With one month left, the battle for the ACC’s regular season crown is even muddier than it was when it started. Who will emerge victorious March 4?
The ACC is a slaughterhouse this season. From top to bottom, the ACC is the best conference in the country, and honestly it’s not even close. All of the blue bloods are still relevant, but there are 15 teams in the conference and not a single one of them is a walk-over.
Even the two worst teams in the conference, Pittsburgh and Boston College, pose threats to the best the conference has to offer. The Panthers are currently in last place but possess two players averaging more than 20.0 points per game, and aside from that one Louisville game, play even the best teams in the conference close. The same can be said of Boston College. The Eagles have beaten Syracuse and N.C. State so far this season and fought with North Carolina and Miami down to the final seconds.
That’s what makes the race for the 2016-17 regular season title so exciting. With one month left, no one has any real idea who is going to win. By early February in seasons past, a few teams begin to separate themselves from the rest of the pack and assert themselves as favorites. A wild-card or two always lurk behind the top tier, threatening to surprise us all if they play a perfect back-nine, but more often than not, by the beginning of February, a clear separation at the top starts to form.
Not this season.
Here we are halfway through the 2016-17 regular season and as many as seven teams still have a legitimate shot to claim at least a share of the ACC regular season title, if not win it outright.
North Carolina, Virginia, Florida State, Louisville, Notre Dame, Syracuse, and Duke are all separated by two games in the loss column. Syracuse probably has the longest shot of those seven teams, but each has the talent to finish on top of the ACC. Who has the best chance to win it all? Let’s break down each of these teams and their remaining schedules to try to figure it out.
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No. 12 North Carolina (20-4, 8-2)
Remaining Schedule: vs. No. 20 Notre Dame; at No. 21 Duke; at N.C. State; vs. No. 9 Virginia; vs. No. 6 Louisville; at Pittsburgh; at No. 9 Virginia; vs. No. 21 Duke
No remaining schedule in the ACC is “easy,” but of the seven teams still with a legitimate chance to win the regular season title, North Carolina probably has the toughest. Of their eight remaining games, the Tar Heels will face six teams that are currently ranked and the two games against non-ranked teams are both on the road.
North Carolina certainly has enough talent and offense to fight through the gauntlet, though. The Tar Heels love to run the floor at a high pace and they put the ball in the basket as proficiently as any team in the nation. According to KenPom.com, they rank 32nd in tempo, eighth in points per 100 possessions (offensive efficiency), and 11th in overall efficiency. The Tar Heels also lead the ACC in points per game and are sixth in the nation in that category.
They draw their strength from their big men. North Carolina leads the nation in rebounds per game and are second in the nation in offensive rebounds per game. This isn’t the best shooting team in the conference, so its ability to create second-chance opportunities is critical to its success offensively. Senior forward Kennedy Meeks is averaging a career-high 9.5 rebounds per game. Meeks may be the player sent down low to bang around the boards most often, but he gets help cleaning the glass from fellow forwards Tony Bradley, Isaiah Hicks, and Justin Jackson, too.
North Carolina could use some more effective outside shooting, but the offense is generally strong enough to overcome that. The defense is a bit of a weakness, however.
Defensively, the Tar Heels rank 31st in points allowed per 100 possessions and are tied for 156th in points allowed per game. The high pace at which the Tar Heels play certainly adversely affects the amount of points they allow per game, but that’s still a problematic number.
Shoddy defense has undone North Carolina several times this season, particularly when the offense has underperformed, but never more so then during its 103-100 loss to Kentucky. Scoring 100 points in a regulation college basketball game against a top-tier opponent is almost unheard of, and yet the Tar Heels did so and lost.
Nothing they came up with throughout the game could stop the Wildcats from scoring on the drive, in the paint, from mid-range, or from deep. Finding a way to improve the defense even slightly will be a top priority for head coach Roy Williams down the line as the Tar Heels prepare for the tournament.
One other key factor moving forward for the Tar Heels is the health of Theo Pinson. Although not the most effective scorer, Pinson provides another rebounding presence down low and is most valuable for his defensive versatility. At 6-foot-6, the junior forward can defend both the perimeter and the interior well, something North Carolina desperately needs.
