After being one of the top conferences in the nation a year ago, the ACC has started slow this year with a number of upsets and close calls ahead of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge this week.
1. No. 7 Duke (6-1)
Since falling to then-No. 2 Kentucky in Chicago Nov. 17, the Blue Devils have been on a tear, ripping off four straight victories. Sophomore Grayson Allen has been the offensive superstar the team has needed and is averaging 22.6 points per game thus far this season. The Jacksonville, Fla., native currently stands as one of the early favorites to win National Player of the Year, as his flare for hard-nosed offense and dramatic dunks have established him on the national scene.
Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s defensive adjustments have also been most noticeable of late. Although the winningest coach in college basketball history typically prefers to run a man-to-man scheme, he experimented with both a 2-3 and a 1-3-1 zone against Yale Wednesday night. The changes appeared quite successful in the second half, as the Bulldogs were limited to just 25 points, making only nine of their 30 second-half field goal attempts. This coming week, Duke will be tested yet again, as they are visited by Indiana. Despite a pair of narrow losses in Hawaii at the Maui Invitational, the Hoosiers pose a formidable challenge for the Blue Devils in this year’s rendition of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.
2. No. 9 North Carolina (5-1)
Without one of the nation’s top point guards in senior Marcus Paige, the Tar Heels have stumbled through the early portion of their non-conference schedule. In their first true road matchup of the season, North Carolina was upset by Northern Iowa, dropping head coach Roy Williams’s squad from its top position in the national rankings. A pair of wins at last week’s CBE Hall of Fame Classic against Northwestern. and Kansas State appear to have the team back on track, but a marquee matchup looms with No. 2 Maryland visiting Chapel Hill this week.
Paige’s absence has put the burden of the Tar Heels’ scoring upon their trio of forwards. Sophomore Justin Jackson, junior Kennedy Meeks and senior Brice Johnson are all averaging double figures in scoring and account for more than half of their team’s rebounds. With Paige returning for the matchup against the Terrapins Tuesday, North Carolina should be able to display its entire arsenal of weapons on offense that makes the Tar Heels one of the best teams in the country.
3. No. 10 Virginia (5-1)
A non-conference loss at the hands of George Washington on Nov.16 was a shock to the Cavaliers. As of late, Virginia has been one of the ACC’s top teams with much credit to head coach Tony Bennett and his effective defense. In the Cavaliers’ last four games, they have held their opponents to an average of 57.2 points per game while also scoring at least 80 points of their own per contest.
Redshirt seniors Malcom Brogdon and Anthony Gill have done a majority of the damage for Virginia on the offensive side of the ball, but the pair also leads the team in rebounds, showing their versatility. The non-conference schedule doesn’t get any easier going forward for the Cavaliers. The team will travel to Columbus, Ohio to take on Ohio State Tuesday followed by a matchup against No. 8 Villanova on Dec. 19.
4. No. 14 Syracuse (6-0)
With head coach Jim Boeheim’s nine-game ACC suspension beginning in conference play, the Orange have looked as motivated as ever, opening their 2015-16 campaign with six straight wins. Most recently, they knocked off a pair of ranked opponents en route to the title at the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas during the Thanksgiving holiday weekend. Syracuse controlled the tempo in the semifinal and final games of the tournament against Connecticut and Texas A&M, respectively. Former Blue Devil Michael Gbinije leads his team in scoring, pacing an experienced Orange backcourt with an average of 19.7 points per game. He is joined as an offensive threat by freshman standout Tyler Lydon, who has made 10-out-of-17 3-pointers through the team’s first six games.
5. No. 21 Miami (5-1)
If there has been any ACC team that has ridden an emotional roller coaster so far, it certainly has been the Hurricanes. Last weekend, Miami traveled to San Juan, Puerto Rico and took down a pair of ranked opponents in wins against then-No. 16 Utah and then-No. 20 Butler. Senior Tonye Jekiri has been a defensive juggernaut, averaging nearly a double-double—9.8 points and 10.3 rebounds per game—in addition to his 1.5 blocks per game.
Of course, the momentum had to slow for the Hurricanes at some point. Instead, it came crashing down Friday night. After returning home, Miami suffered its first loss of the season, losing to Northeastern 78-77 on a buzzer-beating jump shot by Quincy Ford. The Hurricanes certainly have the talent to be a dangerous team throughout conference play, but they will need to retain and continue to build upon their early season success.
6. No. 24 Louisville (5-0)
The undefeated Cardinals have rolled through their first five games, winning each by at least 20 points and holding all but one of their opponents under 60 points. Louisville’s marquee non-conference match comes Wednesday night as hit the road to challenge No. 3 Michigan State. The contest will pose various difficulties to a Cardinal squad that has been sloppy early on. Head coach Rick Pitino has leaned heavily on transfer guard Damion Lee, who has started every game and is averaging 17.4 points per contest. Besides Louisville’s Dec. 26 rivalry game against Kentucky, Pitino and his Cardinals will not face another top-25 opponent until conference play begins, making Wednesday an opportunity for the coach to see his young squad perform on the road in a pressure-packed environment.
