- Ky McKeon
Note: Predicted conference standings may not line up exactly with our Top 40 rankings; this is because Top 40 were ranked via consensus voting, while individual conference ranks are up to the specific writer.
Player of the Year: Luke Maye, Sr., North Carolina
Coach of the Year: Buzz Williams, Virginia Tech
Newcomer of the Year: Nassir Little, Fr., North Carolina
Freshman of the Year: Nassir Little, Fr., North Carolina
See full preview here: #3 in our Top-40 countdown
See full preview here: #5 in our Top-40 countdown
3. North Carolina
See full preview here: #6 in our Top-40 countdown
4. Virginia Tech
See full preview here: #12 in our Top-40 countdown
5. Florida State
See full preview here: #16 in our Top-40 countdown
See full preview here: #23 in our Top-40 countdown
See full preview here: #25 in our Top-40 countdown
8. NC State
See full preview here: #22 in our Top-40 countdown
9. Miami (FL)
See full preview here: #39 in our Top-40 countdown
10. Notre Dame
Key Returners: TJ Gibbs Jr., Rex Pflueger, DJ Harvey
Key Losses: Bonzie Colson, Matt Farrell, Martinas Geben
Key Newcomers: Juwan Durham (UConn), Prentiss Hubb, Robby Carmody, Nate Laszewski, Dane Goodwin
Outlook: Injuries derailed what promised to be a special year for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Star players Bonzie Colson and Matt Farrell both missed time with ailments and top 50 freshman DJ Harvey missed half the year with his own injury. The Irish stumbled to a 6-9 record without Colson (1-4 without Farrell and Colson) and yet still almost made the Dance with a late season push. Mike Brey faces a steep challenge in 2018-19 without his two senior studs, but brings in his best recruiting class of his 18-year career to aid in the cause for a NCAA Tourney bid.
Brey has proven to be an excellent offensive minded coach during his Notre Dame coaching tenure. Since KenPom began keeping stats in 2002, the Irish have never finished the year outside the top 60 in adjusted offensive efficiency and are usually within the top 20 nationally. Notre Dame runs a fluid half-court motion offense that emphasizes spacing and the pick-n-roll. The ball is constantly in motion and shooters dot the arc ready to fire off the ball handler’s kick out. Brey recruits to his style of play, usually finding diamonds in the rough and developing them into All-ACC level players. This season, Brey brings in a slew of newcomers that once again fit his style of play, only this time the recruits are highly ranked.
All five freshmen have potential to contribute this season for the Irish. In the backcourt, ESPN top 100 recruits Prentiss Hubb (#98), Robby Carmody (#85), and Dane Goodwin (#80) bring with them reputations as knockdown outside shooters. Hubb is a combo guard that possesses a sky-high basketball IQ and excellent passing ability to go along with his smooth lefty stroke. Carmody is a strong wing scorer that can get to the rack and punish sloppy closeouts. Goodwin is possibly the best shooter in the class of 2018; at 6’6” he’ll have a nice advantage over smaller backcourt defenders contesting his three-point attempts.
In the frontcourt, Brey’s freshmen consist of Nate Laszewski (#54) and Chris Doherty (3-star). Laszewski is a stretch four in the mold of projected Irish starting power forward John Mooney. Doherty is an old school post banger that does the dirty work cleaning the glass and finishing put-backs.
None of Brey’s incoming freshmen project as particularly great defenders, and with the returning group plus the loss of Colson, expect the Irish to still struggle defensively as they have for the majority of Brey’s tenure.
Of the returners, TJ Gibbs Jr. is the player to watch, the next up in a long line of successful Irish point guards. Gibbs burst onto the scene in his sophomore year, logging the 11th most minutes in the country and improving every part of his game from his so-so freshman year. Gibbs will take on the majority of the ball handling responsibilities without Farrell in the lineup, so it’ll be interesting to see how his efficiency holds up. One of his major strengths is spotting up from beyond the arc (shot 40.4% from three), but his role will force him into more of a playmaker in his junior season.
Rex Pflueger can handle the rock well enough to allow Gibbs to step out on the wing occasionally, but Pflueger is best without the ball in his hands. As a junior, Pflueger’s three-point percentage tanked to 31.7% from 39.7% as a sophomore, a partial consequence of attempting more off-the-dribble threes. Pflueger will be heavily relied upon as a supporting scorer to lift Notre Dame’s offense high enough to compensate for suspect defense.
