Luke DeCock

With talent drain at the top, it’s a wide-open ACC basketball race (for a change)

It’s a good year to be a mid-tier ACC basketball team. After unprecedented player turnover — there are only two returning all-ACC players, both off the third team — this may be not only the most wide-open basketball season in years, but a rare down year for the ACC.

Zion Williamson is gone, the stars of Virginia’s national championship team are gone, North Carolina is starting over with another freshman point guard and Duke is starting over with another freshman class. Meanwhile, Big East exiles Louisville and Notre Dame may have the best returning veteran talent in the league.

Throw in the bump from 18 to 20 conference games, which will dilute the standings-skewing effects of the unbalanced schedule, and the ACC is looking at NFL-style parity, with little differentiation between the teams at the top and a huge messy middle.

“It’s just caught up to everybody, especially with kids now being able to test the (draft) waters,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “We’re just going to see more newness throughout the league, especially a league of our stature. These kids get prepared for the pros by being in the best conference. It makes it like wide open, I think, for the league this year.”

Krzyzewski said he thought the ACC had five teams that could win a national title a year ago, and one of those five actually did win it, giving the ACC its third championship in five years. It’s a little different this fall. After the offseason exodus, it was hard to pick out a favorite at Tuesday’s media extravaganza. Of the 11 non-seniors on the all-ACC teams, only Louisville’s Jordan Nwora and Notre Dame’s John Mooney are back. Eight jumped early to the NBA, and another transferred.

Even in this revolving-door era of college basketball, that’s a staggering talent drain.

“It does give you some hope, when you finish where we finish, when the first and second team are all gone,” said Notre Dame coach Mike Brey, whose injury-riddled team won three ACC games last year. “I looked at that a lot this summer, trying to keep me from jumping off a bridge in South Bend. You see all those guys are gone, maybe our window’s opening.”

It’s funny how the conference had to wait until its football programs were good enough to justify its own network — or maybe just Clemson — but now that the ACC Network is here, and ready to go crazy with basketball, it might be a year late. The network missed out on both Zion and Virginia’s redemption song. Nothing begins to approach either of those story lines in the league this season.

Instead, Georgia Tech just got whacked with a postseason ban by the NCAA — the third time in seven years the 15-team ACC tournament will have 14 teams — N.C. State is laboring under its own NCAA allegations and Louisville continues to be Louisville, still trying to wash the stains out of the dirtiest laundry in the ACC.

Not an ideal time to be mid-launch of a network that’s supposed to be a 24-hour infomercial for ACC basketball.

But the brand remains as strong as ever, and the foremost basketball conference will continue to be the place where basketball matters more than football, in the hearts and minds of the ACC — if not the increasingly fattened wallets. A season where the championship comes down to the wire with someone other than Virginia, Duke or North Carolina involved might be the change of pace the ACC didn’t know it needed.

“We’re spoiled from a basketball standpoint,” ACC commissioner John Swofford said. “But that’s OK. It’s nice to have those expectations.”

Louisville, with Jordan Nwora and Stephen Enoch, has as good a chance as anyone. Notre Dame, if it can stay healthy, has three senior stars. Florida State is always Florida State. Maybe unexpected others have a claim to stake, like guard-heavy N.C. State. This would be the season to do it. There’s no question the gap between the three teams that account for those recent national titles and the rest of the league will be as small this season as it has been in a long time.

Chaos may ensue. And blessedly so.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered four Final Fours, the Summer Olympics, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.
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