ACC Operation Basketball returns to Charlotte on Wednesday, setting the stage for the start of another college basketball season and what is expected to be the nation’s best basketball conference.
Here’s how I see things shaking out this season.
All-ACC first team
Grayson Allen, Duke
Jaron Blossomgame, Clemson
Joel Berry, North Carolina
London Perrantes, Virginia
Zach LeDay, Virginia Tech
Player of the Year
Grayson Allen, Duke
Defensive Player of the Year
Jaron Blossomgame, Clemson
Rookie of the Year
Dennis Smith Jr., N.C. State
Coach of the Year
Mike Krzyzewski, Duke
PREDICTED CONFERENCE STANDINGS
There’s no question the Blue Devils boast the most talent in the conference — and arguably the nation. Even with Harry Giles sidelined for awhile with a knee injury, Duke should be fine with Grayson Allen, Amile Jefferson, Matt Jones and Luke Kennard mixing with a talented crop of freshmen in Jayson Tatum, Frank Jackson and Marques Bolden.
The offense will run through Allen, but I see Tatum as the key player for the Blue Devils, assuming the Stretch 4 role that Justice Winslow and Brandon Ingram thrived in during their one-and-done campaigns.
2. North Carolina
With the Tar Heels set to return six of their top eight players from a national championship game appearance, the offense will be loaded. Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige are gone, handing the reigns to veterans Joel Berry and Justin Jackson. Top post player Isaiah Hicks should also be productive — if he can stay out of foul trouble. The loss of Theo Pinson to a broken foot, possibly until December or January, is a big blow, and a lack of post depth could hurt UNC. But the talent throughout the roster is impossible to ignore.
Despite the losses of Malcolm Brogdon, Mike Tobey and Anthony Gill, I have to give Tony Bennett’s squad the benefit of the doubt. Point guard London Perrantes returns as the team’s go-to player, and is joined by 6-foot-9 Memphis transfer Austin Nichols. The Cavaliers should be fine with those two leading the way — and don’t forget about their top-10 defense.
The Cardinals will be led by a pair of super sophomores in combo guard Donovan Mitchell and wing Deng Adel. There’s no standout player in the frontcourt, but the size in the post — 6-foot-10 Mangok Mathiang and Ray Spalding, and 7-footers Anas Mahmoud and Matz Stockman — could provide the best rim protection in the league.
After making an improbable Final Four run, the Orange lost Malachi Richardson and Michael Gbinije, but the addition of Nebraska transfer Andrew White should offset some of that lost production. The roster is stacked with talent, including 6-foot-8 sophomore Tyler Lydon and freshman Tyus Battle. With Tyler Roberson and DaJuan Coleman leading the frontcourt, the Orange won’t be far behind the top contenders in the league.
6. N.C. State
The Wolfpack lost leader Cat Barber, but gained point guard Dennis Smith Jr., my pick for the league’s top rookie. Assuming freshman Omer Yurtseven is eligible for ACC play, the Wolfpack is loaded with talent. Abdul-Malik Abu, Maverick Rowan and BeeJay Anya return, with Charlotte transfer Torin Dorn and a healthy Terry Henderson joining the mix for a team that looks to get back to the NCAA tournament.
7. Notre Dame
After two consecutive Elite Eight appearances, the Fighting Irish bring back an experienced trio in Steve Vasturia, V.J. Beachem and Bonzie Colson. Demetrius Jackson and Zach Auguste are gone, but look at what last year’s team did without Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton. The offensive firepower alone should get the Fighting Irish in the Big Dance.
The Hurricanes lost starters Sheldon McClellan, Angel Rodriguez and Tonye Jekiri from a 27-win team, but return double-figure scorers in Ja’Quan Newton and Davon Reed. A pair of five-star recruits in Bruce Brown and Dewan Huell headline a strong freshman class and head coach Jim Larrañaga has shown the ability to bounce back from personnel losses.
With the return of all-world-player Jaron Blossomgame, it’s NCAA or bust for the Tigers this season. Clemson also welcomes Vanderbilt transfer Shelton Mitchell, Texas A&M transfer Elijah Thomas and Robert Morris transfer Marcquise Reed. The performance of the new additions will be key to the Tigers’ success.
10. Virginia Tech
Head coach Buzz Williams has done a fantastic job rebuilding the Hokies, who finished last in the ACC in his debut season and made an NIT appearance in his second. Now, Williams has them primed to fight for an NCAA bid behind star Zach LeDay and senior Seth Allen.
11. Florida State
The Seminoles have a solid trio of scores in returners Dwayne Bacon, Xavier Rathan-Mayes and highly-touted freshman Jonathan Isaac. Isaac’s production in the frontcourt, with Michael Ojo and Phil Cofer, will be key if Florida State hopes to be competitive in league play.
The Panthers welcome former Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings, who has the luxury of a veteran group that returns six of it top seven scorers from last season, including Michael Young and Jamel Artis. Look for Artis to fill the void of point guard James Robinson as the facilitator of the offense.
13. Wake Forest
The Demon Deacons should be significantly improved from last season, but in a tough league I’m not sure the results will show that improvement. Wake Forest signed four freshmen and added Charlotte transfer Keyshawn Woods to join a group led by returning players Bryant Crawford, John Collins, Mitchell Wilbekin, Dinos Mitoglou, Doral Moore and Greg McClinton.
14. Boston College
The Eagles went winless against ACC teams last season, but return a bulk of that roster, inlcuding top returning scorer Jerome Robinson. That alone should be good enough for a win over the Yellow Jackets — and maybe an upset in some other league games.
15. Georgia Tech
Former Memphis coach Josh Pastner will have his hands full in his debut season with the Yellow Jackets, who lost their top four scorers from last season.