The College basketball season is finally here! Coming off of a rare down year, the ACC has re-loaded and should have plenty of representation in the 2021 NCAA tournament. The top dogs – Virginia, Duke, and Florida State – should all remain at the top of the ACC standings this season. After that is where things get interesting. UNC, Miami, and Georgia Tech all have top-25 potential and should be dancing in March. After that, a host of teams will battle it out in the middle of the pack and could find themselves in the NCAA picture when it’s all said and done. Here’s how I think the ACC Basketball standings will shake out, as well as my picks for the individual awards and all-conference teams.
I absolutely love the roster Tony Bennett has compiled for this season. The Cavaliers bring in several key additions to join an already strong returning core, including Marquette transfer Sam Hauser. Hauser is a true stretch four who will dramatically improve and open up the Virginia offense. Athletic wing Jabri Abdur-Rahim headlines a very strong recruiting class, and should be a productive two-way player that will make a big impact in year one.
Looking at the returners, center Jay Huff made significant strides on offense while proving to be one of the nation’s premier rim protectors, and Tomas Woldetensae got so much better as the year progressed and proved to be a strong “3 and D” wing. With the smart and efficient Kihei Clark running the point, the weapons are in place for the Cavaliers to be a much better offensive team, and you know they’ll play tough defense. Virginia should be a legit national title contender in 2020-21.
No one has adapted to the one and done era better than Coach K, and the Blue Devils have re-loaded with a great freshman class once again. Despite losing both Tre Jones and Cassius Stanley to the NBA, the Duke backcourt will be fine with five star guards Jeremy Roach and DJ Steward stepping on campus.
The front-court will be star studded as well, as five star forwards Jalen Johnson and Jaemyn Brakefield, four star center Mark Williams, and Columbia grad transfer Patrick Tape give the Blue Devils tremendous talent and depth down-low that will help fill the void that Vernon Carey leaves. With both Matthew Hurt and Wendell Moore returning as well, Duke has tons of options up front and tremendous depth, something they lacked this season.
3. Florida State
Losing Devin Vassell and Patrick Williams to the draft is a big blow for the defending ACC champs, but Leonard Hamilton has built a program that relies on depth, and he has some quality replacements ready to step up into bigger roles this season. Five star wing Scottie Barnes comes in as Hamilton’s highest rated recruit ever, and he’ll be a star right away.
Trent Forest is another big loss, but M.J. Walker will take over the point and Anthony Polite is an athletic shooting guard that should be a good compliment to Walker and Barnes. Raiquan Gray is a unique talent who can handle the ball and knock down jumpers, while also being able to bang in the post and guard opposing centers. The top-end talent may not be quite as strong this season, but there’s still a ton of quality players and a lot of depth on this team, a recipe for another strong season in Tallahassee.
4. North Carolina
A losing season in Chapel Hill was shocking to see, but expect the Tar Heels to turn things around quickly. Roy Williams brings a trio of five star recruits to campus in point guard Caleb Love, as well as centers Day’Ron Sharpe and Walker Kessler, who will all have big roles right away. The Tar Heels front-court has a chance to be the deepest and most talented in the country with both Garrison Brooks and Armando Bacot coming back. Both Leaky Black and four star freshman Donovan Johnson are X-factors who could start on the wing. If they can have big seasons, the ceiling will be high for the Tar Heels.
Jim Larranaga has quietly built a very strong roster down in Coral Gables, and has the Hurricanes poised for an NCAA tournament run this season. Seniors Chris Lykes and Kameron McGusty return to lead a deep and experienced backcourt that will be one of the ACC’s best. Sophomore Isaiah Wong improved dramatically throughout his freshman season and should be a star this year. Sophomore Harland Beverly and highly touted freshman Earl Timberlake round out the loaded guard rotation.
The front-court has plenty of experience as well, and gets a huge boost with the addition of Cincinnati transfer Nysier Brooks, one of the nation’s best interior defenders. The Canes just received tough news that forward Sam Waardenburg will miss the entire season with a foot injury. However, senior Rodney Miller will be able to give quality minutes as a big, and four star freshman Matt Cross will provide much needed depth off the bench.
Chris Lykes’ ball dominant nature held Miami back at times last season, and with a stronger team around him this year he will need to kick that habit and trust his teammates more for the Hurricanes to reach their full potential.
