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ACC Season Preview: Power rankings, Preseason Awards and why Louisville will win the league

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Beginning in October and running up until November 6th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2019-20 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the ACC.



We are kicking off our conference previews with the ACC.

Duke, North Carolina and Virginia all figure to finish in the top four once again.

But it’s the Atlantic Coast’s Kentucky resident that looks, on paper, like the favorite to win the league.

And there’s a team out in Indiana that you’ll want to keep an eye on as well.

Let’s dive into the ACC.

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FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW

1. JORDAN NWORA IS BACK SO LOUISVILLE IS AWESOME

The single most important thing that happened during the early entry period this past May was that Jordan Nwora made the decision to withdraw from the 2019 NBA Draft and return to Louisville. The 6-foot-7 junior is coming off of a season where he averaged 17.0 points and 7.6 boards and shot 37.6 percent from three. After spending some time during the offseason playing with the Nigerian national team, he is in line for a blow-up season.

Nwora plays a role that has proven to be very productive for Chris Mack in the past. When Trevon Bluiett was at Xavier, he scored 2,261 points in four seasons, the latter of which culminated in Xavier winning the Big East regular season title and entering the NCAA tournament as a No. 1 seed. And like Bluiett, Nwora is a shot-making small forward that has the size to defend at the four spot while needing to add some athleticism and explosiveness to reach his ceiling.

Getting him back is huge, and it means that now the most important spot on the floor for the Cardinals is going to be at the point. In theory, St. Joe’s grad transfer Fresh Kimble should step into the starting role, but during the summer, freshman David Johnson really impressed. The problem? Johnson has a shoulder injury and looks like he is going to end up being out for a while.

There’s no doubting anything else on this roster. They are talented, they are deep, they have a terrific blend of exciting young talent and quality veteran players. As long as the point guard situation sorts itself out by March, there is going to be a very real chance Louisville gets to a Final Four.

MORE: NBC Sports Preseason Top 25 | All-Americans

Mamadi Diakite (Getty Images)

2. THE REIGNING CHAMPS ARE GOING TO HAVE A VERY VILLANOVA FEEL

Virginia is going to be dealing with the same things that Villanova dealt with last season. After making a memorable run to a national title, the Wahoos lost some pieces they didn’t necessarily expect to lose. For a program that doesn’t reload with grad transfers and freshmen every year, this is a concern.

Tony Bennett knew that he was going to have to find a way to build without De’Andre Hunter – that’s why Braxton Key was brought in last summer – but he did not expect to lose both Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy as well. Jay Wright found himself in the same boat last season, when the departure of Omari Spellman and Donte DiVincenzo a year earlier than expected meant that freshmen were going to be asked to play a much bigger role.

I’m not too worried about Virginia’s frontcourt. In fact, I think the trio of Key, Mamadi Diakite and Jay Huff will be the best part about Virginia’s team this season. Where the concern is lays with Kihei Clark, who is going to be asked to carry a much bigger load this year, and the players that will be asked to fill the minutes vacated by Guy and Jerome.

In the big picture, Virginia is going to be fine. But fine probably means we’re talking about a team that is destined to end up somewhere around a No. 4 or No. 5 seed on Selection Sunday as opposed to a favorite to win the national title.

3. IT’S COLE ANTHONY SZN

You’d be hard-pressed to find a freshman that is a better fit with the way that a program wants to play than Cole Anthony’s fit at North Carolina. For the most part, North Carolina’s best teams have all featured a fast point guard that can put up points in a hurry. Ray Felton, Ty Lawson, Marcus Paige, Joel Berry, Coby White. Anthony fits that mold better than anyone, and it seems like a certified lock that he will end up averaging something along the lines of 20 points and six assists.

He’s going to be terrific, and I think that the rest of the new pieces that Roy Williams will have at his disposal – Armando Bacot, Christian Keeling, Justin Pierce, etc. – will be impact players as well.

