North Carolina will enter the 2017-18 college basketball season as the defending national champion. But what other ACC contenders will push the Tar Heels in the new campaign?
North Carolina carried the banner for the ACC in the 2017 NCAA Tournament, shedding its demons after last year’s last-second loss in the national championship game to claim a third title for head coach Roy Williams.
As I mentioned a few weeks ago, the performance of the ACC as a whole in this year’s Big Dance should not diminish how strong of a conference it was throughout the 2016-17 campaign.
With the season now having come to an end, it’s never too early to look at the teams best-positioned to claim the ACC for 2017-18.
Note: These rankings can most certainly change before the NBA Draft’s early entrant deadline. College players have until 11:59 p.m. ET on April 23 to submit their names for entrance into the league’s annual event.
Way-Too-Early ACC Basketball Power Rankings
Long road ahead
15. Pitt (16-17, 4-14): It’s going to be a tough rebuild for second-year head coach Kevin Stallings, who will see the Panthers lose a ton via graduation and transfers without a lot of immediate help from the recruiting trail. Pitt won’t return any starters and lost all five of its leading scorers. Forward Ryan Luther (5.7 points per game in ’16-17) is the best player coming back, though JUCO star Jared Wilson-Frame should provide an immediate impact. It just doesn’t look like anything but a last-place performance is on the horizon next season.
14. Boston College (9-23, 2-16): The Eagles return their top five scorers next year, and guards Jerome Robinson and Ky Bowman give BC fans a lot to be excited about heading into the offseason. But a lot will be expected of those backcourt mates because the Eagles don’t have much coming back inside unless they add a grad transfer or two.
13. Clemson (17-16, 6-12): Brad Brownell has reached the Big Dance just once in his seven seasons with the Tigers, and the task won’t get any easier without Jaron Blossomgame. Guards Shelton Mitchell and Marquise Reed return, but there isn’t a lot to be excited about inside. Will the Tigers try to win with defense in ’17-18?
Enough talent to be NIT-bound
12. NC State (15-17, 4-14): New head coach Kevin Keatts is off to a fantastic start in Raleigh, as point guard Lavar Batts decided to become a member of the Wolfpack instead of going to VCU. Along with his new head coach, can he stabilize a program that will return Abdul-Malik Abu, Torin Dorn and Maverick Rowan? Terry Henderson and Omer Yurtseven could possibly come back as well. No matter who is on the court for the ’17-18 Wolfpack, though, expect much better defense and more fluid offense to be played.
11. Georgia Tech (21-16, 8-10): There arguably wasn’t a better coaching job done in ’16-17 than what Josh Pastner pulled off in his first season in Atlanta, as the Yellow Jackets were postseason NIT runners-up after flirting with an NCAA bid. Not too shabby for a team that wasn’t even expected to get out of the league cellar. Pastner had his team believing in defense, which it will continue to do until it gathers more offensive weapons. Ben Lammers could possibly leave for the NBA after becoming the league’s most improved player, as he led the ACC in blocks and gave GT an interior presence. Guard Josh Okogie will look to continue to improve and will be heavily relied upon for offense.
10. Syracuse (19-15, 10-8): The Orange lose a lot from their NIT squad, including four members of their rotation, but Tyus Battle and Taurean Thompson have a chance to become consistent performers that give their team a chance to win on a nightly basis. It will be interesting to see if Jim Boeheim and his staff are able to land a late top recruit or perhaps a grad transfer. Getting good production from a healthy Paschal Chukwu and redshirt Matthew Moyer will also go a long way in determining whether the Orange can compete for an NCAA bid.
9. Florida State (26-9, 12-6): Leonard Hamilton may need to once again preach defense over offense, as his Seminoles are losing more talent than any ACC squad outside of Duke. Jonathan Isaac, Dwayne Bacon and Xavier Rathan-Mayes will all depart early for the NBA Draft, while seniors Michael Ojo and Jarquez Smith will graduate. Terance Mann (8.6 points per game in ’16-17) will have to pick up a lot of slack for a team that needs to hope that its depth—Hamilton consistently played about 12 players per game this season—helps offset some of the losses of stars.
8. Wake Forest (19-14, 9-9): There is no question that Danny Manning has the Demon Deacons on the rise following their surprising NCAA First Four bid. The team’s big loss, however, will be center John Collins. The big man could have arguably won the league’s player of the year award as an efficient scorer and rebounding machine, and he will be off to the NBA. But Wake has some depth, and it also returns point guard Bryant Crawford to help out incoming shooting guard Chaundee Brown, who is the highest-rated recruit in the Manning era.
