- 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: Cole Anthony, Fr., North Carolina
Coach of the Year: Tony Bennett, Virginia
Newcomer of the Year: Cole Anthony, Fr., North Carolina
Freshman of the Year: Cole Anthony, Fr., North Carolina
5. NC State
See full preview here: #26 in our Top-40 countdown
6. Florida State
See full preview here: #25 in our Top-40 countdown
7. Notre Dame
Key Returners: John Mooney, TJ Gibbs, Prentiss Hubb, Rex Pflueger, Dane Goodwin, Nate Laszewski, Juwan Durham, Nikola Djogo, Robby Carmody
Key Losses: DJ Harvey
Key Newcomers: None
Outlook: Luck was nowhere to be found for the Irish in 2018-19. Mike Brey’s young squad was hit hard by injuries and finished 302nd in KenPom’s “Luck” ratings. The 3-15 ACC performance was good for dead last in the toughest conference in the country, the school’s worst mark since joining the league in 2013-14. Five different players battled injuries last season and senior forward Elijah Burns announced he was leaving the program in November. Brey was left with an inexperienced squad with little-to-no depth with which to do battle in the ACC gauntlet.
South Bend faithful are hopeful things turn around this season. Brey has a unique combination of experience (four senior starters) and a plethora of players making the “freshman to sophomore leap”. Though he has no new recruits in the class of 2019, Brey has plenty to work with as he tries to end the school’s two-year Tourney drought.
Last year’s Irish squad was the worst offensive team in Mike Brey’s Notre Dame coaching tenure (spanning back to 2000-01). The half-court focused motion offense that puts an emphasis on spacing, shooting, and ball movement didn’t change, but the personnel was unable to execute it to typical Irish standards. Shooting was the main issue – the Irish ranked 329th in 2PFG% and 304th in 3PFG%, which dragged down an offense that protected the ball at the 4th best rate in the country. Only four players on the roster shot over 50% from inside the arc (and one was Chris Doherty, who played 11 games), driven by a putrid 30.1% clip from the mid-range area. This futility was every bit as much poor shot selection as it was execution.
Temple “TJ” Gibbs and Prentiss Hubb, Brey’s dual point guards, were two primary culprits for Notre Dame’s offensive woes. Gibbs continued his strong pick-n-roll play from his sophomore season and rarely coughed up the rock, but his shooting tanked in 2018-19 – the 6’3” guard shot just 31.8% from three (40.4% in 2017-18) and 38.0% from two (42.2% in 2017-18). Below are Gibbs’ sophomore (left) and junior (right) shot charts:
Hubb, who was thrust into the fire as a freshman and forced to play nearly 40 minutes per game, allowed Gibbs to play more off the ball, but his 26.3% three-point clip was a detriment to his team on offense. Both guards need to improve this season, especially Gibbs who was seen as the undisputed go-to player of this squad heading into last year. Brey’s track record of player development suggests improvement is on the way.
Brey has plenty of bodies this year to fill out his wing rotation. Rex Pflueger returns after going down with an ACL tear in the 10th game of last season. Pflueger is Notre Dame’s emotional leader on the floor and doubles as one of its best shooters – before succumbing to injury, the 6’6” wing shot 38.9% from deep. Though a small sample size, the Irish were light years better last season when Pflueger was on the floor. Per Hoop Lens, Notre Dame was a net +0.39 PPP in the 10 games when Pflueger played and its defense allowed just 0.89 PPP (compared to 1.18 PPP when he sat). He should retake his starting spot and be a staple in Brey’s lineup all year.
Robby Carmody also returns from an injury-laden freshman season. Carmody started his first two games as a member of the Irish, scoring 10.0 PPG and grabbing 3.5 RPG. His big frame and physicality will be an asset on the wing and serve as a change of pace from the more shooting-focused Pflueger and Dane Goodwin. Goodwin was one of the biggest beneficiaries from injuries last season, as he was forced into playing major minutes much sooner than expected. Touted as one of the best shooters in the class of 2018, Goodwin shot just 34.3% from three and 39.7% inside the arc, but there’s reason to believe he can be a deadly spot-up weapon in 2019-20. Defensively, Goodwin is one of the weaker perimeter stoppers on the roster, and the Irish were a net -0.10 PPP on defense when he was on the floor. Junior wing Nikola Djogo offers much more in the realm of defense than Goodwin, but he’s not nearly the shooter.
By far the most surprising Irish performance of 2018-19 was the play of John Mooney, a former role player turned team MVP. Mooney was a shining positive in a sea of negatives last season, earning a spot on the ACC’s 3rd Team All-Conference and averaging a double-double. Per Pat Rick over at One Foot Down, Mooney was just the 3rd non-senior under Brey to average a double-double – the other two were Luke Harangody and Bonzie Colson. En route to becoming an all-conference player, Mooney ranked 12th in the ACC in offensive rebounding rate and 1st in defensive rebounding rate while shooting 37.4% from downtown. Defensively, he’s a good-not-great paint presence that can alter shots and grab boards, and is one of the best big men in the nation at playing without fouling (common theme for Mike Brey big men).
Joining Mooney up front will be former UConn forward Juwan Durham and sophomores Nate Laszewski and Chris Doherty. Durham also missed some time last season with injury but was effective when he saw the floor. His biggest asset is his ability to block shots (15.9% block rate is outrageous), but due to his infatuation with trying to swat everything near him, the Irish were destroyed on the defensive glass when he played last season. Durham is still raw offensively, but he makes for a nice pairing with Mooney, who can step outside and space the floor. Laszewski is a stretch four that can give the Irish a 5-out look when paired with Mooney. He was rail thin as a freshman and must make strides this offseason in the strength department to be a more reliable contributor. Doherty was forced to play due to injuries last year; he’s a bruising big who serves mostly as a physical presence on the glass.
Unsurprisingly, Brey played a lot more zone last season than he has in the past, presumably due his team’s lack of experience and lack of depth. Notre Dame’s zone was better than its man-to-man last year, but the Irish ranked just 11th overall in the ACC in defensive efficiency, per KenPom. As alluded to earlier, no team in the country was better at avoiding sending opponents to the charity stripe last season, but outside of Mooney Notre Dame was constantly destroyed on the glass. The sagging defense also deterred turnover creation, but it did succeed in lengthening possessions. Expect to see more man this season from Brey, but the long-time head coach has always mixed in a healthy amount of zone.
Bottom Line: Mike Brey has a long history of success at Notre Dame, enough to assume last season was simply an outlier. The deck was stacked against the Irish from the start and any program would have suffered a similar fate with the amount of injuries and inexperience that plagued them. Notre Dame should be a much-improved team in 2019-20 and could even flirt with an AP Poll ranking at some point during the year. NCAA Tournament bids are tough to come by in the competitive ACC, but the Irish should feel good about their chances heading into the season.
