The 2015-2016 version of the ACC could be the strongest ever, with, depending on where you look, anywhere from 8-10 teams expected to make the field. The ACC returns a lot of players from last year, and also brings in several top rated freshmen and recruiting classes. With the regular season starting tomorrow night for most teams we take a look at the preseason ACC Power Rankings.
National Title Contenders
North Carolina is a clear-cut number one here in my (and most of the opinions of the media as well). They are the co-AP No.1 team in the country, and are the favorite to win the ACC regular season. Coach Roy Williams returns Marcus Paige, Justin Jackson, Brice Johnson, and Kennedy Meeks. Although UNC has the 10th rated recruiting class for 2015, they fill a need in a shooter with Kenny Williams, and also have power forward Luke Maye to bang inside as well. This is a well-rounded team, and once Paige is back to full health will be a force to be reckoned with in the ACC and national scene.
The Cavaliers are coming off of a 30-4 season that ended in disappointed fashion to UNC in the semis of the ACC Tournament, and to Michigan State in the 2nd round of the Big Dance. Although the Cavaliers lose Justin Anderson (now with the Dallas Mavericks), and Darion Atkins, Malcolm Brogdon and London Perrantes are still there for Coach Tony Bennett. Virginia and Duke should battle it all year with North Carolina for the best team in the conference, and like the Tar Heels, the Cavs are a legitimate national title contender with their rock solid packline defense and efficiency on both ends of the court.
The defending national champions come in third in the initial power rankings. Coach K lost WInsloe and Okafor, but as he always does, reloaded with a ridiculous class (No.1 in the country) that features three 5-star recruits in: Chase Jeter, Brandon Ingram, and Derryck Thornton. Ingram in particular is a stud freshman who will likely terrorize the conference for a year. They also return Grayson Allen, a player that most expect to be one of the most improved in the country. along with the 9th Plumlee brother, Amile Jefferson, and Matt Jones. Once the freshmen start clicking I expect Duke to be a threat on the national stage, and let's face it, you Duke is always a national title contender.
Teams That Could Make Noise In Tournament
Notre Dame is coming off a season in which they nearly became the darling of the NCAA Tournament in a close loss to undefeated Kentucky in the Elite Eight. The Irish lose a lot, as Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton are now in the NBA, but they also return key player in Steve Vasturia, Zach Auguste, Demetrius Jackson, as well as bench players who will now be expected to play a bigger role, especially Bonzie Colson. One thing to take note of for the Irish is the benefit that they will receive as the year goes on of "hands-free" defense. Their offense is one of the best in the nation, but relies upon freedom of movement, something the officials have made very clear they want to emphasize this season.
5. Miami Hurricanes
Jim Larranaga enters his fifth season (FIFTH ALREADY?!?!) as head coach of the Miami Hurricanes, and this could be a big year for his Hurricanes. His backcourt is one of the best in the ACC with Sheldon McClellan, Angel Rodriguez, and former Wake target Davon Reed. I have no idea how Rodriguez still has eligibility because it seems like he has been there for 8 years, but he is apparently still there. They also have big man Tony Jekiri inside, one of the better big men in the conference as well. The Canes have the 14th ranked recruiting class in the ACC according to 247Sports, but I think Larranaga has a proven track record of identifying and developing underrated talent.
Louisville has a lot going on right now. They are in the midst of one of the worst recruiting scandals in a while, and they also lost its four leading scorers from last year. What they do have is a hall-of-fame coach in Rick Pitino, arguably two of the better impact transfers in the country in Damion Lee (Drexel) and Trey Lewis (Cleveland State), and reasonable depth from a team that won 27 games and made an Elite Eight appearance. Never sleep on Pitino, assuming he is the coach for the entirety of the season. I would expect this Louisville team to be in and out of the top 25 throughout the year.
I am really high on Florida State, and I almost put them in the category above. They will start the season here, but I think they could move past Louisville and maybe Miami with good games early in the season. Devin Bookert, Montay Brandon, and Xavier Rathan-Mayes all return for the Noles, and are joined by freshman Dwayne Bacon, who highlights a No. 11 national recruiting class. I expect Leonard Hamilton to do big things with this team, and depending on how good Bacon is, could make some noise in the tournament.
