By Charlie Manolakis
Folks, we finally made it. Today marks the start of college basketball, and that sound you hear is a nation rejoicing. We may not have savored the past few months away from the hardwood as much as those of you reading from Charlottesville, but there’s one thing we can all agree on — it’s good to be back.
Though the arrival of the ACC Network has already featured plenty of adventure for fans, cable networks, and streaming platforms alike, it’s biggest impact to the conference’s most popular sport will be on full display tonight. We aren’t just getting any ole basketball back. It might just be for two nights, but with the exception of Coach K’s Blue Devils taking on Kansas in the Champions Classic (find me @charliemano8 on twitter dot com and ask me my real thoughts), REAL ACC BASKETBALL IS BACK. In a few short hours, Louisville and Miami will tip off the 2020 season in Coral Gables, and by the end of tomorrow night, seven teams will have more than a month to bask in the glow of their place atop the standings after a 1-0 ACC start.
An unfortunate side effect of this early start, as we’ll discuss further in a moment, is that a number of teams will open league play with lingering offseason absences and injuries, which in previous seasons would have been an afterthought come January.
Without further ado, let’s get the preview rolling. As always, thanks for reading and feel free to come find me online and tell me why I’m wrong about your favorite team. Because I do hate them.
2018-19 Overall: 52-17
2018-19 vs. Haslametrics/KenPom “spread”: 36-31-2
Best effort: Boston College (8-1 ATS)
Most forgettable: Virginia (2-6 ATS)
Tuesday, November 5:
#3 Louisville at #65 Miami, 6:30pm
KenPom projection: Louisville 77, Miami 69
I’ll go ahead and own my bias up front: Chris Lykes is one of my favorite players in the country to watch. In this season’s opener he sets up really well for the Canes’ against a Top-5 Louisville squad whose most significant questions entering the season are at the point guard spot. Injuries and suspensions took a massive toll on Miami’s season a year ago, and with Lykes forced to carry a huge share of the offense, his efficiency suffered. I expect that to change in 2020, with Coach Larranaga at the helm of a deeper roster with the firepower to shoot just about anyone off the court from deep on a given night.
Defensively, however, is where I’m not so confident in Miami. Chris Mack’s Cardinals are an offensive juggernaut and a brutal opening night draw, even at home in Coral Gables. Jordan Nwora, a dynamic scorer from multiple levels in his own right, is poised to lead one of the nation’s most potent and balanced offenses, with the talent to beat you from all five spots on the floor. Freshman wing Samuel Williamson didn’t receive much love on ACC Media Day, but wasn’t a Top-20 recruit by accident, and has more than enough talent to surprise a lot of people this year. Even setting aside contributions from a solid backcourt and Steven Enoch at the 5, the combination of Nwora and Williamson is a match-up nightmare for the Canes. Even more so with talented grad transfer Keith Stone sidelined for the opener while recovering from knee surgery.
Pick: If Louisville starts slow offensively, a low-scoring game favors the Hurricanes at home. If Vasiljevic and McGusty shoot it well, they’re more than capable of hanging around regardless. All of that being said, Dwayne Sutton is one of the most underappreciated perimeter defenders in the league, capable of handling either of them if needed. I expect Louisville’s size and athleticism to carry them to an impressive opening win in Coral Gables. Cards -8.
#4 Duke vs #10 Kansas, 7pm
KenPom projection: Duke 78, Kansas 74
Once again in 2019-20, Duke welcomes a freshman class loaded with talent. Vernon Carey, Matthew Hurt, Wendell Moore, and Cassius Stanley may all start for Coach K this year alongside Tre Jones. The Blue Devils also return a strong core of upperclassmen that gives them more depth and lineup versatility than they’ve had in recent years. Their ceiling is undoubtedly as high as anyone’s across the country this year, but I worry about their floor if the pieces don’t quite come together.
