ACC Basketball Preview

USA TODAY Sports

We'll be shoving FSU content in your faces for the next few weeks, but for now, a big picture look at ACC basketball. FSU tips off tonight vs Jacksonville, and the preview will be up in the afternoon. Go Noles.

In the conference realignment craze, the ACC stands out as the only major conference that got significantly better. The last time one of the new ACC teams (including Louisville, who joins next year) failed to win the regular season Big East was in 2007-08. The ACC wasn’t able to re-take the pinnacle of college basketball on the court, so they did it the next best way – through realignment.

Predicted Order of Finish

1. Duke

The Blue Devils haven’t finished atop the regular season conference standings since 2009-10 - when they tied with Maryland – and haven’t won it outright since 2005-06. But in the last six years they’ve also never finished lower than 2nd. They’ve been the most consistent team in the league, and there’s no reason to assume otherwise this year.

Nine of Duke’s players are former consensus top 50 recruits, and only three other teams in the nation have that many consensus top 100 recruits on their roster.  Without Mason Plumlee in the middle this will be a much different looking Duke team, but Coach K is a master at coaching to his roster, and his roster is absolutely loaded.

2. Virginia

The Hoos were 11-7 last year (though they did have the easiest SOS in the conference), and the only players they lost were senior Jontel Evans (remember the guy all the defenses guarded from 10 feet away?) and a couple of transfers that only Virginia fans could name.

The Hoos had five players average more than 5.0 points a game, and they all return.

In Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell they have a one-two punch as good as any in the conference. Harris was 1st Team All-Conference, and Mitchell averaged 13.1 points, 8.9 boards, and was one of five high volume (used >24% of team’s possessions) players in the ACC with an offensive rating north of 108 (Mitchell’s was 111.0). And they also have burgeoning stars in sophomores Justin Anderson and Mike Tobey.

3. Syracuse

The biggest knock on Syracuse (and Duke for that matter) is that they lost a ton of minutes. But, like the Blue Devils, the Orange roster is completely stacked.  They have a great balance of experience and youth, and like last year they’ll make their living on the offensive end by extending possessions. They return three players who all grabbed at least 9.6% of their own team’s missed shots.

On defense, not only do they have all the right players to run Boeheim’s zone, but most of the ACC coaches haven’t spent years trying to defeat it. And since the only former Big East team they play twice is Pitt, expect tons of ugly possessions vs the Orange for the duration of the season.

4. North Carolina

It’s been since 2008-09 that UNC last had an offense that ranked in the nation’s top 10 (offensive efficiency). Expect UNC’s offense to be back this year. Now that Marcus Paige has a year running the system under his belt, he should be much better prepared to run Roy Williams’ high octane attack. PJ Hairston could make ‘the leap’ to a 1st team All American type season, and he’s surrounded by an embarrassment of riches.

What will separate UNC from the top three teams in the conference is their defense. Last year they were 55th nationally, and while I expect that to improve, they certainly won’t be an elite defensive team. The guards allow too much penetration, which inevitably leads to open 3s. Their opponents shot a higher percentage from beyond the arc last year than any time in the past decade.

5. Notre Dame

The Irish didn’t lose a lot of players off their roster, but the one they did lose was a monster. Jack Cooley wasn’t just the best rebounder in the Big East, but he was the best offensive rebounder AND the best defensive rebounder. This was the key to Notre Dame winning the hidden battle of possessions. Notre Dame extended 34% of their own possessions with offensive boards, while their opponents only extended 29.5%. Over the course of the season, that’s a difference of 100 possessions.

While their rebounding is sure to take a hit, the good news is that they return arguably the best back court in the ACC.  Jerian Grant and Eric Atkins rarely come out of the game, they can both score, they can both set up teammates, and they both take care of the ball. They combined for six double-doubles last year (and just missed five others because of a single point or assist).

6. Boston College

In the past two seasons Boston College has gone 11-23 in the ACC. But during those two seasons head coach Steve Donahue has been able to cultivate a young and talented roster which is built for his system. Olivier Hanlan and Ryan Anderson could be stars, and there are plenty of role players behind them who will do what they’re asked to do.

The biggest question mark will be on the defensive end. Steve Donahue has never coached a team which finished better than 174th nationally in defensive efficiency, and in the past decade only seven teams have finished with both a winning ACC record and a defense ranked worse than 100th.

7. Pittsburgh

The Panthers make a living on the offensive glass. In the past three years they’ve finished 2nd, 3rd, and 4th nationally. So Pitt fans have to be at least a little bit concerned that four of their top five offensive rebounders (in terms of OR%) from last year are gone. They still have Talib Zanna, who would be the leading returning ACC offensive rebounder if he had played in the ACC last season.

They also have Lamar Patterson, who will be in All-Conference mix if his 3-point form returns (41% as a sophomore, 34% as a junior), and sophomore point guard James Robinson who is destined to be a star.

