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ACC Season Preview: Can anyone snatch the title from Duke’s hands?

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Beginning in September and running up through November 11th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2016-2017 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the ACC.

There will be no shortage of attention given to the ACC this season, and it’s not only because the consensus No. 1 team in the country and a total of four top ten teams reside here. In September, the state of North Carolina, where the ACC is headquartered, became a national talking point as the NCAA, and, subsequently, the ACC itself, decided to pull all of their postseason games out of the state for the 2016-17 calendar year.

That means that the Blue Devils and the Tar Heels will not be getting home games in the first weekend of the NCAA tournament this season, and that may be what it takes to get the controversial HB2 law overturned.

But we’ve talked enough about that law and the impact this decision will have on it already. So lets get to the hoops.

Virginia's London Perrantes (32) shoots against Iowa State's Monte Morris (11) during the first half of a college basketball game in the regional semifinals of the NCAA Tournament, Friday, March 25, 2016, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
Virginia’s London Perrantes (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THE ACC:

1. Duke is going to be awesome, but they are not without flaw: This will be the most talented team that Mike Krzyzewski has had in Durham since Jay Williams was on the roster. There could be three top ten picks on the roster (Harry Giles III, Jayson Tatum, Marques Bolden) and that doesn’t factor in the NBCSports.com Preseason National Player of the Year, Grayson Allen, or Amile Jefferson, a fifth-year senior that was averaging a double-double last season when he broke his foot.

They’re loaded. No one is denying that.

But the roster construction isn’t perfect. (Is it ever?) There’s no real point guard on the Blue Devils next season. Frank Jackson is more of a scorer that can handle the ball than a point guard, the proof being the amount of time Allen will have the ball in the lead guard role this year. Moreover, Duke’s four best perimeter players — Allen, Tatum, Jackson and Luke Kennard — are all at their best with the ball in their hands, creating shots for themselves. That’s not ideal.

No one in the world is better suited to finding a way to make all of this talent work together than Coach K is, and it will be fascinating to see how he decides to put this puzzle together.

2. Virginia loses Brogdon, but still will contend: I’m not sure that it is possible to be more underrated than Malcolm Brogdon was last season, and I understand the irony in me saying that while also saying that the Cavaliers can still contend without him. The reason? For starters, I don’t think we’ve seen the best of London Perrantes yet. As a senior, don’t be surprised when he embraces playing a bigger role offensively. And then there is Austin Nichols, the Memphis transfer who couldn’t be a more perfect fit for what Tony Bennett wants to do on both ends of the floor.

But the biggest reason I think UVA will remain in the mix for the ACC crown? Bennett’s program is good enough at this point that we can pencil them into the top four before actually looking at the roster.

3. You may not recognize the names at Louisville, but they can make a Final Four: Last season, Louisville showed flashes of being a top 15 team while using a pair of mid-major grad transfers to bridge the gap between the Terry Rozier and Montrezl Harrell years and a promising 2015 recruiting class that wasn’t quite ready last season.

Now? They should be ready. Sophomores Donovan Mitchell — who spent much of last season playing behind Damion Lee — and Deng Adel — who battled knee issues last year — are on track to make Cardinal fans realize why people have been raving about the potential those two have. Yes, I wonder about a team where Quentin Snider is the lone point guard on the roster, and no, I have no idea who out of that motley crew of bigs will take a step forward, but if both Mitchell and Adel develop into all-ACC caliber players like I think they will, Rick Pitino should be able to once again field a winner.

Louisville's Donovan Mitchell (45) reaches in against North Carolina State's Anthony Barber (12) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Raleigh, N.C., Thursday, Jan. 7, 2016. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
Louisville’s Donovan Mitchell (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

4. UNC has talent, but they also have question marks: The knock on North Carolina last season was that, while they had a roster full of highly-rated recruits, they didn’t necessarily have much future NBA talent in their ranks. That was before Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige graduated. Now, it seems like every player on this Tar Heel roster has either a major red flag in their game or a major question mark in their outlook this season. Will the Joel Berry II from last March show up, or will it be the Joel Berry II that struggled to beat out Nate Britt for the starting point guard spot? Has Justin Jackson found a way to be a consistent three-point shooter? Has Theo Pinson? Can Isaiah Hicks handle the pressure that comes with being a star player? Just how good is a front court if the best player is Kennedy Meeks?

