It's an annual tradition as part of our Hoos Place previews that we ask our writers to make some preseason bold predictions: three for the Hoos, and another three for the ACC at large. We intend to emphasize the "Bold" in these predictions, no safe outs like predicting Virginia Tech is going to suck this year, but instead being willing to go out on a limb no matter how silly it may look now or come next April. So with that said, let's see what our writers are forecasting:
Bold Virginia Predictions
1) Kihei Clark will hit 37.5% or more of his three-point attempts. The conventional wisdom is that without The Big Three he will not get the wide open looks we saw him hit with regularity, and his allegedly slow windup will make him susceptible to pressure. While those are reasonable concerns and will probably limit the volume of his shooting, I don't expect them to harm his percentage. Kihei is a smart player, and I don't expect him to feel the need to reach a certain volume of shots such that he forces things against good defense. Instead, if he is drawing attention, he will take advantage of that to create opportunities for others, and limit his takes to reasonably good shots. Hence, he should conform to the history of Bennett's guards and improve his 3FG%.
2) Mamadi Diakite will be ACC Defensive Player of the Year and first or second-team All-ACC. In putting together The Breakthrough, I got intimate with the video of the season and it really hit me how sensational Mamadi was on defense in the ACC and especially the tournament. His rebounding hit another level, and it made him a spectacular defender. We predicted it at the start of his career, and he really began to realize it in the last two months of 2018-19. His offensive rebounding, cutting and rolling, and ability to put it on the floor will get him enough offensive production to be an ACC force - especially given the dearth of top level talent in the conference this year.
3) The Hoos will have a record at least as good as the 2016-17 team: minimum two games above .500 in league action, 1-1 in both tournaments, and no humiliating exits. They will go down fighting in gut-wrenching battles, not as floor mops.
1) The Hoos' title defense ends in the Sweet 16. The Hoos make a valiant effort but don't have enough offensive firepower or big game experience to make a regional final. The run to the Sweet 16 is viewed as a positive outcome considering the loss of talent after the national championship. It ultimately becomes a bridge to a banner 2020-2021 season.
2) Casey Morsell is everything we hoped for and more. By the second half of the conference season, Morsell begins to flash brilliance and a competitive drive that makes him a fan favorite. His refusal to back down, ability to score critical baskets, and emergence as the next great UVA defender put him on the All-ACC rookie team with ease. Fans around the league gnash their teeth because Bennett found another one hiding in plain sight.
3) Kirk Penney's presence within the basketball program is a revelation for UVA fans as he keeps the offense fresh, effective, and diverse enough to partially offset the loss of Jerome, Guy, and Hunter. His ability to be a Bennett whisperer prevents a full fledged return to sides, keeps the CBS offense relevant, and even ushers in some new wrinkles that take advantage of Jay Huff's unique gifts on offense.
1) The Hoos lose no more than 4 ACC games. This is a wide-open ACC. Before sitting down on this project, I hadn't realized just how much attrition the ACC had seen in the offseason. Individually, I more or less knew who was gone (all the big Dookies, most bell-cow scorers like Ky Bowman and Marcquise Reed, etc.) but it never really struck me just how depleted the ACC is. Taking a look up and down the rosters, and suddenly, bringing back Diakite, Key, Clark, and Huff feels like a lot. Yes, the Hoos are just as affected by attrition as anyone else, but does anyone really worry you in the conference with a stacked lineup? They shouldn't. Trust in Tony Bennett to figure out the chemistry experiment before anyone else and have his machine running like a top by January 31.
2) Francisco Caffaro earns 10-12 mpg, at least. Described as "Salt 2.0" at media days, Caffaro also played with an edge at the world junior championships this year - almost too much of one. Tony Bennett loooooooves good screen-setters. Caffaro won't contribute much in the points column, but if he can defend and set brick-wall screens, he'll play.
3) Justin McKoy works his way into the starting lineup by February. I think Braxton Key will be indispensable this year with the flexibility he brings, but I also think that flexibility is best used off the bench. That way, Tony can deploy him in a whole lot of different ways, by choosing who he subs in for. McKoy was legitimately pursued by Roy Williams and UNC. This was no hey-keep-us-in-mind offer. It was a real chase. To be recruited by UNC, you have to have upper-echelon athleticism and be able to play one of the fastest-paced games in the country. McKoy is likely to be a revelation - and allow Tony to identify whichever opposing player is causing the most trouble after five minutes or so and throw Key at him to make him go away.
