Another year, another round of “Will Duke’s youthful talent outlast the more experienced ACC challengers?”
The Blue Devils are the preseason pick (for the fifth time in eight years) to win the ACC and preseason No. 1 in the country (for the second year in a row). But Mike Krzyzewski’s one-and-done reliant program has not finished first in the regular season in the ACC since 2010.
Jayson Tatum, last season’s star freshman, did help deliver an ACC title for the Blue Devils, who knocked off North Carolina and Notre Dame in Brooklyn to win the first tournament in New York. The 15-team league will be back in Brooklyn this March for Round 2.
Tatum, after his one-year cameo at Duke, is in the NBA now. So is seldom-used, one-and-done big man Harry Giles and guard Luke Kennard – all first-round picks. Don’t forget Frank Jackson (NBA), Chase Jeter (transfer) and Sean Obi (no, really, he graduated and transferred to Maryland).
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The regular season in the ACC has been more difficult for Duke to conquer. Krzyzewski’s 2015 team, with three one-and-done stars, won the national title but finished a game behind a senior-laden Virginia team in the ACC standings.
Carolina, with older (and bigger) teams, has finished first in the ACC four times since Duke last did – including each of the past two seasons.
The Tar Heels, with senior guard Joel Berry, tournament hero Luke Maye and Pitt transfer Cameron Johnson, figure to be Duke’s top challenger this season. Notre Dame and Miami will be in the mix, too.
But the team best positioned to challenge Duke this season was Louisville. That was with coach Rick Pitino and Brian Bowen, the Cardinals’ own shiny one-and-done recruit.
Louisville has neither after an FBI investigation found Bowen was allegedly paid $100,000 by an adidas executive to play for the Cardinals. Pitino, after several previous strikes, was fired by the school last month, and Bowen has yet to be cleared by the NCAA.
Maybe that’s the window Duke needed to rule the ACC’s regular season. Or the Devils’ talent this season – with four five-star newcomers – might just be so overwhelming that no one in the ACC will have the chance to catch them.
Your guide to the 2017-18 ACC basketball season:
Five nonconference games to watch
1. No. 1 Duke vs. No. 2 Michigan State (Nov. 14): A star sophomore? Those still exist in college basketball? Sparty’s actually got one in wing Miles Bridges.
2. N.C. State vs. No. 3 Arizona (Nov. 22): This might be Arizona coach Sean Miller’s best team. Or maybe the FBI investigation will derail the season.
3. No. 14 Notre Dame at No. 2 Michigan State (Nov. 30): The best matchup of the ACC-Big Ten Challenge gives us Bridges and Notre Dame’s Bonzie Colson on the same floor. Thank you, ESPN.
4. Virginia at No. 11 West Virginia (Dec. 5): A good, old-fashioned clash of styles. Bob Huggins’ get-up-and-go group handled Tony Bennett’s slow-and-steadies last year in Hooville.
5. No. 16 Louisville at No. 5 Kentucky (Dec. 29): The Cardinals are the biggest wild card in the ACC this season. They’d love a second straight win over the Wildcats.
Five conference games to watch
1. No. 1 Duke at N.C. State (Jan. 6): Canary in the March coal mine? The last two times the Blue Devils lost in Raleigh (2010, 2015) they won the national title.
2. No. 9 UNC at No. 14 Notre Dame (Jan. 13): The antidote to too many boring, slug-it-out ACC games. Thank you, Mike Brey.
3. No. 1 Duke at No. 13 Miami (Jan. 15): Jim Larranaga’s 5-3 against Duke since he was hired before the 2011-12 season. The Canes have won three of four from Duke.
4. No. 1 Duke at No. 9 UNC (Feb. 8): The first game between these two is always the best. The Blue Devils have won 13 of the past 18 in college basketball’s best rivalry.
5. No. 13 Miami at No. 9 UNC (Feb. 27): And Larranaga’s 5-5 against Carolina but has lost three of four to the Tar Heels.
Five names to watch
1. Grayson Allen: The Duke senior gets a mulligan at shepherding a talented freshmen crew to a national title.
2. Bonzie Colson: The Notre Dame senior is Golden State star Draymond Green with all the undersized goodness but without the antics.
3. Joel Berry: The hyper-competitive senior will make sure the Tar Heels stay near the top of the ACC.
4. Bruce Brown: The Miami sophomore is ready for a big jump. He’s the best NBA prospect not on Duke’s roster.
5. Jerome Robinson: The Pride of Broughton (via Garner) averaged 18.7 points for Boston College last year. He’s in for another big season.
