As the countdown continues toward the start of the 2019-20 college basketball season on Nov. 5, ESPN.com's panel of experts is making its predictions. After looking at the Big East, the American, the Pac-12 and Mid-Majors, we move on to the ACC, where reigning national champ Virginia -- as well as Duke and North Carolina -- find themselves looking up at the consensus league favorite.
Virginia is supposed to be "down" in 2019-20, which I guess we can take to mean the Cavaliers won't win the national championship. But Tony Bennett's program has lost an average of six games over the past six seasons -- you taking the over or under on that number?
Myron Medcalf, senior college basketball writer: I'll take the over. But not by much. This feels like the 2016-17 season for Virginia, which finished 23-11 after losing Malcolm Brogdon and Anthony Gill. Last year's phenomenal group won eight games by six or fewer points before it defeated Texas Tech in overtime in Minneapolis to secure the national title. Without Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy and De'Andre Hunter, they'll lose some of those close games this season in a tough league.
But the six losses per season over the past six years is secondary, in my opinion, to Virginia's standing as a top-10 defensive team on KenPom within the same stretch. The question remains for every Virginia opponent: How will you score against the Cavs? Bennett's defense has withstood the turbulence attached to perennial personnel moves, which is why I think Virginia will lose more than six games -- but I wouldn't put money on more than nine.
Jeff Borzello, college basketball insider: I'll take the over, but it will be awfully close. Virginia has been one of my toughest teams to project heading into the season. As the question states, they've been outrageously consistent the past several seasons -- and they won a national championship last season. On the other hand, they lost their three best players from that title-winning team. So I think somewhere in the 15ish range nationally seems fair for them.
But the Cavaliers' nonconference schedule isn't overwhelming, with the toughest game coming at Purdue in early December -- giving Bennett a month to figure things out. They only get Duke once during the ACC season, and that comes at home. They also only get NC State once during the ACC season, also coming at home. So essentially I think they'll lose at least five games during the regular season, then once in the ACC tournament and once in the NCAA tournament.
John Gasaway, college basketball writer: Put me down for the over, although surely there's no shame in losing seven times. The last two national runners-up, Michigan and Texas Tech, ended their tournament runs with eight and seven losses, respectively. Plus, Virginia will play no fewer than 20 ACC games this season, meaning 10 road dates (including tests at North Carolina and at Louisville).
Also keep in mind the Cavaliers could actually start 2019-20 at 0-1, since their first game of the entire season is at Syracuse on November 6. Throw in the game at West Lafayette that Jeff mentions plus the postseason and it would be remarkable if Tony Bennett emerged from all of the above with six losses or fewer. Granted, the man's no stranger to remarkable feats.
Duke and North Carolina will have similar makeup in 2019-20 -- ultra-talented teams who will rely heavily on newcomers to power national title hopes. Who's better right now, and who's going to be better come March?
Gasaway: I see what you did there with "newcomers" as distinct from "freshmen." Well played, unseen asker of questions, and point well taken.
Look at UNC. It seems like everyone's gone from last year, but if you scan the Tar Heels' likely top seven or so players for 2019-20 the group includes just two freshmen: Cole Anthony and Armando Bacot. (Which is not to say we'll never see freshmen Anthony Harris and/or Jeremiah Francis, just that the heavy minutes and usages may go elsewhere on this roster.) Roy Williams will be relying not just on a great freshman season by Anthony but also on immediate production from newcomer Christian Keeling, a transfer from Charleston Southern.
With Duke, on the other hand, we can probably just say "freshmen." Vernon Carey Jr., Matthew Hurt and Wendell Moore project to earn plenty of minutes alongside old-timers like Tre Jones, Alex O'Connell, Jack White and Javin DeLaurier. The players Mike Krzyzewski has this season have collectively made 68 starts as Blue Devils, while for Roy Williams' roster the number for career Tar Heel starts is 36 (hello, Garrison Brooks -- although, of course, Keeling alone made 73 starts at a Big South program). Based on that, Duke is likely the better team of the two right now, but I like UNC's chances to be better come March.
Borzello: I think I would probably take Carolina to win if the two teams played today, but I think Duke will be better come March. The Tar Heels don't have a lot of ACC experience, per se, but they're not lacking for guys who have played college basketball before. Garrison Brooks is the lone returning starter, but Brandon Robinson and Leaky Black have played roles on the perimeter, and graduate transfers Christian Keeling and Justin Pierce are older. And freshman Cole Anthony is as college-ready as any newcomer entering college basketball this season.
Duke, meanwhile, brings in another elite recruiting class -- even though it's not Zion, RJ and Cam. And that means we may have to recalibrate what we expect from a freshman class. Wendell Moore is an excellent two-way player, Matthew Hurt is an inside-outside option at forward and Vernon Carey Jr. is a load down low. Sophomore Tre Jones is one of the best point guards in the country and Coach K has several role players returning. I think Duke can be really, really good come March -- but it might take some time for the newcomers to hit their stride.