1) Virginia will drop at least one non-conference game to a mid-major. It's no secret the Hoos are in a major rebuild this year, especially on the perimeter where we've got to replace three of the most successful guard/wing starters in our history. The players taking their place have solid pedigrees and potential, but most of us understand there are likely going to be some growing pains.
Those growing pains are going to manifest early, and on top of some quality P5 opponents on deck before Christmas (Syracuse, Purdue, North Carolina, South Carolina, and one of Arizona State/St Johns), the schedule also brings us some mid-majors very capable of pulling off an upset at JPJ. The Hoos haven't dropped a game to a mid-major since slipping up at George Washington in 2015. We haven't dropped one at home since Delaware beat us in 2012. But that could change this year with some top Cinderellas coming to town.
Chief of these is Vermont, who's long been the America East big dog (same conference as UMBC), but also been dangerous outside of their league. They've played heavyweights such as Kentucky, Florida State, and Louisville to single-digit margins the last couple of years. Anthony Lamb is not just the best player in his mid-major conference but one of the best players in the country, and he returns most of his supporting cast from last year's NCAAT team while adding a P5 grad transfer center. They'll come to Charlottesville very capable to leave with the win.
A couple other mid-majors on our slate will also give us a good test. Columbia will be a dark horse candidate to win the Ivy league as they return 8 of their top 9 players and bring back former all-Ivy guard Mike Smith from a missed injury season. And Stony Brook, while not quite the AEC heavyweight that Vermont is, does return the bulk of their rotation from a team that went 12-4 in their league last year and plays a surprisingly tenacious brand of half-court defense.
These are all good teams and the computers are going to reflect as such when they're factored in to our strength of schedule. Given the amount of turnover we're facing, and the continuity and winning tradition these mid-majors have in spades, don't be shocked if one pulls out the upset, and furthermore don't see it as the sky falling. When they're dancing come next March, we'll appreciate just how good of an opponent we'd had to face out of the gate, with or without the brand name recognition.
2) JPJ will become swat city. We talk a lot about what UVA's losing this offseason. But there's one key stat area where we're surprisingly okay, and that's rim protection. The Hoos bring back their top three shotblockers from ACC play: Mamadi Diakite (2.1 bpg), Jay Huff (0.9 bpg), and Braxton Key (0.8 bpg). Mamadi is a known quantity, but there are two things that make me think we could go next-level with our rim protection next year beyond the ~4 bpg we have returning between those three.
First is that Jay and Braxton played just 11 and 21 mpg respectively. Both of those guys are in line for big minutes bumps this coming year, so when considering their blocks-per-40 rate (3.2 for Jay, 1.6 for Braxton), there's no reason not to think both could average well over a block a game with extended time.
Second is that, as guard depth issues drive us to put Braxton at the 3-spot, we have the potential to have all three of those guys on the floor together, maybe even starting together.
Add in any contributions we get from freshman bigs like Papi, McKoy, or Shedrick, and the paint at JPJ is going to be very unwelcome for opposing dribble-drivers. As if the Packline weren't scary enough already.
3) Braxton Key is UVA's lead all-conference selection. Predicting the all-conference teams this year is hard. The ACC lacks a clear top-tier of proven veterans or sure-thing rookies. UVA is a microcosm of that, with plenty of veterans with top tier potential, as well as potential breakout freshmen, but none that feel necessarily certain.
The Hoos have had a presence on the all-conference teams each year since 2012, so history says someone from our team will land there next spring. But who? Diakite is a front-runner for Defensive Player of the Year, but will he generate enough offense to get noticed? Will Jay Huff play enough minutes to rack up the requisite stats? Do Casey Morsell or Tomas Woldetensae adapt to the ACC quick enough to be all-conference worthy?