8. Miami FL
Key Returners: Chris Lykes, Dejan Vasilijevic, Sam Waardenburg, Deng Gak
Key Losses: Anthony Lawrence, Zach Johnson, Ebuka Izundu, Anthony Mack
Key Newcomers: Kameron McGusty (Oklahoma), Keith Stone (Florida), Isaiah Wong, Harlond Beverly, Anthony Walker III
Outlook: Similar to its Irish ACC cohort, Miami faced an onslaught of poor luck in 2018-19. After looking like a solid candidate for an at-large bid in the preseason, the Canes received news that their best player, Dewan Hernandez (Huell), would not be eligible to play due to links with the completely pointless and utterly useless NCAA FBI investigation. Guard Miles Wilson was dismissed from the team in September for failing to meet program expectations and freshman center Deng Gak played just eight games before going down with an injury. With big man Rodney Miller and OU transfer Kameron McGusty redshirting and taking up two scholarship spots, head coach Jim Larranaga was left with seven viable options with which to work. The Canes’ absence from the NCAA Tournament broke a 3-year at-large bid streak and last year’s team was just the second in Larranaga’s Miami tenure to win less than 20 games. Piling on the stats, 2018-19 Miami was Larranaga’s first team under .500 since his George Mason squad back in 1997-98. A short bench and a thin frontcourt led to the Canes having their worst defense in the Larranaga era and translated to a paltry 5-13 in ACC play. Like Notre Dame though, we should expect to see a bounce-back this season from the Miami program.
No Huell meant point guard Chris Lykes was forced into a much more high-usage role than in his freshman season. This year, Lykes will continue to be the focal point and catalyst of the Canes’ attack, but he should have more help in the scoring department. Miami will continue running its offense primarily through the pick-n-roll where Lykes excels coming off screens and knifing to the bucket or pulling up from deep.
Anthony Lawrence and Ebuka Izundu were two very good roll men in ball screen scenarios, but incoming transfer Keith Stone (yes, like the Keystone Light guy) and a healthy Deng Gak should be able to step in and make up for that lost production.
There’s no questioning Lykes’ talent, but too often last season the 5’7” point guard forced the issue and took poor shots. His 3P% fell to 31.8% partially due to an uptick of pull-up three-point attempts. Per Hoop-Math, only 41% of Lykes’ made threes in 2018-19 were assisted and only 8.7% of his two-point jumpers. Defensively, Lykes should continue to be one of the biggest on-ball pests in the ACC, using his quick hands and low-to-the-floor stature to make ball handlers uncomfortable. Per Hoop Lens, Miami allowed 0.97 PPP when Lykes was on the floor and gave up 1.10 PPP when he sat.
Lykes will continue to be one of the higher-used players in the ACC, but the Canes need a secondary playmaker and scorer to step up in order to compete for a Tourney bid. Oklahoma transfer Kameron McGusty is the most obvious candidate to provide a scoring punch on the wing alongside three-point specialist Dejan Vasilijevic. McGusty saw his role at OU shrink two years ago when Trae Young came to town, but he had his moments including a 22-point performance against Kansas. McGusty is mainly a jump shooter, but he can be a creator when called upon. Vasilijevic likely remains primarily a spot-up shooter. The 6’3” Australian knocked down 36.7% of his 221 long-ball tries last season and is arguably the best FT shooter in the ACC (91.8% in 2018-19).
Two 4-star freshman guards could also see immediate playing time opportunities in the Cane backcourt. Harlond Beverly (#53 recruit) and Isaiah Wong (#81) each bring a combination of skill and scoring to the table. Beverly is the more “ready” product at this point and is insanely athletic – he’ll be a guy that can run Miami’s offense through the pick-n-roll either alongside or in place of Lykes. Wong is not as bouncy, but he’s very crafty at getting shots off through the teeth of the defense.
A healthy Deng Gak is a must this season with the loss of Ebuka Izundu, the #1 offensive rebounder by rate in the ACC last season. Gak’s season ended after just eight games when he went down with a knee injury, but he showed great promise in that short time span. In that limited time, Gak posted crazy high offensive rebounding rates and showed he could be a reliable rim protector on defense. He’s still raw from an offensive standpoint, but all he really needs to know how to do is catch and dunk.
Junior Sam Waardenburg and Florida grad transfer Keith Stone will battle for the starting 4-spot this season. Waardenburg earned more minutes than he was entitled to last season due to the injuries and suspensions, but he is a serviceable outside shooter that can help space the floor when Miami runs its normal 4-out attack. Stone is a natural replacement for Lawrence at the 4 with his ability to play inside and out. He tore his ACL in January, but presumably should be ready for the season opener. When he’s on the floor, Stone can stretch the floor (career 39.4% 3P shooter) on offense and D-up bigger 4s and 5s on the other end with his 6’8” 250+ lb. frame. His versatility will allow Larranaga plenty of lineup options. Anthony Walker, a 3 or 4-star recruit depending where you look, could also fight for some time up front, but with 7-foot Rodney Miller returning from a redshirt year the Miami frontcourt is mighty crowded.
I mentioned earlier that Miami’s defense last season was the worst in the Larranaga era, and it ranked 14th in the ACC. One driver for this futility was the Canes’ inability to stop anybody in transition. Opposing teams scored on Miami very quickly and the Canes ranked 348th in the country in FGA% allowed in transition. Larranaga mixed in a healthy amount of zone (about 14% of Miami’s possessions), but this turned out to be a failed implementation with the Canes allowing 0.987 PPP (just 22nd percentile in the country). It’s hard to see the Miami defense improving dramatically this season, but it should definitely be better. McGusty is an upgrade on the wing, and Stone and Gak are slight upgrades over Izundu / Lawrence from a rim protection standpoint. Simply having more bodies at its disposal should help Miami improve on this end.
Bottom Line: Historically, Miami has been a very good program under Jim Larranaga. Last season should prove to be an outlier in an otherwise successful tenure in Coral Gables. With an influx of talent from the transfer and high school ranks, Larranaga should have the requisite scoring, depth, and defense to push for a middle-of-the-pack finish in the ACC and an NCAA Tournament bid.
Key Returners: Elijah Hughes, Buddy Boeheim, Jalen Carey, Marek Dolezaj
Key Losses: Tyus Battle, Oshae Brissett, Frank Howard, Paschal Chukwu
Key Newcomers: Brycen Goodine, Quincy Guerrier, Joseph Girard III, John Bol Ajak
Outlook: Buckle up for another wild ride on Jimmy B’s Bubble Machine! Since earning a 3-seed and going 14-4 in the ACC in 2013-14, Syracuse has been a mainstay in the bubble discussion in March. Over the past five years, the Orange have tallied a conference record of 46-44 and have punched tickets to three Dances as a 10-seed, 11-seed, and 8-seed. Boeheim’s bunch was bounced in the First Round of last year’s Tourney at the paws of the Baylor Bears and now look to rebuild after losing four starters.
