While the ACC lost the ACC-Big Ten Challenge pretty soundly, as the Big Ten dominated much more than the 8-6 final margin would indicate, the ACC may still be the nation’s premier conference, at least at the top, as shown by their six teams among the AP’s top 25, and three in the top six. Since the last power rankings two weeks ago, conference play has begun, with a pair of December conference games allowing Notre Dame and NC State to share the ACC lead, for now, at 1-0, as the rest of the conference waits until the first week of the new year to begin league play. Until then, ACC fans will have to settle for a few more of the typical December mismatches, although we can look forward to games like UConn at Duke, Ohio State vs North Carolina, and Kentucky at Louisville.
1. Duke (8-0, Last Week: 1st)
The Blue Devils are not only among the ACC’s best, but sit 2nd in the AP Poll behind unanimous number one Kentucky, on the strength of their ACC-Big Ten Challenge win on the road at then 2nd-ranked Wisconsin. Duke ranks second nationally in scoring average (89.1) and field goal percentage (.539), and third in assists per game (19.0). They haven’t played since that win over the Badgers, but play Elon tonight and defending national champion UConn in the Meadowlands on Thursday.
2. Louisville (9-0, 2nd)
The fourth-ranked Cardinals have been impressive in their winning streak to start the season, including the three wins they now have over Big Ten opponents, beating Minnesota, Ohio State, and Indiana. Coach Rick Pitino’s team lead the nation in rebounds per game (46.7), and they are in the top ten in every major defensive category. The Cardinals play their first road game this week when they head to Western Kentucky (and don’t play another until their ACC opener at Wake Forest), and will host top-ranked Kentucky two days after Christmas.
3. Virginia (9-0, 3rd)
The Cavaliers have shown that those who thought last year’s ACC title run was a one-time thing for coach Tony Bennett were wrong, despite the loss of guard Joe Harris to graduation. The Cavaliers are undefeated to start their title defense, including wins over Maryland and VCU. Defense is this team’s strength, just as it was last year, as the Wahoos lead the nation in scoring defense (47.4 ppg). Three home games against opponents from the mid-major ranks are all that stand between the Cavaliers hitting conference play unbeaten.
4. Miami (9-1, 4th)
The Hurricanes, who I was a critic of to start the year due to all the new faces (though mostly transfers) in Coral Gables, have played their way into the top 25, as they currently sit 18th in the AP Poll, with wins over Florida and Illinois, and only a misstep against Wisconsin-Green Bay to keep them from perfection. While the Canes do not necessarily excel in one statistical category, ranking no higher than 44th in any facet of the game, they are among the top third of the nation in every category. Miami hosts Eastern Kentucky and plays a neutral game with Providence in Brooklyn before a Christmas break.
5. North Carolina (6-3, 5th)
The Tar Heels struggled from the field in a loss to Iowa in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, then lost on the road to top-ranked Kentucky. The loss to the Wildcats was expected, although the loss to the Hawkeyes was not, and in addition to an earlier loss to Butler, the Heels sit with three losses, a position they’re not exactly used to before Christmas. Still, the seventh best rebounding team in the nation (43.6) is ranked 24th in the AP Poll, with wins over UCLA and Florida, as they prepare to travel (a little) to UNCG tomorrow for a “road game” (although the crowd will likely be in their favor) before a neutral game in Chicago against Ohio State.
6. Notre Dame (10-1, 8th)
As mentioned, Notre Dame picked up an ACC win on Saturday, beating Florida State convincingly at home, and after earlier wins against Michigan State and UMass, and only a one-point loss to Providence, the Irish find themselves in ranked 21st, a far cry from the struggles they had a year ago in their inaugural ACC campaign. Mike Brey’s team shoots the ball very well, as they lead the nation in field goal percentage (.557) and are sixth in scoring average (84.9). Their last big test before conference play comes in an in-state game in Indianapolis against Purdue on Saturday.
7. NC State (8-2, 6th)
Like Notre Dame, the Wolfpack sit at 1-0 in the ACC after they took care of business at home against Wake Forest in their league opener. For the most part the Pack have been pretty impressive, although they have a pair of close losses to Purdue, on the road, and Wofford, in a controversial finish that may have cost them the win. Mark Gottfried’s team is 13th in the country in rebounding (42.5), but is 233rd in assists per game (11.7), as they prepare to host Tennessee on Wednesday before playing West Virginia in New York on Saturday.
