UVA clear favorite as league embarks on already disrupted hoops season
Virginia’s game Nov. 27 against Florida was canceled. Duke and Miami saw their respective openers against Gardner-Webb and Stetson postponed. Evansville replaced Southern Illinois in Louisville’s nine-team bubble event.
Welcome to ACC basketball 2020-21, where the COVID-19 pandemic already is messing with the schedule. But virus notwithstanding, the season begins Wednesday, and how 2020 is this?
Duke, North Carolina State and Wake Forest are hosting multiteam events sponsored by Mako Medical, the North Carolina-based lab that processes the conference’s thirdparty COVID-19 tests.
UVA is scheduled to open Wednesday against Maine at the Bubbleville event in Uncasville, Conn., but the Cavaliers’ Friday game there against Florida is off because of virus issues in the Gators’ program. Event organizers are working to find a replacement opponent.
Amid that 24/7 uncertainty, here’s a team-by-team ACC assessment, in order of the conference’s media day poll.
N.C. State: With five veterans who started at least 15 games a year ago and seven newcomers capable of earning minutes, fourthyear coach Kevin Keatts may have his deepest team. Seniors D.J. Funderburk, Braxton Beverly and Devon Daniels are the core of a roster looking to improve upon back-to-back .500 ACC finishes.
Georgia Tech: Headlined by guards Michael Devoe and Jose Alvarado, the Yellow Jackets return five of the top six scorers from a squad that finished fifth in the league last season at 11-9. So why did we media knotheads collectively pick them ninth this year? The last time Georgia Tech had consecutive winning ACC seasons was 1988 and ’89 under Bobby Cremins.
Clemson: The Tigers return four starters from a squad that beat Florida State, Duke and Louisville, and Aamir Simms, their leading scorer, rebounder and 3-point shooter, is among the league’s most complete players. Toss in a top-25, three-man recruiting class and you have a team poised to better last season’s ninthplace finish.
Virginia Tech: The Hokies are older and bigger than last season, essential if they were to improve upon their 7-13 ACC record in Mike Young’s first year as coach. Transfers Cartier Diarra, Justyn Mutts, Cordell Pemsl and Keve Aluma teamed with veterans Wabissa Bede and Tyrece Radford make Tech a decent bet to exceed expectations.
Florida State: Few, if any, pro
12 grams regret the cancellation of NotreDame: Only a coach last season’s NCAA tournament with the brass, humor and more than the Seminoles. They’d job security of Mike Brey just won their first ACC regularwould, during a pandemic, schedule season title and were ranked fourth nationally. Just last week, Patrick Williams and Devin Vassell from that squad were NBA draft lottery picks. Acclaimed freshman Scottie Barnes and veterans such as M.J. Walker figure to keep FSU among the nation’s best.
Louisville: Already ticketed for prominence, Radford graduate transfer Carlik Jones likely will shoulder more responsibility early this season as teammates Malik Williams (foot) and Charles Minlend (knee) recover from injury. For pure entertainment value, check out Cardinals coach Chris Mack’s Twitter takedown of Kentucky counterpart John Calipari.
Syracuse: Orange coach Jim Boeheim spent his 76th birthday last week in isolation after testing positive for COVID-19. Since a second-place ACC debut in 201314, Syracuse has finished no better than tied for sixth and shaking that funk could well hinge on Boeheim’s son Buddy, a junior guard who’s the team’s top returning scorer at 15.3 points per game.
Miami: An upper-half finish felt more plausible before the Hurricanes lost Sam Waardenburg, their top rebounder in 2019-20, to a season-ending foot injury last month. Seven-foot Cincinnati transfer Nysier Brooks needs to help fill that void. Fearless at 5-foot-7, senior guard Chris Lykes is a treat to watch.
Virginia: Tony Bennett says his Cavaliers aren’t capable of winning with defense — yet. Does anyone doubt they’ll eventually morph into an elite D? Combine that with a more potent offense led by Marquette transfer Sam Hauser, Kihei Clark and Jay Huff, and you have the ACC preseason favorite. UVA’s 104-24 ACC record in the past seven seasons, by the way, is a dozen games better than anyone else (Duke is next).
Duke: The Blue Devils haven’t won or shared the regularseason title since their 2010 national championship year, the longest drought in Mike Krzyzewski’s four decades as coach, in large measure because the ACC grind is foreign to Duke’s perennially young rosters. This season’s squad also is green, but with forwards Wendell Moore, Matthew Hurt and Jalen Johnson, Duke will contend, as usual.
North Carolina: “You’re damn right I’m afraid of it,” Tar Heels coach Roy Williams said of COVID-19. Yet the 70-year-old Basketball Hall of Famer intends to continue working and make amends for last season’s 14-19 finish, the first losing record he’s experienced in 42 years of college coaching, 10 as a UNC assistant, 15 as Kansas’ head coach and 17 as the Tar Heels’ big whistle. Led by senior forward Garrison Brooks, bank on UNC returning to form.
nonconference games against Michigan State, Tennessee, Kentucky and Purdue— this in addition to an ACC-Big Ten Challenge test against Ohio State. Brey is determined to make whatever version of this season transpires memorable for a team led by guards Prentiss Hubb and Dane Goodwin.
Pittsburgh: If any program should welcome empty or near-empty opposing arenas, it’s the Panthers, 1-18 in ACC road tests in two years under Jeff Capel. Altering that trend hinges on improving the league’s worst 3-point shooting (29.6%) and veterans Xavier Johnson, Au’Diese Toney and Justin Champagnie (combined 145 career starts).
Boston College: Jim Christian says his Eagles are much better than this, and after six losing ACC records in as many years on his watch, he needs to be right. Guard Wynston Tobbs’ return from knee injuries that sidelined him for a season and a half is among the sources of Christian’s optimism.
Wake Forest: New Deacons coach Steve Forbes averaged 26 victories per season in five years leading East Tennessee State, where he inherited a quality program. Conversely, Wake demands a total overhaul, and initially, Forbes will lean on transfers such as guards Ian DuBose and Isaiah Wilkins (Virginia Tech).
The first of the ACC’s 150 scheduled conference games (20 per team) is Syracuse at Boston College on Dec. 12.
If 75% of those contests are played, consider it a win.