Prior to the heart of ACC play starting this weekend with Duke hosting Florida State Saturday afternoon, The Chronicle’s men’s basketball beat writers break down the season so far and the biggest storylines heading into the conference schedule.

Although the Blue Devils lost at Boston College in the only ACC game anybody has played so far, will Duke win the conference regular-season title? Which team will be its biggest challenger in the ACC?

Hank Tucker: I think we’ll all be in agreement here that the Blue Devils will wind up as the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament in Brooklyn in March. Their highly-touted freshman class has been even better than advertised, and the rest of their primary ACC competitors have had alarming slip-ups.

I still think North Carolina will emerge as Duke’s biggest challenger despite a shocking home loss to Wofford—it is still a veteran team coming off a national championship and back-to-back Final Four appearances. But without the dominant frontcourt the Tar Heels had last year in Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks and Tony Bradley, they will have a hard time matching up with the Blue Devils’ size when the two rivals meet head-to-head.

Mitchell Gladstone: At the end of the day, Duke remains my odds-on favorite to win the ACC. No one else in the league comes close to the Blue Devils in terms of talent, but it’s been more than a decade since they last took home an outright regular-season conference title. 

As far as a challenger, I’ll go with Miami—they showed some weaknesses last weekend at the Diamond Head Classic, losing to New Mexico State and nearly falling to Middle Tennessee, but the Hurricanes have lots of strong options. Bruce Brown is one of the ACC’s best all-around talents and Jim Larrañaga’s team has always been a challenge for Duke, so we’ll learn a lot when the two sides meet in Coral Gables in just more than two weeks.

Ben Leonard: Even with their loss to Boston College, the regular-season ACC title is the Blue Devils’ to lose. With Marvin Bagley III, Grayson Allen and a deep and talented freshman class, Duke is clearly the most talented team in the ACC. Especially with its unselfish style of play, it should be able to fix up its defense enough to rebound from the early loss and win the crown. 

Their biggest challenger will be Miami, purely because of when the Blue Devils play the Hurricanes. Duke will travel to Coral Gables, Fla., Jan. 15 in just its sixth conference game of the year, not leaving much time for its young defense to come together, and it does not play Miami at home. If the Hurricanes can come away with a win, it could be an uphill battle for the Blue Devils. 

You all predicted Grayson Allen would be the team MVP prior to the season, but Marvin Bagley III exceeded lofty expectations during nonconference play. Did his rapid rise take you by surprise, and do you think he will continue to be the team’s focal point for the rest of the year?

HT: Duke became Bagley’s team at the PK80 Invitational in November, when he had at least 30 points and 15 rebounds in back-to-back games, and even Allen and the Blue Devils’ guards have said the team is better when it runs through him and the posts. We all saw three weeks ago at Boston College what happens down the stretch when the ball spends too much time on the perimeter.

I expected Bagley to be a consistent starter and All-ACC contender, but I didn’t expect a 20-point, 10-rebound machine who would be on the short list of national player of the year candidates this early. Allen showed he can step up with 37 points against Michigan State when Bagley was out with an eye injury, but I’m more confident in Duke with the ball in Bagley’s hands down the stretch.

MG: It is hard to say that Bagley has taken me by surprise, but at the same time, I don’t think I realized how big of a deal it was when he committed to the Blue Devils. Watching him in person, it’s stunning how long Bagley really is—sometimes, it feels as if he’s playing pinball around the rim. I think he and Allen will be the key cogs to Duke’s offense, and as they continue to play more together, the Blue Devils will continue to become more and more dangerous as a versatile attack inside and out.

BL: I knew Bagley was going to be really good, but not one of the most dominant players in the country like he has been so far. I’m surprised only at how quickly he has ascended to join basketball’s elite—his rare combination of size and athleticism was bound to take him there, but I expected a few more hiccups. 

Even with Allen on the team, he seems to be the go-to guy—save for the Boston College game, curiously. I think Duke will learn from that loss and feed Bagley more in crunch time instead of trying to play hero ball. He’s by far the most consistent offensive weapon the Blue Devils have, and it only makes sense that they will continue to build the offense around him more and more. 

What has been the biggest disappointment about the Blue Devils’ season so far?

