Most basketball fans recognize the Atlantic Coast Conference as the preeminent league in college hoops. It has claimed seven of the past 16 national championships, and while the Big East’s Villanova cut the nets last season, the ACC put together the best conference-wide NCAA Tournament performance of all time. Six of the Sweet 16 and four of the Elite Eight teams came from the ACC, and, as a whole, the conference piled up 19 wins. All three of those numbers are March Madness records — and the ACC may have been even more dominant if Louisville, which was ranked for the majority of the campaign, hadn’t ruled itself ineligible for the postseason.
Believe it or not, the ACC could be even more loaded this year. One could legitimately argue that half of the national top 10 should come from the Atlantic Coast; USA Today’s preseason coaches poll ranks five ACC schools in the top 17, but some metrics suggest even that isn’t bullish enough. KenPom.com, a popular website that ranks teams based on advanced statistics, pegs Duke, North Carolina, Virginia, Louisville, and Syracuse as top-12 squads.
Duke is the consensus national championship favorite. The Blue Devils bring in the country’s best recruiting class, headlined by Harry Giles, the No. 1 player in ESPN’s 2016 rankings, and Jayson Tatum, who checks in at No. 3. Frank Jackson and Marques Bolden, a pair of top-20 recruits, accompany them. The diaper dandies join a squad that already features Grayson Allen (the nation’s only returning NCAA All-American and a proven offensive focal point) and several other studs. Eight of the nine players in Coach K’s projected rotation were McDonald’s All-Americans — Giles, who certainly would have been invited but missed the game due to injury, is the only Blue Devil who wasn’t.
Though it feels like Duke vs. Everybody Else — not only in the ACC, but in the entire country — the conference does feature challengers. Namely, the Blue Devils’ most hated rival: North Carolina. Fresh off a heartbreaking defeat in the national championship game, the Tar Heels have the tools to finish the job this year. Swingman Justin Jackson and point guard Joel Berry return for their junior campaigns as the team’s leaders, and are joined by the 13th-best recruiting class in the country, per ESPN’s rankings.
Virginia has established itself as a national powerhouse over the past few years, and the Cavaliers will once again contend for the ACC title. UVA has finished inside the top six KenPom’s end-of-season rankings three times in a row, and, despite losing its two best players, shouldn’t miss a beat in 2016-17. Point guard London Perrantes (the conference’s new “tenth-year senior” with Trevor Cooney gone) looks ready to embrace the role of alpha dog, filling the holes left by Malcolm Brogdon, the 2016 ACC Player of the Year, and Anthony Gill. The Hoos add junior power forward Austin Nichols, a transfer from Memphis who blocked 3.4 shots per game (third-most in the nation) as a sophomore, and ESPN’s eighth-ranked recruiting class. Tony Bennett’s team will again feature one of the country’s stingiest defenses.
Louisville is somewhat similar to North Carolina: both teams are well-coached by a guy who’s been around forever, and each consistently replenishes the talent cupboard with elite recruiting classes. The Cardinals have a ton of size, which is one reason why KenPom projects them to be the second-best defensive team in the country — right behind Virginia.
Syracuse checks in at fifth place in both KenPom (No. 12 overall) and the Coaches Poll (No. 17). I won’t include a mini-preview of the Orange here — click on the “HOOPS” tab near the top of the screen for all the SU basketball content your heart could possibly desire.
There’s a slight drop-off from Jim Boeheim’s team to the rest of the conference, but the ACC is still the NCAA’s deepest league by a pretty wide margin. Clemson (No. 23 in KenPom), Miami (No. 24), NC State (No. 36), Virginia Tech (No. 39), and Florida State (No. 40) could all make noise. Ten of KenPom’s top 40 teams come from the ACC — no other league has more than six (Big Ten). Throw in Notre Dame (No. 50) and Pittsburgh (No. 51), and the conference has a real chance to break the Big East’s record, set in 2011, of 11 March Madness bids.
The bottom line, as it pertains to Syracuse, is this: don’t panic if you check the ACC standings in February and see the über-talented Orange outside the top three. This might be the best conference that college basketball has ever seen.