1. Kevin Keatts: The first-year N.C. State coach brings a new pressing style and new energy to the ACC after a successful three-year run at UNC-Wilmington.
2. Gary Trent: Fellow freshmen Marvin Bagley and Wendell Carter will get more attention at Duke, but the shooting guard, whose pops played nine years in the NBA, can stroke.
3. Allerik Freeman: Don’t be surprised if the Baylor graduate transfer (and Charlotte native) leads the Wolfpack in scoring this season.
4. Oshae Brissett: The ’Cuse has had a good run of wings lately under Jim Boeheim. The 6-8 freshman from Canada is next in line for the Orange.
5. Lonnie Walker: A knee injury will slow the Miami freshman early, but if he rounds into shape by March, the Canes will be a tough out.
1. Mark Gottfried: Few were better with the media than Gottfried, who led the Wolfpack to the NCAA tournament four times in six seasons.
2. John Collins: The Wake Forest big man was the best player in the ACC last season. He got too good, too fast to stick around.
3. Rick Pitino: Don’t hate the player, hate the game.
4. Kennedy Meeks: No way the Heels win the title without Big Meeks.
5. Luke Kennard: The hair-flipping, 3-point-swishing guard saved Duke too many times to count last season.
Predicted order of finish
With projected league record in parenthesis:
1. Duke (14-4): Unlike recent Duke units, this one features some distinct parts with a point guard (Trevon Duval) and a post option (Carter). And Bagley, 6-11 and 234 pounds, has been compared favorably to LeBron James.
2. UNC (13-5): Berry, Maye, Johnson and Theo Pinson give Roy Williams a nice core to make some hay in the ACC. The progress of freshmen Garrison Brooks and Jalek Felton will determine the Heels’ March fate.
3. Miami (12-6): Larranaga is perfecting the “I didn’t know anything” defense in the FBI investigation. He still knows how to coach, and the Canes have some real talent in Brown, Ja’Quan Newton and Dewan Huell.
4. Notre Dame (12-6): Colson and point guard Matt Farrell are the givens on the roster. The ultimate success for the Irish’s season will depend on the development of junior Rex Pflueger and sophomore T.J. Gibbs.
5. Virginia (11-7): It won’t be pretty, but seniors Devon Hall and Isaiah Wilkins will have Bennett’s ninth team right in the thick of the ACC race.
6. Louisville (11-7): Honestly, this could go either way for the Cards and interim coach David Padgett. Deng Adel, Ray Spalding and V.J. King give the rookie coach enough juice to withstand all the turmoil.
7. Virginia Tech (10-8): Buzz Williams will take bunch of guys you’ve never heard of and win a bunch of games. That’s what he does.
8. Clemson (9-9): Junior forward Elijah Thomas needs to eat up some of Jaron Blossomgame’s numbers, but the Tigers will win a few you don’t expect and lose a few you don’t expect.
9. Syracuse (9-9): The roster is one big unknown – although sophomore Tyus Battle will be really good – but Boeheim has done more with less.
10. N.C. State (8-10): Talent wasn’t the Wolfpack’s problem last year and won’t be this year (it’s shooting). Improved effort lifts the Wolfpack to “surprise” status in the league.
11. Boston College (6-12): Really want to pick the Eagles, who haven’t won more than four ACC games in four years, as the “surprise” team but their schedule is too tough. Robinson, Ky Bowman and Jordan Chatman will be a pain for the rest of the league, though.
12. Wake Forest (6-12): This season would have been a lot better with John Collins (who lefty early for the NBA draft) and Dinos Mitoglou (who left to play overseas). Junior guard Bryant Crawford needs more help.
13. Florida State (6-12): There’s a lot of able bodies on the Noles’ deep roster but no obvious answer for who’ll drive the bus.
14. Georgia Tech (6-12): Everyone was down on the Jackets in the preseason last year for a reason. The suspension of star Josh Okogie is harbinger of things to come for Josh Pastner’s second team.
15. Pittsburgh (2-16): The two wins might actually be generous for Kevin Stallings who’s already at DefCon2 in Year 2.
G Grayson Allen, Duke
G Joel Berry, UNC
G Bryant Crawford, Wake Forest
G Bruce Brown, Miami
F Bonzie Colson, Notre Dame
Player of the year: Grayson Allen, Duke
Freshman of the year: Marvin Bagley, Duke
Coach of the year: Mike Krzyzewski, Duke
Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio