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THE BIG COUNTDOWN: The top-5 backcourts in the ACC

Who has the best backcourt in the league this season?

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-West Regional-Gonzaga vs Florida State Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

We’ve surveyed the best and brightest ACC minds to bring you the next chapter in our basketball season preview: a ranking of the best backcourts in the conference. With a mix of returning veterans and new star freshmen there’s plenty of talent across the conference, but the top five squads are as follows:

5. Notre Dame

Notable Players:

  • TJ Gibbs
  • Prentiss Hubb
  • Rex Pflueger
  • Robby Carmody
  • Dane Goodwin

The Irish were ravaged by injuries last season, including Rex Pflueger’s torn ACL in their 10th game. Pflueger returns this season as a grad student and the emotional leader for Coach Brey’s team - but the backcourt’s success will really be determined by TJ Gibbs, who was thrust into the star player role last season after Pflueger went down.

Gibbs is fantastic in taking care of the ball, but he’ll look to improve in his shooting after struggling a little there in his junior year - when his 2pt shooting fell from 41.9% to 38% and his 3pt shot slipped from 40.3% to 31.8%. If he can shoot as well as he did as a sophomore, he and Pflueger will be a formidable scoring attack. Pflueger brings good size to the backcourt as well as strong shooting while Prentiss Hubb was thrust into the starting rotation probably a year too soon (due to the injuries on the team), and should be able to improve upon is 4 assists per game average while becoming a more consistent scorer.

Robby Carmody and Dane Goodwin are also sophomores for the Irish and provide solid depth for their backcourt. Both are 6’4” with complimentary reputations as scorers. Goodwin started 9 games in his freshman year and is seen a strong shooter, though he’ll certainly need to improve on his first year’s 34.3% from deep. Carmody, on the other hand, is more of a slash and driver scorer who started his first two career games at Notre Dame and suffered an early December season-ending injury. If the team can manage to stay health in ‘19-’20, this group should be an experienced and impressive unit in South Bend.

4. North Carolina State

Notable Players:

  • Markell Johnson
  • Braxton Beverly
  • Devon Daniels
  • CJ Bryce
  • Dereon Seabron

Markell Johnson leads another experienced ACC backcourt and brings plenty of talent to a squad that missed last year’s NCAA tournament and could end up being a top 25 team this year. State plays fast, with a lot of pressure on the defensive side, and Johnson leads a backcourt crew that could really successfully gel together in Coach Keatts’s third season in Raleigh. Because the team lacks depth in the front court, State will probably run a lot of four-guard sets and they certainly have the depth to do that successfully - on paper, at least.

It does all start with Johnson, who shot 42% from 3 last season and improved to converting 56.7% of his 2pt shots. However, he’s definitely a player that could benefit from playing a more pass-oriented style (he averaged more than 7 assists a game as a sophomore) and he’s got plenty of options for help in this year’s backcourt. Braxton Beverly is a good outside shooter and can provide some depth at the 1 position as well, while CJ Bryce has the ability to be a go-to scorer with a superb jump shot — something he showed off brilliantly during his time at UNC Wilmington with Coach Keatts. Devon Daniels is another transfer who adds depth to the pack’s backcourt, while Seabron is an incoming four-star freshman who might overtake Blake Harris’ spot in the guard rotation.

3. Duke

Notable Players:

  • Tre Jones
  • Cassius Stanley
  • Alex O’Connell
  • Jordan Goldwire

Unlike their friends in Raleigh, this year’s Duke squad will be much more front court dependent in both depth and star power, but their crew of guards is talented enough to still land in our top 5 rankings. Tre Jones returns at point guard for the Blue Devils and will build off his role on last year’s team by continuing to run a dynamic offense with strong control of the ball and distribution to his soon-to-be-pro teammates. Jones average 5.3 assists per game last season, only turned the ball over 1.5 times a game, but was not a threat to score much from deep (unlike his brother), as he shot only 26% from three and made less than one 3pt shot a game. That will need to improve in order for this year’s crop of one and dones to make Duke’s first final four since 2015.

