By Charlie Manolakis
Injury impacts aside, and as weird as conference games in November are, last night was a blast. One more night of start-to-finish ACC basketball before we return to your regularly scheduled offseason programming. Let’s jump right back in.
Picks to date: 3-1
Against the KenPom “spread”: 3-1
Wednesday, November 6:
#80 Wake Forest at #119 Boston College, 6pm
KenPom projection: Wake 74, BC 73
Last night, road teams in the ACC went 3-0, and to tip my hand early in the preview, I like Wake’s chances to keep the home crowds waiting a little longer for that elusive first win. In our preseason power rankings, I was higher on the Eagles than any of my esteemed colleagues here at ACCBR as I was the only non-last-place vote they received. My confidence in them stems from their frontcourt trio of Nik Popovic, Steffon Mitchell, and Jairus Hamilton who I expect to be much more dependable than the frontcourts of Clemson and Virginia Tech. Unfortunately for Jim Christian’s side, Wake should have enough in Olivier Sarr and Isaiah Mucius to keep Popovic at bay. More importantly still, unless it turns out Derryck Thornton was born to play in Christian’s system, they simply don’t have the backcourt firepower to keep up with veteran Deacon trio Brandon Childress, Chaundee Brown, and Charlotte transfer Andrien White (a career 38% shooter from three, on more than 400 attempts).
Pick: Brandon Childress opens Kinchen’s All-ACC 1st-Team (???) campaign with a bang, and the Demon Deacons put one in the win column to open 2020.
#42 Notre Dame at #6 North Carolina, 7pm
KenPom projection: UNC 82, ND 71
The Tar Heels enter opening night with four names already on the injured list. Upperclassmen Brandon Robinson and Sterling Manley are the names you’ll see in the headlines, but freshmen guards Anthony Harris and Jeremiah Francis will be missed in the early portion of the schedule as well. Head Coach Roy Williams said yesterday that he expects to enter tonight’s game with seven players he trusts to play significant minutes, based on what he’s seen in practice. A starting five of Cole Anthony, Christian Keeling, Leaky Black, Garrison Brooks, and Armando Bacot isn’t far from what most Tar Heel fans would have expected. But, his comments suggest the only players he feels comfortable rotating in will be William & Mary grad transfer Justin Pierce, expected to rotate between the 3 and 4 positions, and junior guard Andrew Platek, who has played limited minutes in his first two seasons in Chapel Hill.
Mike Brey’s Irish enter 2019-20 with expectations to rebound nicely after a frustrating, injury-plagued campaign last season. Though they didn’t add any recruits in the offseason, they return nearly everyone from a year ago, including a slew of sophomores who played heavy minutes as freshmen and are positioned to turn that experience into a significant jump in production. If John Mooney can continue to build on last year’s All-ACC performance, the Irish have depth, talent, and versatility around him for Coach Brey to lead them back to the top half of the league.
Pick: The combination of new faces and injury concerns along with the experience of Notre Dame make this about as dangerous an opener as Ole Roy could have asked for. This will be my first split pick of the year. I still think the Tar Heels get the win, but the Irish will make them sweat it out. ND +11.
#14 Florida State at #67 Pittsburgh, 8pm
KenPom projection: FSU 72, Pitt 70
This game features two of the teams with the widest range of possible outcomes this season going head to head on opening night, I’m sure no one will overreact to this one.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but Leonard Hamilton’s Seminoles have as much size, depth, and athleticism as anyone in the country this season. Florida State has quietly been one of the most consistent teams in the country over the last three seasons, amassing 34 ACC wins (Duke has won 38), and challenging Gonzaga down to the wire for what would have been a second straight trip to the Elite Eight. They have the pieces to continue to build upon that momentum this year, but they’ll need to show they can replace Fi Kabengele and Terance Mann’s consistency on the offensive end if they want to avoid a slide back into the middle of the ACC pack.
Pittsburgh enters year two of Jeff Capel’s tenure with plenty of reason for optimism as well. The Panthers opened ACC play in 2019 with early January upsets of Louisville and (wait for it…) Florida State in the Oakland Zoo, but couldn’t follow it up, dropping their next 13 straight. If newcomers Gerald Drumgoole, Justin Champagnie, and Ryan Murphy can help fill the Jared Wilson-Frame sized hole in their roster (particularly his role as their only major threat from deep), the Panthers could very well be positioned to build on last year’s promising 12-5 start and fight their way back up to the middle of the league. However, like the Seminoles, there are plenty of significant questions they’ll need to find answers to to reach that potential.
Pick: Florida State has more than enough talent to make me look very, very foolish tonight (and it wouldn’t be the first time, for anyone who remembers what they did to Miami a year ago). But, relative to expectations, I’m much more optimistic on the Panthers than I am the Seminoles, and I like Xavier Johnson and Trey McGowens to find a way to secure win #1 tonight in the Pete. Pitt +2, and the upset to boot.
#5 Virginia at #51 Syracuse, 9pm
KenPom projection: UVA 65, Syracuse 61
With the loss of De’Andre Hunter, Ty Jerome, and Kyle Guy from last year’s National Championship roster, many are (understandably) skeptical of the Hoos entering 2020. Tony Bennett will look to Mamadi Diakite and Kihei Clark to build on the way they were able to elevate their game down the stretch last season, as well as to Jay Huff and Braxton Key for significant steps forward. Freshman Casey Morsell and JUCO transfer Tomas Woldetensae will hope to replace some of Virginia’s threat from the perimeter along with Kody Stattmann as well. With so many new pieces stepping into significant roles, this team will look and be forced to play much differently than they did a year ago. However, there is undoubtedly still talent and potential there, and if I could choose any coach in the country to piece together the puzzle, Tony Bennett would be one of the first names on the shortlist.
Jim Boeheim’s Orange will be another nearly unrecognizable side after the departures of Battle, Howard, Brissett, and Chukwu, though I anticipate the story in Syracuse to remain much the same. Come February, don’t be surprised to hear their name once again dominating the national “bubble” conversation. Elijah Hughes will look to carry the load offensively, but won’t be able to do it alone. I expect the Orange to be fine defensively, even if Boeheim does end up sprinkling a little man-to-man as has been rumored this summer, but I’m not convinced they’ll be able to score consistently.
Pick: I hope to see Jalen Carey and Buddy Boeheim, step into more efficient offensive roles this year along with freshman Quincy Guerrier and prove me wrong, but until they do, I’ll take my chances with the Hoos, even on the road. This game could be ugly at times, but this is one I’m excited to watch tonight. UVA -4.