Wednesday marked the start of college basketball's preseason. It's the first day teams were allowed to properly practice in earnest. Even still, dozens of teams won't yet be able to do so because of COVID-19 restrictions in their parts of the country. But for hundreds of schools, the season officially starts this week.
And so here we go with our annual big-conference predictions and previews. We start with the largest conference in college basketball, the 15-team ACC. Now, I'm never one to hide from missed predictions. And I was fairly off on the ACC last season. In this very space a year ago I predicted the Atlantic Coast Conference was going to have its best season in almost 15 years. I predicted it would finish No. 1 at KenPom.com in strength-of-league metrics. I predicted conference depth and matching of longstanding reputation with on-court results.
Not really. Not much. OK -- not at all. The ACC finished fourth in conference performance and did not have one team predicted by the majority of bracket prognosticators to be a No. 1 seed when the season was canceled March 12. Worse than that, the ACC had only five teams -- Florida State, Duke, Louisville, Virginia and NC State -- projected by the majority to even make the 2020 NCAA Tournament (That Never Was). FSU, Duke, Louisville and UVA were the only four teams with single digits in the loss column; the collective record of the other 11 teams was 178-172. That's rough.
Itching for more college hoops analysis? Listen below and subscribe to the Eye on College Basketball podcast where we take you beyond the hardwood with insider information and instant reactions.
It would be rational to believe that this season should show improvement, but considering that Duke lost three potential first-round picks, FSU lost multiple first-round NBA picks, UNC is coming off its worst season ever under Roy Williams and Louisville lost its starting five, there's more mystery than usual in the old-money conference of college basketball. Toss in COVID-19 and who knows?
ACC Preseason Player of the Year
Garrison Brooks, UNC
The ACC's highest-scoring returning player. Brooks averaged some of the quietest 16.8 points you'll ever get from a Tar Heel. But that's because his NBA-bound one-and-done teammate, Cole Anthony, put up 18.5 per night and UNC suffered one of the three or four worst seasons in program history. We're not expecting Brooks and company to be dealing with a sub-.500 season again. The senior power forward will be the focal point of an improved Tar Heels roster. Not only was Brooks No. 5 in ACC scoring last season, he was also No. 5 in rebounding (8.5). While an incoming freshman could wind up shining brightest, objectively speaking there is no more reasonable choice for preseason ACC Preseason Player of the Year than Brooks.
ACC Preseason Coach of the Year
Tony Bennett, Virginia
With Virginia poised to be the best team in the ACC for the fourth time in eight years, Bennett is given the nod thanks to an augmented roster that could be highlighted by redshirt senior Sam Hauser. The Wahoos ended the 2019-20 season on an eight-game winning streak, finishing 23-7. Bennett had, for the seventh time, a top-five defense according to KenPom.com. In fact, UVA was No. 1 last on D season and probably will be No. 1 this season. With no ACC team looking to make a significant year-over-year jump, Bennett is the obvious pick heading into November.
ACC Preseason Freshman of the Year
Jalen Johnson, Duke
The ACC technically refers to this award as the "Rookie of the Year," and Duke has boasted the ACC's top freshman a conference-record 12 times since the honor was introduced in 1976. But it hasn't always been like this. Duke only recently passed Georgia Tech's 11 (!) thanks to a Blue Devil winning in six of the past seven seasons and seven of the past nine. Here's who Jalen Johnson is in line to join if he winds up being a better freshman than Florida State's Scottie Barnes, North Carolina's Caleb Love and Duke teammate Jeremy Roach, among others: Austin Rivers (2012), Jabari Parker (2014), Jahlil Okafor (2015), Brandon Ingram (2016), Marvin Bagley III (2018), Zion Williamson (2019), Vernon Carey Jr. (2020).
Predicted order of finish
|Expect Virginia to be a near-consensus pick to win the ACC thanks to five major minutes-getters returning to the No. 1 defense in college basketball. The Hoos were brutal on offense last season (234th in adjusted points per possession), but if that can be corrected thanks to the injection of Sam Hauser into the offense, the reigning national champions will have a realistic shot of staying on top of the college hoops mountain. Breakout player candidate supreme: sophomore shooting guard Casey Morsell . The X-factor: Jay Huff , who didn't meet expectations a season ago.|
|Yet again Duke is losing an important troika -- Vernon Carey Jr. , Tre Jones and Cassius Stanley -- due to early NBA Draft entry. Despite this, and with plenty of questions about the roster, we're understandably giving Mike Krzyzewski the benefit of the doubt. The "big" name returning is Matthew Hurt (9.7 ppg, 3.8 rpg), though Wendell Moore's defense is likely even more critical. The Blue Devils' success will ride on another freshman class, this one ranked No. 3 according 247 Sports and spearheaded by Johnson, a great forward prospect. In the backcourt, Jeremy Roach will be an immediate impact player at point alongside combo guard D.J. Steward. Duke should be quite good yet again, but it's the first time in a long time the Blue Devils aren't a sure thing to be a preseason top 10 team. |
|Can UNC have a bounce-back season without the player who was largely responsible for even making sure the Heels won 14 games last season? That's the task. Cole Anthony was so much for UNC in 2019-20, and yet ultimately that didn't really matter. Roy Williams had the worst season of his professional career, but a superb freshman class and the preseason player of the year in the league (Brooks) will have most prognosticators slotting UNC between third and fifth in the league. We'll go with the 3-spot. Freshmen you'll immediately enjoy: point guard Caleb Love and center Walker Kessler, who might be too good too quickly not to be a one-and-doner. Kessler will team up alongside Brooks, Leaky Black and Armando Bacot and in theory give UNC the best frontcourt in the conference.|