6. Georgia Tech
The Yellow Jackets were a pleasant surprise in 2020, finishing fifth in the ACC standings after a subpar non-conference showing. The dynamic backcourt of Jose Alvarado and Mike DeVoe were a big reason for that success, and are the favorites to be the league’s top scoring duo this year. Senior forward Moses Wright was terrific offensively last season, and returns to give the Yellow Jackets a strong presence in the post. Forward Jordan Usher was eligible midseason for the Jackets last year and was a huge reason for their turnaround, bringing much needed defense and energy to this team.
James Banks is the only big loss for Georgia Tech, and his scoring and rim protecting ability will be sorely missed. A huge x-factor for the Yellow Jacks is 7’0 freshman Saba Gigiberia, who will have to fill the void left by Banks. If Gigiberia or someone else can provide a strong defensive presence in the paint, Georgia Tech will be a contender in the ACC.
The losses were heavy for the Cardinals, but Chris Mack hit the transfer market hard and has done a solid job of re-loading. Grad transfers Charles Mineland (San Francisco) and Carlik Jones (Radford) were highly coveted players that Mack will count on heavily to score the rock for Louisville. While the ability of these two to score at a high clip against top level competition is still unknown, the Cardinals do have a point guard they can count on to distribute the rock in sophomore David Johnson.
Up front, the Cardinals are very unproven outside of senior Malik Williams. Sophomores Samuel Williamson and Aidan Igiehon were both highly touted recruits who didn’t play a ton in year one, but will be thrust into much bigger roles this season. The Cardinals have plenty of talent on paper, but are unproven, and their season will go as far as their new pieces will take them.
Brad Brownell received some great news when all conference forward Aamir Sims decided to withdraw his name from the NBA draft and return to Clemson for his senior season. With Sims and a talented backcourt set to return, the Tigers have the pieces to be competitive in the ACC and earn an NCAA tournament bid. Al-Amir Dawes had a great freshman season running the point, and is poised to take a big leap forward as a sophomore.
Fordham transfer Nick Honor was terrific as a freshman and steps into the lineup after sitting out the 2019-20 season, giving the Tigers one of the top backup point guards in the league. With John Newman and Clyde Trapp returning on the wing, Clemson will be tough to guard on the perimeter. Top-100 ranked freshman center PJ Hall should start right away and is a big X-factor. If Hall has a strong freshman season, the Tigers will have a complete lineup and should go dancing in March.
9. Notre Dame
In the one and done era, Mike Brey has found success taking the opposite approach by attempting to “get old and stay old”. Brey recruits guys that he hopes will stick around for four years and his most successful teams during his tenure in South Bend were filled with juniors and seniors. After a couple of re-building years, Brey has the veteran club he covets this season, but the lack of star power makes me hesitant to believe in this squad.
If anyone can step up and become an all-league player for the Irish, juniors Prentiss Hubb and Dane Goodwin are the top candidates, as both showed major improvement from their freshman to sophomore seasons. Hubb is a crafty point guard who is a gifted passer and can score in bunches. Goodwin is a talented wing who can knock down the open three and also create his own shot off the dribble. Stanford transfer Cormac Ryan is a three point specialist and should give the Irish a huge boost in an area that they really struggled in last season.
In the front-court, Juwan Durham is one of the best rim protectors in the league and made strides on the offensive end last season. Junior Nate Laszewski is the team’s biggest X-factor, as he’s a true stretch four who showed promise last year and will have the opportunity to put a lot more shots up with John Mooney out of the picture. It’s tough to count out a veteran Mike Brey team, but they just don’t have a Jerian Grant/Pat Connaughton/Bonzie Colson type player capable of leading the Irish to a deep tournament run.
I don’t think any team in the ACC will miss a player as much as Syracuse will miss Elijah Hughes. While just about every other contributor from last season is back, no one on the roster can break down their defender and create shots for himself or others nearly as well as Hughes could. Illinois transfer Alan Griffin was granted a waiver and will fill in for Hughes on the wing, and while he is talented, he won’t match Hughes’ production right away.
The Orange still have two excellent shooters in Buddy Boeheim and Joe Girard, and Girard will also be counted on heavily for playmaking and shot creation. Marek Dolezaj came into his own last season, and provides energy, toughness, and versatility in the paint. He will need to step up his scoring this year, as will athletic sophomore wing Quincy Guerrier, for the Orange to be potent offensively and be competitive in this league.
