With the non-conference season coming to a close, we will be previewing each of the power six conferences based on what we have learned so far this year and guide you through what to look out for as the season continues.
Here is your guide to the ACC.
G Luke Kennard, Duke
G Dennis Smith, Jr., NC State
F Michael Young, Pitt
F Justin Jackson, UNC
F Amile Jefferson, Duke
Player of the Year: G Luke Kennard, Duke- If I told you that heading into conference play, Grayson Allen had missed time due to injury, was shooting inconsistently, and earned a suspension by tripping an opposing player and losing his mind on the bench, I’m sure you would have assumed Duke was faltering similar to last year. Not the case. And Duke’s success in their non-conference slate is due largely in part to Luke Kennard. With Allen’s inconsistent play, Kennard has stepped up to be the most dependable scorer Duke has at 20.4 ppg (to go with 5.9 rebounds and 2.8 assists). He’s controlled the offense, but hasn’t dominated it, being a key part of Duke’s fantastic ball movement and balanced scoring. A big difference in his play from last season to now is his willingness to be “The Guy” in big games (29 points against Florida, 24 against Rhode Island), a mentality he lacked last year as he struggled with his shooting. He’s playing with more efficiency too, shooting a solid 52% from the floor, and 42% behind the arc (both numbers up about 10% from last year). My favorite part about his game this year, however, is his swagger. He looks confident on the floor, like he knows he’s the best player on one of basketball’s best teams, and he’s consistently hitting big shots when the Blue Devils gets themselves in tight situations. If he continues this kind of play, there’s no question he should be the ACC POY.
Sleeper Team: Virginia Tech/Florida State- I talked about both of these teams in my column last week (here), but I could go on. Both of these teams are freakishly athletic and very long, which makes them tough to defend and creates mismatches for opposing teams. They’re also deep, which matters in this league. Both teams have at least four players each who are capable of dropping 20 points on a given night, which forces other teams to have a versatile defensive game plan. The biggest key for Florida State is the continued success of Terrance Mann in the post. The sophomore has been earning more minutes lately, and capitalizing. The Seminoles will need his toughness down low. Buzz Williams’s Hokies need to come out of the gate hot. They’ve been getting off to slow starts, playing sloppy and without energy, and if that continues, these more talented ACC teams will bury them early. But this is a team that’s explosive and can play fast. More of that, and they could see themselves dancing late into March.
What Have We Learned?
- What Happened to Syracuse?- Remember at the beginning of the year when Jim Boeheim was talking about how much he loved this team? I’m not sure if we’re watching the same team he was. Syracuse is 7-5 after losing to St. Johns last Wednesday by 33 (yes, that’s correct). The biggest problem I see with the team is their guard play. Andrew White III has been, arguably, the best transfer in the nation for the Orange, but after that, there’s a big drop off. There were a lot of questions coming into the season about the point guard situation, and I’m not sure if any of them have been answered. The ball movement is stagnant and choppy compared to past Boeheim teams. Another big issue is Tyler Lydon. After his 2016 NCAA Tournament performance, Lydon was expected to be one of the best frontcourt players in the country, but has been seemingly a shadow of the player we thought he would be.
- Defense Wins Championships- I had a lot of questions about Louisville coming into the season, mostly about how good they would be offensively. As it turns out, it doesn’t matter. This is one of the best defensive teams coach Rich Pitino has ever had, and it’s pushing them into title contention. Until Quentin Snider had 22 against Kentucky, they had won 10 games without having a 20-point scorer in any game. That’s insane. Sure, they Cardinals are very balanced offensively, but that’s a tribute to how good their defense is. Like they did against their in-state rivals, they can force teams to take long, contested jump shots and make them uncomfortable. That kind of suffocating defense alone will make Louisville dangerous in March.
- It’s a Two Team Race- No disrespect to the aforementioned Cardinals, but the ACC, as stacked as it is, is going to be a two team race: Duke and North Carolina. The 2017 ACC season will be another great chapter in such a storied rivalry, as both teams look like the clear favorites in the conference. UNC picked up right where they left off last year and certainly has the talent and experience to return to the title game, but of course, Duke will be quite the obstacle. The Blue Devils have the most talented roster in the country this year, maybe ever, and as long as everyone stays healthy and keeps their feet to themselves (ahem, Grayson), this team looks nearly unbeatable.
