ACC Basketball: Preview and Predictions for 2016-17 Season

Brian Pedersen@realBJPFeatured ColumnistNovember 7, 2016

ACC Basketball: Preview and Predictions for 2016-17 Season

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    The annual debate over which college basketball league is best often ends up with the same answer: the Atlantic Coast Conference. For the 2016-17 season there might not even need to be a discussion before coming to this conclusion.

    Twenty percent of the preseason Associated Press Top 25 is comprised of schools from the 15-team league, the largest in Division I, but that's just the start of the ACC's depth and strength. Many experts are predicting the league could challenge the record of 11 NCAA tournament bids the old Big East Conference had in 2011.

    But before looking that far ahead at how the league might do in March, let's take a look at how things shape up heading into the 2016-17 season. Follow along as we break down the ACC from top to bottom and let you know what to be watching for over the next few months.

Top Storylines

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    Timothy D. Easley/Associated Press

    How many bids?

    Using its current lineup, the ACC has sent the most teams to the NCAA tournament in history, with 372 bids dating back to its inception in 1953. It had seven teams in the field last season and would have had eight had Louisville not banned itself, a number that has a good chance of being surpassed in 2016-17 based on the league's amazing depth.

    Bleacher Report's Kerry Miller has 10 ACC schools in his preseason field (and also lists Notre Dame and Pittsburgh among his first five out) while ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi has nine ACC teams and includes Virginia Tech as one of the first four out.

    Much will depend on how the teams in the middle of the pack fare, both in league play and during non-conference action. Finishing below .500 in ACC games won't eliminate a team from consideration if they have quality non-league wins, but a poor effort prior to the conference slate could put some teams in a position to finish with 10 or more league victories if they wish to advance.

    Duke's latest reload

    The top programs in college basketball rarely rebuild, even when they see larger numbers of players leave via graduation or early NBA entry; instead they reload. That's what made Duke's situation in 2015-16 so abnormal because while it added some great new players, it became perilously thin after just one midseason injury.

    Not so this season. Even with two key freshmen dealing with injuries, the Blue Devils are as stacked as they've ever been under longtime coach Mike Krzyzewski thanks to the nation's No. 1 recruiting class.

    If he chose to, Coach K could start four freshmen and sprinkle in one of four veterans (seniors Amile Jefferson and Matt Jones, junior Grayson Allen and sophomore Luke Kennard) to fill out the lineup. More likely is a lean on the experienced players but with plenty of minutes for the young players.

    Louisville's looming NCAA investigation

    The NCAA's investigation into Louisville recruiting practices that allegedly involved an escort service has resulted in several major infractions, according to the notice of allegations released by the school in October. Of the four Level I violations, the most significant is one that says coach Rick Pitino failed to monitor the former employee at the center of the scandal.

    Will this lead to another postseason ban or anything serious beyond the penalties the school has already levied on itself? And how long until that all gets settled?

    According to Jeff Greer of the Louisville Courier-Journal, it may not be until next summer due to Louisville opting not to have the process expedited. The NOA was sent to the school in mid-October and it has 90 days to respond, then at least another 150 days would pass before a hearing is set with the NCAA's Committee on Infractions.

    "Any additional penalties against U of L beyond the school's self-imposed sanctions, if there are any, won't be announced until the end of the hearing, and the school is allowed to appeal any punishments proposed by the infractions committee," Greer wrote.

    Long story short: if the Cardinals are good enough to make the NCAA tournament in March they'll be dancing and shouldn't have to worry about getting held out.

The Favorites

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    Noth Carolina, which won the ACC last season en route to the national championship game, is among the contenders again this season.
    Noth Carolina, which won the ACC last season en route to the national championship game, is among the contenders again this season.Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    Duke

    The Blue Devils earned 85 of 91 votes from ACC media members last month which goes with their preseason No. 1 rankings in both the Associated Press and USA Today coaches polls. What else needs to be said?