My concern, however, is that it has been a long time since a high-volume one-and-done lead guard has had a lot of success winning games in the college ranks. Trae Young, Markelle Fultz, Dennis Smith Jr., Malik Newman, D’angelo Russell, Austin Rivers. Anthony might end up being better than the rest of those guys, and playing the point at North Carolina is different than playing for Washington, Oklahoma or Mississippi State, but that is still a trend that can be a bit worrying.

4. DUKE RELOADED AGAIN

I know, this is shocking news, but Duke once again has one of the best recruiting classes in the country. They lost their big three, but Tre Jones opted to return to school to play with the likes of Vernon Carey, Matthew Hurt, Wendell Moore and Cassius Stanley.

I have a lot of thoughts on this Duke team. They can be found in this column.

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5. NOTRE DAME IS THE BEST OF THE REST

I am all the way in on the Irish as the sleeper in the ACC this year. First and foremost, this is as old as they have been in a long time. John Mooney and Temple Gibbs are seniors, Juwan Durham and Nikola Drogo are redshirt juniors and Rex Pfleuger will be back for his fifth-year after getting a medical redshirt for last season.

More importantly, last year’s freshmen class all returns for their sophomore season. Prentiss Hubb, Dane Goodwin and Nate Laszewski all had promising first years, while Robby Carmody should be healthy this year. Mike Brey is at his best when he can get old, and he has a team that is old and talented this season.

PRESEASON ACC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: JORDAN NWORA, Louisville

I think Louisville is going to end up being the best team in the ACC this season, and the biggest reason for that was Nwora’s decision to return to school after declaring for the the NBA draft. At 6-foot-7, he is precisely the kind of big wing that will thrive playing under Chris Mack – he can handle himself playing the four defensively while being the kind of shooter and scorer that gives opposing head coaches ulcers when they think about how to slow him down with a bigger defender.

Nwora was certainly helped this offseason when he was awarded the chance to play with the Nigerian national team, and if he shows improvement in his explosiveness and mobility on the perimeter, we’ll be talking about him as a first round pick come June.

THE REST OF THE ALL-ACC FIRST TEAM

  • TRE JONES, Duke: Jones is going to be the leader for this Duke team, and he’s going to be able to provide the kind of defensive intensity that will set a tone for this roster. Can he be a shooter this season?
  • COLE ANTHONY, North Carolina: Anthony is going to end up being the most productive freshman in the country this season. His efficiency is going to determine just how good the Tar Heels are as a team.
  • MAMADI DIAKITE, Virginia: I think Diakite will have a chance to be one of the most improved players in the country this season. He was terrific during last year’s run to the national title, and he’s not only a defensive anchor but a guy who has more offensive versatility than you might realize.
  • VERNON CAREY, Duke: The odds-on favorite to lead the Blue Devils in both scoring and rebounding this season. He’s a low-post bruiser that will dominate opponents on the block.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW

  • CHRIS LYKES, Miami
  • MARKELL JOHNSON, N.C. State
  • DWAYNE SUTTON, Louisville
  • VERNON CAREY, Duke
  • JAY HUFF, Virginia

BREAKOUT STAR: Jay Huff, Virginia

There are a number of guys on this Virginia roster that are going to be in line for more minutes, more shots and, yes, more production after the Wahoos lost De’Andre Hunter, Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome to the NBA this offseason. I think Mamadi Diakite has a big year and I think Braxton Key has a big year, but for my money it’s Jay Huff that is going to be the name that everyone starts talking about by the time ACC play gets into full swing.