8. N.C State Wolfpack
The Wolfpack are coming off of a bit of a surprise Sweet 16 appearance that ended in a loss to conference foe Louisville. Coach Mark Gottfried returns PG Cat Barber, Beejay Anya, The Martin Twins, and Abdul Malik-Abu (projected by many to be a breakout player in the league). The losses of Trevor Lacey and Ralston Turner could produce some early-season uncertainty and the Pack looks to replace the brunt of its scoring force, but I think the returning players, along with new additions Shaun Kirk and all-name candidate Maverick Rowan are up for the challenge.
Pittsburgh is another team with questions that I am pretty high on. Like Louisville, Pitt has a great coach in Jamie Dixon, and although 2015 yielded a 19-15 record, it is likely that this year will be a bounce back year. He added three graduate transfers to bring much needed depth and defense to his team, and also return Jamel Artis, Michael Young, and James Robinson, who will be the core of the offense. The defense last year was awful, and a soft OOC schedule covered up a team that wasn't as strong as it has been in the past.
10. Syracuse Orange
Syracuse joins Pitt and Louisville as teams with a lot of question marks and unknowns to start the year. it will be without head coach Jim Boeheim for the first 9 games of the ACC season, which could be problematic for several reasons. The Orange will have to figure out a way to replace big man Rakeem Christmas and Chris McCullough, who departed to the NBA. They do bring in the 4th rated recruiting class in the ACC (14th nationally) with four commits (all four starts), who will attempt to replace the production lost by the two NBA players. Michael Gbinje is probably one of the best players in the conference, and it will be interesting to see what to make of Cuse as they get into conference play.
Teams With Work To Do (to put it lightly)
Obviously with this being a Wake blog we know the most about the Deacs, but I think once the roster is back to full strength with Codi Miller-McIntyre and Cornelius Hudson that head Coach Danny Manning will have the team headed in the right direction. Senior Devin Thomas is likely to have a big year, and if he can control his emotions throughout the season has a chance to make All-ACC teams. The additions of three freshmen in Bryant Crawford, along with big men Doral Moore and John Collins will take some of the pressure off of Codi and Devin from a production standpoint. Mitchell Wilbekin and Dinos Mitglou will need to hit shots to clear up the lane. I think NIT is the ceiling for Wake Forest, but it's a move in the correct direction after several years of mediocrity (to put it nicely).
12. Clemson Tigers
A note for Clemson is that they will not be playing at home this season because of renovations to Littlejohn. Having been there twice, it can get pretty loud, and the stands are right on top of the court (especially in the upper section). When you couple lack of a home court with the loss of Rod Hall and Demarcus Harrison it is difficult to see the Tigers doing enough to move into the middle tier of the conference. They will rely heavily on Jaron Blossongame, who led the team in scoring and rebounding last year. An 11th ranked ACC recruiting class with Ty Hudson and Legend Robertin doesn't inspire much either, so it will be interesting to see what Coach Brownell can do in his 6th (seriously where does the time go?!?!) season.
The Yellow Jackets are looking to bounce back from a 3-15 ACC record, and head coach Brian Gregory has little to no wiggle room, as a lot of fans wanted him fired after last year. Tech returns Marcus Georges-Hunt and Charles Mitchell, and also get The Invisible Hand (Adam Smith, who played for UNC-W and Virginia Tech in prior stints), along with Alabama transfer Nick Jacobs. They do lose Chris Bolden, Demarco Cox and Robert Sampson, but like Wake I could see the one-two punch of Georges-Hunt and Mitchell taking the team up a little higher than most expect.
I really like Buzz Williams, and think he is going to do big things in Blacksburg, but it is still early in the "re-building" process for the Hokies. Justin Bibbs is still there, and Seth Allen will also help tremendously, but in a talent-laden ACC it is difficult to see the Hokies getting into the single digits of the power rankings. It could be another sub-.500 record for the Hokies and rough sledding in the stacked ACC.
The good news for Boston College is that they have one of the better grad transfers in the conference in Eli Carter (Florida). The bad news is just about everything else, as "do everything" guard Olivier Hanlan now plays for the Utah Jazz in the Association. Second year head coach Jim Christian will continue to prove that he belongs in the ACC, but the Eagles graduated a lot of players from a 13-19 (4-14) year last year. There is a five-man recruiting class coming in, but I'm not sure any of them will have the impact necessary to get Boston College out of the cellar in the ACC this year.
Surely there are things that readers will take umbrage with above, and that's why I write these articles. Leave a comment telling me why I'm wrong, or maybe even why I'm right, and we can continue to debate as the year goes along. I will attempt to do this weekly, but along with Bracketology that can prove to be lot of work each week. Either way, it will be intermittently updated and I look forward to seeing what everybody thinks!