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My Take: Preseason All-ACC votes

Isaiah Wong returned to Miami after helping the Hurricanes to the Elite 8 last season.
Isaiah Wong returned to Miami after helping the Hurricanes to the Elite 8 last season. (Jim Dedmon/USA Today Sports Images)

The ACC went from being the butt of “one-bid league” jokes to having three teams in the Elite 8 and two in the Final 4 last season.

As long as the league collectively doesn’t suffer as many embarrassing non-conference losses in the early months, that first part shouldn’t be the case again this season.

Three teams – UNC, Virginia and Duke – enter the season with the look of teams that could make deep March runs. That doesn’t include one team that made the Elite 8 last season and picked up two of the best transfers on the market (Miami), nor does it include the team that won the ACC tournament last year (Virginia Tech).

Moving deeper into the league reveals a season that shouldn’t have coaches scrambling in February to declare whether their teams do or don’t belong in the NCAA tournament. Underestimate teams led by Leonard Hamilton, Steve Forbes and Mike Brey, among others, at your own peril.

Welcome to the ACC’s redemption season.

Here is my preseason ballot:

Predicted order of finish

1. UNC

2. Virginia

3. Duke

4. Miami

5. FSU

6. Virginia Tech

7. Notre Dame

8. Wake Forest

9. BC

10. Clemson

11. Syracuse

12. Pitt

13. N.C. State

14. Louisville

15. Georgia Tech

My take: This will surely get blown up by some team from the bottom five ascending to the top of the league, one of the top six or seven teams struggling because of injuries or the weight of expectations, and the traditional doughy middle of the ACC will be perceived as strong or weak based on whether the teams at the top are the same ones we think are good now.

Welcome to projecting a 15-team conference.

Picking UNC over Virginia isn’t as easy as I thought it’d be. You either believe the Tar Heels “found” something in the last month of the season and that’s how they’ll be for the entirety of this season, or you think they’ll regress to somewhere in between being the same team that was 18-8 and on the NCAA tournament bubble after a home loss to Pitt before catching fire.

Duke will be a case study of how well a roster with 11 newcomers gels in Jon Scheyer’s first season. The talent will be undeniable – their ceiling likely comes down to whether the Blue Devils reach Scheyer’s assertation that they can be an “elite” defensive team.

The Florida schools could each win the ACC and you wouldn’t – or shouldn’t – be surprised. Jim Larranaga and Hamilton have both celebrated ACC championships in Greensboro in the last decade and could do so again.

Forbes should get some benefit of the doubt for being a master of the transfer portal already, though no newcomers will have quite the impact of Alondes Williams (quite the high bar).

Earl Grant got the most out of a horrible roster at BC last season and I’m curious how much better the Eagles can be in Year Two. Clemson could climb if PJ Hall is ready to go at the beginning of the season; I’ve obviously got less faith in Syracuse, Pitt and N.C. State challenging the top half of the league.

Clemson's PJ Hall, back, blocks the shot of N.C. State's Terquavion Smith during the ACC tournament last season.
Clemson's PJ Hall, back, blocks the shot of N.C. State's Terquavion Smith during the ACC tournament last season. (Brad Penner/USA Today Sports Images)

Preseason All-ACC team:

Isaiah Wong, Miami

Armando Bacot, UNC

PJ Hall, Clemson

John Hugley, Pitt

Jeremy Roach, Duke

My take: There’s more on Wong later (hint, hint).

Bacot is a double-double machine and the most-consistent player at UNC; he’s an easy pick for this one. He’s likely the ACC preseason player of the year, though he’s not my pick.

Hugley is the one I wish would receive more attention; he’s a strong player on a bad team and if he experiences another bump in production like he did from his freshman to sophomore seasons, he’ll be putting up numbers on par with Bacot.

Hall is a gamble that Brad Brownell isn’t selling fake hope when he says that he’ll play in the first month of the season after knee surgery over the summer. Even if his return doesn’t come until early December, though, that’s still three full months of Hall – given he’s the same player – being a perfect inside-out threat, a 6-10 center who stretches and runs the floor.

The final pick came down to Roach or Justyn Mutts of Virginia Tech. Roach is the pick because even though he might not lead Duke in scoring, he’ll be the most valuable player for Duke in everything that’ll be asked of him this season. And similar to thinking UNC’s last month of the season will carry over, I think Roach turned a corner late last season and will be a dynamic point guard for Scheyer to lean heavily on in his first season.

Preseason player of the year:

Isaiah Wong, Miami

My take: Wong loses his running mates (Kameron McGusty and Charlie Moore) but gains two of the best transfers in the country (Nijel Pack from Kansas State; Norchad Omier from Arkansas State) will complement his game.

The fourth-year wing is a smooth scorer capable of creating for himself or others. He’s the perfect fit in Larranaga’s free-flowing offense that creates mismatches. Wong’s scoring actually dipped from 17.1 per game to 15.3 last season, but I’d expect that number to encroach or exceed 20 points per game this season.

Dereck Lively II will be used in a variety of ways for Duke.
Dereck Lively II will be used in a variety of ways for Duke.

Preseason rookie of the year:

Dereck Lively II, Duke

My take: This is a bit of hedge because while I think Dariq Whitehead won’t miss many games, I think he’s going to take a little more time than normal to acclimate and find his groove in the rotation because of the time he’s missed in the preseason.

That leads me to the safe pick with Lively, a 7-1, 230-pound modern big whose range extends to 3-point territory. He won’t be the same caliber of rim protector that Mark Williams was last season for Duke, but he offers a wider offensive array as both a pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop threat.

A quasi-sleeper in this category is Notre Dame’s JJ Starling, a 6-4, 200-pound guard who’s going to be surrounded by experience in leading an offense that always seems more efficient than people forecast in the preseason.