Fall sports, from college football to the NFL, have been bizarre. Covid outbreaks, schedule adjustments and the need for endless flexibility. There's little doubt, bubbles will be burst far before Greg Gumbel has the chance to announce the bracket - if there is such a selection show this year.
Preseason predictions are less relevant than ever before. The sports landscape is secondary to those of national health and safety. We may see dramatic interruptions, and depending on how or when those interrupt, different teams will rise or fall as a result.
Nonetheless, we push forward. Our conference previews will look at only the six power conferences throughout the NCAA: ACC, Big East, SEC, Big Ten, Big Twelve and Pac-12. A perennial power conference, the ACC has dipped in terms of prestige and national prominence the last couple seasons. Part of that comes from the dominance of Duke and Virginia at the top, and part is from other second-tier clubs like Florida State disappointing come tourney time. The up-and-down nature in recent years of other bluebloods, like Louisville, North Carolina and Syracuse has certainly hurt national perception. If two of those three are bad, the conference doesn't live up to expectations.
This year may be a different story. Five of those aforementioned six are a top-tier, though the conference has a sizeable gap between its top-five and the rest of the pack. Perhaps there will be a surprise or two ready to leap up the standings; we've seen some crazy moves up and down the league of late. Still, many coaches are just getting their feet wet. Mike Young at Virginia Tech, Steve Forbes is taking over at Wake Forest and Jeff Capel is in Year 3 of a daunting rebuild at Pitt.
It's do-or-die time for some other coaches. Kevin Keatts at NC State and Josh Pastner at Georgia Tech need to make moves into the top tier. Jim Christian at Boston College and Brad Brownell at Clemson have gotten plenty of chances without bearing major results. Establishment names like Mike Brey, Jim Boeheim and Jim Larranaga are always a threat if they have the pieces in place. There's no shortage of teams who could surprise in either direction, making the conference as a whole tough to predict and difficult to count on for strength come March.
15. Wake Forest Demon Deacons - 6-14 last year. Projection: 4-16
I love the Steve Forbes hire, and love the fact he brought his staff with him to Winston-Salem. The Demon Deacons are one of the most unique spots in the ACC. They're a small school buried by in-state powerhouses with the least amount of athletic emphasis. Winning here is an uphill battle, but Skip Prosser has proved it capable. As Forbes chases his ghost nearly 20 years after their run, he'll do so with a brand new roster. Their three best players are gone (two via transfer, one by graduation). 6'8" junior Isaiah Mucius is their best player, and 6'8" sophomore Ismael Massoud is an intriguing piece as well. Saving Massoud and Jahcobi Neath from the transfer portal were important wins.
This year is as much about recruiting and setting the path forward as it is winning games. Five upperclassmen transfers will get minutes as Forbes hopes to overachieve in year one the same way Mike Young did at Virginia Tech a year ago. The three 2021s already signed provide a ton of optimism for Wake (I personally love big point guard Carter Whitt), so there's buzz already about moving in the right direction. I'm just not that optimistic they'll have a good year in terms of wins and losses.
14. Boston College Eagles - 7-13 last year. Projection: 7-13
The Eagles suffered from injuries and still won 7 games in the ACC last year. Jim Christian may have earned himself another year with the coronavirus and those caveats, but he won't survive another if BC doesn't move forward. Those hops rest on the shoulders of redshirt sophomore Wynston Tabbs, who missed all of last year after averaging 13.9 points as a freshman in Chestnut Hill. The 6'2" scorer needs to be healthy and effective.
