ACC basketball preview: Ranking the top 15 players for the 2023-24 season
Halloween is in the rearview, there’s a chill in the air (well, kind of), and Harris Teeter is putting out holiday decorations.
In other words, it’s beginning to look a lot like college basketball season, which begins Monday night across the country.
The ACC is coming off a season where it had the preseason No. 1 (UNC) and another program in the Final Four (Miami). However, only 5 teams qualify for the NCAA Tournament, and one was not ranked No. 1 in the preseason. That’s a down year for any Power 6 league, but especially the tradition-rich ACC.
Will this season be a better one? That may depend on life on Tobacco Road. Can NC State produce back-to-back tournament trips for the first time since a 4-year run from 2012-2015? Is Wake Forest headed back to the Big Dance under Steve Forbes, now in Year 3? Was last year’s disaster in Chapel Hill a one-off? Will Duke live up to the hype in Year 2 under Jon Scheyer? If all 4 of the “Road” teams are really good, the league won’t have any issues exceeding last season’s 5-bid run.
You know what else helps? Star players. The league has big-time star power this season, thanks to a confluence events from the extra COVID-year seasons to the transfer portal infusions to players bucking NBA Draft opportunities to return to school to big-time freshman classes at North Carolina, Duke, and Virginia. Collectively, the players should make this a compelling year in the ACC.
Here’s Saturday Road’s power ranking of the top 15 players in the ACC ahead of the 2023-24 season.
15. Ryan Dunn, Wing, Virginia
Dunn averaged just 2.6 points and 2.9 rebounds in 11 minutes a game as a freshman a season ago, but Tony Bennett seems to produce breakout players every season and Dunn is the best candidate. Dunn’s length, vertical leap (41 inches) and quickness are all NBA caliber, which is they why the 6-8 sophomore appears on so many mock NBA Draft boards in the middle of the second round.
He’s a guy who Bennett can use to guard 4 positions, on or off the ball, and he was a disruptive shot blocker (5.3 blocks per 100 possessions) a season ago, a nice return for any player, let alone a freshman. Can he produce offensively? He showed glimpses late in the season, with 10 points in 18 minutes in a win over Clemson and 9 points in 19 in upending Louisville. If that improves, an All-ACC year is possible.
14. Baba Miller, F, Florida State
Miller dealt with a little of everything in 2022-23. He showed up to fall camp with shin splints, pulled a groin week one of practice, and was suspended 16 games by the NCAA for … being good and from Europe, I guess … before the season started.
“I wouldn’t wish what happened to him on my worst enemy,” FSU coach Leonard Hamilton told me at ACC Media Days. “1,000 miles from home and he has to deal with all of that? He’s come back with confidence from the summer and Spain and the Nike event and he is going to play a lot better, I bet. He’s a unique individual with tremendous skill. As interesting a player as I’ve coached. And a great teammate.”
Miller is healthy this season and feeling inspired after a tremendous summer where he starred for his native Spain at the U19 World Championships, winning a gold medal. Miller averaged 10 and 6 at the FIFA World Cup, and shot 10% better from 3 than the 26% he managed a year ago at Florida State when he did finally get on the floor.
Maybe this is a bit of a reach given the paucity of on-court production last year, but the film doesn’t lie about the talent. A breakout season seems likely, with a huge season possible.
13. Elliot Cadeau, PG, North Carolina
If you watched Cadeau and didn’t know the year of the film, you might think you are watching former Tar Heel All-American Kendall Marshall.
“That’s the only guy who has the kind of vision and one step ahead understanding of the game that Elliot has that I’ve been around,” Hubert Davis told Saturday Road at ACC Media Days.
Marshall, the all-time single season assists leader in Chapel Hill, sometimes appeared to be playing with eyes in the back of his head. Cadeau, a consensus 5-star point guard, has that level of vision. On a team that too often over-dribbled and struggled to move the defense a season ago, Cadeau could be a gamechanger.
12. Nijel Pack, G, Miami
The first of Miami’s “big 3” to make this list, Pack is one of the nation’s best shooters. He averaged 13.6 points per game last year and 2.3 assists, connecting on 41% of his 3s in the process. Pack was also one of the nation’s best free-throw shooters at 88.2%, which led Jim Larrañaga to jokingly beg the senior to “get fouled often” at ACC Media Days. Pack also played the best basketball of his life down the stretch, a key to Miami making its first Final Four. He made 46% of his 6.6 3s attempted per game in the ACC Tournament and March Madness. Pack is always going to be challenged defensively due to his lack of size. But he scores enough to make those deficiencies smaller in the grand scheme of things, which is lands him squarely on this list.