I think it's Braxton Key that breaks out as our big dog and gets the end-of-year honors. Key was a 12.0 ppg scorer his freshman year at Alabama, the only year of his three total seasons where he (a) got starters minutes and (b) stayed healthy. He's a better player now, definitely a smarter player, and he's basically a respectable 3-point-shot away from being complete. Add in his favor for all-conference honors that he's a capable defender and an incredible rebounder. No reason he can't put up Anthony Gill-like numbers in the neighborhood of 13 points and 7 rebounds a game; and while they may not quite be totals as high as other players around the league, ACC media voters ultimately pace-adjust for UVA players and respect the winning that goes along with our stats. Key will be the guy they select at the end of the year.
1) I don't do predictions. Only post-mortems, but I do anticipate one thing: it is going to be a hard year for a portion of Cavalier Nation. Defense has always been Bennett's metier here at UVa, but last year for the first time, we had the firepower to win games offensively. Unless Bennett goes really big (think Key at the three), we're going to feature two ACC rookies. Even if Huff truly arrives, this team is going to struggle to score, which leads me to think that Bennett will go back to working his stranglehold on the clock and slowing the game down. Word out of practice is that Bennett, maybe even moreso than in recent years, has focused on defense, defense, defense. We were spoiled last year by the scoring of Jerome, Guy and Hunter, and for all the pride in the Packline, many fans that I know are not going to want to Embrace the Pace this season.
There is a reason that teams struggle to repeat as champs. Even those that have less turnover than the typical collegiate team. Winning changes perceptions and expectations dramatically, both for the fans and the players, but especially the fans. We can say right now, in the dry autumn of the year, that we know intellectually that this season represents something of a step back year. But emotionally, the last time we saw Bennett and the Boys, they were cutting down nets and being serenaded by One Shining Moment.
It's going to be a wildly interesting year. Treat your fellow Wahoos gingerly!
Bold ACC Predictions
1) Duke will win the regular season and Rat Lord will be COY. The freshman class is not as uber-talented as the last two, but is solid and diverse, and they have the best veteran corps they've had in years. I think Rat Lord will have a second wind type year where he enjoys coaching this group, and they look more like his 90s teams. They will be harder than usual to hate.
2) Louisville will under-achieve compared to expectations, because those expectations are extravagant.
3) It's going to be hard to tell which is the worst team in the conference, because there are multiple serious contenders. The bottom third of the league will be worse than the top third is good. It is going to be a very competitive down year in the conference. Ok, this one isn't so bold.
1) Louisville is a flop, relatively speaking: Louisville's guards were pretty poor last season. And while they're improved this year, they still aren't good enough to get the Cards deep enough in March to justify the hype coming their way. They'll have a nice season and make the tournament, but that's when the good news begins coming to an end for the Cards.
2) Rick Pitino is hired by an ACC team as their head coach immediately after the season. The suspects will be Georgia Tech, Miami, or Clemson. Wanting to make a big splash, any of those teams will perceive Pitino as a risk worth taking, especially since none of the programs have a sterling reputation for doing things above board. The Pitino Rehab Project will have some downside but the upside for each will be worth it. For Pitino, the chance to be a head coach in the USA & ACC and compete against Louisville will be too much to pass up.
3) No ACC team reaches the Final 4 this season. There's a decided lack of star power on the top teams this season beyond Cole Anthony. All the top competitors have question marks that will be too difficult to address to allow for a run to Atlanta in April.
1) The conference, in a down year, earns only six tournament bids. This may not be all that bold - that's the number Lunardi has right now. But this is not a deep year. The ACC earned 7 bids last year, and it's clearly not as good this year.
2) At least one coach is fired midseason. And it's probably Danny Manning.
3) North Carolina loses in the first round of the tournament. There's a reason Roy was after McKoy so much. Carolina was walloped by attrition. Seniors Luke Maye, Cameron Johnson, and Kenny Williams - gone. So too, one-and-done freshmen Coby White and Nassir Little, and transfer-out Seventh Woods. They have a very good, but not star-ridden, freshman class, and a couple transfers, and holdovers Garrison Brooks and Brandon Robinson. Cole Anthony is considered the conference's star freshman. But it won't be enough. I dropped them only as far as fourth because the rest of the conference didn't produce a real challenger, but this outfit won't live up to Carolinas of the past.