    How about the fact Duke returns four key players from last year's Sweet 16 team, three of whom were part of the national championship squad from 2014-15. Throw in a stellar recruiting class, and it's not hard to see why everyone is high on Mike Krzyzewski's 37th team.

    North Carolina

    When we last saw the Tar Heels, they were walking off the court inside NRG Stadium in Houston having just lost to Villanova on a last-second three-pointer in the national championship game. UNC brings back five of its top seven scorers and have a good shot to win consecutive ACC regular-season titles for the first time since 2011-12.

    Virginia

    Tony Bennett has turned the Cavaliers into an elite program, one built on defense and efficiency that has produced 89 wins the last three seasons. He has some big holes to fill in losing Malcolm Brogdon, Anthony Gill and Mike Tobey, but he adds the top transfer in the ACC (former Memphis forward Austin Nichols) and a top-15 recruiting class.

The Challengers

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    Louisville

    The Cardinals finished fourth in the ACC last season, which would have earned them a double bye in the conference tournament had they not banned themselves from that and the NCAA tourney in the wake of a then-ongoing NCAA investigation. That robbed senior transfers like Damion Lee and Trey Lewis from getting a shot to play in the postseason and kept Louisville's promising crop of freshmen from earning valuable experience.

    Instead, it made now-sophomores Deng Adel, Donovan Mitchell and Ray Spalding hungry to show what they can do in 2016-17 as they take on bigger roles. Rick Pitino is a Hall of Fame coach, and he's had Louisville in the top four of the ACC in both seasons since moving from the Big East.

    North Carolina State

    The Wolfpack were one of the biggest underachievers in the country a year ago, finishing 13th in the conference and going 16-17 overall despite Cat Barber leading the ACC in scoring. Barber turned pro, and NC State also lost twins Caleb and Cody Martin to transfer, yet some strong newcomers have renewed hopes in Raleigh.

    Syracuse

    From the NCAA tournament bubble to the Final Four, the Orange got hot at the right time last season, and Jim Boeheim's 41st team might be even better than the previous one. A lot depends on how a revamped backcourt, enhanced by transfers John Gillon and Andrew White and freshman Tyus Battle, fit into Boeheim's tried-and-true system.

The Bottom Feeders

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    Boston College

    Only two Division I schools failed to win a conference game in 2015-16, one of which was Chicago State. The Eagles were the other, and if you include their 88-66 loss to Florida State in the ACC tournament, they've dropped 20 consecutive league games dating back to the 2015 ACC tourney.

    BC's most plausible goal for this season is to climb out of the league basement, but it won't be easy with just two of its top six scorers coming back.

    Georgia Tech

    Josh Pastner comes over from Memphis after seven decreasingly successful seasons, but he's got his hands full trying to win right away. The Yellow Jackets have no returning players who averaged more than five points per game in 2015-16.

    Wake Forest

    The Demon Deacons won only two ACC games a year ago, down from five in Danny Manning's first season. Wake last finished better than ninth in the league in 2009-10, which was also the last time it made the NCAA tournament.

Best Rivalry

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    Duke vs. North Carolina

    It's not just the ACC's best rivalry, it's arguably the best in all of college basketball. When the Blue Devils and Tar Heels meet, there's always so much at stake beyond just bragging rights since each is regularly at or near the top of the ACC standings, and at least one is usually in the hunt for a No. 1 NCAA tournament seed.

    They've met 242 times since 1920, with UNC holding a 134-108 edge, and quite often the road team wins during their regular-season meetings. That's what happened in 2015-16, with Duke winning 74-73 in Chapel Hill in February, and less than three weeks later the Tar Heels repaid the favor with a four-point victory in Durham.

    The last time they met and neither team was ranked: Feb. 27, 1960.

Coaches Under the Most Pressure

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    Brad Brownell, Clemson

    Brownell got the Tigers into the NCAA tournament in 2011, his first season on the job, but since then all he's managed is an NIT bid in 2014. Last year's Clemson squad looked like it might end that drought when jumping to a 5-1 record in ACC play, but then it fell apart down the stretch and missed the postseason altogether.

