The Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) is one of the best conferences in the country. This season, the conference overall is not as good as in past seasons. It is extremely top-heavy and falls off drastically. This means there are several pretenders that are masking themselves as contenders at this time. Therefore, the question becomes, ACC pretender or contender?
Pretender or Contender in the ACC
Duke Blue Devils
The Blue Devils have been the most impressive ACC team this season. They have knocked off both Kansas and Michigan State, two highly regarded preseason teams. They did suffer one loss at home to Stephen F. Austin, which was enough embarrassment for one season. Sometimes, losses like that are just what the doctor ordered.
The Blue Devils are led by freshman superstar Vernon Carey Jr. and sophomore point guard Tre Jones. Duke is a great offensive team, scoring 83.3 points per game. Duke is special offensively because they can score in whatever way the opposition is forcing them to. It is well known that Duke would like to play through Carey, which means there are plenty of double teams. This creates space for other players like Cassius Stanley, Wendell Moore, and Matthew Hurt. They are very average in terms of three-point shooting, but nowhere near as bad as last season, so it does not appear to be an Achilles heel.
Make no mistake, Duke is successful because of its defense. They block a tone of shots, force a ton of turnovers, and rebound like crazy. The result is allowing 62.5 points per game, creating a winning margin of 20.8 points. The defense is anchored by Tre Jones, who Coach K says maybe the best defender Duke has ever had. That is saying something when the long list of great guards is considered.
The wing position for Duke is particularly athletic and quick this season. This adds to their success because they can switch frequently. Additionally, it would not be right if Jack White was not mentioned when discussing Duke’s defense. White does not produce staggering numbers in the box score, but he impacts every possession for Duke.
Duke has established a go-to guy in Carey and they have a phenomenal point guard in Jones. They can survive poor shooting performances with great defense. That is a great recipe for success.
The Cardinals were highly touted in the preseason because they returned several key players and added some impact transfers and freshmen. So far, they are 11-2 with losses to Texas Tech and Kentucky. Although it is no fun losing to a rival, Louisville showed a lot of promise in the Kentucky game, especially considering they received almost nothing from their best player.
The Cardinals are anchored by Jordan Nwora. He is racking up 20.2 points per game with 7.2 rebounds. Nwora has struggled in Louisville’s losses, but of late, players like Steven Enoch and Dwayne Sutton have stepped up. Add to this the sharpshooting ability of Ryan McMahon and a talented freshmen class and Louisville should improve as the season moves on.
Louisville is another team that relies on its defense. They allow just 59.9 points per game, which allows them to keep games close when the offense is not clicking. They have great rim protectors in Enoch and Malik Williams. Williams allows a staggering 79.6 points per 100 possessions.
The one major concern for Louisville is guard play, which was also their limiting factor last year. The Cardinals do not have anyone to create for other players as a true point guard. They rank 105thin assists this season. Louisville has three players that average more than two assists per game, with Darius Perry leading the way with 4.5. Lamarr Kimble is a graduate transfer from St. Joseph’s that could be the answer, but he has only played in 13 games and not fully adjusted yet.
Louisville has enough offensive talent to pair with their stellar defense. They should have a very good chance to reach Atlanta because their roster should improve greatly with each game. Chris Mack is as good as it gets.
Florida State Seminoles
The Seminoles lost six significant players from last season, including two that are on NBA rosters. However, Leonard Hamilton can never be doubted. Florida State sits at 12-2 with wins over Florida, Tennessee, and Purdue.
Leonard Hamilton’s teams are always known for their depth and this season is no different. Florida State has 8 players that score between 6.1 and 11.8 points per game. Devin Vassell and Trent Forrest have proven to be an outstanding backcourt. However, Florida State can rely on any number of players to score. In the 14 games this season, eight different players have been the leading scorer. Interestingly, no Seminole has scored over 20 points in a game this year.
Like the two previous teams, Florida State is successful because of its defense. The Seminoles create the sixth most turnovers in the nation and are top fifteen in both steals and blocks. Typically, Florida State is one of the tallest and most athletic teams in the nation, which is the case again this season. They have an average height of 6’7, which is the same as last season even with the departure of 7’4 Christ Koumadje.
Unfortunately, Florida State has a very difficult road ahead in ACC play. They play at Duke, at North Carolina State, and have home-and-homes against Louisville and Virginia. While the Seminoles will certainly take their lumps in conference play, they will undoubtedly be a better team in the postseason because of it.
Florida State has a great opportunity to find its way into the Sweet 16 or the Elite 8, but they do not have the consistent offensive punch to contend for a championship. Florida State just barely falls into the pretender category.
The Cavaliers are the defending champions, a title that is well deserved. After losing Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome, and De’Andre Hunter, there have been some early-season struggles. Virginia is 10-2 with big losses to Purdue and South Carolina.
Virginia is poor offensively, to say the least. They only average 55.2 points per game which is 351stout of 353 teams. Mamadi Diakite is an excellent player, but he does not have the all-around offensive game to be a go-to player. Admittedly, Braxton Key is a major part of the Cavaliers offense and has missed significant time due to injury.
The biggest reason for Virginia’s success offensively has always been their ability to shoot from deep. This season, they are shooting just 27 percent from three and have almost no ability to stretch the defense. Along with that, they are a very poor assist team, meaning almost all of their points come in an isolation type play. This is just not the Virginia teams of old offensively.
When thinking of Virginia, the first thought is always a tough, pack-line defense. This season Virginia leads the nation in scoring defense at 47.3 points per game. This is possibly Tony Bennett’s best defensive team ever. They have allowed less than 50 points eight times, with the season-low being 26 against Maine. They have only allowed over 56 points twice, which were the two games they lost.
The Cavaliers will receive a boost when Braxton Key returns. They also expected to have Sam Hauser this season, but the transfer rules will not allow him eligibility. Virginia’s defense will cause problems for opponents, but their offense is not nearly good enough to be a contender.
North Carolina Tar Heels
The Tar Heels are struggling mightily. They currently have a record of 8-5, which many attribute to Cole Anthony missing significant time. However, North Carolina was having difficulty prior to Anthony’s injury.
To keep this short, the Tar Heels lack creativity and skill on the offensive side. They relied on Anthony to take difficult, contested shots and now do not have that luxury. As a team, the Tar Heels are shooting just 40.1 percent from the field, which is 321stin the nation.
Even with Cole Anthony, the Tar Heels would have been struggling to make the NCAA tournament. Now, it seems almost impossible that they enter the field of 68. This has been a big fall for a preseason top ten team. However, fear not because the Tar Heels team next year should be loaded.
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