Syracuse has not been a good offensive team the past two seasons primarily due its over-reliance on one or two guys to “make things happen”. The Orange scored last year because they had talented players like Tyus Battle and Oshae Brissett who could create a shot out of nothing or hit a bailout jumper late in the shot clock. Ball movement was scarce on last year’s squad and the Orange ranked 14th in the country in percentage of possessions used in isolation. No player on Cuse’s roster can replicate what Battle did offensively, so Boeheim will need to rely on incoming freshmen and guys like Elijah Hughes to create offense, otherwise the Orange could be in for a lot of cold nights running out a jump-shot, isolation reliant attack. Just look how far Cuse’s offense fell off last season when Battle sat:
Hughes was objectively excellent last season, far exceeding expectations after coming over from East Carolina following the 2016-17 campaign. He was a highly regarded recruit coming out of HS but never really shined at ECU, making his performance in ACC play all the more stunning. Hughes functioned primarily as a spot-up shooter in 2018-19, canning 36.9% of his 236 three-point attempts, but this year will be looked upon as a go-to scorer and creator offensively. Boeheim seems very high on Hughes in the offseason so perhaps he can chip away at the production gap left by Battle and Brissett – if nothing else, he’ll continue to be an excellent defender in the 2-3 zone.
Boeheim is notorious for keeping a short bench, which is all fine and dandy when you have a core set of guys that clearly outperform your reserves. However, the downside of relying on a few stars to win ball games is the cost of the subsequent year. With Frank Howard gone, sophomore Jalen Carey, who played just 12 MPG last season, will be handed the keys full-time in 2019-20. Carey was highly ranked in the class of 2018, but he was barely given a chance to develop behind Howard. He’ll need to prove he can run an offense and handle the ball after posting a turnover rate of 34.7% (46.7% in conference play). At least Boeheim was able to get his son, Buddy, involved last year. Buddy Boeheim will be a key cog in the Orange machine in 2019-20 with his ability to shoot from the outside and likely starts majority of the year.
Three freshman guards will push Boeheim and Carey for those precious backcourt minutes. Brycen Goodine, the #73 recruit per ESPN, is a 6’3” shooting guard who has a smooth-looking outside shot and plus athleticism. He looks the part of a future playmaker in the Syracuse offense. Joseph Girard III, the #90 recruit per ESPN, is already a legend in the state of New York after AVERAGING 50 PPG in high school and capturing the National Gatorade Athlete of the Year award. Girard’s true value has been debated due to the competition he faced in high school, but make no mistake about it – this guy is a lights-out shooter from anywhere in the gym. It doesn’t matter who you play against in high school, outside shooting translates at all levels. Quincy Guerrier will fill in on the wing alongside sophomore Robert Braswell. Guerrier has all the physical attributes to play minutes in the ACC and have a meaningful impact on the floor and there’s indications he nabs the starting 4-spot from the get go. He’s primarily a slasher from the wing but has the ability to hit outside shots.
Braswell is a guy to watch this year. I’m not bold enough to presume to know what Boeheim is thinking, but in my eyes Braswell is a potential breakout player in 2019-20. He saw only garbage time as a freshman but displayed skills to suggest he’s ready for a more primetime role. His game and build is similar to Brissett’s and he could be an asset in the zone at 6’7”.
Up front, Marek Dolezaj will compete for starts at the 4 after starting six games in 2018-19 and 17 as a freshman. There’s nothing special to his game; he’s a solid role player that contributes in the shooting and defensive departments. The starting 5-spot will likely go to 6’10” junior Bourama Sidibe, a long 6’10” center who will be tasked with replacing the paint anchor job previously occupied by Paschal Chukwu. While certainly not a weapon on offense, Sidibe has the makings to be a good shot blocker and rebounder in his third season in college. Freshmen John Bol Ajak and Jesse Edwards will pressure Sidibe for time and perhaps even see the floor occasionally. Ajak is the more polished prospect and higher ranked of the two with his ability to shoot and put the ball on the deck.
Howard Washington is the other potential impact player on the roster this season, but it’s unclear how much he can contribute after suffering a stroke last year.
Bottom Line: Offensively, I’m not bullish at all on this Syracuse team. Scoring is going to come at a premium with little-to-no proven creators on the roster. Outside shooting may improve, but without an impactful post player or dribble-drive game, it’s hard to imagine the Orange scoring consistently.
Defensively, the Orange should continue to be pretty good simply due to the system – Boeheim has had only one defense since 2009 that has ranked outside the top 50. Syracuse was the 30th best defensive team per KenPom last year, playing its patented 2-3 zone to perfection thanks to the ridiculous length at all five positions. Expect Syracuse’s turnover rate (10th last year) to decline with Howard, Battle, and Brissett departing. These three were all long guards that made it tough to make entry or cross-court passes against the zone. The replacements of Carey / Boeheim / Dolezaj just isn’t as intimidating. As said above, Hughes will still be a key part of the defensive scheme, but it’s unclear if Sidibe or Ajak can have the impact Chukwu did in the paint or if the freshmen backcourt can pick up on the nuances of the zone in year one. Boeheim has hinted about ramping up fullcourt pressure and showing some man looks, but the 2-3 zone should continue to reign supreme in Onondaga County.
10. Georgia Tech
Key Returners: Jose Alvarado, James Banks III, Moses Wright, Michael Devoe, Khalid Moore, Evan Cole, Shembari Phillips, Kristian Sjolund
Key Losses: Curtis Haywood, Abdoulaye Gueye, Brandon Alston
Key Newcomers: Asanti Price, David Didenko (JUCO), Jordan Usher (USC), Bubba Parham (VMI)
Outlook: Josh Pastner has done well keeping the Georgia Tech program afloat following Brian Gregory’s departure and the mass senior exodus in 2016. The Yellow Jackets have remained competitive in ACC play each of the past three seasons despite expectations to finish in or near the cellar, but have yet to punch a bid to the NCAA Tournament under Pastner. Last season, GT finished 9th in the ACC with an inexperienced team led by underclassmen, and scored wins on the road at Arkansas, Syracuse, and NC State. With nearly everyone returning from last year’s bunch, the Jackets should be right in the thick of things in ACC play and compete for their first Tourney berth since 2010.
