ACC Power Rankings: Ranking every team heading into the 2021-22 college basketball season
Editor’s note: Look for our updated ACC Power Rankings every Tuesday morning throughout the college basketball season.
The college basketball season begins tonight, Nov. 9, and the 2021-2022 slate promises to be a special one in the ACC.
No. 19 North Carolina will kick off ACC play — and the Hubert Davis era, with a tilt against Loyola (Md.) and No. 9 Duke will begin Mike Krzyzewski’s final campaign with a Champions Classic duel with No. 10 Kentucky later that evening.
After a 2020-21 season that saw 7 ACC teams (but not Duke) make the NCAA Tournament field but only 2 (FSU, Syracuse) advance to the Sweet 16, the league should be vastly improved in 2021-2022. At least 7 programs are legitimate contenders to advance to the Sweet 16 and there are a trio of Final Four ceiling teams in Duke, UNC and Florida State.
Here’s a set of preseason Power Rankings as we get ready for the return of college basketball.
Jeff Capel begins Year 4 firmly on the hot seat, and the loss of All-ACC forward Justin Champagnie (Toronto Raptors), coupled with the surprising transfer of guards Au’Diese Toney (Arkansas) and Xavier Johnson (Indiana) puts him in a really difficult spot. Stony Brook transfer Mouhamadou Gueye will help the Panthers defend at a high level, but where do the baskets come from? Journeyman Jamarius Burton has scored in previous stops (Wichita State, Texas Tech), but beyond him, there’s little in the way of proven commodities. That’s tough in a brutal league.
14. Wake Forest
Steve Forbes knew the Wake Forest job was going to be a long rebuild but last year, he dealt with a pandemic, a COVID outbreak on his own team that cut into his practice time, and a roster overhaul and it went about how you’d expect: terribly.
Forbes didn’t forget how to coach, though. He’s still the guy who won over 75% of his games at East Tennessee State and he hit the portal hard this offseason, bringing in a remarkable 5 transfers, including 3 from Power 6 leagues (Dallas Walton of Colorado, Alondes Williams of Oklahoma and Khadim Sy of Ole Miss).
The Demon Deacons should be more competitive this season, but success is still a season or two away.
The Tigers surprised folks a season ago, rattling off a 9-1 start that included signature wins over eventual SEC champion Alabama and defending ACC champion Florida State. The net result was enough résumé strength to make the NCAA Tournament field despite closing the year 7-9. The Tigers will defend, because Brad Brownell teams defend, but finding consistent buckets will be a challenge for this team without Aamir Sims to clean up things and score easy points in the frontcourt. PJ Hall, a former Top 50 recruit, is extremely skilled — how much he improves from a consistency standpoint may define the ceiling for the Tigers in 2021-22.
12. Boston College
I thought Earl Grant was one of the offseason’s best hires — a program-builder who was an assistant during the ascent of Wichita State under the now-disgraced Gregg Marshall and then, as a rookie head coach, built College of Charleston into a midmajor power in the Colonial Athletic Association. Grant would have loved to have kept CJ Felder, one of the ACC’s best defenders, who left for Florida, or Jay Heath, who transferred to Arizona State, but there’s no use crying over spilled milk. Grant will get the most out of what he has, and star guard Brevin Galloway, who followed Grant to Chestnut Hill from College of Charleston, will flirt with All-ACC honors.
Jim Larrañaga is back for Year 11 at The U, but hasn’t seen the NCAA Tournament since 2017-18. To do it this season, he’ll have to win with a roster overhaul after the departure of a host of stars, including Earl Timberlake (transfer to Memphis) and Chris Lykes (transfer to Arkansas). Larrañaga does have a veteran group back, however, and after a year that saw the Hurricanes lose a combined 50+ games from starters due to injury, they are bound to be more healthy in 2021, aren’t they?
