Good news, everyone: the real season is about to start. With non-conference cupcake fodder finally in the rearview mirror, the ACC slate is on the horizon - and for the first time since the Greivis Vasquez era, there's palpable excitement over it in College Park.
And why not? The Terps are 12-1, having won every game since the three-point loss in the season opener to Kentucky, and the ACC's down. Sure, Duke's surprisingly good. But past that? N.C. State is N.C. State, Florida State is coming apart at the seams, Miami can't stay healthy and eligible, and North Carolina isn't as good as they should be.
Basically, there's a void right below Duke for that second spot. And this year is as good as any other for the Terps to make a run at it.
To prove as much, I took the liberty of taking stock of the ACC heading into the conference schedule, going team-by-team and checking in on the Terrapins' opposition as we head into the ACC season, because I do it anyway to stay abreast of the competition and figured that if I'm going to that much work regardless, I'm darn well getting a post out of it. Oh, and Maryland's in there, too, because self-scouting is fun. Warning: it's long. And to show the silliness of preseason polls, it's ordered by the ACC media's preseason poll. (It also gives you an idea of relative expectations.)
Spoiler: Duke is Duke, the States disappoint, the Techs surprise, and UNC is still anyone's guess. Let's get to the capsules:
N.C. State Wolfpack, 11-2 (RPI: 12 | KenPom: 34)
So Far: If you were expecting State to be a dominant national player, as many conference- and national-based writers were, you were probably a little disappointed by what they've shown so far this year. If you were expecting them to be talented but underachieve compared to their expectations, like most rational humans, you were probably unsurprised. After running through some decent opening opponents - Massachusetts and Penn State - they went through a terrible three-game stretch, losing to Oklahoma State and Michigan and beating UNC-Asheville by only two, at which point they fell off the national map. Since then, though, they've rounded into form nicely, with wins over UConn and Stanford, easily running through cupcake fodder in the meantime. Questions remain, but their resumé - while far short of the elite status they were given before the season - isn't bad for a second-tier ACC team, and they're poised to be one of the teams fighting for that #2 spot behind Duke.
Significant Contributors: C.J. Leslie (15.3 ppg, 7.5 rpg), T.J. Warren (13.6 ppg), Richard Howell (13.5 ppg, 9.3 rpg), Lorenzo Brown (12.2 ppg, 6.1 apg)
Biggest Strengths: Say what you will about them, but State's loaded with athleticism and talent. Lo Brown is one of the conference's elite point guards; C.J. Leslie is a monster on his day; Richard Howell is Charles Mitchell all grown up; Scott Wood is still an elite sniper; Rodney Purvis and T.J. Warren are five-star wings with the game to match. It's a frighteningly good assortment of talent, especially on the offensive end. Taken in totality, I'd be lying if I didn't say it's one of the better rosters in the country. Unsurprisingly, that's led to them having one of the most prolific offenses in the nation, coming in at 10th in the country in points per possession (a rough measure of offensive efficiency), 5th in the country in eFG% (field goal percentage with three-pointers weighted), and seventh in the country in true shooting percentage (field goal percentage with three-pointers and free throws factored in and weighted). With Howell inside, Leslie facing up, Wood dropping bombs, the likes of Purvis and Warren slashing, and Brown running the show, this is one of the most well-balanced, dangerous attacks in the country. And they can put up a lot of points in a hurry.
Fatal Flaws: For one, depth. Past the five starters, Warren, and Tyler Lewis, there's virtually nothing. Jordan Vanderberg, a 7-1 stiff, is the only thing in the way of post depth, and he's not on the same planet as Howell or Leslie. They don't rebound particularly well, especially on the defensive end, either; Maryland should be able to exploit both of those shortcomings when the two match up. Perhaps more importantly, I'm still less than enthused about Mark Gottfried's ability to actually coach. He's never overachieved in his career, and when challenged by Oklahoma State and Michigan, looked devoid of answers. How he oversees this team - with one of the biggest firecrackers in the country on the roster with Leslie - is going to be critical to State's hopes, and that's not a particularly promising prospect.
Against Maryland: January 16th in College Park
Duke Blue Devils, 12-0 (RPI: 1 | KenPom: 4)
So Far: I have trouble believing Duke is truly the best team in America when I look at their roster, but they damn sure have the best resumé in America. They've already toppled Kentucky, VCU, Minnesota, Louisville, and Ohio State - it was perhaps the toughest schedule in the country, and they ran through it undefeated and relatively comfortably. Those are six opponents in KenPom's top 15, incredibly. Maryland, by comparison, has played one KenPom top-50 team - UK, whom Duke easily defeated. The Blue Devils are runaway conference favorites, and might well be national title favorites to boot.
