The ACC has to make some amends for last year. For one of the strongest – if not THE strongest – conferences in men’s college basketball traditionally, it had one of its worst collective showings in March Madness in recent history.
Unfortunately, a bounceback season doesn’t seem likely. The ACC added 18 of the top-100 high school recruits in the country, but only six of them are in the top 60, which is a big drop off from the last decade or so for the conference. Compounding on that relative lack of talent is the fact that long-time UNC bench boss Roy Williams retired and another legendary coach is on the way out the door himself.
Let’s take a look at how the teams stack up in the ACC.
ACC Men’s Basketball Preview 2021-22: The Return of Duke & UNC
The Favorites: Duke, North Carolina
Head coach: Mike Kryzewski (40th season)
2020-21 record: 13-11 (9-9 in ACC)
Conference finish: 10th
Duke’s upcoming season should be significantly more interesting than the last. For one, the world-renowned Coach K has announced that the 2021-2022 season will be his last at the helm of the Blue Devils ship, naming associate head coach Jon Scheyer as his successor for next season.
While the loss of Matthew Hurt (18.3 ppg, 44.4% 3pt) will really “hurt” the team – see what I did there? – its loaded recruiting class will more than make up for it. Top-five recruit Paolo Banchero is a legitimate stud and Duke’s best prospect since Zion and RJ Barrett, and the Blue Devils have two other top-20 recruits in AJ Griffin and Trevor Keels.
Look for Coach K and his team to make some magic in the tournament to end his illustrious coaching career with a bang.
Head coach: Hubert Davis (1st season)
2020-21 record: 18-11 (10-6 in ACC)
Conference finish: 6th
Hubert Davis has some big shoes to fill.
The longtime assistant coach to Roy Williams is now the men’s basketball bench boss of the Tar Heels, and they have a real chance to win the ACC men’s basketball crown this season.
Last season, UNC was young and inexperienced. With a basically nonexistent preseason, its rookies had issues throughout the campaign, with freshman guard Caleb Love struggling from the field (32% FG, 27% 3pt) all the way until the end of the season. However, with a full offseason and a year under his belt, Love should see a huge jump in 2021-22.
UNC has a ton of trees in the paint, and with Love and a good freshman class, we could see the Tar Heels making it into the Sweet 16 or even the Elite Eight.
The Contenders: Virginia, Louisville, Florida State
Head coach: Tony Bennett (15th season)
2020-21 record: 18-7 (13-4 in ACC)
Conference finish: 1st
Virginia dominated ACC men’s basketball last season, finishing first in the conference before falling to underdog Ohio in the first round of March Madness.
However, there are a few reasons why the Cavaliers are not in the “favorites” category. For one, they lost Trey Murphy to the first round of the NBA draft and both Jay Huff and Sam Hauser to the draft process as well. Combined, those three scored 40 points per game for the Cavaliers.
Where those points will come from this upcoming season is anyone’s guess, but last year’s most efficient team in the country will make do. But will making do and winning an ACC championship are two different things.
Head coach: Chris Mack (3rd season)
2020-21 record: 13-7 (8-5 in ACC)
Conference finish: 7th
Losing David Johnson and Carlik Jones is a big blow for the Cardinals, but they still have a shot at ending up as the top dogs in the ACC.
They have a strong mix of transfer portals and recruits joining the mix, and combining the new and the old could potentially make them strong enough to push their way a few rounds deep into the NCAA Tournament. Elbert Ellis is joining the Cardinals this season as one of the top-ranked JuCo prospects in America, and top-75 recruits Roosevelt Wheeler and Michael James are primed to provide some scoring punch.
Head coach: Leonard Hamilton (19th season)
2020-21 record: 18-7 (11-4 in ACC)
Conference finish: 2nd
The loss of Scottie Barnes, the No. 4 overall pick in the NBA Draft, would be a devastating blow for any program. One of the greatest do-the-little-things guys in recent memory whose impact on the game is way bigger than just the stats they put up, Barnes could go down as one of the greatest Seminoles in school history.
But despite losing Barnes and three of its other top players, Florida State still has a chance at besting the ACC, albeit a small one. Anthony Polite seems likely to take over the role as the top player on the team in his senior year, and you can never count out Leonard Hamilton.
Stuck in Purgatory: Miami, Clemson, Virginia Tech, Syracuse, North Carolina State, Notre Dame, Boston College, Georgia Tech, Pittsburgh
Head coach: Jim Larranaga (5th season)
2020-21 record: 10-17 (4-15 in ACC)
Conference finish: 13th
After being decimated by injuries in the last two seasons, Miami finally got something to break right for it – star players Isaiah Wong and Kameron McGusty withdrew their names from the NBA Draft and returned for another shot at March Madness success.
Junior Anthony Walker looks like he could be primed to break out, too. At 6-foot-9, he is so athletic, big, and fluid that at times – if you squint your eyes just right – he looks like LeBron getting up and down the floor. While he lacked the skill last year to take full advantage of that athleticism, let’s hope an offseason can change that.
Head coach: Brad Brownell (11th season)
2020-21 record: 16-8 (10-6 in ACC)
Conference finish: 5th
Last season ended in a heartbreaking upset in the first round of March Madness, so expect Clemson to be out for blood from the jump this upcoming season.
While it ended in heartbreak, last season itself was a massive bonus. It was the second-best regular season since Brad Brownell took over in 2010, and the Tigers will look to build upon that success before taking another shot at the tournament.
However, that success may be hard to come by, as Clemson lost its best player in Aamir Simms to the NBA Draft, and its best freshman last season – Olivier Maxence-Prosper – transferred to Marquette after a season where he did not like the amount of time he got on the court.
