 25.
5. Louisville Cardinals
2015-16 Season: 23-8 overall, 12-6 in ACC (fourth place)
Key Players Lost: Damion Lee (15.9 PPG), Trey Lewis (11.3 PPG), Chinanu Onuaku (9.9 PPG)
Key Players Added: V.J. King (5-star SF), Tony Hicks (Penn transfer)
Projected Starters: Quentin Snider, Donovan Mitchell, King, Raymond Spalding, Mangok Mathiang
Top Three Reserves: Deng Adel, Hicks, Jaylen Johnson
Normally, when a team loses its three leading scorers and merely adds one freshman and one inefficient graduate-transfer to replace them, expectations are that it will get much worse.
But Louisville's sophomore class—which was ranked sixth in the nation last year and was the only top-14 class that didn't lose at least one player to either the NBA draft or the transfer market—is dripping with potential. More playing time for Donovan Mitchell, Raymond Spalding and Deng Adel should help make up for the departures of Damion Lee, Trey Lewis and Chinanu Onuaku.
Getting a healthy Mangok Mathiang back will also be a big help. The big man was a starter off and on for both his freshman and sophomore years and was out to a good start as a junior, but a broken foot limited him to just 10 games last season. The Cardinals have plenty of frontcourt options between Mathiang, Spalding, Jaylen Johnson, Anas Mahmoud and Matz Stockman, but Mathiang should be the primary 5 in his final season.
The biggest thing keeping Louisville among the ACC's elite might be the addition of V.J. King.
Scouts have expressed some concerns about King's assertiveness and killer instinct, but not his talent. If anything, it's a testament to how effortless King can excel that it sometimes feels like he isn't trying hard enough to destroy the competition.
And on this team, he doesn't need to be the alpha dog. His three-point shooting and explosive first step should net him at least 10 points per game while spreading out the offense for a team that has been lacking a lethal three-point weapon in four of the past five seasons. If he can reliably become that guy, the Cardinals might mess around and challenge Duke for the ACC crown.
4. Syracuse Orange
2015-16 Season: 23-14 overall, 9-9 in ACC (tied for ninth place)
Key Players Lost: Michael Gbinije (17.5 PPG), Malachi Richardson (13.4 PPG), Trevor Cooney (12.9 PPG)
Key Players Added: Andrew White (Nebraska transfer), John Gillon (Colorado State transfer), Tyus Battle (4-star SG), Matthew Moyer (4-star SF), Taurean Thompson (4-star C), Paschal Chukwu (Providence transfer)
Projected Starters: Gillon, White, Tyler Lydon, Tyler Roberson, DaJuan Coleman
Top Three Reserves: Franklin Howard, Battle, Chukwu
It's a good thing we saved the ACC projections until the end of the series, because expectations for Syracuse have changed drastically in the last 48 hours.
The Orange were going to be No. 8 on our list. After losing Michael Gbinije, Malachi Richardson, Trevor Cooney and Kaleb Joseph, Franklin Howard was Syracuse's only returning guard who played more than five minutes last season. Even with the additions of John Gillon and Tyus Battle, backcourt depth was, by far, the biggest concern with the current roster.
But with the late-August decision by Nebraska graduate-transfer Andrew White III to sign with Syracuse, another trip to the Final Four is now in play.
The shooting guard who began his career with Kansas before averaging 16.6 points per game last year for the Cornhuskers should make a significant impact. As far as Luke Winn of Sports Illustrated is concerned, White might get more touches than any other player on the roster.
That isn't to say there aren't other talented players in the mix, though.
Tyler Lydon is a legitimate ACC Player of the Year candidate, and Tyler Roberson might have been the most underappreciated player to ever average at least 8.5 points and rebounds per game for a Final Four squad. And for as much as health concerns plagued DaJuan Coleman's first three years at Syracuse, he was a huge factor for 17.5 minutes per game last year.
Add to that mix a veteran combo guard in Gillon, a trio of 4-star freshmen and Paschal Chukwu—a 4-star recruit in 2014 who never got much of a chance to shine at Providence—and Jim Boeheim suddenly has one heck of a 10-man rotation.
3. Virginia Cavaliers
2015-16 Season: 29-8 overall, 13-5 in ACC (tied for second place)
Key Players Lost: Malcolm Brogdon (18.2 PPG), Anthony Gill (13.8 PPG), Mike Tobey (7.3 PPG)
Projected Starters: London Perrantes, Guy, Devon Hall, Isaiah Wilkins, Nichols
Top Three Reserves: Diakite, Marial Shayok, Darius Thompson
According to OddsShark, 10 teams opened the offseason with national championship odds of 20-to-1 or better: Duke, Kentucky, Villanova, Kansas, Louisville, Michigan State, North Carolina, Indiana, Oregon and Virginia.
