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
Jon Lopez/Nike

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.