College Basketball

Looking ahead to ACC basketball in 2016

North Carolina coach Roy Williams will benefit next season from the return of four starters, including Kennedy Meeks, Marcus Paige and Justin Jackson, right.
North Carolina coach Roy Williams will benefit next season from the return of four starters, including Kennedy Meeks, Marcus Paige and Justin Jackson, right. ehyman@newsobserver.com

A strong finish by the ACC in the NCAA tournament made up for a slow start to the season.

The conference, with the addition of Louisville, was supposed to be the best in the country, and by March was every bit of its self-proclaimed “The Best Get Better” moniker.

Duke won the national title while Notre Dame and Louisville joined the Blue Devils in the Elite Eight and North Carolina and N.C. State made the Sweet 16.

The only disappointment was Virginia, which finished first during the regular season but was eliminated in the Round of 32. With a healthy Justin Anderson, maybe the Cavaliers would have given the ACC a perfect 6-for-6 in the Sweet 16.

That sets a high bar for next season. The good news for the league: It probably will have more NCAA tournament teams. (I know, I know, you can – and we do – say this every year.)

The same six teams should make the tournament again, and there should be a jump by Florida State (assuming freshman scorer Dwayne Bacon is as good as advertised) and Miami. Pittsburgh and Syracuse also will have a puncher’s chance at giving the ACC 10 teams in the NCAA tournament. The Big East (11 in 2011) is the only conference to get double-digits in the NCAA field.

The bad news for the ACC: There’s not an influx of talent coming in to match what is going out. That goes for the early and expected early exits – Duke’s Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones; Virginia’s Anderson; and Louisville’s Montrezl Harrell – and veterans Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton of Notre Dame, Rakeem Christmas of Syracuse and Duke’s Quinn Cook.

It should be noted, that it has been the teams with veterans and experience that have had the most recent success in the ACC. The past four teams to win the ACC title — 2012 Florida State, 2013 Miami, 2014 Virginia, 2015 Notre Dame — have done so with senior-led, conference-tested groups.

That should give UNC (with seniors Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson) and Virginia (with seniors Malcolm Brogdon, Anthony Gill and Mike Tobey) and Miami (four potential senior starters) hope.

Either UNC, with four returning starters, or N.C. State, with all five starters back, will be pegged to win the league next season. Both teams will feature strong senior guards (Paige and Trevor Lacey, respectively) and be rich with veterans who have tasted postseason success.

Without a close examination of the schedules, I will put the teams in groups, rather than order. The early entry deadline for the NBA draft is April 26 so there’s still time for a surprise or two, but for the most part, what you see here is what you’re likely going to get come October.

Group I

UNC

N.C. State

Virginia

Miami

Duke

1.

Joel Berry, so.

Cat Barber, jr.

London Perrantes, jr.

Angel Rodriguez, sr.

Matt Jones, jr.

2.

Marcus Paige, sr.

Trevor Lacey, sr.

Malcolm Brogdon, sr.

Sheldon McClellan, sr.

Luke Kennard, fr.

3.

Justin Jackson, so.

Terry Henderson, jr.

Marial Shayok, so.

Davon Reed, jr.

Grayson Allen, so.

4.

Brice Johnson, sr.

Lennard Freeman, jr.

Anthony Gill, sr.

Ivan Cruz Uceda, sr.

Amile Jefferson, sr.

5.

Kennedy Meeks, jr.

Abdul-Malik Abu, so.

Mike Tobey, sr.

Tonye Jekiri, sr.

Chase Jeter, fr.

You can make the argument that this was UNC’s best lineup this season. The Tar Heels played their best basketball when Joel Berry played more (he averaged 15.5 minutes per game over the last 10 games). So how much will the Tar Heels really miss athletic wing J.P. Tokoto? His exit doesn’t hurt UNC nearly as much as Anderson leaving Virginia.

The Cavaliers were never the same after Anderson’s injury. They’ll always have that 2014 ACC title, but it does feel like the Final Four window closes on this group without a dynamic force like Anderson.