Defense has been GT’s calling card under Pastner, finishing 43rd in the country last season per KenPom. The Jackets ramped up the zone play last season, dropping into a trapping, matchup 1-3-1 look on 59% of their possessions (17th highest rate in the nation), but still held stout in man-to-man sets. GT ranked 15th in the country in eFG% defense, paced by a shot eraser inside (James Banks III) and pesky perimeter swipers (Jose Alvarado and Michael Devoe). The loss of Curtis Haywood will hurt on the defensive side of the ball, but GT should still be one of the better units in the conference with Banks still roaming the paint and Alvarado and Devoe patrolling the arc.
Offense has largely been an after-thought in Atlanta under Pastner. Tech has finished 15th, 14th, and 15th in defensive efficiency in the ACC in Pastner’s three years heading the program and last year finished dead last by a significant margin. GT was a terrible shooting team last season, turned the ball over at a high rate, and couldn’t create second chance opportunities off the glass. Pastner’s offensive philosophy isn’t necessarily bad – it’s predicated on ball movement and constant cutting – but it was poorly executed by his personnel in 2018-19. The Jackets play through Banks quite a bit in the post and he’s proven to be a skilled passer from the elbow, able to find cutting teammates streaking to the hoop. Alvarado keys the attack and much of GT’s offensive success can be chalked up to his ability to penetrate and dump to bigs on the block.
The 6’0” junior took a more central role in the offense last season but struggled to maintain his freshman level of shooting, connecting on just 28.6% of his three-point attempts compared to 37% in 2017-18. His assist rate increased and his turnover rate decreased, proving he was more than capable at managing and conducting the Yellow Jacket attack, but poor shooting drove down his efficiency. This year, Alvarado appears poised for a bounceback in the shooting department, and he should be one of the better guards in the ACC.
Devoe will be Alvarado’s partner in crime this season, coming off a successful freshman campaign in which he played 32 MPG and shot 43.8% from outside the arc in ACC play. The 6’4” sophomore will be counted on to provide a bigger, more consistent scoring punch this season, as he tended to disappear on occasion in 2018-19.
Jordan Usher’s arrival in Atlanta should boost GT’s production on both ends of the floor. The former USC Trojan is eligible after the first semester and will provide versatile scoring and defense as a 3/4 tweener. Usher was a top 100 recruit coming out of high school in 2017 but wasn’t given ample opportunity in LA with USC constantly bringing in big-name backcourt prospects. At Georgia Tech, Usher will be given plenty of rope and will likely start right away once eligible. He’s one of the most talented players Pastner has had at GT and possesses immense size on the wing.
Pastner’s remaining guard and wing rotation is a collection of role players, none of which have proven to be reliable sources of production. Shembari Phillips was a disappointment last year after coming over from Tennessee, expected to provide GT with offensive firepower. After starting the first six games, Phillips’ playing time fell off and his shooting and ball protection numbers tanked. He may see starter’s minutes before Usher receives his eligibility, and GT will hope he can regain his shooting touch from his days in Knoxville. Khalid Moore started 10 games for the Jackets as a freshman in 2018-19. Like Phillips, he’ll compete for the starting 3 spot while Usher chills on the bench during the first semester. Moore has good size at 6’6” and a developing shot that he can pair with a burgeoning driving game.
Freshman guard Asanti Price is the only other true guard on the Tech roster. He projects as a good outside shooter, something this GT team desperately needs. Of course, if VMI transfer Bubba Parham is granted a waiver and allowed to play this season, Price likely doesn’t see the floor too much. Parham is a high level scorer that poured in over 1,100 points at VMI in just two seasons and shot 39.3% from deep on a high volume. He’s a natural scorer, attacks the rack, and stood up against quality competition outside of the SoCon. His size may preclude him from starting alongside Alvarado and Devoe, but he’s too talented a player not to be given major minutes.
Up front, Banks should once again be the focal point of GT’s attack. The former Texas center enjoyed a successful first season in the ACC, ranking 31st in the country in block rate, racking up fouls and FT opportunities, and rebounding at a high rate. He has the potential to be one of the more consistent two-way forwards in the conference this season.
A combination of Moses Wright, Evan Cole, Kristian Sjolund, and David Didenko will line up aside and complement Banks in the frontcourt. Wright is a solid defender at the 4-spot and a major benefactor of GT’s cutting offense. Cole was limited by injuries in 2019-20, but he’ll compete for starting time with Wright with his ability to defend face up. Sjolund is a stretchy 4 who shot 36.4% from three-point range in ACC play, and Didenko projects as a very good shooter who can play the 3 or 4 after coming up from the JUCO ranks this offseason.
Bottom Line: This might be Pastner’s best roster since arriving in Atlanta in 2016-17. While there’s no Josh Okogie, GT has solid pieces at nearly every position. Defense should continue to be the Jackets’ strong suit, but the offense should be much improved – especially if Parham becomes eligible. Look for Tech to compete for a top ten ACC finish in 2019-20 and push for a Tourney bid.
Key Returners: Xavier Johnson, Trey McGowens, Au’Diese Toney, Terrell Brown, Kene Chukwuka
Key Losses: Jared Wilson-Frame, Malik Ellison, Sidy N’Dir, Khameron Davis
Key Newcomers: Gerald Drumgoole Jr., Eric Hamilton (UNCG), Justin Champagnie, Karim Coulibaly, Ryan Murphy (JUCO)
Outlook: Jeff Capel brought the Panthers out of the pit(t) of despair last season, immediately turning the program around in the right direction after the 0-18 Kevin Stallings debacle. Pitt still finished tied for last in the ACC, managing just three conference wins, but ended the year over 100 spots better in KenPom’s overall rankings than the squad in 2017-18. One of the youngest teams in the country last season, the Panthers weren’t expected to compete for a Tourney bid, but they did throw a few haymakers when knocking off Florida State and Louisville in ACC play. This year Pitt should take another huge leap in the direction of conference competitiveness with three of its best four players (all sophomores) returning to the fold. Even if Capel falls short of the Big Dance in 2019-20, his squad will look dope on the floor while donning these unis:
Capel runs a pick-n-roll centric offense, allowing his talented backcourt to dictate the action. Last year, Pitt ranked 17th in the country in frequency of possessions used via ball screen, in an effort to attack the basket with full steam in hopes to earn trips to the foul. The Panthers were a poor three-point shooting team last season outside of Jared Wilson-Frame, so slashing to the hoop was their primary means of scoring. In 2018-19, Pitt ranked 13th in the country in FT rate and 5th in percentage of points scored from the FT line. Capel adds some shooting this year with the influx arrival of 4-star wing Gerald Drumgoole, Jr. and JUCO transfer Ryan Murphy, but the loss of Wilson-Frame and general status quo across the other positions suggests the Panthers will still rely heavily on rim attack and free throws to put points on the board.