Here’s the thing about Huff. He’s a solid defensive presence, good enough that he’ll be just fine in Virginia’s defense alongside Diakite, but it’s what he can provide on the offensive end of the floor that is so intriguing. He shot 45.2% from three last season, which makes him a pick-and-pop nightmare, but his length and athleticism at 7-foot-1 means he is as good as anyone in the country when it comes to rolling to the rim. I think he’ll be a first round pick in June.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Josh Pastner, Georgia Tech

Pastner is not winning with Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets have not made an NCAA tournament in three seasons with him at the helm, and their best finish in ACC play came in Pastner’s first year, when they went 8-10 in the league. That’s problematic, but not as problematic as the fact that the program is banned from 2020 NCAA Tournaments and is curently facing recruiting sanctions that are harsh enough that it will be difficult for them to find a way into the event any time in the near future.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING …

It’s incredible that it only took two seasons for Chris Mack to make Louisville the best team in the ACC.

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT …

The nerdy side of me is the most excited about seeing how Virginia opts to run their offense this season now that they have lost three NBA players, while the normal side of me cannot wait to see who Cole Anthony dunks on this year.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR

  • 11/5, No. 3 Kansas vs. No. 6 Duke (Champions Classic)
  • 12/3, No. 6 Duke at No. 1 Michigan State
  • 12/10, No. 4 Louisville vs. No. 11 Texas Tech (MSG)
  • 12/18, No. 14 North Carolina at No. 8 Gonzaga
  • 12/28, No. 4 Louisville at no. 2 Kentucky
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PREDICTED FINISH

1. LOUISVILLE: Getting Jordan Nwora back from the NBA draft was the single most impactful decision that happened during the early entry period. He’ll be an All-American on a team with a really nice balance of talent, youth, size and and perimeter play. If Fresh Kimble can make the point guard spot his, or if David Johnson can get healthy and take over the position, Louisville is looking like the best national title contender in the conference.

2. DUKE: I’ve talked about this ad nauseum at this point, but I am very concerned about Duke’s roster makeup. I have a hard time seeing how the Blue Devils are going to field lineups that can both space the floor and defend. They have the talent to win a lot of games regardless of what happens, and their ceiling is high if someone like Tre Jones puts it all together, but I’m not as sold on them as I am Louisville.

3. VIRGINIA: Virginia’s bigs are going to be awesome. We have talked about this plenty during the offseason. Where I am concerned is with their guard play. Can Kihei Clark make the leap that we saw London Perrantes and Ty Jerome make as sophomores? Will Casey Morsell be able to step in and play as a freshman? Just how good will Tomas Woldetensae be in his first season on campus?

4. NORTH CAROLINA: I love Cole Anthony, and I fully believe he is going to have a massive freshman season. I am also in on the idea that the grad transfers they are bringing it will make a major difference. But I do think that their reliance on unproven pieces is going to be something that has a bigger impact that people realize. UNC’s floor is the lowest of the top four teams.

5. NOTRE DAME: I think the Fighting Irish will end up being a top 25 team at some point this season. Rex Pfleuger is back and he should be healthy by the start of the season. He’ll be joined by fellow seniors Temple Gibbs and John Mooney, which, when combined with redshirt juniors Juwan Durham Nikola Djogo, give the Irish an old team, which Mike Brey thrives with. Then toss in the fact that last year’s excellent freshmen class is now a year older, and Notre Dame is my bet to be the best team in the ACC outside the big four.

6. N.C. STATE: We were all the way in on N.C. State last season, and it makes sense to be back in on them this year. Kevin Keatts is at his best when he has a roster loaded with backcourt talent, and that will be the case once again this season; basically everyone is back. Markell Johnson, Braxton Beverly, C.J. Bryce, Devon Daniels. Now as long as they play someone – anyone – in non-conference play this season, the Pack should be heading to the NCAA tournament.

7. FLORIDA STATE: Losing Terance Mann’s leadership is a blow, and the versatility of what Mfiondu Kabengele brought to the program won’t be easily replaced. There are also some question marks about what is going on at the point guard spot. But I do think that Trent Forrest and M.J. Walker are in for big years, and if that happens, the Seminoles have top 25 upside.

8. MIAMI: The NCAA scandal that was hanging over the program did not help the Hurricanes, and losing three seniors from last year’s roster – not to mention the fact that Dewan Hernandez was forced to turn pro – certainly won’t, either. But Chris Lykes is back and in line for a big season while Kameron McGusty is eligible and Keith Stone is (hopefully) going to be healthy. I am bullish on the ‘Canes.

