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Conference Play Starts And The ACC Has A Lot Of NCAA Prospects

And possibly four in North Carolina.

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Dec 30, 2015; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Panthers forward Jamel Artis (1) dribbles the ball up court ahead of Syracuse Orange forward Michael Gbinije (0) during the second half at the Petersen Events Center. PITT won 72-61
Dec 30, 2015; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Panthers forward Jamel Artis (1) dribbles the ball up court ahead of Syracuse Orange forward Michael Gbinije (0) during the second half at the Petersen Events Center. PITT won 72-61
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Six weeks ago, when the 2015-16 college basketball season open, I previewed the ACC and suggested that 10 league teams were going into the season with legitimate hopes of winning an NCAA Tournament bid.

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I wasn’t predicting 10 bids – I thought the final count would be nine bids. But I thought there were 10 teams that would compete for those nine bids … with three legitimate Final Four hopefuls.

After six weeks of basketball – and 189 games – I don’t see much reason to change my preseason projections – unless it’s to up my ante by adding one team to the NCAA Tournament list and possibly one more to the Final Four list.

After Wednesday night’s six games – which included the first two conference games of the season – the ACC is 145-42 in non-conference games. That’s 77.6 percent – the league’s highest non-conference winning percentage since 2010 and significantly higher than the ACC’s 62-year average of 74.7 percent.

[Note: There is one more regular season non-conference game on the regular season schedule: Maryland-Eastern Shore is at Pitt Saturday. That will be the last one until postseason.]

The ACC record includes a 31-27 mark against the other Power Six conferences and 10 wins against teams ranked in the AP top 25. A year ago, the ACC recorded 21 wins against non-conference ranked opponents – eight more than any other league. With 10 wins already (and likely more to come in NCAA play), the ACC already has more such wins than any conference other than the Big Ten (13 wins) had a year ago.

The point is, the ACC has generally had a very successful preseason. But allow me to cite two teams that have exceeded my expectations:

-- Wake Forest. After winning at LSU Wednesday night, the Deacs are 9-3 with wins over Indiana, UCLA, Arkansas and now the Bengal Tigers on their home floor. Two of their losses have come at the hands of ranked opponents (No. 19 Vanderbilt and No. 6 Xavier).

And most of that was accomplished without senior guard Codi Miller-McIntyre, who has only recently returned to action.

Wake Forest is the team that I’ve added to my preseason NCAA contender list. Before the season, I thought Danny Manning would be lucky to get the Deacs in the NIT. Now, they are positioned to make a legitimate run at an NCAA bid.

Manning has found a gem of a freshman in guard Bryant Crawford, a tough, mature player with a decent 3-point shot. Young big men Doral Moore and John Collins have allowed senior Devin Thomas to move to his natural power forward spot, where he’s been a beast. Konstantinos Mitoglou remains a unique and dangerous player, a 6-10, 245-pounds stretch four (except that with Thomas usually playing the four, he’s more like an oversized three).

Wake is not an NCAA lock by any means, ranked No. 66 in the RPI and No. 89 by Pomeroy. But the Deacs have positioned themselves so that a good ACC showing (say, 10-8 in the league) will probably be enough to get them in. Their home game with Duke next week could be a major factor in their NCAA hopes.

-- Louisville. I labeled the Cardinals as the ACC’s mystery team in preseason. Like everyone else, I wondered how the looming NCAA scandal would impact the program and how a totally rebuilt team would come together.

Well, the scandal is still there, but it appears to be having no impact on Rick Pitino’s team. Louisville finished the pre-conference season play last week at 11-2, losing tough games on the road to Michigan State and Kentucky. On the other hand, none of the 11 victims are especially impressive, although Louisville has been dominating the teams it should dominate. Statistically, they are the best defensive team in the ACC.

Senior transfers Damien Lee (18.1 ppg.) and Trey Lewis (14.7 ppg.) have provided the consistent veteran leadership to help Pitino’s strong freshman class mature.

Pomeroy loves the Cards, ranking them fifth nationally. Louisville is No. 25 in the RPI.

I tentatively projected Louisville as an NCAA team in preseason – based largely on Pitino’s track record – but after 13 games, I think they might be a long-shot Final Four team.

Otherwise, not too many surprises, especially at the top of the league.

Virginia, my preseason ACC favorite, dropped am early road game at George Washington, but has rebounded to win10 straight – including impressive wins over West Virginia and Villanova -- and is the league’s highest ranked team at No. 5 nationally. The Cavs have yet to display the kind of lock-down defense that made them so formidable over the last two seasons.

On the other hand, the offense has been better than it was with Justin Anderson a year ago. Virginia is hitting over 50 percent from the field and is leading the ACC in 3-point field goal percentage. When the defense gels – and it will – the Cavs will be formidable indeed.

North Carolina also lost one early on the road, falling at Northern Iowa without Marcus Paige. The Heels also lost at unranked Texas – WITH Paige in the lineup. Still, overall UNC is 12-2 after beating Clemson for the millionth straight time in Chapel Hill, and are ranked No. 7 nationally. The homecourt victory over No. 2 Maryland and the solid neutral court win over No. 22 UCLA offer evidence of UNC’s high ceiling.

Duke dropped out of the top 10 after losing to Utah in New York, added to an early season loss to Kentucky in Chicago. The Devils are 11-2 entering ACC play and in the top 10 of Pomeroy’s rankings and the top 20 of the RPI.

However, I don’t think the Blue Devils are a real Final Four contender without senior Amile Jefferson in the lineup. Mike Krzyzewski is loaded on the perimeter, even if the team’s only point guard is a freshman learning on the job. But freshman Brandon Ingram is a unique talent, who keeps getting better and better. Grayson Allen and Luke Kennard are explosive offensive players on the wing and junior Matt Jones seems to give team whatever it needs.

Allen has two subpar games this season. Those just happen to be Duke’s two losses. That suggests his importance to the team. Overall, he’s playing at a very high level – leading Duke in both scoring and assists.

If Jefferson does regain his health – and the best guess is that he will return to action at some point in February – then, yes, Duke is one of those teams that could easily make a Final Four run. But as long as he’s out, the Devils will be vulnerable to bigger, stronger teams.


One of the reasons that the ACC is doing so well this season is the strong play by the league’s mid-level teams.

Miami, as expected, has had a breakout season. The veteran ‘Canes – starting four seniors (three of them fifth-year guys) -- finished the pre-conference season at 11-1 and are ranked No. 13 nationally (ahead of Duke). Jim Larranaga’s team had impressive wins over Utah (by 24 points!) and Butler. Miami is currently No. 15 in the RPI and No. 12 in Pomeroy.

But the ‘Canes have still had some shaky moments – a lopsided homecourt loss to Northeastern and last Tuesday night’s difficult game with Princeton (Miami trailed most of the game at home before pulling away in the last three minutes). And the Cavs had to go overtime to beat a mediocre Nebraska team in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge after almost blowing the game in regulation.

This is clearly an NCAA team. But will Miami be good enough to do some damage in the big dance?

Florida State has also had some shaky moments too, but that’s more understandable for a freshman-dominated team. The ‘Noles finished pre-conference play at 10-2 with an impressive road win at rival Florida Tuesday night. The record is marred by an overtime loss at Iowa, which is not too bad (especially with the Hawkeyes just upsetting No. 1 Michigan State), and a neutral court loss to Hofstra, which is.

Both Dwayne Bacon and Malik Beasley will be vying with Duke’s Ingram for ACC rookie of the year honors. The two freshmen wings are averaging right at 17 points a game. And sophomore Xavier Raythan-Mayes, last year’s scoring star, has settled in nicely at point guard – leading the ACC in assists with over six a game.

Okay, by my count that’s six teams that I think are almost certain – barring some catastrophic injuries – to be in the NCAA Tournament in March.

That leaves five other teams that certainly have a chance … but could also fail. We’ve already talked about Wake Forest. But there’s also:

-- Notre Dame: The Irish are a decent 9-3 entering conference play, but Mike Brey’s team has one fairly impressive win – over Iowa in Orlando. A loss to Monmouth (which did also beat UCLA) hurts. Even worse was a loss to Alabama. Notre Dame is also the only ACC team to lose to Indiana.

Point guard Demetrious Jackson (16.9 ppg, 5.0 apg.) and center Zack Auguste (14.4 ppg., 10.1 rpg.) have played well, but as a team the Irish have not defended or rebounded particularly well. Right now, the Irish are No. 58 in RPI and No. 33 in Pomeroy – which is not far from the cutoff line (if it were March). A lot of time to move up … but even a slight move down would leave the Irish in the NIT.

-- Syracuse: The Orange have some quality wins – beating ranked teams from UConn and Texas A&M in the Bahamas to win the Paradise Jam. Two of the team’s three mom-conference losses are not that bad – Wisconsin in overtime and at Georgetown. But the loss to a bad St. John’s team doesn’t look good.

Duke transfer Michael Gbinije (more than 18 points and just under five assists a game) is the team’s best player. He’s playing point after the failure of Kaleb Joseph to blossom in his sophomore season. Jim Boeheim has little depth and his team doesn’t rebound well. But the Orange still play good defense and shoot a lot of 3s with moderate success.

A victory in the team’s ACC opener Thursday night would have been a good boost to a team that was No. 78 in the RPI, but a road loss to another mid-level ACC team can’t count as a bad loss.

-- N.C. State: When the Wolfpack lost its opener at home to William & Mary, many were ready to write them off. But after a 4-3 start, N.C. State has won six straight and has notable wins at Missouri and over LSU on a neutral court. They also handled the Northeastern team that beat Miami.