Murphy is the 45th best JUCO recruit in the nation per JUCOrecrutiing.com and played for Charlotte his freshman year back in 2017-18. He’ll add outside shooting and scoring to the Pitt backcourt after pouring in 18.5 PPG in the JUCO ranks and shooting 40% from three at Charlotte two seasons ago. Drumgoole will compete for a starting spot from day one with his shooting ability and 6’6” frame. The La Lumiere product is deadly from the corner and a good athlete to boot. He’ll battle with fellow 4-star freshman Justin Champagnie for minutes on the wing. Champagnie is more of a driver than a shooter and projects as a versatile defender. A reclass from 2020, Champagnie is young for his grade and has a twin brother, Julian, who joined St. John’s this offseason.
Rounding out Capel’s 2019 recruiting class is a couple of big men in UNCG grad transfer Eric Hamilton and freshman Karim Coulibaly. Hamilton should make an immediate impact with his size considering the lack of frontcourt depth on the Pitt roster. Formerly of Wichita State, Hamilton was one of the best rebounders on both sides of the ball in the SoCon last season and has a knack for drawing contact on the block. Coulibaly has international experience playing in the U-18 and U-19 FIBA World Cup for Mali. The 3-star power forward has good touch around the basket and can step out from behind the arc and put the ball on the floor. With senior forward Kene Chukwuka undergoing hip surgery this offseason, Hamilton and/or Coulibaly may be asked to play significant minutes up front alongside junior Terrell Brown.
Brown could be in for major growth after turning in a solid sophomore season. He’s the anchor of the Pitt defense and ranked 16th in the country last season in block rate. Offensively, he has yet to shoot well in college, but the mechanics are there. If nothing else, Brown serves as a productive offensive rebounder capable of creating second chance opportunities.
Capel will count on his “Big Three” to lift the Panthers into Tourney contention this season. Xavier Johnson, Trey McGowens, and Au’Diese Toney started nearly every game and played major minutes as freshmen in 2018-19 and now look to make the stereotypical second year leap. Johnson was the 2nd highest used player in the ACC last season, ranking 2nd in the conference in assist rate to go along with a decent TO rate. The keys to Pitt’s offense are in Johnson’s hands – he is the primary benefactor of Capel’s pick-n-roll attack and is adept at using screens to either attack the rim, drive and kick, or pull up from deep. Johnson excelled against Pitt’s relatively weak non-conference schedule last year, but struggled during ACC play:
With a year under his belt and an offseason of prep, Johnson should come into 2019-20 better prepared to deal with the step up in competition. If he does, he’ll be an All-Conference caliber player.
McGowens ranked 2nd in the league in FT rate, attacking the rim with a fervor and shooting 165 foul shots (Johnson took 209). Not the quite the shooter Johnson is, McGowens prefers to get his points slashing from the wing or getting out in transition where he scored a scorching 1.241 PPP last season (83rd percentile, per Synergy). McGowens is also Pitt’s best perimeter defender – the Panthers allowed just 0.95 PPP when he played last season (1.04 PPP when he sat) and he ranked 26th in the nation in steal rate as a freshman. Toney can play out on the wing and guard 4s on the other end. He shot poorly from the outside as a rookie, but technically spaces the floor so Pitt can run a 4-out look.
Pitt’s defense (like everything else) was vastly improved last season under Capel versus the Stallings days. The young Panthers ranked 36th in the country in TO rate and defended inside the arc at a high level behind Brown’s 11.2% block rate. Capel implemented a full court press last season on about 19% of his possessions (28th highest rate nationally) and fell back into either a matchup 2-3 zone or straight man. Pitt’s cadre of switchable athletes allows the Panthers to take risks on defense and force turnovers, which in turn starts the Panther break the other way. In 2019-20, Pitt was 65th in percentage of initial FGA in transition immediately following a steal (Hoop-Math).
Bottom Line: As we’ve discussed on the pod, the ACC is a tale of two halves this season – the top six are far and away superior to the next nine. Don’t expect the Panthers to compete for an ACC title in 2019-20, but Pitt has an opportunity sneak into a top ten finish in the league and vie for a spot in the Field of 68. A top ten finish would be the school’s first since 2016.
Key Returners: Aamir Simms, John Newman III, Clyde Trapp***
Key Losses: Marcquise Reed, Elijah Thomas, Shelton Mitchell, David Skara, Javan White
Key Newcomers: Tevin Mack (Alabama), Curran Scott (Tulsa), Jonathan Baehre (UNC Asheville)***, Al-Amir Dawes, Alex Hemenway, Chase Hunter
***Trapp and Baehre tore their ACLs this offseason, likely redshirt***
Outlook: A lack of marquee wins left the Tigers on the outside of the Tourney looking in despite a 20-14 (9-9) record and lofty expectations. Clemson brought back its big three from its 2017-18 5-seed squad but fell short of the Dance as the offense stalled. Brad Brownell, long-time resident on the coaching hot seat, has his work cut out for him this year with the loss of four starters. Departed guards Marcquise Reed and Shelton Mitchell were the catalysts to Clemson’s offense the past two seasons and big man Elijah Thomas anchored one of the best defenses in the nation. Brownell adds some talent via the transfer wire, but there’s little reason to expect an improvement.
Those three asterisks above in the “Key Returners” and “Key Newcomers” section represent crushing blows to Clemson’s Tourney hopes this season. Both Clyde Trapp and Jonathan Baehre suffered ACL tears this summer, meaning they likely redshirt in 2019-20, making this Tiger roster mighty thin. Trapp was expected to start at the point or 2-guard spot this season and be a key contributor in the shooting and scoring areas. Baehre, a transfer from UNC Asheville, was supposed to help patch the hole left by Thomas after leading the Big South in block rate in 2017-18. So, already down four starters, Brownell loses two more before the season even begins.
Trapp’s injury shines a magnifying glass on Clemson’s biggest problem heading into the year – who will create and run the offense? Clemson’s attack last season revolved around pick-n-roll and drive-and-kick action set up by Reed and Mitchell, combined with Thomas’s reliable presence on the block. Brownell brings in two high-level transfers in Alabama’s Tevin Mack and Tulsa’s Curran Scott, but neither are point guards capable of dictating the offense. Mack likely becomes the primary option offensively with his ability to shoot, drive, and play the 2-4, but he’s never held that role at his previous two schools. Scott is a huge get for a team that severely lacks outside shooting (#1 3P% in AAC play last year (47%)), but he’s not going to create much action off the bounce.
Point guard duties will likely fall on the shoulders of freshman Al-Amir Dawes by default. A top 100 recruit per ESPN, Dawes is the only PG on the roster outside of Fordham’s Nick Honor who is sitting this season. Dawes is quick, skilled, and able to shoot the three, but he’ll need to grow up quickly if he’s to lead the Tigers in the ACC. Fellow freshman Alex Hemenway can share in ball handling duties, but he’s better used as an off-guard with his shooting ability, and Chase Hunter, another freshman, is more of an athletic wing slasher.
