ACC Basketball Roundtable: Debating the burning questions of the 2022-23 ACC season
The 2022-23 men’s college basketball season will begin next week, with games starting Nov. 7.
North Carolina, the national championship favorite and preseason No. 1 team in both the coaches and Associated Press Polls, is the ACC’s headliner, but Duke and Virginia join the Tar Heels among the preseason top 20, giving the league a bit more depth at the top than it had last season when the conference had just 1 ranked team (Duke) for much of the regular season.
Recently, Saturday Road columnist and longtime ACC scribe Brett Friedlander and Saturday Road basketball writer (and Charlotte-based hoops coach) Neil Blackmon joined their basketball minds for a roundtable on a variety of burning ACC hoops questions as another season begins in the nation’s most storied basketball league.
1. Who will be the ACC Player of the Year?
Brett Friedlander: The obvious choice is one of UNC’s 2 stars — big man Armando Bacot and point guard Caleb Love.
Neil Blackmon: It will be Bacot, who is the only player in the Power 6 who really can push Oscar Tshiebwe of Kentucky and Drew Timme of Gonzaga for the Wooden Award this season. UNC fans have residual trauma from Bacot limping off the floor at the Superdome last season in the national championship game, but as long as the center of the Fatigueless Four (RJ Davis, Love and Leaky Black) is healthy, he’s a double-double machine who is the best player in the ACC.
Brett: If you were to look outside the box and pick someone other than a member of the Tar Heels, who would be your choice? I think Miami’s Isaiah Wong is an elite talent poised to have a big season.
Neil: No question for me it would be Wong, but Virginia Tech’s Justyn Mutts is an elite player, too.
2. Which newcomers, either freshman or transfer, will have the biggest impact?
Brett: As important as freshmen Dereck Lively II and Dariq Whitehead figure to be to the success of Jon Scheyer’s 1st season as Coach K’s successor at Duke, the most impactful newcomer will be Illinois transfer Jacob Grandison because of his experience and shooting ability. And at NC State, Kevin Keatts’ future might well depend on the play of his new point guard, Ole Miss transfer Jarkel Joiner.
Neil: If Keatts is staking his future on a player as streaky as Joiner, it’s going to be a wild ride in Raleigh. I’m tempted to go Pete Nance here, because finding someone who offers a skillset comparable to Larry Bird doppleganger Brady Manek is huge for the Tar Heels as national championship favorites. But for me, I love the Grandison answer and agree with Brett. I also really like what Miami did in the portal to help Wong. Nijel Pack cashed in on Miami’s NIL operation and he’s the perfect replacement for Charlie Moore, who was the engine behind last season’s Elite Eight team. Pack and Wong is a formidable backcourt.
Brett: When it comes to the top freshmen, I hate that Florida State’s Baba Miller will have to miss half the season. I’m really looking forward to seeing if he’s up to the hype. While Duke, as usual, has cornered the market on top newcomers, keep your eye on J.J. Starling. He’s the highest-rated recruit ever at Notre Dame.
Neil: Great shout on Starling. Another freshman who I think will be special by March is Rodney Rice at Virginia Tech. A consensus 4-star recruit and ranked as high as the 45th-best player in the country in one service (247’s Composite ranks him 68th) out of powerhouse DeMatha Catholic, he really can score, whether it’s using his big frame at 6-foot-4 and 195 pounds to get to the bucket or pulling up from the logo. Virginia Tech needs scoring depth and he adds it.
3. If not UNC, which team has the best shot at getting to the Final Four?
Brett: Experience still matters in March and April and besides the Tar Heels, no one in the ACC has more either on the floor and on their coaching staff than the Virginia Cavaliers.
4. Which team will be the biggest surprise?
Brett: Wake Forest. Yes, the Deacons lost ACC Player of the Year Alondes Williams and 1st-round NBA pick Jake LaRavia. But the Transfer Portal Whisperer Steve Forbes has assembled another talented group of free agents to go along with returning point guard Daivien Williamson and a fully healthy Damari Monsanto. And they have plenty of incentive after last season’s NCAA Tournament snub.
