ACC Basketball: 2019 Conference Preview

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The ACC has been the most complete conference in college basketball for some time now. Over the last 15 years, 7 teams have brought home national championship banners. Last season, Virginia secured their first title in program history and became the fifth team in the league to cut down the nets. The chances of one of its members winning back-to-back titles for the conference remain high, as a handful of teams pose strong threats across the national landscape.

Champs No More

Virginia’s impressive title run had all the makings of a great story. Led by stars Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome and De’Andre Hunter, the Hoos championship was not without drama. Under Tony Bennett, the Cavaliers have created an identity of stout and unrelenting defensive play. It has limited the number of offensive possessions for not only their opponents, but themselves as well. Needing efficient play on the offensive end, Virginia struggled to pull away from many teams in the NCAA Tournament. In fact, they beat Oregon, Purdue and Auburn in the Sweet 16, Elite 8 and Final Four respectively by two baskets or less.

Although people in Charlottesville will celebrate the title for years to come, the victory pushed Guy, Jerome and Hunter into the NBA Draft this Summer. Holdovers Kihei Clark, Mamadi Diakite and Braxton Key will need to step up offensively to ensure 2019 does not become a letdown year. Key showed he can carry an offense as a freshman at Alabama, but his biggest asset last season was the ability to facilitate and create plays in the half-court. Doing most of his damage from the high post, Key was responsible for a lot of unexpected offensive production from guys like Jack Salt, Jay Huff and other lower volume guys on the squad.

While this will definitely help Virginia’s transition away from the star trio, Key won’t have to carry the offense on his own. Junior College transfer Tomas Woldetensae and Freshman Casey Morsell are all-around scoring options for the Hoos this season. Aside from Huff, the pair can be significant contributors to maintaining Guy and Jerome’s lethality from the perimeter that helped to propel this team towards a title. If they can provide consistency to the program, Coach Bennett will quickly bring along this team’s defensive acumen to compete this year.

Of the Cavaliers 3 losses, 2 were at the hands of Duke. Coach K’s electric trio of Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett and Cam Reddish not only made the Blue Devils must see TV, but fueled a lot of championship hype by expert analysts and fans alike. The production from Zion and RJ – 22.6 PPG apiece – was unreal: there has not been a pair of freshman teammates to score more than 17.0 PPG since 2003-04 (Oral Roberts Ken Tutt – 17.1 and Caleb Green – 20.7). Despite their individual accolades, the team struggled to pull away from physical, defensive-minded teams and it almost felled them twice in the NCAA tournament.

The Blue Devils loss to Michigan State in the Elite 8 was disappointing for numerous reasons, but the departure of the freshman trio has left a huge void offensively in 2019. Coach K, as he is accustomed to doing, was forced to reload on talent this offseason. Believe it or not, but signing the 3rd ranked class this Summer is not likely to garner as much attention as Zion/Barrett/Reddish did. However, this group may be better suited defensively to compete against the nation’s best.  

The new names set to reign over Durham are Vernon Carey Jr., Cassius Stanley, Matthew Hurt and Wendell Moore. Collectively with Tre Jones, Duke’s starting lineup has the ability to stifle a lot of teams this year. Reminiscent of Washington’s production last season, the Devils are long, athletic, physical and disruptive. They will look to their defense to kick-start the offense, as there’s potential to rival 2018’s horrid 3-point shooting numbers (30.8% – 329th). Hurt and Carey, despite average outside shooting, could lead the team in 3-point %. Solid in the midrange game, Tre Jones will do well to run a lot of sets through the pick and roll to elevate Duke towards an efficient offense.

The Blue Devils Tobacco Road rivals, North Carolina, will certainly use a lot of pick and roll next season with new point guard Cole Anthony. As 2019’s top-rated point guard, Anthony is not only ready to lead this team on the floor but is guaranteed to break out on the national scene as well. For his size and position, Anthony is far above average in the rebounding department. Add in his elite court vision and scoring acumen and he could very well be on the preseason short list for player of the year. There’s potential for him to become the first ACC freshman to average more than 15/5/5, joining Chauncey Billups (Colorado), D’Angelo Russell (Ohio State), Markelle Fultz (Washington) and Nick Calathes (Florida) as the only players in that club.

Coach Roy Williams looked to the transfer portal this offseason, in William & Mary’s Justin Pierce and Georgia Southern’s Christian Keeling, to replace the scoring of Kenny Williams and Cam Johnson on the wings. Both Pierce and Keeling proved to be reliable shooters at their prior institutions and will slightly ease the focus on Anthony offensively. Leaky Black and Brandon Robinson will look to carve bigger roles on the floor as well and have a shot to do so with second and third best perimeter shooting numbers of player contributing more than 10 minutes per game last season.

The lone returning starter from a year ago, Garrison Brooks, will be joined in the frontcourt by freshman McDonald’s All-American Armando Bacot. Reserves Sterling Manley and Brandon Huffman round out a physical quartet of players destined to keep Carolina among the nation’s best rebounding teams. The Heels still have a highly experienced roster and are capable of advancing far into the NCAA tournament next March. They’re dynamic, physical and can play several styles on the court. Yet, neither the Blue Devils NOR the Tar Heels are the ACC favorites this year.