Due in large part to Troy Williams and Chinanu Onuaku declaring for the NBA draft, both Indiana and Louisville have since dropped out of that club on most of the sites listed on that matrix, leaving Duke, North Carolina and Virginia as three of the eight teams most likely to win the 2017 title. Arizona, UCLA and Wisconsin arguably belong in that club, but as it is, the ACC is the only team with multiple teams on the list.
Long story short, Virginia should be great. The battle for the ACC regular-season title could be even more compelling than the quest for No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament.
Yes, the Cavaliers lost three crucial players in Malcolm Brogdon, Anthony Gill and Mike Tobey. But they're adding Austin Nichols and—if we count 2015 4-star redshirt freshman Mamadi Diakite—are also gaining five top-100 freshmen.
In fact, there's so much talent on this roster that we didn't even come close to listing it all in the primary eight-man rotation. Jack Salt will probably rank 12th on the team in minutes played this year, and he would be the starting center for just about any team that opens the season outside the AP Top 25.
Led by Nichols and Isaiah Wilkins, Virginia's defense might be better than ever. If the Wahoos also get another great year of three-point shooting from London Perrantes, look out.
2. North Carolina Tar Heels
2015-16 Season: 33-7 overall, 14-4 in ACC (first place)
Key Players Lost: Brice Johnson (17.0 PPG), Marcus Paige (12.6 PPG)
Projected Starters: Joel Berry II, Theo Pinson, Justin Jackson, Isaiah Hicks, Kennedy Meeks
Top Three Reserves: Bradley, Nate Britt, Woods
All things considered, 2015-16 was a fantastic year for the Tar Heels. Save for a brief dip to No. 11 in mid-December, they spent the entire 2015-16 season ranked No. 9 or better in the AP Top 25. They opened the season at No. 1 in the poll and finished it at No. 3 before playing in the national championship game. It wasn't Kentucky going 38-1, but it was a fairly dominant performance from start to finish.
By losing Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige from that team, the Tar Heels will take a step backward, albeit a tiny one. They likely won't receive any first-place votes in the preseason poll and won't be picked to win the ACC, but this team is a contender to win it all.
In their respective recruiting classes, here is where North Carolina's primary six players ranked, according to 247Sports: Joel Berry II (30), Theo Pinson (15), Justin Jackson (9), Isaiah Hicks (16), Kennedy Meeks (58) and Tony Bradley (26). Considering Bradley is the only member of that group that isn't at least a junior, North Carolina likely has the most experienced talent of any team in the entire country.
As it has been for several seasons, the only big question here is three-point shooting. Berry emerged nicely as a perimeter weapon last season, but Pinson (28.6 percent) and Jackson (29.2 percent) not so much. And Meeks and Hicks combined to attempt zero three-pointers in 2015-16, so don't expect to see "stretch 4" in any stories about the Tar Heels this year.
Seventh Woods and Brandon Robinson might be able to help in that department, but neither one figures to start. Heck, they have to beat out Nate Britt and Kenny Williams just to become the first backcourt guys off the bench. But if this is finally the year that Jackson starts making three-pointers with regularity—he did shoot 47.4 percent in the NCAA tournament—it'll be tough to find any weaknesses with this team.
1. Duke Blue Devils
2015-16 Season: 25-11 overall, 11-7 in ACC (tied for fifth place)
Key Players Lost: Brandon Ingram (17.3 PPG), Marshall Plumlee (8.3 PPG), Derryck Thornton (7.1 PPG)
Projected Starters: Jackson, Grayson Allen, Tatum, Amile Jefferson, Giles
Top Three Reserves: Bolden, Luke Kennard, Matt Jones
Expectations for Duke are always high. You have to go back to 1995 to find the last time the Blue Devils didn't open the season ranked No. 13 or better, including four years at No. 1 in the preseason AP Top 25.
But expectations are never quite this high.
Some rogue voter will have Villanova, Kansas or Kentucky at No. 1 on his or her ballot, but Duke is the clear favorite to win the national championship. Case in point, Luke Kennard and Matt Jones averaged 11.4 and 10.4 points per game last season, respectively, but neither one figures to start.
That's because the Blue Devils signed four of the top 15 freshmen in the country while getting back Grayson Allen's 21.6 points per game and Amile Jefferson's 11.4 points and 10.3 rebounds per game. For all the debating over whether Brandon Ingram deserved to be the No. 1 pick in the 2016 NBA draft, Duke is so loaded with talent that it won't even realize he's gone.
The only possible point of nitpicking with this roster is the lack of a true point guard. Frank Jackson is more of a scorer than a facilitator, which likely means that both he and Allen will share the ball-handling duties.
But Duke won it all in 2001 and 2010 with Jason Williams and Jon Scheyer serving as primary ball handlers who led the team in scoring. There are simply too many scorers on this roster for head coach Mike Krzyzewski to not figure out something that works. Maybe it takes a few weeks to find the proper balance, but Duke should be a wrecking ball by the time ACC play begins.
Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.