Neil: I was going to say Florida State for 3 months and then it reportedly lost Jaylan Gainey, who was a perfect fit for Leonard Hamilton’s system for the season because of injury. Making matters worse, top-50 recruit and Spanish sensation Baba Miller was lost for 16 games when the NCAA denied an appeal related to prior benefits he received playing hoops. Ouch. As a result, I’m with Brett and going Wake Forest, which also added former Florida jitterbug point guard Tyree Appleby, who can heat up like a microwave and will fit well with Monsanto and Williamson.
5. The ACC had 2 Final Four participants last season, but no one really believed it was a top-3 league. Is the ACC a better conference this season?
Brett: The ACC is going to be an exponentially better league than it was a season ago, not because of its success in the NCAA Tournament but because of the number of top players who have returned to their teams rather than turning pro. Love NIL or hate it, there’s no way Armando Bacot, Caleb Love, Isaiah Wong, Terquavion Smith and a handful of others are back without the money players can make because of it. And because they’re back, the ACC is a deeper, more talented, more experienced league from top to bottom than it was last season.
Neil: The ACC will be better. Whether it is a top-3 Power 6 league again depends on what happens after the UNC, Duke, Virginia and Miami, but this feels like a 6-bid league and maybe even 7 if Wake Forest makes a push or FSU can keep it together until Baba Miller gets back to help.
Brett: It is important for the elite teams to actually be elite, but because perception is reality, it’s important for the teams in the middle and at the bottom of the standings to hold up their end of the bargain as well. That means Boston College can’t lose to Albany, NC State to Wright State, Syracuse to Colgate or Pitt to Maryland-Baltimore County, as they did last season. No matter how much teams improve during the season, those are the kind of defeats people remember.
Neil: Speaking of Boston College, I think it made a great hire in Earl Grant. His Charleston teams really could guard you, and the Cougars were lethal in transition. You always can get players at Boston College because the area produces so much talent. That’s a program on the rise again.
6. Of the 2 other, non-UNC ACC programs to capture a national championship, Virginia and Duke, which has the better season?
Brett: This is tricky because of the variables involved. Duke has the better talent and greater upside, but because there are so many new players and because Jon Scheyer is in his 1st season as a head coach, you just never know how it’s all going to come together.
Virginia, on the other hand, returns a veteran team with a 5th-year starter at point guard in Kihei Clark and 2 other All-ACC-caliber veterans in Jayden Gardner and Reece Beekman. When Tony Bennett has experienced players who know how to execute his pack-line defense, the Cavaliers are tough to beat.
So my money is on UVA.
Neil: I think Virginia is much better in 2022-23 and so I am going Hoos. Beekman and Gardner are All-ACC players, as you mention, Brett, and Kihei Clark is basically Tony Bennett on the floor at this point. The Ohio transfer, Ben Vander Plas, gives them a stretch 4 who can hit shots too, which really should benefit Clark offensively in the drive-and-kick stuff they use to complement the blocker-mover offense.
Duke, meanwhile, is at the mercy of elite, but young talent. We should all be that unlucky. They will be a tough out by February, but there will be some growing pains in Durham, N.C. The PK 85 will be a fascinating test for Whitehead and Lively II. They’ll need to ride Jeremy Roach at that tournament. Roach should be confident the way he played during the NCAA Tournament, but is he a star -caliber player?
7. Is it time for Jim Boeheim to call it quits?
Brett: In all honesty, I’m kind of surprised he didn’t walk away with sons Buddy and Jimmy when they graduated after last season. Maybe he decided to stick around to get the 2 more victories he needs to reach the 1,000-win mark for the 2nd time (The NCAA in 2015 forced Syracuse to vacate 101 victories for violations). He’s 77 and a Hall of Famer with a national championship to his credit. He can’t enjoy finishing 6th or lower in the ACC every year – as he has done in each of the past 8 seasons – even if it usually does find a way to end up in the Sweet 16.