The Tar Heels are a top ten team on paper. But just how sure are you that what we’ll see on the court on a night-to-night basis will be a top ten team?

5. It’s Virginia Tech, not Syracuse, that you need to be all-in on: Syracuse, a Final Four team last season, got Tyler Lydon back for his sophomore season, brought in Tyus Battle and Paschal Chukwu, and added a pair of fifth-year seniors in the back court in John Gillon and Andrew White. But they lost their three best players from last season, including Michael Gbinije, from a 9-9 ACC team and they don’t really have a point guard.

The Hokies? They return everyone from a team that went 10-8 in the ACC last year, including wins over Miami (who was top ten at the time) and UVA, and have a head coach in Buzz Williams who is as good as anyone in the country and getting a group of under-recruited players to have a chip the size of Blacksburg on their shoulder. Syracuse could be good this season. Tech will be better.

MORE: 2016-17 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

PRESEASON ACC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Grayson Allen, Duke

Allen is our Preseason National Player of the Year, so why wouldn’t he be our Preseason ACC Player of the Year? It’s far from a shoe-in, however, as there are a couple of factors working against the junior. For starters, he’ll be playing a different role this season, operating as more of a lead guard than someone whose job was to put his head down and get to the rim. And with the amount of talent on the roster around him — Duke could potentially start five first round picks — it will be hard for him to replicate the production he had last season.

That said, this was Allen’s stat-line last season: 21.6 points, 4.6 boards and 3.5 assists with a true shooting percentage of 61.6%. I know people are required to hate him because he’s white and a star at Duke, but no high major player since 1993-94 (which is as far back as the database at CBB Reference goes) has ever posted that stat-line.

THE REST OF THE ALL-ACC FIRST TEAM:

  • Dennis Smith Jr., N.C. State: I’m not sure how good the Wolfpack will be, but assuming his ACL is back to 100%, Smith may be the single-most talented player in the conference.
  • Jaron Blossomgame, Clemson: Blossomgame is an under-the-radar name because he plays for Clemson, but he’s a future top 40 draft pick that can defend multiple positions and averaged 18.7 points last season.
  • Jayson Tatum, Duke: We initially had Harry Giles III here, but Tatum gets the bump after this week’s news that Giles underwent another knee surgery.
  • Austin Nichols, Virginia: Nichols averaged 13.4 points, 6.7 boards and 3.4 blocks before leaving Memphis. He’s a perfect fit for the five-spot in Virginia’s system and he’s had a year to learn what Tony Bennett will want from him.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW:

  • Joel Berry II, North Carolina
  • Donovan Mitchell, Louisville
  • Deng Adel, Louisville
  • London Perrantes, Virginia
  • Tyler Lydon, Syracuse

BREAKOUT STAR: Donovan Mitchell and Deng Adel, Louisville

Mitchell is going to be the trendy pick on this Louisville team to be a breakout star, not only because he’ll have a chance to step into a starting role in the back court, but because he had a handful of impressive performances in league play last season. But I think there’s a chance that Adel ends up being the best player on the Cards this year. All I heard over the summer were good things about his development, and he was really impressive in practices before hurting his knee as a freshman.

Just so I’m on the record with this, in just about any other year, both Tyler Lydon of Syracuse and JaQuan Newton of Miami would be an easy pick here.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Brad Brownell, Clemson

The obvious pick here is Boston College’s Jim Christian — if you can’t win a league game, you’re automatically on the hot seat — but Brownell is a more interesting case. This will be his seventh season with the Tigers. He hasn’t reached the NCAA tournament in five years and is six games under .500 in ACC play in those five seasons. But, with Blossomgame returning to school, Brownell has a chance to get back to the tournament with this group. If he does, that may save his job.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING … : Grayson Allen, Amile Jefferson and Matt Jones will be the first Duke players to win two rings since Christian Laettner and Bobby Hurley were playing.

