There’s no debate this season.
A year ago, it was whether the ACC or the Big 12 reigned supreme. And by March, the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten and Pac-12 all had seven teams represented in the NCAA tourney.
This year, there’s no need to waste time or energy arguing about it. Because there’s little question which is the best league in America leading into the 2016-17 season.
It’s the ACC.
The Big East packed 11 teams into the tourney back in 2011. The ACC could threaten to match that this season.
How many teams will the ACC get into the field this season? I’m going with 10. But if Boston College doesn’t improve and Georgia Tech is as putrid as the Yellow Jackets are expected to be, there’s a chance the ACC could land 11 on the dance card come March.
The Blue Devils, even with the uncertainty surrounding freshman big man Harry Giles and his knee, will go into the season as the preseason favorites to cut down the nets in April. Duke isn't missing the tourney this year.
The Tar Heels might not be quite as powerful as a year ago, when they had Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige, but Roy Williams brings back no shortage of talent. Consider: Justin Jackson, Joel Berry II, Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks, Theo Pinson and Nate Britt. That’s six guys who all played key roles on last season’s team that was a bucket away from winning the title.
Tony Bennett lost Malcolm Brogdon and Anthony Gill, but he has it rolling now in Charlottesville. Virginia is 45-9 in ACC play over the past three season and boasts a senior point guard who has been there for those 45 wins in London Perrantes. Memphis transfer Austin Nichols will be huge for the Cavs this season.
Rick Pitino had been to the tournament for nine straight years before last season’s self-imposed postseason ban. The Cards have plenty of quality perimeter guys (Donovan Mitchell, Quentin Snider, Deng Adel and V.J. King) and more than enough big bodies (Raymond Spalding, Mangok Mathiang, Jaylen Johnson and Anas Mahmoud). Unless the NCAA hits Louisville with another year of a postseason ban, it’s difficult to imagine the NCAA tourney without Pitino and the Cardinals.
There are still point guard concerns, but Jim Boeheim has a couple options with Franklin Howard and Colorado State transfer John Gillon. There are scorers with Tyler Lydon and fifth-year transfer Andrew White (from Nebraska), as well as a big-time defensive presence with Providence transfer Paschal Chukwu and talented freshmen Tyus Battle and Matthew Moyer.
This will be Mark Gottfried’s most talented overall team. He added a likely lottery pick in point guard Dennis Smith Jr.. He returns Abdul-Malik Abu and BeeJay Anya up front. He has Maverick Rowan, Terry Henderson and Torin Dorn on the wings. And also added another likely first-rounder in skilled 7-footer Omer Yurtseven.
Buzz Williams did far more than anyone expected last season in Blacksburg during his second leading the Hokies. The only departure was that of Jalen Hudson, who transferred. Seth Allen, Justin Bibbs and Justin Robinson give Tech three quality perimeter guys. And Williams gets Ahmed Hill, who started 30 games two years ago, back after an injury. The front line isn’t overpowering, but there’s enough with Zach LeDay, Chris Clarke and Kerry Blackshear Jr. -- and the addition of Ty Outlaw, a junior college product who missed all of last season.
Mike Brey somehow finds a way no matter who he loses. He lost Pat Connaughton and Jerian Grant, and the Irish reached the Elite Eight last season. Now Brey will have to deal with replacing Demetrius Jackson and Zach Auguste. And he’ll almost certainly find a way with a team that revolves around V.J. Beachem, Steve Vasturia and Bonzie Colson.
Leonard Hamilton lost Malik Beasley, but Dwayne Bacon returned, and Hamilton brought in one of the most talented freshman in the country in long and skilled 6-foot-10 Jonathan Isaac. The key, though, is point guard play -- and whether Xavier Rathan-Mayes can return to his freshman form. Even if he can’t, there are other options now, with frosh C.J. Walker and even the versatile Trent Forrest.
The Hurricanes lost their top two players, Sheldon McClellan and Angel Rodriguez, but they bring back Ja’Quan Newton, Davon Reed and Kamari Murphy. And they brought in a couple of impact freshmen in Bruce Brown and Dewan Huell.
The Tigers return their top three scorers, including versatile senior Jaron Blossomgame. Brad Brownell added three transfers who will all help: former top-50 big man Elijah Thomas, who becomes eligible at the semester break; Shelton Mitchell, who spent his freshman season at Vanderbilt; and transfer Marcquise Reed, who averaged 15.1 points as a freshman at Robert Morris.
Sure, Kevin Stallings failed to take a more talented Vanderbilt team to the NCAA tourney last season. But he takes over a Panthers group that has talented, experienced forwards in Jamel Artis and Michael Young. The key will be the play of the point guards, but this team went to the NCAA tourney a year ago and really only lost one player of note: floor leader James Robinson.