Neil: It’s time to go, but he’ll get to do it on his own terms, and he hasn’t said he’ll quit after this season. This season won’t go well. He’ll get to 1,000 wins, but Boeheim now is without his sons and sharpshooter Cole Swider, whose shooting made that offense tough to stop late last season. Judah Mintz is the kind of freshman who can energize even a 77-year-old man, but it’s hard to see Mintz and Joe Girard III being enough to get this team back to the NCAA Tournament.
8. Can Virginia Tech build on last season’s ACC tournament title or did it just catch lightning in a bottle in New York?
Brett: The Hokies put it all together at just the right time in defeating the top 3 seeds on the way to their first ACC tournament championship last March. But it’s not like they came completely out of nowhere. Coach Mike Young’s team won 23 games and finished above .500 in the ACC last season.
With the return of Justyn Mutts, ACC tournament MVP Hunter Cattoor and the addition of a strong recruiting class and transfers, there’s no reason why Tech shouldn’t be an NCAA Tournament team again this season.
Neil: Mike Young is the best X-and-O coach in the league after Tony Bennett, and Justyn Mutts probably is the best player in this league after Bacot and Wong. Add in Cattoor, as you said, Brett, and Young’s best recruiting class yet in Blacksburg, and this feels like another team capable of winning a game in the NCAA Tournament, which is the next step for Young and the Hokies.
9. Which coach on the hot seat (Keatts, Capel, Brownell) has the best chance of surviving the season?
Brett: There’s a good chance that none of them still will be around this time next year. But of the 3, Keatts is in the best position to keep his job.
His 2021-22 team was doomed from the start when star center Manny Bates went down with a season-ending injury in the opening game and point guard Cam Hayes failed to live up to expectations. With the addition of point guard Jarkel Joiner and 2 veteran bigs off the transfer portal to go along with star shooting guard Smith, Keatts has put together a roster capable of producing a quick bounce back.
Brownell likely will enter the season without his best player, P.J. Hall, who still is in the process of rehabbing an offseason injury. But at least he figures to get Hall back at some point. Capel’s top addition, 4-star freshman point guard Dior Johnson, has been suspended indefinitely and might not return depending on how his pending domestic abuse case plays out.
Neil: What a difference a player can make. If Clemson has P.J. Hall this season, it probably is a 6-to-8 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Without Hall, it’s hard to see an administration at Clemson that knows it can win sticking with Brownell for yet another season of mediocrity. I think Capel is the one who lives to see another season at Pittsburgh. John Hugley is a first-team All-ACC-caliber player, and Dior Johnson will help the the Panthers score better after they defended well enough to win throughout last season but couldn’t shoot or score enough to win close games. A top-10 league finish should earn Capel another season, and I lean him over Keatts because fair or not, expectations in Raleigh are to be nationally relevant like North Carolina and Duke.
Brett: UNC and Duke going to the Final Four last season didn’t help Keatts’ case, for sure. Neither does the fact that his athletics director isn’t the person who hired him.
10. North Carolina will win its 7th national championship if…?
Brett:… if Pete Nance is as good as advertised and fits in well with the Tar Heels’ 4 returning starters. Every indication is the 6-foot-11 Northwestern transfer is the real deal and should more than adequately fill the statistical void left by Brady Manek’s departure. The question is whether he can mesh with his new teammates as quickly and as well as Manek did and how his addition to the lineup will affect the group’s chemistry.
Neil: Bacot stays healthy, Nance can adjust to life in the more athletic ACC, and the pressure doesn’t become overwhelming. It is hard to be the prohibitive favorite to win the national championship. Some teams (2007 Florida, 2012 Kentucky, 2015 Duke) can handle it. I think North Carolina can, but we’re about to find out.