The ACC is undoubtedly one of the top two conferences in college basketball this season along with the Big Ten. Duke, Syracuse, North Carolina, and Notre Dame are all preseason top-15 teams, and Virginia is borderline top-25. At least seven teams from this conference should make the 2014 NCAA tournament.
Although Duke lost its three leading scorers, it will be an improved team this season. The Blue Devils return five key pieces from last year’s Elite Eight team, and they also add one of the nation’s best groups of newcomers.
In the backcourt, the Blue Devils sport Quinn Cook and Rasheed Sulaimon. Cook is coming off a breakout junior season where he averaged 11.7 points and 5.3 assists while shooting 39.3% from beyond the arc. He could lead the ACC in assists this season. Sulaimon, a sophomore shooting guard, posted 11.6 points per game as a freshman and shot 37.1% from long-range.
The Blue Devils also return reserve guard Tyler Thornton, who averaged 3.6 points, 2.2 assists, and 1.3 steals. Thornton is one of the conference’s best backcourt defenders.
Added to the backcourt are redshirt senior Andre Dawkins and wings Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood. Dawkins was a key contributor for Duke as a junior in 2011-12, when he averaged 8.4 points and drained two three-pointers per game. Parker and Hood, both newcomers, will have a huge, immediate impact.
Parker, one of the nation’s most talented freshmen, will be a candidate for ACC Player of the Year. Hood, a Mississippi State transfer, has been mentioned as a potential All-American candidate. He averaged 10.3 points, 4.3 rebounds, and two assists as a freshman in 2011-12.
In the post, Duke returns Amile Jefferson and Josh Hairston. Jefferson averaged four points and two boards off the bench as a freshman, and Hairston, a senior, contributed 2.6 points and 2.1 rebounds per game.
Like Duke, Syracuse lost three starters, but the Orange will also contend for the ACC title. A newcomer to the league, Syracuse has a potential conference player of the year in senior forward C.J. Fair. Fair averaged 14.5 points and seven rebounds last season.
He will be joined in the frontcourt by Rakeem Christmas, Jerami Grant, DaJuan Coleman, and Baye Moussa Keita. Christmas, 6’9″ junior, did not do much as a freshman, but last year he improved and averaged 5.1 points, 4.6 rebounds, and 1.8 blocks.
Grant and Coleman played limited minutes as freshmen last year, but both were productive. Grant averaged 3.9 points and three rebounds while Coleman averaged 4.8 points and four rebounds.
Keita, a senior from Senegal, recorded 3.7 points, 3.7 rebounds, and 1.2 blocks per game.
In the backcourt, the Orange will rely heavily on freshman point guard Tyler Ennis. A five-star recruit, Ennis should be up to the task of starting for an ACC contender.
3. North Carolina
North Carolina lost a pair of starters, but it will be right in the thick of things in the ACC. Although the Tar Heels do not have the same depth as Duke in the backcourt, their starters are just as good.
At guard, they will start sophomore Marcus Paige and junior P.J. Hairston. Paige averaged 8.2 points and 4.6 assists as a freshman, improving as the season went on, and Hairston had a breakout sophomore season with 14.6 points per game. The North Carolina native had eight games with at least 20 points.
North Carolina also returns senior shooting guard Leslie McDonald, who averaged 7.2 points and netted 42 treys last season.
In the frontcourt, the Tar Heels return James Michael McAdoo, Brice Johnson, and Joel James. McAdoo averaged 14.4 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 1.5 steals last season, while Johnson and James combined for 7.7 points and 5.6 rebounds as freshmen.
4. Notre Dame
Like Duke and North Carolina, Notre Dame has an exceptional backcourt. The Fighting Irish have a pair of talented combo-guards in Jerian Grant and Eric Atkins, and Pat Connaughton will be one of the best wings in the conference.
Last season, Grant and Atkins, who are both seniors now, combined for 24.5 points, 11 assists, and 2.7 steals per game. Grant also ranked in the nation’s top 100 in assist rate, and Atkins drained three-pointers at a 41.5% clip.
Connaughton was Notre Dame’s fourth-best scorer as a sophomore last season with 8.9 points per game. He also averaged 4.7 rebounds and 2.1 assists and shot 37.7% from beyond the arc.
In the frontcourt, the Fighting Irish return Tom Knight, Garrick Sherman, and Cameron Biedscheid. Knight’s minutes nearly doubled last season, and with that his production increased to 5.5 points and 3.5 rebounds per game. Sherman, a former Michigan State transfer, averaged seven points and 3.4 rebounds in only 15.6 minutes per game, and Biedscheid averaged 6.2 points.
Virginia is a borderline top-25 team this season with its top five players returning. The Cavaliers return one of the conference’s best scorers and an ACC Player of the Year candidate in Joe Harris. A 6’6″ senior, Harris averaged 16.3 points per game and shot 42.5% from beyond the arc.
He is joined in the backcourt by Justin Anderson and Malcolm Brogdon. Anderson averaged 7.6 points, 2.3 assists, and 1.2 blocks last season while Brogdon, who received a medical redshirt after not playing last season due to an injury, averaged 6.7 points as a freshman in 2011-12.
At forward, the Cavaliers return Akil Mitchell, Mike Tobey, and Evan Nolte. Mitchell is coming off a breakout junior season where he averaged 13.1 points and 8.9 rebounds. The 6’8″ senior posted 12 double-doubles in 35 games. Tobeya 6’11” center, had an impressive freshman season with 6.8 points and 2.9 rebounds per game, and Nolte, another freshman, averaged 5.7 points and shot 38.9% on three-pointers.