I hyped up John Newman III’s arrival at Clemson last season and will do so once again. Newman didn’t see a ton of time behind Reed and Mitchell, and struggled when he did see the floor, but the Tigers absolutely need his skillset in 2019-20. Though he’s a natural shooting guard, don’t be surprised to see Newman take on some point duties if Dawes isn’t ready for the big stage. Newman’s explosiveness off the dribble should allow him to succeed at the Power 6 level – expect a major jump in minutes and production this season.
Clemson’s frontcourt is razor thin this season with the departure of Thomas, David Skara, and Javan White. Aamir Simms is the lone returning starter on the roster, but he’s a stretch four that’s more valuable for his floor spacing than his rebounding and shot blocking. Simms will see a larger role on the offensive end in 2019-20 and will likely be forced to play some small-ball 5. When Simms played last season, Clemson’s offense flourished:
He’ll need to channel his physicality and use his mass to bang with the bigger forwards in the league. Sophomore Trey Jemison will be forced into major minutes as well this year after seeing limited time as a freshman. Jemison is a plodding 7-footer who can contribute in the shot blocking and rebounding departments. He’s still limited offensively, but Clemson needs size more than scoring down low. Hunter Tyson, another sophomore, should also see a fair amount of time at the 3 and 4. Tyson is primarily a spot-up shooting threat, but has good length to be an impactful presence on the defensive end.
Clemson’s best asset last season (and really almost every season under Brownell) was its defense, which ranked 14th in the country and 2nd in the ACC, per KenPom. Thomas was a major reason why the Tigers were such an elite unit on this end the past two seasons – scoring inside was made impossible and second chance opportunities were promptly squashed – and even Skara received votes for ACC Defensive Player of the Year. Baehre would have been a natural replacement for Thomas as a rim protector, but with his injury guys like Jemison and Simms will see much more time in the middle, meaning we should expect some regression. Likewise, Reed and Mitchell were both pesky perimeter defenders, especially Reed who ranked in the top five of the ACC in steal rate every year he played. Mack and Scott have the size and versatility to be solid perimeter defenders, but it’s unlikely this year’s Tiger squad can be anywhere close to last year’s defensive dominance.
Bottom Line: We saw Notre Dame and Miami FL get hammered by the injury bug last season and now it appears to be Clemson’s turn. With so many key players leaving the program and already two important 2019-20 pieces down for the count, the Tigers are a near lock to finish in the bottom five of the ACC.
13. Wake Forest
Key Returners: Brandon Childress, Chaundee Brown, Isaiah Mucius, Olivier Sarr, Sharone Wright Jr., Torry Johnson
Key Losses: Jaylen Hoard, Ikenna Smart
Key Newcomers: Andrien White (Charlotte), Ismael Massoud, Jahcobi Neath
Outlook: Expectations were low for Wake Forest heading into 2018-19, but the Demon Deacons failed to live to up to them. For the second straight season Danny Manning’s team finished the year 11-20 overall and 4-14 in the ACC. The Deacons were a very young team, but fans’ patience for Danny Manning has to be wearing thin. In five seasons under Manning, Wake Forest has amassed a 65-93 overall record and has gone 24-66 in ACC play. Last year’s squad was the third worst power six school in the country (ahead of Cal and Washington State), per KenPom. Manning has brought in talent over the years but has yet to really do anything with it outside of a play-in game appearance back in 2017. Freshman phenom Jaylen Hoard departed for the NBA Draft this offseason, but Wake returns six key players and adds an impact transfer. That should hopefully be enough to keep the Deacons out of the cellar of the ACC.
Wake Forest was by far the worst shooting team in the ACC last season and one of the worst in the country. Manning’s pick-n-roll focused attack was rendered useless with spot-up shooters unable to hit open looks. Because of this, the Deacons relied on offensive rebounding to put points on the board, ranking 6th in the nation in percentage of plays used via offensive put-back and 2nd in offensive rebounding rate in the ACC. Possessions often consisted of dribble-drive and tough pull-up attempts from the mid-range, not an effective strategy to achieve high offensive efficiency.
Brandon Childress will try to improve upon Wake’s horrid offensive performance last season. As Wake’s lone four-year player on the roster, Childress is the team’s undisputed leader and plays the most important position. Childress played nearly every minute of every game last season and likely does the same in 2019-20. He’ll attempt to create open looks for his teammates out of the pick-n-roll and look for his own shot from behind the arc or by attacking the rim. Last season, Childress was the only Deacon to shoot over 35% from outside the arc, a stat that must change this season for Wake to be competitive.
On paper, Childress should have ample help this season in the scoring department with the return of senior Torry Johnson, junior Chaundee Brown and sophomore Sharone Wright Jr., and the addition of Charlotte transfer Andrien White. Brown enjoyed a few breakout performances last season and had a strong ACC Tourney; this year he’ll need to be a reliable second scoring option from the wing. A high free throw percentage (84%) suggests Brown’s past shooting woes are due for a correction, and his ability to drive to the hole is key for Wake’s attack. Wake scored 1.00 PPP when Brown played last season versus just 0.84 PPP when he sat – for context, no team in the country scored less than 0.84 PPP for the season.
Wright had a bigger impact than expected as a freshman last season, starting 21 games and shooting the ball well from the outside in ACC play. We should see an improvement from him this year from an efficiency standpoint as he continues to develop and mature. White is an enormous addition for the offensively challenged Deacons. His shooting fell off as he took on a higher usage role during his junior year with Charlotte, but he’s a career 37.7% three-point shooter on 430 attempts. A natural scorer, White gives Wake a potentially deadly offensive backcourt tandem alongside Brown and Childress.
Sticking in the backcourt, one player to keep an eye on this season is Jahcobi Neath, a freshman combo guard that seems to be flying under the radar of recruiting services. Neath is an athletic, aggressive, and strong ball handler who has the potential to be very, very good down the road. Not many point guards his age have the body Neath does, and he uses it to his advantage when he barrels his way to the bucket.
Wake is thinner up front than in years past. Sophomore Isaiah Mucius and junior Olivier Sarr will likely start at the 4 and 5, respectively, but Manning doesn’t have much past that. Mucius is a former top 100 recruit who was very inefficient as freshman, shooting just 37% from two and 23.5% from the outside. He’ll need to step up this season and contribute more on the glass to make up for Hoard’s lost production. Sarr missed the last six games of 2018-19 with an ankle injury but was otherwise solid in his 5-man role. The semi-expected breakout never came, but Sarr did improve his shooting and rebounding numbers across the board and added 20 pounds to his once-thin frame. Expect continuous steady improvement from Sarr this year as he enters his third season in Manning’s School of Big Men.
