The Best ACC Basketball Programs in a Down Year

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In any given college basketball season, you can expect that the best conference in the country to be the ACC. This year though, the league is having a substantial down year. They only have three teams in the AP top 25, the highest-ranked of which No. 11 Florida State. The biggest ‘brands’ in the conference, North Carolina and Duke, are largely irrelevant on the national stage. Duke is 11-8, and star freshman, Jalen Johnson, has opted out of the rest of the season to prepare for the NBA draft. It could potentially be a bad thing for college basketball if what is traditionally the best league is struggling. So the question now is, which ACC basketball program has the best chance of making a deep March Madness run and maybe single-handedly return the league to its former glory?

Who are the Best Teams in the ACC’s Down Year?

Virginia Cavaliers

Believe it or not, still the defending national champions. There has been a lot of roster turnover since the team that won it all in 2019. Gone are Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome, De’Andre Hunter, and Mamadi Diakite, the top four scorers on that team. The only two players who had significant roles on that team that are still at Virginia are Jay Huff and Kihei Clark. Two of the team’s top three scorers are transfers Sam Hauser (15.1 ppg) from Marquette and Trey Murphy III (11.2 ppg) from Rice. 

This team is actually statistically similar to the team that won the national championship. In 2019 they shot 39.5% on three-pointers which was 7th in the country. This year they’re shooting 40% which is 5th. Virginia’s trademark is defense. Two years ago they were 1st in the country, giving up only 56.1 points per game. This year they aren’t far behind, giving up 60.3 points per game, which is 7th best.

I do have concerns about Clark. He is very much a prototypical point guard. He controls the offense and leads the team in assists. A true point guard is a great thing to have, but Clark is shooting 31.4% from three. This team has plenty of shooting, so he doesn’t need to be great at it, but in a close tournament game, I wonder if he’ll be able to create and make his own shot rather than creating for someone else. This I feel is a legitimate concern after Virginia’s one-point loss to Duke which closed on a Clark airball on a three-pointer. Regardless, Virginia is one of the best ACC basketball programs.

Florida State Seminoles

They just beat Virginia 81-60, so that’s a pretty strong argument for them being the best team in the league. They’re balanced, with 9 players averaging at least 13 minutes per game. Scottie Barnes is one of the best and most unique talents in the country as a 6’9” freshman guard.

Like Virginia, this team is elite at three-point shooting at 39.4%. However, they don’t have quite as good of a defense. This team is one of the tallest in the country, boasting two different players listed at over 7 feet. Their shortest rotation player is 6’4” RayQuan Evans.

Despite this elite height, they aren’t the rebounding team that one would expect. They rank only 114th in the country in total rebounds per game.

Virginia Tech Hokies

They’re No. 16 in the AP poll and have wins against Virginia, Clemson, and Villanova. They also have some losses to non-tournament teams including an 18-point loss at Syracuse and a 20-point loss against Penn State that was an even bigger blowout than the final score shows.

This is a small, guard-heavy team but isn’t able to shoot it at anywhere near the same clip as the teams previously mentioned. They don’t excel at any statistical category but are still able to find ways to win against good teams.

They have a lot of close wins this season, which could either mean they’re only a little bit better than their ACC competition, or that they’re great in the clutch and will be ready for the NCAA tournament.

Clemson Tigers

Still a very good defense at 26th in the country, they were elite until a three-game losing streak a few weeks ago in which they allowed 80 or more points in all of those games. Aamir Simms leads the team in points, rebounds, and assists and is the only player on the team scoring in double digits.

This team still has potential and looks like they’ve at least partly righted the ship, but being as offensively challenged as they are means that they need to be great on defense all the time. I can’t see them going far in the tournament because as good as their defense is, it can also be inconsistent.

Louisville Cardinals

This is a team that has been ranked in the AP poll on a couple of occasions this year. They don’t really have a bad loss on their schedule in terms of opponent, but they did lose by 37 to Wisconsin.

Carlik Jones, a transfer from Radford, leads the team with 17.4 points per game but is inefficient both from two and three-point range. We’ll really find out what this team is when they end the regular season at Duke, at Virginia Tech, and then home against Virginia, but I don’t think they do anything well enough to make a run in March.

The Verdict

Despite the recent losing streak, the ACC basketball team that’s going to make it the farthest into March Madness is still Virginia. This team has an identity and knows what they are good at. They can shoot as well as anyone in the country and play elite defense. Even if “defense wins championships” seems to become less true every year, it’s still extremely valuable. Florida State is an athletic team that can score a lot, but in a close tournament game, I trust Virginia to get a stop.

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