7. Notre Dame (4-2)
Just when it appeared that the upper echelon of the ACC had taken enough hits, another team bit the dust in shocking fashion. The Fighting Irish were taken out 70-68 by Monmouth Thursday night in the first round of the AdvoCare Invitational in Orlando, Fla. Notre Dame struggled to shoot effectively, knocking down just 42.6-percent of its field goal attempts. After a win against Iowa, the Fighting Irish were upset once again at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in a 74-73 defeat to Alabama. The pair of losses have Notre Dame trending down to begin the year with a road test against Illinois to come this week.
Fighting Irish head coach Mike Brey has essentially limited his bench, utilizing just a seven-man rotation for most of the season. A lack of depth proved to hurt the Fighting Irish during the course of last year’s grueling conference schedule and if Brey cannot find another player to contribute, Notre Dame is likely to experience similar struggles yet again.
8. Pittsburgh (4-0)
A pair of junior forwards have led the way so far as the Panthers have raced out to an undefeated start to the season. 6-foot-7 Jamel Artis and 6-foot-9 Michael Young lead their team in scoring and the team most recently shot 56-percent from the field in a win against Kent State. On the season, they are shooting 42.7 percent from beyond the 3-point arc and their size enables them to average nearly seven blocks per game. After their season opener against Gonzaga was stopped at halftime due to slick courts in Japan, Pittsburgh will first their first major test of the season Tuesday against No. 11 Purdue.
9. Florida State (4-1)
The Seminoles were yet another ACC team to fall victim to an early upset, losing their first game of the U.S. Virgin Islands Paradise Jam 82-77 to Hofstra. Head coach Leonard Hamilton’s team was expected to turn it around after a mediocre season, but such a loss does not appear to have taken the wind out of its sails. Florida State responded with back-to-back wins at the Paradise Jam and they will head out on the road for a matchup against Iowa. With a neutral site contest in Atlanta against Virginia Commonwealth also on the schedule, the Seminoles can quickly get back on track if they begin to play the way many expected before the season.
10. Clemson (4-1)
In Las Vegas, the Tigers were taken down by Massachusetts Monday night as the Minutemen posted a record shooting performance. The 16 3-pointers by Massachusetts put Clemson in a hole that they simply could not climb out of as they lost for the first time this season. The Tigers bounced back to beat Rutgers behind 22-point efforts from forwards Jaron Blossomgame and Donte Grantham. The Tigers not only take on Minnesota on the road Monday, but also have a trio of December matchups against SEC opposition.
11. Georgia Tech (4-2)
Early-season ACC upsets were certainly the theme of the past week as the Yellow Jackets fell by a point at home to East Tennessee State as a late 3-pointer gave the Buccaneers the victory in Atlanta. Georgia Tech was able to rebound with a resounding win against Arkansas in the semifinals of the NIT Season Tip-Off, but then lost by 17 on Thanksgiving in the finals to Villanova. Both Charles Mitchell and Marcus Georges-Hunt are averaging 15.3 points per game, but the Yellow Jackets lack a perimeter scoring threat and are shooting just 31.6 percent on 3-pointers so far.
12. N.C. State (4-2)
Traveling to New York City for the FanDuel Legends Classic, the Wolfpack put on a very solid performance despite losing the first of two games to Arizona State—who is led by former Blue Devil Bobby Hurley. A three-point loss set them up for a matchup with No. 22 LSU and the nation’s top freshman, Ben Simmons. N.C. State limited the Tiger forward to just four points in 40 minutes, and despite his 14 rebounds, the Wolfpack emerged victorious, proving their worth with a talented returning roster. Anthony "Cat" Barber—the team’s leading scorer—posted 20 points and turned the ball over just once in his team’s 83-72 win.
13. Wake Forest (4-2)
For the Demon Deacons, their Thanksgiving vacation in Hawaii was pretty successful as they collected two wins in three games at the Maui Jim Maui Invitational. In their first game, they knocked off No. 13 Indiana, 82-78, with a go-ahead layup from Bryant Crawford in the waning seconds of the contest. Wake Forest then dropped its semifinal matchup 86-64 to then-No. 19 Vanderbilt before wrapping up the trip with a three-point victory against UCLA. Devin Thomas’s season average of a double-double—with 17.7 points and 10.3 rebounds per game—has paced the Demon Deacons, who boast five players averaging double figure points through six games.
14. Boston College (3-3)
The Eagles have started slow after finishing near the bottom of the ACC a year ago. Boston College dropped their third straight game Sunday in an embarrassing 62-45 loss to a previously winless Santa Clara. Earlier in the week, the Eagles dropped games to No. 3 Michigan State and UC-Irvine to move themselves into the seventh place game Sunday night.
15. Virginia Tech (3-2)
After picking up a blowout home win against North Carolina A&T, the Hokies were thoroughly pounded by a supremely talented Iowa State team in their semifinal matchup at the Emerald Coast Classic in Destin, Fla. The 22-point loss was the team's second of the season, but they responded Saturday, winning in overtime against Alabama-Birmingham behind 23 points from Seth Allen and 16 rebounds from Chris Clarke.
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A junior from just outside Philadelphia, Mitchell is probably reminding you how the Eagles won the Super Bowl this year and that the Phillies are definitely on the rebound. Outside of The Chronicle, he majors in Economics, minors in Statistics and is working toward the PJMS certificate, in addition to playing trombone in the Duke University Marching Band. And if you're getting him a sandwich with beef and cheese outside the state of Pennsylvania, you best not call it a "Philly cheesesteak."