Medcalf: I'd pick North Carolina if they played right now, simply because of UNC's experience, per John's point. But the good news for the Blue Devils is that they won't play Cole Anthony and the Tar Heels until Feb. 8. By then, I expect Mike Krzyzewski's group to have evolved into a fascinating group with a pair of big men (Matthew Hurt, Vernon Carey Jr.) who can create spacing and matchup problems for any opponent. Cole Anthony could win ACC player of the year honors, but he'll face his most imposing defender when he sees Tre Jones. Duke's opponents committed turnovers on nearly one-fifth of their possession with Jones on the floor.
North Carolina is certainly a contender again with Anthony, Christian Keeling, Justin Pierce and the returning veterans that Duke largely lacks. That's why I think we'll see three entertaining matchups between the two teams this season, including the ACC tournament. But I'll take Duke in February, when the two teams meet for the first time in the 2019-2020 season.
Who's the team in this league we're not talking enough about now, but will be very important to the national college basketball landscape in March?
Borzello: I do think we're not giving Louisville enough credit. I think the Cardinals are a legitimate top-five team in the country, and I'm picking them to win the ACC. But outside of the top four, I think we're probably underestimating Florida State -- again. It seems like the Seminoles are picked right in the middle of the pack in the league every season and then they go out and win 25 games and a couple of games in the NCAA tournament.
Leonard Hamilton does lose some pieces from last season's 29-win group, but Trent Forrest and M.J. Walker return in the backcourt and freshman Patrick Williams might be a one-and-done pro on the wing. Florida State always seems to figure it out up front, too, and the Seminoles have their usual collection of 7-footers ready to block shots and rebound -- and freshman Balsa Koprivica has plenty of skill to go along with his size. It wouldn't shock me if they're a top-25 team come February.
Medcalf: How about Virginia? I know that sounds odd, but let me explain. I think a lot of folks are treating this season like a victory lap for the Cavs, a victory lap they deserve. They don't have to win anything after their redemptive run that concluded with a national title in April. The champagne is still flowing in Charlottesville. But there is a good chance that Tony Bennett will coach another elite defensive team. Folks don't know names like Tomas Woldetensae (a junior college All-American) or top-100 prospect Casey Morsell yet, but we hadn't heard much about De'Andre Hunter a few years ago, either. I'm not saying Virginia will be an ACC champion. But come March? Dangerous second-weekend opponent seems like a plausible description
Gasaway: Don't sleep on Notre Dame. The Irish are not being talked about, and they will continue to not be talked about because there's too much might at the very top of the ACC. But more or less everyone is back this season in South Bend, and there is no possible way that a Mike Brey team is going to shoot so poorly two seasons in a row. The post-Bonzie Colson era hasn't been pretty for ND, goodness knows, but T.J. Gibbs and John Mooney are seniors now, and a reversion to ND's recent "normal" is in the offing. Expect excellent offense and an NCAA tournament bid.
You could describe more than one-quarter of the ACC's coaches as "embattled" entering 2019-20. Of Jim Christian (Boston College), Brad Brownell (Clemson), Josh Pastner (Georgia Tech) and Danny Manning (Wake Forest), who has the best chance to catch fire and survive?
Borzello: Josh Pastner might have the worst narrative surrounding any of the four coaches heading into the season, but I also think Georgia Tech has the most talent it's had since Pastner took over. Now, it remains to be seen how the NCAA tournament ban is going to impact the team in terms of motivation levels toward the end of the season, but the Yellow Jackets can certainly push for a top-half finish in the league if things fall correctly.
Four starters are back from last season's team, they get USC transfer Jordan Usher eligible in December and high-scoring VMI transfer Bubba Parham was given a waiver to play immediately this season. Granted, it's a lot of the same players who finished 14-18 overall last season, but on paper, Georgia Tech can match up fairly well with the likes of Syracuse and Miami in the middle of the league.
Gasaway: What Jeff said. Pastner has the best 2019-20 team out of the coaches mentioned here, but he also owns the worst situation in knowing there's no way this group's playing in the NCAA tournament. So embrace that paradox. Assuming guys like Jose Alvarado and Parham can perform up to their potential in the shadow of a postseason ban, one possibility is that the Yellow Jackets go .500 or so in ACC play. That would be a respectable showing, one that might even be viewed as encouraging in terms of the direction of the program.
But is that really catching fire? Will it be enough? Put it this way, this particular list of embattled ACC coaches is not likely to look the same one year from now, and not because all four will have played their way out of jeopardy, either.
Medcalf: I'll echo what Jeff said too, although it's weird to think of Josh Pastner saving his job only for Georgia Tech fans to be reminded of the drama attached to his tenure when they remember that they can't participate in the postseason. Just a weird situation. The team fell apart during a seven-game losing streak midway through ACC play. But, to Jeff's point, Pastner has a solid collection of newcomers and seven players who averaged double-digit minutes a year ago. But I won't be surprised if every coach on that list is looking for a new job after the season. Based on money alone and his sizable buyout, Danny Manning might be the one still standing, regardless of what happens this year.
ACC 2019-20 predicted order of finish
ACC 2019-20 superlatives
Player of the Year
Medcalf: Tre Jones, Duke
Borzello: Cole Anthony, North Carolina
Gasaway: Jordan Nwora, Louisville
Newcomer of the Year
Medcalf: Cole Anthony, North Carolina
Borzello: Cole Anthony, North Carolina
Gasaway: Cole Anthony, North Carolina