About two-thirds of the way through last season, a relieved Louisville coach Rick Pitino paid the ultimate respect to his Cardinals’ new digs in the ACC. He noted that the grind each night reminded him of the old Big East. His Cardinals went on to finish 12-6 in the ACC and then raced to the Elite Eight and finished with a two-point overtime loss to Michigan State and a 27-9 record. However, Pitino’s words are prophetic once again about this season as six or seven teams could at least claim a right to the title. The old guard is there with Duke and North Carolina, two teams who once dominated this league. However, Virginia comes off back-to-back regular season championships while Florida State, Pitt, and Miami have veteran talent that will equate to excellent chemistry and the new regime of Louisville, Syracuse, and Notre Dame will be talented and young and also tough outs when March arrives
1. Virginia – The drop of the shot clock to 30 seconds may actually aid Tony Bennett’s defensive juggernaut. If you give the Cavaliers five less seconds to have to play defense and they force the half-court game, the clock may work in a defensive team’s favor. Malcolm Brogdon turns as one of the top players in the league while Anthony Gill and London Perrantes comprise a formidable “Big Three” for Bennett.
2. North Carolina – The Tar Heels are stocked with talent as Brice Johnson and Justin Jackson join Marcus Paige in what will be an up-tempo free-wheeling offensive system. The size of Kennedy Meeks and Joel James inside means that UNC can change tempos and looks throughout the course of a game. Four double figures scorers return to one of the deepest rosters in the nation.
3. Miami – The Hurricanes return four starters, led by Shelden McClellan, who can literally score in waves from anywhere on the floor, and Angel Rodriguez, who has one of the quickest first steps to the basket in the game. McClellan scored in double figures 31 times a year ago as he and Rodriguez are complemented by imposing threats in Tonye Jeriki and Davon Reed. Coach Jim Larranaga brought this team along slowly last season and it went on to develop chemistry and get to the NIT Finals where it lost to Stanford.
4. Duke – The Blue Devils are defending national champions, but Mike Krzyzewski has taken a page out of John Calipari’s book in accentuating the one-and-done theory. Freshmen Brandon Ingram, Luke Kennard, Derryck Thornton, and Chase Jeter could have that same impact this season. Amile Jefferson, Matt Jones, and Grayson Allen return as role players to the latest group of freshmen superstars. Sean Obi, a Rice transfer, is an interesting addition as he led CUSA in rebounding in 2013-2014.
5. Florida State – Sophomore Xavier Rathan-Mayes is one of the few players nationally who can carry a team to a win if he needs. However, Leonard Hamilton returns all five starters as Montay Brandon and Devon Bookert will provide complementary options in the backcourt. Hamilton needs Phil Cofer or Michael Ojo to step inside and be a scoring factor.
6. Pitt – The Panthers were beseiged with injury problems all season in ’14-15 as point guard James Robinson went down eight games into the year and things snowballed as Jamie Dixon wasn’t able to build chemistry. Jamel Artis and Michael Young are a pair of physical, strong competitors inside as they both averaged around 13.5 points per game and are imposing on the glass as well.
7. Louisville – Losing Montrezl Harrell and Terry Rozier capitalize the loss of four double figure scorers in Pitino’s starting line up. Chinanu Onuaku is the lone returnee to the starting line up and will be joined up front by Mangok Mathiang as Louisville will be tough on the interior, defensively. Pitino restocked his team well as adding scorers in graduate transfers Damion Lee of Drexel and Trey Lewis of Cleveland State to an inexperienced backcourt. Freshman Deng Adel is a key addition who can score and rebound.
8. Notre Dame – Mike Brey loses Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton, but has three strong returning starters in Zach Auguste, Demetrius Jackson, and Steve Vasturia. Bonzie Colson and V.J. Beacham could step into starting roles off the bench. Brey will look to develop depth after the Irish went to the Elite Eight for the first time since 1979 after winning the ACC Tournament in just it’s second year.
9. Syracuse – Jim Boeheim wants to see the Orange shoot it better this season and with Trevor Cooney and Michael Gbinje back at guard, the outside game should improve. Boeheim is also happy to see DaJuan Coleman back after he suffered a major knee injury two seasons ago. Tyler Roberson must emerge as a double digit scorer in the paint.
10. N.C. State – Losing Trevor Lacy and Ralston Turner out of the back court to graduation is a tough reality for Mark Gottfried as was the trasfer of Kyle Washington to Cincinnati. The Wolfpack need a jump start from transfer Terry Henderson in the backcourt where he averaged 11.7 points per game for West Virginia last season. Anthony “Cat” Barber will be the showstopper for the Wolfpack with his quickness on defense and ability to push in transition.
11.Wake Forest – This team could start to move forward in Danny Manning’s second season as coach. The Demon Deacons were much more competitive and played with more tenacity in his maiden voyage in Winston-Salem. Codi Miller-McIntyre and Devin Thomas are a nice inside-outside tandem as starters. Manning built depth a year ago as Cornelius Hudson came into his own as the season transpired.
12. Clemson – The post game for the Tigers will be a strong suit with Jaron Blosomgame, Donte Grantham, and Landy Nnoko manning the paint. Blosomgame is a wide body who gets to the rim with lots of moves while Grantham started 31 games as a freshman. The backcourt is the question as Jordan Roper seems to be the most talented returnee.
13. Virginia Tech – Watching Buzz Williams coach is worth the price of admission. Now, the Hokies must put a team on the court to excite the masses as well. Justin Bibbs looks like the leader of the group as he shot 41.3 percent from behind the arc. Maryland transfer Seth Allen immediately upgrades the Hokies with his shooting prowess. The key is post development where Ahmed Hill looks like the most athletic and consistent option.
14. Boston College – Seven freshmen capsulize the Eagles’ roster as guard-extraordinaire Olivier Hanlan closed out a stellar career as the BC. Freshman A.J. Turner might be the best of the bunch as he has lots of weapons in his offensive arsenal. Center Dennis Clifford is the lone leading returning scorer at only 6.9 points per game.
15. Ga. Tech – The Yellow Jackets return leading scorer Marcus George-Hunt plus a bench that improved last season as the year unfolded. This team shot only 40.8 percent from the floor a year ago and 26.7 percent from behind the arc. Offensively, Tech must improve to even get over .500.