With an eighth win already under their belt and only two losses, the Tar Heels are in the best position moving forward to claim a second-consecutive regular season title, but they will be tested in each and every one of their final eight games. If the defense doesn’t improve, North Carolina could just as easily see the title slip out from under it.
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No. 9 Virginia (17-4, 7-2)
Remaining Schedule: at Syracuse; vs. No. 6 Louisville; at Virginia Tech; vs. No. 21 Duke; at No. 12 North Carolina; vs. Miami; at N.C. State; vs. No. 12 North Carolina; vs. Pittsburgh
Another year, another Virginia team that defends better than any other team in the nation.
According to KenPom.com, the Cavaliers rank third in defensive efficiency and second in overall efficiency. They also allow the fewest points per game of any team in the country. Part of that comes from the fact that they average the second-fewest possessions per 40 minutes behind only Saint Mary’s, but most of that is due to the ability of their defense.
During conference play, Virginia has allowed 65 or more points just twice and it has allowed 60 or more points only seven times all season. That kind of defense will keep Virginia in just about every single game it plays, like it has ever since Tony Bennett took over in 2009.
But nothing has been more important to the Cavaliers’ success this season than London Perrantes’s development into a go-to scorer and all-around star.
When transfer Austin Nichols was dismissed from the program in November, it was unclear where the scoring would come from. Nichols was pegged to try and fill in the scoring hole that Malcolm Brogdon left behind, which would allow Perrantes to do what he was most comfortable doing. A pass-first point guard, Perrantes proved last season he could be a second or third scoring option for the Cavaliers, but with Brogdon in the NBA, Anthony Gill graduated, and Nichols dismissed, he needed to become the number-one option for Virginia to contend.
Although Perrantes isn’t lighting up scoreboards, he has absolutely stepped up and filled that role for Virginia when it has needed him to. Although he is averaging slightly less assists per game than he normally does, and is shooting slightly worse from three than last season, he is averaging 12.0 points per game and is shooting 44.7 percent from the floor, both of which are career-highs.
The team gets enough additional scoring from the rest of its crazily deep 10-man rotation to help out Perrantes, but this is his team, and it goes as he does.
Virginia has some impressive wins in conference play already, namely a road win at Louisville to start the schedule, but it also has a frustrating loss to Pittsburgh, the Panthers only conference win so far this season. That loss to Pittsburgh exemplifies some subtle flaws in this Virginia team, that being if you can find a way to crack this defense and are efficient with your shots, the Cavaliers cannot keep up. More often than not, though, Virginia plays like it did against Virginia Tech Wednesday and holds team well under 60 points.
The remaining schedule for the Cavaliers has its challenges with tough road games against Virginia Tech and North Carolina as well as home games against North Carolina and Duke, which means they have to slog through their final nine games. But so long as the Pittsburgh performance was an anomaly and the defense can keep on doing what it’s done for years now, Virginia will have a better shot than most to win this conference.
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No. 15 Florida State (19-4, 7-3)
Remaining Schedule: vs. Clemson; vs. N.C. State; at No. 20 Notre Dame; at Pittsburgh; vs. Boston College; at Clemson; at No. 21 Duke; vs. Miami
Florida State began ACC play by winning six of its first seven games and went 5-1 against ranked opponents in that stretch. During that run, the Seminoles jumped up to No. 6 in the country and looked nearly unstoppable. Then they dropped two straight games on the road to unranked opponents.
This Florida State team is the deepest and most talented team ever out of Tallahassee, but it is still vulnerable to pitfalls. The Seminoles had their doors blown off by Georgia Tech then nearly had a similar result against Syracuse before a late surge at least kept the game respectable.
Those two games could be signs of things to come from a team nobody expected to be this good. But Florida State’s performance on the road Wednesday against rival Miami suggests it may have just been a hiccup. Leonard Hamilton’s squad ran roughshod over the Hurricanes in the second half en route to a 75-57 win. That game looked a lot more like the Seminoles we had seen throughout December and January.
Hamilton employs one of the deepest rotations in all of college basketball. The Seminoles boast 11 players that have appeared in at least 20 games so far this season and are all averaging more than 10.0 minutes per game. All of those players are also averaging less than 29.0 minutes per game. Hamilton spreads the minutes out, putting different lineups out in different situations, mitigating any foul trouble, and most importantly keeping his best players fresh for the final stretches of games.
