ACC men's basketball preview: Scheyer era begins at Duke; Can UNC win it all?
Considered by many in North Carolina to be a national holiday of sorts, the start of college basketball season is Monday. There’s a few teams in the Triangle – and across the Atlantic Coast Conference – entering the season with intriguing questions and high expectations.
At UNC-Chapel Hill, it’s Year Two for head coach Hubert Davis, and his team is ranked No. 1 in the preseason Associated Press Top 25 Poll. In Durham, Duke has a new head coach for the first time in 42 years as Jon Scheyer takes the reins from now-retired Mike Krzyzewski.
Let’s jump into it.
UNC played in the national championship game last season. Can they make it that far again?
A lot of folks think they can, and for good reason.
UNC returns four starters – and 71.6% of its scoring production – from last year’s team that made that unlikely run to the national championship game, where they lost by just three points to Kansas. That run included a Final Four win over rival Duke, and an upset victory over Baylor, which won the title in 2021.
One of those returners for the Tar Heels is Armando Bacot, who averaged a double-double (16.3 points, 13.1 rebounds per game) last year and was voted as this year’s Preseason ACC Player of the Year. He joins RJ Davis, Caleb Love and Leaky Black on this veteran team that carries 12 upperclassmen on its roster.
The Heels will miss Brady Manek, who exhausted his eligibility, but they brought in three freshmen and Pete Nance – a 6-foot-11 grad transfer from Northwestern – to shore up the depth.
Coach K is gone. Does that change expectations for Duke?
In short, no.
A lot of folks expect Duke to continue to be contenders under Scheyer. The Blue Devils are No. 7 in the preseason AP Top 25 Poll. Scheyer played at Duke and spent eight seasons on the bench under Krzyzewski, so he’s familiar with what the Cameron Crazies expect.
While the Tar Heels return a veteran-laden roster, the Blue Devils’ lineup isn’t going to look anything like what they trotted out last season. Out of the top nine scorers from last year’s Final Four team, only junior guard Jeremy Roach returns. He’ll likely start and play an important role, but Duke also brought in a lot of new players, including three of the nation’s top five freshmen – Dereck Lively, Dariq Whitehead and Kyle Filipowski.
Duke also landed four transfers in Kyle Catchings (Harvard), Jacob Grandison (Illinois), Ryan Young (Northwestern) and Max Johns (Princeton).
Scheyer’s challenge will be meshing these players together and creating chemistry early on.
At N.C. State, is Kevin Keatts on the hot seat?
The internet will tell you that, yes, Keatts’ job is stake this season. CBS Sports, 247sports and SB Nation all published stories recently discussing the topic, and The Athletic called him "the coach who needs to win." Last March, N.C. State athletic director Boo Corrigan gave Keatts a vote of confidence in an interview with the News & Observer, saying “I believe in what Kevin is and who Kevin is from a basketball coaching standpoint and I think he’s earned the right to (coach).”
But here are the facts. Keatts is entering his sixth season on the bench with the Wolfpack and has taken N.C. State to the NCAA Tournament just once. And the Wolfpack lost in the first round that year.
While N.C. State’s women’s team has won three straight ACC crowns, the men’s team has floundered a bit. The Wolfpack have posted a winning record in ACC play just twice in Keatts’ five seasons, and last year they went an abysmal 11-21 overall
It’s also worth noting that Corrigan did not hire Keatts. Former athletic director Debbie Yow did.
Corrigan and N.C. State might be patient with Keatts, though, considering two things. First, the program had its scholarships and recruiting visits reduced by the NCAA as part of a penalty for infractions that happened during Gottfried’s tenure. And two, Keatts’ contract — extended because of those penalties — runs through 2028.
Still, a winning season this year would go a long way in quieting some of the noise around Keatts’ job security.
And what about Wake Forest?
In head coach Steve Forbes’ second year in Winston-Salem, the Demon Deacons went 25-10 – and 13-7 in ACC play – putting together their best season in 17 years. Forbes was named ACC Coach of the Year, Alondes Williams was named ACC Player of the Year, and Jake LaRavia was a first round NBA Draft pick. Wake was snubbed from the NCAA Tournament field, but advanced to the quarterfinals of the NIT.
Williams and LaRavia were both transfers that flourished under Forbes and then bolted for the pros. Heading into this season, Forbes has reloaded with transfers again, bringing in Delaware forward Andrew Carr, Florida guard Tyree Appleby, Marist guard Jao Ituka and Kansas State big man Davion Bradford.
Like he did last season, Forbes will try to mesh these newcomers quickly with Daivien Williamson – the only returning starter – and reserve sharpshooter Domari Monsato.
Ok, who's the player we need to pay attention to in this conference?
Armando Bacot will be at the center of attention for the Tar Heels as they try to make it back to the national championship game. A season ago, he led the ACC and was third in the nation in rebounding with 13.1 boards per-game. He also led the ACC in win shares last season with 7.1; it’s an advanced statistic that estimates the number of wins a player contributes to the team with individual offense and defense.
Two players outside of the Triangle to pay attention to are Miami’s Isaiah Wong and Nijel Pack. Wong has been among the ACC’s leading scorers in each of the two past seasons. Pack comes to Miami via transfer from Kansas State, where he led the Big 12 in 3-point shooting last season with a 43.6% mark from deep.
At Duke, Dariq Whitehead is expected to be the latest super talented one-and-done player to spend a single year in Durham before becoming a top 10 NBA Draft Pick. He’s 6-foot-6 and pro scouts like his ability to catch-and-shoot.
And what games are must-watch in the non-conference slate?
The first real test this season for the Tar Heels is a Nov. 30 meeting with preseason No. 13 Indiana in Bloomington’s Assembly Hall. The Hoosiers are the only ranked team the Tar Heels will face until Dec. 21, when they play No. 22 Michigan in Charlotte in the Jumpman Invitational. Both games against Indiana and Michigan will be televised by ESPN.
On Nov. 15, Duke faces reigning national champion Kansas at a neutral site game in Indianapolis, Indiana.
In a local matchup that could be interesting, Appalachian State visits Wake Forest on Dec. 14.
Who's winning the ACC?
Aside from the Tar Heels and Blue Devils, the other favorite to win the ACC is Virginia. Tony Bennett’s side is the last team from this league to win the national title, doing so in 2019. The Cavaliers went 21-14 last year and went to the quarterfinals of the NIT.
Like UNC, Virginia will lean on its experience. The Cavaliers bring back all six of their top scorers from last season, including guard Kihei Clark who played a big role on UVA’s national championship team. Virginia also added transfer Ben Vander Plas, a versatile forward who averaged 14.2 points, 6.8 rebounds and 3.1 assists for Ohio last season.