By Kenneth Cross
The Florida State Seminoles were awarded the ACC Championship last season when they rolled to an outright regular season title as the tournament was cancelled due to the outbreak of Covid-19. Commissioner John Swofford then had an award ceremony that was a picture of class of the league and it’s champion Seminoles.
Nothing has changed in the ACC as potentially six teams, including the Seminoles once again have a line on the league’s regular season title. Virginia is back with it’s unrelenting defense while North Carolina and Duke had the No. 2 and No. 3 recruiting classes in the nation. The Seminoles and the Louisville Cardinals are the teams to watch with a plethora of athleticism, depth, and experience.
- Virginia – The Cavaliers define “winning ugly,” but that’s okay Coach Tony Bennett will take that 2019 national championship and all the Cavaliers ACC accolades in his tenure and run with it. Of course the calling card is the pack line defense which accelerates at the highest levels, but let’s not forget that Virginia won it’s national championship due to so many consistent offensive weapons. Kehei Clark is virtually flawless in running this team from the point. Bennett looks for Jay Huff to return and have a major role on defense as a rim protector as well as fortifying his inside-outside prowess on offense. Marquette transfer Sam Hauser will be an excellent addition with his size and passing ability.
- North Carolina – The Tar Heels’ 14-19 record punctuated the most trying season in Coach Roy Williams’ 32-year Hall of Fame career. Williams will flush that and move the program forward behind veteran Garrison Brooks and a recruiting class that is comprised of three 5-stars and three 4-stars in this class of 2020. Forward Day’Ron Sharpe and guard Caleb Love highlight the class as Sharpe can defend the paint and score around the rim. Love is a highlight film who is a tough matchup because he can shoot the three and work off the dribble equally well.
- Duke – Mike Krzyzewski reinvigorates his ranks with another one-and-done class highlighted by 5-star forward Jalen Johnson and guard Jeremy Roach. Duke needs Wendell Moore and Joey Baker to live up to the hype that they received as they came into the program. The Blue Devils are going to look for cleaner and more consistent ball handling than they had a year ago. They only had 9.8 steals per 100 possessions, according to kenpom.com. The 3-point game needs an overhaul as they were 294th in the nation in 3-point distribution inside of their offense.
- Florida State – Leonard Hamilton’s march toward the Hall of Fame continued as he is now fifth in win total in ACC history. Losing Trent Forrest, Devin Vassell, and Patrick Williams is quite a haul, but Hamilton secured potentially the top freshman in the country in the elusive Scottie Barnes, who has a 7-2 wingspan and with that, he could turn into a lockdown defender. Veterans M.J. Walker and Malik Osborne will be key leaders as Walker has the potential to scorer the ball at a high level while Osborne is a crafty player with his skill set and owns the versatility to play several positions.
- Louisville – The Cardinals have the depth and versatility to win the league with David Johnson and Malik Williams combining for a solid one-two punch and last season’s Big South POY Carlik Jones joining the team. Jones was the Big South’s leading scorer a year ago at Radford as he averaged 20.0 ppg. Samuell Williamson looks like he is ready for a break-out season as well after working out judiciously during covid and changing the muscle mass of his body. San Francisco transfer Charles Minlend can also fill it up from the outside. Mack has many options and if this team can develop and maintain an aggressive mindset on both ends of the floor, they will play deep into March.
- Georgia Tech – Coach Josh Pastner brings back a veteran roster that can break into the top three in the ACC if everyone stays healthy. The health idea starts with point guard Jose Alvarado who works a veteran backcourt with sharpshooter Michael Devoe. With Alvarado’s dribble-drive and 3-point prowess, the Yellow Jackets cause tons of matchup problems as Jordan Usher and Moses Wright feed into the equation. Usher uses his chiseled 220-pound frame to get to the rack while Wright’s offensive game came on strong as he averaged 13 ppg. last season. Pastner’s squad excelled on the defensive end as it was 16th in defensive field goal efficiency and 10th in effective field goal efficiency, per kenpom.com.
- Miami – This is the year the Hurricanes return to the NCAA Tournament after a two-year hiatus. Chris Lykes returns on the point as he continues to raise his game a level every season. He averaged 15.4 ppg last season as he is paired with Isaiah Wong and Harland Beverly, who bring versatility in scoring. Coach Jim Larranaga welcomes Cincinnati transfer Nysier Brooks to the middle as he is a shot blocker and solid in the paint. Sam Waardenburg and Kameron McGusty are also two other scoring threats as McGusty looks to get his 3-ball game back to where it was at Oklahoma. the ‘Canes will work harder toward a more solid defense as they want to drive opponents deeper into the shot clock.
- NC State – Coach Kevin Keatts has a talented perimeter, but it’s all hands on deck in finding a steady replacement on the point for dynamic point guard Markell Johnson. Devon Daniels could be the first up in solidifying the position with his passing skills and defensive ability. DJ Funderburk and Manny Bates are a solid inside duo as Funderburk is the leading returning scorer at 12.8 ppg while Bates is a solid shot blocker who averaged 2.9 bpg. Jericole Hellems is the X-factor with his length and athleticism as well as his scoring ability. If the Wolfpack improve their collective 3-point attack, this team could surpass it’s 20-win total of a year ago.
- Syracuse – The Orange has two stellar guards in Buddy Boeheim and Joseph Girard,III, as Boeheim checked in at 15.3 ppg. with as solid of a 3-ball as there is in the ACC. Girard has a really strong instinct in finding either the open man or taking the ball to the rack and making the split second decision of whether to score or pass. Quincy Guerrier played important minutes as a freshman as a versatile scorer. Coach Jim Boeheim wants his 2-3 matchup to return to it’s glory, but he won’t insist on longer possessions which could throttle a bevy of consistent offensive players.
