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ACC expert picks, 2020-21 preview: Duke and North Carolina to chase preseason top team Virginia 

Wednesday marked the start of college basketball’s preseason. It’s the first day teams were allowed to properly practice in earnest. Even still, dozens of teams won’t yet be able to do so because of COVID-19 restrictions in their parts of the country. But for hundreds of schools, the season officially starts this week.

And so here we go with our annual big-conference predictions and previews. We start with the largest conference in college basketball, the 15-team ACC. Now, I’m never one to hide from missed predictions. And I was fairly off on the ACC last season. In this very space a year ago I predicted the Atlantic Coast Conference was going to have its best season in almost 15 years. I predicted it would finish No. 1 at in strength-of-league metrics. I predicted conference depth and matching of longstanding reputation with on-court results.

Not really. Not much. OK — not at all. The ACC finished fourth in conference performance and did not have one team predicted by the majority of bracket prognosticators to be a No. 1 seed when the season was canceled March 12. Worse than that, the ACC had only five teams — Florida State, Duke, Louisville, Virginia and NC State — projected by the majority to even make the 2020 NCAA Tournament (That Never Was). FSU, Duke, Louisville and UVA were the only four teams with single digits in the loss column; the collective record of the other 11 teams was 178-172. That’s rough

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It would be rational to believe that this season should show improvement, but considering that Duke lost three potential first-round picks, FSU lost multiple first-round NBA picks, UNC is coming off its worst season ever under Roy Williams and Louisville lost its starting five, there’s more mystery than usual in the old-money conference of college basketball. Toss in COVID-19 and who knows? 

ACC Preseason Player of the Year

Garrison Brooks, UNC

The ACC’s highest-scoring returning player. Brooks averaged some of the quietest 16.8 points you’ll ever get from a Tar Heel. But that’s because his NBA-bound one-and-done teammate, Cole Anthony, put up 18.5 per night and UNC suffered one of the three or four worst seasons in program history. We’re not expecting Brooks and company to be dealing with a sub-.500 season again. The senior power forward will be the focal point of an improved Tar Heels roster. Not only was Brooks No. 5 in ACC scoring last season, he was also No. 5 in rebounding (8.5). While an incoming freshman could wind up shining brightest, objectively speaking there is no more reasonable choice for preseason ACC Preseason Player of the Year than Brooks. 

ACC Preseason Coach of the Year

Tony Bennett, Virginia

With Virginia poised to be the best team in the ACC for the fourth time in eight years, Bennett is given the nod thanks to an augmented roster that could be highlighted by redshirt senior Sam Hauser. The Wahoos ended the 2019-20 season on an eight-game winning streak, finishing 23-7. Bennett had, for the seventh time, a top-five defense according to In fact, UVA was No. 1 last on D season and probably will be No. 1 this season. With no ACC team looking to make a significant year-over-year jump, Bennett is the obvious pick heading into November. 

ACC Preseason Freshman of the Year

Jalen Johnson, Duke 

The ACC technically refers to this award as the “Rookie of the Year,” and Duke has boasted the ACC’s top freshman a conference-record 12 times since the honor was introduced in 1976. But it hasn’t always been like this. Duke only recently passed Georgia Tech’s 11 (!) thanks to a Blue Devil winning in six of the past seven seasons and seven of the past nine. Here’s who Jalen Johnson is in line to join if he winds up being a better freshman than Florida State’s Scottie Barnes, North Carolina’s Caleb Love and Duke teammate Jeremy Roach, among others: Austin Rivers (2012), Jabari Parker (2014), Jahlil Okafor (2015), Brandon Ingram (2016), Marvin Bagley III (2018), Zion Williamson (2019), Vernon Carey Jr. (2020). 

Predicted order of finish

ACC expert picks

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