As the countdown continues to the start of the 2021-22 college basketball season on Nov. 9, an ESPN panel of experts is making predictions for all of the nation's top leagues. So far we've taken a look at Gonzaga and the best teams from the mid-major conferences (Atlantic 10, C-USA, Ivy, MAC, Missouri Valley, Mountain West, SoCon, Sun Belt and WCC), followed by Memphis, Houston and the AAC, the Villanova-dominated Big East, UCLA and the resurgent Pac-12 Conference, a Big 12 with a second straight national title in its sights and an SEC led by intriguing Kentucky. Our series continues with the always fascinating ACC.
The Duke Blue Devils are destined to endure as one of college basketball's top stories in 2021-22 thanks to the imminent retirement of Mike Krzyzewski, but Coach K's victory lap is far from the only story in the game -- or in the ACC. Freshman phenom Paolo Banchero leads a star-studded class intent on delivering some hardware after the program's rare NCAA tournament-less performance last season. Challenging Duke at the top of the league are expected to be a North Carolina Tar Heels squad which begins the Hubert Davis era; the Florida State Seminoles, who are always tough under Leonard Hamilton; and a Virginia Cavaliers team that enters the season somewhat unsung but likely to be dangerous. Beyond those groups, Syracuse, Georgia Tech and Clemson units that all reached the NCAA tournament a season ago are unlikely to go quietly.
ESPN's writing team of Myron Medcalf, Jeff Borzello, John Gasaway and Joe Lunardi sized up all the top teams and storylines in the league and made their predictions for the 15-team conference.
ACC 2021-22 superlatives
Player of the Year
Medcalf: Paolo Banchero, Duke
Borzello: Paolo Banchero, Duke
Gasaway: Paolo Banchero, Duke
Lunardi: Paolo Banchero, Duke
Newcomer of the Year
Medcalf: Paolo Banchero, Duke
Borzello: Paolo Banchero, Duke
Gasaway: Paolo Banchero, Duke
Lunardi: Paolo Banchero, Duke
ACC 2021-22 writer roundtable
What is the most intriguing thing to you about the 2021-22 Duke Blue Devils that has nothing to do with Mike Krzyzewski's impending retirement?
Medcalf: Over the past 20 years, college basketball has had a handful of guys who could just do things that no other player in the country could do. Emeka Okafor, Greg Oden, Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis, Trae Young and Zion Williamson ... maybe I'm missing a few. But the point is: The buzz around Paolo Banchero right now suggests he can be one of those guys, too. And maybe that's the difference this season -- that despite the talent pools at Kansas and Gonzaga or the depth at Texas, that none of it will matter this season because Duke has Paolo and you don't.
Duke has had a multitude of young players who've put together impressive debuts, but Banchero is chasing that rare just-add-water instant greatness. Feels like a season where you gotta get your popcorn ready and watch every game, every possession Banchero plays before the 2022 NBA draft, when he could be the No. 1 pick. I haven't felt that way since Zion.
Borzello: Has to be Banchero. Widely considered the most college-ready recruit in the 2021 class, Banchero is also walking into a situation that will allow him to produce and be the Blue Devils' go-to guy from day one. He's not as unique as Chet Holmgren or as explosive a scorer as Jaden Hardy, but Banchero is very much in play for the No. 1 pick in the 2022 NBA draft.
He's an inside-outside threat on the offensive end, someone who can score in the post and step out and make shots, but he's also a high-level rebounder at both ends of the floor. He'll create real matchup problems for defenses, and I think Coach K will find ways to play him at the 5 in smaller lineups when Mark Williams is on the bench. Banchero should be supremely productive right off the bat and put himself in position for ACC Player of the Year and potential Wooden Award honors if Duke sits near the top of the rankings for most of the season.
Gasaway: I want to see whether the latest entry in the Sensational Duke Freshman This Time category is really the sensation we think he'll be. Over the past decade or so we've watched, among others, the following players take on this mantle: Kyrie Irving, Austin Rivers, Jabari Parker, Jahlil Okafor, Brandon Ingram, Jayson Tatum, Marvin Bagley, Zion Williamson, Vernon Carey and Jalen Johnson. Some were flat-out sensations, some were less so, some were injured, and one, Okafor, was part of a national championship.
Now I want to sit back and watch what Banchero can do. On paper this is a good but not necessarily dominant Duke team, one ranked No. 9 in the preseason by the AP. That actually equals the lowest ranking for a program that's been voted into the preseason top 10 by the AP in each of the past 14 years. Banchero is billed as a highly skilled scorer and hard worker in an NBA-ready 6-foot-10-inch and 250-pound body. Can he really live up to the Zion-level expectations and power Duke to its first ACC title in 12 years? That's what I'm here to see. What's the name of the coach again?