The obvious breakout candidate on the ND roster is DJ Harvey, a highly touted recruit in the class of 2017 that missed four weeks of basketball during his inaugural year in South Bend. Anybody can see Harvey is dripping with potential from the moment he walks into the gym – at 6’6”, the rising sophomore has the ability to be a deadly wing slasher and playmaker within the spaced Irish offense.
Inside, Brey lacks a true postman outside of the aforementioned Doherty and UConn transfer Juwan Durham. The latter will have a heavy load placed on his shoulders after sitting out last year. Durham is a long center with long arms that should provide some resistance in the paint on defense. Offensively, Durham proved he could step out from the block and hit shots, perfect for a pick-n-pop role within Brey’s attack.
Bottom Line: Offensively, Notre Dame has the potential to be elite; Brey has everything he needs to continue his tradition of an offense featuring a skilled playmaker surrounded by deadly shooters. Defense could be a real issue and is the likely spoiler to a potential Tourney bid.
Key Returners: VJ King, Darius Perry, Ryan McMahon, Jordan Nwora, Dwayne Sutton, Malik Williams
Key Losses: Deng Adel, Ray Spalding, Quentin Snider, Anas Mahmoud
Key Newcomers: Akoy Agau (SMU), Christen Cunningham (Samford), Khwan Fore (Richmond), Steven Enoch (UConn)
Outlook: 2017-18 was a rollercoaster season for the Louisville basketball program, a program that definitely didn’t win the 2013 National Championship because the NCAA said so. Louisville was hit the hardest from the FBI investigation into the payment of incoming recruits, losing their storied head coach, Rick Pitino, and their McDonald’s All-American, Tugs Bowen. A pre-season top 15 squad floundered to a 9-9 ACC record and notched very few high quality wins. Some will blame the disappointing year on David Pagdett, Pitino’s former assistant that took the head coaching reins in the fall of 2017, but really he stepped into a lose-lose situation when he inherited the media circus. This year, Louisville looks to start fresh with a brand new coach in Chris Mack (formerly of Xavier) and an unproven roster.
Louisville hit a homerun with the hiring of Chris Mack, a coach that enjoyed a high level of success at Xavier that culminated in a Big East title (first non-Villanova school to win since the new Big East formed) and a #1 Tourney seed. Mack will likely bring with him his preferred style of play, but he’s done a tremendous job over the years at adjusting to the makeup of his roster. Offensively, Mack’s Xavier teams favored a rim attack and emphasized playing through the post; his pace waxed and waned depending on his personnel. Defensively, Xavier was well-known for its 1-3-1 look that featured J.P. Macura at the top, pressuring ball handlers after crossing half-court. When not in the 1-3-1, Xavier preferred to pack it in a bit, keying on taking away the paint in exchange for allowing (somewhat) contested threes. One of the biggest changes we will see at Louisville this year is the tendency to press – Pitino teams pressed at one of the highest rates in the country year in and year out, but Mack has never really implemented a press during his tenure.
The biggest question for the Cards this year will be who steps up and becomes the go-to guy on offense. V.J. King, a 6’6” junior wing, is the most likely candidate to take on the leadership role. King is the returning leading scorer for Louisville after it lost its four best players to the Draft and graduation. King struggled as a sophomore shooting the ball and had issues with turnovers, but he had his fair share of highlights, proving to be an effective scorer off the bounce. His scoring versatility (ability to shoot, drive to the rack, and pull-up) sets him up well for a breakout year.
King may be the most obvious player to step into the go-to role, but sophomore Jordan Nwora has the most potential out of anyone on the roster. A former top 60 recruit in the class of 2017, Nwora showed this summer he was the best player on the Nigeria national team (he’s only 19), pouring in a national record 36 points against Mali. Nwora’s ability to play the 3 or 4 and space the floor at 6’8” makes him a potential NBA Draft pick down the road – expect Mack to use him as he did Kaiser Gates in Xavier’s offense last season. If Nwora steps up his defensive game, he will challenge for an All-Conference spot.