9. CLEMSON: The Tigers missed their window. They lose Marcquise Reed, Shelton Mitchell, Elijah Thomas and David Skara. Tevin Mack and Curran Scott are interesting pieces, and Aamir Simms is, in theory, the kind of player that should thrive under Brad Brownell.

10. SYRACUSE: The Orange just lose so much off of last year’s roster. Tyus Battle, Frank Howard, Oshae Brissett, Paschal Chukwu. The problem they’re dealing with now is that their best defensive lineups won’t have the shot-making of Battle to bail them out and their best offensive lineups, the ones with Buddy Boeheim, Joe Girard and the like, won’t be as good defensively. I think that their ceiling will be determined by just how good Eli Hughes and Jalen Carey become.

11. VIRGINIA TECH: It’s a new era in Blacksburg. Mike Young replaces Buzz Williams while Justin Robinsin, Kerry Blackshear Jr. and Nickeil Alexander-Walker are all gone. Wabissa Bede is back, Landers Nolley II is eligible and Young can really coach, but there is going to be a learning curve.

12. GEORGIA TECH: In theory, this is a team we should like. They bring back a sneaky 1-2 punch in Jose Alvarado and James Banks, and the sophomore version of Michael Devoe should be a bit better. But they won’t be taking part in this year’s NCAA tournament, and it’s hard to imagine them really getting better without anything to fight for.

13. BOSTON COLLEGE: The Eagles went 5-13 in ACC play last season, and that was with Ky Bowman in school and Wynston Tabbs on the floor. Now, Bowman is in the professional ranks and Tabbs is out for the year. BC missed their window when both Bowman and Jerome Robinson were on the roster.

14. PITT: Pitt started ACC play last season by beating both Louisville and Florida State in the first two weeks. Then they proceeded to reel off 13 straight losses. At least Xavier Johnson and Trey McGowens are interesting players.

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. The only reason he wasn’t listed as the ACC coach under the most pressure is that Josh Pastner got himself on the wrong side of the NCAA.

John Petty Jr. returns to Alabama for senior season

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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Alabama guard John Petty Jr. is staying in school instead of entering the NBA draft.

The Crimson Tide junior announced his decision to return for his senior season Monday on Twitter, proclaiming: “I’m back.”

Petty, the Tide’s top 3-point shooter, averaged 14.5 points and a team-high 6.6 rebounds rebounds last season. He was second on the team in assists.

Petty made 85 3-pointers in 29 games, shooting at a 44% clip.

Alabama coach Nate Oats called him “one of the best, if not the best, shooters in the country.”

“He’s made it clear that it’s his goal to become a first round pick in the 2021 NBA Draft and we’re going to work with him to make sure he’s in the best position to reach that goal,” Oats said.

Fellow Tide guard Kira Lewis Jr. is regarded as a likely first-round draft pick.

McKinley Wright IV returns to Colorado

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McKinley Wright IV will be back for season No. 4 with the Colorado Buffaloes.

The point guard tested the NBA draft process before announcing a return for his senior year. It’s a big boost for a Buffaloes team that’s coming off a 21-11 mark in 2019-20 and was potentially looking at an NCAA Tournament bid before the season was halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Wright was an All-Pac-12 first team selection a season ago, along with an all-defensive team pick. He and athletic forward Tyler Bey declared for the draft in late March. Bey remains in the draft.

“We’ve got unfinished business,” said Wright, who averaged 14.4 points and 5.0 assists per game last season.

Midway through the season, the Buffaloes were looking like a lock for their first NCAA Tournament appearance since ’15-16. Then, the team hit a five-game skid, including a loss to Washington State in the Pac-12 tournament. Simply put, they hit a defensive rut they just couldn’t shake out of, Wright said. It drove him to work that much harder in the offseason.

