So let us make sure we have this correct at what is, give or take, the midpoint of the conference season in the ACC. A refresher may be needed after what has to be one of the wildest first months of conference play in quite some time.
(And yes, you could say something similar almost every year.) To recap:
North Carolina looks like the league’s best team except for when it plays against zone defenses on the road. Florida State wins four out five against Virginia, Duke, UNC, Notre Dame and Louisville and then loses consecutive games, by double digits, against Georgia Tech and Syracuse.
Georgia Tech has won five conference games after coach Josh Pastner was told he might not win any. N.C. State loses by 51 points at UNC and, not long after, loses at home against Wake Forest, which in the process won its first ACC road game in three years.
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And, naturally, the Wolfpack responds with its first victory at Duke in 22 years. We could go on (and on). The ACC was expected to be the baddest, deepest conference around this season. That much has gone according to plan, at least.
It’s just the journey to achieving that inevitability that has been so baffling. Midway through the conference schedule, here are 10 things we’ve learned – or that we think we’ve learned – about the best conference in the country:
1. There are many very good teams – but for now there are no great ones.
At this point a year ago we knew that UNC, and even Virginia, were legitimate Final Four contenders. Same thing with Duke the season before that. We know now that there are several teams with that kind of potential but, as great as the ACC is, there’s not a clear-cut national title favorite.
At least not yet. UNC can become one, especially if Theo Pinson is part of the equation. Florida State can beat anybody in the country. Virginia is Virginia, and that’s a compliment. And we could go on down the list. Lots of good teams in the ACC but a great one? Not quite yet.
2. The ACC Player of the Year race is wide open.
When was the last time the ACC Player of the Year discussion at the midpoint of conference play included as many names as it does now? There is no real favorite and compelling arguments can be made for a long list of players.
Among them: UNC’s Justin Jackson and Joel Berry; Duke’s Luke Kennard; Notre Dame’s Bonzie Colson; Louisville’s Donovan Mitchell; Florida State’s Dwayne Bacon; Virginia’s London Perrantes. And some of them won’t even make first-team All-ACC.
Berry is probably UNC’s most important player, but Jackson has better numbers. Kennard has been just about as good as anybody, but Duke has been dysfunctional. And then some of the others – Colson, Mitchell, Perrantes – don’t have superstar stats but clearly drive their team’s success.
So who knows. Another name or two could emerge out of nowhere in February, too.
3. Speaking of Kennard, he’s Duke’s best player.
And this should have been obvious enough back in November and December. To this point, the pieces clearly haven’t meshed at Duke. All that talent – enough to make Duke the consensus preseason No. 1 – and a 4-4 conference record to show for it. The Blue Devils are fortunate to be .500, too.
The first step for Duke to turn around its season: Players embracing their roles, which means accepting Kennard’s place as the engine. The second step: Playing like a team. Too often Duke has looked as though it’s trying to make its way through the AAU circuit than a college basketball season.
4. When it’s on, UNC is the best team in the ACC.
The Tar Heels proved that during the first few weeks of the season. And during their recent seven-game conference winning streak they again looked like the best team in the conference, if not the country. But zone defenses have flummoxed UNC – especially the zones that Georgia Tech and Miami employed in their victories against the Tar Heels.
And then there’s the health factor. This team is probably a Final Four favorite with Theo Pinson, who continues to be evaluated after re-injuring his right foot in a victory against Virginia Tech last Thursday. Without Pinson, though, UNC’s margin for error shrinks considerably.
5. The road is cold, lonely place in this league.
Nothing new there, necessarily, but road teams are losing more than ever since the ACC became a 15-team league before the 2013-14 season. Through Saturday, ACC teams are 21-42 on the road.
That’s the worst winning percentage for road teams in the 15-team era. Only five teams have won multiple conference road games.
Virginia, UNC and Notre Dame account for 10 of those road victories. The other 12 teams combined have won 11 games away from home. Two seasons ago, home teams won about 56 percent of the time in the ACC. They’re winning about 67 percent of the time this season.
6. Georgia Tech has been the league’s best story.
Covering games at Georgia Tech is always a little bittersweet for anyone with memories of the Yellow Jackets’ basketball supremacy of the 1980s and ’90s. In the media room there are posters on the wall of the likes of Kenny Anderson and Mark Price and Dennis Scott and on and on.