Christian hit the graduate transfer market like his job depended on it, bringing in four guys he hopes to have an immediate impact. That should buy 4-star 6'5" freshman DeMarr Langford a little time to get his feet wet and Providence transfer Makai Ashton-Langford a security blanket. Still, this team goes as far as Tabbs takes them. They won't take a step back from last year by any means, but with the pressure on to take a big step forward,
13. North Carolina State Wolfpack - 10-10 last year. Projection: 7-13
Like so many before him, Kevin Keatts has seen his system flame out when transitioning it from the mid-major ranks to the big boy playground. He built his success off pressure defense and high-octane guard play. The ACC is filled with far too many good guards annually, so the Wolfpack end up tiring themselves, fouling frequently and lacking ways to make up for their mundane talent. Perhaps Keatts should take a page from Brad Underwood's book at Illinois and adjust the defense.
Regardless of scheme, the Wolfpack quietly lost a lot from last year. Markell Johnson was so underrated in the ACC, and his departure leaves behind a giant hole at the point. True freshmen Cam Hayes and Shakeel Moore likely have to step in. There are six freshmen on the Wolfpack, and a few will have to play well to give them a chance. Their lone saving grace: sturdy interior defense. Senior DJ Funderburk (12.8 points, 6.1 rebounds) and shot blocking maven Manny Bates (2.9 blocks) can defend the rim and be anchors inside. I'm worried about guard play and scoring the ball, so if Keatts doesn't adjust to his group, it's a really strange-fitting group in Raleigh.
12. Clemson Tigers - 9-11 last year. Projection: 7-13
Brad Brownell has more lives than Catwoman. Clemson had been knocking on the door of the middle-upper tier for years before last year taking a step back. Even though the losses of Tevin Mack and Curran Scott will sting initially, Fordham transfer Nick Honor is as impactful a backcourt transfer as the league has.
Aamir Simms is the do-it-all forward for the Tigers and a darkhorse NBA prospect. He's a terrific passer and turned in a great shooting season a year ago. Surrounding him is an underwhelming amount of talent. Freshmen PJ Hall and Lynn Kidd have to be able to play impactful roles for the Tigers to punch past .500 in league play. When the ball is in the hands of a great big like Simms, you need shooting. What the Tigers return in Dawes (31.8%), Newman (30.3%) and Trapp (26.2%) simply don't get the job done. Their success will come down to their shooting.
11. Notre Dame Fighting Irish - 10-10 last year. Projection: 8-12
It's been 20 years and I still can't tell if I like Mike Brey. No coach leans more into offense in the conference, so he better have the ponies to defend on their own if the Irish are to be competent. I really like the individual talent here, though there's a lot of production to replace with John Mooney, Rex Pflueger and T.J. Gibbs all gone. The Irish have a talented frontcourt, with 6'11" senior Juwan Durham (shoutout Tampa Prep) and 6'10" junior Nate Laszewski forming a strong inside-outside tandem. I also really like Cormac Ryan (Stanford transfer) and Robby Carmody on the wings as scoring options. The Irish will get up-and-down again, with two 10ppg scorers returning in the backcourt in Prentiss Hubb and Dane Goodwin.
There isn't much individual defensive talent here, though. Their three freshmen, headlined by Matt Zona, could be the saving grace for the Irish. If they carve out roles, they're far more athletic than any of the wings or forwards Brey currently has. Still, the offense won't be as dynamic as their heyday with Jerian Grant and Demetrius Jackson. Hubb and Goodwin are good, not great options to lead the attack. Without a stud point guard or two, it's hard to see the Irish making noise in the ACC.
10. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets - 11-9 last year. Projection: 8-12
This year, my image of Josh Pastner has been rehabilitated a tad. Not because they won 11 games, but he coached his ass off to make it happen. Pastner coached a really strong defensive group despite a lack of perimeter size. With a few newcomers I happen to like (Kyle Sturdivant from USC chief among them), the Yellow Jackets will only take a half-step backwards with the departure of shot blocker James Banks.
