The grad transfer market is still in full swing, but for the most part, we know what the meaningful parts for the majority of the teams around the country will be.
That means that it is time to start talking about what is coming instead of what was.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at key personnel changes, the impact of the coaching carousel and the most important storylines heading into the 2019-20 season for each of college basketball’s top seven conferences.
Today, we are talking ACC.
KEY OFFSEASON STORYLINES
VIRGINIA’S TALENT EXODUS: The most interesting team in the ACC heading into the 2019-20 season is the reigning national champions.
That’s because the team that we are going to see come November will look almost nothing like the team we saw walk off the court in Minneapolis in April. De’Andre Hunter shocked no one when he left school for the NBA. There shouldn’t be any surprise that Ty Jerome left school, either. Kyle Guy was the player we all expected would be back in Charlottesville this season, but when you consider that A) he was coming off of the greatest redemption story in the history of the sport, B) two of his very best friends and fellow stars on that title winning team were leaving school, and C) the NBA has never valued the one thing that Guy does at an NBA level more, it isn’t all that shocking that he ended up getting picked late in the second round.
But we’re done with last year at this point. Next year is where things get interesting, because this will be the most difficult job that Tony Bennett has had during this run where UVA has been one of the ACC’s elite. Not only did he lose his top three players, but two of the three left a year earlier than we expected heading into last season. That puts the ‘Hoos in a really tough spot. The only guard on the roster with any kind of playing experience is 5-foot-8 sophomore Kihei Clark, which is not exactly ideal for a program that changed the way that they play last season.
The key is going to end up being the development of Mamadi Diakite and Jay Huff. Both of those guys are extremely long and athletic with three-point range. For my money, Diakite is the guy that needs to take the biggest leap. I think he could end up being one of the best defenders in all of college basketball next season, and if the ‘Hoos are going to live up to their preseason hype, they will need him to make as big of an individual jump as anyone in Bennett’s program has made in his decade at Virginia.
CAN LOUISVILLE LIVE UP TO THE HYPE?: Speaking of living up to the hype, it only took Chris Mack a year to get the Cardinals to a place where they are heading into a season as a legitimate national title favorite. Part of it is the newcomers he has coming in — five-star Samuell Williamson headlines a loaded six-man recruiting class while grad transfer Fresh Kimble fills the hole they had at the point — but the biggest reason to be bullish on the ‘Ville this year is who they have returning.
Dwayne Sutton is back. Steve Enoch is back. Malik Williams is back. Those guys are all going to be important, but not quite as important as Jordan Nwora, our way-too-early ACC Player of the Year and a potential All-American. Nwora was one of the most improved players in the country this past season, and I fully expect him to develop into one of the league’s premier scoring threats playing the same role that Trevon Bluiett played for Mack at Xavier.
TOBACCO ROAD RELOAD: Duke lost Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish, among others. North Carolina lost Coby White, Luke Maye, Cam Johnson, Nassir Little and Kenny Williams. There are six top 25 picks in that group, and that doesn’t include Luke Maye, who was an All-American in college.
And, as I’m sure you probably know, both programs reloaded this year. Duke did it via the freshmen, bringing in another loaded class that will be joining Tre Jones in Durham next season. North Carolina did the same — Cole Anthony is going to score a ton of points doing what Coby White did this season — but they also added some experience, bringing in a pair of grad transfers to fill out their roster.
As we have seen in the past, winning is not always easy when your roster is built around freshmen. It will be interesting to see how these groups all come together.
CAN ANYONE OUTSIDE THE BIG FOUR COMPETE?: The top four in the ACC all have very real national title hopes.
I’m not sure there is another team in the league that should be ranked in the top 25. If there is, my guess is that it will be N.C. State. The Wolfpack had some ups-and-downs last year, but they more or less return all of their important pieces from last year, including star guard Markell Johnson. Florida State will be interesting as well, and if there is a sleeper in the league, it is Notre Dame, but more on them in a second.