Walk-on Sunday Okeke will be forced to eat some minutes once again this season. His per-minute rebounding numbers were off the charts last season, but he offers nothing on the offensive end. Freshman Ody Oguama likely won’t contribute much his first season in Winston-Salem and fellow freshman Tariq Ingraham, though really big, is still raw from an offensive standpoint. 4-star lanky wing Ismael Massoud may be forced to play the 4 this season with Wake’s lack of depth. He’s more built to play out on the perimeter with his ability to shoot, but at 6’8” Wake will look to stretch him to the power forward spot behind Mucius. In the future, Massoud could develop into a versatile scoring threat for the Deacons, but he’ll likely contribute primarily as a spot-up shooter in year one.
To challenge for a top ten ACC finish, the Deacons will have to improve upon a defense that ranked dead last in the ACC in eFG%. Manning mixed in more zone last season and even extended pressure past the half-court on 11% of Wake’s defensive possessions, but it didn’t prevent teams from getting to the hoop. Opposing squads shot 66.8% near the rim against Wake last season, the 14th highest rate in the country. Increased experience across the board may help Wake’s defensive ineptitude this year, but essentially the same personnel is likely to yield similar results.
Bottom Line: I’m confident saying Wake Forest will be better than it was last season, which is somewhat akin to saying I’m confident tomorrow’s temperature will be between -20 and 200 degrees Fahrenheit. The Deacons hit near-rock bottom last season with their 174th place finish in KenPom, but should be able to flirt with the top 100 this year with the addition White and maturation of Childress / Brown / Sarr / Mucius.
14. Boston College
Key Returners: Nik Popovic, Jairus Hamilton, Chris Herren Jr., Jared Hamilton, Steffon Mitchell
Key Losses: Ky Bowman, Jordan Chatman, JohnCarlos Reyes, Wynston Tabbs***
Key Newcomers: Derryck Thornton (USC), Calvin Felder, Julian Rishwain, Jay Heath Jr., Kamari Williams
*** Tabbs had season-ending knee surgery in September ***
Outlook: Jim Christian looked to be on the verge of turning around the BC program after a 2018 NIT appearance, but the surprising decision of Jerome Robinson to turn pro sent the Eagles right back down into the ACC basement in 2019. This year, Boston College has roster not void of talent, but the loss of Ky Bowman is going to be tough to recover from. Bowman led the country in minutes per game last season and there arguably wasn’t a more important player to his team than Bowman was to BC in 2018-19. One could argue this year’s BC roster is more complete and deeper than last season, but it’ll take major leaps from former role players and a shift in style for the Eagles to compete for a Tourney bid.
Christian slowed BC’s tempo down last season after playing at a more frenetic pace in 2016-17 and 2017-18, presumably in part due to the departure of Robinson. A motion half-court offense was the main method from which BC generated points, consisting of constant cutting and screening for guards. BC also ran a considerable amount of pick-n-roll and isolation sets for Bowman, the latter of which probably declines in frequency in 2019-20. Though the Eagles were slower overall last year, they still looked to push the tempo off opponent misses, ranking 6th in the country in percentage of initial FGA 0-10 seconds into the shot clock following a defensive rebound. Sophomore guard Wynston Tabbs was particularly good at getting out in the open floor following a miss, and he’ll be sorely missed by BC after having season-ending knee surgery this offseason. Tabbs was set to be a major factor for BC this season as he appeared poised to take on the primary scoring role:
A knee injury limited Tabbs to just 15 games last season, but he was a godsend for the BC lineup when healthy. Though not a highly ranked recruit, Tabbs came to Chestnut Hill and immediately occupied a starting spot on day one, scoring buckets in droves and assisting in running the offense alongside Bowman. BC was 0.14 PPP better when Tabbs was on the floor in the 15 games he played and the Eagles’ pace was higher in those contests:
Tabbs’ injury is absolutely devastating to a team striving to climb out of the ACC basement. BC was counting on him to shoulder most of the scoring load left by Bowman, but unfortunately, he’ll have to wait until 2020-21 to take the offensive reins. USC grad transfer Derryck Thornton comes to BC to take over the starting point guard role after many expected him to stay on the west coast and take his talents to Gonzaga. Thornton’s college career has been shadowed by disappointment after coming to Duke as a top 20 recruit in the class of 2015. His two years at USC were nothing special and his highest O-Rating in college was during his freshman year at Duke when he posted a 96.7 (below average). A career 31% 3P shooter and 41.2% 2P shooter, Thornton will look to resurrect his career as BC’s primary ball handler. If nothing else, Thornton should provide steady ball handling, leadership, and solid perimeter defense to a team that could use all three.
Guards Jared Hamilton and Chris Herren Jr. will provide bench support in the backcourt alongside freshman combo guard Jay Heath Jr. Hamilton, formerly of Georgia Southern and Jacksonville State, is mostly a mid-range jump shooter and slasher, having attempted only 51 threes (17.6%) in his college career. Herren, a former walk-on and BC family legend, started 8 games as a freshman and garnered national attention with his 22-point performance against Hartford on New Year’s Eve. Outside of that game, Herren was largely inefficient and clearly a better fit as a role player who can play spot minutes in a pinch. Heath likely eats into both Hamilton and Herren’s playing time this season. The 4-star combo guard has the makings of an elite defender and likes to attack the rim any chance he gets. His physicality should allow him to hang with ACC competition right away. Fellow freshmen guards Julian Rishwain and Kamari Williams are a year or two away from contributing regularly but they may see the floor due to their shooting. Rishwain is the better shooter currently, but Williams (son of Walt Williams) is the better prospect with his impressive length and ability to play the 2 and 3 at 6’7”.
BC’s other cornerstone from last year, Nik Popovic, also returns this season to resume his starting center role. Popovic took on a larger role in the offense as a junior and capitalized on the increased post-up and cutting looks. Most valuable for his scoring ability and rebounding, Popovic is a so-so defender for a so-so defensive team. He’ll continue to play a key part in BC’s scoring efforts, perhaps even being the Eagles’ highest used player, in 2019-20.
Popovic’s counterparts up front will be sophomore Jairus Hamilton and junior Steffon Mitchell, giving BC one of the biggest frontlines in America at 6’11”, 6’8”, 6’8”. Jairus Hamilton was the crown jewel of last year’s recruiting class, but he didn’t shine as bright as Tabbs in year one. Hamilton struggled to find his shot for most of the season and battled with turnover issues, but did improve in conference play. The young forward had his moments in 2018-19, like when he posted 17 PTS / 6 REB against Clemson, but he also had numerous no-shows. Consistency will be key for him this season. Mitchell does the dirty work for the Eagles, serving as the team’s best rebounder and shot blocker. In 2018-19, the 6’8” forward posted a 147.9 FT Rate (108 FTA vs. 73 FGA), which is an absolutely insane stat. The next highest FT Rate in the country last year was 85.8 and if you halved Mitchell’s FT Rate, he still would’ve ranked 14th nationally. Now if he could only connect on more than 56.5% of those FT attempts, he could be especially valuable in 2019-20.