6'9" senior Moses Wright is ready to fill the void and could put up gaudy numbers in Atlanta. Michael Devoe and Jose Alvardo can really score in the backcourt and will apply pressure once again. Devoe is an NBA sleeper who should lead the team in scoring. Though Banks is the only loss, they will start five upperclassmen and the addition of 6'2" Sturdivant helps with their depth, it will be difficult for the Yellow Jackets to sneak up on anyone like they did last year. If opponents figure out their 1-3-1 zone and handle their full-court pressure, the offense won't be potent enough to keep them in games.
9. Virginia Tech Hokies - 7-13 last year. Projection: 8-12
Year two for Mike Young will see the Hokies run some really fun offense. His design with this team is to play really, really small. 6'4" senior transfer Cartier Diarra from Kansas State may have to play the 4, and while Diarra is a strong offensive threat, I worry the Hokies will be bottom-three in defense. He'll make up for it with a 3-point-heavy barrage. Snipers James Cone, Hunter Cattoor and Nahiem Alleyne all fit well into his motion principals and will not be shy about getting 'em up.
The questions for the Hokies come at the 5. They need one big man to emerge from the trio of sophomore John Ojiako, grad transfer Cordell Pemsl and Wofford transfer Keve Aluma. Aluma is the clubhouse leader since he already played for Young, but Ojiako has the highest ceiling and Pemsl is the instant-impact guy. The transfer of Landers Noelly is a huge blow to a Hokies team that was hoping to build on a surprising launch to the Young era. Without him, it's hard to see a step forward.
8. Pittsburgh Panthers - 6-14 last year. Projection: 8-12
Don't look now, but Jeff Capel is building something. My relative proximity to Pitt may blind me here, I'll readily admit that. This freshman class is Pitt's most talented perhaps ever. William Jeffress is the real deal up front, and John Hugley should start as a first year. 6'5" Femi Odukale could earn some minutes, too. The Panthers will definitely be young, but they'll be talented.
With that inexperience, the Panthers bring back two strong scorers in Xavier Johnson and Justin Champagnie. Their "ace in the hole" is Miami (OH) transfer Nike Sibande, an insane athlete in the backcourt who is waiting on a waiver to be approved for immediate play. If Sibande is granted said waiver, he and Johnson provide an ACC-ready backcourt. Delaware transfer Ithiel Horton will fill those shoes if Sibande is ineligible, a massive downgrade. The optimism here revolves around the belief Sibande is eligible, Jeffress earns big minutes early and the three freshmen all play strong roles. I may be alone in this, but I like what Capel is doing at the Pete.
7. Syracuse Orange - 10-10 last year. Projection: 10-10
The most impactful transfer award in the ACC goes to: Alan Griffin. Arriving in upstate New York from Illinois, Griffin is going to help cushion the blow Elijah Hughes' departure left behind. Boeheim will give the ultimate green light to Griffin, his son Buddy and Joe Girard to gun it from deep. The Orange could have an upset or two because of those threats, or go ice cold and lose games by 20.
This Syracuse team doesn't have as much raw athleticism and rebounding on the back-line of the 2-3 zone as Boeheim is accustomed to. Seniors Bourama Sidibe and Marek Dolezaj are competent and at least experienced within their scheme. I'd expect freshman John Bol Ajak to force his way into the rotation as an anchor in the middle; he's a quintessential Syracuse recruit. 6'5" freshman Kadary Richmond is needed on the wing to provide some athleticism and would be great insurance to the scoring machine of the backcourt. The zone always spots them some games and keeps them alive, and lets subpar one-on-one defenders like Girard and Boeheim stay on the floor. Syracuse could make some moves this year.
6. Miami (FL) Hurricanes - 7-13 last year. Projection: 11-9
The league's best freshman outside of the top-five landed with the Hurricanes. Earl Timberlake from DeMatha is an instant-impact, superb athlete, NBA-prospect that can make a huge impact on both ends. Larranaga's best teams in Miami have been spearheaded by tremendous guard play, and 5'7" senior guard Chris Lykes will need to be the engine that drives the car for this team to maximize their potential. Combo guard Harlond Beverly, highly-touted out of Montverde, wasn't fantastic as a freshman but could be poised for a bounce back campaign. He's the key to unlocking Miami's upside.