    Forward Jaron Blossomgame withdrew from the NBA draft to return for his senior year, a huge boost to Clemson's NCAA chances. Same goes with an influx of talent via transfers, leaving Brownell with no excuse to fall back on if he can't get the Tigers over the hump this season.

    Mark Gottfried, North Carolina State

    North Carolina State isn't ranked in the preseason polls and hasn't been ranked since January 2013, yet each of Gottfried's first four Wolfpack teams made the NCAA tournament, and twice he got them to the Sweet 16. Then came 2016-17, when NC State dipped to 16-17.

    Watching from the bench during the tail end of that campaign was Dennis Smith, a highly regarded point guard who enrolled early after a knee injury prevented him from playing his senior year of high school. Smith was picked by ACC media as the league's preseason rookie of the year and big things are expected of him this season.

    Same goes for 7'0” Turkish prospect Omer Yurtseven, though he won't be in action until mid-December after the NCAA issued a nine-game suspension related to his overseas playing career.

    That duo might not be enough for NC State to contend for a top spot in the ACC, but it should get it into the NCAA tournament. If not, Gottfried may need to worry about his future in Raleigh.

    Leonard Hamilton, Florida State

    Hamilton enters his 15th season in Tallahassee looking to end a four-year NCAA tournament drought, which comes after he got the Seminoles into four straight NCAA tourneys for the first time in school history.

    In 2015-16 Hamilton had two of the most exciting freshmen in the country in guards Dwayne Bacon and Malik Beasley, who combined for 31.4 points per game, yet FSU went 8-10 in the ACC to finish tied for 11th. Beasley turned pro but Bacon stuck around, and the addition of 6'10” forward Jonathan Isaac gives the 'Noles a potent inside-out combo.

    FSU is the kind of team that should benefit from the ACC's strong preseason reputation but only if his team does its part. A soft non-conference schedule could give Hamilton's team an early cushion unless it stumbles, which could set the tone for another disappointing season.

Best Backcourt

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    Duke

    Though it might go without a traditional point guard in its starting lineup for the second straight season, Duke's backcourt will in no way be lacking for ball-handlers or shooters. Senior Matt Jones, junior Grayson Allen and sophomore Luke Kennard can all hold their own at the point and each has strong three-point and foul-shooting numbers, allowing coach Mike Krzyzewski to be able to mix and match that trio at the one and two.

    And that's before we mention Frank Jackson, rated by Scout as the fifth-best point guard prospect in the 2016 recruiting class. He tallied eight assists (along with 33 points) in Duke's two exhibition games, and when he's in the game it frees up the Blue Devils' other guards to play off the ball and get open for a quality shot.

Best Frontcourt

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    Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

    Syracuse

    Jim Boeheim must bring a tape measure with him when he recruits players, since the vast majority of the guys who have been at Syracuse in his four-plus decades tend to have one shared trait: wingspan. Having length all over the court is essential to the Orange playing Boeheim's patented zone defense, and for the big men up front it makes them formidable on the boards as well.

    While this season's Syracuse team is looking stronger than in recent years at guard, it's still the frontcourt where it will do its most damage. Three players who averaged at least eight rebounds per 40 minutes in 2015-16 return in seniors DaJuan Coleman and Tyler Roberson and sophomore Tyler Lydon, the latter also showing his shot-blocking ability during the Orange's run to the Final Four.

    Add in 7'2” Providence transfer Paschal Chukwu and 6'10” freshman Taurean Thompson, and Syracuse will be a load to handle down low.

Freshmen to Watch

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    The Duke Newbies

    With four of the top 18 prospects in the country coming on board, it was entirely possible to make this whole slide about Duke's freshmen. Instead, they're lumped together to give some love to other newcomers but also to enhance how formidable this group should make the Blue Devils in 2016-17.