6’10” junior Luka Kraljevic and 6’7” freshman Calvin Felder will provide reinforcements in the frontcourt. Kraljevic has been used sparingly over the past two seasons, fulfilling the role of “body” more than anything else. Felder is a big, physical athlete who, like Heath, already has the frame to do battle in the ACC. He’ll especially help on defense where his versatility and athleticism allows him to matchup against 3s and 4s.
Defense has always been an issue under Christian at BC. The Eagles have never finished higher than 12th in the ACC in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency ratings or 100th nationally while Christian has been in Chestnut Hill. BC zoned more last season which turned out to be a brilliant idea – the Eagles allowed just 0.787 PPP while playing their matchup 2-3 zone, which ranked in the 95th percentile nationally. Hey, Jim – play that more this year!
Bottom Line: BC had enough talent to challenge for a 10th place finish in this year’s ACC, but Tabbs’s injury puts them firmly in the bottom three or four of the league.
15. Virginia Tech
Key Returners: Wabissa Bede, PJ Horne, Isaiah Wilkins
Key Losses: Kerry Blackshear Jr., Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Justin Robinson, Ahmed Hill, Ty Outlaw
Key Newcomers: Landers Nolley (redshirt), Branden Johnson (Alabama State), Jalen Cone, Hunter Cattoor, Tyrece Radford (redshirt), Nahiem Alleyne, Ginikachukwu “John” Ojiako
Outlook: The 5-year Buzz Williams era has come to an end in Blacksburg with the head coach’s departure to Texas A&M. Williams lifted the Virginia Tech basketball program out of the depths like Yoda lifted that X-Wing out of the swamp in Empire Strikes Back. The Hokies made three straight NCAA Tournament appearances under Williams after missing the Big Dance the nine years prior. VT’s roster was stacked with talent last season but now appears to be in full rebuild mode as a new chapter begins under Mike Young. Young led Wofford to unprecedented heights last season and cashed in on his success by becoming the new head man at Tech. Young spent his entire head coaching career at Wofford (since 2002-03) and led the Terriers to five NCAA Tournament appearances. With VT’s five best players departing from last season, Young now faces an uphill battle.
Young’s offenses at Wofford relied on outside shooting, floor spacing, and offensive rebounding. Wofford ran a 4-out / 1-in look under Young with four excellent shooters dotting the arc and a beast inside patrolling the lane. VT has limited frontcourt depth this season, so we should expect to see a similar 4-out look with an emphasis placed on shooting. Wofford’s guards were constantly run off screens (down, fade, etc.) and the Terriers often played through the post to complement a robust shooting game. The Hokies do not have a player like Cameron Jackson on this roster (pour one out for Kerry Blackshear), so inside scoring will come at a premium, but they do have the requisite shooting to run Young’s preferred style of play.
Wabissa Bede and Isaiah Wilkins are VT’s two key backcourt returners, each of whom possess good outside shots. Bede was a partial starter last season when Justin Robinson went down with injury and should see plenty of time at the point and 2-guard this year. Top 100 recruit Jalen Cone, a lightning quick guard who can penetrate and shoot off the dribble, is Bede’s main competition for PG minutes. Cone is small but his quickness will allow him to be effective in a facilitating role. Considering Cone’s youth (reclass from 2020), Young likely opts to go with Bede as his primary PG for at least the start of the year. The keys to the offense should be in his ever-improving hands.
Wilkins will be one of VT’s primary spot-up shooting options after nailing 40.7% of his long-ball attempts as a freshman. The 6’3” guard is a good rebounder for his position and gives VT options on the defensive end with his 230-pound frame. Wilkins, Bede and Cone lead a slew of guards competing for minutes in the backcourt, which include redshirt freshman Tyrece Radford, and true freshmen Hunter Cattoor and Nahiem Alleyne. Jonathan Kabongo was set to see more time this season with his length and quickness; but he’ll miss the 2019-20 year with an injury. Cattoor originally committed to Wofford under Young, which makes sense after taking one look at him (looks like a combination of Fletcher Magee, Storm Murphy, and Nathan Hoover). He’s an athletic off-guard who can shoot from anywhere in the gym. In Young’s spread-out attack, Cattoor could be valuable as a spot-up shooter. Alleyne, a super athletic SG, is more of a wing slasher (somewhat of an anomaly on this roster). He brings playmaking to a roster of mostly shooters. Radford will provide depth at both guard spots.
Of course, the most anticipated debut is that of Landers Nolley, a top 100 recruit in the class of 2018 who was deemed ineligible by the NCAA due to an ACT debacle. Nolley has the makings of an elite shooter but he’ll need to be much, much more for the Hokies in 2019-20. VT’s offense is ripe for a player like Nolley, a 6’7” wing, to take over and become the alpha.
Frontcourt depth is going to be a major issue for Mike Young and the Hokies; only three players on the roster are true forwards – PJ Horne, Branden Johnson, and John Ojiako. Horne will be forced into playing a lot of small-ball 5 and eat majority of the 4-man minutes. He’s an excellent finisher around the rim and has the toughness, athleticism, and body to hang with bigger ACC forwards despite his height. Johnson, a grad transfer from Alabama State, is a fierce rebounder and “catch-and-dunk” threat around the cup. It’s unclear how effective Johnson will be in the ACC after struggling in the SWAC at times last season, but his job will simply be “grab rebounds and play defense”. Considering Johnson’s 38.5% career FT clip, don’t expect much from him on the offensive end. Ginikachukwu “John” Ojiako is a 4-star freshman who, like Cone, reclassified from the class of 2020 this offseason. Ojiako is skinny and still a little raw, but he’ll likely be forced to play unless Young can pull in some last second frontcourt recruits. With an improving face-up game, Ojiako could be a good player in a couple years.
Virginia Tech will probably not have another top 15 offense in 2019-20, and it definitely will not have another top 20 defense. Young’s defenses were never special at Wofford and VT doesn’t have the personnel to alter that trend this season. Expect the Hokies to be punished at the rim this year, apply limited on-ball pressure, and perhaps play a little more zone than Young has historically. VT’s goal will be to slow opponents down on the defensive end and eat clock on the offensive end in an effort to minimize the number of possessions.
Bottom Line: Mike Young is an objectively good coach, but it’ll be a few years before VT realizes a return on his hire. The Hokies likely finish near the cellar of the ACC this season as they look to rebuild one of the best rosters of 2018-19.