There's senior experience everywhere to be found on this roster, though. Seven-footers Nysier Brooks and Rodney Miller will form a tandem at the 5, while 6'5" Kameron McGusty is ready to go on the wings. A big step forward from sophomore Isaiah Wong, a highly-touted recruit last year, would go a long way. With experience, a well-rounded and deep group, and a little sprinkling in of superb talent like Wong and Timberlake, Miami has all the makings of an NCAA Tournament team.
5. Louisville Cardinals - 15-5 last year. Projection: 12-8
The Jordan Nwora loss will hurt their offensive production. Mack, notoriously a defensive strategist and stingy coach on that end, utilizes a Princeton-esque scheme filled with backdoor cutters. While Nwora opened up the playbook based on how he shot off screens and would break off every screen or cut to gravitate to the 3, the real loss is from Dwayne Sutton, my favorite ACC guy last year, and the toughness element this team needed. Losing those two and interior guy Steven Enoch definitely knock the Cards down a few notches in the talent department.
Sophomore David Johnson could be an All-ACC performer as he gets to pick up the scoring slack, but he was super disappointing as a freshman. If he's only a facilitator and is inefficient from the field, this is a team that might struggle to score. Two other sophomores, Samuell Williamson and Quinn Slazinski, figure to start. Much of Louisville's success rides on that trio rising to the challenge. Radford transfer Carlik Jones will fill in at the point for Ryan McMahon, while senior center Malik Williams is the lone holdover starter from a season ago.
The Cards will take a step backwards, but are too talented to miss the NCAA field entirely. Mack coaches his ass off, the Cards will be elite defensively with their athleticism (an upgrade could be in store with McMahon leaving) and a solid threat offensively within their offensive scheme. They could regress to the real middle of the pack, but without a clear cut behind them to be the one that leapfrogs Louisville, we'll keep them in the top-five.
4. Florida State Seminoles - 16-4 last year. Projection: 14-6
Leonard Hamilton loses the league's two best defenders in Patrick Williams and Devin Vassell. Trent Forrest was another impactful combo guard who played on both ends. Despite the three wings departing, the Seminoles are still stockpiled with athletes. Freshman Scottie Barnes is the sleeper for ACC Freshman of the Year honors. He's a freak athlete for his size and could be absolutely lethal on both ends in Florida State's schemes.
Hamilton famously relies on his depth, playing 10-12 guys a night and not overloading anyone. The strength of this team is their bench and size. Nobody is under 6'4" on the roster, two seven-footers figure to come off the bench, and a lot of experience. Some names to watch outside of Barnes include JuCo transfer Sardaar Calhoun, a bouncy slasher that's switchable on defense; Malik Osborne, a 6'9" small-ball center who unlocks their defensive potential; 6'5" senior guard MJ Walker is the team's returning bucket-getter; 6'6' junior Anthony Polite fills the stat sheet in every way.
Some outlets are predicting a large step back in Tallahassee; a three-win reduction in our projections reflects that. Hamilton is too good of a coach, and these guys have a clear identity with their size and athleticism, that expecting a drop-off larger than this is to question the pillars of their success. Sign me up for another good year for the Seminoles.
3. North Carolina Tar Heels - 6-14 last year. Projection: 14-6
Last year was just abysmal. If anything, it served as a wake-up call for Roy Williams that his new model of bringing in one-and-done point guards is risky, and that if he does, he'll need to tweak the Carolina Break system to include a little more shooting. The new point guard star is Caleb Love, a sizeable guard with unreal vision. He'll instantly be an upgrade to Cole Anthony on defense, and the depth of having a scorer like RJ Davis come off the bench at the point makes it a position of great strength.
