Now that nonconference shakedown cruises are done, teams are ready to embark on the 2019 ACC regular season with refined agendas. How they respond to the kinks and strengths revealed so far could define what promises to be an exceptionally brisk conference race.
At Virginia, the league’s newly established power, coach Tony Bennett insists this version of the Cavaliers has no need to “vindicate” or “validate” the competitive calamity that befell the program in last season’s NCAA tournament, when UVa became the first top seed to lose to a No. 16. But the Cavs’ leading scorer tells a different story: a newspaper heralding his team’s epic failure was the self-taunting screensaver on Kyle Guy’s phone as the 2018-19 season got underway. When asked following a December win over an overmatched opponent to assess the difficulty of playing hard as Virginia’s advantage mounted, the All-ACC guard said, “It’s very easy, considering how last season ended.”
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Unless starting lineups are flushed as thoroughly as they’ve been this year at Duke, N.C. State and Wake Forest, the carryover from season to season inescapably shapes identity and aspiration. That’s true not only at Virginia, with five of its top eight players returning from last season’s 31-3 squad, but for veteran-laden clubs at Clemson, Florida State, North Carolina, Syracuse and Virginia Tech. All those squads can find motivation from achievement or unfinished business in last year’s NCAAs.
Recall the redemption theme UNC adopted three seasons ago after falling a basket shy of winning the 2016 national championship. Virtually the same core group unabashedly carried the torch of thwarted ambition to the ’17 NCAA title, a goad especially apt at Virginia and Florida State as internecine conference competition commences.
FSU joined Duke and Syracuse in the 2018 NCAA regional finals. Unlike those blue-blood programs, even getting to an Elite Eight was a rarefied achievement for Florida State, which has a single 1972 Final Four appearance to its credit (ousting a UNC squad led by Bob McAdoo) and one other Elite Eight appearance (1993).
Last season was the 10th in the last 13 that Leonard Hamilton’s program won at least 20 games, the eighth in the last 10 FSU finished at least .500 in the ACC. For all that, and a talented roster this year, Florida State is rarely considered an ACC heavyweight. Led by ’19 returnees Phil Cofer and Terance Mann, last year’s team received so little recognition it appeared just once in the AP poll over the season’s final nine weeks. No Florida State player earned All-ACC honors in any category.
Virginia’s sense of disrespect and disappointment is more subtle and more telling, reflecting the outsized value ascribed to NCAA success.
Bennett’s system has reached a level of consistent excellence akin to what Dean Smith sustained at Chapel Hill for decades. Smith’s supposedly mechanistic formulation drew plenty of criticism as he took six gifted teams to the Final Four before winning the 1982 title. Bennett’s approach – methodical, patient, defense-oriented – and its lack of NCAA success elicit similar skepticism.
Over the past five seasons the Cavs averaged 29 wins, finished in the AP’s top six on four occasions, finished first in the league three times and twice won the ACC tournament. Conversely, during Bennett’s first nine years at Charlottesville the Cavs reached one Sweet 16 and an Elite Eight (2016), and endured last year’s notorious crash. What’s more, in an era of high-octane offenses like those featured by the Triangle’s three ACC squads, all ranked among the national leaders in scoring, Virginia relentlessly slows the game’s tempo.
Shadowed by last year’s finish, the current Cavs will surely mount their own redemption tour. They’re well-equipped for the task, led by guards Guy and Ty Jerome and wing De’Andre Hunter, who missed last March’s school-record fifth straight NCAA appearance due to injury.
UNC and Duke
Duke and North Carolina are equally likely to mount strong bids for ACC and NCAA supremacy.
The Tar Heels are flexible, deep, and, typical of a Roy Williams squad, built to run and a work-in-progress defensively. As demonstrated recently against Gonzaga, in Cam Johnson, Luke Maye, Coby White and Kenny Williams UNC also has the shooters to embrace contemporary fashion by punching prolifically from the perimeter. This doesn’t appear to be one of coach-for-life Williams’ best teams (OK, his contract only extends through 2028), but it’s plenty good enough.
Duke appears even more potent despite a now-familiar reliance on freshmen starters.
Probable one-year wonders and ACC scoring leaders R.J. Barrett and Zion Williamson do everything well. Where Barrett’s game is smooth and understated, the powerful yet agile Williamson generates excitement merely by nearing the basket -- much like a great home run hitter approaching the plate. Tre Jones, “a godsend” as a floor leader, according to Mike Krzyzewski, runs the offense with aplomb and keys an increasingly effective man defense reminiscent of bygone Duke squads.
Close behind in the ACC race come Clemson, this year featuring seniors Eli Thomas, Shelton Mitchell and Marcquise Reed; Syracuse with a superior, upperclass backcourt of Tyus Battle and Frank Howard and a knack for doing enough to make the NCAAs; and Virginia Tech, perpetually drawing raves with the likes of guard Justin Robinson yet never quite delivering. Louisville and Pitt show signs of resurrected fortunes under new coaches, while injury-limited Notre Dame and Miami regroup.
And there’s N.C. State, compounding last year’s surprise prowess with an even more impressive start this season paced by starters Torin Dorn and Markell Johnson. Kevin Keatts’ instantly retooled Wolfpack -- aggressive, opportunistic and 10 deep -- hint at being relevant annually as the ACC keeps getting tougher.