Am I the only one who thinks it feels like forever since Duke played a basketball game?
Duke played 12 games in the first 30 days of the season, but since losing to Boston College on Dec. 9, has played just one game in 21 days. And while the Dec. 20 win against Evansville was an impressive performance, it was against a weak opponent and not very memorable. To me, anyway.
The long period of inactivity will end Saturday when Duke takes on No. 24 Florida State (11-1) in Cameron.
That will be the start of the normal January-February schedule where Duke almost always plays two games a week. And all will be ACC games, except for a February 3 trip to New York to take on St. John’s in Madison Square Garden.
The ACC regular season race actually begins in earnest Saturday with six conference matchups on tap. In a sense that’s a real start to the ACC season. The Duke-Boston College game so long ago was at outlier – the first and only league game before Dec. 30.
And with BC upsetting the Devils, it’s also like a handicap – the preseason ACC favorite has to start 0-1 in the league, while the team that finished dead last in the league for two straight seasons gets to start 1-0.
But there is a lot of basketball still to be played. And the ACC has a lot of legitimate contenders.
Going into Saturday’s games, the ACC has five teams ranked in both at the AP and Coaches polls:
- Duke 4 (AP) and 3 (Coaches)
- Virginia 9 in both polls
- North Carolina 13 (AP) and 14 (Coaches)
- Miami 15 (AP) and 16 Coaches)
- Florida State 24 (AP) and 25 (Coaches)
In addition, four other ACC schools – Clemson, Louisville, Virginia Tech and Notre Dame – are 26-through 29 in the Coaches poll. Interesting that Clemson, Notre Dame and Louisville are 27-28-29 respectively in the AP poll, but that Virginia Tech does not get any votes. The Hokies are 28th in the Coaches’ note, but not one of 42 teams getting at least one vote in the AP poll. I mean, 11-2 Stephen F. Austin (121 in Pomeroy) gets a vote, but not the 10-2 Hokies (73 in Pomeroy)?
Sorry for the digression, but my point is that the ACC is loaded with contenders. Nine of the 15 conference teams are getting top 25 votes and 12 of the 15 will enter ACC play with at least 10 wins. Pomeroy has nine ACC teams in his top 50 and Syracuse is just outside at No. 51.
He has 10-3 N.C. State at No. 76 – but even the Pack was good enough to knock off Arizona on a neutral court. No. 86 Boston College beat Duke. And No. 140 Georgia Tech, despite some horrific losses, was good enough to upset Northwestern.
It’s way too early to start getting serious about bracketology, but going into Saturday’s games, I’d suggest that just three of 15 teams are definitely out of the NCAA Tournament running – Georgia Tech, Wake Forest and Pittsburgh. It’s going to be tough for BC and N.C. State and maybe even Syracuse, but they all have a reasonable chance.
Meanwhile, Duke has its sights on more lofty goals. But the Devils will have to prove themselves against a dangerous lineup of ACC opponents.
Allow me to survey the league as conference play starts in earnest (and maybe re-rank our preseason predictions):
1. Duke (12-1, No. 4 in Pomeroy) – I’m working on the theory that Duke’s poor defense in Portland and at Boston College was a function of a young team – the youngest in Duke history – playing 12 games in 30 days. Without any real practice time, the defense slipped.
The long layoff has given Coach K time to work on his defense. Even with time off for exams and the holidays, he’s had a ton of practice time to address the weaknesses. I know Evansville wasn’t the greatest test of that hard work, but it was still a positive sign.
Okay, that’s what I’m telling myself. We’ll find out how much progress the defense has made very early in the ACC race. Saturday’s opponent – FSU is second in the ACC in 3-pointers made a game and fifth in points a game. N.C. State, Duke’s next opponent, is fourth in ACC scoring.
Offense is not a real problem. Duke leads the ACC in scoring, Heck, Duke is No. 1 nationally in Pomeroy’s offensive efficiency ratings.
If the defense shows improvement, the Devils should – as predicted by the media in preseason – come out on top in the regular season race.
2. North Carolina (11-2, No. 8 in Pomeroy) – Give Roy Williams credit. He has rebuilt a team that was decimated by frontcourt defections and re-made the Tar Heels as a solid team.
There have been a couple of blips: UNV was not competitive in the loss to Michigan State and the homecourt loss to lowly Wofford was one of the worst upsets in ACC history.
On the other hand, UNC has solid wins over Arkansas and Michigan, plus a gritty victory over Tennessee (unranked at the time, but now up to No. 19 in the AP poll). Pitt transfer Cameron Johnson has only recently joined the team after an injury and he adds more firepower.
Luke Maye has been the biggest surprise of the ACC season. A light-weight recruit and a marginal player for two seasons (aside from one important shot vs. Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament), he’s emerged as one of the ACC’s best players – top five in the ACC in both scoring and rebounding.
UNC is lined up for a strong showing in the ACC. But the collapse against Wofford has to be a concern. And after getting a soft ACC schedule last season, this year’s team has to go the tough route with games at Duke, at Notre Dame, at Virginia, at Louisville, at Florida State, at Clemson, at Virginia Tech and at Syracuse.
3. Virginia (11-1, No. 3 in Pomeroy) – Tony Bennett continues to remind us that he’s the best young coach in the ACC – the eventual heir to Krzyzewski, Williams and Boeheim (the ACC is down to three Hall of Fame coaches with Pitino gone).
He’s put together another defensive juggernaut – one that’s leading the ACC in defense by a wide margin. It’s No. 1 in nation in defensive efficiency according to Pomeroy.
Sophomores Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome have provided more offensive potential than is normal for a Virginia team. But it’s defense that gives this team a chance to and near the top in the ACC.
The Cavs should be okay against BC at home Saturday, but then they face two season-defining games – at Virginia Tech and UNC at home. Check with me after those two contests to get a better gauge on how strong Bennett’s team really is.
4. Miami (11-1, No. 17 in Pomeroy) – The ‘Canes rolled up a long winning streak against a less than impressive schedule in November and December. It included a solid win at Minnesota (ranked No. 12 at the time, but out of the poll after subsequent losses to Nebraska and Arkansas).
Jim Larranaga is blessed with a veteran team that is loaded with perimeter talent – Bruce Brown, Ja’Quan Newton and freshman Lonnie Walker are all likely to wind up in the NBA. Forward Dewan Huell, a top recruit who had a mediocre freshman season, is starting to show his NBA potential as a sophomore.
Miami is the second-best defensive team in the ACC and No. 7 nationally in defensive efficiency, according to Pomeroy. The ‘Canes are best in the ACC at defending the 3-pointer.
Larranaga’s squad gets a soft opening at Pitt and at Georgia Tech, the two weakest ACC opponents. Then it gets tougher – Florida State, at Clemson and Duke.
5. Notre Dame (10-3, No. 25 in Pomeroy) – The Irish have dropped out of the polls after suffering close losses to Ball State and Indiana. But Mike Brey’s team remains the most experienced club in the ACC and seniors Bonzie Colson (first in the ACC in scoring, fourth in rebounding) and Matt Farrell (seventh in scoring, sixth in assists) remain a potent one-two punch.
Remember, this is a team that beat Wichita State on a neutral court. The potential is there.
Notre Dame also gets a soft start to the ACC, facing Georgia Tech twice in 12 days. In between, the Irish get N.C. State at home and a dangerous game at Syracuse (Note: every game AT Syracuse is dangerous; home games with the ‘Cuse, not so much).
6. Louisville (10-2, No. 33 in Pomeroy) – The Cards have struggled at times under new coach David Padgett, but this is the same team that was (before Marvin Bagley) being picked ahead of Duke in preseason polls.
The team’s two losses aren’t bad (at Purdue and Seton Hall), even if Louisville should have been able to handle the Pirates in the Yum Yum Center. The Cardinals do have a solid win over Indiana. We’ll get one final pre-ACC gauge of the Cards tonight when Louisville visits Kentucky.
This is still a talented team, especially with junior Deng Adel finally emerging as a star. Senior Anas Mahmoud has emerged as one of the nation’s premier shotblockers.
The Cards open ACC play with a gimmie home game with hapless Pitt, then will be tested in back-to-back trips South to Clemson and Florida State. Those two games should let us know whether Louisville will be a contender or not.
7. Florida State (11-1, No. 27 in Pomeroy) – It looked like the ‘Noles would roll into Cameron Saturday as one of the nation’s last unbeatens, but Leonard Hamilton’s team lost a semi-home game (Sunrise, Fla.) to Oklahoma State.
Still, the Seminoles beat Florida at Florida a lot more decisively than Duke beat the Gators on a neutral floor in Portland. They beat Rutgers at Rutgers.
After sending four players to the pros in the last two years, Hamilton has a star-less team. The ‘Noles might be the deepest, most athletic team in the ACC, but junior Terrance Mann is the only player on the team who might earn All-ACC honors.
FSU could make a major statement by winning in Cameron. But unless than happens, I see this team at the middle of the ACC pack. They should make the NCAA field, but not as a high seed.
8. Clemson (11-1, No. 23 in Pomeroy) – I have to confess, Clemson’s success so far this season is my biggest surprise … bigger than Georgia Tech’s collapse.
The Tigers, losing their best player (Jaron Blossomgame) have been a revelation, beating Florida, South Carolina and Ohio State, while losing only to Temple. Pomeroy lists the Tigers as No. 20 nationally in defensive efficiency.
Junior Marcquise Reed and senior Donte Grantham (bouncing back from a subpar junior season) have been the best offensive threats, while Elijah Thomas has been a force down low.
Historically, good Clemson teams have been tough at home, but vulnerable on the road. They get two games with N.C. State in the next 12 games with a road trip to BC and a home game with Louisville in between. Watch to see if the home/road pattern continues.
9. Virginia Tech (11-2, No. 38 in Pomeroy) – I hate to put the Holies this low, but their performance against a weak schedule doesn’t justify putting them ahead of teams that have actually beaten quality opponents.
The Hokies’ best showing was a loss – a tough game at Kentucky. But they don’t have one top 50 win and their other loss was to a very mediocre St. Louis team.
Still, this team has a lot of weapons and more balance with the return of big man Kerry Blackshear. Chris Clarke is one of the best all-around players in the ACC. Justin Robinson is a quality playmaker (almost six assists a game) and Ahmed Hill is the ACC’s best 3-point shooter (leading the league in both 3-pointers made and in 3-point percentage).
Virginia Tech opens its ACC season with a tough road game at Syracuse, then gets in-state rival Virginia in the Castle. Those two games should tell us whether or not to think Virginia Tech is underrated at this spot.
10. Syracuse (11-2, No. 51 in Pomeroy) – A year ago, Syracuse had the widest home/road splits in memory – 17-4 at home, 2-11 outside the Carrier Dome. There is every indication that we may see more of the same this year.
This team does have a road win at Georgetown and a neutral court win over UConn, but those are no longer the superpowers that Jim Boeheim used to battle in the old Big East days. And this Orange team also has a homecourt loss to St. Bonaventure.
Guard Tyus Battle, a guard that Duke was once interested in, has emerged as a star and freshman forward Ossie Brissett is a keeper.
I feel safe in predicting that Syracuse will finish the ACC with a winning record at home. But the ‘Cuse will struggle every time the Orange leaves the Carrier Dome.
11. N.C. State (10-3, No. 76 Pomeroy) – New Coach Kevin Keatts (please, don’t call him Coach K) has tried to install a pressure-driven, up tempo style that ought to pay dividends on the recruiting trail.
How well it works this season, remains to be seen. The Pack has a noteworthy win over Arizona, but not much else to crow about. N.C. State followed the Arizona win with losses to Northern Iowa and Tennessee and also added an embarrassing home loss to UNC-Greensboro.
Baylor transfer Al Freeman is an erratic, but talented guard. Turkish sophomore Omar Yurtseven has shown considerable improvement in his second season – good coaching by the new staff?
The loss of point guard Markell Johnson – first to suspension and more recently to assault charges – has hurt. But Keatts has a lot of perimeter bodies to use.
The Pack gets a killer ACC opening: at Clemson, at Notre Dame and Duke at home. While I expect N.C. State to finish near the bottom of the standings, I think this remains a dangerous team.
12. Wake Forest (7-5, No. 71 Pomeroy). Danny Manning’s Deacons got off to a nightmarish start, losing four of the first five, including should-have-been-wins Liberty, Drake and Georgia Southern.
Since then, the Deacons have played better, winning six in a row (including a solid win over Illinois), but losing a tough game to Tennessee.
As expected, the Deacs feel the loss of center John Collins. But wing Keyshawn Woods and guard Bryant Crawford are quality players who give the Deacs a chance on most nights. Unfortunately, the Deacons are the worst defensive team in the ACC – worse than Duke! – ranking 15th in both points allowed and FG percentage defense.
The Deacs are almost certain to get off to a bad start in the ACC as they open at UNC. The game to watch will be the next one, when Syracuse visits Winston-Salem. Is that close enough to Greensboro to give Boeheim the heebie-jeebies?
13. Boston College (10-3, No. 86 in Pomeroy) – After two straight seasons in the ACC basement, the Eagles served notice that that won’t happen this year with their early upset of No. 1 (at the time) Duke.
While a surprise, it’s not a total shocker – BC has one of the best backcourts in the ACC in Ky Bowman and Jerome Robinson. And when erratic Jordan Chatman is hitting, the Eagles’ perimeter game is outstanding.
Long-term, the loss of grad transfer forward Deonte Hawkins is going to hurt. That leaves the Eagles dependent on their perimeter game, but while that makes them dangerous, it doesn’t get them out of the ACC’s lower echelon.
14. Georgia Tech (6-6, No. 140 in Pomeroy) It’s been a disastrous first two months of the season for the Yellow Jackets, starting with the suspension of two key players, allegations of cheating directed at Josh Pastner and a series of losses to the likes of Grambling (maybe the worst team any ACC team has ever lost to), Wright State and Wofford.
The Jackets shouldn’t be this bad. They have one of the nation’s best big men in Ben Lammers and a quality freshman playmaker in Jose Alvarado. Finally getting Josh Okogie back from his suspension and a broken hand has to help.
But this remains the worst offensive team in the ACC.
Last year, the Jackets were the ACC’s biggest surprise. This year’s team will have to fight to stay out of last place. Georgia Tech has one meeting with Pittsburgh – Jan. 13 at Pitt. That is a game to watch.
15. Pittsburgh ( 8-5, No. 163 Pomeroy) – That winning record is a tribute to the weakness of the schedule, not any great accomplishment by the Panthers.
The team’s best win is a home victory over Towson that went down the wire. The Panthers haven’t beaten a top 100 opponent yet and aren’t likely to.
Ryan Luther, the team’s best player (by far) has been hobbled by a foot injury – which is scary, because he missed most of last season with an injury.
The Panthers might pull off a win or two against some of the ACC’s weak sisters – like I say, watch that Jan. 13 matchup with Georgia Tech – but this is one of the weakest ACC teams since … well, since BC in 2016.