11. Quinten Post, C, Boston College
Healthy a season ago, Post made the Eagles NCAA Tournament competitive, averaging 15 points, 5.6 rebounds and a block in 19 games played. Healthier and fitter and confident, Post returns to the Eagles for a final season, giving Earl Grant a modern center who shot 42% from deep but still offered interior defense and rim protection on the other end. Post missed out-of-conference play last year. Will his ability to play a full season make Grant’s Boston College team a legitimate tournament threat this year? Don’t discount the possibility.
10. Hunter Sallis, G, Wake Forest
Count me a believer on the power of Steve Forbes to max out a displaced, big talent from another high-profile program. That’s what he did in each of his first 2 seasons in Winston-Salem. In Year 1, it was Alondes Williams of Oklahoma. In Year 2, it was Tyree Appleby of Florida. The former won ACC Player of the Year, the latter finished 2nd in the voting. Enter Hunter Sallis, the former 5-star recruit who scored 4.5 points per game and tallied 2.2 rebounds last season for Gonzaga but continued to struggle shooting the ball.
“(Hunter) is an immense talent, and he’s excited to be here. He can score in a number of ways, he’s practiced well, and he comes from a tremendous program and coaching staff. Sometimes you just need a change of scenery,” Forbes told Saturday Road at ACC Media Days.
With Andrew Carr, Cam Hildreth and Damari Monsanto, Wake Forest has multiple building blocks to build Forbes’ first NCAA Tournament squad. Sallis could be the lead guard that brings it all together.
9. Tyrese Proctor, G, Duke
The Duke sophomore will challenge for ACC Defensive Player of the Year honors, as he can lock down your best player on the perimeter for 40 minutes. His offense started to pick up late in the year as well, and he had 16 points and 6 assists in Duke’s second round loss to Tennessee in the NCAA Tournament. Is Proctor going to shoot better than the 32% he shot from deep a year ago? A willing passer, Proctor doesn’t have to score at a high clip to be a good player, but given how well he shoots free throws (87% as a freshman), it would be nice if he did.
8. Wooga Poplar, Wing, Miami
Talk about Poplar with Larrañaga, and the 74-year-old head coach’s eyes light up.
“Ooo, he’s nasty good,” Larrañaga told Saturday Road at ACC Media Days. “He’s the purest shooter from midrange I’ve ever coached. His skill-set is so unique: He can guard 1-4, he can drive and score, he can shoot off the catch in the corner but is plenty comfortable creating and passing off the dribble. It’s fun watching him figuring out how good he is.”
Poplar averaged 8.4 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 2 assists as a jack-of-all-trades for the Hurricanes’ Final Four team a season ago. He’ll jump into a much bigger role as part of the collective effort to step up in the absence of NBA bound ACC Player of the Year Isaiah Wong, but a glimpse of what he’s capable of as a shooter and scorer and lockdown defender came in the NCAA Tournament. Poplar scored 15 points against Drake, 16 against Texas in the Elite 8, and 11 against Houston in the Sweet 16, and grabbed 3.75 rebounds per in regional play as well. A big-time talent just beginning to figure out what he can be.
7. RJ Davis, G, North Carolina
The Tar Heels’ best scorer, Davis shot 36% from deep a season ago and averaged 16 points a game. He also collected 5.6 rebounds a contest, a testament to the diminutive guard’s willingness to do the little things that impact winning. Like his fellow All-ACC candidate Armando Bacot, though, Davis wasn’t as effective in transition offense, grading out as only an “average” transition player, per Synergy, as he is when Carolina slows things down.
That would be OK if Carolina wanted to slow things down, but they want to be one of the fastest, most transition-heavy teams in the ACC. Therein lies the conundrum with the Carolina senior. You know what you are going to get and most nights, you’d take it. But can Davis be the guy who nearly led the Tar Heels to the national championship 2 seasons ago? That’s the lingering question.
6. Norchad Omier, C, Miami
The highest-ranked of Miami’s big 3 on the list, Omier is a Ben Wallace type machine on the glass.