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT: Seeing how the other powerhouse programs at the top of the conference — Virginia, UNC, Louisville — try and defend a super-talented, but somewhat-flawed, Duke roster.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR:

  • Nov. 15, Duke vs. Kansas
  • Nov. 29, Michigan State at Duke
  • Dec. 17, North Carolina vs. Kentucky
  • Dec. 21, Kentucky at Louisville
  • Jan. 29, Virginia at Villanova

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @accsports

PREDICTED FINISH

1. Duke: Shocker.
2. Virginia: We cannot overlook the loss of Malcolm Brogdon or underrate just how good Anthony Gill was. That said, Nichols will be a borderline all-american this season and we haven’t seen the best of London Perrantes yet.
3. North Carolina: Losing Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson hurts a lot, but there are quality pieces left on this roster. The problem? They’re all question marks. Which Joel Berry II shows up? Will Justin Jackson reach his potential? Can Isaiah Hicks or Kennedy Meeks really anchor the front line of a top ten team?
4. Louisville: The sophomore class for the Cardinals is going to shine this season. Donovan Mitchell and Deng Adel could end up being first round picks one day. The major issue for Louisville will be their front court. They have a lot of bodies and not a lot of proven pieces.
5. Virginia Tech: My sleeper pick. They return everyone — and add two injured pieces — from a team that won 19 games, went 10-8 in the ACC and beat Miami and UVA.
6. Syracuse: Getting Tyler Lydon back to school was key. Adding Andrew White was big as well. The Orange are going to have an absurd amount of length and athleticism in that zone. Will their point guard play and rebounding hold up?
7. Miami: There will be some turnover for the Hurricanes, but with JaQuan Newton running the show and Jim Larrañaga in charge, rebuilding years in Miami won’t be as bad as they’ve been in the past.
8. Notre Dame: Gone are Demetrius Jackson and Zach Auguste, both of which are major blows. Mike Brey has proven he can weather a storm like this, however. V.J. Beachem’s time to shine?
9. N.C. State: The Wolfpack have a ton of talent, namely freshmen Dennis Smith Jr. and Omer Yurtseven. Will all the pieces come together?
10. Florida State: Like N.C. State, the Seminoles have plenty of pieces, but they’ve struggled to look like a cohesive unit in recent years.
11. Pitt: Jamel Artis and Michael Young might be the best forward tandem in the conference, but this is a team dealing with coaching turnover that lost their point guard, James Robinson.
12. Clemson: I love Jaron Blossomgame’s … well, game. I don’t love much else on this roster.
13. Wake Forest: Danny Manning’s team was a total disaster last season even though they had the talent to be much better than they were. They lost Codi Miller-McIntyre and Devin Thomas. Was that addition by subtraction?
14. Georgia Tech: They hired Josh Pastner this offseason. I’ll let you decide if that’s a good or bad thing.
15. Boston College: BC lost Eli Carter from a team that didn’t win an ACC game last season. Woof.

North Carolina guard Joel Berry II (2) moves the ball against Providence during the first half of a second-round men's college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament, Saturday, March 19, 2016, in Raleigh, N.C. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
North Carolina guard Joel Berry II (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

Washington’s Thybulle returning for senior season

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Matisse Thybulle will return to Washington for his senior season after contemplating declaring for the NBA draft following a junior campaign in which he was named the Pac-12 defensive player of the year.

“The NBA is really enticing and it was definitely something that I seriously considered when the season was over,” Thybulle told the Seattle Times. “I talked it over with my family and we came to the conclusion that it would be in my best interest to stay and get my degree (in communications) and grow as a basketball player and take this last year to mature and fine tune everything so I can be fully prepared to take that next step when it’s time.”

The 6-foot-5 guard averaged 11.2 points, 2.9 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 3.0 steals per game last season. He shot 44.5 percent from the field and 36.5 percent from 3-point range.

“I talked to coach (Mike Hopkins) and he gave me some good advice that was honestly something that helped in the grand scheme of things,” Thybulle said. “He told me that if I do it (enter the draft), then I should be all in because that’s what I’m going to be up against is a whole bunch of guys fighting for their lives. He thought it would be a better idea for me to stay in school until I’m at that point.”