Significant Contributors: Mason Plumlee (19.5 ppg, 11.5 rpg), Seth Curry (17.1 ppg, 42% three-point shooting), Ryan Kelly (12.4 ppg, 43% three-point shooting), Quinn Cook (10.75 ppg, 5.9 apg)
Biggest Strengths: This is Duke basketball, which means the same thing it always does: they're well-coached, well-drilled, defend well, and can shoot the lights out, with some goofy-looking big man running things down low. Offensively, they're fifth in the country in three-point shooting percentage, 12th in assist-turnover ratio, 12th in points per possession, and 17th in eFG% - all either first- or second-best in the conference. The key, though, may actually be Plumlee. He's one of the country's elite big men, and containing him one-on-one is beyond the ability of most defenders. Either he gets the ball and wins a one-on-one battle, or teams double him and one of Duke's numerous sharpshooters gets a good look. For any team that doesn't have an elite big man who can match him, it's hell to defend. Meanwhile, they're still an above-average defensive team, with a defensive eFG% in the top 40 nationally and checking in at 99th in points per possession. Given that those numbers come against some of the best teams in the country, they're hugely impressive; this is a team that's well-coached, well-rounded, and among the most impressive in the country.
Fatal Flaws: I see three, potentially, and each plays right into Maryland's hands, which is why I've long said that the Terps are a team built to beat Duke (and why I suspect they'll do so at least once before the year's out). First: they don't rebound well. Because K insists on playing with a face-up four (in this case, Ryan Kelly), that means there's one rebounder on the floor: Plumlee. He's a darn good rebounder, but he's not Superman. They're a downright middling 236th nationally in OReb%, and not much better on the other end, either. Second: they don't have depth. This is more by choice than necessity, but the Blue Devils go about six deep, with the four aforementioned players, Rasheed Sulaimon, and Tyler Thornton. Past that, there's Amile Jefferson, who's averaging 9 minutes per game, Josh Hairston, who's averaging 10.5 mpg, and Alex Murphy, who's averaging 6.6 - K seems comfortable with none of them. Lastly, if a team has someone who can neutralize Plumlee on both ends of the floor, Duke should get thrown out of whack. That's something they haven't encountered yet: Nerlens Noel is overhyped, Trevor Mbakwe was battling a knee injury and played only 18 minutes, and Gorgui Dieng missed their matchup due to injury. This is a very good team, but those three areas are where Maryland is at their strongest, and it'll be interesting to see how they take advantage of it when they match up.
Against Maryland: January 26th in Durham, February 16th in College Park
North Carolina Tar Heels, 10-3 (RPI: 25 | KenPom: 32)
So Far: Welcome to the party, UNC. Through the first 12 games of the year, the Heels had rather little going for them on the resumé front, at least compared to their usual high expectations. They lost to Butler by double-digits on a neutral court; Indiana ran them out of the building in Bloomington; Texas embarrassed them in Austin. Their best win? Probably East Carolina, whom they beat by 6 in Chapel Hill. And then, just on Saturday, they finally landed a notable win, topping a pretty solid UNLV team by six in the Dean Dome. That's an encouraging sign of life after an opening stretch reminiscent of the NIT season they endured back in 2009. It's UNC, so there's still plenty of talent and they're certainly a lot better than that team - indeed, there's no reason to believe they won't challenge for that #2 spot - but they've done nothing to look like the UNC of old.
Significant Contributors: James Michael McAdoo (14.8 ppg, 8.3 rpg), Reggie Bullock (13.1 ppg, 48% three-point shooting), Dexter Strickland (9.4 ppg, 4.5 apg), Marcus Paige (7.4 ppg, 4.3 apg)
Biggest Strengths: As per usual, UNC has a lot of athleticism and even more depth, and they run at a breakneck pace. They're the second-fastest team in the country in tempo, and everyone on the team gets out well on the break. McAdoo is an all-ACC type and he's played pretty well like it so far this year, rebounding at a high rate, running the floor, and providing a fairly productive offensive outlet. As always, too, there's no lack of talented, high-scoring wings, with P.J. Hairston, Leslie McDonald, and Reggie Bullock capable of lighting things up at any given moment - Bullock's offensive rating of 133.4 is 16th best in the country, actually. Their tempo means they'll always put up points, but they're being fairly efficient about it, as they check in at 4th in the ACC in points/possession.