For the first time in what seems like a lifetime, Louisville has question marks at the point guard spot. With Quentin Snider gone, the Cards will rely on a committee of combo guards to take the PG reins and run the offense. Mack will have a rotation that consists of sophomore Darius Perry, transfers Khwan Fore and Christen Cunningham, and junior Ryan McMahon. Perry, a top 60 guy in 2017, is supposed to be the point guard of the future. Last season his playing time was sporadic and when he did see the floor he struggled with turnovers and finding his range. With more responsibility and presumably more confidence, Perry has a chance to grow in his second season.
Fore (Richmond) and Cunningham (Samford) are two grad transfers that will provide much needed experience to an otherwise young roster. Fore does better playing off the ball where he can catch on the wing and attack driving lanes (10th in the A-10 in FT rate in 2017-18); he is not much of a shooter but can be dynamite in transition with his quickness and explosiveness. Cunningham was limited to 9 games last year due to injury, but prior to that turned in three solid years at Samford. He’s a playmaking guard that prefers the ball in his hands and is consistently one of the better assist gatherers in the country.
McMahon likely will not be playing the point given his lack of athleticism and strength, but he is deadly off the ball in a catch-and-shoot role. Despite looking like a 12-year old, McMahon was extremely effective on offense last season, cashing 40% of his 103 three-point attempts.
Up front joining Nwora, Louisville features a rotation that includes junior wing Dwayne Sutton, former 5-star big man Malik Williams, and two more transfers in Akoy Agau and Steven Enoch. Sutton is the guy to watch out of this group. A former UNC Asheville Bulldog, the 6’5” wing saw a fair amount of time under Padgett contributing on the glass and on defense over everything else. His size and strength allows him to guard 2-4 and he’s arguably Louisville’s best rebounder heading into the year.
Williams is a stretchy 7-footer that can space the floor and score in the post. He’s not very physical and is still developing his game, but he possesses obvious potential. A lineup with him and Nwora creates a fun inverted style of offense where the bigs play on the perimeter and guys like Sutton and King play down in the post.
Agau used to play for Louisville, then he played for Georgetown, and then SMU... and now he’s back at Louisville. He’s a big body down low and a solid shot blocker, something that is needed on the Cards roster. At SMU, Agau especially shined in the pick-n-roll where he was able to slide to the hoop for easy deuces or pop outside the arc for a three. Enoch will provide value on defense as a rim protector. At UConn in 2016-17, Enoch’s offense just wasn’t there, finishing only 42% of his shots near the rim. He actually has pretty good footwork and can back defenders down easily with his immense size, but he needs to improve on his finishing.
Bottom Line: Louisville is an unknown heading into the season. With a good coach in Chris Mack and a roster with clear talent, there’s reason to believe this could be a Tournament squad. Playing in the ACC, though, will make that goal a daunting challenge.
12. Boston College
Key Returners: Ky Bowman, Nik Popovic, Jordan Chatman, Steffon Mitchell
Key Losses: Jerome Robinson
Key Newcomers: Jairus Hamilton, Wynston Tabbs
Outlook: After years toiling in the ACC basement, Jim Christian finally broke the Eagles out of their slump finishing, well, they still finished 11th but that’s progress! BC notched its first overall winning record since 2011 and recorded its most ever ACC wins, proving it could beat anyone (at least at home) when they defeated Duke, FSU, NC State, Miami, and Syracuse. This season promises to be another step in the right direction as Christian continues to develop his young pieces and ever-improving upperclassmen.
The loss of Jerome Robinson hurts tremendously. No one can blame the stud wing for departing BC and becoming a Lottery(?!?!?!?!) pick, but his absence takes BC’s ceiling from second weekend in the NCAA Tournament to bubble team. From a +/- PPP perspective, returning guard Ky Bowman was actually the far more valuable backcourt member; per Hoop Lens, BC was +0.19ppp when Bowman was on the court, which was majority of the time (Bowman ranked 5th in the country in minutes per game). The biggest issue with BC last season (outside of its defense) was depth – only Jim Boeheim at Syracuse played less bench minutes than Jim Christian. With Robinson gone, that will continue to be an issue in 2018-19.
