If every coin has two sides, the heads of Tyus Battle returning to the Syracuse Orange will be counteracted by the tails of key returnees around the ACC.
On Wednesday we learned the Orange will retain its starting five with Battle back. The group banded together last year to survive a hellish ride through Atlantic Coast Conference play, earning Clemson, Louisville and Miami wins late to get into the dance. In this conference every break is only relative, as a class of elite Duke players that throttled the Orange (and others) leaves, a new and improved cast enters.
The Blue Devils present a unique case of Kentucky-esqe yearly relevancy. For bordering competitors such as Clemson, Boston College and Miami, along with Roy Williams’s emerging system in North Carolina that’s recently relied on long-term players, NBA Draft decision day carried substantial consequences.
Through critical program centerpieces like Luke Maye, Marcquise Reed and Jerome Robinson, the ACC earned credence as not only a top-heavy powerhouse, but one that’s developed competitive depth in 2017-18. As the conference lobbies for extra NCAA Tournament slots, it’s clear they intend that to be a long-term trend beyond short-term boosts from players like Battle.
We could have received a test for that sustainability in the 2018-19 season, as hundreds of draft prospects and many from the ACC rushed the NBA Draft Combine. But De’Andre Hunter initiated a falling spree of dominoes that likely ensures another upset-heavy ACC season. The Orange themselves no longer face life without Battle, one of the core tenants in Syracuse exceeding expectations to reach the bubble in his two seasons.
Hunter’s return to Virginia won’t alleviate the embarrassment of their first-round loss in the 2018 tournament (UMBC!), but will provide them a chance to defend their ACC title.
Their chief competition, Duke, will likely produce the top three picks in the 2019 NBA Draft and could get even richer as Reid Travis graduate transfers from Stanford after skipping out on the ‘18 Draft. Kentucky likely holds an edge in signing him, but his past connections to the Blue Devils through their initial recruitment of him could open a door there.
N.C. State, after tying for the third best record in ACC play, returns most of its versatile, small and slashing roster with Torin Dorn passing up on the draft. He posted almost 14 points and over six rebounds per game as a cog in most of the Pack’s lineups.
That return pales in comparison to Luke Maye storming back to Chapel Hill.
He shocked college basketball, producing offense at ridiculous levels alongside Theo Pinson and Joel Berry II. Now that the latter two are done at Carolina, this is definitely Maye’s team. While losing two champions, UNC may have somehow improved upon their 26-11 squad with Coby White and Nassir Little arriving in the backcourt. Maye averaged 17 and 10 in 2018, and probably gets more shots next year.
At nearby Clemson, Gabe DeVoe moves on, but Reed and Shelton Mitchell remain on campus to prove 2018 wasn’t a blip on the radar and that the Tigers are perennial top-25 threats on the basketball court alongside football. This group already exceeded expectations with the loss of Donte Grantham last year, and pushed further in the NCAA Tournament than much of their competition in the ACC.
While they’ll miss DeVoe, the key word is sustaining here. Reed and Mitchell shared 110 offensive ratings with him last year, shot comparably well (mid-30s) from three and this team won on defense as we saw in their gritty showing at the Carrier Dome last year. They have enough to move forward.
Even Miami, sending off first-round shoe-ins Lonnie Walker and Bruce Brown, will retain Dewan Huell and Zach Johnson after they tested draft waters. Huell matched Brown in scoring in an offense predicated around smaller lineups, so he’ll continue to fit as Johnson debuts for the Hurricanes after a 40 percent three-point shooting season at Florida Gulf Coast.
Robinson’s out at BC, but Ky Bowman will stick around after a 17/6/4 season to prove that his array of playmaking skills can keep the Eagles afloat on offense. He initially drew eyes to BC before Robinson’s near MVP-caliber explosion in 2018. While the two-pronged attack is gone, Jim Christian’s lucky to retain Bowman after he scored well in NBA interviews. Jordan Chatman’s still around too, so get ready for more running and gunning that downed the Orange at Chestnut Hill in February.
The ACC’s greatest losses occurred at the bottom. Bryant Crawford and Doral Moore ditched Wake Forest after they harassed Jim Boeheim’s squad three times a year ago. Josh Okogie’s moving on from Georgia Tech, and Pittsburgh’s radioactive at the moment.
Those losses will likely prove inconsequential to the ACC’s comeback next year, though the key players will be back. Syracuse looks locked and loaded with Battle back in town, but it’s never as easy as it looks when you eyeball the league as a whole.