The crispness of the fall air, the orange hues that overtake the treetops, and the squeak of basketball sneakers in gymnasiums across the country.
These are just some of the telltale signs that basketball is back. More importantly, the annual countdown to March Madness can begin anew.
As much fun as Midnight Madness can be, the culmination of a long offseason is the tipoff of a team’s first game. With the start of the 2016-17 season quickly approaching, NCAA.com is cracking the books and breaking things down in each of college basketball’s 32 conferences.
Here’s our look at the ACC.
The ACC was outstanding in 2015-16, and it figures to be even better this season. Seven schools made the NCAA tournament, two of which (Syracuse and North Carolina) made it to the Final Four. The Tar Heels came within seconds of capturing another national championship under Roy Williams.
The ACC always has depth, and last season was no different. Six teams reached the Sweet 16 a year ago, the most of any conference by a mile. Eight teams finished in the top 40 of KenPom’s final rankings, and the ACC tournament championship game between Virginia and North Carolina didn’t disappoint.
Grayson Allen is as polarizing as they come, but he’s a great college basketball player. For as talented as Duke is this season, in 2015-16, it had about six playable guys and managed to make the Sweet 16. How does that happen?
It starts with Allen. As a sophomore, the shooting guard averaged 21.6 points, 4.6 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game while logging 36.6 minutes per night. He was efficient, too; Allen shot 46.6 percent from the floor and made 41.7 percent of his 3’s.
Last season, Allen proved he can thrive in a starring role. He’s going to have a lot more help around him in 2016-17, and we’ve written about Duke’s supremely talented roster at length. This year, Allen needs to improve as a playmaker. He made great strides between his freshman and sophomore seasons in that regard, but since the Blue Devils don’t have a natural point guard, he’ll have to shoulder more of the ball-handling burden as a junior. We’ll see if he’s up to the task.
Stud freshmen Harry Giles and Jayson Tatum are dealing with injuries. But assuming they return at a reasonable date, Duke is the most talented team in the country without a doubt.
If healthy, this is what their depth chart should look like in 2016-17. The short version: their backups could probably form a top 25 team if necessary.
One could make the argument that Allen, Giles and Tatum are top-10 players in the country, if not top five. Duke surrounds those guys with excellent role players; Matt Jones and Amile Jefferson were instrumental in the 2015 national title run, Luke Kennard is vastly overqualified as a sixth man, and incoming freshmen Frank Jackson and Marques Bolden are among the best players in their class. An undefeated season is unlikely for any college basketball team, but with this particular Duke group, you can’t rule out the possibility.
Surrounding a star with capable role players is a proven recipe for college basketball success, and that’s what Clemson should be able to do this season.
Earlier this week, I wrote about how Jaron Blossomgame has a chance to take home ACC Player of the Year honors. If he’s in the running for that award, the Tigers should end their NCAA tournament drought.
Brad Brownell has loads of transfer talent to work with this season. The names you need to know: Shelton Mitchell arrives from Vanderbilt; Marcquise Reed comes in from Robert Morris and Elijah Thomas is in the fold from Texas A&M. Reed averaged 15.1 points per game in his last season at RMU, while Mitchell and Thomas were highly-touted as freshmen before struggling to see the floor and transfering to Clemson.
The Tigers were sneaky decent in 2015-16. They finished 10-8 in conference play, and they’ll look to take that momentum into 2016-17.
Freshman to watch:
Everyone is already going to be watching the Duke freshmen, so we’ll take this in another direction.
Virginia rookie Kyle Guy is going to play a role in replacing Malcolm Brogdon, who was one of the best all-around players in the country last season. No pressure, right?
Guy has a sweet name and a sweet game, but Tony Bennett is going to ask plenty of him this season. A 6-3 guard from Indianapolis, Guy and point guard London Perrantes should form one of the best shooting backcourts in the country if the former is as good as advertised.
Virginia is ranked seventh in the Coaches Poll, so despite losing two program icons in Brogdon and Anthony Gill, expectations are high for the Cavaliers in 2016-17. In order to live up to that billing, Guy is going to need to make a substantial impact.