- Clemson – The Tigers are a defense first outfit as they gave up only 64.1 ppg. a year ago which was third in the conference and 37th in the nation. Coach Brad Brownell welcomes back a vastly underrated Aamir Simms, who led the Tigers in scoring at 13.0 ppg. and rebounding at 7.2 rpg. Al-Amir Dawes and Clyde Trapp are set in the back court where Trapp is a major matchup problem because of his versatility. Brownell is looking for more of a presence on the offensive glass while being more consistent from three as well as on the free throw line.
- Notre Dame – It has been a tough couple of years in South Bend for coach Mike Brey, but the all-time winningest coach of the Irish welcomes back one of the ACC’s top point guards in Prentiss Hubb, who can score and distribute as well as make a difference on the defense end. Dane Goodwin shows well in the back court as a 3-point shooter to complement Hubb. Nate Laszewski and Juwon Durham give the Fighting Irish two key pieces inside as both are solid on the boards, but look to average double figures. Stanford transfer Cormac Ryan adds more depth to the 3-point game. Brey looks to overhaul a defense that had a tough time defending the three last season.
- Boston College – The Eagles look forward to the return of Wynston Tabbs who was out last season with a knee injury and only play 15 games in 2018-19. He and Jay Heath should formulate a stellar one-two punch in the back court with Tabbs’ playmaking as Heath as a hard matchup off the dribble and from three. The physicality of 6-8 Stefon Mitchell is going to be a huge advantage for BC when the Eagles face the more physical opponents. Coach Jim Christian looks to jump start an offense that was 307th in effective field goal percentage, per kenpom.com.
- Virginia Tech – Mike Young’s make over of the Hokies continues after losing Landers Nolley to the transfer portal. He has the luxury of Wabissa Bede, a hold over from the Buzz Williams days, as a dynamic leader on the point. Look for Nahiem Alleye to get more shots inside the offense with Nolley’s departure. Alleyne shot 38.9 percent from 3-point range last season while also working as an offensive facilitator. The Hokies need some solid post play as Young added a pair of transfers in Justyn Mutts (Delaware) and Cordell Pemsl (Iowa). Keve Aluma came over with Young from Wofford and will provide Virginia Tech with an athletic forward who can bring the physicality on the glass.
- Pitt – Coach Jeff Capel is moving this program forward as a monumental rebuild in the tough ACC is not an overnight endeavor. Guard Xavier Johnson and forward Justin Champagnie will provide a dynamic inside-outside duo that can be the catalyst of the Panthers’ scoring attack. Pitt did lose a key cog as guard Trey McGowens as he transferred to Nebraska, but transfer Ithiel Horton (Delaware)has the potential to pick up where McGowens left off. Au’diese Toney has potential for a breakout season as he shows a solid mid-range game as well as being a threat at the rim. Pitt was 342nd in the nation in effective field goal percentage, according to kenpom.com, but as the team now has a foundation and structure, the offensive end should be much more productive.
- Wake Forest – New Demon Deacons coach Steve Forbes built a fortress in five seasons at East Tennessee State as he went 134-43 and turned the Buccaneers into the gold standard in a deep and improving Southern Conference. With his move to Wake Forest, it seems strange to pick any Steve Forbes team last in any league and will probably not happen here with the level of transfers he has been able to amass even after Olivier Saar transferred to Kentucky and Chaundee Brown left for Michigan. Jahcobi Neath on the point and Isaiah Mucius in the paint are two solid players who can bring their games forward this season. Transfers Jalen Johnson (Tennessee), Davien WIlliamson (ETSU), and Ian DuBose (Houston Baptist).
The High 5:
Chris Lykes, Sr., Miami
Garrison Brooks, Sr., North Carolina
Jose Alvarado, Sr., Georgia Tech
David Johnson, So., Louisville
Scottie Barnes, Fr., Florida State
The Next 5:
Aamir Simms, Sr., Clemson
Carlik Jones, Gr., Louisville
Kihei Clark, Jr., Virginia
Jalen Johnson, Fr., Duke
Caleb Love, Fr., North Carolina
Player of the Year: Garrison Brooks, North Carolina
Top Newcomer: Scottie Barnes, Florida State
Top Transfer: Sam Hauser, Virginia
Player to Watch: M.J. Walker, Florida State
Ken Cross, the self-proclaimed “CEO of College Hoops,” has a plethora of experience over a 20-plus year period in both print and broadcast journalism as a free-lancer on the east coast and in the Charlotte, NC area, in particular. He started with the now defunct Sports Fan Radio Network in 1997 as a reporter, giving in-game updates and then facilitating postgame interviews with players on winning teams after games via smart phones. He has also worked in the same capacity for ESPN Radio, CBS Sports Radio, Fox Sports Radio, Sporting News Radio, Yahoo! Sports Radio over the same period.
In print and on the Internet, Cross continues to write for Lindy’s Sports Annuals as one of the primary writers for the College Basketball preview as well as a writer on the Lindy’s College Football preview staff. He also contributes frequently to the Lindy’s Sports website with articles on all sports throughout the year in a feature, editorial, and game summary mode. He also writes preview material for Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook and covers Wake Forest basketball for Rivals.com.
Cross has a Bachelor’s degree in Mass Communications from Appalachian State University and a Master’s in English and Education from Radford University in Virginia. He is a member of the US Basketball Writers Association and the Football Writers Association of America.