Virginia will also add Anthony Gill, a 6’8″ transfer from South Carolina. Gill averaged 7.6 points and 4.7 rebounds in 2011-12.
6. Boston College
Boston College is young with two sophomores and three juniors expected to be in the starting lineup, but it is talented. The Eagles return everyone significant from last year’s team that made significant strides under head coach Steve Donahue.
Leading the way for the Eagles are sophomore Olivier Hanlan and junior Ryan Anderson. Hanlan, 6a’4″ guard, was one of the ACC’s most impressive freshmen last season with 15.4 points per game on 39.4% three-point shooting. Anderson, who was also an impressive freshman two seasons ago, improved his statistics last season to 14.9 points and eight rebounds per game.
The Eagles also return Joe Rahon, Patrick Heckmann, and Lonnie Jackson to their backcourt with Hanlan. Rahon averaged 10.1 points and 3.7 assists as a freshman last season. Heckmann averaged eight points while Jackson contributed 8.2.
Boston College also adds Notre Dame transfer Alex Dragicevich, a 6’8″ guard who averaged 6.6 points in 2011-12.
Juniors Eddie Odio (4.3 ppg, 3.4 rpg) and Dennis Clifford (2.8 ppg, 3.2 rpg) join Anderson in the frontcourt.
In its final season in the ACC, Maryland will not contend for a title, although it could fight its way into the NCAA tournament. The Terrapins, who played in the NIT last season, return five of their top seven scorers.
In the backcourt, Maryland has Seth Allen, Nick Faust, and Dez Wells. Allen had a productive freshman season with 7.8 points and 2.3 assists per game. He broke his foot in October but should return early in conference play. Faust and Wells, both juniors, are the team’s top two returning scorers. Faust averaged 9.4 points and 2.5 assists while draining 44 three-pointers, and Wells averaged 13.1 points, 4.9 rebounds, and three assists.
The Terrapins lack an experienced forward due to Alex Len’s departure for the NBA, but they return two talented sophomores in Charles Mitchell (5.5 ppg, 5.4 rpg) and Shaquille Cleare (3.7 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 58.0 FG%).
Michigan transfer Evan Smotrycz, a redshirt junior, will add some depth and experience to Maryland’s frontcourt. In 2011-12, he averaged 7.7 points and 4.9 rebounds.
8. Georgia Tech
Georgia Tech should move up in the ACC standings with four starters returning and the addition of Tennessee transfer Trae Golden.
Golden, who averaged 12.1 points and 3.9 assists at Tennessee, fills the hole at point guard in Georgia Tech’s lineup. Golden averaged career-highs of 13.6 points, 4.5 assists, and 1.5 three-pointers per game in 2011-12, and if he returns to that form, the Yellow Jackets should be able to make the NIT.
Although Pittsburgh lost Tray Woodall, Steven Adams, Trey Zeigler, and J.J. Moore, it may make the NCAA tournament for the second straight year.
The Panthers return talented guards Lamar Patterson (10.0 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 2.8 apg), James Robinson (6.1 ppg, 3.5 apg), and Cameron Wright (4.3 ppg), and Nigerian forward Talib Zanna (9.6 ppg, 6.1 rpg).
10. North Carolina State
North Carolina State lost five of its top six players, putting the program back in rebuilding mode, but the return of star forward T.J. Warren will keep the Wolfpack somewhat relevant.
Warren, a 6’8″ sophomore, averaged 12.1 points on 62.2% field-goal shooting and 4.2 rebounds last season. He ranked No. 9 nationally in effective field-goal percentage. Now that he is this team’s main player, expect huge things from him.
11. Florida State
Florida State looks like it will miss the NCAA tournament for the second straight season. The Seminoles return three solid players in Okaro White (12.4 ppg, 5.9 rpg), Devon Bookert (6.5 ppg, 52.5 3P%), and Aaron Thomas (6.0 ppg), but ultimately they will not have the pieces to be competitive with the more talented teams in this revamped league.
12. Virginia Tech
The only bright spot in Virginia Tech’s 2012-13 season was that Erick Green was the nation’s leading scorer with 25 points per game, and now Green graduated. But overall, the Hokies should be an improved team with eight of its nine next-best scorers returning.
Look for forwards Jarell Eddie (12.3 ppg, 5.6 rpg) and Cadarian Raines (6.6 ppg, 6.4 rpg) to have big senior seasons.
Clemson returns forward K.J. McDaniels (10.9 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 2.1 bpg), sharpshooter Jordan Roper (7.9 ppg, 41.4 3P%), and point guard Rod Hall (5.7 ppg, 3.5 apg), and that’s about it. However, that should be enough to keep the Tigers from falling lower than 13th place.
14. Miami (FL)
Basically all Miami returns from last year’s ACC regular season champions is senior guard Rion Brown, who averaged 6.4 points on 36.7% shooting from the field.
15. Wake Forest
It’s been a while since Wake Forest has been relevant in basketball, and that won’t change this season. The Demon Deacons return six of their top seven players in minutes logged, but that’s not always the best news when you’re team went only 13-17.
One interesting part of Wake Forest’s season will be the development of Madison Jones, a sophomore guard. Jones had a promising freshman season with 3.6 points, 2.1 assists, and 1.3 steals per game. He also led the ACC in steal percentage.
ACC Player of the Year
C.J. Fair, Syracuse
ACC Defensive Player of the Year
Madison Jones, Wake Forest
ACC Freshman of the Year
Jabari Parker, Duke
ACC All-Conference Team
Jerian Grant, Notre Dame
Rasheed Sulaimon, Duke
Joe Harris, Virginia
Jabari Parker, Duke
C.J. Fair, Syracuse
*All advanced statistics are courtesy of KenPom.