The lone guard of Coach K’s phenomenal freshman class is Cassius Stanley, a 6’5” high four star shooting guard from California (while Wendell Moore is another stud frosh who will play on the wing, his 6’11” wingspan throws him into the front court pool, for me). Stanley is a top 50 talent with exceptional athleticism - but a big question will be his outside shooting, something the Blue Devils will need that doesn’t necessarily line up with his strengths, which are more of the “dunk all over you” variety. Still, having Stanley as a dynamic scoring talent will help Tre Jones play with more space and take some of the focus off the Blue Devils’ army of front court studs. Perhaps they leave the outside shooting to Alex O’Connell (not to mention freshman forward Matthew Hurt), who shoots 41.6% from deep. Jordan Goldwire rounds out the backcourt depth in Durham, but hasn’t been much of a threat to score during his two years in Durham. Nonetheless, Jones’ ability as a floor leader and Stanley’s talent and athleticism make for a hugely formidable pair in the Duke backcourt.

2. Florida State

Notable Players:

  • Trent Forrest
  • MJ Walker
  • Devin Vassell
  • Rayquan Evans
  • Nathaneal Jack

Ranking the Seminoles’ backcourt this high is a bit of a leap of faith based on the talent of Trent Forrest and MJ Walker alone. FSU is replacing a ton of experience and production with the departure of guards Terance Mann, David Nichol, and PJ Savoy - but Forrest and Walker are primed to combine as a ferocious duo on both sides of the court. Forrest has great size as a point guard, is an exceptional defender, and a capable scorer thanks to his speed and athleticism (though he’s not much of a threat from deep). MJ Walker was a 5 star recruit for Coach Hamilton and will really need to step up his shooting this season to make up for the aforementioned losses in scoring. He’s got the talent and ability to do it though and FSU fans should expect him to embrace the opportunity.

The new faces in Tallahassee include JUCO transfer Rayquan Evans, who averages 18 points, 7.4 rebounds, and 4.9 assists for North Idaho last season. He should contribute well on the defensive perimeter as well and gives the Noles yet another big and long athletic option at guard. Nathaneal Jack is another JUCO guard new to the Noles’ roster - and gives the team a more likely shooting threat from 3. However, Devin Vassell will be the biggest threat in that regard for the Seminoles, as the 6’7” sophomore guard averaged 41.9% from deep last season in his 10 minutes per game. Overall, the success of FSU’s backcourt will depend on Walker and Forrest living up to their potential - something I fully expect them to do.

1. North Carolina

Notable Players:

  • Cole Anthony
  • Leaky Black
  • Brandon Robinson
  • Christian Keeling
  • Justin Pierce

Honestly, Cole Anthony might be good enough to have paired him “plus literally anyone” as the league’s best backcourt, but North Carolina has much more talent at guard this season than just their stud freshman. Anthony is the star, though - and for good reason: Greg Anthony’s son was the No. 4 recruit in the country overall and the top point guard prospect in the country. He is both an exceptional athlete and dynamic scorer - with the explosive ability to drive and finish in the paint as well as a great shooting stroke. He fits in absolutely perfectly into Roy Williams’ strategy of “scoring a ton of points as fast as you can” and will lead the Heels’ offense as a potential (probable) All-American.

The returning guards on the roster include some important pieces as well in Leaky Black and Brandon Robinson. Black’s freshman year was hampered by an ankle injury, but he showed plenty of flashes of ability and will be a capable ball-handler to spell or play of Anthony. Robinson shot 46% from 3 in his junior season last year and brings length and defensive ability to the UNC backcourt as well.

Two other newcomers to the UNC roster this season are grad transfers Christian Keeling and Justin Pierce. Keeling comes to Chapel Hill by way of Charleston Southern, where he was First Team Big South and a dynamic scorer with a nice shooting ability. He average 18 points a game last season for the Buccaneers and might very well slide immediately into the starting lineup for the Heels. Justin Pierce comes to Carolina after three great seasons at William & Mary - he’ll look to return to his sophomore level of three point shooting, as he shot 41.6% in his second season in Williamsburg, compared to 32.4% last year. Keeling and Pierce are great depth for the Heels in the backcourt and this should let Coach Williams let his stud freshman lead the team without pressuring him to carry the squad in every aspect every night.