Mark Gottfried’s biggest problem so far has been the early season injury to Terry Henderson that has left him with just one real guard – Cat Barber. Freshman wing Maverick Rowan is an excellent shooter, but he can’t handle or defend like an ACC guard should.

Barber would be my early frontrunner for ACC player of the year. He’s leading the league in minutes played (38.4 mpg) and has the ball in his hands almost all the time. He’s leading the league in scoring by almost three points a game – which is impressive considering that NC State is playing one of the slowest tempos in major college basketball (261st nationally in tempo, according to Pomeroy). Barber is also averaging 5.3 assists per game, third best in the ACC.

Barber has kept State alive in Henderson’s absence. You’d think Gottfried would need another guard to push his team into the NCAA field. Still, the Wolfpack coach is used to living on the bubble and unlike former Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg, Gottfried always finishes on the right side of the bubble. I wouldn’t bet against him this time either.

-- Pittsburgh: The Panthers are my new mystery team. Their record is impressive – 11-1 after beating Syracuse Wednesday night. And they’ll go to 12-1 after beating UMES Saturday.

Still, Pitt has beaten just one top 100 team outside the league, according to Pomeroy and that is No. 94 Davidson, which is close to falling out of the top 100. It’s too bad the Pitt opener against Gonzaga was cancelled at the half (with Pitt up two). That would have been the kind of win to impress the selection committee.

Then again, Pitt’s non-conference strength of schedule is much higher in the RPI (101st nationally) than in Pomeroy (262nd nationally). It’s a good thing for Jamie Dixon that the Selection Committee pays more attention to the RPI.


Back in 2011, when the 16-team Big East put 11 teams in the NCAA Tournament, the league had a secret weapon – a quintet of terrible teams at the bottom of the league.

The middle-echelon teams fattened up on the dregs of the conference – South Florida, DePaul, Rutgers, Providence and Seton Hall.

That’s what must happen in the ACC if the 15-team league hopes to put nine or 10 teams in the NCAA field. The middle teams have to sweep the bottom teams. It’s vital that teams such as Notre Dame, N.C. State, Syracuse and Pitt beat up on Boston College, Virginia Tech, Clemson and Georgia Tech.

While a Clemson or a Virginia Tech might jump up and bite somebody at home (even if Clemson’s home this season is more than 30 minutes from campus), the real threat is going to be Georgia Tech.

The Yellow Jackets are coming off a terrible year – everything that could go wrong for Brian Gregory’s team did go wrong in 2015. But, so far, the 2015-16 Jackets have played better and gotten more breaks. The 10-3 record includes one bad loss (to East Tennessee State at home), but it also includes some solid victories over the likes of Tennessee and Arkansas.

I wouldn’t go so far as to rate Georgia Tech as an NCAA contender (even if they are ahead of N.C. State in the RPI at the moment), but I think this will be a dangerous team, especially in Atlanta.

Former Maryland transfer Charles Mitchell has been a beast down low, leading the ACC in rebounding and in double-doubles. VPI transfer Adam Smith is hitting almost 44 percent from 3-point range, giving the Jackets a perimeter threat that they lacked a year ago and allowing veteran Marcus Georges-Gunt to do what he does best – attack the basket.

Georgia Tech is going to be a tough out for the mid-level ACC teams …. Maybe some of the top teams too.

The problem with putting a huge number of teams in the NCAA Tournament is that everybody plays everybody in the league. A big win – such as Pitt’s victory over Syracuse Wednesday night – is somebody else’s big loss – in that case. That’s why its vital to sweep the teams that are not in the NCAA hunt … and to steal at least one win from the league’s upper echelon teams.

There was a time when going .500 in ACC almost guaranteed an NCAA bid. In fact, numerous ACC teams below .500 in the league (including one 6-10 ACC team) got at large bids in the 1980s and 1990s.

That hasn’t been the case for the last decade. A year ago, Miami went 10-8 in the ACC with a win at Duke – and didn’t get a bid. That’s because the ‘Canes didn’t lay a strong foundation in pre-conference play. Two years ago, Virginia screwed up its pre-ACC schedule, suffering three losses, capped by a 35-point loss at Tennessee. Yet, the Cavs went on a tear in the league and made themselves not only an NCAA team, but a very high seed.

The point is, pre-conference play is important, but there is still a lot of basketball to play. Heck, Boston College, 7-6 in preseason without a quality win, could go 15-3 in ACC play and earn an NCAA bid. It won’t happen, but it could. By the same token, Virginia could go 7-11 in the ACC and miss the tournament entirely. It won’t happen, but it could.

I’m arguing that 11 ACC teams have put themselves in reasonable position to contend for an NCAA bid as conference play starts. They won’t all make it, but with a reasonable performance in conference play, any of them could.

I still think the ACC will end up with nine NCAA bids.

But we’ll have to see how it plays out.