“This is my last go-around and I’ve got big dreams,” the 6-footer from Minnesota said. “I want to take CU to a place they haven’t been in a while. We want to go back to the tournament and win high-level games.”

The feedback from NBA scouts was reaffirming for Wright. He said they appreciated his transition game, movement away from the ball and his defensive intangibles. They also gave Wright areas he needed to shore up such as assist-to-turnover ratio and shooting the 3-pointer with more consistency.

He took it to heart while training in Arizona during the pandemic. He recently returned to Boulder, Colorado, where he’s going through quarantine before joining his teammates for workouts.

“The work I put in and the time I spent in the gym compared to all my other offseasons, it’s a big gap,” Wright said. “Last offseason, I thought I worked hard. But it was nothing compared to the time and different type of mindset I put myself in this year.”

Another motivating factor for his return was this: a chance to be the first in his family to earn his college degree. He’s majoring in ethnic studies with a minor in communications.

“My grandparents are excited about that. My parents are excited about that,” Wright said. “I’m excited about that as well.”

Wright also has an opportunity to take over the top spot on the school’s all-time assists list. His 501 career assists trail only Jay Humphries, who had 562 from 1980-84. Wright also ranks 13th all-time with 1,370 career points.

NOTES: Colorado announced the death of 95-year-old fan Betty Hoover, who along with her twin sister, Peggy Coppom, became fixtures at Buffs sporting events and were season ticket holders since 1958. Wright used to run into them not only on the court, but at the local bank. “I’ve never met anyone as loving and supporting and caring as those two,” Wright said. “They hold a special place in my heart. It sucks that Betty won’t be at any games this year. Maybe we can do something, put her name on our jersey. They’re two of the biggest fans in CU history.”

Jared Butler returns to Baylor

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Baylor got some huge news on Monday as potential All-American Jared Butler announced that he will be returning to school for his junior season, joining MaCio Teague is pulling his name out of the 2020 NBA Draft to get the band back together.

Butler was Baylor’s leading scorer a season ago, averaging 16.0 points and 3.1 assists for a team that went 26-4, spent a portion of the season as the No. 1 team in the country and was in line to receive a 1-seed had the 2020 NCAA Tournament taken place.

With Butler and Teague coming back to school, the Bears will return four starters from last season’s squad. Starting center Freddie Gillespie is gone, as is backup guard Devonte Bandoo, but those are holes that can be filled. Tristan Clark, who was Baylor’s best player during the 2018-19 season before suffering a knee injury that lingered through last year, will be back, and there is more than enough talent in the program to replace the scoring pop of Bandoo. Matthew Mayer will be in line for more minutes, while transfer Adam Flagler will be eligible this season.

Baylor will enter this season as a consensus top three team in the country. They will receive plenty of votes as the No. 1 team in the sport, making them not only a very real contender for the Big 12 regular season crown but one of the favorites to win the national title.

Preseason Top 25 | Mock Draft 3.0 | Early Entry Tracker

As MaCio Teague returns, Baylor now awaits Jared Butler’s NBA draft decision

Butler is the key.

Baylor was one of college basketball’s best defensive teams last year. They finished fourth nationally in KenPom’s defensive efficiency metric, a ranking that dropped after they Bears lost two of their last three games to TCU and West Virginia. Where they struggled was on the offensive end of the floor. The Bears would go through droughts were points were at a premium and their best offense was a missed shot. Butler’s intrigue for NBA teams was his ability to shoot and to create space in isolation. He’s the one guy on the roster that can create something out of nothing for himself.

And now he is back to try and lead Baylor to a Final Four.

Arizona State’s Martin to return for senior season

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TEMPE, Ariz. (–Arizona State guard Remy Martin is withdrawing from the NBA draft and will return for his senior season in the desert.

“I’m blessed to have the opportunity to coach Remy Martin for one more season,” Sun Devils coach Bobby Hurley said in a statement Sunday. “Remy will be one of the best players in college basketball this year and will be on a mission to lead Arizona State basketball in its pursuit of championships.”

