As conference play reaches its halfway point tonight, two conferences stand above all. The Big 12 clearly has the best depth of any conference. Kansas, Iowa State, Texas, Baylor, West Virginia, and Oklahoma are all prominent teams in the AP Rankings. However, if you are looking at the nation’s most talented, top-heavy conference look no further than the ACC. The ACC has 5 teams ranked in the top 12 of the AP Poll, including 2 in the top 4. Although the ACC lacks any form of depth, the top of the conference is arguably the strongest ever. But how do they stand against each other? Here are my rankings for the ACC’s top 5 teams.
5. North Carolina
The Tar Heels have fallen far short of their expectations this year. However, no one in Chapel Hill is complaining about their number 12 ranking in the AP Poll. As of right now, Carolina’s notable conference games have come against Notre Dame, Louisville (x2) , and Virginia. These match ups have resulted in a 1-2 record, with the lone win coming against Louisville on a buzzer beater from star Marcus Paige. Carolina fell to Notre Dame by 1, to Louisville by 10 after blowing an 18 point lead, and Virginia by 11. The Heels clearly pride themselves on the offensive side of the ball, averaging 79 points per game, good for 17th in the nation. However, when the offense doesn’t show up, neither do the wins. Carolina’s most effective offensive strategy, transition points, was no where to be found in their most recent loss to Virginia. Carolina scored only one bucket on the fast break, and their half court offense yielded only a 44% mark from the field.
If Carolina hopes to compete for an ACC title, they must come together as a team on both sides of the ball. Marcus Paige, a preseason All-American, needs to step up his game and show why he was given so much hype coming into the season. If Paige can score the ball at a higher percentage (currently 40%) and throw more dimes to the likes of JP Tokoto, Brice Johnson, and Kennedy Meeks, success will come Carolina’s way. The defense will come, but for now, instant offense should be coach Roy Williams’ main concern.
4. Notre Dame
Notre Dame is the big shocker on this list. Coming into the season, everyone knew Jerian Grant had superstar potential, but no one could have predicted this much success would come to the Fighting Irish of South Bend. The Irish have two strong wins over North Carolina and Duke, but they fell to Virginia at home. Much like Carolina, the key to the Irish’s success is their up-tempo, run and gun offense. Led by arguably the nations best player, Jerian Grant (17 PPG and 6 APG), the Irish boast the national 8th best scoring offense at 81 PPG. Also, the defense does not struggle, with opponents averaging just 64 PPG against the Irish. Notre Dame continues to consistently exceed expectations, and their ceiling is yet to be found.
Notre Dame’s biggest flaw comes in their lack of star power. Yes, the majority of college basketball teams lack a superstar, or even a star to begin with. However, when a team is lucky enough to get their hands on one of the nations best players, what happens to all the other players? Other then Pat Connaughton (14 PPG and 9 RPG), the Irish lack a true threat that doesn’t wear Grant on the back of his jersey. If Notre Dame hopes to continue their success, they will need to play team basketball when Grant has his off nights. For example, against Virginia, Grant had 6 points on 2-8 shooting. The Irish only scored 56 points the whole game, coming up 25 points below their season average. No player can drop 20 points every night at the college level, so Notre Dame must prepare for Grant to find some struggles. The Irish must rally around each other and find ways to win without Grant if they want success in the ACC and NCAA Tournament.
Louisville has the hardest schedule of anyone in this group of top-5 teams. They have already suffered a heart breaking loss to North Carolina, a blowout loss to Duke, a thrilling comeback win over Carolina, and still have games left against Virginia (x2) and Notre Dame. Added onto all of that, Louisville had to play Kentucky in the non-conference portion of their schedule. Louisville is a team who thrives on athleticism, which comes on both sides of the ball. The Cardinals average 71 PPG next to giving up only 59 PPG to their opponents. Louisville’s intensity on the ball is unmatched by any team in the country. From the guard position, the quick hands of Terry Rozier create immediate havoc when the opponent crosses the half court line. In the post, big men must go up against the likes of Montrezl Harrell, possibly the nations most intimidating player. On offense, Rozier and Harrell also provide the majority of the offense. Rozier is one of the nations leading scorers at 19 PPG, and Harrell’s raw talent in the post leads to 15 points and 9 boards per game.
Although it is their strength, Louisville’s pitfall is really their athleticism. For example, take their blowout loss to Duke. Duke shocked the world by coming out in a 2-3 zone, leaving few opportunities for the Cardinals to get the rock in the lane. A team driven by athleticism needs room to run and get in the lane; these teams usually struggle in a half court offense. The result of this game was Louisville chucking up ugly shots from mid-range and behind the arc. By the end of the game, Louisville had only managed to score 52 points on 29% shooting. The Cardinals have rare struggles on defense, but they need room to run on offense, something that may not come easy in their remaining ACC schedule.
DUKE IS SO CONFUSING! In the middle of January, they seemed left for dead after blowout losses to NC State and Miami. Since, they’ve rebounded with wins at Louisville and Virginia. They also suffered a loss at Notre Dame, a game they easily could have won if superstar Jahlil Okafor had just made a couple free throws. For Duke, it all starts with Okafor. He is one of the nation’s top players, averaging 18 points, 10 rebounds, and shooting a Herculean 67% from the field. When all goes wrong, it seems that Okafor is always a guaranteed bucket in the post. On the perimeter, the emergence of guard Tyus Jones has helped the Blue Devils more than anyone. Jones scores in double figures, throws 5 dimes a game, and shoots 89% from the line. Jones almost single-handedly won his team a game at Virginia, where he made multiple threes in the waning minutes to win by 6.
So where does Duke struggle in its losses? Well, to begin with, they often struggle to shoot the three. Quinn Cook and Tyus Jones are the team’s primary shooters, so when they go cold, the team often relies on Okafor a little too much. One BIG ISSUE is Jahlil Okafor’s free throw shooting. Jahlil shoots 55% from the line, a full 10 points lower than his field goal percentage. That is unheard of! Why don’t teams use the hack-a-Jahlil strategy?! That strategy is yet to be seen, but I would not be surprised to see teams use a lot more fouls on Okafor in Duke’s coming games.
Again, before I start my analysis, I’m a huge Virginia fan, so I’m sorry if I ramble about our awesomeness. The Cavaliers are one of the nation’s most balanced teams. It is not worth posting their team offensive stats, since they are diluted by pace of play (second slowest offense in the country). All that matters is that Virginia’s offense is one of the top-10 most efficient in the nation. But who cares about offense when you can defend? Virginia gives up a mind-numbing 51 PPG, good for tops in the country. They have given up less then 30 points on three different occasions, including once in conference play. And, to top it all off, only one team has shot better than 50% from the field against the ‘Hoos (Duke at 50.9%, also the team’s only loss). Tony Bennett’s innovative coaching style has done wonders for this team, and they truly are the second best team in the country (sorry Gonzaga).
Because of a dramatically slow play-style, people believe that they “cannot blow anyone out” (except for their 7 wins by 20+ points this year). However, this is Virginia’s main worry in their remaining games. If a team can get hot from behind the three point line, a slow play style is not the way to claw back into a game. Virginia has not been forced to play up-tempo this year, and I think it will be interesting to see how they react in a fast NCAA Tournament game. Of course, a good defense helps with slowing a game down, but a very fast team could show Virginia some problems.
We won’t find out who the ACC’s best is until March rolls around, but one thing is for sure; the rest of the ACC season will be as exciting a conference has ever seen.