Head coach: Mike Young (3rd season)
2020-21 record: 15-7 (9-4 in ACC)
Conference finish: 3rd
While Virginia Tech finished third in the ACC last season, the ACC has simply gotten better while Virginia Tech has stayed roughly the same. The Hokies exceeded expectations last season, but the loss of Tyrece Radford to Texas A&M was a major hit on their outlook for 2021-22.
Still, Virginia Tech has exceeded preseason rankings the last two seasons, and it would be dumb to completely count it out for the upcoming one, especially with Keve Aluma returning.
Head coach: Jim Boeheim (45th season)
2020-21 record: 18-10 (9-7 in ACC)
Conference finish: 8th
Syracuse exceeded all expectations in the tournament last season, making it all the way to the Sweet 16 before finally falling to Houston.
However, basically half of its team either entered the NBA Draft or transferred to other schools, and while the Orange did add YET ANOTHER Boeheim into the mix, it does not seem like they will have enough firepower to make a major push in for the ACC basketball crown, let alone in March Madness.
North Carolina State
Head coach: Kevin Keatts (5th season)
2020-21 record: 14-11 (9-8 in ACC)
Conference finish: 9th
With top-60 recruit Ernest Ross entering the mix, the Wolfpack should be firmly set in the middle of the ACC basketball pecking order this upcoming season. And there is nothing wrong with that – not every year is going to be your year – and when you are in a loaded conference with teams like Duke and UNC, sometimes you just need to be passable.
Without any stars to carry the scoring load and with the loss of Shakeel Moore, NC State will likely find itself just barely on the outside of March Madness looking in.
Head coach: Mike Brey (21st season)
2020-21 record: 11-15 (7-11 in ACC)
Conference finish: 11th
Continuity is not something you will see a lot of in the ACC this upcoming year, with seemingly every team losing a half-dozen players to the transfer portal and another few to eligibility.
Notre Dame is the exception. With only Juwan Durham and Nikola Djogo leaving, the Irish will likely look very similar to the team that had a fairly disappointing last season. Still, perhaps a long offseason with the same team as last year will pay some dividends.
Head coach: Earl Grant (1st season)
2020-21 record: 4-16 (2-11 in ACC)
Conference finish: 15th
After letting former coach Jim Christian stick around for much longer than he should have, Boston College made the right decision and swapped out its bench boss.
Still, coaching changes often start with bumpy roads even if the future is bright, and the mediocre talent surrounding Earl Grant in his first season will likely plummet Boston College back down toward the bottom of the ACC ranks.
Head coach: Josh Pastner (5th season)
2020-21 record: 17-9 (11-6 in ACC)
Conference finish: 4th
Georgia Tech had its best season in recent memory last year, making it to the program’s first ACC Tournament Championship since 1993 before losing in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
After losing both Moses Wright and Jose Alvarado – who entered the NBA Draft – Georgia Tech will have a tough time repeating its previous season’s success. Wright was the ACC Player of the Year and Alvarado was the ACC Defensive Player of the Year. Good luck replacing that production quickly and easily.
Head coach: Jeff Capel (3rd season)
2020-21 record: 10-12 (6-10 in ACC)
Conference finish: 12th
Pitt had a tough second half of last season, and things are not looking up.
The Panthers started off the campaign going 8-2 before losing 10 of their final 12 games. Things got so dire that two of their key players, Xavier Johnson and Au’Diese Toney, actually decided to jump ship before the season even ended.
Oh, also, Justin Champagnie, who was by far their best player, left for the draft, leaving a gaping hole that does not appear to be fillable. Better luck next year.
The Basement: Wake Forest
Head coach: Steve Forbes (2nd season)
2020-21 record: 6-16 (3-15 in ACC)
Conference finish: 14th
The Demon Deacons had a rough go of it last season. It was Steve Forbes’ first season as the head coach, and he stepped into an almost impossible situation. He had completely different offensive and defensive systems than what the players were used to, and with no preseason, the team looked disjointed throughout 2020-21.
Luckily, the team had just enough talent to rumble into a 14th place finish in the ACC, one spot above the infamous last spot.
Forbes has turned it around a little for this season. With an average recruiting class that includes the likes of Lucas Taylor and Cameron Hildreth and an active outing in the transfer portal, Wake Forest definitely looks more competent than last season.
Unfortunately, sometimes you improve while everyone around you simply improves more, and that is the case for the Demon Deacons being the sole basement dweller in ACC men’s basketball – everyone else outgrew them.
2021-22 ACC Men’s Basketball Players to Watch
Paolo Banchero – Forward – Freshman – Duke
Top-five recruits tend to be top five for a reason, and Banchero has plenty of reasons; he’s a freak athlete with the skill to back it up. Banchero is easily the best athlete to grace Duke’s hardwood floors since RJ Barrett and the rocket-propelled Zion Williamson, and Duke fans should get excited for what the big and versatile forward will bring to the table.
Caleb Love – Guard – Freshman – North Carolina
Like we mentioned in the UNC segment, Love had a rough go shooting the ball last season. However, a lot of that could be due to the lack of a preseason and a COVID-19 slump. Five-star talents rarely just get their basketball abilities sucked out of them by the aliens in Space Jam.
Love could have a minor setback for a major comeback, as the kids are possibly still saying these days.
Anthony Walker – Forward – Sophomore – Miami
The comparisons to athletes like LeBron James and a larger Russell Westbrook are thrown around when people talk about Anthony Walker. In short, if he doesn’t propel the Hurricanes up the ACC basketball leaderboards, he should at least propel them into a few weekly highlight mixes.
2021-22 Men’s & Women’s College Basketball Conference Previews
Learn more about the upcoming 2021-22 men’s and women’s college basketball seasons with Nothing But Nylon’s extensive conference previews, with a new conference covered every week before the campaign tips off in November.