Around the ACC: League Prepares For Conference Play

With non-conference (and the first weekend of Atlantic Coast Conference action) in the books, this marks an ideal point in the season to look back at where the conference’s 12 teams stand.  Some squads are exceeding preseason expectations, while others have disappointed so far.  Let’s look at each team, in order of how they were voted to finish in ACC standings by the conference’s media corps in the preseason.

N.C STATE: Preseason expectations for the Wolfpack were probably a little unfair.  With key pieces returning from a team that made a Sweet Sixteen run (albeit after only barely making the NCAA Tournament), many crowned N.C. State the favorites to win the Atlantic Coast Conference, ready to proclaim their return to prominence in Tobacco Road battles that had been dominated by those blue teams.  Losses to Oklahoma State and Michigan cooled some of that enthusiasm, but N.C. State is still a solid team.  They are incredibly efficient offensively, leading the nation in field goal percentage by a healthy margin.  Freshman T.J. Warren has exceeded all expectations, averaging 13.4 points per game for the Wolfpack.  And, hosting Duke on January 12, they likely will be the first team in ACC play to have a legitimate shot of threatening the Blue Devils, although they got all they could handle on a visit to Chestnut Hill this weekend.

DUKE: Meanwhile, Duke has started the season on an undefeated run, winning all 13 of its non-conference games before knocking off Wake Forest.  That slate hasn’t been easy, as the Blue Devils picked up wins against traditionally strong teams such as Kentucky, Louisville, and Ohio State, as well as a Minnesota team that has knocked off Michigan State (and Florida State in Tallahassee).  Mason Plumlee has arguably been the most impressive ACC player during non-conference play, which has made life easier for Duke’s perimeter threats.  A lot is made of Duke’s scheduling tendencies (their first true road game will be the January 12 game against N.C. State), but winning three games in three days at the Battle 4 Atlantis, along with back-to-back home games over the winter break, probably did more to prepare this team for the rigors of March than any one isolated road contest could have.

NORTH CAROLINA: Most projections of North Carolina this year, having lost four starters from last year’s Tar Heels, claimed upside would be the team’s greatest asset.  Before a December 29 win against UNLV, it was hard to see where that upside could possibly come from.  Blowout losses to Butler, Indiana, and Texas illustrated a team that lacked cohesion and leadership, and a loss last night to Virginia in which the Heels looked lost offensively at times did nothing to quiet that talk.  In the UNLV game, P.J. Hairston entered the starting lineup in place of the injured Reggie Bullock and had the most complete individual effort the team has seen all season.  But can he play like that on a regular basis in ACC play? There’s a reason he hadn’t been starting before that game.  James Michael McAdoo was a preseason ACC Player of the Year candidate, but has disappointed to start the year, especially in the tougher tests.

FLORIDA STATE:  The Seminoles actually received six first-place votes from the ACC media in the conference’s preseason poll.  Good Florida State, the team that defeated Brigham Young and St. Joseph’s in Brooklyn, probably justified those votes.  Bad Florida State, with home losses to Mercer and South Alabama … not so much.  Florida State is third in the ACC in three-point shooting percentage, but sits ninth in two-point shooting percentage and are the conference’s most turnover-prone squad.  Needless to say, an inability to protect the ball and maintain possession could result in some ugly matchups in conference play.

MIAMI:  After dropping an exhibition game to St. Leo and a road game at Florida Gulf-Coast, it was believed Miami’s preseason projection of fifth in the conference may have been extremely optimistic. However, the Hurricanes rebounded with seven straight wins, restoring faith in their believers.  The news got worse for Miami, though, as the Hurricanes struggled in the Diamond Head Classic.  While in Hawaii, they lost to Arizona and Indiana State without Reggie Johnson on the floor. Upon the team’s return to Florida, it was announced that Johnson will be out six to eight weeks, with conference play looming imminently on the horizon.  As such, Miami’s chances of success in the ACC (and perhaps their ability to make the NCAA Tournament) will rely on their ability to adjust to life without the 6-10, 292 pound senior.

MARYLAND: It seems like, each season, there’s at least one conference team that enters ACC play with a surprisingly good record, and everyone questions the legitimacy of it.  For example, the 2006-07 Clemson Tigers were the last time in the nation to lose that season, starting 17-0.  However, the Tigers went 7-9 in conference play, lost to Florida State in the opening round of the ACC Tournament, and went to the NIT.  This year, Maryland is 12-1, its lone loss a nail-biter against Kentucky.  The wins, with the exception of a convincing victory at Northwestern and a neutral court win over George Mason, have come at home against considerably weaker competition.  Whether Maryland’s success is the sign of a good team or the benefit of a weak schedule, their opponents will have to account for Alex Len, a shot-blocking machine who can also knock down shots in the post.

