So a month into the season and it is clear that Duke is class of the ACC, not N.C. State who was picked as the preseason favorite, not rival North Carolina and not defending tournament champion Florida State. The Blue Devils have a senior playing like he wants to be included in the National Player of the Year debate in Mason Plumlee and the best resume in the country so far this season. They have beaten Kentucky on a neutral floor then they traveled to the Bahamas for the stacked Battle 4 Atlantis and beat Minnesota, VCU and Louisville on their way to the title, where their point guard came of age, earning MVP honors. They then returned home to host the marquee game of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge as Ohio State came calling. Trailing by eight at halftime Duke rallied for a five-point win, giving them three top-five wins, another over a current top 25 team and another over what some were calling last week, “the best 3-3 team in the country” in VCU in the span of 15 days.
So if Duke is #1, who is going to step up and take the mantle as the conference’s next best? There were a trio of preseason candidates and three more that have emerged in the first three weeks, let’s take a look.
The Tar Heels are 6-2, but it is those two losses that have given people pause. In Maui they lost to Butler and then got beat up good by Indiana in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, the problem was on the glass as they were outrebounded by both teams. That has been the barometer for Carolina this season, when they work hard on the glass and get contributions from the likes of Brice Johnson and Joel James, who are averaging 12 rebounds per game in the Tar Heel victories and just three in the games against Butler and Indiana, on the boards. Another thing that will have to change for UNC to be successful is to see the phrase, “James Michael McAdoo leads Carolina” less than we have seen it thus far. McAdoo is the offensive leader of the team but as the season goes on he will need help from his friends as the opposition gets tougher. Playing against the likes of Gardner-Webb and Florida Atlantic the team can get away with relying on him, but in January on the road in Durham or Raleigh others will have to step up.
North Carolina State:
The Wolfpack were coming off a Sweet 16 season where they lost by three to eventual national runner-up Kansas. They return four starters and welcome freshmen Rodney Purvis and T.J. Warren and were voted the preseason favorite to win the league. The expectations and accolades came pouring in and head coach Mark Gottfried tried to temper it all by saying success is defined over time not just off of one season. Nonetheless the expectations were there and winning their first three games by an average of more than 24 points per game threw more gasoline than water on people’s expectations. Then came a three-game stretch where the Wolfpack allowed Oklahoma State, UNC-Asheville and Michigan to shoot about 46% from the field resulting in a 2-1 record in that span. They entered the game against Oklahoma State in Puerto Rico ranked sixth, the Cowboys came away with a convincing 20-point win where the Wolfpack’s four returning starters scored just 20 points between them. At home against UNC-Asheville the offense showed up but they committed 19 turnovers and needed late free throws to escape with an 82-80 win. Then in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge the team struggled to get over the hump against the hot-shooting Wolverines falling 79-72. N.C. State has the pieces but need a little more consistency (as a lot of teams do) especially on the defensive end. Remember what Coach Gottfried said, perhaps we should have listened a little closer.
The Seminoles surprised a lot of people last March when they won the ACC tournament and earned a 3-seed in the NCAA Tournament. Coming off the success of last season Leonard Hamilton returned eight upperclassmen including defensive stopper and outspoken leader Michael Snaer. Even though the Seminoles were picked 4th in the league had a “we’ll see, people are always doubting us attitude” at ACC media day. The Season got off to a rocky start falling to South Alabama 76-71, they rebounded with solid wins over BYU and St. Joseph’s in Brooklyn. Then in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge the Seminoles got punched in the mouth at home by Minnesota, being outscored 39-14 at one point, eventually losing 77-68. They followed that up with an abysmal 18 turnover, 35% shooting effort in a 61-56 home loss to Mercer. For a team that struggles to score (only three players in double figures), the trend of defensive struggles is a little alarming, having given up at least 66 points in every game this year. Last year Florida State rode its defense to the NCAA Tournament, they will have to tighten up if they want to prove last year wasn’t a fluke.
The Terrapins finished just 17-15 last season, but with a roster that has 11 freshmen and sophomores on it and the return of a healthy Pe’shon Howard while young Maryland was going to be an interesting team to follow in the ACC. Then before the season they got word that Dez Wells the sophomore transfer from Xavier would be eligible to play immediately. The season opener gave us a good look as the Terps nearly beat then third-ranked Kentucky, losing 72-69. Sophomore center Alex Len led Maryland with 23 points and 12 rebounds in the game. Len has continued to lead Maryland during the five-game winning streak that followed, averaging over 13 points, 8 rebounds and two blocks per game. Also during the winning streak Maryland has scored an average of 77.6 points while giving up just 60.6 a contest. In addition to Len, Wells and back court mate Nick Faust are also double digit scorers and freshman Charles Mitchell has been a beast on the boards averaging over seven a contest in just 17 minutes of playing time. It remains to be seen how such a young roster will respond once conference play starts but Maryland has the pieces to give other teams headaches on a nightly basis.
Seth Greenberg former coach of Virginia Tech, now an analyst at ESPN likes to joke that he had been on the bubble for 48 straight months. That is both funny and possibly true but only once had he gotten off to the kind of start that this year’s team has at 8-0. The Hokies were picked 9th in the 11-team league so according to some not much was to be expected of them. Granted the teams they have faced aren’t exactly the pantheon of college basketball, they have done what they are supposed to do, win and they’ve done so handily winning every game except one by at least 10 points. Much like Maryland, Virginia Tech has a very young roster with just four upperclassmen and only three of those seeing significant playing time. That one senior, guard Erick Green is doing what seniors are expected to do, lead. Green is leading in a big way, averaging 24.7 points, four rebounds and four assists including a 28-point seven rebound effort in an 81-71 upset of #15 Oklahoma State that opened up the eyes of some to what was happening in Blacksburg. Green has gotten a lot of help offensively from junior forward Jarell Eddie who has averaged 17 points and seven rebounds a contest. It is likely the Hokies will go only as far as Green an Eddie will take them but an 8-0 they deserve to be in the conversation of the ACC’s second best team.
The Hurricanes are 5-1 but the season got off to an ominous start, beating Stetson at home by just eight and then traveling to Florida Gulf Coast and losing by 12. They seemed to have righted the ship with a win over Jacksonville then a 15-point win over a good Detroit team in the return of senior guard Durand Scott who was serving a six-game NCAA suspension. Then #13 Michigan State came for a visit as part of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Trailing at the half the Hurricanes controlled much of the 2nd half on their way to a 67-59 win. One reason some people thought of the Hurricanes as a potential break out team in the ACC is because of their leadership. With six seniors, four of which are starters they have a roster that has been through the wringer. That leadership has five players averaging double figures including forward Reggie Johnson who is averaging a double-double. The one starter who is not a senior is sophomore point guard Shane Larkin who is leading the team in scoring at 16 points a game. With experience and balance Miami you can see why some people think the Hurricanes could take the next step into the upper echelon of the conference.
Duke is the cream of the crop but what happens behind them in the ACC it is full of question marks, ifs and potential, from South Beach to the Nation’s Capital the conference slogan should be ACC: The Country’s Largest Funhouse. And we all get free admission to the show.