ACC expert picks, 2019-20 preview: Duke will have its hands full trying to hold off Louisville, UNC and Virginia
Our experts see the Cardinals as a serious threat to the Blue Devils in the ACC this season
The ACC is regarded as the deepest and best men's basketball league in the country. Its NBA Draft (and shows no signs of slowing down) and it's had five teams make the Final Four in the past five seasons, which is the best in college hoops., it into the
But there is one thing evading the ACC that I find surprising: a No. 1 rating. That is, No. 1 conference rating, per KenPom. The league hasn't finished atop the sport per that metric since 2006-07. In fact, on average over the previous 12 seasons, the ACC has rated as the third-best league. The reason being volume more than anything else, of course. When you have 15 teams as opposed to 10 or 12, you're going to have a few schools dragging you down.
But I think this is the year that changes. While the top of the conference isn't as l-o-a-d-e-d as it's been heading into any given season over the previous half-decade, it's looking to me like the bottom half of the league will be more well-rounded and thus should boost the ACC overall. For the first time since 2009-10, I expect every team save one to finish in the top 100 at KenPom.
Let's take the tour and lead with the headliners.
Preseason Player of Year: Jordan Nwora, Louisville
Here's the irony: For as good as I expect the ACC to be this season, it's been a long time since its best player in the preseason was this much of a toss-up. Jordan Nwora's a 6-foot-7 wing and was one of the best talents to bypass the NBA Draft and return to school. He averaged 17.0 points, 7.6 rebounds and 1.3 assists and had a solid 53.3 effective field-goal percentage last season. He'll lead the way for a Louisville team that's going to be intriguing to watch, given the expectations on the group. For us, Nwora beat out UNC freshman Cole Anthony and Duke sophomore Tre Jones. In order to win player of the year at the end of the season, he'll need to improve upon his averages and efficiency from a season ago. We think he'll do that.
Preseason Coach of the Year: Chris Mack, Louisville
Louisville's Chris Mack is only in Year No. 2 with U of L. He's handled the transition quite well. Given the tumult surrounding the program when he took the job and the TBD status of NCAA sanctions still expected to come (how severe is truly anyone's guess; Louisville has the most fascinating situation of any school connected to the FBI probe), I can't commend Mack and his staff enough for how they've found footing and thrived. We expect Louisville to battle Duke for the top spot in the ACC, and given all that this program and these players have played through, their coach gets the preseason nod. Mack should hit 250 career wins this season, and if Louisville makes the NCAAs as expected, it will mark 10 times in 11 seasons he's reached the Big Dance.
Preseason Freshman of the Year: Cole Anthony, UNC
It's been a long time -- almost a decade, dating back to Harrison Barnes -- since North Carolina had the projected best freshman in the ACC. Anthony could be a dynamo. He's strong, quick, ball-dominant and takes crap from no one. A scoring point guard with a deep bag of tools, Anthony has a chance to be the Trae Young of 2019-20. UNC lost a lost of production from last season's No. 1-seeded team that was upset in the Sweet 16 by Auburn. And now, after seeing what Coby White did, get ready for all that flash and volume to go up a notch. Anthony not only has the keys, he will own the car that is UNC's offense. Projection: 24.7 ppg, 7.4 apg, 5.2 rpg.
ACC predicted order of finish
|This was no automatic. Duke didn't receive a sweep of No. 1 votes, but the Blue Devils narrowly finish on top nonetheless. Tre Jones is the biggest name among all players in the conference heading into the season. He's a top-five defender in college basketball, but the question is: will he grow into a reliable shooter? If he does, and if Duke wins 25-plus games, he can be national player of the year. Since this is Duke, there's a crop of freshman names you'll need to know. They are: center Vernon Carey, power forward Matthew Hurt, small forward Wendell Moore and shooting guard Cassius Stanley. Though we've got Duke No. 1 here, I do think the team's floor is relatively low this season.|
|If Louisville's roster can maintain toughness and confidence all season long, the Cardinals are going to contend for a top-two seed in the NCAA Tournament. That's the primary question heading into the season, because there's talent here and experience. The Cards tended to fold at times when up against difficult teams or situations last season. (That loss to Minnesota in the first round of the tournament was VEXING.) Can they shed that aspect of their personality? Outside of Nwora, there's the return of forwards Dwayne Sutton and Malik Williams, in addition to the key grad transfer addition of Lamarr Kimble (Saint Joseph's). I like Louisville's depth and backcourt. Final Four hopes here.|
|Roy Williams has never gone six straight seasons finishing with a top-10 KenPom team since he took over at UNC. He can do it this year, though it's going to be a challenge. The Tar Heels lost four starters from last season AND lost Seventh Woods to transfer, plus Nassir Little to the NBA. The only returning starter is junior power forward Garrison Brooks. But say hello to a lot of talent. Cole Anthony will rule many a day, plus Armando Bacot should be a double-double guy by season's end. Senior Brandon Robinson is unheralded, and of course, shouts to Leaky Black! This is Leaky's year, folks.|
|Oh, I'm very aware that it is dubious to put a Tony Bennett-coached Virginia team fourth in a preseason prediction. To be fair, though, the difference between the top four teams in this conference, at least how they're projected entering November, is miniscule. Reality is, the Wahoos lost their three best players (DeAndre Hunter, Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome) and have a lot of offense to make up. Fortunately, slender sniper Jay Huff's about to break out -- and Elite Eight hero Mamadi Diakite opted to return at the last minute. Kihei Clark will run the offense, and the defense will remain top-level. Virginia can and should land anywhere between the 1 and 4 line come Selection Sunday.|
