We’re near a month into the new season, and with holiday tournaments and the ACC-B1G Challenge behind us, not to mention a pair of league games for most of the programs, it’s a pretty good time to take stock of how all 15 teams rack and stack. A few teams are obviously struggling, a few are obviously good, but a lot are stuck in a squishy, indeterminate middle.
Tier 3: Off to a Rough Start
#15 – Wake Forest
Record: 5-5 (0-2)
Notable Wins: None
Notable Losses: Boston College (A), Charlotte (A), Arizona (N), Penn State (A), NC State (H)
Summary: The losses to Arizona and Penn State, whatever. But losing to Charlotte (no disrespect, Coach Sanchez!) is inexcusable for an ACC team, and the loss to Boston College will probably look as bad in February as it does now. Brandon Childress as expected is doing everything he can, and 7-footer Oliver Sarr has had a nice breakthrough. But the role players aren’t stepping up consistently and they’re not defending. This continues to feel like a program treading water until it can afford Manning’s buyout.
#14 – Notre Dame
Record: 6-3 (0-2)
Notable Wins: None
Notable Losses: North Carolina (A), Maryland (A), Boston College (H)
Summary: This is not what we expected from Mike Brey’s club. Despite bringing back most of his roster, Notre Dame is still struggling. They lost to a bad BC at home, and needed an overtime miracle to get past Toledo. Their six wins have all been against mid-majors and cupcakes. They can’t shoot the ball and they’re mediocre on the glass. They’ll have a chance to start building confidence with a visit from similarly-struggling UCLA, but I probably won’t buy in to any turnaround unless they can get past the likes of Syracuse or NC State at the start of conference play in January.
#13 – Boston College
Record: 5-5 (2-0)
Notable Wins: Wake Forest (H), Notre Dame (A)
Notable Losses: Belmont (H), DePaul (H), St Louis (H), Richmond (A), Northwestern (H)
Summary: The Eagles are in for a long season, we know that going into the year. Wynston Tabbs was lost for the season, and Nik Popovic is dealing with back issues. Two brand new guards are trying to carry the team in grad transfer Derryck Thornton (15.2 ppg, 4.1 apg) and unheralded freshman Jay Heath (12.9 ppg), but they’d feel a lot better if former four-star forward Jairus Hamilton could get going. The wins over Wake and Notre Dame are some consolation for the five painful losses they’ve also endured (there’s a special shame in losing to a Dave Leitao-coached team). They’ll play hard, it’s a hallmark of Jim Christian-coached teams, but there’s just not the talent to hang with most of the ACC.
Tier 2: Jury Still Out
#12 – Clemson
Record: 5-4 (0-2)
Notable Wins: TCU (N)
Notable Losses: Virginia Tech (H), Colorado (N), Minnesota (A), Florida State (A)
Summary: Four losses halfway into December is not good for a team that really wanted to get back into the postseason discussion this year. To their credit, none of their losses are bad. They probably want VT back, but it was the first game of the season. With all that said, at some point they need to start winning tossup games; they’ve got South Carolina, Miami, and NC State all at home over their next five games, and probably want two wins from that group to feel better. Clemson’s basically been playing without a true big man this year, just finally getting 6’10” RS Junior Jonathan Baehre back this week from May knee surgery. We’ll see what they can do with better positional balance.
#11 – Georgia Tech
Record: 4-3 (1-1)
Notable Wins: NC State (A), Nebraska (H)
Notable Losses: Georgia (A), Arkansas (H), Syracuse (H)
Summary: The NC State win was a nice start to the season (though the Pack was without two starters), and the win over Nebraska in the B1G Challenge was perfectly solid. The SEC losses (UGA, Arkansas) were by a combined 5 points. So coming out of the Nebraska game, with just two close losses, the Jackets were maybe feeling okay. Sophomore guard Michael Devoe has exploded into early All-ACC discussion (21.4 ppg, 3.4 apg) while a pair of veteran big men in James Banks and Moses Wright are dominating inside (combining for 23 points and 16 rebounds a night). But they didn’t just lose to Syracuse, they got blown out by 34, giving up 14 3-pointers and 30 FTAs. GT heads to Hawaii over Christmas for the Diamond Head classic with a chance to build momentum against a predominantly mid-major field.