After so much prolonged misery look at the Yellow Jackets now: 5-4 in the ACC, with about four more conference victories than many thought possible. In the preseason this looked like it could be the ACC’s worst team. Now Georgia Tech has a realistic shot at an NCAA tournament bid.
Josh Pastner could periodically nap behind his team’s bench for the rest of the season and he’d still be a deserving choice for ACC Coach of the Year honors. Josh Okogie isn’t the best freshman in the ACC, but that he’s in the discussion is reflective of how improbable a run this has been.
7. Duke has done less with more than anybody.
N.C. State claimed this dubious honor during the first few weeks of the conference schedule, but that was before the Wolfpack won at Duke for the first time since 1995. Maybe that turns out to be a season-turning victory for the Wolfpack. Maybe it doesn’t.
We know this much: Duke has too much talent to be (barely) .500 in the ACC. Yes, injuries have undoubtedly slowed this team’s development. Yes, the Grayson Allen situation hasn’t been ideal. And, oh yes, coach Mike Krzyzewski is out, still recovering from back surgery.
The Blue Devils can still reach their potential. For now they’re a cautionary tale of the value of chemistry and cohesion, and how quickly things can go haywire when those are absent. The lack of defense hasn’t helped, either.
8. Ten ACC teams should make the NCAA tournament.
UNC, Virginia, Florida State, Notre Dame and Louisville all look like locks. Duke will make it. Miami and Virginia Tech look like tournament teams more often than not. That leaves Syracuse, Georgia Tech, N.C. State, Wake Forest and Clemson scrambling to position themselves. Only Boston College and Pittsburgh look like sure things not to make it.
9. And yes, Pitt really does appear to be this lost.
How is it possible that the Panthers have the top two scorers in the league – Jamel Artis and Michael Young – and yet they’re in last place, and as bad as they are? Is the rest of the cupboard really that bare, or are the Panthers just that lost in coach Kevin Stallings’ first season? Pitt’s unexpected descent makes sense in the same way it makes sense to beat Virginia and then lose six consecutive games.
10. The hype around Dennis Smith Jr. was justified.
That’s one thing everyone got right. We were wrong to think Duke dominance was a foregone conclusion, wrong about Georgia Tech as a laughingstock and probably wrong about a long list of other things. Not about Smith, though.
Nobody was wrong about how good he’d be though, undoubtedly, he’d like to have back that foul-filled first half at UNC before that game went off the rails. But still: the triple-double against Virginia Tech, the final few minutes at Duke, the growing highlight reel. Smith will be remembered for all of that.
If he somehow leads N.C. State from the brink of collapse to the NCAA tournament, his one college season will be remembered with even more fondness.
1. Virginia’s chances to win the regular season.
Look who’s won five consecutive conference games and is tied in the loss column atop the league. Virginia is now 4-1 on the road in conference play – the only team with only one ACC road loss.
2. Luke Kennard’s ACC Player of the Year candidacy.
Grayson Allen, Jayson Tatum and Harry Giles received all the preseason attention but imagine this team without Kennard. He single-handedly willed Duke to victory on Sunday at Wake Forest.
1. Florida State as the ACC favorite.
Who was it who recently wrote that the Seminoles should be considered the clear favorite to win the ACC’s regular season? Florida State still has the clearest path – but not if it can’t win on the road.
2. Critical Grayson Allen media coverage.
Allen deserves the scrutiny he receives but not the ridiculous click-bait, hot-take driven coverage amid the slightest hint of controversy. Save the faux outrage and questions for when they’re warranted.
Four quick predictions for the second half of conference play (for entertainment purposes only):
1. Virginia wins the regular season.
The Cavaliers probably have the fewest questions of any of the league’s contenders.
2. Duke gets it together.
The script writes itself: Coach K comes back, guys understand their roles, a turnaround ensues.
3. Georgia Tech remains relevant.
Time to believe in the Yellow Jackets, who are a very good defensive team, especially.
4. N.C. State will be be better, but …
But the schedule down the stretch is brutal, making it all but impossible to overcome the slow start.