Syracuse struggled in ACC play last season, dropping four in a row to open the slate and finishing 9-9 against conference foes; that tied the Orange with Pittsburgh for ninth place in the standings. But it wasn’t all SU’s fault — throughout the campaign, the ACC had a legitimate case for the title of Best Conference in the Nation, and when it broke an NCAA Tournament record by placing six teams in the Sweet 16, there was no longer an argument for any other league. That could very well be the case again next year.
The discussion begins (and might end) with Duke. The Blue Devils went 11-7 and placed fifth in the ACC last year, but should take a massive leap forward in 2016-17. Grayson Allen returns for his junior season after scoring 21.6 points per game (second-most in the conference) as a sophomore. He’d be the surefire number one option on pretty much any team in America — except Duke, which will welcome two of the nation’s top three recruits next year, when Harry Giles (No. 1) and Jayson Tatum (No. 3) arrive in Durham. Those guys headline an absurdly stacked recruiting class that, when teamed with multiple starting-caliber returning players, makes Coach K’s squad the favorite to win the national championship.
The Blue Devils stand alone in the ACC’s top tier; North Carolina and Virginia, last year’s top two teams, occupy the next level. Both schools lost key senior duos — Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige for the Tar Heels, Malcolm Brodgon and Anthony Gill for the Cavaliers — but still bring back a ton of talent and elite coaches, plus top-12 recruiting classes.
After that well-defined top three, the ACC appears to be a free-for-all. Louisville lost its top three scorers (Syracuse fans have no sympathy for them) and didn’t attract a phenomenal crop of incoming freshmen, but Rick Pitino’s still pacing the sidelines. Miami also lost three starters, but the Canes’ calling card last year was depth, and they have more than enough talent left on the roster to compete for a top-five slot. Pittsburgh may have downgraded at coach, but returns five players who averaged at least ten minutes per game last season. Notre Dame projects to match its 2015-16 performance.
SU will likely end up somewhere amidst that group. Michael Gbinije, Trevor Cooney, and Malachi Richardson are gone, and take more than 60 percent of the team’s scoring with them. But the outlook isn’t as bleak as that makes it sound — Tyler Lydon and Franklin Howard are back and ready to take on larger offensive roles, a precocious pair of diaper dandies should look fantastic in Orange, and a 7-foot-2 condor could wreak havoc in the middle of the 2-3 zone. Oh, and this guy’s still around. Expect Syracuse to finish somewhere between No. 4 and No. 9 in the ACC next season.