Florida State isn’t just a balanced team, it’s an incredibly talented one. Freshman forward Jonathan Isaac, a projected lottery pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, is averaging 13.3 points, 8.0 rebounds, and 1.6 blocks per game and is shooting 53.3 percent from the field and 37.3 percent from deep. At 6-foot-10, 210 pounds, Isaac is drawing comparisons to Kevin Durant and although he isn’t quite ready to make the leap to NBA superstar, he is an athletic freak with a wide array of skills on the court.
Sophomore Dwayne Bacon and redshirt junior Xavier Rathan-Mayes form the veteran backbone of the team. Bacon leads the team with 17.1 points per game, and although Rathan-Mayes can score (he averages 10.5 points per game), he is a pass-first point guard that leads the team with 4.6 assists per game. Bacon will join Isaac in the first round of the draft this year and has certainly shown his ability to come up in the clutch, never more so than when he hit the game-winner in the final seconds against Virginia.
The rest of the lineup consists of two true seven-footers rotating in at center and several other role players both in the front and back court. Forward Terance Mann plays the biggest role for Florida State outside of the big three, averaging 25.5 minutes, 8.7 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 1.8 assists per game.
The Seminoles also benefit from the weakest remaining schedule of any team vying for the regular season title. Florida State has just two games left against teams that are currently ranked. Both of those games are on the road, and Florida State has been wildly inconsistent in five road games against ACC opponents. However, even if both of those games went south, the Seminoles have four home games against unranked opponents to balance that out, and they have not lost in Tallahassee all season.
With the absurd amount of depth this team has and the NBA-ready talent at the top, combined with a relatively easier schedule going forward than the rest of the teams it is competing with, Florida State should be considered the favorite to win the ACC.
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No. 6 Louisville (18-4, 6-3)
Remaining Schedule: at Boston College; at No. 9 Virginia; vs. Miami; at Syracuse; vs. Virginia Tech; at No. 12 North Carolina; vs. Syracuse; at Wake Forest; vs. No. 20 Notre Dame
Louisville boasts some impressive wins already this year. The Cardinals beat Purdue, Kentucky, Indiana when it was still healthy, and Duke, yet they have been knocked off three times so far in ACC play. None of the losses were against lesser teams – the losses were to Virginia, Notre Dame, and Florida State – but for every solid win the Cardinals pick up, they seem to come up short against teams they will have to beat to win the conference.
Like Virginia, Louisville is a defense-first team. Rick Pitino’s team ranks second in defensive efficiency and fourth in overall efficiency according to KenPom.com, but is also 32nd in offensive efficiency. For a slow-paced offense, that generally isn’t going to cut in terms of efficiency. At least Virginia ranks 15th in offensive efficiency.
Although the offense has played well for the most part since junior guard Quentin Snider was sidelined with a hip injury, for the long-term effectiveness of the offense it needs its veteran point guard back to help run things.
Snider is averaging 12.1 points, 4.0 assists, and 2.6 rebounds per game, and the Cardinals need all of his ability back in the rotation so they are not often forced to depend on players too far down the bench.
Louisville has been able to utilize its bench effectively throughout the year. Pitino has a 10-man rotation, when they are fully healthy, eight of them which average at least six points per game. Jaylen Johnson and Mangok Mathiang have been dominant presences on the glass, averaging 6.5 and 6.3 rebounds per game respectively, and Anas Mahmoud and Ray Spalding have provided assistance in the front court off the bench with a combined 9.2 rebounds per game.
All together, the Cardinals average the seventh-most rebounds per game in the country and use their front court to prevent second-chance points by opponents and create second-chance opportunities and tip-ins for themselves.
If the Louisville offense can improve even slightly down the stretch, it can become the ACC’s best team. In their three conference losses, the Cardinals’ defense performed as well as it always does. It was the offense that let it down by scoring just 53, 70, and 68 points against Virginia, Notre Dame, and Florida State respectively.
Louisville has five more road games left on the schedule, and two of those are against Virginia and North Carolina, so the schedule doesn’t lighten up much down the stretch. It will be tough for Louisville to grab the conference championship, but it’s not out of the question because of its defense.