    That's assuming injuries don't get in the way, though. Forwards Harry Giles and Jayson Tatum didn't participate in Duke's preseason games, Giles still recovering from an arthroscopic knee procedure in October—and still coming back from a torn ACL from last November—and Tatum sidelined with a foot sprain suffered last month. Once they get on the court, though, expect big things from them.

    The same goes for center Marques Bolden and guard Frank Jackson, who have both impressed during preseason workouts.

    Jonathan Isaac, Florida State

    Isaac committed to Florida State in July 2015 but almost didn't make it to campus after toying with the idea of turning pro straight out of high school, much like Thon Maker ended up doing. In the end, the 6'10” Isaac opted to honor his commitment to the Seminoles where he will present a unique matchup issue for opponents due to a late growth spurt.

    A guard until late in his prep career, Isaac isn't a traditional power forward who spends most of his time in the paint, and thus he can stretch defenses with his shooting and ball skills.

    V.J. King, Louisville

    The wing is an integral piece of Louisville's offense, where Damion Lee starred last season and where the 6'6” King could end up being the focal point this winter.

    Coach Rick Pitino has only had three freshmen average double figures during his time with the Cardinals, the last coming in 2008-09. King might be the guy to end that streak if he quickly adapts to the college game.

    Dennis Smith, North Carolina State

    Smith has technically been part of NC State's program since January, when after graduating early he enrolled in college in order to speed up rehabilitation of a torn ACL suffered that summer. It also enabled Smith to get comfortable with the Wolfpack system, leading to a monster offseason that included a strong showing at the Adidas Nations competition in Los Angeles in August.

    NBA scouts are very high on Smith, with DraftExpress listing him as the No. 2 pick in the 2017 draft.

All-Conference Teams

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    FIRST TEAM

    Grayson Allen, G, Duke

    The overwhelming pick by ACC media for conference player of the year honors, Allen is coming off a monster sophomore year in which he averaged 21.6 points per game. He might not score that much this year with Duke's deeper lineup, but that won't prevent him from still leading the team in floor burns from his relentless play.

    Joel Berry, G, North Carolina

    Marcus Paige is gone, but Berry should make UNC fans feel like he's still around. The junior had a breakthrough season in 2015-16 and now becomes the Tar Heels' veteran in the backcourt charged with distributing to the rest of the team's strong weapons, but also finding his own shot.

    London Perrantes, G, Virginia

    Virginia's lone scholarship senior has been part of the Cavaliers' rise under Tony Bennett, and each season has seen him become more involved on the offensive end. He's a deadly shooter when he calls his own number, making 48.8 percent of three-pointers last season.

    Jaron Blossomgame, F, Clemson

    One of only four players in Division I last season who averaged 18 points, six rebounds and shot 50 percent overall and 40 percent from three-point range, Blossomgame tested the NBA draft waters before returning for his senior year. That decision should prove beneficial to he and Clemson.

    Jayson Tatum, F, Duke

    Though fellow Duke freshman Harry Giles was higher rated by recruiting services, it's Tatum who should be the Blue Devils' top newcomer. A guy who can bring their guards and big men, Tatum may end up being the guy the entire team is built around by season's end.

    SECOND TEAM

    Dwayne Bacon, G, Florida State

    Dennis Smith, G, North Carolina State

    Tyler Lydon, F, Syracuse

    Austin Nichols, F, Virginia

    Michael Young, F, Pittsburgh

Regular-Season Standings

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    Alex Brandon/Associated Press
    1. Duke
    2. North Carolina
    3. Virginia
    4. Louisville
    5. North Carolina State
    6. Syracuse
    7. Clemson
    8. Florida State
    9. Miami (Florida)
    10. Notre Dame
    11. Virginia Tech
    12. Pittsburgh
    13. Wake Forest
    14. Georgia Tech
    15. Boston College

    All statistics courtesy of Sports-Reference.com, unless otherwise noted. All recruiting information courtesy of Scout.com, unless otherwise noted.

    Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.

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