|You check Florida State's roster, see how it lost one of the best Seminoles of the past decade, senior Trent Forrest. You see Patrick Williams and Devin Vassell are off to be first-round NBA Draft picks. You think this is a rebuilding season. You think wrong. Leonard Hamilton's going to do it again and have the Seminoles in the top four of the ACC. MJ Walker will be the key senior and Scottie Barnes could be the best freshman -- in the league. The Noles have 26 wins on average the past four seasons. We ride with Hamilton.|
|Louisville lost five key pieces but the Cardinals should still definitely be NCAA Tournament material. Carlik Jones, David Johnson, Samuell Williamson, Jaelyn Withers and Malik Williams make sense as the projected starting five for this team, with Johnson being the most valuable and Williamson potentially being the most dangerous. Chris Mack's program hit the sweet spot the past two seasons: it was top-30 in both offensive and defensive efficiency. Expect that balance to continue.|
|The surprise team. Miami's going to be knocking on the door of the top-third of this league. Point guard Chris Lykes is impossible to take your eyes off (he's maybe 5-foot-7), and he'll be supported by shooting guard Kameron McGusty, wing Earl Timberlake, power forward Sam Waardenburg and center Nysier Brooks. Miami will have real depth, too. This is a program that was set back by being looped into the FBI investigation, but no wrongdoing was ever uncovered and 2020-21 figures to be a return to form for Jim Larranaga's crew.|
|Syracuse opened its season almost a year ago with a home loss to Virginia that was historic, scoring just 34 points. Yet Jim Boeheim managed to get his team to the No. 21-ranked offensive in college hoops by the end of the season, and that with a roster that had its skeptics. The depth of the ACC starts to become a question right about here, but Syracuse should be more than a spoiler. Buddy Boeheim and Joseph Girard will have to carry this team, now that Elijah Hughes has moved on for a pro career. SU has seven freshmen on the roster and Boeheim doesn't play a deep bench, so this will be interesting.|
|Josh Pastner got the Ramblin' Wreck to a 17-14 finish last season, a campaign that saw Georgia Tech ineligible to make the postseason (back when we thought there would BE a postseason; you follow?). Now the Yellow Jackets have Michael Devoe and Jose Alderado, one of the three or four best backcourts in the ACC -- so long as this team stops giving it away. GT ranked 345th in turnover percentage last season. Fix that to the tune of No. 85 instead of No. 345 and this team will be in the mix for the NCAA Tournament.|
|The loss of Tevin Mack's going to sting a bit for Clemson, which is oft-overlooked in this conference. This is Brad Brownell's 11th season with the Tigers, who weren't adept at shooting 3-pointers (31.5%) last season, but 46.4% of the team's shots came from beyond the arc. That was far and away a record under Brownell. If sophomore guard Al-Amir Dawes can evolve and improve from deep, it's going to help out Aamir Simms, a dark horse for All ACC First Team selection.|
|The mystery team of the ACC this season. Kevin Keatts has thrived as a coach in years past when his teams have been undervalued, but for 2020-21 this group has a lot to prove defensively. Devon Daniels, Braxton Beverly and DJ Funderburk are all back. Senior leadership alone should ensure NC State is a nuisance in the conference. Awaiting to see who NC State schedules out of conference; it could give us a better idea of how proudly Keatts thinks of his roster.|
|My nomination for the team we're most likely undervaluing. Mike Young got his ACC sea legs under him a season ago when Virginia Tech went 16-16 -- and outperformed expectations. The Hokies were 7-13 in the league, and I'd think a 9-11 conference record is achievable for this group. Now, the big question with Virginia Tech is how it replaces the production of Landers Nolley Jr., a redshirt freshman who was a stat compiler but ultimately wanted out and is off to Memphis. Senior lead guard Wabissa Bede will lead the charge.|
|I'm not even sure Mike Brey really knows what he has this season, but there have been some seasons before where that's turned out to be a good thing for the Fighting Irish. Notre Dame has a lot of production to make up for. John Mooney was one of the five best big men Brey coached at Notre Dame; Rex Pflueger and TJ Gibbs all graduated as well, while Juwan Durham returns for his senior season. Prentiss Hubb is now the leader of this group, while center Nate Laszewski has a high ACC ceiling and will see his production spike without Mooney around.|
|Fourteen wins in Jeff Capel's first season, then 16 last season. With a 27-game max for the regular season in 2020-21, Pitt's aim should be to finish above .500, but it won't come easy. This was the third-worst rebounding team in college basketball last season and the Panthers lost one senior. Overcoming that habit will be paramount to Pitt avoiding landing where we've placed them here. Trey McGowens left, which isn't ideal, but Justin Champagnie and Xavier Johnson are back. The latter could be one of the 10 best players in the league.|
|Jim Christian was spared after a 13-19 finish last season. The Eagles had a horrific offense, and upgrading that is going to be a huge challenge. But there is a player to know: Steffon Mitchell, statistically, is the most productive returning player in the ACC. The cupboard isn't bare: Makai Ashton-Langford and Wynston Tabbs comprise a good backcourt.|
|We'll slot the Demon Deacons at the bottom of the ACC barrel due to Steve Forbes taking over for Danny Manning and undeniably inheriting a huge construction project. The good news for Wake Forest is Forbes and his staff have already made some waves with some transfer additions and recruits for 2021, but this upcoming season is all house money. Forbes built East Tennessee State into one of the best mid-major programs in the country. Now he'll try to get Wake back into the top-third of the league.|