College football is the focus of every Power Five conference. That goes without saying. But if there's one league that has leaned more than most toward basketball over the years it's probably the ACC, a conference with multiple blue blood programs and FIVE DIFFERENT SCHOOLS that have won national championships in the past 20 years.
Basketball matters in the ACC.
Which is why it's noticeable and somewhat troubling that basketball has been a bit down in recent years -- evidence being that the ACC was ranked as only the fifth best conference, according to KenPom.com, in each of the past two seasons. For context, understand that the ACC didn't finish any lower than fourth among conferences in any of the seven seasons that preceded the previous two. So things have been trending in the wrong direction -- although, it should be noted, the ACC did have two Final Four teams last season -- in part because traditionally strong programs like Syracuse, Louisville and Virginia have been down relative to where they normally reside.
Will this season be better?
Yes, I think so.
And, for what it's worth, so does CBS Sports Bracketology expert Jerry Palm, who currently projects the ACC to place seven teams in the 2023 NCAA Tournament. That would be an improvement over the five bids the league earned last season and represent a move back in the right direction.
CBS Sports ACC Preseason Player of the Year
Armando Bacot | C | North Carolina
Bacot averaged a career-high 16.3 points, a career-high 13.1 rebounds and a career-high 1.7 blocks last season while leading the Tar Heels to the title game of the 2022 NCAA Tournament. The perception that he's not an ideal prospect for the NBA combined with the fact that All-Americans at UNC can really make some nice money via name, image and likeness opportunities served as a magnet that lured Bacot back to college for a fourth season. His presence should allow the Tar Heels to dominate opponents in the paint and possibly make a return to the Final Four in what will be Hubert Davis' second season since replacing Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame coach Roy Williams.
Four more players to watch
Caleb Love | G | North Carolina: Love is the second-leading scorer for a North Carolina team that advanced to the title game of the 2022 NCAA Tournament. He averaged 15.9 points and 3.6 assists last season.
Terquavion Smith | G | NC State: Smith averaged 16.3 points and 4.1 rebounds last season as a freshman despite enrolling at NC State as merely a borderline top-100 prospect in the Class of 2021. If things go well this season, he could be a lottery pick in the 2023 NBA Draft.
CBS Sports ACC Preseason Freshman of the Year
Dereck Lively | C | Duke
The ACC's three highest-ranked freshmen are enrolled at Duke -- namely Lively, Dariq Whitehead and Kyle Filipowski. They're all top-five national prospects So the only sensible move here is to go with a Blue Devil. And in the spirit of keeping this simple, I'll go with Lively, the consensus No. 1 prospect in the Class of 2022. He's more of a traditional center than a modern center, which will likely impact where Lively is selected in the 2023 NBA Draft. But awesome traditional centers are still highly valuable in college basketball. So I suspect Lively will be impactful right from the jump as a dunk-everything/block-everything big who overwhelms less-talented post players way more often than not.
ACC predicted order of finish
|It would be hard to justify putting anybody other than North Carolina atop the projected ACC standings given that the Tar Heels are returning four starters from a team that finished 16th at KenPom and advanced to the title game of the 2022 NCAA Tournament. They're experienced and talented and led by All-American Armando Bacot, who should have a monster year and compete with Kentucky's Oscar Tshiebwe and Gonzaga's Drew Timme for national player of the year honors. The addition of Northwestern transfer Pete Nance will help offset the loss of Brady Manek.
|First-year coach Jon Scheyer could not have set himself up any better to succeed while replacing Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame coach Mike Krzyzewski. The longtime assistant, who won a national championship as a player with the Blue Devils in 2010, enrolled the nation's top-ranked recruiting class and has his alma mater positioned as be the biggest challenger to North Carolina in the ACC. Five-star center Dereck Lively II is the highest-rated freshman on the roster. His ability to rim-protect will cause problems in the paint. Third-year guard Jeremy Roach is back to provide leadership for the heralded newcomers and was recently named the team's lone captain.
|The Cavaliers are returning five of the top seven scorers from a team that went 12-8 in the ACC -- among them double-digit scorers Jayden Gardner, Armaan Franklin and Kihei Clark. On paper, that makes Virginia the biggest threat to replace either North Carolina or Duke in the top two of the league standings and should be enough to help Tony Bennett's program avoid finishing outside of the top 40 at KenPom for the third time in a four-year span.
|Miami's surprising run to the Elite Eight of the 2022 NCAA Tournament represented the deepest Jim Larranaga has taken the Hurricanes in the bracket since replacing Frank Haith at the ACC school. The loss of Kameron McGusty and Charlie Moore means Miami will have to replace two of its top three scorers. But the return of double-digit scorer Isaiah Wong and addition of Kansas State transfer Nijel Pack should be enough to get the Hurricanes to the NCAA Tournament for the second straight year.
|Florida State was unusually bad last season while battling injuries pretty much from start to finish. Three of the top four scorers missed at least five games. But if the Seminoles can stay healthy the talent is in place to be good. A core of leading returning scorer Cameron Mills and former five-star high school prospect Matthew Cleveland should have Leonard Hamilton back in the NCAA Tournament for the fifth time in a six-tournament span.