#10 – Syracuse
Record: 5-4 (1-1)
Notable Wins: Georgia Tech (A)
Notable Losses: Virginia (H), Oklahoma State (N), Penn State (N), Iowa (H)
Summary: Syracuse had four starters to replace this year, so some adjustment period was always to be expected, though getting swept by the non-conference trio of OSU, PSU, and Iowa hurt. They should’ve at least taken Iowa at home. The guards aren’t running good offense, as Jalen Carey’s already been benched. The zone defense, usually so stout in the paint, is letting opponents get to the rim with relative ease. They have only one ranked opponent between now and the end of January, so they’ll have an opportunity to right the ship, but at the moment they’re definitely on the outside looking in.
#9 – Miami
Record: 5-3 (0-1)
Notable Wins: Illinois (A)
Notable Losses: Louisville (H), Florida (N), UConn (N)
Summary: I don’t care such much that they lost to UL, UF, and Connecticut, though the margins of defeat (13, 20, and 25) are alarming. The Canes are playing almost no defense this year, giving up over 80 points a game to their power conference opponents. Five of their first eight ACC games after New Years will be against ranked teams, so Larranaga will need to figure something out before the losses start to mount and the team psychology suffers with it. They lost big man Deng Gak for the year last week, though Florida transfer big man Keith Stone finally debuted.
#8 – Pittsburgh
Record: 7-3 (1-1)
Notable Wins: Florida State (H), Kansas State (N), Northwestern (N), Rutgers (H)
Notable Losses: Nicholls State (H), West Virginia (H), Louisville (A)
Summary: They caught FSU at the right time on opening tight and got a win that’s going to look very good come March. K-State is a quality program under Bruce Weber and winning the Fort Myers Tip-Off was definitely a confidence booster for a young Panthers team that’s playing two immediate-eligible transfers, two sophomores, and a true freshman in its starting lineup. The Nicholls State loss is pretty inexcusable, and the starting backcourt of Xavier Johnson and Trey McGowens is turning it over a combined 7.2 times a game, which needs to be fixed. But with just one homegrown upperclassman on the roster (junior big man Terrell Brown), there’s some optimism this team could grow over the course of the season and make a little ACC noise.
#7 – Virginia Tech
Record: 6-3 (1-1)
Notable Wins: Clemson (A), Michigan State (N)
Notable Losses: Dayton (N), BYU (N), Duke (H)
Summary: Landers Nolley is making a concerted effort to join Vernon Carey and Cole Anthony as consensus all-ACC freshman teamers, averaging over 18 ppg so far. The 6’7″ forward is also playing center for the incredibly undersized team, likely the smallest lineup in the ACC. Offensively it’s allowed them to spread teams out and open up the floor for open shots, especially where Nolley has been able to exploit more traditional big men assigned to cover him. But defensively they can’t cover the paint or secure the boards against bigger, more veteran teams. Coach Mike Young still has depth and talent issues to contend with, so their season likely comes down to how well he can outscheme other young or undisciplined rivals. Ranking them 7th feels really high, but who below them has a better résumé right now, especially given their MSU win?
#6 – North Carolina State
Record: 7-2 (1-1)
Notable Wins: Wisconsin (H), Wake Forest (A)
Notable Losses: Georgia Tech (H), Memphis (N)
Summary: The bottom line is we still don’t know a ton about this team. The GT loss happened opening night while the Pack was without two starters (Markell Johnson and Derek Funderburk), so I want to write it off. Neither the Wisconsin or Wake Forest wins say much. Otherwise they’ve played cupcakes. They’ll have a shot to upset Auburn on the road next week, but otherwise we need to wait until January to get a good feel for this team. In the meantime, they’ve showcased pretty good depth and balance, with eight guys averaging between 6 and 16 ppg.