10. NC State
Kevin Keatts enters Year 5 in Raleigh hoping to avoid settling for another NIT. The Wolfpack, like Notre Dame, were deprived of an NCAA Tournament bid in the COVID-shortened 2019-2020 and settled for an NIT quarterfinal last season. They now lose 2 key scorers from that team in Devon Daniels and DJ Funderburk but added Providence transfer Greg Gantt and consensus top-100 recruit Ernest Ross to help replace Funderburk and believe that Cam Hayes, a highly-touted prep product of Greensboro, will be better in 2021-22 in the backcourt. The best player, however, remains center Manny Bates, who was a top-50 player in the country last year in effective field goal percentage, 2-point field goal percentage, block percentage and rebound rate. If the Wolfpack build around Bates, the ceiling may be higher.
9. Georgia Tech
Last season, Josh Pastner led the Yellow Jackets to the school’s first ACC Tournament championship since Travis Best was running the show for Bobby Cremins in 1993. The Jackets earned their first NCAA Tournament berth in a decade. Unfortunately, the Jackets were thumped by Porter Moser’s Loyola-Chicago in the first round, stretching the program’s streak of years without an NCAA Tournament win to 11. It figures to be 12 after 2021-22, as the Jackets lose the 2 pieces who drove last season’s championship success story: ACC Player of the Year Moses Wright and point guard Jose Alvarado, who graduated and earned a two-way deal with the New Orleans Pelicans.
Pastner’s group will defend, but replacing 35 points of production and all that leadership will be a stiff challenge.
Chris Mack is suspended for the first 6 games for his mishandling of the Dino Gaudio situation, a distraction that only added to the cloud of white noise that is swirling around this program at present. That’s not a great scene, and neither is losing top scorer Carlik Jones and guard David Johnson. Universally thought of as a home run hire when he was hired in 2018, Mack hasn’t won an NCAA Tournament game in Louisville. Whether that changes this season will largely depend on how healthy Malik Williams is after missing most of the 2020-21 season with a foot injury and how a pair of tremendous transfers, Florida sharpshooter Noah Locke and Marshall’s jitterbug Jarrod West, add punch to the backcourt. It feels like another one-and-done team, if the NCAA doesn’t drop the hammer midseason.
7. Notre Dame
It has been 5 years since Notre Dame reached in the NCAA Tournament, the longest such stretch in Mike Brey’s tenure. Yes, the Fighting Irish were going dancing in the COVID- shortened 2019-20 season, but the NCAA Tournament was canceled, upping the angst in South Bend.
This Notre Dame team has a host of upperclassmen, including 2 towering, skilled bigs in Nate Laszewski (13.3 ppg, 7.3 rebounds) and Yale transfer and Ivy League Player of the Year Paul Atkinson (17.6 ppg, 7.3 in 2019-20). Those 2 bodies should give this offense more balance than it has had in the past few seasons, though they aren’t the most athletic pair defensively.
Defensive stops will be this team’s challenge, but this will be one of the nation’s best teams on offense and one that will be fun to watch and should return the Irish to meaningful basketball in March.
Could this be one of Jim Boeheim’s best offensive teams? It certainly feels like it could be. Buddy Boeheim returns as does Joe Girard, and after COVID issues hampered both players a season ago, it is fair to expect the players that averaged over 30 combined points in Syracuse’s run to the Sweet 16 in March to play consistently in 2021-22.
The frontcourt loses Quincy Guerrier, who led the Orange in rebounding, and Alan Griffin, who went pro, but adds Villanova transfer Cole Swider, a stretch four who is 6-9, and hopes that Jesse Edwards, a Dutch big who began to emerge late last season, continues to make an impact.
The Orange will be super reliant on the triple, but they have a number of dudes who can make that shot and if the frontcourt is bigger and better, the 2-3 zone will be too.
Defense travels and wins regular-season basketball games and as such, it’s tough to count out Tony Bennett’s Virginia team. There are going to be nights where they look lost offensively — no team can lose 1,281 of the 1,705 points they scored the prior season and look fully competent — but Virginia used the transfer portal wisely and should get buckets from Indiana transfer Armaan Franklin and East Carolina transfer Jayden Gardner, who averaged 18 points a game last season, earning 1st team American Athletic Conference honors in the process.
Since the 2013-14 season, Virginia has finished 1st, 1st, 2nd, 5th, 1st, 1st, 2nd (tied) and 1st in the ACC. All eight teams were top-25 teams.