11. NC State
The Wolfpack return plenty of talent from a team that was likely going to the NCAA tournament last season, so I could certainly see them finishing higher than this. However, Markell Johnson was so important to this team and without a proven option at point guard I have them slightly below the teams ranked 6 through 10. Four star freshman Cameron Hayes is the man who will be tasked with replacing Johnson, and having a pair of experienced scoring wings in Braxton Beverly and Devon Daniels will make his transition to the college game much easier.
In the paint, DJ Funderburk is one of the best athletes in the ACC and a force to be reckoned with on both ends of the floor. Jericole Helems and Manny Bates return as well, and are both solid role players who are willing to do the dirty work. NC State struggled with consistency last season, and without the steady hand of Markell Johnson they’ll need their veteran leaders at other positions to step up and produce on a nightly basis in order to have a successful 2020-21 campaign.
- Virginia Tech
The Hokies took a big hit this offseason when star wing Landers Nolley II opted to transfer. However, the transfer portal was good to them as well, as Mike Young picked up a pair of talented grad transfers in Kansas State wing Cartier Diarra and Iowa big man Cordell Pemsl. These two veterans join a Hokies club with a great mix of depth and experience. Wabissa Bede isn’t much of a scorer, but is a terrific passer and defender and does a great job of running the offense. In addition to the high scoring Diarra on the wing, Bede has a trio of sophomore guards to dish the rock to in Tyrece Radford, Nahiem Alleyne, and Jalen Cone, all of whom had strong freshman seasons.
While the Hokies’ backcourt should be able to hang with most teams in the league, they’re not nearly as strong up front. The addition of Pemsl certainly helps in that area, but likely won’t be enough to keep Virginia Tech from struggling against bigger, more athletic teams.
Jeff Capel has the Panthers trending in the right direction, but they’re still missing a piece or two to get them in the top half of the league and in NCAA tournament contention. Losing star shooting guard Trey McGowens to the transfer portal really hurts this team’s potential.
They do have a reliable point guard in Xavier Johnson, and have a replacement for McGowens ready in Delaware transfer Ithiel Horton. Pitt also has one of the best rising talents in the ACC in forward Justin Champagnie. If Champagnie and Johnson can get some consistent help on the offensive end, Pitt should exceed expectations and be a tough out on a nightly basis.
- Boston College
It’s been awhile since the Golden Eagles were relevant in the national college basketball picture, and unfortunately there’s not much reason for optimism heading into this season. A lot of production was lost from last year’s sub-par team with the graduations of Derryck Thornton, Nik Popovic, and Jared Hamilton, and forward Jairus Hamilton leaving as a transfer. Shooting guard Jay Heath does return on the wing and will be joined by Wynston Tabbs, who averaged 14 points per game in 2019 but sat out all of 2020 with an injury.
Jim Christian brought in a transfer to run the point for the second straight year, this time in former Providence Friar Makai Ashton-Langford. The Eagles have a few solid pieces, but as they continue to struggle getting top talent to come to and stay in Chestnut Hill, they will struggle to compete in the ACC.
- Wake Forest
It was an eventful off-season in Winston-Salem, as Danny Manning was fired and former East Tennessee State coach Steve Forbes was brought in to replace him. While Forbes has been very successful at his previous schools and may be able to turn the Demon Deacons program around, don’t expect much success in year one.
With both Olivier Sarr and Chaundee Brown deciding to transfer, Wake doesn’t return a player averaging more than eight points per game. Forbes was able to bring in some JUCO transfers as well as Houston Baptist grad transfer Ian DuBose to provide some more experience and depth, but the Deacons simply lack the talent that is needed to compete in major conference basketball.
All-Conference Teams and Awards:
Player of the Year: Sam Hauser, Virginia
Freshman of the Year: Scottie Barnes, Florida State
Defensive Player of the Year: Jay Huff, Virginia
All-Conference 1st Team:
Kihei Clark, Virginia
Mike DeVoe, Georgia Tech
Scottie Barnes, Florida State
Sam Hauser, Virginia
Garrison Brooks, UNC
All-Conference 2nd Team:
Jose Alvarado, Georgia Tech
Jeremy Roach, Duke
Buddy Boeheim, Syracuse
Jalen Johnson, Duke
Jay Huff, Virginia
All-Conference 3rd Team:
Chris Lykes, Miami
David Johnson, Louisville
Isaiah Wong, Miami
Justin Champagnie, Pittsburgh
DJ Funderburk, NC State