7. Virginia (23-11, 11-7): It’s never smart to count out a Tony Bennett-coached squad. His system works. However, the Cavaliers are suffering two big losses in the form of veteran point guard London Perrantes, who was the team’s leading scorer and tone-setter for the slowed-down offense, as well as second-leading scorer Marial Shayok, who is transferring. Sophomore forward Jarred Reuter is also leaving the program. So a lot will be on the plate of Devon Hall as well as a pair of four-star prospects that redshirted this past season. Still, a defense-first attitude will keep the team in most every game.
6. Virginia Tech (22-11, 10-8): The Hokies made the NCAA Tournament for the first time in a decade, but they will lose their top two scorers. However, Buzz Williams is bringing in the best recruiting class of his tenure, with the expectations that this will be a guard-heavy lineup with Justin Robinson, Justin Bibbs and the incoming prospects.
League title contenders
5. Notre Dame (26-10, 12-6): Mike Brey and Co. failed to reach a third straight Elite Eight, but do not sleep on the Fighting Irish next year. Seniors V.J. Beachem and Steve Vasturia depart, but 6-foot-5 “big man” Bonzie Colson will remain a double-double machine who can score in a variety of ways after finishing off a first-team all-ACC season. Guard Matt Ferrell also returns to run the offense at the point, while Rex Pflueger has a chance to be a consistent threat in the backcourt.
4. Miami (21-12, 10-8): Jim Larrañaga has the Hurricanes positioned as a tough “out” night in and night out, so they shouldn’t have any problem making a fourth straight NCAA Tournament next season. Point guard Ja’Quan Newton and freshman Bruce Brown will be joined by five-star two-guard Lonnie Walker in the backcourt, so this is a team that has a chance to once again win 20 games, especially because Larrañaga gets his guys to believe in defense. What he was able to accomplish this season was quite impressive considering six seniors were lost from the ’15-16 squad, so expect the group to pick up the slack with seniors Davon Reed and Kamari Murphy departing.
3. Duke (28-9, 11-7): With the possible exception of a win streak late in the season as well as their performance in the ACC Tournament, the Blue Devils never could quite resemble the preseason national championship contenders that college basketball prognosticators had envisioned before the ’16-17 season began. Now, Mike Krzyzewski will have to contend with the losses of Jayson Tatum and Harry Giles after just one season as well as the departures of seniors Matt Jones and Amile Jefferson. Oh, and frontcourt players Chase Jeter and Sean Obi have already decided to transfer. The major question is whether polarizing guard Grayson Allen is going to return after his draft stock was hit by an up-and-down season. Frank Jackson and Marques Bolden have the potential to have strong sophomore campaigns, while Luke Kennard will look to have a similarly big season. And, of course, there will be star freshmen, as Wendell Carter and Gary Trent will see action immediately.
2. Louisville (25-9, 12-6): Rick Pitino’s Cardinals can certainly be a national title contender next season, but their chances will increase dramatically if sophomore guard Donovan Mitchell decides to stave off the NBA Draft. He was the team’s leading scorer and an impact defender, and it would be fun to watch this team try to make a deep March run with him in the backcourt. But if he does leave, Pitino should have back point guard Quentin Snider, Deng Adel, Ray Spalding, Jaylen Johnson and V.J. King, who seems poised to make a big leap. And a strong recruiting class is led by 7-footer Malik Williams, who along with Anas Mahmoud will be asked to fill some of the void that is being left by rim-protecting center Mangok Mathiang. It remains a lengthy and athletic team with enough experience to compete for an ACC crown, but bringing back Mitchell would be huge. The other question besides Mitchell centers on the fallout from the NCAA’s investigation into the school’s escort and prostitution scandal.
1. North Carolina (33-7, 14-4): The national champs will lose big men Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks, so Roy Williams and Co. are hoping that former McDonald’s All-American Tony Bradley decides to stay another year in Chapel Hill to at least help the frontcourt avoid looking entirely different. But it would be stunning if ACC player of the year Justin Jackson returns. All-league second team point guard Joel Berry II and Theo Pinson will return to the backcourt as well as Kenny Williams, who missed this year’s NCAA Tournament due to injury. Luke Maye and Seventh Woods have a chance at increased roles, while freshman guard Jalek Felton can make an immediate impact for a squad that made back-to-back title game appearances amidst a long NCAA investigation, which can still impact the program because it’s seemingly never-ending.