Computers, however, aren’t bullish. KenPom ranked Virginia 45th due to the offensive questions and Bart Torvik has them all the way down at 67th!
I am ignoring all of that and putting my trust in senior point guard Kihei Clark and Tony Bennett.
4. Virginia Tech
If FSU is the league’s “I get no respect” Rodney Dangerfield program, the 2021-22 Hokies are the “I get no respect” team. They lost a great game to a good Florida team in the NCAA Tournament last year, and lost only guard Wabissa Bede (who couldn’t score) and wing Jalen Cone (a competent but hardly required role player) from that squad. They add 2 quality transfers, including sharpshooter Storm Murphy from Wofford, and will have more bite in the frontcourt with the likes of Lynn Kidd and Montverde Academy product Jalen Haynes around to spell All-ACC talent Keve Aluma and veteran bigs David N’Guessan and John Ojiako.
The Hokies get plenty of credit for defending well (top 5 in the ACC last year in points per game, field goal percentage defense and rebounding margin) — but they don’t get enough credit for how masterful Mike Young’s offense is.
Let me tell you from the bottom of my heart, I LOVE Mike Young’s offense at Virginia Tech. pic.twitter.com/jSEZWNtHmu
— Eric Fawcett (@Efawcett7) March 14, 2021
They run innovative stuff and, before COVID issues hit the team in February, were 14-4 and scoring with ease. This is a very good basketball team.
3. North Carolina
Roy Williams’ retirement on April 1 seemed like a cruel April Fool’s Day joke to many but was the real thing, opening the door for alum Hubert Davis, who is UNC’s No. 26 all-time leading scorer. What isn’t a joke is the stacked roster Williams left behind for his mentee, which includes Caleb Love, Armando Bacot, Leaky Black, and RJ Davis from last year’s NCAA Tournament team. The Tar Heels added 2 high-profile graduate transfers as well in former All Big-12 Oklahoma forward Brady Manek, who can really score and looks like Larry Bird, and Marquette’s Dawson Garcia, who is a productive rebounder and will fit right in with the Williams/Davis approach of attacking the glass.
This is a talented team and if they can cut down on turnovers (252nd nationally in turnover rate last season), the ceiling is higher than No. 3.
2. Florida State
Can we stop sleeping on Leonard Hamilton’s Seminoles, please?
Every year the Noles lose a bunch of kids and we expect a step back. Every year Coach Ham laughs in the face of these predictions while fielding a team that is deep, athletic, rebounds effectively and suffocates you defensively.
FSU ranks 13th nationally in wins over the past 5 seasons, and while Hamilton’s crew has yet to break through for the program’s first Final Four since 1972, what better time than the 50th anniversary of that team?
Hamilton’s accomplishments at FSU, an ACC doormat for a decade when he arrived, are staggering: 19 NBA Draft picks, including 9 first-rounders, an ACC Tournament crown (2012), an ACC championship (2020), 378 wins, 4 Sweet 16s and the best home record in the Power 6 since 2015.
The Seminoles will rely heavily on a veteran core of RayQuan Evans, Anthony Polite, Malik Osborne and Wyatt Wilkes while another excellent recruiting class, highlighted by Matthew Cleveland out of Atlanta, develops chemistry. As usual, the Seminoles will be huge — featuring 11 players who stand 6-6 or taller on the 14-man roster.
All eyes are on the Blue Devils in Coack K’s final season in Durham.
Duke missed the NCAA Tournament last year for the first time since 1995, but signed their usual elite recruiting class, led by projected high lottery pick Paolo Banchero, who can do everything: pass, hit jumpers, take bigger defenders off the bounce, rebound and bother teams with his length. Banchero has Zion-like expectations, but his cast might be more hungry, as Mark Williams returns desperate to play meaningful basketball in March, Wendell Moore Jr. is back for a third season and Jeremy Roach adds backcourt depth. AJ Griffin may need to get into basketball shape, but he’s a versatile wing who can play four spots, and Trevor Keels is one of the 2021 class’s most pure scorers. Duke hasn’t shared an ACC regular-season crown since 2010 or won the league outright since 2006. The ACC drought should end this season.