The NCAA tournament tends to obscure everything that came before it in a given college basketball season. Which teams won those Thanksgiving-week nonconference tournaments? Which players were making compelling cases for national awards in December and January? The image of Kennedy Meeks, Justin Jackson, Joel Berry II, Isaiah Hicks and other North Carolina Tar Heels cutting down the nets in Glendale moments after a six-point win over Gonzaga in the title game won’t fade away soon, but in the meantime, it’s worth looking back at what else happened during the 2016-17 campaign. This is the first installment of a conference-by-conference review series, focusing on the ACC.
The preseason favorite finished fifth. Florida State and Notre Dame exceeded expectations. Georgia Tech really exceeded expectations. Syracuse under-performed, and Virginia dismissed top transfer Austin Nichols a week into the season. It all made for a wild—and wildly competitive—year in the ACC, one in which regular-season champion North Carolina could lose to the Yellow Jackets to start league play and score just 43 points in a late-season loss to Virginia, or where Miami could notch wins over the Tar Heels, Duke, Virginia and Virginia Tech and finish seventh. The league was such a roller coaster that no one batted an eye when the Blue Devils became the first in ACC tournament history to win five games in five days.
The chaotic nature of the season showed just how much depth the conference had, sending an ACC-record nine teams to the Big Dance. And while, in another surprise turn, only one of those teams (eventual national champion UNC) reached the Sweet 16, it’s important to remember that you can’t simply judge an entire conference using an elimination-style snapshot.
Syracuse became buzzer-beater central in February, hitting two game-winners and another that forced overtime in the month, but perhaps none was sweeter for the Orange than the one that took down then-No. 10 Duke at home. Faced with an eight-point halftime deficit after managing just 25 points in the opening 20 minutes, Syracuse rallied for a 53-point second half in the win. Getting the ball back in a 75–75 game with 11 seconds remaining, it was senior John Gillon who provided the dagger, memorably doing so by pulling up from around 27 feet out and banking in the winner—a high point in a frustrating season for the Orange.
It’s a close call between Kennard and UNC junior Justin Jackson, but the Duke sophomore’s head-to-head numbers with Jackson give him the slight edge. While a prime breakout candidate after a strong freshman season, Kennard wasn’t expected to be the leading scorer on a loaded Blue Devils team that included projected national player of the year contender Grayson Allen and star recruit Jayson Tatum. But Kennard established himself early when Tatum and a couple others had yet to suit up due to injury, and he never looked back.
The 6’6” guard was second in the ACC in scoring with 19.5 points per game, fifth in field-goal percentage (48.9%) and second in three-point shooting (43.8%). Per kenpom.com, he was also top 10 in ACC play in offensive rating, efficient field-goal percentage, true shooting percentage, turnover rate and fouls drawn per 40 minutes. As a freshman, half of Kennard’s shot attempts came from behind the arc, but he was more aggressive inside the three-point line as a sophomore, taking more mid-range jumpers and getting to the free-throw line at a higher clip.
Georgia Tech’s Josh Pastner certainly has a very compelling case here, but Williams gets the nod after steering the Tar Heels to their sixth national title. North Carolina hardly lost a step in 2016–17 despite losing both Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson, relying largely on a crop of junior and senior veterans in Jackson, Berry, Meeks and Hicks to not only get back to the national title game, but also finish the job this time. Williams pushed the right buttons and got his team to refocus after a 10-point loss to Duke in the ACC tournament semifinals, and again after a way-too-close scare against No. 8 seed Arkansas in the second round of the NCAA tournament. He also oversaw the emergence of and trusted in former walk-on Luke Maye, whose 33 combined points in March Madness wins over Butler and Kentucky (including the game-winner in the latter) were critical.
