A season ago, Syracuse finished 9-9 in Atlantic Coast Conference play, good for only eighth-best in the conference. With 10 teams projected to make the NCAA Tournament, the ACC promises to be ultra-competitive once again in 2015-16. Before the college basketball season begins later this week, here are my preseason power rankings for the conference.
Not only are the Tar Heels the best team in the ACC, but they might be the best team in the country. North Carolina has four players that will likely be drafted in 2016: point guard Marcus Paige, small forward Justin Jackson and big men Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks. As long as Paige returns to 100 percent health -- he's out 3-4 weeks with a broken right hand -- North Carolina is the favorite to win the conference.
Duke lost the majority of its core from last season's national championship team, but the Blue Devils also brought in the nation's No. 1 recruiting class. That class features three five-star talents -- small forward Brandon Ingram, center Chase Jeter and point guard Derryck Thornton. Duke also returns Grayson Allen, Amile Jefferson, Matt Jones and Marshall Plumlee, contributors from last season who should have their roles expanded in 2015-16.
By just about every measure, Virginia had college basketball's best defense in 2014-15, allowing just 51.4 points per game and leading all teams in Kenpom.com's adjusted defensive efficiency rating. The Hoos lost Justin Anderson and Darion Atkins, but there's plenty of talent on that roster -- namely Malcolm Brogdon and London Perrantes -- for Tony Bennett to keep Virginia among the country's best teams.
The Clear Second Tier
There's a clear dropoff in the conference after the top three teams, but Notre Dame should be the best of the rest. Gone to the NBA are Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton, but guard Demetrius Jackson, guard Steve Vasturia and big man Zach Auguste make up a very solid core, while forwards V.J. Beachem and Bonzie Colson will take on bigger roles. Beachem, Jackson and Vasturia each shot better than 40 percent from 3 in 2015-16, so look for Notre Dame -- which ranked second nationally last season in Kenpom.com's adjusted offensive efficiency rating -- to have another potent scoring attack.
I'm higher than most on Louisville. Yes, the Cardinals lost their four leading scorers from last season, but they also gained a lot. Louisville brought on the country's No. 13 recruiting class, according to ESPN.com, and welcomes graduate transfer guards Damion Lee and Trey Lewis. Lee averaged 21.4 points per game at Drexel in 2014-15, while Lewis was busy shooting 42.3 percent from 3 and averaging 16.3 points per game at Cleveland State.
Louisville also brings back two players who started more than a handful of games last season -- guard Quentin Snider and center Mangok Mathiang. Additionally, sophomore center Chinanu Onuaku is an NBA talent and an exceptional rim protector.
6. Miami Hurricanes
After finishing in this spot in the conference a season ago, Miami returns its four leaders in both minutes played and scoring: guards Sheldon McClellan, Angel Rodriguez and Davon Reed and big man Tonye Jekiri, who could average a double-double this season. But the Hurricanes do have an especially tough conference schedule; they travel to Chapel Hill on Feb. 20 and play twice against each of Virginia, Florida State and Notre Dame.
On the Bubble
Losing Rakeem Christmas and Chris McCullough to the NBA will obviously hurt, but Syracuse has a roster that's capable of competing in the ACC. Michael Gbinije is one of the conference's best players, and through two exhibition games, Malachi Richardson looks like one of the conference's best all-around freshmen. Whether the Orange can break into the top-25 at any point will depend largely on Kaleb Joseph's improvement and Dajuan Coleman's health.
This might even be a couple spots too low for the Seminoles, who have surely their best team since 2011-12. Between returning guards Devon Bookert, Montay Brandon and Xavier Rathan-Mayes, Florida State has one of the ACC's most talented backcourts. The Seminoles also bring in the country's No. 11 recruiting class, led by five-star small forward Dwayne Bacon.
Trevor Lacey's departure to professional basketball came as a surprise to most, and coupling it with the loss of sharpshooter Ralston Turner means NC State will have 28.5 points per game to replace. But the Wolfpack still have enough to get back to the NCAA Tournament. NC State returns Anthony Barber, who shot 38 percent from 3 in 2014-15 and led the team in assists, as well as defensive menace BeeJay Anya and leading rebounders Abdul-Malik Abu and Lennard Freeman.
Pittsburgh missed the NCAA Tournament in 2014-15 for the first time since 2012 mainly because it couldn't make any defensive stops. The Panthers ranked 202nd in the country and second-to-last in the ACC in Kenpom.com's adjusted defensive efficiency rating. Making it worse, they lost arguably their best defender in Cameron Wright, who was also their third-leading scorer last season. But Pitt does return forwards Jamel Artis and Michael Young -- its best two offensive players last season -- and guard James Robinson, who was sixth in the ACC in assist rate last season, per Kenpom.com. The Panthers also add graduate transfers Rafael Maia, Alonzo Nelson-Ododa and Sterling Smith, all of whom should provide positive contributions.
It's easy to write off Georgia Tech this season. After finishing just 3-15 in ACC play last season, it lost three regular contributors: Chris Bolden, Demarco Cox and Robert Sampson. But there are reasons to think Brian Gregory's team can make some strides this season.
The Yellow Jackets return Marcus Georges-Hunt and Charles Mitchell, who combined to average 23.4 points and 12.5 rebounds per game last season. And they'll be adding more than they lost. After sitting out last season because of NCAA transfer rules, former Alabama forward Nick Jacobs is eligible to play. Tech also gets two graduate transfers in Adam Smith and James White, who were each double-digit scorers last season.
And despite the 15 losses in conference play, it's not as if the Yellow Jackets weren't competitive last season. Of those 15 losses, 12 of them were by seven points or fewer. Led by five seniors, maybe this is the season Georgia Tech begins to win some of those close games.
The Cellar Dwellers
After finishing 5-13 in ACC play last season, it's difficult to expect Wake Forest to be much better this season. The Demon Deacons didn't land any especially noteworthy recruits or graduate transfers. Senior guard Codi Miller-McIntyre and senior forward Devin Thomas are back, but they don't have much help. That will be especially true if guard Cornelius Hudson, who was recently suspended indefinitely along with Rondale Watson by head coach Danny Manning, is out for an extended period of time.
13. Clemson Tigers
With Littlejohn Coliseum undergoing renovations, Clemson will play its home games this season at the Bon Secours Wellness Arena, which could take away from the Tigers' home court advantage. Leading scorer and rebounder Jaron Blossomgame is back, but Rod Hall and Damarcus Harrison are gone and the Tigers didn't add much to be especially excited about.
Buzz Williams will probably get Virginia Tech back to relevancy eventually; he landed a top 40 recruiting class in 2015, per ESPN.com. But even with Justin Bibbs returning and Maryland graduate transfer Seth Allen in the fold, this isn't the year. The Hokies weren't good to begin with, and they lost leading scorer Adam Smith, as well as Joey van Zegeren and 3-point sniper Malik Muller.
Oh... Oh no
Poor Boston College. Its football team is the worst in the ACC, and its basketball team will be just as bad. The Eagles were bad enough last season, and they lost their four leading scorers. Finding any wins in conference will prove to be a difficult task for this group.