Another freshman we love is Puff Johnson, younger brother of former Tar Heels sniper Cam Johnson. The two play very differently; Puff is 6'7" and athletic, preferring to play as a smaller 4 and could be the solution to Carolina's spacing woes. Of course, the strength of this team lies in the experience of their frontcourt. Garrison Brooks is back at center for his final go-'round, while 6'10" sophomore Armando Bacot can play with him or as his replacement. Expect the Tar Heels to dominate the offensive glass this year, an area Roy Williams loves to exploit. With their size, length and athleticism, they resemble the Carolina teams of old.
The key will always be how they shoot the ball. No one player can be pointed to as the absolute sniper. Redshirt freshman Anthony Harris needs to return from injury to assume that role. The Tar Heels will be much, much better and a safe bet to resume their post as a top-three team in the ACC.
2. Duke Blue Devils - 15-5 last year. Projection: 16-4
The toughest part about the one-and-done era arriving in Durham has been the onus on Coach K to figure his team out early. Without much non-conference time to get dialed in and made a huge defensive adjustment (change ball screen defenses, play more zone, whatever the year calls for), the Devils could drop a couple games right out of the gate. This team will have two returning impact guys in the starting rotation: Wendell Moore (6'6" sophomore) and Matthew Hurt (6'9" sophomore). Moore mentioned in some media availability the possibility of playing Hurt more at the 5, which would be a great development for this Blue Devils team, especially late in games.
6'8" freshman Jalen Johnson is Duke's best freshman wing and should be their top offensive creator. He can score and pass at a high level, and should be right up there with the production of Jayson Tatum and Jabari Parker as one-and-dones. Jeremy Roach should also fit into the starting rotation as a defensive-minded, facilitating point guard. Roach resembles more of the cerebral point guard Coach K likes and, with he and Johnson on the floor, gives the Blue Devils multiple initiators. Surrounding them is a ton of shooting; obviously Hurt needs to realize his potential as a stretch big, while freshman DJ Steward can flat-out score and senior combo Jordan Goldwire will log important minutes.
I'm curious to see which way Coach K leans with this squad. They could go smaller and embrace shooting around Hurt, spotting Columbia transfer Patrick Tape and 7'0" freshman Mark Williams minutes off the bench. Or Williams could earn a starting role in the traditional rim protector, PNR lob-catcher role while Hurt is the de facto 4. I've criticized Krzyzewski for his lack of feel for the group out the gate in recent years. That is all the more important for this squad in a pandemic year.
1. Virginia Cavaliers - 15-5 last year. Projection: 16-4
The biggest beneficiary of the Duke lineup conundrum is Virginia, a team with so much identity and the frontcourt that can match with either Blue Devil rotation. The fulcrum of the Cavaliers attack is in 7'1" stretch-5 Jay Huff and 6'8" Marquette transfer Sam Hauser. Those two are as experienced, offensively potent and dependable as any 4 and 5 in the land. We know they'll protect the rim and be great on defense, while also knowing they can thwart any pick-and-roll coverage on offense.
Identity is a big piece for the Cavs. They struggled to make shots last year and still wound up 15-5 in the league. The same backcourt returns, with Kihei Clark and Tomas Woldentensae as the most reliable of that group. Virginia wants to out-tough teams on a way to victory, so the lack of offensive firepower doesn't necessarily worry me. If Tony Bennett decides he wants to play some of his young guys (which he rarely does), then 6'7" Jabri Abdur-Rahim would be an impactful wing and 6'3" shooter Carson McCorkle would bring offensive firepower off the bench. He figures to be the next Kyle Guy. Upside is unlocked offensively if somehow freshman Trey Murphy gets eligibility granted.
I'd estimate the Cavs roll with more ball screen motion this year as a way of involving their frontcourt guys more seamlessly. They have as much raw talent with their freshman class as we've seen in some time, so the real leap for the Cavs into national title territory likely relies on how quickly this group can progress.