Christian ramped up BC’s tempo the last two seasons choosing to play to the strengths of his star-studded backcourt. With Bowman’s return, expect to see more of the same: an uptempo attack featuring a healthy diet of pick-n-roll, isolation, and drive-and-kick all revolving around Bowman. Last season, Bowman’s shooting percentages fell off considerably with a much higher volume of attempts, a result of the talented lead guard often falling victim to poor shot selection. When Bowman was at his best, he was nearly unstoppable (see 30 points, 10 rebounds, 9 assists against Duke), but when he was off, BC suffered. This year, Bowman will take on an even greater share of the shot pie, which could be good or bad depending on how he’s developed his shot-taking mindset in the offseason. His ability to create offense and opportunities out of nothing makes him one of the best guards in the country; if he puts it all together, BC could scrape together a decent Tourney resume.
To truly be successful in 2018-19 and take the next step towards a Tourney berth, BC will need contributions from its former role players and/or incoming freshmen. Jordan Chatman returns on the wing after enjoying a season in which he shot 39.5% from beyond the arc and poured in 12.5ppg. Chatman is best in the catch-and-shoot role, but last season he expanded his game and learned how to use his gravitational pull as a shooter to his advantage and blow by erratic closeouts. Aside from Chatman, freshman Wynston Tabbs is the only other competent backcourt piece on the roster. Tabbs, a 3-star prospect out of Maryland, can play either guard spot and should be able to contribute immediately with his quickness, vision, and outside shot.
Offensively, the next great hope to step up into a consistent contributor is Jairus Hamilton, a top 100 freshman with the size, strength, and athleticism to play the 3 or the 4. Hamilton’s game is mostly of a downhill, drive to the basket variety, and he can also be a weapon on the block. Shooting will have to be a priority for the freshman in the offseason – if he develops a consistent jumper, it would go a long way towards BC’s Tourney goals. Defensively, Hamilton projects as a plus defender able to matchup with multiple positions (a rarity at Boston College in recent years).
Up front, Christian will rely primarily on sophomore Steffon Mitchell and junior Nik Popovic for production. Mitchell was thrown into the fire as a freshman and performed well despite the daunting trials of the ACC. He’s the best rebounder on the team (notched the most rebounds per game by a freshman in BC history) and provides good rim protection on defense. On offense, Mitchell is adept at drawing contact in the paint and getting to the foul line. He shot 80 threes last season, a suggestion that he thinks he can shoot from outside, but hit only 27.5% of them. If he can develop into a consistent floor spacer, BC’s offense will flourish.
Popovic was the 11th best offensive rebounder in the conference last season by rate and is an effective roll man in the pick-n-roll. The Bosnia & Herzegovina native has pretty good footwork in the post and can finish with either hand. Defensively, Popovic isn’t quite the shot blocker Mitchell is, but he’s able to change shots enough to be effective. Luka Kraljevic and JohnCarlos Reyes will provide depth at the 4 and 5 spots.
Bottom Line: BC seems to have lofty expectations this season despite the loss of Robinson. While Bowman is an uber-talented point guard and Jim Christian has clearly started to develop a strong culture, the fact of the matter is the ACC is an absolute blood bath. Even with Robinson last season, BC finished 10th in the conference in offensive efficiency per KenPom and 14th in defensive efficiency. It’s hard to see how the Eagles improve enough in 2018-19 to punch a bid to the Dance, but a similar conference record of 7-11 and another NIT bid is well within reach.
13. Wake Forest
Key Returners: Brandon Childress, Olivier Sarr, Chaundee Brown
Key Losses: Bryant Crawford, Keyshawn Woods, Doral Moore, Mitchell Wilbekin, Terrence Thompson
Key Newcomers: Torry Johnson (NAU), Jaylen Hoard, Isaiah Mucius, Jamie Lewis, Sharone Wright Jr., Ikenna Smart (Buffalo)
Outlook: Despite the loss of John Collins and Dinos Mitglou, the 2017-18 Wake Forest season was one of the more disappointing ones in college basketball. Danny Manning had a talented squad but could only muster four wins in the competitive ACC, a significant downturn from the NCAA Tourney appearance in 2016-17. More turnover this year may mean another season of disappointment with five key contributors departing by way of graduation or the professional ranks. To compensate, Manning brings in the nation’s 17th ranked recruiting class and another two impact transfers. Wake will be an extremely young team this year, but there’s hope for the future in Winston-Salem.