What To Watch For
- Can Grayson Allen Rebound?- Not physically rebound the basketball (although for his size, he does a pretty good job at 4.7 rpg), but mentally rebound from the past week. Duke will be without Allen for an indeterminable amount of time because of an incident in their game against Elon, during which he tripped an Elon player (his third trip in a calendar year), and proceeded to freak out on the bench. Coach K and the Duke administration suspended him indefinitely which hurts the Blue Devils for the near future, but may hurt Allen more in the long run. Sure, he has the skills to be an NBA player, but at this point, the bigger question is this: does he have the attitude?
- How Many Teams Play in March?- The record for most teams in a conference to make the tournament is 11, set in 2011 by the (Artist Formerly Known As The) Big East. That’s pretty tough to beat. Double-digits alone is quite the feat. This year’s ACC conference has the potential to match that record. The usual suspects are locks already, but the supporting cast is no joke. Teams like NC State, Notre Dame, Pitt, and Miami have the talent and coaching to get a couple of signature wins in conference play and receive an at-large bid for the Big Dance. I implore the selection committee (who will definitely read this) to consider the overall strength of the conference and how tough it is this year. I would certainly argue that by year’s end, an 18-13 Pitt team is just as good if not better than a 22-9 Memphis team that rolled through a weaker conference. Let the boys play.
- When Will Duke Be 100%?- The question so many college basketball and NBA fans alike are asking. And the truth is, no one really knows. Things are starting to come together. Harry Giles and Marques Bolden (left and right, respectively) have been getting a few minutes off the bench as they readjust to the game, and Jayson Tatum (center) has been stellar in the games he’s played since his return. Grayson Allen’s absence will hurt for however long his suspension may be, but by the time he gets back, Giles and Bolden should be fully integrated into the game plan, and Duke should be ready to run wild.
NCAA Tournament Locks
- Duke: Potentially one of college basketball’s all-time great teams at full strength. As long as most guys stay healthy, this team dances.
- North Carolina: Roy Williams lost Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson, but you’d barely notice. Tar Heels have to defend the 3-point line, but will punch their ticket.
- Louisville: Like I said, this team’s defense can take them a long way into the tourney. Offense has to stay balanced and spread out against tougher ACC teams.
- Virginia: Losing Austin Nichols hurts, but Kyle Guy’s emergence has been fun to watch, as has his man bun. Never count out Tony Bennett.
- Florida State: Dwayne Bacon is one of the most dynamic players in the league, and this teams athletic ability will allow them to run teams ragged. Keep an eye on Jonathan Isaac.
- Virginia Tech: Buzz Williams is one of the most underrated coaches in America, and VaTech is one of the most underrated teams. Sweet-16 level talent.
Work Left To Do
- NC State: Dennis Smith, Jr. is finally playing like the top-5 draft pick he can be. NC State’s next move is to get his phenomenal supporting cast to gel.
- Notre Dame: Smooth, quick, and precise on offense, the Irish can score a lot of points. But they can also give up a lot of points. They’ll need to snag a marquee win along the way, but Mike Brey always seems to pull one out.
- Clemson: Jaron Blossomgame is a beast. The Tigers need to work on facilitation on offense, because winning ugly is tough to do in the ACC.
- Miami: This team lacks the star power they’ve had in recent years, but Jim Larrañaga still knows how to get to the Big Dance. They host a lot of tough teams, and will need to steal a home matchup for their resume.
- Pitt: The Panthers have two of the league’s best in Michael Young and Jamel Artis, so it’s the role players that will have to be productive for Kevin Stallings’s first year to be successful.
- Syracuse: It’s unlikely, but it can be done. The team has a mess of problems, but in order to fix it, Lydon needs to play to potential and the backcourt needs to improve.
Better Luck Next Year
- Wake Forest: I mean this quite literally for the Deacs, as Danny Manning’s team is just a year away from breaking through and making some noise.
- Georgia Tech: Ben Lammers is exciting. Other than that, it’s pretty clear Josh Pastner made a bad decision.
- Boston College: The Eagles are in for another tough year. Their best chance to win a game in the ACC is when Wake Forest comes to town January 31st. I doubt that happens.
Games to Watch
- #12 Virginia @ #6 Louisville
- December 28th, 7 PM ET ESPN 2
- Virginia Tech @ #20 Florida State
- January 7th, 2 PM ET ACC Network Extra
- #5 Duke @ #6 Louisville
- January 14th, 12 AM ET ESPN
- #9 North Carolina @ NC State
- February 15th, 8 PM ET
- #5 Duke @ #9 North Carolina
- March 4th, 8 PM ET ESPN
Photo via collegehoopswatch.com, The News and Observer, and USA Today Sports