“I don’t think he’s 6-7, to be honest. But technique and want to are how you rebound and Omier is as good a rebounder as I’ve coached,” Larrañaga told Saturday Road at ACC Media Days.
Omier is a walking double-double, having averaged 1 in all 3 of his college seasons to date. He scores most often off the offensive glass, which is a hand-in-glove fit for a team that relies on second chance offense and ball movement that complements the ACC’s best group of shooters. Defensively, while Omier can be overwhelmed by taller, more physical centers, he’s still an “Excellent” paint defender, per Synergy, and a solid rim protector, averaging over 1 block a game in 2022-23.
5. Blake Hinson, Wing, Pitt
“I just want to dunk on people,” Hinson told assembled ACC Media at the league’s Tipoff event.
That’s the biggest goal for the bruising Pitt wing in 2023-24 after a junior campaign that saw him lead the Panthers back to the NCAA Tournament and ultimately, the 2nd round, in 2022-23. Hinson averaged 15.3 points a game and 6 rebounds while proving himself as one of the best pick-and-roll defenders in the country.
“Finishing at the rim, that’s the big thing,” Jeff Capel told Saturday Road when asked what Hinson can do better as a senior. Hinson, whose goal is to “dunk on people,” has clearly taken that to heart.
4. PJ Hall, Forward, Clemson
Hall might be the most skilled big in the ACC, which is quite an accomplishment in a league full of marvelous bigs. The biggest thing for Hall this year is that he’s healthy.
“I feel better than I have in 2 years,” Hall told Saturday Road at ACC Media Days. “You wouldn’t believe how nice it is to play on 2 legs again. It’s been awhile.”
Hall was limited by a knee injury a season ago but still managed to 15.3 points and grab 5.7 rebounds in just under 25 minutes a game. Now a senior with a chip on his shoulder, Hall has All-American ceiling thanks to his ability to shoot, handle the ball out near the perimeter, pass in traffic and finish in the post.
3. Armando Bacot, C, North Carolina
Bacot is North Carolina’s all-time leader in rebounding and double-doubles, but setting those records a season ago doesn’t mean he’s not on a redemption tour in 2023-24. That’s the only way he could characterize this “super senior” season, which comes on the heels of last year’s disastrous run from preseason No. 1 to no NCAA Tournament trip.
“Of course it is about redemption,” Bacot told Saturday Road at ACC Media Days. “When you are 2 minutes from a national championship one year and a punchline the next, well, we are prideful people. We know how good we can be.”
To be Final Four good again, the Tar Heels need a slimmer, more fit Bacot to do quality work in transition. Bacot was only on the floor for 34 transition possessions a season ago, an unthinkably low number for a Tar Heels star. A few easier buckets would be nice for Bacot, who still managed 15.3 points a game on 54% from the field a season ago, despite frequent double teams and an offense that was too often stagnant and stuck in the mud.
2. Kyle Filipowski, C, Duke
How do you follow up a freshman campaign where you averaged 15.1 points and 8.9 rebounds a game?
Filipowski hopes you do it with a national championship. That motivated the Duke big man and several of his teammates, including guards Tyrese Proctor and Jeremy Roach, to return to school this season after last year’s disappointing NCAA Tournament loss to Tennessee in the 2nd round.
Filipowski is still evolving as an offensive player, but the skill-set is elite. A 7 footer who can shoot in midrange and from deep and is tenacious on the offensive glass (2.5 per game) and a great passer in traffic? That is rare, and a huge reason Duke is a prohibitive Final Four favorite.
1. Reece Beekman, G, Virginia
Life after Kihei Clark begins in Charlottesville with Beekman on a bit of an island. Five of Virginia’s top 7 scorers from a season ago are gone and Beekman, who improved markedly as a two-way player last season, is the Hoos’ unquestioned leader. The All-American candidate elected to return to school at the midnight hour, mostly to show scouts he was a consistent offensive player. We know Beekman is the best on-ball defender in the sport. What we don’t know for sure is whether he can carry a scoring load.
Tony Bennett thinks he can.
“Reece has become much more consistent offensively. Most of that is about knowing what his strengths are and not trying to be something he is not,” Bennett told Saturday Road at ACC Media Days. “For Reece, that means driving to create for other people. It means shooting less off the bounce. It means hard cuts to get himself open for catch and shoots. I’m impressed by what I’ve seen.”
America will be impressed too, and soon.