Wake’s pick-n-roll heavy offensive scheme is predicated on good guard play, of which the Deacons had plenty last season. With the loss of Bryant Crawford and Keyshawn Woods, Brandon Childress will be looked upon to lead the young crop of newcomers. Childress is the lone returning upperclassmen on the roster so he will be expected to lead the team both on and off the court. As sophomore, Childress built on a fairly successful rookie year, improving nearly every metric of his developing game. He’s a proven good three-point shooter, but Childress will need to finish better at the rim and in the mid-range; a crack down on turnovers would serve the guard as well.
Sophomore Chaundee Brown and Northern Arizona import Torry Johnson will be counted on to provide Childress with support in the backcourt. Brown is a big wing with the length and size to play either the 2 or the 3. Johnson projects to be a great addition to the team both in the locker room and on the floor. The 6’3” grad transfer was arguably the Lumberjacks’ best player last season, able to score off the dribble or from deep. His quick hands on defense allowed him to rank 10th in the Big Sky in steal rate. Expect freshmen Jamie Lewis and Sharone Wright Jr. to be involved at some point in the backcourt rotation as well. Lewis is a score-first, stocky, aggressive point guard that attacks the rim with a fervor. Wright is more of an off-guard.
Wake’s backcourt is solid this season, but its frontcourt could be the deciding factor in whether the Deacons are competitive in conference play. Olivier Sarr appears to be the next great forward in Danny Manning’s ever-growing “school of big men”. Sarr has reportedly added 40 pounds to his frame this offseason, a frame that already boasts a 7’3” wingspan. At the very least, Sarr should be an effective rebounder and shot blocker, and last year Sarr tinkered with a developing outside shot.
If Sarr can’t produce on offense, perhaps the freshman tandem of Jaylen Hoard and Isaiah Mucius can. Hoard is the crown jewel of Manning’s 2018 recruiting class, a 5-star talent dripping with potential. The French native is a very physical athlete that functions as either a 3 or 4 on offense. He’s Wake’s highest ranked recruit since 2008. Mucius is another top 100 recruit with superior length and athleticism. The 6’8” wing is primarily a basket attacker on offense and should be a versatile defender on the other end. The pair will be joined in the frontcourt rotation by Buffalo transfer Ikenna Smart, a good finisher on offense and solid rebounder – perfect for a reserve role behind Sarr.
For Wake to be competitive, its defense must improve from last year. Expect Manning to run a mix of zone and man and utilize a variety of lineup looks as he figures out his rotation. A particularly intriguing lineup consists of Childress / Brown / Mucius / Hoard / Sarr, which would give the Deacons a ridiculous amount of size, length, and athleticism with which to lock down opposing offenses.
Bottom Line: Wake’s one of those mystery teams that could finish in a variety of ways in 2018-19. If Manning can get the newcomers to immediately buy-in to the system and Sarr improves in line with past Wake big men, the Deacons could conceivably crack the ACC top ten. More likely, Wake will struggle with a young team trying to find its identity, but hope for Tourney bids lies in the near future.
14. Georgia Tech
Key Returners: Jose Alvarado, Abdoulaye Gueye, Brandon Alston
Key Losses: Josh Okogie, Ben Lammers, Tadric Jackson
Key Newcomers: Mike Devoe, Shembari Phillips (Tennessee), Kristian Sjolund, Khalid Moore
Outlook: The Georgia Tech basketball program looked to be on its way to a major revival following Josh Pastner’s first year in Atlanta. The Yellow Jackets, picked by some (most notably Jon Rothstein) to win ZERO games in ACC play, notched a 21-16 record on their way to finishing 2nd in the NIT. So it follows that last season would carry lofty expectations for a team that featured an upstart culture and its three best players from prior year. Things didn’t work out too well for GT unfortunately, as the Jackets stumbled to a 13-19 (6-12) mark. Georgia Tech basketball is a far cry away from Paul Hewitt’s 2004 National Runner-up squad (that team was dope) and hasn’t made the Field of 68 since 2010. With key cogs in Ben Lammers, Josh Okogie, and Tadric Jackson gone, it may be a few more years before GT sees the Promised Land again.
Lammers and Okogie had enormous impacts in their final years in Atlanta. Lammers anchored a defense that ranked 6th in the ACC (6th nationally in 2016-17) and Okogie was one of the very few bright spots in an otherwise murky offense. When Okogie sat last season, Georgia Tech scored 0.90ppp, which is absolutely terrible. Pastner’s teams dating back to his Memphis days have historically been much more defensive minded, and to his credit GT has been stout on that end the past two seasons. But the offense has been an outright train wreck. GT was one of the worst three-point shooting teams in the country last season and as result opted to force the issue from the mid-range and at the rim. With some competent returning shooters maturing and the addition of potential offense via the recruiting wire, there’s hope yet that GT can be somewhat decent on the offensive end in 2018-19.
