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CBB PREVIEW: ACC primed for deepest group yet, has crystal clear top echelon

The ACC has consistently been the best league in basketball since mass conference realignment struck the college athletics landscape in the early half of the 2010s. That’s no secret.

In some years, that dominance has been abundantly clear. In 2015-16, the ACC sent six of its teams to the second week of the NCAA Tournament, before going on to have its members comprise half of the Elite Eight, Final Four and National Championship rounds.

The league didn’t look that great a year ago. It still led the nation in tournament teams, with nine, for the third consecutive season. Aside from Duke’s Elite Eight run and surprise second-weekend trips by No. 9 seed Florida State and No. 11 seed Syracuse, though, the league didn’t make too much noise.

But to this day, the best year of any conference — in terms of top-to-bottom quality — is the 2011 Big East. A quick breakdown:

• All-time record 11 tournament bids
• Not a single one of them had to play a play-in game
• of them were seeded no lower than No. 6
• teams in final AP Top 25, in the Top 15
• 2011 Big East and National Champion Connecticut was the league’s No. 9 Seed

Real quick, for perspective on that last one — last year, the major conference’s No. 9 seeds were as follows: Louisville, St. John’s, Wisconsin, Oklahoma, Arizona State and Alabama. None of them won more than one NCAA Tournament game, and argument could be made that none of them deserved to make it.

I don’t agree with that argument on any of the three cases — referring to OU, ASU, and ‘Bama. But it’s been made. It’s been made plenty. 

Continuing…

That edition of the Big East didn’t have major success once late-March rolled around, but the kind of depth — eleven tournament teams — is incredible.

And there’s a chance it will be matched, if not exceeded, by the 2018-19 ACC.

For starters, there are really only three teams in this year’s ACC that are truly elite. Theres really only another three or four that truly feel like likely picks to be playing in March.

But there are 13 — sorry, Pittsburgh and Georgia Tech — for which there is a legitimate NCAA Tournament. There’s no way 13 ACC teams make it, because there’s no way 13 ACC teams win at least a bare-minimum eight conference games, but 10 or 11 is still quite possible.

So, let’s take a quick look at each, and how they end up in the NCAA Tournament.

PRESEASON ACC RANKINGS

1. DUKE: You’ve heard enough about Duke. They’ve got some great freshmen. They’re going to be extremely talent. Zion Williamson is the third best player on this team. You can take this to the bank, though — they will not win it all. Think 2014-15 Kentucky, but with a few more than zero losses, because this is the ACC, and that was an SEC that would be mid-major quality without that Wildcats team.

Duke makes the tournament if Durham, North Carolina doesn’t blow up.

2. NORTH CAROLINA: Freshman wing Nassir Little might be the best newcomer in the ACC — if not the country — and Luke Maye might be the best senior. Throw in another five-star freshman (Coby White) and have him join juniors Seventh Woods and Brandon Robinson in the backcourt, and you’ve got a classic UNC team.

North Carolina makes the tournament if Chapel Hill, North Carolina also doesn’t blow up.

3. VIRGINIA: Tony Bennett’s got the horses again, and they’ve got a whole lot of people to shut up after last year’s March embarrassment. Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome make up one of the best backcourts in the ACC, and get back wing De’Andre Hunter who had a breakout season last year as a redshirt freshman. The Cavaliers didn’t add much, but that core, combined with redshirt senior center Jack Salt, will do damage this season.

Virginia makes the tournament if — I’m not going to say it again, you get the idea.

4. SYRACUSE: Few teams in the country — and none in the ACC — return as much production as Syracuse does. The Orange looked pretty bad at times last year, but had next to no legitimate experience on its roster, and still made the Sweet 16. A talented quintet of newcomers — featuring freshman point guard Jalen Carey and transfer wing Eli Hughes — has the chance to bring the Orange back to an elite level when it joins forces with Tyus Battle, O’Shae Brissett, and the ACC’s only fully-intact starting five.

Syracuse makes the tournament if Tyus Battle and O’Shae Brissett stay healthy.

Notice anything there? The league’s four best coaches — by a long shot — are set to have the league’s four best teams this year. That’s a tantalizing prospect. 

5. VIRGINIA TECH: The Hokies will spend most of the season battling with Syracuse for that last position among the four ACC Tournament double-byes. Virginia Tech has slowly been putting it together in Buzz Williams’ first four seasons in Blacksburg, and this should be his best team yet. The loss of Justin Bibbs is a tough one, but Justin RobinsonChris ClarkeTy Outlaw and Ahmed Hill comprise a four-man senior class ready to go out on a high note. Expect guards Wabissa Bede and Nickeil Alexander-Walker to both take steps forward as sophomores.

Virginia Tech makes the tournament if Justin Robinson shoots like Justin Bibbs.

6. CLEMSON: The world will never get to know what Clemson could have been if talented seniors Gabe DeVoe and Donte Grantham had an entire final season together. The Tigers reached the Sweet 16 in 2017-18 without Grantham, and while Clemson fans would love to have seen him take the team further, the way they performed without him down the stretch is an encouragement. Redshirt senior guards Marcquise Reed and Shelton Mitchell will be Clemson’s go-to scorers, and forward Elijah Davis will be a quality third option, but the Tigers will need a couple of their nine freshmen and sophomores to take a step in order to live up to last year’s raising of the bar.

Clemson makes the tournament if Marcquise Reed takes the next step.

