The ACC will be the most power-packed conference in college basketball in 2016-17. There are even analysts saying that the conference could send 10 teams to the NCAA tournament next March. With that much confidence in the teams’ abilities to dominate the national scene, let’s take a look at how the conference itself will shake out.
Regular Season Champion: Duke Blue Devils
This should not be a surprise to anyone, especially after ACC media day. The Blue Devils are a hot pick to be in Phoenix during the Final Four festivities, let alone win the conference. There is good reason for this speculation, though. The Blue Devils have a lot to like about their roster.
Returning is a multi-faceted scoring weapon in Grayson Allen. Allen averaged 21.6 points, 4.6 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game. His coming out party was the 2015 National Championship against Wisconsin when he essentially led the Blue Devils to the title with a spectacular second half performance. He spent most of the year overshadowed by three current NBA players: Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones.
Unfortunately for him, but fortunately for Duke, this year may bring more of the same. Duke’s class includes several possible first round draft picks in Jayson Tatum, Frank Jackson and the top recruit of the class Harry Giles. The only negative is the injury history for Giles and Tatum. Each have shared their own knee problems and much of the same happened this offseason. Giles will be out five to seven weeks after the beginning of the season. Tatum recently had a foot injury but should be ready to go around tip off.
Additional key returnees are Amile Jefferson and Matt Jones. Matt Jones provides key defensive minutes for the Blue Devils but last year he added 10.4 points per game. With a deep offensive team he will return to his previous role as a defensive and three point specialist. Jefferson averaged 11.4 points and 10.3 rebounds through nine games before being sidelined for the year. The team ended up in the Sweet 16 despite the loss of Jefferson. The only key loss from the team is Lakers draft pick Brandon Ingram. The 2016-17 Blue Devils are nothing to be messed with and will win the conference as a start to what they should accomplish.
Other teams to watch: North Carolina, Virginia, Louisville, North Carolina State
Coach of the Year: Mark Gottfried
ACC coach checklist: Hall of fame coach Jim Boeheim? Nope. Hall of Fame coach Roy Williams? Negative. Possible national champion Mike Krzyzewski. Not him either. It will be one Mark Gottfried of the below .500 North Carolina State Wolfpack in 2015-16. Gottfried turned in a historic recruiting class for the Pack. five star point guard Dennis Smith is projected to be one of the best players in the conference despite the overwhelming amount of talent.
Additionally the Wolfpack add five star Turkish recruit Omer Yurtseven. The seven foot center possesses soft hands and touch to go along with his length and athleticism. Perhaps the next Kristaps Porzingis? Even if he turns out to be another misfire in the European obsession and is not one of the best players nationally he is sure to provide length that the pack have lacked. Between big men returnees Beejay Anya and Abdul-Malik Abu in conjunction with Yurtseven there should be enough size to dominate other teams. As a note Yurtseven comes from the same team as Enes Kanter, who was ruled ineligible. However, like other European players he will likely miss a few games and then be ready to go.
What NC State will miss is the play-making of Anthony “Cat” Barber who decided to forgo the remainder of his college career for a shot at the pros. Dennis Smith should make up for this. As point guard, Smith will have the ball in his hands to begin most possessions. This is good because most of his talent exudes when he has the ball. Smith will have plenty of one on one opportunities with the other players on the floor, both in the front court and back court. Smith has great shot creation with the ball but will need to work on movement throughout the offense off the ball.
Gottfried will face a challenge with this much roster overhaul. The Pack missed the tournament for the first time since he stepped on campus in 2011. With this much talent there is no way it is not the first 25-win season for him in Raleigh. That big of a turnaround leads him to be the ACC Coach of the year.
Other coaches to watch: Leonard Hamilton, Mike Krzyzewski, Roy Williams
Player of the year: Jonathan Isaac
The ACC is packed with players that could exceed just winning the conference award and win National Honors. There is a laundry list of players: Grayson Allen is a lethal scorer who is back, Jaron Blossomgame decided to come back for a senior campaign, and a plethora of new faces enter the fray.
With all of the talent available to choose from what makes a player stand out most is the situation that they are in. There is no denying that several players possess the talent or capability to win but not all are in the ideal situation to do so. Some could end up buried amongst the talent on their own team. Grayson Allen’s talent did not show until his predecessors gave him the space to do so. If there is not enough talent around a player then all of the defensive efforts can be concentrated on them. This neutralizes their effectiveness. Five star Florida State recruit Jonathan Isaac finds himself in a happy medium of these two extremes and possesses the raw athletic talent to complete the task.
To begin with the player, Isaac is a long, athletic wing with great shooting ability. Isaac can handle the ball well for his size, not unlike Kevin Durant. Most of what he does happens with the ball in his hands whether it is shooting off the dribble or using his ball handling to get around less agile defenders. Isaac lacks strength and does not defend well as of yet. However, his athleticism should help him grow into that role.
Wait, is this a broken record? Did we not see this last year with Brandon Ingram? The difference here is that Ingram had to be one of his team’s leading scorers. Grayson Allen cannot score 40 plus points per game and there was not another scorer on the team far enough in their development to make a difference. Luke Kennard just was not ready to be that yet. That left Ingram in a high pressure situation and catapulted him to a team lead situation. Isaac will not be in the same situation.
He will have experienced help in Xavier Rathan-Mayes and Dwayne Bacon. Bacon surprised many with his return to the Seminoles. The team’s leading scorer at 15.8 points per game was expected by many to follow Malik Beasley in a jump to the NBA. Electing not to do so, Bacon’s abilities will attract attention and clear space for Isaac as well as preventing him from drawing double teams. Rathan-Mayes provides the ability to dish Isaac the ball after leading the team with 4.4 assists per game. There is enough talent to help Isaac grow but not too much to bury him on the roster.
Other players to watch: Grayson Allen, Jaron Blossomgame, London Perrantes