The problem with making sports predictions is that you root for them to come true. If events ratify your forecast, you look pretty good, assuming anyone notices. But the very act of choosing gives you a rooting interest, undermining a professional journalist’s neutrality or a fan’s better judgment.
Unless, that is, you choose Duke or North Carolina to finish first in ACC men’s basketball. Then it’s less a matter of making a prediction than citing a probability – as much of a gamble as ordering a pizza without specifying you want cheese.
Sure enough, as this season gets underway, popular sentiment has a green group of Blue Devils destined to prevail. With no proven, veteran ACC unit, might as well go with the most talented squad, one with a winning tradition and Hall of Fame coach. “Talent makes talent better, it really does,” Mike Krzyzewski said after Duke easily handled Elon in the teams’ season opener.
The nation’s No. 1 team has incorporated the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class, with a nascent star at almost every position, four of them preposterously projected as immediate top-20 NBA draft choices. In big-haired, bearded big man Marvin Bagley III, they have a phenom, arguably the country’s best newcomer. Among the few Devilish holdovers is sophomore Marques Bolden, once considered the top prospect among a group of ’17 Duke freshmen that produced two NBA first-rounders. The squad’s sole returning senior, guard Grayson Allen, is gifted, determined and surely has something to prove after last year’s sputter.
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Duke was the pick to lead the ACC last season too; that didn’t work out so well. Still, Krzyzewski’s Olympic experience crafting disparate stars into highly functional teams makes his club a safe, obvious favorite to finish first.
Not only this year, but every year.
Step back from roster details and consider that while you might miss predicting the exact identity of the ACC’s top dog, barring injuries (as befell Duke in 2017 or UNC in 2010) or other catastrophe, you won’t miss by much if you expect Carolina or Duke to be on top at season’s end. Better than three of every four first-place finishers in ACC history (49 of 64) came from one school or the other, or both. Only twice, or 3 percent of the time, did neither program finish among the ACC’s top two during the regular season – in 1996 and 2014.
No wonder some ACC players keep track of their personal record against the blue giants. Ja’Quan Newton, a Miami senior, says the enduring stature of the North Carolina schools “just makes me anxious to want to play against them.” He notes he’s 3-1 against Duke during his career, 1-3 against North Carolina. “I know that for sure,” says the Philadelphia product. “It’s definitely on my mind, especially those schools.”
Lately, the balance of power has been slightly scrambled come the league tournament. Six different teams captured the ACC championship in postseason play over the past half-dozen seasons, easily the most diversity in conference history – although Duke and UNC competed in every one of those finals and won the last two tournaments. Among the official first-time champs were Miami (2013) and Notre Dame (2015), the two outsiders most likely to disrupt the U.S. 15-501 hegemony this season.
In fact, for those who dare to buck convention, the Hurricanes and Fighting Irish are defensible picks to prevail in 2018.
Assuming the federal bribery probe leaves Miami unscathed, the Canes can build around an excellent perimeter nucleus of Newton, sophomore Bruce Brown Jr. and acclaimed freshman Lonnie Walker IV. Jim Larranaga’s program has quietly become an ACC power, winning at least 20 games and finishing in the top half of the league in all but one of his six seasons at Coral Gables.
Notre Dame is led by a pair of sterling seniors: preseason player of the year Bonzie Colson, a do-everything bundle of energy and skill at 6-5, and playmaker Matt Farrell. The Irish play sound defense and entertainingly spread the court offensively, with 3-pointers a favored weapon. “You’re free,” Farrell says of coach Mike Brey’s fluid attack. “You’re very loose. You’re very open. He lets you play. He has a lot of confidence in his players. The offense is fun to play.”
Or, if you believe in teams hunkering down and coalescing amid a barrage of off-court adversity, like UNC during its darkest days of NCAA scrutiny, go with Louisville to play like the national power it was before its unfortunate absorption into the ACC. Point guard Quentin Snider says the team misses being yelled at during practice under alum Dave Padgett, elevated from assistant to acting head coach in light of Rick Pitino’s ouster. But he concedes the change in tone doesn’t prevent the Cardinals from working hard, and “it just makes everything so much more relaxed.”
Besides Snider, the Cards rely on upperclassmen Deng Adel and Anas Mahmoud, the ACC’s best 7-footer from Egypt since Duke’s Alaa Abdelnaby finished in 1990. The Cards, 12-6 in each of their three previous ACC seasons, may yet get a major boost from small forward Brian Bowen. The stellar prospect is absent from the roster while the NCAA and Louisville evaluate his eligibility in light of bribery charges surrounding his supposedly serendipitous recruitment by Pitino.
As for the rest of the league, expect most everyone else to be minimally better or worse than last season. A breakthrough could come at Clemson with a few smarter late-game decisions and timely plays; the Tigers suffered nine of their dozen ACC losses by a touchdown or less in 2017. And don’t be surprised if N.C. State, under new on-court management, reacts to a change in leadership by proving more competitive than expected.
Then there’s North Carolina, with an inexperienced frontline but as gifted and tested a perimeter as any in the conference with Joel Berry II, Cameron Johnson, Theo Pinson, Kenny Williams and Seventh Woods. Pinson and junior forward Luke Maye lend uncommon versatility. Conjuring a powerful, balanced squad out of these parts may at times be painful. But Roy Williams has proven his ability to adjust effectively to challenging circumstances, and to contend for the top spot in the ACC standings whether he’s expected to or not.