The Wolfpack had a fairly disastrous season, going 4–14 in ACC play and losing 10 of their final 11 games, but Smith Jr. did not disappoint in his one and only season in Raleigh. The No. 10 recruit in the Class of 2016, Smith Jr. missed his entire senior season in high school after tearing his ACL. But by the time he was set to take the court at NC State he was healthy and ready to go, putting together a freshman year that saw him rank eighth in the ACC in scoring (18.1), first in assists (6.2), second in steals (1.9) and 10th in field-goal percentage (45.5%). Smith Jr. recorded two triple doubles (a 27-point, 11-rebound, 11-assist effort against Virginia Tech and a 13-point, 11-rebound, 15-assist OT performance against Syracuse) and poured in a season-high 32 points to lead a January win over Duke, the Wolfpack’s best victory of the year. As expected, he’s now off to the NBA draft, where he’s an expected lottery pick.
Few, if anyone, expected much from the Yellow Jackets in 2016–17. After a 21–15 season and an NIT appearance, the school fired its head coach of five years, Brian Gregory. Memphis’s Josh Pastner took over with what seemed like a near-barren cupboard—Georgia Tech lost its top four scorers to graduation, leaving rising senior Quinton Stephens as the leading returning scorer at 5.0 points per game. But Pastner was able to hang onto the commitment of three-star guard recruit Josh Okogie, who originally pledged to Gregory, and Okogie surprised many by averaging 16.1 points and 5.4 rebounds on 45.3% shooting to lead the Yellow Jackets as a freshman.
Meanwhile, returnees Stephens, Tadric Jackson and Ben Lammers all had career years to provide veteran support around Okogie, and suddenly Georgia Tech was making some noise. Its stunning Dec. 31 win over UNC turned heads, and when it went on to win ACC games over Florida State, Notre Dame and Syracuse as well, it was clear the Jackets were no fluke. By the end of the season, they had played themselves into the bubble discussion, and while they fell short of the Big Dance, their NIT runner-up performance far exceeded anyone’s expectations heading into the season.
On the surface, it seems odd to call a team that won the ACC tournament and earned a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament the “biggest disappointment,” but everyone knows the expectations that were heaped on the Blue Devils at the start of the season—and with good reason. Preseason No. 1 team with the No. 1 incoming recruiting class. A returning core that included the ACC’s top returning scorer in Allen, a healthy Amile Jefferson, a model breakout candidate in Kennard and the experienced Matt Jones. The idea of Duke going 11–7 in conference play and falling in the second round of the NCAA tournament sounded patently foolish six months ago.
What went wrong? Things got off to a bumpy start when freshman Harry Giles, Jayson Tatum and Marques Bolden all started the season sidelined as they recovered from injury. But when the Blue Devils only lost by two to a potent Kansas team without them, it felt like Duke was a sleeping giant that would achieve its juggernaut destiny when everyone got healthy. For a multitude of reasons (including Allen’s tripping debacle and suspension, nagging injuries to key players, Giles and Bolden never truly emerging and Coach K’s missing time after back surgery), that vision never came to pass. The Blue Devils did become the first No. 5 seed to win the ACC tournament, yes, but that performance also serves as a reminder of how far this group could’ve gone when playing to its full potential.
Knox isn’t the only top recruit who is still undecided and considering at least one ACC school, but the five-star wing is down to five schools and three reside in the ACC: Duke, North Carolina and Florida State. The No. 9 player in the 2017 class, his decision could play a critical role in how—at the very least—preseason expectations in the conference shake out, unless he winds up at one of his two other choices, Kentucky or Missouri. The Blue Devils and Tar Heels were both picked in the top 10 of SI.com’s Way-Too-Early 2017–18 rankings and would only get better with Knox in tow, while the Seminoles are looking to restock after losing Dwayne Bacon and Jonathan Isaac, and possibly Xavier Rathan-Mayes, to the NBA. Mohamed Bamba and Trevon Duval, both top-10 recruits considering Duke, are two others to keep an eye on in the spring signing period, as well as top-30 recruit M.J. Walker, who has both Florida State and Georgia Tech on his list.