Georgia Tech’s backcourt will be its strong point with returning point guard Jose Alvarado, top-50 freshman Mike Devoe, and Tennessee transfer Shembari Phillips. Turnovers were real a problem for Alvarado last season, but the 6-foot rising sophomore proved to be one of GT’s most valuable assets on offense shooting a scorching slash of .522/.370/.802 (2P/3P/FT) (by far the best combination on the team). Alvarado missed the last seven games of the season due to an elbow injury and GT finished just 2-5 in those contests.
Alvarado split point duties with Jackson last season, which was a good move by Pastner from a personnel perspective. This season, Mike Devoe will be able to play alongside or spell Alvarado and assist in ball handling duties. Devoe can be dangerous from either the point or 2-guard spot with his pass-first mentality, size (6’4”), and shooting ability. He’ll be a perfect complement to Alvarado, and Pastner could have two sharpshooting ball handlers on the court at the same time. Devoe also projects as a good on-ball defender with his quick hands, which also pairs well with Alvarado who ranked 11th in the ACC in steal rate as a freshman.
Pastner has quite a few options at the wing position with the aforementioned Phillips and returning players Brandon Alston and Curtis Haywood II. Phillips is probably the best basketball player of the trio, but his size (6’2” / 6’3”) would make it difficult for Pastner to play him in a lineup already featuring Devoe and Alvarado. A bench role could actually suit Phillips quite well; he’s a good outside shooter and showed flashes of being a dynamic playmaker at Tennessee where he started 13 games in 2016-17. Alston and Haywood are bigger bodies that can easily play the 3-spot. Haywood is mostly a catch-and-shoot threat while Alston, a former Lehigh Mountain Hawk, can put the ball on the floor in addition to his solid outside shooting ability.
The backcourt will be relied upon heavily to score the basketball because the frontcourt offers very little in that regard. Returning center A.D. Gueye is an excellent rebounder, shot blocker, and all around garbage man, but he’s just not a good finisher around the basket. Likewise, returning power forward Moses Wright, a late bloomer of sorts, proved to be an effective rebounder and defender but put up one of the worst shooting lines I’ve come across in recent years; Wright shot 39.8% from 2, 54.3% from the line, and 6.5% (2/31) from three as a freshman.
Hope in the frontcourt lies in sophomore Evan Cole, who started the last seven games of the season in 2017-18, and freshmen Kristian Sjolund and Khalid Moore. Cole is a much better offensive option than Wright and only slightly worse in the rebounding and defensive realms; he should get the first crack at the starting five in his second year in Atlanta. Sjolund is a somewhat highly regarded recruit but he’s still much too skinny to expect to contribute consistently in his first season. Down the road he projects as a stretch-four type that can also deter shots inside with his length. Moore is an athletic wing that should have more of an opportunity than Sjolund in his rookie year. Like Alston and Haywood, Moore can shoot it from deep and his wingspan and strength could make him an effective two-way player.
Bottom Line: Georgia Tech’s a major long shot to make the Tournament this year, but Pastner appears to have the program trending in the right direction. His Yellow Jackets should continue to be a tough group on defense even without Lammers and his offense should at least be better at knocking down outside shots. GT is still a year or two away from challenging for a Tourney bid, but it could win a game or two in the hyper-competitive ACC.
Key Returners: Jared Wilson-Frame, Shamiel Stevenson, Khameron Davis, Kene Chukwuka, Terrell Brown
Key Losses: Marcus Carr, Ryan Luther, Parker Stewart
Key Newcomers: Xavier Johnson, Malik Ellison (St. John’s), Sidy N’dir (NMSU), Trey McGowens, Au’Diese Toney
Outlook: It’s safe to say the two-year Kevin Stallings experiment at Pitt was a spectacular failure. After being a perennial conference title contender under current TCU coach Jamie Dixon, the Panthers spiraled down a deep dark hole and finished a putrid 4-32 in conference play under Stallings (including a 0-18 showing in 2017-18). Stallings was so bad Pitt decided to axe him and move on earlier than his initial contract intended resulting in the school owing its ex-coach over $9 million. But all that is the past, and if there’s one thing Pitt fans want to do, its look forward and focus on the future.