N.C. State and Miami should largely be the same teams they were in 2015 with some expected improvement for experience. West Virginia transfer Terry Henderson helps offset the loss of senior Ralston Turner for the Wolfpack. Miami gets forward Ivan Cruz Uceda for a full season plus adds Oklahoma State transfer Kamari Murphy.

Duke’s a wild card, obviously, and could still find a recruit to play point guard or a transfer (Villanova’s Dylan Ennis is a logical candidate). Florida State has more talent and Notre Dame has more experience, but you figure the Blue Devils are in safe hands in Mike Krzyzewski. And, if nothing else, they’ll have a deep frontcourt with Jeter, Amile Jefferson, Rice transfer Sean Obi and a fifth year from Marshall Plumlee.

Group II

Notre Dame

FSU

Pitt

Louisville

Syracuse

1.

Demetrius Jackson, jr.

Devon Bookert, sr.

Damon Wilson, fr.

Quentin Snider, so.

Michael Gbinije, sr.

2.

Steve Vasturia, jr.

Xavier Rathan-Mayes, so.

James Robinson, sr.

Donovan Mitchell, fr.

Trevor Cooney, sr.

3.

V.J. Beachem, jr.

Dwayne Bacon, fr.

Sheldon Jeter, jr.

Deng Adel, fr.

Malachi Richardson, fr.

4.

Bonzie Colson, so.

Phil Cofer, so.

Jamel Artis, jr.

Jaylen Johnson, so.

Tyler Roberson, jr.

5.

Zach Auguste, sr.

Boris Bojanovsky, sr.

Michael Young, jr.

Mangok Mathiang, jr.

Moustapha Diagne, fr.

All five of these teams could make the tournament or jump into the first group. Florida State has an embarrassment of talent in the backcourt. Not listed here is senior Montay Brandon, who was second on the team in scoring in 2014-15 (11.5 points per game). To be sure, Leonard Hamilton, the proprietor of “Lenny Ham Roulette,” will play every single one of them.

Pitt has a keeper in versatile junior wing Jamel Artis, who averaged 16.1 points per ACC game this past season. Notre Dame’s going to miss Grant and Connaughton, but Mike Brey will take that Demtrius Jackson-Steve Vasturia-Zach Auguste trio into any fight.

Louisville and Syracuse are in re-tooling mode. A full season with forward Chris McCullough would have been nice for the Orange (he left for the NBA after an injury-riddled freshman year), but Jim Boeheim, for nine ACC games anyway, usually figures out how to make do.

Group III

Clemson

Wake Forest

Virginia Tech

Georgia Tech

Boston College

1.

Avry Holmes, jr.

Bryant Crawford, fr.

Seth Allen, jr.

Travis Jorgenson, so.

Garland Owens, jr.

2.

Gabe DeVoe, so.

Codi Miller-McIntyre, sr.

Justin Bibbs, so.

Tadric Jackson, so.

Matt Milon, fr.

3.

Jaron Blossomgame, jr.

Cornelius Hudson, so.

Ahmed Hill, so.

Marcus Georges-Hunt, sr.

A.J. Turner, fr.

4.

Donte Grantham, so.

Dinos Mitoglou, so.

Chris Clarke, fr.

Nick Jacobs, sr.

Will Magarity, jr.

5.

Landry Nnoko, sr.

Devin Thomas, sr.

Kerry Blackshear, fr.

Charles Mitchell, sr.

Dennis Clifford, sr.

Clemson’s going to play hard and defend, so little will change on that front. Virginia Tech was a tough out last season, too, despite being short on talent. Buzz Williams should get a boost from Maryland transfer Seth Allen and a strong three-man recruiting class.

Georgia Tech brings in its fourth SEC transfer (forward Nick Jacobs from Alabama) in as many years (from four different schools) and is rolling the dice on coach Brian Gregory (19-51 ACC record) turning close losses into respectability.

There’s early praise for coach Danny Manning’s recruiting haul at Wake, and you get the sense Manning’s ready to turn the program over to some new blood. Bigs Doral Moore and John Collins at least give Manning some more options next season.

Then there’s Boston College. Second-year coach Jim Christian knew what he was getting into when he took the job, and with All-ACC guard Olivier Hanlan headed to the draft, the rebuilding reality is upon him.

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