7. FLORIDA STATE: The Seminoles only lost one key piece from a team that stunningly reached the Elite Eight as a No. 9 seed, in guard Braian Angola. As a result, this is the final year for a class of Phil Cofer, Terrence Mann, Christ Koumadje and P.J. Savoy that has seen a decent amount of success in Tallahassee. For how long this core has been intact, we’ve yet to see it truly flourish, so it’s hard to book this team as any kind of contender, but if Florida State’s going to be special any time in the foreseeable future, it’s now.

Florida State makes the tournament if its seniors play like seniors.

8. LOUISVILLE: Last year was rough for the Cardinals. Chris Mack should be able to change that; maybe it’ll take longer than a year, but Louisville should at least take a step or two back to its normal self in 2018-19. For this team, it’ll be all about the grad transfers; the Cardinals ended up with zero signees in the 2018 class, but added Christen Cunningham (Samford), Akoy Agau (SMU) and Khawn Fore (Richmond) as their only seniors with Division I playing experience. This team has the talent, and the coach, but, it’ll take rapid cohesion of three transfers, and a step up from juniors like Ryan McMahon and V.J. King in order for Louisville to make sure it’s dancing.

Louisville makes the tournament if its newcomers don’t play newcomers all season.

9. NC STATE: The Wolf Pack lost plenty from a team that earned a No. 8 seed a year ago. Just from the graduations of Allerik Freeman and Sam Hunt, and Omer Yurtseven’s transfer to Georgetown, NC State lost 43 percent of its 2017-18 scoring. The keys to a return to the dance this season start in the backcourt, with sparky sophomore Braxton Beverly and the leadership of redshirt senior Torin Dorn; the two combined for 23.4 points per game last season. The question marks lie in the frontcourt, as NC State returns a grand total of 0.0 minutes among its big men. The Wolf Pack added three freshmen of 6-foot-7 or taller, and welcome Wyatt Walker, a grad transfer from Samford, but, yeah, the guards are going to have to carry NC State to the tournament.

NC State makes the tournament if its big men grow up (figuratively speaking).

10. MIAMI: With guards Ja’Quan NewtonLonnie Walker IV and Bruce Brown no longer around in Coral Gables, the Hurricanes will be looking to last year’s role-player guards for production this season. Miami’s only returning double-digit scorer will be 6-foot-11 junior forward Dewan Hernandez, but guards Chris Lykes and Dejan Vasiljevic proved plenty in 2017-18 as backups, averaging a combined 18.6 points. The 5-foot-7 Lykes will likely run the point, with Vasiljevic, a sharpshooter who went 41 percent from deep a year ago, playing off the ball. That core trio can certainly keep Miami on the right side of a busy bubble in 2018-19.

Miami makes the tournament if Lykes and Vasiljevic ball out.

11. NOTRE DAME: No more Bonzie Colson and Matt Farrell in South Bend. but the Fighting Irish will still have plenty of talent. Notre Dame added four four-stars from the 2018 class, including electric DMV product Prentiss Hubb, who will likely back up Rex Pfleuger and T.J. Gibbs this season. Notre Dame won’t have much experience in the frontcourt, but 6-foot-11 junior John Mooney and 6-foot-8 senior Elijah Burns should be able to hold down the paint if they take the right step forward after coming off the bench last year.

Notre Dame makes the tournament if no one gets injured again… and Pfleuger and Gibbs become the leaders that Farrell and Colson once were.

12. BOSTON COLLEGE: Jerome Robinson and his 20.7 points per game are gone, but junior Ky Bowman has the chance to be one of the ACC’s best guards, and has been pegged as a sneaky All-American candidate. As a sophomore, Bowman averaged 17.6 points, 6.8 rebounds and 4.7 assists, while shooting 42 percent from the field. He’s going to be the focus of the Eagle’s offense in 2018-19, but if he explodes this season, and guys like Jordan Chatman and Nik Popovic take the next step, BC could be an outside tournament team.

Ky Bowman makes the tournament if he lives up to the hype.

13. WAKE FOREST: I’m going to be honest, last year was the year for Wake Forest, but the future is bright with a Top-25 recruiting class on its way in. With four of their top-five scorers — Mitchell WilbekinDoral MooreBryant Crawford and Keyshawn Woods all out the door, it’s hard to see the Demon Deacons making much noise in a loaded ACC, but there are still some quality pieces in Winston-Salem, starting with sophomore guard Brandon Childress and five-star freshman wing Jaylen Hoard. If Childress takes a big step, Hoard lives up to expectation, and secondary pieces like Top-100 forward Isaiah Mucius and sophomore guard Chaundee Brown ball out, Wake could be a fun bubble dark horse.

Wake Forest makes the tournament if its freshman go crazy.

14. GEORGIA TECH: The loss of Josh Okogie takes away a lot of what made Georgia Tech competitive last year. The losses of Ben Lammers and Tadric Jackson pretty much take away the rest of it. The Yellow Jackets return one player who averaged more than six points last year, Jose Alvarado (12.1 ppg), and add a decent recruiting class, but other than a couple of upsets and home wins over the ACC’s bottom-tier, it’s hard to see Georgia Tech picking up too many victories in league this season. Kind of like Wake, last year was the year.

Georgia Tech makes the tournament if Josh Okogie comes back to college.

Okay. One more.

A little further down…

Almost there…

15. PITTSBURGH: Pitt hasn’t won a conference regular season game since February 18, 2017. The Panthers lost three of the top four scorers from a team that went 8-24 (0-18 ACC). Jeff Capel, essentially, put on a fire-retardant suit, picked up a fire extinguisher and walked directly into a dumpster engulfed in flames. He’s going to need a little time to put it out.

Pittsburgh makes the tournament if pigs fly.

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