ARE THERE SANCTIONS COMING FOR ANYONE IN THE LEAGUE?: The FBI’s investigation into corruption in college basketball has come to a close, but the NCAA’s is just starting to ramp up. A number of programs are expected to get hit with a Notice of Allegations stemming from what came to light in the last two years, and a number of programs in the league — Louisville, N.C. State, Duke, North Carolina, etc. — were either directly or tangentially linked to things that were reported by media outlets or came up during the trial itself.
How many of the teams in the ACC have something to worry about?
ZION and RJ, Duke: The most entertaining duo in college basketball shocked absolutely not one when they left school for the NBA. Thanks for the pageviews, fellas.
VIRGINIA’S BIG THREE: The Cavaliers turned the most embarrassing loss in NCAA tournament history into one of the greatest redemption stories in all of sports. If Virginia is going to remain among the ACC’s elite, Mamadi Diakite is going to have to be a star.
UNC’S BIG FOUR: The Tar Heels are going to look very different next season, as their five-best players are all playing for checks these days.
BUZZ WILLIAMS and KERRY BLACKSHEAR, Virginia Tech: It took Buzz five years to get Virginia Tech to the point that they were good enough to come with one possession of getting to the Elite Eight, and that’s all it took for him to get back to Texas. Williams is now at Texas A&M, and while both Justin Robinson and Nickeil Alexander-Walker left, as expected, the one relative surprise was that Kerry Blackshear followed them as well. Blackshear is the most sought-after grad transfer in college basketball and will likely head into next season as a preseason All-American. We just don’t know who he will be playing for yet.
MFIONDU KABENGELE, Florida State: He spent the season coming off of the bench for the Seminoles, but his loss will hurt as much as any in the league. Kabengele was quietly the force that allowed Florida State to be able to matchup with anyone and everyone in college basketball last season.
TRE JONES, Duke: Jones was the one freshmen from last year’s recruiting class to return to Duke. A defensive pest that spent much of the year banged up, Jones will have a full offseason to develop his offensive repertoire. He’s only going to be a sophomore, but he’s exactly the kind of “veteran” leader a young Duke team will need.
JORDAN NWORA, Louisville: We wrote about Nwora earlier, but his decision to return to Louisville was as impactful as any early entry decision. He’ll be an All-American caliber player and the star that the Cardinals, as a preseason top ten team, can lean on.
MAMADI DIAKITE, Virginia: Is this the year Diakite makes the leap to being elite? I’m betting that it is, and I fully expect him to make the biggest year over year improvement that we’ve seen out of anyone in Bennett’s Virginia tenure.
N.C. STATE: The biggest name to know is Markell Johnson, but with seven of their top nine returning and a couple talented transfers enrolling, the Wolfpack are probably the best of the rest.
CHRIS LYKES, Miami: There may not be a more entertaining player in college basketball than the 5-foot-7 Lykes, who averaged 16.2 points last season.
JOHN MOONEY, Notre Dame: The Irish bring back one of the best 1-2 punches in college basketball in Temple Gibbs and John Mooney, something that will be bolstered by a talented five-man sophomore class that should be ready to contribute more this season than they did last season.
DUKE’S FRESHMEN: Vernon Carey Jr. is probably the biggest name to know, but Matthew hurt may be the most important. He’s precisely the kind of big, floor-spacing four that the Blue Devils were missing last season. Wendell Moore Jr. could end up being a one-and-done as well, and Cassius Stanley is going to posterize at least three unsuspecting defenders this year. Book it.
COLE ANTHONY, North Carolina: Anthony has a shot to end up being the No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, and playing for UNC is probably the best way for him to showcase his ability to create offense. He plays the same way that Coby White did, only he’s super-charged athletically. I think it’s a good bet that Anthony ends up leading the ACC in scoring.
JOE GIRARD III, Syracuse: Girard is one of the most prolific scorers in New York State high school history. What kind of offense will he be able to produce for the Orange?
