College Basketball Preview: Duke and the ACC Should Dominate Selection Sunday
And yet, the conference's many promising contenders find themselves in an all-too-familiar position -- looking up at the Duke Blue Devils.
Tony Bennett has turned Virginia into a perennial contender. North Carolina's starting five is fully comprising rotation players from last year's national runners-up. Rick Pitino's Louisville squad is primed to make noise in March again after a one-year ban from postseason play. Non-traditional contenders like Miami, Clemson, Florida State, and Virginia Tech have all made strides in recent years, and each could end up in this year's tournament field.
Yet none can come close to boasting the star-studded lineup of Mike Krzyzewski's Blue Devils -- a combination of returning stars and elite freshman prospects that have many experts picking Duke as the favorites to win it all in 2017.
Team to Beat: Duke Blue Devils
Duke rolls in to the 2016-17 season boasting four five-star freshman recruits. Per ESPN's ESPN100 recruiting rankings, point guard Frank Jackson, small forward Jayson Tatum, power forward Harry Giles, and center Marques Bolden are all among the top five prospects at their positions. Collectively, they give Coach K depth and length, two key ingredients that held Duke back from being a serious contender last year. Giles and Bolden, both 6'10", should fortify Duke's interior defense and rim protection, while Jackson and Tatum's offensive versatility will help replace the 17 points per game missing from eventual NBA Draft lottery pick Brandon Ingram.
But it's Duke combination of rookies and veterans that makes them so scary this year. Associated Press preseason All-American Grayson Allen's decision to return to Durham was the offseason storyline that vaulted Duke into pole position for national title contention. The junior averaged over 21 points per game on 47 percent shooting from the field and 41 percent shooting from deep. He'll be joined by fellow double-digit-scoring returners Luke Kennard and Matt Jones, as well as senior big Amile Jefferson, who played only nine games last season before suffering a foot injury.
The biggest question right now for Duke is health, as they are still waiting to show off most of their new toys. Giles, Bolden, and Tatum all missed Duke's big early-season matchup with Kansas due to injury, so the vets will need to weather the storm until the freshman class can make its presence felt.
On the Rise: Florida State Seminoles
Leonard Hamilton's Seminoles haven't been to the Big Dance since 2012, but they should have the young talent this year to hang in the ACC. Returning sophomore wing Dwayne Bacon led Florida State in scoring last year with just under 16 points a game and will be paired this season with five-star recruit Jonathan Isaac, a three-point threat at 6'10".
For Florida State to take the leap, they'll need improvement from junior guard Xavier Rathan-Mayes and the team's defense as a whole. Rathan-Mayes averaged just under 15 points a game as a freshman but took a noticeable step back last year with the arrival of Bacon.
The defense, meanwhile, sputtered at times last season, notably during a five-game losing streak that saw the Seminoles give up over 80 points four times en route to slipping out of NCAA Tournament contention.
On the Decline: Pittsburgh Panthers
Pittsburgh experienced program-altering success with coach Jamie Dixon at the helm, reaching the NCAA Tournament 11 times in 13 seasons. But Pitt has not earned anything better than an 8 seed since 2011, and as Dixon increasingly became a victim of his own success, the opportunity to leave the Oakland Zoo behind for his alma mater, TCU, became an attractive choice.
Enter Kevin Stallings, the former coach of Vanderbilt who carries a reputation for being able to attract big recruits but not translating that into postseason success. Stallings had missed the NCAA Tournament three years in a row at Vandy before squeaking into the First Four last year with a roster that featured first round NBA draft picks Wade Baldwin IV and Damian Jones.
Stallings retains Dixon-era holdovers Jamel Artis and Michael Young, who each averaged over 14 points a game last season, but the Panthers will need more scoring punch this season if Stallings can achieve success in his first season in arguably America's deepest conference.
Player to Watch: Harry Giles
By many accounts, Giles, the star freshman Duke power forward, has the skills to be in the conversation for top pick in this year's NBA Draft. In high school, he displayed tremendous high-post scoring and rebounding ability and selflessness on the offensive end. But after a third knee surgery in three years that has caused him to miss the beginning of the season, Giles has moved from being a bankable star player to potentially a bit of an x-factor for Duke's 2017 title hopes.
Duke still has plenty of talent elsewhere, but Giles' health could be the single biggest variable to keep an eye on as we move closer toward March Madness.