8. Pittsburgh (6-3, 9th)
The Panthers have had some ups and downs this year, including a recent loss to Indiana in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge before wins over Duquesne and St. Bonaventure. The biggest down for this team has been a loss at Hawaii, while a win over Kansas State is their biggest up. The Panthers are 16th in the nation in assists per game (16.2), but rank near the bottom in defensive rebounding and steals. The toughest of their four remaining non-conference games will be a December 30 game against Florida Gulf Coast.
9. Syracuse (6-3, 7th)
The Orange are struggling, plain and simple. In the past two weeks, they’ve lost games to Michigan, who has absolutely self-destructed since, and St. John’s, and won over Louisiana Tech, but only by a 71-69 margin. This team is missing so many pieces that were a part of last year’s team that began 25-0, although they are still in the top 51 in every major defensive category. They will head to 7th-ranked Villanova on Saturday for a game that will show the world if the missteps of this team were bumps in the road or signs of bigger struggles.
10. Georgia Tech (6-2, 10th)
The Yellow Jackets picked up a road win in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, beating Northwestern, but followed that up with a home loss to USC Upstate. Despite that loss, however, the Yellow Jackets have had a fine early season, better than many, including me, expected, with their only other loss coming to Marquette. If the Jackets can improve on their 11.4 assists per game, which has them 253rd nationally, they could potentially be a sleeper in the ACC, although first they have to play a tough non-conference stretch against Appalachian State, Vanderbilt, Dayton (on the road), and Charlotte.
11. Clemson (6-3, 14th)
After a 4-3 start that included losses to Winthrop and Gardner-Webb, as well as one to Rutgers in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, the Tigers have shown some early season improvement, beating then 18th-ranked Arkansas and Auburn on their home floor. The Tigers are 1-2 against the Big South this year, but 3-0 against the SEC. While the Tigers are statistically average, even on defense, which is usually their strength, they have not played any high-scoring games, keeping most in the 60s, allowing them to stay in games, and even win a few. Friday the Tigers travel to play rival South Carolina, which is their toughest remaining test in non-conference play.
12. Wake Forest (5-5, 12th)
The Demon Deacons are showing their youth at times this season, doing so as they struggled to losses against Minnesota and NC State. That being said, they also showed their potential in a dominant win over Samford. The biggest stat for the Deacs is field goal percentage, as they rank 206th nationally (.427), and that’s with center Devin Thomas taking a lot of high-percentage shots (in other words, the outside game could use some improvement). Danny Manning’s first season doesn’t get any easier, as the Deacs play a “neutral game” against Florida in Sunrise, FL (basically a road game), before hosing Bucknell and travelling to Richmond.
13. Boston College (6-3, 13th)
The Eagles won all four of their games over the last two weeks, beating Marist, rival Providence, Maine, and Binghamton, as the team has shown improvement since losses to UMass, West Virginia, and Dayton. The Eagles have work to do, though, as they rank no higher than 194th in points, rebounds, and assists per game. The Eagles host a Power Five opponent as USC comes to Conte Forum on Sunday in their last big test before opening conference play at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
14. Florida State (4-5, 11th)
After a 1-3 start, things haven’t gotten much better for the Seminoles, with recent losses to Nebraska and Notre Dame. While neither loss is necessarily a bad loss, both games weren’t very close, and Leonard Hamilton’s team has a lot of work to do. Hamilton’s teams are usually defensively strong, but this team ranks 248th in scoring defense (69.4) and 203rd in rebounding (34.7). The Noles play a quartet of in-state games against North Florida, South Florida, Stetson, and Florida before beginning conference play.
15. Virginia Tech (5-4, 15th)
One of the youngest teams in the ACC is showing their youth, as the Hokies have recent losses to Penn State and Radford to keep them, for now, in the ACC cellar (albeit the non-conference one where there’s no conference standings to prove it). Rebounding is the biggest of the Hokies’ weaknesses, as the team is 297th on the boards (31.2 per game). Buzz Williams’ team is coming off a win over Alabama A&M, and has a few lighter tests in the immediate future, hosting The Citadel, VMI, and Presbyterian, before traveling to West Virginia in their final non-conference game.