That projection belongs to Louisville. After moving over from Xavier, Chris Mack led the Cardinals to the NCAA tournament with a 20-14 record. However, the program’s tournament was uneventful losing their first round matchup to Rick Pitino’s son and Minnesota.  The reason for excitement entering 2019 is largely a result of Jordan Nwora withdrawing from the NBA draft. Additionally, Louisville returns 6 of their top 7 scoring options and signed the 12th best recruiting class. 5-star Samuell Williamson and 4-stars Josh Nickelberry, David Johnson and Aidan Igiehon will contribute immediately to this team’s rotation giving Coach Mack likely the deepest team in the conference.

This Cardinals team is equipped to match any style opponents will try to impose on them. However, it will be difficult for many teams to scheme and effectively guard many of the players on this roster. Every member expected in this season’s rotation, with the exception of Igiehon, are capable of draining 3-pointers at a strong clip. A very dynamic and dangerous team, Louisville is a contender for the national title in addition to the conference championship.

Florida State reached the Sweet 16 last year, but failed to get past #1 Gonzaga. They were one of the few teams nationally immune to individual bad nights from their players. Relying on a big rotation of guys, the Seminoles did not have to pin game outcomes on the performances of top scoring options. This year Coach Leonard Hamilton will again deploy a deep rotation of players, however without Mfiondu Kabengele and a large majority of upperclassmen that carried the team a season ago.

MJ Walker and Trent Forrest are expected to take up the ‘veteran’ roles on this team in 2019 and both will see a big jump in usage. A deep backcourt sits behind them, made up of Raiquan Gray, Anthony Polite and Rayquan Evans.  The biggest changes to this team however, lie in the frontcourt. Gone are Kabengele, Christ Koumadje and Phil Cofer, but this year’s rotation comes with a lot of potential to immediately produce. 7-footer Balsa Koprivica arrives in Tallahassee from Montverde Academy and will be backed up by Ole Miss transfer Dominik Olejniczak. Koprivica’s starting partner is likely to be 4-star forward Patrick Williams, who is very capable of scoring the ball throughout the halfcourt. A darkhorse to compete this season, the Seminoles depth could keep them in the conference race.

Projected Standings:

1. Louisville
2. Duke
3. North Carolina
4. Virginia
5.  Florida State
6. North Carolina State – The Wolfpack return a solid team, after losing only Torin Dorn in the offseason. However, a recent indefinite suspension to projected starting Center DJ Funderburk may cast some doubt over how good this team can be. Led by Markell Johnson, CJ Bryce and Braxton Beverly, NC State can put up points. Pending a complete in-season collapse, this team should be expected to be in the Big Dance.
7. Syracuse – Jim Boeheim’s team will have a significantly different look this season. Attempting to replace Tyus Battle, Oshae Brissett, Frank Howard and Pascal Chukwu is not an easy task, but there are good scoring options left from last year’s roster. Elijah Hughes will garner the most attention and will have talented wings Brycen Goodine and Quincy Guerrier to build around. This team’s strength relies on its post depth offensively along with the vaunted 2-3 zone. The Orange will be in the mix this year.
8. Miami – PG Chris Lykes will again carry the Canes, but the return of Dejan Vasiljevic and additions of Kameron McGusty, Harlond Beverly and Isaiah Wong on the wings create the possibility for Jim Larranaga’s team to surprise this season. This team will only be limited by injuries, with 10 players on the active roster.
9. Georgia Tech – Pastner’s team brings back several key defensive pieces in 2019, but improved offensive play has the Yellow Jackets trending upwards. Transfers Bubba Parham and Jordan Usher will be eligible to play this season and provide vital depth for GT to close out games. Look for this team to push for a potential NCAA tournament bid.
10. Notre Dame – The Irish return a largely complete team from 2018 and get back Rex Pfleuger. John Mooney will average a double-double again for Mike Brey, but this team needs its young shooters to develop to reach their full potential. A tournament bid is not out of the question if the team can stay healthy. 
11. Pittsburgh – Pitt has a very talented team, but are also extremely young. Jeff Capel is starting to get top players to commit to the program and has the Panthers on their way up the ACC ladder. Guards Xavier Johnson and Trey McGowens will lead this team again in scoring and defense. The Panthers can disrupt the conference outlook but may not have enough yet to reach the NCAA tournament.
12. Virginia Tech – The departure of Buzz Williams hurts the overall prospects of this team, but the added losses of Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Kerry Blackshear and the rest of their starting 5 is signaling reset. 10 new players to this year’s roster and no proven scoring options, this team will have a lot of soul-searching to do this season before they can compete in the conference again. Deepest at the guard position, a reliable frontcourt option needs to emerge to provide quality balance for this team.
13. Wake Forest
14. Clemson
15. Boston College

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