Lunardi: Not to be rude, but can Duke win anything of consequence this season? Since the 2015 national title, the Blue Devils are a pedestrian -- by their standard -- 73-37 (.664) in ACC play, enduring one of the longest Final Four droughts of Coach K's career. Duke hasn't shared an ACC regular-season crown since 2010 or won the league outright since 2006.
It's not about the current coach, the next coach or the star of the moment. Can Duke be Duke again? Five national championships, a dozen Final Fours and 13 No. 1 seeds in 35 years suggests we shouldn't worry about the Blue Devils. But it's time.
What's the biggest challenge for Hubert Davis in his first year as a head coach at UNC, and what is the Tar Heels' ceiling?
Gasaway: The good news for Davis is that Roy Williams left the cupboard reasonably full. Armando Bacot, Caleb Love, Leaky Black and R.J. Davis return from a team that earned an NCAA tournament No. 8 seed. Marquette transfer Dawson Garcia is a 6-foot-11 scorer with 3-point range. Oklahoma transfer Brady Manek also scores from both sides of the arc.
The less-good news is that the Tar Heels were lackluster on offense last season because they committed turnovers with alarming frequency. UNC ranked dead last in the league in turnover percentage during ACC play. Let's say that changes: North Carolina posts an average turnover rate, Bacot continues to dominate the offensive glass and Love finds the range from outside. In that case you're looking at an Elite Eight ceiling.
Lunardi: I'll go one further than John and say North Carolina has its usual Final Four ceiling. I'm not saying the Tar Heels are one of the four best teams in America or a likely No. 1 seed. But there is certainly enough talent on hand to win four NCAA tournament games.
Carolina turned the page pretty well after Dean Smith retired, reaching a pair of Final Fours in three seasons under Bill Guthridge. It wouldn't surprise me at all if Hubert Davis does something equal or better in his first three years.
Borzello: Davis wants to change the offensive system that Williams ran throughout his tenure in Chapel Hill. Williams was known for utilizing lineups with two traditional big men and dominating teams in the paint and on the glass. Davis is looking to modernize the offense. He made that apparent when he signed Manek and Garcia, two more skilled forwards, and then confirmed it last month when he told me, "I don't want traditional bigs. I just don't. I like bigs that are versatile and can play on the perimeter." It's a departure from what the Tar Heels have done for two decades, and that's obviously a challenge.
Carolina's ceiling is going to be whatever Caleb Love's ceiling is. I loved Love coming out of high school, but he was inconsistent as a freshman and had problems with turnovers and perimeter shooting. However, he did show flashes of his potential during ACC play -- 25 points and seven assists against Duke in February, 18 points and seven assists vs. the Blue Devils in March. A more spread-out offensive system should help with his drive-and-kick game.
Medcalf: I think Davis' biggest challenge is that he's not going to get a grace period at UNC. That's not necessarily fair, but when you get one of the three best jobs in college basketball after a nine-year stint sitting next to a legend, people will want results. He wasn't hired to coach a basketball team. He was hired to extend The Carolina Way in the age of transfer portals and competition for recruits who can choose a different school or the G League or Overtime Elite.
With Garcia, Bacot, Manek and Love, Davis can win early. More than that, he will be expected to win early and compete for an ACC title -- all while being the guy who is following Roy Williams. This is not a Matt Doherty situation, but when he resigned after three seasons, Doherty talked about the "immense" task at UNC. Davis can't call Mike Hopkins or another former assistant who was elevated in recent seasons and ask for advice. This is a gigantic job at a powerhouse school and it's unique. How will Davis handle all of that? That will impact his team's ability to reach its ceiling, which is an ACC title and an Elite Eight run, I think, if it all comes together.
What's your favorite ACC storyline that has nothing to do with Duke or North Carolina?
Borzello: I can't bring myself to drop Virginia out of my preseason top 25, despite the fact the Cavaliers bring back very few pieces from last season and aren't bringing in an overwhelming recruiting class. It's a testament to Tony Bennett. Since the 2013-14 season, Virginia has finished first, first, second, fifth, first, first, second (tied) and first in the ACC. All eight teams were top-25 teams. I just trust Bennett enough to figure it out.
But there's some huge, huge question marks. Kihei Clark and Reece Beekman are back on the perimeter, transfers Jayden Gardner (East Carolina) and Armaan Franklin (Indiana) will make an impact ... and that's all we really know right now. Who steps up for the Cavaliers?
