While Villanova won the national championship in perhaps the greatest title game of all-time, the 2015-16 season was defined by the dominance of one league. The Atlantic Coast Conference. Just take a moment to absorb some of these facts (all of which were accomplished despite top 10 Louisville being ineligible for the postseason):
- ACC teams won more games in a single NCAAT (19) than any league in history.
- The 19 wins were more than double the number of wins of the next two best leagues (Big East and Big 12) combined.
- Syracuse, one of the ACC’s four teams to make the Elite Eight, lost more ACC games (9) during the regular season than the ACC lost during the entire NCAA Tourney (7)...and three of those seven losses were to other ACC members.
Now, are you ready for something even scarier? The ACC could very well be better this year. The off-season saw seven ACC teams bring in a top 20 recruiting class according to the 247 consensus rankings. Draft Express currently lists 24 players from US colleges out of the 30 that make up their projected first round—nine call the ACC home and that number jumps to 12 if you expand it to the top 40.
But perhaps the biggest “whoa!” moment this preseason came for me when I was perusing SI.com’s exhaustive ranking of all 351 teams in D1 basketball. The guys over at SI do a bang up job with their college basketball coverage and have consistently been at the forefront of integrating advanced metrics into their rankings and analysis. In fact, their preseason projections, in which they run 10,000 simulations, have been the most accurate in the country the last two seasons. And if that holds true this year, well, it’s going to be a blood bath in the ACC as 12 teams are ranked in the top 50. Twelve. As in, a dozen. The next best is the Big 10 with seven. The Big East and the Big 12 each have six, while the SEC has three. A legitimate argument could be made that a losing record in the ACC is better than a 10-8 or even 11-7 record in the SEC.
So, what comprises the ACC’s hierarchy and where is FSU’s place in this monster that’s been created? Given the enormous amount of talent and skill across the league, it’s probably best to lay out tiers.
Tier One: Duke
To be clear, Duke is beatable. Injuries are already taking a toll with all-world recruits Harry Giles and Jayson Tatum missing most of preseason and experienced guards Grayson Allen and Matt Jones leaving an exhibition game early. But Duke has oodles of talent (10 players were consensus top 40 recruits) and if they actually get everyone healthy the Blue Devils could put a historically good offense on the court with an elite defense to boot.
Tier Two: UNC, UVA, Louisville
Each of these three teams could realistically contend for the best regular season record in the ACC, especially with the unbalanced schedule and if Duke’s freshman miss extended time. UNC must replace Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson, but the Tar Heels bring back three starters from a team that was a few seconds from being crowned national champs. One bit of concerning news for Roy Williams’ squad is the foot injury to former five-star Theo Pinson. UVA brings in an explosive freshman (Kyle Guy and an impact transfer (Austin Nichols) and pairs them with senior leader London Perrantes. Louisville—despite losing three starters—looks as athletic and talented as ever and let’s be honest, Rick Pitino is going to put a competitive team on the court.
Tier Three (in no order): Syracuse, NCSU, VT, FSU, Miami, Clemson, ND, Pitt
This is where things get a bit hairy. All eight of these teams could not only make the NCAA Tournament, but with the right draw could actually go on a deep run. Syracuse has incredible depth, boasting 11 consensus top 100 players, but it’s NC State who might have the highest ceiling of this group. Early enrollee point guard, Dennis Smith, Jr., is arguably the best guard in the entire country. He’s a sure-fire lottery pick in next year’s draft. But the Pack are also loaded underneath, including a 7-foot freshman from Turkey, Omer Yurtseven. A projected first rounder, Yurtseven must sit-out most of the OOC portion due to eligibility issues, but he’ll be a difference maker in league play.
Not to be outdone, Clemson boasts a legit contender for conference PoY (Jaron Blossomgame), Miami and VT both have intriguing mixes of talent and experience, ND has one of the top forwards in the country in V.J. Beachum, and FSU looks to turn up the tempo and let star recruits Jonathan Issac, Dwayne Bacon, and Xavier Rathan-Mayes do what they do best—score in transition. Indeed, picking names out of a hat might be as good as anything else when it comes to predicting this mass in the middle. The unbalanced schedule, injury luck, and three-point lottery will all go a long way in determining the order of finish and which team(s) gets left out of the Big Dance. All eight can be tourney teams, but it’s unlikely that any more than six—or seven at the max—get in.
Tier Four: Wake Forest and Georgia Tech
It’s not that these teams are bad...they just don’t appear ready to consistently compete in a league like the ACC. Nonetheless, there is talent on these rosters—particularly in Winston-Salem—and it’s likely that an upset or two sprung by these teams will significantly impact the tier above them in terms of which teams get left out on Selection Sunday.
Tier Five: Boston College
Poor Eagles. Last year they became the first ACC team to go 0-18 in league play and while I don’t think it will be quite that bad this year, more than three wins would be overachieving. It’s just difficult to imagine a team with essentially a mid-major roster finding wins in a stretch like this: @Duke, NCSU, @Syracuse, UVA, UNC, @Miami, @VT, Wake, Louisville, Pitt.
Where do you think FSU will finish in league play? How many ACC teams do you think will make the NCAAT? Would you move any teams up or down a tier?