ACC Men’s Basketball Preview: Non-Conference Wrap-Up

acc men's basketball

The 2018-19 ACC men’s basketball conference season is officially underway, with Miami and North Carolina State having already played a thriller that came down to the wire while Virginia Tech further asserted itself with a thorough win over Notre Dame. One of the best conferences in college basketball, six teams find themselves in the AP Top 25 at this point in the season—including two of the top four.

With the rest of the ACC’s 135-game slate looming, there’s plenty to catch up on after two months of action. Here’s a few things you need to know about each team in the conference—ordered by KenPom.com’s overall rating—before the push for seeding in the New York Life ACC Tournament heats up.

1) No. 1 Duke (11-1): The leader in the polls, the Blue Devils boast the likely top-two picks in the upcoming NBA Draft in Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett and a surrounding cast that is more than capable. Simply put, Duke is terrifying for most to play against. It ranks second and third in offensive and defensive rating, respectively. The defense is first in steal percentage and second in block percentage, which results in plenty of transition opportunities and thunderous dunks.

2) No. 4 Virginia (12-0): Another year, another impressive Cavaliers team. Head coach Tony Bennett has it down to a science—his team is the slowest (353rd in adjusted tempo) in college basketball and still methodically roll over teams. Second in the coaches poll, UVA has top-25 wins over Maryland and Wisconsin and seem en route to another strong conference season. Kyle Guy, D’Andre Hunter, and Ty Jerome form a potent trio that are all averaging 14-plus points per game.

3) No. 15 North Carolina (10-3): The Tar Heels are pushing the pace this year at an unprecedented rate under Roy Williams. It’s been nine years since UNC finished in the top-10 in tempo and it’s sixth right now. The Tar Heels are tall and quick—four of their five significant contributors (in percentage of possessions used) are 6-foot-9 or taller. Luke Maye is still his same reliable self, averaging 14.2 points and 9.8 rebounds per game. The three early losses came to quality teams in Texas, No. 13 Kentucky, and No. 2 Michigan. UNC does have a win over No. 7 Gonzaga under its belt, too.

4) No. 10 Virginia Tech (12-1): While slightly unproven—the Hokies only true road game ended in a one-point loss to Penn State—you’d be a fool to not take VTech seriously. An offensive juggernaut, Buzz Williams’ side leads the nation with a 65.1 effective field goal percentage and has four players averaging double-digits. The second-best 3-point shooting team (45.3 percent) is guided by Nickeil Alexander-Walker, who is averaging 18.3 points per game on 48 percent shooting from deep.

5) No. 9 Florida State (12-1): A six-point setback to Villanova aside—a game they played without senior leader Phil Cofer—the Seminoles have several quality wins under their belt and will enter conference play with confidence. FSU slipped past a pair of then-No. 19 teams in Purdue and LSU to climb up the polls, and bring a balanced style of play to the ACC. The Seminoles force a lot of turnovers on defense and get plenty of second chances on the boards, with seven players grabbing at least two rebounds a game.

6) No. 18 N.C. State (13-1): The only true road game in non-conference play ended in a four-point defeat to No. 22 Wisconsin, but the Wolfpack followed that up with a seven-game winning streak that included an upset of No. 7 Auburn. N.C. State is going to score a lot of points on you, it’s a matter of keeping up with the 12th-best team by adjusted offensive efficiency. Markell Johnson is an excellent facilitator, averaging four assists per game, and Torin Dorn does a little bit of everything—14.5 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 1.5 steals per game.

7) Syracuse (9-4): The preseason No. 16 team in the AP Poll, the Orange have since slid all the way out of the receiving votes section. A pair of two-game skids is the reason, Syracuse first fell to Connecticut and No. 13 Oregon, then dropped back-to-back games to Old Dominion and No. 14 Buffalo. Two of those losses were understandable, two were inexcusable. Syracuse is hot and cold—when it’s hot, it can beat the likes of No. 16 Ohio State, and when it’s not it has to pull away late from the likes of Cornell. Jim Boeheim’s defense is its usual self—19th in adjust efficiency—it’s the offense that needs work.

8) Clemson (10-3): The Tigers played three good teams in non-conference play, losing to all by a combined 16 points. Clemson is going to be a team to keep an eye on in conference play, having returned almost all of the talent from last year—Gabe DeVoe and Donte Grantham are gone, but it still ranks 53rd in experience. Marcquise Reed is a pure scorer but can do it all, he’s averaging 20.1 points per game alongside 5.2 rebounds, 3.6 assists, and 2.1 steals.