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No. 20 Notre Dame (17-6, 6-4)
Remaining Schedule: at No. 12 North Carolina; vs. Wake Forest; vs. No. 15 Florida State; at Boston College; at N.C. State; vs. Georgia Tech; vs. Boston College; at No. 6 Louisville
Notre Dame is in trouble. After starting 5-0 in conference play, the Fighting Irish have lost four of their last five games, and there aren’t many signs that it’s going to get much better in South Bend.
The Irish rode their offense to a 16-2 start, knocking down threes with regularity and averaging 81.1 points per game, one of the top marks in the country. But they had an underlying problem that was hidden beneath the surface, waiting to expose itself: the defense.
Notre Dame currently ranks 66th in defensive efficiency according to KenPom.com and is tied for 74th nationally in points allowed per game. Neither marks are terrible considering there are 351 Division I men’s basketball teams, but both are vastly inferior to the rest of the top teams in the ACC.
The worse part is that the offense that had carried the Irish through the first two months of the season has completely abandoned them during this recent rough patch. Notre Dame is averaging just 70.4 points per game in its last five games, well below the 81.1 points it was averaging leading into mid-January.
Senior Steve Vasturia is struggling the most of any player on the Notre Dame roster. Vasturia is two for his last 16 and six for his last 26, good for a 23.1 shooting percentage over the past three games. The Irish have been forced to rely far too heavily on V.J. Beachem, who dropped 20 on Duke Monday but couldn’t do nearly enough to seal the deal on his own.
Without the offense returning to what it once was and carrying the load, Notre Dame has no shot to finish on top of the ACC. The Irish will remain competitive of course; they’re talented enough not to get swept aside easily. But with games against North Carolina, Florida State, and Louisville left on the slate, it’s tough to see how Notre Dame can win enough games to claim the conference without getting a ton of help.
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Syracuse (14-9, 6-4)
Remaining Schedule: vs. No. 9 Virginia; at Clemson; at Pittsburgh; vs. No. 6 Louisville; at Georgia Tech; vs. No. 21 Duke; at No. 6 Louisville; vs. Georgia Tech
Amid the race for the ACC title, Syracuse is fighting for a spot in the NCAA tournament, and it might need quite a run to earn a bid this season.
As it stands now, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, widely recognized for the accuracy of his Bracketology model, does not even have the Orange currently listed in his Next Four Out. Why? Because despite a 6-4 conference record and a win against Florida State, Syracuse was just that bad during non-conference play.
The Orange finished non-conference play a mediocre 8-5 with losses against Connecticut and St. John’s, two teams teams comfortably outside the RPI top-100. They followed that up by dropping their first conference game of the year to a team currently ranked outside the RPI top-150, Boston College. Credit must be given to the Eagles for being so feisty, but to win the ACC this year, they are a team you have to beat.
The advanced stats don’t help Syracuse’s case either. KenPom.com has the Orange listed as the 53rd best team in the country based on overall efficiency, and they rank 34th in offensive efficiency and a dismal 108th in defensive efficiency. If you thought the defense was porous in South Bend, it’s worse in upstate New York.
Andrew White III has lived up to his billing as a scorer since transferring from Nebraska. He leads the team with 17.2 points per game, and Tyler Lydon has done his best to help with 14.3 points per game, but after those two only John Gillon and Tyus Battle have been effective on either side of the ball and both are inconsistent.
Syracuse has played much better since that loss, winning six of its last nine games, but still not well enough to win the ACC. The Orange still have games against Virginia, Louisville twice, Duke, and a road game against Georgia Tech, a surprisingly tough place to play in 2017. To make the tournament, Syracuse will have to win some of those games to pad its resume, but to win the conference it would have to win all of those games and that won’t happen.
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No. 21 Duke (17-5, 5-4)
Remaining Schedule: vs. Pittsburgh; vs. No. 12 North Carolina; vs. Clemson; at No. 9 Virginia; vs. Wake Forest; at Syracuse; at Miami; vs. No. 15 Florida State; at No. 12 North Carolina
Of the four-loss ACC teams, Duke has the best chance to shock everyone and win the conference. Shock might not be the right word. The Blue Devils were the unanimous pre-season No. 1 team in the country with a roster so loaded with both veteran and NBA-ready talent people wondered if a college roster had ever been this impressive.