1) Expect some party crashing, plural. The top of the ACC is down this year. UNC has incredible turnover to deal with. Duke didn't bring in its usual haul of one-and-dones. And Virginia is taking a step back this year as it resets in the wake of a number of NBA losses. That's going to open the door for a lot of teams we're not accustomed to seeing at the top of the league to make some honest runs at the crown.
Notre Dame, under proven coach Mike Brey (multiple Elite Eight appearances to his name) brings back almost their entire roster and if they can stay healthy for the first time in a few years, will ride the dangerous guard duo of Temple Gibbs and Prentiss Hubb and all-ACC-worthy center John Mooney to a return to respectability. Louisville, a powerhouse before it arrived in the ACC in 2014, has been second-tier as long as we've been familiar with them, but will mix a star studded freshman class with a deep returning core to potentially win the league. NC State, Syracuse, and others as well will similarly be looking to get hot and make a run in a league that's as wide open at the top as it's been in years. Don't be shocked to see the ACC Tournament's double byes occupied by a couple of teams you're not used to seeing in that position.
2) Few, if any, ACC players will dominate the national conversation. It seems like a formality that the ACC is going to have its share of players wind up on All-America teams and at the top of the NBA Draft. The league has had at least one, often two 1st Team AP All-Americans for 6 straight years, and many more litter the 2nd and 3rd teams. Last year the ACC provided five of the first 10 picks in the draft. It's a seemingly foregone conclusion that we'll annually see some top stars come through, whether shooting star freshmen or consistent veterans.
This year, however, it's a struggle to identify who the ACC can lean on to be the face of our league. It doesn't even need to be a Zion Williamson-like phenomenon, just a safe-bet All American and Top 5 pick. When compiling potential inclusions on our all-conference teams, it was stark how few names truly jumped out as being national-worthy.
To be sure, the league will have plenty of good players, many with NBA upside. NBADraft.net has only one ACC player listed in its projected Top 16 picks. That player, UNC one-and-done point guard Cole Anthony, may really be the league's only true breakout freshman. Others like Vernon Carey (Duke), Samuell Williamson (Louisville) or Patrick Williams (FSU) will likely have very good freshman seasons, but aren't sure bets to be regular talking points on ESPN.
Similarly, there aren't a ton of proven returning veterans. Of last year's all-ACC teams, the only returners are Jordan Nwora and John Mooney (3rd team), and Tre Jones (Honorable Mention). It's the first time in years no 1st or 2nd team players return, and it's hard to see who can really make the kind of jump into the national conversation. Bottom line, as the league sometimes relies on its stars for its stature, this year could see the league shining a little less bright nationally.
3) The year will end with at least four coaching vacancies. We've seen relatively little coaching turnover the last couple of years. Virginia Tech swapped Buzz for Mike Young this year. Last year saw Chris Mack stabilize Louisville and Capel do the same at Pitt. But three jobs over two years, in a fifteen-team league is remarkably stable. Expect that to change at some point.
There are two groups of coaches to watch. First is the Social Security-eligible crowd. The quintet of Krzyzewski (72 years old), Boeheim (74), Jim Larranaga (70), Roy Williams (69), and Leonard Hamilton (71) are all at an age where no one would question their hanging up the whistle. Every year it feels we debate which of them are ready for the rocking chair, and each year they all defy us and stick around another season. But that won't last forever. Boeheim arguably wants to finishing coaching his son (3 more years of eligibility), and Roy is tracking for a #1 recruiting class in 2020 that he'll probably want to coach for at least a year. But the rest, nothing would surprise me.
Beyond the grey-hairs, there's another class of coaches who are nearing the end of their thin ropes with their fan bases and administrators. Josh Pastner has yet to make the Tournament at GT and now sees the program slapped with sanctions. Danny Manning arguably would've been fired by Wake last year if it weren't for his buyout; maybe next year it's low enough for them to swallow. Jim Christian is likely to see BC's NCAAT absence extend by yet an additional year. And if Clemson misses the tournament this year, Brad Brownell's administrators may see his one 2018 tourney bid as just a lucky aberration.
I expect to see retirements and firings hit at least four programs by next April.