The 2016-17 season was one for the ages in the ACC. North Carolina won it all. The conference was littered with stars, from Justin Jackson and Donovan Mitchell and Grayson Allen at the big-name schools to Dennis Smith Jr., Jonathan Isaac and John Collins elsewhere. Ten ACC players went in the first round of the 2017 NBA draft. Those were halcyon days.
This season, things will look a little different. Indeed, the league should still have its share of star power, particularly at Duke, which is loaded with young studs. But with an FBI investigation looming over Louisville, rebuilding years at Syracuse and Virginia, and a hefty overhaul for the Tar Heels' roster, there are a lot more questions entering the 2017-18 season than there were a year ago.
The biggest question, of course, is what happens with the ongoing NCAA investigation, which has already touched off a firestorm at Louisville and could linger over the entire conference all season.
At Duke, Allen is back, alongside four of the top eight ESPN 100 recruits. At Miami, Bruce Brown has the Hurricanes poised to challenge for a conference title. Joel Berry II, Bonzie Colson and Deng Adel all offer returning star power, too. But the depth of the league might be lacking, and matching last year's nine NCAA tournament teams will likely require a few surprises along the way.
Number of teams that should make the NCAA tournament: Eight. Duke, Miami, Louisville, Notre Dame and North Carolina look like locks, barring something crazy -- and, of course, we've already seen some crazy at Louisville. Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech are in good shape, too, while Virginia, Syracuse, Florida State and Wake Forest all figure to be in the mix. There's a good chance that at least a couple of wild cards will emerge from a league that lacks the depth of years past but also comes with plenty of potential.
The player who will own the ACC: The obvious answer here is Allen, the Duke star who'll likely be the preseason favorite for player of the year and no doubt the subject of myriad headlines.
On the court, there's little debate that Allen is among the ACC's best performers, but his tripping incidents make him one of the nation's most well-known stars. It'd be hard to imagine a scenario in which Allen isn't a focal point, but his production on the court alongside a bevy of young stars at Duke would be the biggest story of the season regardless.
The freshman you will want to tune in to every time he plays: Half of Duke's roster is a freshman you won't want to miss, but of course, none comes with the buzz of forward Marvin Bagley III, the onetime top prospect for the 2018 class who reclassified and joined the Blue Devils for 2017. He has turned heads at every step, and with the NBA draft gurus already drooling over his talent, he'll be must-see TV all season.
Coach with the toughest job: There are plenty of coaches with big jobs this year, from Tony Bennett rebuilding at Virginia to Brad Brownell looking to cool his hot seat at Clemson to Roy Williams looking to make another run at a national championship after waving goodbye to so much talent. But no one has as difficult a job as Louisville's David Padgett, who is tasked with trying to hold together a roster that has the talent to compete in the ACC, but off-the-court distractions that could easily envelop the team as new information on the NCAA and FBI investigations emerges.
The team that will surprise: The expectations for Virginia are pretty low after the departure of London Perrantes, but there's also a lot to like here. Rutgers transfer Nigel Johnson adds veteran depth, and a foursome of second-year players -- Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome, DeAndre Hunter and Jay Huff -- could jell nicely to give the Cavaliers a better-than-expected roster. Given some of the big questions in the middle of the pack for the ACC, Virginia has as good a shot as anyone at finding answers.
The team that will disappoint: What constitutes disappointment for North Carolina? Coming off a national title, there's nowhere to go but down. And while Berry certainly should keep the Tar Heels competitive in the ACC (once he recovers from a broken hand), this will be a much different team than the one that won it all a year ago. The frontcourt, in particular, is a major question mark. When was the last time Williams didn't have a strong back-to-the-basket big man? Luke Maye had his moment in the sun during last year's tournament, but he'll need to shoulder a far bigger load this season.
The ACC title will come down to: There will be some strong contenders for the ACC title at Miami, where Brown, Dewan Huell and Lonnie Walker could take the next step into elite status, and Notre Dame, a veteran squad that Mike Brey has poised to push for a conference title. But the clear heavyweight to open the season is Duke. Allen, Bagley, Trevon Duval, Gary Trent and a host of others make the Blue Devils the most talented team in the ACC. The question is whether Mike Krzyzewski can get the group to jell or whether there's simply too much talent in one place to function as a cohesive unit.