Maybe more than any other year, the ACC is a mixture of title contenders and ‘I hope we can just make the tournament’ contenders. And, as we should probably be accustomed to in a post-expansion world, a handful of really bad teams you have to hope never beat anyone but themselves (the simple reality of having 12-15 teams is that its unavoidable some teams will be really bad).
So let’s take a quick look across the league and see where everyone stands as we enter conference play.
The Heavyweight Division
These teams are good and barring something crazy will finish in the upper third of the league. Non-crazy prediction - one of these four will win the regular season title (or earn the first seed in the ACC tournament for you staunch traditionalists).
Duke (12-0, Pomeroy: 3, RPI: 6)
Duke is the new Kentucky, churning in the cream of the high school crop and trying to plug in veteran pieces around them to win a fifth title. This year is slightly different, in that they have a legit big man in Jahlil Okafor to along with their usual crew of 3-point bombers. The result is the best offense in the country, and a much improved defense (current ranked 15th up from 116th last year). It is probably the scariest team on paper that Duke has put on the court since 2001 or 1999.
Virginia (12-0, Pomeroy: 2, RPI: 3)
The Cavaliers have actually been better than last year, when they captured both the regular season and real ACC title. They shoot the ball really well from everywhere and continue to play the chokehold pack line defense which Bennett has built the program around. They have essentially laid waste to everything in their path with only Maryland, briefly VCU and the always better than you think Davidson giving them much in the way of a test. Duke has more talent, but no team in the nation outside of Kentucky has played better than the Cavs to date.
Louisville (12-1, Pomeroy: 7, RPI: 31)
Louisville maybe new to the league this year, but they haven’t really changed much since Pitino got there. A roster stacked with big, athletic players who play stifling pressure defense and force a ton of turnovers (the Cardinals were 2nd nationally in turnover percentage in both 2013 and 2014).The offense has taken a step back but like Syracuse last season, expect the Cardinals to be in the title mix even as ACC virgins.
North Carolina (10-3, Pomeroy: 9, RPI 23)
Pay no attention to the folks who want to raise a panic around this year’s Carolina team. Losses to Butler and Iowa soured the masses a bit, but since then it’s been the Carolina team most people expected. Marcus Paige has struggled some, mostly with turnovers and shooting inside the arc, but the emergence of Kennedy Meeks (he’s as good as people always pretended James Michael McAdoo was) has given them a nice interior presence. Assuming Paige straightens out once the calendar flips, they could easily win another regular season title under Roy.
The Not Quite Good Enough Division
It’s possible one of these teams puts it all together and wins the ACC, but with the juggernauts at the top it seems unlikely.
Notre Dame (13-1, Pomeroy: 18, RPI: 75)
Jerian Grant, who was ineligible for most of the meaningful basketball the team played last season, is really good. He’s leading one of the most efficient offenses in the nation – with an absurd 31 percent assist rate and a turnover rate under 10. He’s also shooting almost 70 percent inside the arc, helping lead the whole team to a ridiculous 64 percent shooting on 2-point baskets. The Irish have the highest eFG% in the country and the lowest turnover rate. Of course, they wouldn’t be down here if they didn’t have a weakness – they struggle to defend. But some of that seems fluky – teams are shooting 71 percent from the FT line for instance. They’ve passed the few tests thrown their way, save the Providence loss, but they also played a lot of really bad teams so it’s tough to get a great read on the Irish’s ceiling so far.
Syracuse (9-4, Pomeroy: 30, RPI: 81)
Unlike Duke, the Orange weren’t able to just replace its NBA bound players with freshman and move on without a hitch. There have been definite hitches. Syracuse is turning the ball over more (freshman point guard Kaleb Joseph has a 32 percent turnover rate, so Ennis 2.0 he is not so far) and just cannot shoot from outside at all – 28 percent as a team from beyond the arc. At the same time don’t be completely fooled by the 8-4 start - the long athletic big men are still there and the defense still creates plenty of turnovers, but the offense hasn’t really kept up to this point in the season.
The Amorphous Blob Division
If everything breaks the right way, these teams could be legitimately good. If things go bad, they could slide to the bottom third of the league. But probably they are just average, and will be scratching and clawing for the last few ACC bids.
Pittsburgh (10-3, Pomeroy: 56, RPI: 60)
The Panthers played without its most veteran guard – Cameron Wright, until December 13. Before that time they went 5-3 with a resume-unfriendly loss to Hawaii during the Maui Invitational. There unbeaten since, though they haven’t left their home floor and haven’t played a team ranked in the top 100 either. I’m sure Steven will have a much more in depth look at them coming shortly, but overall the interior defense has been suspect while the offense has been relatively solid. Like every other year, they’ll probably make the tournament and get bounced in the first weekend.