Unfortunately, injuries to several key freshmen, the ongoing Grayson Allen saga, and head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s back surgery and subsequent month-long absence from the bench have all played a role in Duke’s slow start to conference play.
The Blue Devils dropped the opener on the road against Virginia Tech, then fell to Florida State and Louisville before dropping their first game of the year at Cameron Indoor Stadium. That game was the first time Duke had lost to N.C. State in Durham since 1995, the last time Krzyzewski missed time due to back surgery, and it seemed to signal that the Blue Devils would not live up to their preseason potential.
But we are starting to see the pieces begin to fit together. Duke has won its last two games, both on the road against teams in the RPI and KenPom top-35, and Krzyzewski will return to the bench Saturday afternoon against Pittsburgh.
The most important factor that came from the past two Duke games against Wake Forest and Notre Dame has been Luke Kennard and Jayson Tatum settling into their new roles.
Tatum is a future lottery pick with incredible length and athleticism. With an array of moves and the ability to drive to the basket with just one dribble, he is one of the most naturally gifted scorers playing college basketball this season. The problem was that he dominated the ball too much. During Duke’s losing stretch, the offense ran too often through Tatum.
He would take the ball at the top of the key, iso up, and try to score. It worked sometimes simply because of how talented Tatum is, but it stagnated the offense and served as an overall detriment to the team. This was abundantly clear at the end of the N.C. State game when, instead of dishing the ball to a guard, Tatum brought the ball up in the final seconds with the Blue Devils down two points, tried to do too much, and dribbled the ball off his leg, losing the game.
Kennard has consistently been one of the best players in the country all year, but it didn’t seem like the rest of his team had realized it. He still led the team in points per game, and was on pace to become the first Duke player since Christian Laettner in 1991-92 to average more than 20 points per game on better than 50.0 percent shooting, but everyone still looked to either Tatum or Grayson Allen as the best offensive option for the Blue Devils. Kennard was seen as a fantastic second option, playing off the ball, and knocking down catch-and-shoot three-pointers.
Against Wake Forest in the second half and throughout the game against Notre Dame, though, it was clear that Duke made it a point to emphasize Kennard offensively and let Tatum take a secondary role. Kennard singlehandedly led the comeback against the Demon Deacons with 30 points in the second half on 10-of-10 shooting, and knocked down the game-winning three with 6.6 seconds left.
Against Notre Dame, Tatum shined but the offense was run through Kennard and Allen. Allen finished with a game-high 21 points and hit several key triples down the stretch. Tatum ended up with a double-double of 19 points and 14 rebounds, mainly because he accepted his new role rebounding off the ball and accepting the ball in the high-post and near the wing. He did not take the ball up, he did not isolate at the top of the key, and both he and the Duke offense were all the better for it. Expect more of that going forward.
Right now, Duke is 13th in overall efficiency according to KenPom.com, 14th in offensive efficiency, and 33rd in defensive efficiency, but a lot of that accounts for how the Blue Devils played throughout the beginning of ACC play when they were still trying to find themselves. Even still, they rank 20th in points per game nationally, and the Duke that we have seen the past one and a half games is what we are more likely to see of Duke down the stretch.
There’s also the likelihood that Duke improves. Harry Giles continues to improve as he grows more accustomed to actually playing basketball again; Amile Jefferson is getting healthier and is a terrific low-post scorer and defensive rebounder; Matt Jones is one of the best on-ball defenders in the country; and Frank Jackson is a dynamic scorer at point guard.
This is Kennard’s team, and the Blue Devils know that now. He will lead the offense forward and Allen and Tatum will supplement him with their own spectacular offensive abilities. Duke could still become the monster it was expected to be before the start of the season, and that’s a terrifying thought for the rest of the conference.
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There’s a lot of great ACC basketball left to be played. The first Duke-North Carolina matchup is this coming Thursday, and many other games will be played between the ACC’s elite before the start of postseason play.
All of those games will help decide which team or teams walk away with the ACC’s regular season crown, but so will all the games the top teams play against the bottom half of the league. The ACC is so deep that even the North Carolina’s and Virginia’s of the world can’t afford to sleep through a game.
North Carolina, Virginia, and Florida State remain the favorites to win the title, but any of these other teams could sneak up behind them take it. We’re going to need every minute of the next month to figure it out who will win.
Edited by Jeremy Losak.
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