No. 4 Virginia opens year in rare position: as favorite to win ACC

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(AP) — Tony Bennett was pleased how his Virginia team played in the weeks before the coronavirus pandemic abruptly shut down last season.

That’s the foundation he is relying on for the fourth-ranked Cavaliers, the preseason Atlantic Coast Conference favorite for the first time in nearly four decades in a race featuring No. 9 Duke, No. 16 North Carolina and No. 21 Florida State.

“I think (it’s) pretty much starting over, but I think for some of the returners, I hope there is some carryover because they were playing good basketball,” the coach said. “But you do have a different team.”

Coming off the 2019 national championship, the Cavaliers closed last year by winning eight straight and 11 of 12 entering the ACC Tournament that was ultimately shut down amid the pandemic. The Cavaliers return three starters and add Marquette transfer Sam Hauser as a preseason all-ACC pick to provide scoring punch to go with the program’s traditional defense-heavy approach.

That combination has the Cavaliers as preseason ACC favorite for the first time since the 1982-83 season, the final year for 7-foot-4 program great Ralph Sampson. It’s the first time a school outside the state of North Carolina was picked as ACC favorite since Maryland in 1996.

The Cavaliers face a bit less roster uncertainty than other contenders.

Mike Krzyzewski’s Blue Devils, the preseason favorite the past four seasons, had significant losses with Associated Press league player of the year Vernon Carey Jr., point guard Tre Jones (named league player of the year by the ACC) and freshman guard Cassius Stanley all going pro.

The Tar Heels lost one-and-done point guard Cole Anthony from the first losing season of Hall of Fame coach Roy Williams’ career. And Leonard Hamilton’s Seminoles – who won the program’s first league regular-season title – lost starting point guard Trent Forrest along with early NBA draft entrants Devin Vassell and Patrick Williams.

“One thing that’s consistent is there are great coaches in this league, always, and there are really good players,” North Carolina State coach Kevin Keatts said. “And we lost some good players, but we also have some really good returning players.”

Some other things to know about the ACC for the 2020-21 season:

PREDICTED FINISH

Virginia was picked to finish first on 97 of 155 ballots from media members, followed by Duke with 34. FSU was picked third, followed by UNC, Louisville, Syracuse, Miami, N.C. State, Georgia Tech and Clemson.

The final five teams were Virginia Tech, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, Boston College and Wake Forest.

ALL-ACC RETURNEES

There’s a bit more returning all-conference talent this year than last, when only two of 15 players returned from the league-designated all-ACC teams for the lowest total in three decades.

This time there are four: UNC senior forward Garrison Brooks, Virginia junior point guard Kihei Clark, Georgia Tech senior point guard Jose Alvarado and Clemson senior forward Aamir Simms.

The 6-foot-10 Brooks, who averaged 16.4 points and 8.7 rebounds, is the preseason ACC player of the year.

TOP FRESHMEN

FSU has the ACC’s highest-rated newcomer with 6-8 forward Scottie Barnes, 247sports’ No. 7 recruit and the ACC preseason freshman of the year.

UNC had the nation’s No. 2-ranked class featuring point guard Caleb Love (14th overall), and five-star big men Day’Ron Sharpe (15th) and Walker Kessler (22nd). Duke had the No. 3 class headlined by forward Jalen Johnson (13th) and point guard Jeremy Roach (23rd).

SIDELINE ARRIVAL

Wake Forest had the only offseason coaching change, firing Danny Manning to hire Steve Forbes from East Tennessee State.

Forbes led ETSU to 30 wins last year along with a sweep of the Southern Conference’s regular-season and tournament titles. He inherits a program that has been to the NCAA Tournament once (2017) since 2010.

PLAYER TO WATCH

Forrest’s steady play at the point helped the Seminoles finish at No. 4 in the AP Top 25 poll. Now Hamilton is looking for senior RayQuan Evans to assume that leadership role.

The junior college transfer averaged 3.2 points and 1.4 assists while having a growing role down the stretch.

“I don’t think you’ve seen the real RayQuan Evans,” Hamilton said. “He made major contributions to our team last year. He made big plays. He played with a tremendous amount of confidence. He played like he’s ready.”

THE SCHEDULE

With the college basketball season starting Nov. 25, the ACC has a 20-game league schedule for the second straight year, with the first league matchup of Syracuse visiting Boston College on Dec. 12. The schedule runs through March 6, followed by the ACC Tournament in Washington, D.C., starting March 9.

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