Washington is awaiting the decision of Noah Dickerson, who declared for the draft but has not hired an agent. The 6-foot-8 averaged 15.5 points and 8.4 rebounds last season.

Koby McEwen transferring to Marquette

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Steve Wojciechowski added a significant piece to his 2019-20 team over the weekend.

Koby McEwen announced his intention to transfer to Marquette from Utah State late Sunday evening.

“I would like to thank God, my family, inner circle and all the schools/coaches that recruited me during this process!” McEwen tweeted. “With that being said, I’m proud to announce that I’ll be furthering my college career at Marquette University.”

McEwen picked the Golden Eagles over fellow finalists Creighton and Grand Canyon after he decided to transfer when the Aggies announced South Dakota coach Craig Smith was taking over the program last month. The 6-foot-4 guard averaged 15.6 points, 5.4 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game while shooting 40 percent from the field and 30 percent from 3-point range as a sophomore.

After sitting out the upcoming season, McEwen will have to years of eligibility remaining. Marquette went 21-14 last season, but missed the NCAA tournament for the third time in Wojciechowski’s four years in Milwaukee.

Minnesota adds Vanderbilt transfer Payton Willis

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Minnesota has added some depth for the future.

The Golden Gophers received a pledge from Vanderbilt transfer Payton Willis over the weekend, giving him a guard with two seasons of eligibility remaining starting in 2019-20.

Willis will sit out the upcoming season under NCAA transfer rules.

The 6-foot-4 guard played a limited role in two seasons in Nashville, never averaging more than 18. 5 minutes or 5.2 points per game. He scored in double figures in three games as a sophomore.

Willis was a top-150 prospect in the Class of 2016 coming out of Fayetteville, Ark. with offers from the likes of Tulsa, Rice and Dayton. Vandy and Minnesota were his two high-major offers.

After being ranked in the top-15, Minnesota was beset by injury and suspensions last season as they limped to the finish line in a 15-17 season that featured losses in 12 of its last 13 games.

Richard Pitino still has two available scholarships for the 2018-19 campaign.

Report: Quade Green returning to Kentucky

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John Calipari just landed a critical recruit for 2018-19, and he was already on the roster.

Quade Green, who averaged 25 minutes per game last season, is returning to Kentucky for his sophomore season, his mother told the Lexington Herald-Leader on Monday.

Given that six Wildcat players have entered the draft (Kevin Knox, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Hami Diallo are signing with agents), getting the 6-foot point guard back for a second season is a massive deal for Calipari and Co. The Wildcats have always been at their best under Calipari with returning players as the cornerstones of the roster with talented one-and-dones providing the extra boost. Getting one such returner at the point guard position is even more critical.

Green, who came to Kentucky as a five-star recruit last year, averaged 9.3 points and 2.7 assists per game while shooting 45.1 percent from the field and a respectable 37.1 percent from 3-point range, an area where Kentucky continually needs help.

With Green back in the fold, Kentucky will now await the decisions of PJ Washington, Wenyen Gabriel and Jarred Vanderbilt, who are all going through the pre-draft process without hiring agents, which will potentially allow them to return to school and bolster a Kentucky roster has the look of a top-five team.

CBT Podcast: NBA Draft Early Entry Deadline: Winners, losers and who has the most on the line?

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The NBA Draft Early Entry Deadline came and went on Sunday night, meaning there are now roughly 60 college players that have signed with an agent and another 100 or so that have declared for the draft while retaining their college eligibility. Who were the winners? Who were the losers? Who has the most on the line? Sam Vecenie of the Game Theory podcast joined Rob Dauster to talk through all of it. The rundown:

OPEN: What do NBA teams value in players these days?

10:00: Villanova has more on the line during this testing the water process than anyone

19:00: Just how important was De’Andre Hunter’s decision to return to Virginia

25:25: Gonzaga getting Rui and Killian Tillie back makes them a title favorite

32:10: Nevada has a top ten season on the line with the Martin twins and Jordan Caroline

36:15: #RANTALERT – The decision to turn pro is so much more complicated than “is he a first round pick”

48:30: Rapid fire: Maryland, Kansas, Syracuse, Nebraska, Purdue and Michigan. What do they have on the line?