Jeff Capel, Coach K’s sideline pal for the past seven or eight years, looks to take over a down program and right the ship. Capel is well known in the college basketball world for his ability to recruit, which is a quick and surefire way to kick start Pitt’s revival. Capel also brings with him head coaching experience having already served as the captain of VCU and Oklahoma. At OU, Capel led a star-studded team featuring Blake Griffin to the Elite Eight in 2009 before ultimately flaming out his final two seasons in Norman. Say what you will about Capel’s in-game coaching ability, this is an absolute homerun hire for a program in desperate need of a new beginning.
Pitt was one of the nation’s youngest teams in 2017-18 and will be so again this year. Capel will be without two of Pitt’s few bright spots in Marcus Carr and Parker Stewart, as the two freshmen jumped ship with the coaching change. But, in true Capel style, Pitt brings in several promising new additions via high school and the transfer wire.
The biggest impact newcomer this season will be Malik Ellison, a St. John’s transfer that sat out last year per NCAA rules. Ellison was technically a Stallings addition, but we’re not going to split hairs in this preview. Reports say that Capel has already named Ellison a team captain heading into the year after the guard proved to be one of Pitt’s best players in practice last season. Ellison brings much needed scoring ability from all three levels of the floor and can handle the ball and facilitate, acting as a safety valve for the young Pitt PGs. He’ll be joined in the backcourt by New Mexico State grad transfer Sidy N’Dir (a Capel get), an athletic 2-guard that can shift to the wing or the point and provide scoring punch via penetration or behind the arc. N’Dir started all 34 games last year for an NMSU Tourney team and should be a valuable piece either in the starting five or, more likely, off the pine in Capel’s system.
From a freshman perspective, Capel brings in three well-regarded recruits in guards Xavier Johnson and Trey McGowens and wing Au’Diese Toney. One of Johnson or McGowens will start at point guard this year for Capel, but both freshmen can play off the ball as well. Johnson is the quicker of the two and probably the more “true” PG, but McGowens is the overall better playmaker and shooter and has better size. Both guards are explosive driving to the basket and both will make immediate impacts at Pitt.
Toney, a 2019 reclass, is a 6’6” wing that holds gobs of potential to be a really good ACC player down the road. He’s already highly athletic and has a good looking shot. Experience and commitment to defense will help his game tremendously.
Capel’s returning core is more talented than people give them credit. Jared Wilson-Frame, a former JUCO star and last year’s leading scorer, should once again be the focal point of the offense along with Ellison. Wilson-Frame’s shooting percentages were much lower than anticipated, but that’s likely due to the burden he had to try to score – JWF led the ACC in both usage and % of team shots attempted in 2017-18. With a little more offensive firepower around him, Wilson-Frame can let the game come to him and improve those percentages.
Khameron Davis, Shamiel Stevenson, Terrell Brown, and Kene Chukwuku are the other key returners for Pitt. All four guys are underclassmen and all fours guys already have starting experience in their young college careers. Davis is primarily a shooter on offense but he’s probably the team’s best perimeter defender on the other end of the floor. Stevenson is a big body that can play either the 3 or 4 position. He’s best when bullying smaller defenders in the post and finishing near the rim – if his developing three-point shot becomes more consistent, he’ll be a major breakout candidate this season.
Brown and Chukwuku are the primary big men option outside of Stevenson. Brown, a 6’10” center, has a 7’3” wingspan that helped him notch the ACC’s 3rd best block rate during his freshman season. He’s another guy that looks to be on the verge of breaking out as shown by his uptick in production near the end of last year. Chukwuku is a stretchy 4 but “stretchy” should be in heavy quotes until he can prove he can shoot over 20% from deep.
Bottom Line: Pitt should be an improved team from last season (hell, they can’t get any worse). Capel will hopefully bring with him a new offensive scheme that emphasizes space and attacking the basket, as Stallings’ group fell in love with the three too often in 2017-18. Defense is still going to be a question mark, but the maturation of Brown and Davis, among others, should help this cause. Expect 2-4 wins in the ACC from Pitt this season, anything higher would be an astounding achievement.