HT: It’s hard to criticize too much about Duke’s offensive production, but I’ve been surprised at how ineffective Trevon Duval is as a shooter and a scorer. Shooting is becoming more and more valuable in basketball with teams embracing advanced stats and spreading the floor to take more 3-pointers at the expense of midrange jumpers, and Duval’s lack of range hurts the Blue Devils’ offensive fluidity. At 5-of-33 on the season, opponents do not have to respect Duval outside the arc at all, giving them more leeway to double down on Bagley and pack it in to limit Duke’s dangerous frontcourt.

MG: In a word, defense. I understand it can be hard to get a lineup with four freshmen to play together on both ends, but Duke is incredibly athletic and it simply should not struggle to defend to the extent it has thus far. Evansville certainly was a step in the right direction, but the Purple Aces aren’t representative of the competition the Blue Devils will see during the next few months. Top teams like Villanova, Michigan State and Texas A&M all rank among the top 10 in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defense metric—Duke currently stands at No. 73. That needs to change soon if the Blue Devils want to slow teams down in conference play.

BL: I agree with Hank on Duval—I really thought he was going to bring more on a consistent basis offensively. But to mix it up, I’ll say that Duke has at times played down to its opponents, especially early on. Southern is one of the worst teams in college basketball, and it managed to push the Blue Devils around, as did Portland State. Duke seems to have learned from this with recent drubbings of Evansville and St. Francis. I won’t count the Boston College loss in this one because they didn’t play horribly, necessarily—it’s hard to beat any team that makes 15 3-pointers, though many of those shots were open. 

Has there been anything unexpected with Duke’s rotation so far with the same five starters in every game. How deep do you expect Coach K to go into his bench regularly from now on?

HT: Javin DeLaurier and Marques Bolden are the clear sixth and seventh men in the rotation, and Coach K generally doesn’t go too much deeper than that. I expect Allen, Duval and Gary Trent Jr. to be counted on for a heavy workload to take care of most of the minutes on the perimeter, and whenever they need a break, Duke could either go to a three-big lineup for brief stretches or look to Alex O’Connell, who stepped in admirably for 29 minutes when Allen was in foul trouble in its overtime win against Texas.

MG: I think we should probably have a consensus on this one. DeLaurier is going to get plenty of minutes as the Blue Devils’ sixth man and classmate Bolden has shown signs of development as a third option in the post. O’Connell gives Duke a real shooting threat on the outside, and beyond that, I’d be surprised to see much else. Jordan Goldwire or Justin Robinson are probably the next options if the Blue Devils are ever in serious foul trouble, but I expect Coach K to limit his rotation to seven or eight guys as he does most years.

BL: I’m surprised that Jordan Tucker has been a complete non-factor so far. He hasn’t really been needed, but I expected he would have to fill the void off the bench in the backcourt—something O’Connell has done instead. Going forward, I see O’Connell, DeLaurier and Bolden as the only guys that see time off the bench—Coach K will not go nine deep in close games. 

Aside from Bagley, which freshman are you most looking forward to watching against tough conference competition?

HT: Trent has made some of the biggest plays of the year—a go-ahead 3-pointer against Michigan State, a go-ahead 3-point play in the final minute of regulation against Texas and two critical steals and four free throws down the stretch against Florida, and he was also the Blue Devils’ best player in their loss at Boston College. But he has also been extremely streaky so far as a shooter, knocking down less than 30 percent of his 3-pointers in November before elevating that clip to 38.1 percent with strong performances against the likes of St. Francis and Evansville. If he becomes a consistent threat as a third or fourth option on offense, Duke will be nearly impossible for any team to stop.

MG: The Evansville game was definitely a bit of a breakout night for Wendell Carter Jr. Outside of a double-double at Indiana, the Atlanta native has really just beat up on smaller teams to boost his stats—he currently is averaging 13.7 points and 8.4 rebounds a game. Against the Purple Aces, though, we saw Carter knock down four 3-pointers and get to the charity stripe with regularity, going 5-of-5 on free throws. If he continues to diversify his game, he’ll only help Duke space the floor, leaving room for Bagley to dominate down low and opening driving lanes for Allen and Duval.

BL: I’m looking forward to see if O’Connell can continue to be a spark plug off the bench for Duke heading into conference play. He has seen his minutes reduced in recent tight games—he saw just two minutes against Boston College and seven against Indiana. The Blue Devils needed his energy against the Eagles, and I’m still shocked he barely played in that game. He’s been effective from deep—nailing 10-of-20 treys—and seems to elevate everyone else’s game when he’s on the floor. If he keeps up the pace and gets his chances, he could be a real weapon for Coach K against the rest of the ACC.