Miami (10-3, Pomeroy: 69, RPI: 90)
At the beginning of December it looked like we had all vastly underrated the talent Larranaga assemble via transfers in Miami. By the end of the December it was more a ‘yeah we had that about right’. The Hurricanes started 8-0 but are just 2-3 since with all three losses by double digits (this includes a 28-point shellacking by Eastern Kentucky). The Canes biggest problem is that they cannot rebound on either end of the floor and aren’t particularly great at challenging shots inside the paint. The offensive talent is there to compete, but they need to find some bigs that can crash the boards quickly if they want to do more than just challenge .500 in league play.
North Carolina State (10-4, Pomeroy: 81, RPI: 74)
If you’re here, you know the deal. So we won’t dwell. The Pack needs to find some interior scoring, learn how to break a press and get its defense back on track (West Virginia and Cincinnati averaged almost 1.2 points per possession against the Pack, and even Tennessee cracked 1.1). It’s an uphill battle for the Pack at this point, certainly.
The Murphy’s Law Division
A special category just for the Florida State dumpster fire.
Florida State (8-5, Pomeroy: 121, RPI: 155)
All-everything player Aaron Thomas got hurt (he was honorable mention All-ACC last season and by far the Noles’ best player), then got declared academically ineligible for the rest of the season. Starting point guard Devon Bookert had to have foot surgery, missing five games. Along the way, Florida State has lost to every decent team it’s played except Florida (thanks for that tip in, guys) – they are 1-5 against the Pomeroy top 100. So yeah, it’s been a bad year for the Seminoles so far. The worst thing that could happen for the ACC is for Hamilton to figure out this team and get them to start winning games – they are DOA as far as a tournament berth is concerned so all they can really do now is hurt the teams competing for spots above them.
The Sidney Lowe Endless Staircase of Mediocrity Division
Long tenured coaches who aren't making any progress.
Georgia Tech (9-3, Pomeroy: 92, RPI: 34)
Hey guys maybe this is the year for Georgia Tech! They had a relatively good OOC slate and come into the ACC season with the 5th best RPI in the league even if the underlying performance says it won’t last. Brian Gregory is apparently trying to prove you can win games by doing only one thing well – rebounding – and is having let’s just say modest success so far with that strategy. Simply put, Gregory is in his fourth year and he’s yet to find the players or system with which to create a functioning offensive unit. Not good – just functioning. Regardless, with the Paul Hewitt Golden Parachute Money Machine still operating, it’s doubtful they’ll get rid of Gregory after this season. But there’s little evidence in his previous four years that he can succeed in Atlanta.
Clemson (8-4, Pomeroy: 129, RPI: 142)
Tempted to just copy/paste the previous paragraph and replace Brian Gregory with Brad Brownell. But truthfully that’s a bit of a disservice to Brownell. He’s had much better success at putting good defenses on the floor, though like Gregory the offense has been ‘kill it with fire’ terrible. Brownell can coach – as bad as they’ve been offensively they’ve actually been at or above .500 in league play three of his first four seasons. But there does appear to be a ceiling on his ability to recruit ACC caliber players, which will keep him permanently entrenched in that ‘scratch and claw to get to .500’ mode.
The Rebuilding is a Process Division
The reason we suck is because the old coach screwed it all up.
Boston College (7-4, Pomeroy: 128, RPI: 147)
The hire of Jim Christian was about as unexciting as it gets, but early returns have been – maybe not promising, but not disastrous either. Christian is rightfully leaning hard on Hanlan and transfer Aaron Brown (doing his best bubble guts impression at his third school in five years) to score, with each player taking 30 percent of the teams shots when they are on the court. There’s just not a ton of talent beyond those two in Chestnut Hill right now, so ‘lower third of the ACC’ is probably their destiny until Christian can find some dudes.
Wake Forest (8-6, Pomeroy: 122, RPI: 157)
If nothing else, Danny Manning has given the Deacons some semblance of identity in his first season. That’s one step better than Bzdelik ever did. Manning has stressed defense from the jump, and has mostly gotten solid defense out of his team so far. They crash the glass and create turnovers, and opposing teams have not shot well from outside the arc so far. The offense is, however, real bad. They turn it over a lot, can’t shoot from the FT line or inside the arc at all (you may remember some of these things from State’s win in December). It does appear that instead of generating offense, the focus on defense has sapped whatever offensive talent the team has and turned it into a roaring collection of clanked shots.
Virginia Tech (8-5, Pomeroy: 183, RPI: 245)
Buzz Williams’ track record is stupendous, and the hire was an absolute coup for the Hokies. But his team this year is hot garbage. Devin Wilson, the only guy who looked like a sure thing for the team coming into the year, is barely shooting. The team doesn’t really have anything close to a set rotation yet and its most prolific scorer plays about half the time (he also shoots 31% from the FT line which is terrifying). Maybe some of these freshmen become contributors down the line, but it’s going to be an ugly season for the Hokies.