8. Maryland

Mark Turgeon has done a great job landing impact transfers. Last year Dez Wells came in from Xavier and led the team in scoring and minutes played. Now Evan Smotrycz (Michigan) gives the Terps one of the more intriguing big men in the conference. The 6-9 Smotrycz made 40.4% of his 3s in his two seasons in Ann Arbor, and as a sophomore he showed the ability to rebound. Pair him with Charles Mitchell and Shaq Cleare and the Terps should have no problem clearing the boards.

Smotrycz’s outside shooting also helps cover one of the biggest weaknesses from last year’s team. They were 10th in the conference in 3-pt%.  But they should slip a bit on defense without Alex Len manning the middle.

9. Georgia Tech

There’s no denying that this team has some talent. But the question is what Brian Gregory can do with that talent. His first two Tech teams have been eyesores on offense, which is consistent with his time at Dayton.  Marcus Georges Hunt might be the best sophomore that no one has heard of, and he should go a long way toward correcting that. Mix in transfer Trae Golden (Tennessee) and some decent bigs in Robert Carter and Daniel Miller, and this team should be better on the offensive end. But better isn’t saying too much.

Their defense should continue to make incremental progress (it was already top 40) which means that for the first time since 2009-10 the Yellow Jackets will be battling for the middle floors of the conference rather than the basement.

10. Florida State

FSU’s season rests on getting their defensive issues cleaned up. They were 190th in defensive efficiency last year, and this was coming off of four straight seasons where they were in the top 13 in the country. Having seven players moving on to their second years should help (5 freshmen and 2 JUCOs), but they still have to replace Michael Snaer. Snaer typically guarded the opposing point guard, and that role will go to Aaron Thomas who gave Snaer breathers last year.

Offensively, the team should benefit from a healthy Ian Miller. He couldn’t practice all of last season, and it showed. Now at full speed he should be able to create opportunities for his teammates and take some of the scoring pressure off of Okaro White. Look for FSU to spread the floor and attack off the dribble a lot more than in recent years.

11. NC State

After winning double-digit conference games for the first time in seven seasons, the Wolfpack are back to rebuilding. They basically ran a six man rotation last year with some Tyler Lewis sprinkled in, and five of those six are now gone. That leaves Lewis, who was nearly invisible on the court, and TJ Warren, who was exceptional but a bit on the low volume side (18.7% of his team’s possessions).

Warren and Lewis will be tossed into a lineup most likely featuring a couple of talented freshmen and Ralston Turner, a low-volume, low-efficiency transfer from LSU.

12. Wake Forest

Could this be the final go-round for Jeff Bzdelik? With CJ Harris gone, the Demon Deacons will rely on any number of players making their freshmen-to-sophomore leaps. Unfortunately, none of those players put up anything resembling efficient numbers last year, and this was in an offense that was actually pretty good (33rd nationally).

Travis McKie will be playing his senior year, as he’s miraculously not among the nine players who have transferred out of this program. The other likely senior starter is Coron Williams, a 3-point specialist who just transferred from Robert Morris.

13. Clemson

Brad Brownell’s tenure at Clemson has been underwhelming, but to be fair he’s mostly been playing with the previous administration’s players. Unfortunately for Tigers fans, this team isn’t exactly loaded with young stars landed by Brownell.

Gone are the studly Devin Booker and the enigmatic Milton Jennings, the two players who anchored Clemson’s main strength – interior defense. Now their godawful offense will have to be covered by a defense manned by two new starters in the middle.

14. Miami

One year after winning the ACC title we’re just hoping the Canes put names on the back of jerseys, otherwise no one will know who is who.  Senior Garrius Adams is their most experienced player, and he missed all of last season with a knee injury. Rion Brown and his 14 career starts is next in line, followed by Tony Jekiri who averaged less than seven minutes a game last year.

The program received a boost with Kansas State point guard Angel Rodriguez transferred to Coral Gables, but he’s sitting out the season.

15. Virginia Tech

It’s a shame that Virginia Tech’s futility last year meant that few people got to watch much of one of the greatest individual seasons in recent conference history. Unfortunately for Virginia Tech, Erick Green is now gone. In his place are five starters I’m confident you can’t name, even if I gave you pictures. Sorry Va Tech friends, but this is going to be a long one.

Preseason All ACC Team

C.J. Fair, Sr., Syracuse

P.J. Hairston, Jr., North Carolina

Joe Harris, Sr., Virginia (Player of the Year)

James Michael McAdoo, Jr., North Carolina

Jabari Parker, Fr., Duke

Preseason All ACC Freshmen Team

BeeJay Anya, NC State

Anthony Barber, NC State

Deandre Burnett, Miami

Jabari Parker, Duke

Jarquez Smith, Florida State

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