9) Louisville (9-4): It’s year one with Chris Mack, the Xavier transplant a year removed from an Elite Eight run, as head coach. Early results have been interesting—Mack is clearly working through the rotation—there’s nine guys who’ve played at least 38 percent of the Cardinals’ minutes. Defense has been an issue in the early going but Louisville has a decent offense and is able to get to the line at will. Three of the four losses were close and an overtime win over No. 4 Michigan State is something to hang its hats on.

10) Miami (8-5): An ugly four-game losing streak after five-consecutive wins to start the year just carried over the looming disappointment from last year’s first round exit in both the ACC and NCAA Tournaments. The Ivy League had its way with the Hurricanes, Penn and Yale both knocked them off, as did Rutgers—a middle of the pack Big Ten team—and Seton Hall. Outside the top 50 in both offense and defense, Miami has some work to do. Chris Lykes, an explosive 5-foot-7 guard, has been fun to watch—he’s scoring 17.5 points per game and dropped 28 in the loss to the Wolfpack.

11) Notre Dame (10-4): The Irish can’t catch a break, injury-wise. A year after getting just 20 games from star Bonzie Colson, Mike Brey’s team lost four-star freshman Robby Carmody to a knee injury after nine games and Rex Pflueger to a shoulder injury after 10. Aside from an unexpected loss to Radford in the third game of the season, Notre Dame has been decent—it lost to Oklahoma, UCLA, and VTech, all good teams, then knocked off Purdue in a neutral site game. T.J. Gibbs is scoring 14.5 points per game, Brey’s going to need more than that. The defense hasn’t been great thus far (116th in efficiency), so that’s a part of the Irish’s game that could get picked apart in conference play.

12) Pittsburgh (10-3): The early results from new head coach Jeff Capel have been promising—the Panthers already have two more wins then they managed all of last season. Pittsburgh’s go-to guy is a freshman, Xavier Johnson, he’s scoring 16.3 points per game and adding five assists as well. Blame a loss to Niagara on youth—Capel is trotting out three freshman in the starting lineup. Expect a harsh reality check in ACC play, though, as the Panthers played the third-easiest non-conference schedule. While a winless conference slate seems unlikely to be replicated, programs aren’t built back up in a year.

13) Georgia Tech (8-5): Josh Pastner’s bunch can put in a spirited defensive effort. They’re 24th in defensive efficiency, but that only matters if your offense has a pulse—and the Yellow Jackets are struggling mightily in that department. They’re 224th in offensive efficiency and that comes after a non-conference slate against defenses with an average rank of 252nd. GT is really, really missing Josh Okogie and Ben Lammers. Its leading scorer, Jose Alvarado, falls outside the top 30 in the conference.

14) Boston College (9-3): The Eagles have responded pretty well to the loss of Jerome Robinson to the NBA, but there’s some troubling signs despite nine wins in their first 12 games. Losses to IUPUI and Hartford on their home floor are games that BC needs to figure out how to close out in the future, and even that marquee win over Loyola Chicago loses its luster with each passing day. The Eagles’ perimeter defense has continued to slide and it’s especially costly because the team as a whole has taken a big step back in that department on offense. Ky Bowman found his new backcourt mate, as freshman Wynston Tabbs is a joy to watch.

15) Wake Forest (7-5): In the 2016-17 season, the Demon Deacons, under Danny Manning, earned a spot in the NCAA Tournament on the back of All-ACC and future NBA player John Collins. Every other season under Manning, though, hasn’t been particularly great—and 2018-19 is looking like it’s headed that way. Wake Forest could be headed to its fourth losing season in five years under Manning as it almost ranks outside the top 150 in both offense and defense, and additionally has already lost to subpar teams like Gardner Webb, Houston Baptist, Saint Joseph’s, and Richmond.

Featured Image by Gerry Broome / AP Photo

Bradley Smart
About Bradley Smart 244 Articles
Bradley is the sports editor for The Heights. He believes that America does truly run on Dunkin, baseball teams should always wear stirrups, you can't outrun a bear, and being down 3-1, in anything, is never cause for concern. You can follow him on Twitter @bradleysmart15.