Tier 1: Positive Early Returns
#5 – North Carolina
Record: 6-3 (1-1)
Notable Wins: Notre Dame (H), Alabama (N), Oregon (N)
Notable Losses: Michigan (N), Ohio State (H), Virginia (A)
Summary: Carolina is struggling to integrate so many new pieces after losing five top players last year. The five-star freshmen Cole Anthony and Armando Bacot have great games but also look like freshmen against better, more mature teams. The grad transfers Justin Pierce and Christian Keeling have struggled adapting to the higher level of play. And on top of that they’ve had injury issues with complementary guys like Brandon Robinson (4 games missed) and Anthony Harris (8 games missed). They still have a great Oregon win to hang their hat on, and likely will outrun a lot of ACC teams as the new faces gel, but this still feels like one of the less scary Carolina teams the ACC’s seen in recent years.
#4 – Florida State
Record: 8-2 (1-1)
Notable Wins: Florida (A), Tennessee (N), Purdue (N), Clemson (H)
Notable Losses: Pittsburgh (A), Indiana (A)
Summary: This is a really intriguing Seminoles club that’s replacing six players from last year’s rotation. I’m tempted to write off their opening night road loss (by only 2) at Pitt as kind of a fluke, especially given the trio of quality November wins they picked up away from home with UF, UT, and the same Purdue club that waxed UVA (winning the Emerald Coast Classic). The road loss at Indiana robbed them of some momentum, but it’s worth the patience as this young team comes together. The most important job facing coach Hamilton may be tightening his rotation by New Years, as twelve different Noles are averaging at least 8 minutes a game. As has become custom, the Noles are operating without a true point guard, with Trent Forrest filling that role as best he can but posting only a 3.9:3.5 A:TOpg ratio.
#3 – Virginia
Record: 8-1 (2-0)
Notable Wins: Syracuse (A), Arizona State (N), North Carolina (H)
Notable Losses: Purdue (A)
Summary: The Hoos are a tale of two phases. On defense, despite an inability to field the same roster game-to-game due to injuries, they’re already in mid-season form, fielding the nation’s best defense. On offense, the new faces just can’t seem to get shots to go down, and they’ve failed to hit 60 points in five straight games, not even breaking 50 against lowly Maine. There’s hope in Charlottesville that young players maturing, coupled with a finally-healthy roster after the exam break, will enable the offense to reach a competent level. If so, combined with its dominant defense, it should still remain among the ACC’s top tier.
#2 – Louisville
Record: 9-1 (2-1)
Notable Wins: Miami (A), Michigan (H), Pittsburgh (H)
Notable Losses: Texas Tech (N)
Summary: The Cards got as high as #1 in the AP poll before taking their first loss of the season this week against defending national runner-up Texas Tech. It’s not a bad loss, per se, but they’ve only got one good win to balance it out. The Michigan win is legit, but the rest of their schedule has been a bit of a paper tiger, beating two bottom-half ACC teams and otherwise coasting on cupcakes. Jordan Nwora is living up to his billing as a dominant scoring threat, but other than senior big man Stephen Enoch (averaging better than 10 points, 7 boards, and a block a game), the supporting cast is struggling to distinguish itself. Their backcourt was hastily shut down by the Red Raiders.
#1 – Duke
Record: 9-1 (1-0)
Notable Wins: Kansas (N), Cal (N), Georgetown (N), Michigan State (A), Virginia Tech (A)
Notable Losses: Stephen F. Austin
Summary: Currently ranked 7th in the AP Poll, the Devils most notably took an uppercut to the chin against Stephen F. Austin in one of the biggest upsets in years. But they sit at #1 because of their wins. They’ve acquitted themselves with three good neutral court wins (Kansas, Cal, Georgetown) and two true road wins (Michigan State, Virginia Tech) leaving them 5-0 against power conference opponents, all away from Cameron Indoors. Coach K is, as expected, rolling primarily with his youngsters in sophomore PG Tre Jones (15.6 ppg, 7.1 apg) and the true freshman quartet of big men Vernon Carey (18.5 ppg, 9.2 rpg) and Matthew Hurt (10.5 ppg) plus wings Cassius Stanley (11.4 ppg) and Wendell Moore (7.2 ppg).