VIRGINIA: With senior point guard Jontel Evans sidelined, it would be reasonable to expect the Cavaliers to sputter so far in 2012-13.  Instead, they have been a pleasant surprise, picking up wins against Tennessee and at Wisconsin.  Yes, the two-point loss to Old Dominion wasn’t a good look, but for a team that became suddenly younger with the loss of Evans, you have to be happy with only one “disappointing” loss.  Evans returned in time for ACC play, contributing to their 61-52 win over North Carolina last night.  Junior forward Akil Mitchell is one of the league’s top rebounders, averaging 9.2 rebounds per contest.

CLEMSON: The Tigers boasted the conference’s best shot-blocking defense after the out-of-conference slate, averaging 5.2 blocks per game.  Two of those blocks are coming each game from 6’6” sophomore K.J. McDaniels, who is also averaging 11.4 points per game.  With the exception of a 69-46 drubbing at Coastal Carolina, Clemson has neither a signature win nor a bad loss.  Clemson played games against Gonzaga, Purdue, and Arizona, but went 0-3 in those games.  With Devin Booker, the team’s leading scorer and younger brother of former Tiger Trevor Booker, graduating at season’s end, this winter marks your last chance to enjoy the Booker lineage at Littlejohn Coliseum … unless there’s another one hiding somewhere.

GEORGIA TECH: Led by freshmen Marcus Georges-Hunt and Robert Carter, the Yellow Jackets have exceeded expectations so far.  Their only losses came against California in Anaheim and against Illinois in Champaign, and their resume includes victories against Tulane and St. Mary’s.  The Yellow Jackets rank third in the NCAA in defensive field goal percentage, one of three ACC teams in the nation’s top eight (Maryland 2nd, Virginia 8th).  That said, the Yellow Jackets might have the toughest January in the conference: vs. Miami, at NC State, vs. Virginia Tech, at Duke, at North Carolina are their first five ACC games.

VIRGINIA TECH: The Hokies started off the season on a roll, winning seven straight games. The seventh of those wins even came against the same Oklahoma State squad that knocked off NC State.  This had folks thinking that Virginia Tech could be the surprise team in the conference.  Since then, they have gone 3-5, including three straight losses by at least 23 points after Saturday’s 94-71 stumble against Maryland at College Park.  So maybe the Hokies are who we thought they were? Whatever the case, they can take solace in having Erick Green, who will be one of the ACC’s top scorers and passers in 2013.

WAKE FOREST: The Demon Deacons got good news a few days ago, as Shelton Mitchell committed to Wake Forest on Friday.  However, Mitchell won’t be able to help them until 2014.  Behind junior Travis McKie and senior C..J. Harris is a plethora of young freshman, which could get better with time.  They hung around against some decent squads (a 62-60 loss to Richmond, a 71-67 loss to Seton Hall), but there isn’t a column for “close losses” in the ACC standings.  They’ll take their licks this year, but don’t sleep on them.

BOSTON COLLEGE: The Eagles won five straight before dropping a close game at home against NC State.  Sophomore Ryan Anderson will be one of those players who puts up strong numbers (currently averaging 16.4 points and 9.8 rebounds per game) but doesn’t get the respect he deserves from the majority of the ACC media types located further south.  With that said, how many scrappy NC State games do they have in them? Some of their wins have been close for comfort against competition much weaker than they’ll face during the conference slate, such as a 71-68 overtime victory over New Hampshire.  Does winning those games prove are tough enough to handle the close games, or they are woefully unprepared for what is to come?

 

Zach Evans is brilliantZach Evans, managing editor of InsideTheACC.com, is a 2012 graduate of the University of North Carolina and a lifelong fan of the Tar Heels and follower of the ACC. Outside of the ACC, Zach is also a fan of the Atlanta Braves, the Carolina Hurricanes, the Carolina Panthers, and bad puns. He includes nailing the Final Four in his 2009 NCAA Tournament group and batting .000 during the 2011 intramural softball season among his crowning achievements. For more commentary, follow Zach on Twitter at @ztevans.

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