|Notre Dame is returning three of the top five scorers from a team that finished 15-5 in the ACC last season before advancing to the second round of the NCAA Tournament while snapping Mike Brey's four-year drought of appearances in the Big Dance. That suggests Brey is set up to win at a notable level once again, in part because of the enrollment of J.J. Starling, a five-star guard who was ranked 21st nationally in the Class of 2022.
|Mike Young has coached in each of the past three NCAA Tournaments -- first at Wofford, then at Virginia Tech, where he guided the Hokies to the ACC Tournament title last season. The Hokies lost a lot from that team -- most notably leading scorer Keve Aluma. But Justin Mutts is back. And Wright State transfer Grant Basile has enrolled. So Young could have Virginia Tech in position to make the NCAA Tournament for the third consecutive season come March.
|Steve Forbes nearly guided Wake Forest to the NCAA Tournament in his second year after replacing Danny Manning but ultimately fell just short despite great seasons from Alondes Williams and Jake LaRavia, a pair of transfers who combined to average 33.1 points, 13.0 rebounds and 8.9 assists. Now both Williams and LaRavia are gone. That'll make things tough. But the addition of Florida transfer Tyree Appleby should have Wake Forest competing for a second straight finish in the top half of the ACC standings.
|Jim Boeheim is coming off of the first losing season of his Hall of Fame career and turning 78 years old next month, and whether he'll be able to return Syracuse to national relevance before ultimately retiring seems very much up for debate considering the Orange are just 46-46 in ACC games in the past five years with zero top-five finishes in the league standings. Three of the top four scorers from last season's team are gone -- among them both Buddy and Jimmy Boeheim. So The Orange will likely have to dramatically overachieve to prevent the elder Boeheim from missing the NCAA Tournament in consecutive years for the first time since 2007 and 2008.
|Kevin Keatts has a possible lottery pick back in Terquavian Smith, who averaged 16.3 points and 4.1 rebounds last season. That's good. But the Wolfpack only went 4-16 in the ACC and probably don't have enough talent elsewhere in the program to project as a likely NCAA Tournament team. If they don't get there this season, that'll be five straight years without a trip to the Big Dance. Historically, that's not something NC State's administration or fan base tolerates.
|Like Keatts at NC State, Clemson coach Brad Brownell is probably entering the season with real job-pressure. He's only made three NCAA Tournaments in 12 seasons with the Tigers and doesn't project to get there this season given that four of the top seven scorers from last season's team are gone. Making things even more challenging is that PJ Hall, the Tigers' leading returning scorer, had knee surgery in July and may not be 100% ready to go when Clemson opens next month.
|Boston College is bringing back four starters from a team that somewhat surprisingly won six ACC games last season and finished 11th in the league standings under first-year coach Earl Grant. It's a solid core led by Makai Ashton-Langford and Jaeden Zackery. But the Eagles still might be at least a year away from making a serious run at a NCAA Tournament berth unless the returning players really take some leaps that would be unusual relative to normal college basketball standards.
|Kenny Payne did not inherit (or create) the type of roster that's going to give him much of a chance to win at a notable level in his first year at Louisville. Eli Ellis is the leading returning scorer and a solid backcourt player, but there's just not enough talent around him. So this transition to a new era at Louisville probably won't start out smoothly. And the fact that top-ranked recruit DJ Wagner just signed a NIL deal with Nike -- FYI: Louisville is NOT a Nike school -- is the latest sign that Payne isn't likely to land the five-star prospect who was theoretically supposed to jumpstart the Louisville program, which has at least temporarily zapped some of the enthusiasm that was initially attached to Payne's hiring.
|Jeff Capel has finished 14th, 13th, 12th and 11th in his four years at Pitt -- a little better each season but still nothing close to a break through. Barring a surprise, this season looks like it'll be more of the same, especially now that the Panthers are likely to be without Dior Johnson, a top-55 prospect from the Class of 2022 who was arrested within the past week and charged with aggravated assault, strangulation and false imprisonment following an incident in which he's accused of repeatedly punching a young woman in the head, stomach and arms.
|Josh Pastner has made one NCAA Tournament in six seasons at Georgia Tech and isn't likely to improve on that this season after losing Michael Devoe and Jordan Usher from a team that finished 14th in the ACC. A similar place in the standings is the expected outcome. If it unfolds that way, an eighth year at Georgia Tech for Pastner might not be guaranteed.
ACC most overrated team
I like FSU and believe the Seminoles will make the NCAA Tournament. But they were voted as high as fourth on some ballots here -- and that just seems a tad high for a team that finished 17-14 last season and 105th at KenPom.com.
ACC most underrated team
I'm not necessarily high or enthusiastic about Boston College. That's why I voted the Eagles 13th. But I won't be shocked if they at least slightly overachieve relative to preseason expectations, if only because there's something to be said for chemistry and camaraderie, and Boston College is returning four starters.