WAY-TOO-EARLY ALL-ACC TEAM
JORDAN NWORA, Louisville (ACC PLAYER OF THE YEAR)
COLE ANTHONY, North Carolina
MAMADI DIAKITE, Virginia
JOHN MOONEY, Notre Dame
VERNON CAREY, Duke
WAY-TOO-EARLY POWER RANKINGS
1. DUKE: Last year, Duke was the most talented team in college basketball, but the talent did not fit together as well as it could have. They had too many guys that all do the same things — drive to the rim, finish at the bucket — and not enough guys to do the thing that would create space — i.e. shoot the ball. Shooting could still end up being an issue this season with Jones at the point, but the way Duke’s pieces fit together this year works better.
2. LOUISVILLE: I’m all-in on the Cardinals this season with Jordan Nwora coming back. He’s the perfect big wing for Chris Mack’s offense, and they have a talented recruiting class that will fill the holes in their roster. It only took a year for Mack to get Louisville to the point of contending.
3. VIRGINIA: I’m higher on Virginia than the consensus opinion, and that’s because I think that Bennett is going to find a way to develop the guys in his program the way he needs to. I’ve mentioned Diakite and Huff already in this column, but I also think that Braxton Key will make a big jump this year.
4. NORTH CAROLINA: Cole Anthony is going to get all the attention for the freshmen, and I do think that the Tar Heels have a pair of grad transfers in Justin Pierce and Christian Keeling that will play important roles, but we should not overlook the addition of Armando Bacot. He is the perfect big man to play in Roy Williams’ system, and even with a trio of juniors in front of him, I think that he’ll be an impact player as a freshmen.
5. N.C. STATE: The Wolfpack are going to have to replace the production of Torin Dorn, but there are some pieces on this roster — namely C.J. Bryce, Devon Daniels and Jericole Hellems — that I think can take a step forward this year.
6. FLORIDA STATE: The Seminoles are going to have a number of pieces that they need to replace — namely Terance Mann and Mfiondu Kabengele — but this was a team that went 12-deep at times last year, with a huge recruiting class coming in and a couple of pieces — Trent Forrest and M.J. Walker, specifically — that have yet to really hit their ceiling.
7. NOTRE DAME: John Mooney and Temple Gibbs are the big names, but the players that will be really interesting to monitor this season will be Prentiss Hubb, Dane Goodwin and Nate Laszewski. What kind of leap to they take as sophomores?
8. CLEMSON: The Tigers lose a ton this offseason, with four of their five starters graduating. Aamir Simms didn’t quite take the leap that we expected him to take, but with a pair of grad transfers coming in — Curran Scott from Tulsa and Tevin Mack from Alabama — there should be some backcourt reinforcements.
9. MIAMI: Chris Lykes will be back and ready to do the things he did that made him one of the most entertaining players in college basketball last season, but one of the keys for the Hurricanes will be Oklahoma transfer Kameron McGusty. Can he come in and be a secondary scorer for Jim Larrañaga?
10. SYRACUSE: The Orange lose Tyus Battle, Oshae Brissett, Frank Howard and Paschal Chukwu. That’s a lot of talent to replace. With the likes of Jalen Carey, Buddy Boeheim, Joe Girard and Elijah Hughes on the roster this season, I expect the Orange to be better offensively than they have in the recent past.
11. VIRGINIA TECH: Replacing Buzz Williams is not going to be easy for Mike Young to do, especially when it comes at a time where he is going to have to replace Justin Robinson, Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Kerry Blackshear, too.
12. GEORGIA TECH: I loved Jose Alvarado in high school, and with James Banks coming back, the Yellow Jackets return a sneaky-good 1-2 punch and four of their top five scorers. That said, the cellar in the ACC in a long way from the middle of the pack.
13. BOSTON COLLEGE: The Eagles, who went 5-13 in the ACC last season, replaced Ky Bowman with Derryck Thornton. That’s suboptimal.
14. PITT: I’m going to need to see it to believe it with the Panthers. After starting ACC play 2-2 with wins over Louisville and Florida State last year, Pitt reeled off 13 straight conference losses.
15. WAKE FOREST: Danny Manning is in his sixth season at Wake Forest. He’s won more than five ACC games in a season just once, and he is coming off of a year where the Demon Deacons finished 11-20 overall.