Last season, Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett were both transcendent enough talents to cover up holes and mistakes at both ends of the floor. The Blue Devils don’t have that luxury this year, and while they’re more than capable of competing for titles this year, it may take time for Coach K to find the right balance and rotation.
Kansas, on the other hand, is primed to hit the ground running as a national title favorite. Say what you will about Snoop Dogg, Bill Self and Adidas, but Udoka Azubuike is a monster and Devon Dotson proved himself more than capable of running the show in a strong freshman campaign. The FBI stories will linger all year, but the NCAA doesn’t seem to be in any hurry where the Jayhawks are concerned.
Pick: As a fan of good college basketball no matter who’s playing, even the Tar Heel alum in me is pulling for the Blue Devils to play well enough to open the season with the bang we all deserve in Madison Square Garden. However, Kansas is a damn good basketball team, and I don’t think Vernon Carey or Javin DeLaurier can limit Azubuike down low. KenPom’s line is too generous, I’ll admit, but give me Big Doke over Duke by wherever the spread lands.
#54 Virginia Tech at #79 Clemson, 7pm
KenPom projection: Clemson 68, VT 67
Though they’ve widely become accepted as the gold standard of college basketball analytics, KenPom’s ratings (especially in the preseason) are never going to be perfect. However, as good as last year’s Hokies (who almost poached Duke’s spot in the Elite Eight) were, and as much as I like Mike Young as a coach, the rebuild in Blacksburg isn’t going to happen overnight. As was often the case under Buzz Williams, the Hokies will play small this year and look to their guards for most of their offensive production. Unlike previous years, however, they’ll have to do it without the presence of a Kerry Blackshear (or even a Chris Clarke) on the interior. PJ Horne’s ability to battle with other teams’ big men will be critical if the Hokies are going to steal a few wins this year with their shooting.
Offseason knee injuries to junior Clyde Trapp and UNC-Asheville transfer Jonathan Baehre are huge blows to the depth of the Tigers as well, who were already recovering from the graduation of four senior starters. Much of their success this year will depend on the ability of Aamir Simms to step into a lead offensive role alongside transfers Tevin Mack, Curran Scott, and Khavon Moore, who just received his waiver from the NCAA to play this season.
Pick: While I trust Virginia Tech’s backcourt more than Clemson’s, Simms and Moore should give Clemson just as strong an edge down low. This one should be close throughout, and could be painful for stretches offensively. I like the steady hand of Wabissa Bede and the shooting ability of Isaiah Wilkins and Landers Nolley to make the difference in a game where points will come at a premium. I’ll take my chances with Mike Young in-game over Brad Brownell as well, even in his first game in charge. I’m not sure how many more the Hokies will win in the league this year, but I think they start on a positive note tonight. VT +1
#66 Georgia Tech at #28 NC State, 8:30pm
KenPom projection: State 80, GT 72
It is crazy to think that on opening night, the most important factor in this game could be the right shoulder of Wolfpack sophomore Jericole Hellems. However, with the suspension of DJ Funderburk, who is expected to handle much of the work in the post this season, and nagging injuries also bothering frontcourt newcomers Dereon Seabron and Danny Dixon, Coach Keatts’s options are starting to look very thin down low. If they are all limited against the Yellow Jackets, the Pack will look to graduate transfer Pat Andree, freshman Manny Bates, and CJ Bryce — who has openly expressed an interest to step into Torin Dorn’s former role as an undersized 4-man — to hold off Georgia Tech’s veteran duo of James Banks and Moses Wright.
The matchup to watch tonight, however, is at point guard with Jose Alvarado taking on Markell Johnson in a battle featuring two of the league’s most explosive guards. I know many of you will be watching the Champions Classic (and not without good reason; I’ll be there with you for much of the night), but do yourself a favor and catch some of this one too.
Pick: It’s hard to know what to expect tonight, with so many personnel questions for the Wolfpack, who I will almost certainly favor when these teams meet again in late January. I love the Yellow Jackets to hang around and cover 8, and I’ll take Alvarado and Banks leading them to an early upset in Raleigh as well.