A 6-foot guard, Martin is the Pac-12’s leading returning scorer after averaging 19.1 points in 2019-20. He also averaged 4.1 assists per game and helped put the Sun Devils in position to reach the NCAA Tournament for the third straight year before the season was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Martin’s return should put Arizona State among the favorites to win the Pac-12 next season.

Martin joins fellow guard Alonzo Verge Jr. in returning to the Sun Devils after testing the NBA waters. Big man Romello White declared for the draft and later entered the transfer portal.

Hurley has signed one of the program’s best recruiting classes for next season, headed by five-star guard Josh Christopher.

Michigan State forward Xavier Tillman will remain in the 2020 NBA Draft

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In the end, Xavier Tillman Sr.’s decision whether or not to return to remain in the 2020 NBA Draft for his senior season came down to security.

A 6-foot-8 forward that averaged 13.7 points, 10.3 boards, 3.0 assists and 2.1 blocks this past season, Tillman was an NBC Sports third-team All-American a season ago. He’s projected as the No. 23 pick in the latest NBC Sports mock draft. He was the best NBA prospect that had yet to make a decision on his future until Sunday.

That’s when Tillman announced that he will be foregoing his final season of college eligibility to head to the NBA.

In the end, it’s probably the right decision, but it’s not one that the big fella made easily.

Tillman is unlike most college basketball players forced to make a decision on their basketball future. He is married. He has two kids, a three-year old daughter and a six-month old son. This is not a situation where he can bet on himself, head to the pro ranks and figure it out later on.

Preseason Top 25 | Mock Draft 3.0 | Early Entry Tracker

He needs something stable, particularly given the fact that we are living in the midst of a pandemic that has put the future of sports in doubt, at least for the short term.

He needs security.

He needed to know that there would be a job for him in the NBA. Not a two-way contract. Not a spot on a camp roster or a chance to develop in the G League. Hell, there might not even be a G League next season. That was an option at Michigan State. He was living in an apartment with his family that was covered by his scholarship and stipend. He had meals paid for. He was able to take food from the training room home and have dinner with his family. He was able to get to class, to the gym, to practice and back home in time to do the dishes at night. He told NBC Sports in March that the school was able to provide him with $1,200-a-month to help pay for things like diapers high chairs. That was all going to be there if he returned to school. It was a great situation, one that lacked the uncertainty that comes with the professional level.

Because as much as I love Tillman as a role player at the next level, NBA teams do not all feel the same. The tricky thing about the draft is that it makes sense to swing for the fences on the guys that can be locked into salaries for the first four years of a contract. The Toronto Raptors took Pascal Siakam with the 27th pick and have paid less than $7 million in total salary in his first four years for a player that made an all-star team. Kyle Kuzma is averaging 16.0 points through three seasons and is on the books for $3.5 million in year four.

Tillman’s ability to defend, his basketball IQ, his play-making and his professional demeanor means that he can step into the modern NBA and do a job as a rotation player for just about any team in the league. But he doesn’t have the upside that other bigs in the same projected range have — Jalen Smith, Daniel Oturu, Jaden McDaniels, Zeke Nnaji — so there are teams that are scared off.

I don’t get it.

But Tillman’s decision to head to the professional ranks indicates that he does, indeed, feel confident in the fact that he will have gainful and steady employment next season. Since he would have walked at Michigan State’s graduation in May had it been held, that doesn’t leave much to return to school for.

The Spartans will now be left in a tough spot. There are quite a few pieces to like on this roster. Rocket Watts had promising moments as a freshman, as did Malik Hall. Gabe Brown and Marcus Bingham are both talented players. Joey Hauser had a good season at Marquette, and the early returns on freshman Mady Sissoko are promising. But this is going to be a young and unproven group.

Izzo has had less at his disposal before, but this is certainly not an ideal situation for Michigan State.