Fatal Flaws: For one, unlike UNC teams past, there's no obvious star on the team. McAdoo might've been that guy, but he's not convinced many throughout the non-conference slate that he's that good. Roy's teams always run, but they're running even more than usual this season, partly out of necessity: there are plenty of athletes and a lot of depth on this team, but they're unconvincing when not getting out and running. And for a team that usually has such a well-rounded roster, there's a giant hole in it this season: there is, quite simply, no solid big man on the team. McAdoo is 6-9 but only 230 pounds and more of a well-rounded four than a true post; Brice Johnson is 6-9, too, but doesn't crack 190 pounds. Who next? Joel James has the body, but he's a freshman and is averaging only 13 minutes a game. Our old friend Desmond Hubert? Not quite there. McAdoo will have a heck of a time trying to guard ACC fives, especially someone like Alex Len who has him in length, strength, and maybe even athleticism to boot.
Against Maryland: January 19th in Chapel Hill, March 6th in College Park
Florida St. Seminoles, 8-4 (RPI: 84 | KenPom: 69)
So Far: Has any ACC team disappointed as much as Florida State? They have decent wins over BYU and St. Joe's on neutral floors, but they also lost to South Alabama and Mercer in Tallahassee, not to mention getting run out of the gym by Florida at home, too. As Jay Bilas said earlier in the year, no program has as many really good wins and as many really bad losses as Florida State, and it holds true yet again. This year, though, they're yet to actually drop one of those wins that makes you sit up and pay attention about them as a potentially dangerous team. That said, they took awhile to get into the swing of things last season, too, and they still ended up as one of the conference's better teams. Don't write them off, but it's tough to see this year's bunch making a leap like that.
Significant Contributors: Michael Snaer (16.1 ppg, 2.5 apg), Okaro White (13.1 ppg, 5.9 rpg), Terrance Shannon (9.2 ppg, 6.5 rpg), Ian Miller (6.7 ppg, 2.6 apg)
Biggest Strengths: Their absolute biggest? Probably Michael Snaer, who finally looks like putting together an entire season at an all-ACC level and is one of the more dangerous offensive weapons in the conference. And just like last season,
Bunny Colvin Leonard Hamilton has built his team around height, as they're one of the tallest teams in the country, with two quality 6-8 junior bigs in Shannon and White, plus two seven-footers off the bench in Kiel Turpin and Boris Bojanovsky. Oddly enough, they shoot the three-ball better than anyone in the conference save Duke, at 39% - I say oddly because they hardly ever shoot from deep, at 199th nationally in three-point attempt ratio. That helps contribute to their fourth-in-conference eFG%, which is a pretty solid mark given that they usually focus on building from the defense.
Fatal Flaws: For starters, they turn the ball over. A lot. They have as many turnovers per game as Maryland, and a lot fewer assists to balance it out. And whereas FSU usually builds around having a suffocating defense, as mentioned earlier, their D this year is downright average. They're 152nd in the country in defensive eFG%, good for 10th in the conference - better than only Wake Forest and Boston College. But perhaps their biggest problem is obvious: focus. FSU has a roster make-up good enough to beat South Alabama and Mercer even sleepwalking through the game, but they failed to muster even that much. This team is not guaranteed to show up for games, and they're not as good as last year's team even when they do.
Against Maryland: January 9th in College Park, January 30th in Tallahassee
Miami Hurricanes, 8-3 (RPI: 18 | KenPom: 35)
So Far: If Miami could keep healthy and eligible, they might have quite a team. When working with a full deck, the 'Canes have an impressive resumé, beating Michigan State in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge and taking decent mid-majors like Charlotte and Central Florida to the cleaners. But they were without leading scorer Durand Scott for the first three games, during which they dropped an awful loss to Florida Gulf Coast. Then Reggie Johnson goes and breaks his thumb, and the 'Canes drop games at the Diamond Head Classic to Arizona (by nearly 20) and plucky-but-unimposing Illinois State. Johnson will be out for six to eight weeks, meaning he'll certainly miss their game against Maryland. Shame for Jim Larranaga and the 'Canes, too, because with a complete roster they could've been quite imposing. I suppose, of course, they still might be, especially once Johnson returns, but if they can't stay healthy it's tough to see them making a run.
Big Names: Durand Scott (15.6 ppg, 3 apg), Shane Larkin (13.1 ppg, 3.7 apg), Reggie Johnson (12.6 ppg, 10.1 rpg), Kenny Kadji (11.8 ppg, 6.6 rpg)
Biggest Strengths: When healthy, there's a lot of experience - and talented experience, at that - on this roster. Johnson, Kadji, Scott, and Trey McKinney-Jones, all starters, are all seniors, and their two biggest bench players - Julian Gamble and Rion Brown - are seniors and juniors themselves. Even without Johnson, they're one of the most experienced teams in the country, which plays into Larranaga's hands. Johnson, when healthy, is a handful down low on both ends of the court, and Scott is one of the more underrated creators in the country. He's a fantastic offensive weapon who can get his own shot in any number of ways, and he's been playing fantastically since returning to the team. Like you'd expect from a Larranaga team, they play smart basketball and rarely turn the ball over, with the second-best turnover rate in the conference (behind, of course, Duke). And also like you'd expect from a Larranaga team, they play great defense, as they're in the top-half in the conference in virtually every defensive category, from eFG% to turnover rate to three-point defense.