Medcalf: I'll take Louisville for $1,000. Chris Mack is suspended for six games for his handling of the Dino Gaudio extortion matter, and the NCAA was so upset about it all that it amended its original notice of allegations stemming from the FBI investigation and added more charges. The independent panel that will make a decision on Louisville's penalty for that NOA could announce a punishment sometime this season. All of this while Mack pursues his first NCAA tournament victory since being hired in 2018. He lost both David Johnson and Carlik Jones, so he needs some new faces to step up -- see Marshall star Jarrod West -- in what could be another interesting season for the program.
Gasaway: Can Virginia sustain its incredible run? Over the past decade the Cavaliers have won nine more conference games than Duke and 16 more than North Carolina. Mindful of this fact, the ACC media picked the Hoos to finish No. 4 in the league, and the AP found room for Tony Bennett's men at No. 25. But laptops are notably bearish on a rotation featuring Clark, Beekman, Gardner, Franklin and promising freshmen like Taine Murray. Is UVa due for a down year or can Bennett work his magic yet again?
Lunardi: The best the ACC could muster last season was a pair of No. 4 seeds (Virginia and Florida State). The year before, when COVID canceled the NCAA tournament, Florida State would have been the league's top entry as a No. 2 seed.
The last time before that the ACC didn't have a No. 1 seed? You have to go back to the 2012-13 season. The last time the conference had gone two years in a row without one? We're talking the 1988-89 and 1989-90 campaigns.
Nobody talks about it, but the ACC has slipped ever so slightly. The top of the Big 12 and the top of the Big Ten have been better recently (and figure to be again). My favorite storyline, in a league whose bottom is just too big, is what can history's best basketball conference do to reverse that trend?
Who's the ACC team not nearly enough people are talking about heading into 2021-22?
Borzello: I think Virginia Tech is being completely forgotten in the preseason. I had the Hokies pretty high up in my initial top 25 back in early April, and that was probably too aggressive, but I still think they're not getting enough credit for last season. On Feb. 6, Tech was 14-4 overall, 8-3 in the ACC and in the hunt for the conference title. The Hokies played just four games the rest of the season due to COVID issues. At full strength, though, this is a team that beat Villanova, Virginia and Clemson. Virginia Tech had the No. 1 defense in ACC play. Mike Young brings back three starters, the team's sixth man and also brings in Wofford transfer Storm Murphy, who played under Young with the Terriers. The Hokies are just outside the top 25 overall for me and I think they're a clear top-five ACC team.
Gasaway: Notre Dame brings back more experience than any team in the league. Last season the Fighting Irish hit 55% of their 2s in ACC play, and this season the rotation will be top-heavy with seniors like Prentiss Hubb, Dane Goodwin, Nate Laszewski, Cormac Ryan, Trey Wertz and Yale transfer Paul Atkinson. The Irish outscored ACC opponents by a single point over 18 games last season but came away with just a 7-11 record to show for it. The hoops gods owe Notre Dame a good bounce or two, and you're looking at a veteran group that's well-positioned to cash that check. This won't be the No. 1-ranked defense in the ACC, and indeed it's likely ND opponents will never commit turnovers. But Mike Brey's guys will score some points.
Lunardi: Virginia Tech looks like a Sweet 16 team to me. The defense, experience and coaching are all in place for the Hokies to repeat what Buzz Williams achieved three years ago before bolting for Texas A&M. Considering those were Tech's only NCAA tournament wins since 2007, Mike Young will be doing awfully well to get back to that level.
I believe he will. This season.
Medcalf: Yeah, I think it's Virginia Tech. Mike Young is used to that, though. College basketball loves the young, rising-star assistant or head coach who gets a big Division I job. The head coach in his late 50s finally getting that opportunity? Doesn't really wow us. Yet, since the 2009-10 season, Young has finished outside the top four in his league's conference standings just once -- during his first season at Virginia Tech in 2019-20. Prior to a late collapse that season, the Hokies were 14-5.
I say all that to point out why a Virginia Tech squad with Nahiem Alleyne and Keve Aluma can overcome the loss of Tyrece Radford. Young has endured turnover at multiple levels of college basketball and still found ways to win. There is a lot of talent on this Virginia Tech roster and a head coach who deserves more national recognition after leading this group to the NCAA tournament last season.
ACC 2021-22 predicted order of finish
2. Florida State
3. North Carolina
6. Virginia Tech
8. Notre Dame
9. NC State
10. Georgia Tech
11. Clemson (tie)
11. Miami (tie)
13. Wake Forest
15. Boston College