|Look out for Markell Johnson, who I expect to be right there with Tre Jones and Cole Anthony among the best guards in the league. NC State is a notch below the four teams listed above, but this should be a bounce-back season after last year's group was kept out of the NCAAs due to a horrendous nonleague schedule, which affected its reputation and its metrics (and rightfully so). The Wolfpack return three starters (Johnson, C.J. Bryce, Braxton Beverly) and figure to win on the strength and depth of their point guards, shooting guards and multi-functional wings. NCAA Tournament is absolutely the expectation.|
|Leonard Hamilton is coming off the best three-year run of his career. FSU's won 26, 23 and 29 games the past three seasons. This year, a dip seems unavoidable -- but the Noles still should be plenty good enough to crack through and dance for the fourth consecutive season, which would match the longest streak in program history (2009-12). I'm big on Trent Forrest and think he's got a shot to pop and compete for All-ACC first team. Losing Mfiondu Kabengele a year ahead of schedule is a stinger, but there's enough talent -- vet M.J. Walker, freshmen Balsa Koprivica and Patrick Williams -- to keep FSU north of 20 wins by the start of the ACC Tournament.|
|This could come to be too low, as Notre Dame returns five starters ... and no coach in the league wants to face a Mike Brey team with five returning starters. But ND went 14-19 last season and won just three games, its worst campaign in the near-two-decade history of being coached by Brey. So long as Notre Dame can go a season without serious injuries to any of its five best players -- which it couldn't dodge many times in recent seasons -- the Fighting Irish should be an NCAA Tournament team. Look for Prentiss Hubb to break out, and remember, Rex Pflueger returns for one more season after going down last December with a knee injury.|
|This is right about where the at-large line gets blurry in this league, and yes, we're zagging a bit. Cuse, which has been young in some recent seasons, will be nearly as inexperienced as it's ever been. Despite the fact that four starters from last year are gone, Jim Boeheim has had some success with green rosters in the past. Out: Tyus Battle, Oshae Brissett, Frank Howard, Paschal Chukwu. Back: Elijah Hughes, Marek Dolezaj, Buddy Boeheim, Bourama Sidibe and Jalen Carey. That just might be enough to squeak into the field of 68.|
|Hurricanes are a year away from busting back into the top half of the league. Weirdly, no program was hurt more from a recruiting-and-player-eligibility perspective by being associated with the FBI than Miami, which was subsequently cleared by the feds. It set the program back two years. For 2019-20, Jim Larrañaga's still going to be shorthanded on his roster due to continued recovery of sophomore power forward Deng Gak. Chris Lykes is the star here, though. He's like a 5-7 water bug who should jump his scoring average of 16.2 from a season ago. If you're making a top-10 list of must-watch college hoops players, Lykes is on it.|
|I think Pitt's the spoiler of the league in 2020. Jeff Capel will need another year before the Panthers are knocking on the door of the NCAAs, but this group should flip its 14-19 mark from last season. With four starters back, Pitt won't come anywhere close to the 13-game losing streak the team endured from Jan. 19-March 5. The team's still young, having three sophomores slated to start (Xavier Johnson, Trey McGowens, Au'Diese Toney) who could make for one of the strongest cores in the conference if they call come back for their junior seasons. Freshman name to know: Justin Champagnie.|
|Maybe the most mysterious team in the ACC this season. A lot of good players left, others were injured, the transfer haul is TBD, and it's Clemson basketball, which has been better of late but is historically not good season-over-season-over-season. Brad Brownell has to try to stabilize this team and this roster and hope he can dodge the injury bug, which has robbed him the past two (solid) seasons of something even bigger.|
|One of the most discussed rumors in the ACC last season was the status of Danny Manning as Wake Forest coach. With a notoriously expensive buyout (rumored to be nearly $10 million), the Demon Deacons kept Manning on and so he'll be with the program for a sixth season. With Manning having a new athletic director (John Currie), it probably means NCAAs or bust this season. Wake was 11-20 last season and brings back just one starter, which is probably for the best, even though Jaylen Hoard left a year too early for the NBA. Look for senior Brandon Childress to be very good this season and for junior wing Chaundee Brown to break out in a big way.|
|Three starters return from a team that went 14-17 last season and couldn't retain Ky Bowman for his senior season. Replacing Bowman will be impossible: he played 96.8 percent of BC's minutes last season, the highest percentage for any player in the sport. He was also one of the best rebounders -- at 6 feet tall -- in college hoops. Losing Bowman and losing Wynston Tabbs (lingering left knee injury required September surgery) means the Eagles will be learning on the go from game No. 1. Nik Popovic (14.5 ppg, 7.5 ppg) will lead the way, but he'll sorely miss high-level playmakers.|
|Though we've got the Hokies in the 14 spot here, if you tell me Virginia Tech finishes eighth or ninth in the standings come mid-March, it will not surprise me. Mike Young left Wofford for this job, and he's probably going to be a terrific fit. As one coach told me earlier this summer, and I'm paraphrasing: If Mike Young is one of the "worst" coaches in your league, your league is ridiculous. Young has quite the project in front of him, though. Buzz Williams took VT to three consecutive NCAA Tournaments, which had never been done before in program history. Wabissa Bede and Landers Nolley II return, and they should break the heck out in 2019-20.|
|A program mired in irrelevance, unfortunately. The NCAA in late September handed down a 2019-20 postseason ban on the Yellow Jackets, citing multiple repeat offenses of boosters and impermissible benefits afforded to former players. Josh Pastner will begin his fourth season in Atlanta with arguably his greatest challenge yet as a coach, and I say that knowing full well how rocky it got for him at the end of his Memphis tenure. This program last made the NCAAs in 2010 and looks like it won't get back until 2022 at the absolute earliest.|
ACC expert picks
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