Fatal Flaws: Very few teams can afford to lose a double-double type like Johnson and not suffer for it. Even fewer can do so when they lack elite depth to begin with, as is the case with Miami. They really only went about seven deep with him, and now they're going to have to rely on reserves like Erik Swoope (5.8 mpg), Tonye Jekiri (7.5 mpg) and Raphael Akpejiori (4.4 mpg). They're one of the slowest teams in the conference, partially out of necessity, but when other teams run against them they'll get stretched thin. Johnson was a big offensive weapon who could get his own shot down low, but more importantly he was a fulcrum defensively and on the boards. Kadji is still an ACC-level big man, but Julian Gamble is a big, big step down in quality. The 'Canes also struggled with rebounding even with Johnson in the team, and without him they're liable to get dominated on the boards entirely.
Against Maryland: January 13th in Coral Gables
Maryland Terrapins, 12-1 (RPI: 65 | KenPom: 56)
So Far: Well, the Terps really haven't played anyone, so it's tough to glean too much from their early-season performance outside of, uh, not imploding against mediocre competition. Of course they've looked mighty good at times, but without much in the way of decent competition up 'til now - their KenPom strength of schedule is sixth-worst in the country - it's tough to know how much it'll transfer over. One thing's for sure, though: when called upon against even average teams, they've looked pretty good, running Northwestern out of the gym and beating George Mason by seven on a neutral floor. Kentucky, of course, is their best opponent so far, and that was a missed opportunity with a three-point loss in the first game. But they looked solid even in there, and will enter ACC play riding a 12-game winning streak and without a bad loss on their resumé. That's more than you can say for a lot of the other programs vying for the second-place spot.
Significant Contributors: Alex Len (13.7 ppg, 8.25 rpg), Dezmine Wells (12.6 ppg, 4.8 rpg), Nick Faust (10.3 ppg, 3.1 apg), Pe`Shon Howard (3.6 ppg, 6.1 apg)
Biggest Strengths: Maryland, which goes a legit ten-deep with comfort, is as deep as any team in the conference, which is reflected by the fact that nearly 40% of their minutes come from their bench, a mark that's best in the ACC. But their two biggest assets are both coaches' dreams: defensive field goal percentage and offensive rebounding. The Terps lead the ACC in both marks, and are in the top-10 nationally to boot. In fact, only Texas has a better defensive eFG%, which is impressive even with the middling competition Maryland's played. Mark Turgeon had a reputation when he was hired of a defensive coach whose teams rebounded, and that's exactly what we're starting to see from his teams in College Park. Offensively, though there doesn't appear to be a go-to scorer and the Terps struggle with outside shooting, they're a lot more effective and efficient than you'd think: they're third in the conference in true shooting percentage, with a fantastic 57% two-point shooting percentage (tenth-best nationally). No team in the ACC has a higher assist ratio than Maryland, which, when paired with their shooting percentages, indicates good offensive execution, a flaw in recent years.
Fatal Flaws: First off, Maryland turns the ball over more than anyone in the conference, save for FSU (which is tied with them). They don't force many turnovers, either (another Turgeon hallmark, sadly), and the two in combination really undo the possessions advantage created by the offensive rebounding advantage. Secondly, they still struggle from outside, shooting only 33% as a team. That's improved from recent weeks - they're now a respectable 7th in the ACC there - but they still get only 20% of their points from deep, the second-least in the conference. And lastly - this is speculation - but you do have to wonder if they've had too easy of a schedule, to the point where their youngsters won't be as prepared for ACC play when it does come. If they start slow in the conference, fingers will be pointed when it comes to scheduling.
Scheduling Trends: I hate to be melodramatic, but Maryland can't afford that aforementioned potential slow start. The season opens up with Virginia Tech, Florida State, Miami, and N.C. State - all at home, except Miami. All four are going to be competitors for that second tier in the conference, and given that three of the games are at home, a quick start is certainly possible and could give Maryland a serious leg up - imagine what 4-0 out of the gates against those four would mean for the rest of the year. The other obvious important stretch: a soft, gooey February, that lacks any imposing road game (the worst is to Georgia Tech) and features Wake Forest, