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The Toughest ACC Opponents

Some schedules are a bit tougher than others

NCAA Basketball: Duke at Kansas
Nov 15, 2022; Indianapolis, Indiana, USA; Duke Blue Devils guard Tyrese Proctor (5) shoots the ball over Kansas Jayhawks center Ernest Udeh Jr. (23) during the first half at Gainbridge Fieldhouse. 
Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

Short of a deep dive into team rosters, many predictions of competitive strength are based, at least initially, on past performance, recruiting ratings, and perhaps their coach’s reputation.

Houston, for instance, is by all accounts a formidable opponent. The Cougars play in the AAC (American Athletic Conference). While not quite a power league the AAC includes several estimable programs. Houston, which beat Duke in a closed scrimmage a few weeks back, visits Virginia on Dec. 17.

The once and once-again mighty Cougars, ranked third this preseason, are led by the same coach, Kelvin Sampson, who took Houston to the Elite Eight in 2021 and 2022. (He also incurred repeat NCAA probations for the same recruiting violation at Oklahoma and Indiana, though not at Houston. His Hoosier cheating came while Sampson was chair of the National Association of Basketball Coaches’ ethics committee.)

However they perform on the floor this season the Cougars’ profile will doubtless improve when they move to the Big 12 next year. That power conference is losing Oklahoma and Texas but gaining Central Florida (coached by Duke great Johnny Dawkins), Cincinnati, Brigham Young and Houston.

Programs such at Dayton and Villanova, a 2022 Final Four entrant and recent NCAA champion, also regularly merit inclusion among estimable opponents.

This year Villanova — which plays BC and possibly UNC — is in transition. Coach Jay Wright retired after 21 years; he’ll now do commentary on CBS basketball telecasts. The Wildcats must adjust to a new head coach, Kyle Neptune. A former Villanova assistant, Neptune paused for a season in the Atlantic 10 to post a 16-16 record with Fordham.

For the most part, though, the heavyweights come from the Power Five conferences: the ACC, Big Ten, Big Twelve, Pac-12 and SEC. (For basketball purposes some add the Big East with, most notably, Villanova, Providence, St. John’s, Georgetown, and Connecticut.)

Of course just because a program resides in a P5 league doesn’t mean it’s potent on the court, although chances are good.

This year the ACC teams that most invested in taking on opponents from big-name leagues are Duke and Pitt. They each potentially face five power foes, depending on in-season tournament results. Impressively, that’s five of a total of 11 nonconference games each for the Panthers and Blue Devils.

Probably just a coincidence that both schools are coached by recent former Mike Krzyzewski assistants, the Blue Devils’ Jon Scheyer and Pitt’s Jeff Capel. In Coach K fashion, Scheyer only faces big boys at Cameron Indoor Stadium or on neutral courts. Capel visits Northwestern, where 10-year coach Chris Collins awaits, and Vanderbilt, coached by former Tar Heel Jerry Stackhouse.

At the other end of the spectrum of daring, as is often the case Syracuse brings up the rear with a single Power Five opponent. This year it’s Illinois in the unavoidable ACC/Big Ten Challenge.

No ACC school takes on more than 11 non-league teams, including those mandatory pairings in late November’s Challenge.

The most popular heavyweight opponents, appearing on three schedules each, are the SEC’s Georgia (Georgia Tech, Notre Dame, Wake); Iowa from the Big Ten (Clemson, Duke, Georgia Tech); Michigan (UNC, Pitt, Virginia), another Big Ten squad coached by former Fab Five stalwart Juwan Howard; and defending NCAA champ Kansas (Duke, Louisville, NC State). The Jayhawks faced the Blue Devils without Bill Self, suspended for four games by the Big Twelve school to blunt looming NCAA penalties.

Equally popular, but less formidable opponents are USC Upstate, coached by former Maryland wing Dave Dickerson (Clemson, Duke, FSU); Bellarmine (Clemson, Duke, Louisville); and William and Mary (NC State, Syracuse, Virginia Tech).

Power Five Opponents Potentially Facing ACC Teams in 2022-23
School Formidable Foes Power Five Opponents
BC 2 Nebraska, Villanova
C 4 California/Texas Christian, Iowa, Penn State, South Carolina
D 5 Florida/Xavier, Iowa, Kansas, Ohio State, Oregon State
FS 2 Florida, Purdue
GT 4 Georgia, Iowa, Miss. St./Marquette, Utah
UL 3 Arkansas, Kentucky, Maryland
UM 2 Providence, Maryland/St. Louis, Rutgers
NC 2 Indiana, Iowa State/Villanova
NS 2 Kansas, Vanderbilt
ND 2 Georgia, Michigan State
UP 5 Arizona St/VCU, Michigan, Northwestern,Vandy, West Va.
SU 1 Illinois
V 3 Baylor, Illinois/UCLA, Michigan
VT 3 Penn State/Furman, Minnesota, Oklahoma State
WF 4 Georgia, LSU, Rutgers,Wisconsin
By League:
B10 14 Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Nebraska, Northwestern, Ohio State, Penn State, Purdue, Rutgers, Wisconsin
B12 5 Baylor, Iowa State, Kansas, Oklahoma State, TCU,
P10 6 Arizona State, Baylor, California, Oregon State, UCLA, Utah
SEC 7 Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, LSU, Miss. State, South Carolina, Vanderbilt

Most Appearances:
3 Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan
2 Florida, Maryland, Rutgers, Vanderbilt