Last week, I previewed what Duke’s 2019-2020 rotation could look like with the return of Tre Jones and addition of Matthew Hurt. Today in Part 2, I’ll look at what the ACC could hold in store for the Blue Devils, while later in Part 3 I’ll look at where Duke should stand relative to the national landscape.
What a difference a week makes. In Part 1 of my 2020 outlook, I operated under the assumption that seniors Javin DeLaurier and Marques Bolden would be back for a final year in Durham, as well as the assumption that top-10 recruit Matthew Hurt would commit to join them. Only one of those assumptions held: Hurt committed, but DeLaurier and Bolden will both be “testing the waters” of the NBA Draft. It remains likely that one, if not both, of Duke’s experienced bigs will be on the roster next season, creating one of the deepest front-courts in the ACC, if not the country. But Duke fans will be stuck wringing their hands awaiting their final decisions for another month. (And amidst that news, 5-star shooting guard Cassius Stanley committed to Duke, giving the Blue Devils another option on the perimeter.)
Despite all this turnover, Duke is still in a better position with regards to returning talent than many of their ACC rivals; indeed, there has been an exodus of talent from the consensus top conference in the nation last season. National Champions Virginia? They lose senior big Jack Salt, while likely lottery pick De’Andre Hunter and Final Four hero Ty Jerome have committed to the NBA draft. Meanwhile, key cogs Kyle Guy and Mamadi Diakite are also “testing the draft waters”. No. 1 NCAA Tournament seed North Carolina? They arguably lose their top five players in freshmen Nassir Little and Coby White alongside three senior starters. ACC Tournament finalist Florida State? They lose five contributing seniors, and appear likely to lose star Mfiondu Kabengele to the draft as well.
So while the 2019 ACC was a gauntlet of historic difficulty, next season the nation’s premier basketball conference looks poised to revert back to the mean.
Now, a lot remains unsettled. Virginia won’t be a favorite to defend their title without Hunter and Jerome, and it appears they will now also lose Guy (meaning the Cavaliers will lose four of five starters and the team’s top three scorers from the National Champions). But counting out Virginia entirely is a mistake the ACC is unlikely to ever make again. With Tony Bennett at the helm, Virginia will be a perennial conference title contender with a frustrating defense, even if their national profile might be duller in 2020. Meanwhile, Louisville might be the team best suited to challenge Duke for ACC supremacy in 2020 if stars Jordan Nwora and Stephen Enoch return to Louisville alongside a loaded recruited class and a majority of last year’s squad. But the pair are also “testing the waters”, and Nwora is considered a fringe first round pick. If both return, Louisville would have a claim to be pre-season ACC favorites. If one or both leave, they’ll be contenders, but with a lot of unknown presented by how their star freshmen develop. Finally, North Carolina could reestablish itself as a contender if star point guard Cole Anthony brings his talents to Chapel Hill as expected; but if they lose out on the consensus top point guard in this year’s class, it’s unclear who on the Tar Heel roster will lead the offense, let alone create shots.
(Update: Anthony made his likely one year in Chapel Hill official today, meaning that the Tar Heels will likely hand the keys to their offense over to the talented freshman. Anthony is talented enough on his own to keep North Carolina in the discussion atop the ACC, but who will make up the team around him remains a great unknown, with Garrison Brooks the only returning player to average more than four points per game or 10 minutes per game last season. North Carolina does have another highly touted recruit in center Armando Bacot coming to campus, but outside of Anthony, Bacot and Brooks. there are no obvious contributors on the roster for the Tar Heels.)
So it’s clear that the top of the conference will take a hit: Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida State all appear poised to take a step back from their 2019 successes, and Louisville’s potential is still very much up in the air. But the middle of the conference also appears less daunting. Syracuse loses leading scorer Tyus Battle and starters Frank Howard and Oshae Brissett without clear heir apparents. Clemson loses four starters. NC State loses three key contributors, and had their most hyped incoming recruit surprisingly declare for the draft. And with the loss of head coach Buzz Williams and the associated exodus of talent from Blacksburg, it looks Virginia Tech is headed for a rebuild.
What’s the outlook for Duke? The ACC will always be the ACC, one of the most challenging conferences in the country. But it appears inconceivable that the conference will repeat their historic 2018-2019 season that yielded three NCAA Tournament No. 1 seeds, meaning there will be less opportunities for “marquee wins” on Duke’s schedule. But that also means that the outlook for a conference title is much rosier, especially with a favorable schedule: Duke plays Virginia Tech, NC State, Boston College and Miami, none of them contenders, twice, and get to play Florida State and Louisville only once at home. The path to a stellar ACC record is open, but that also means there will be less room for era if Duke wants to turn ACC success into a top-seed in the NCAA Tournament.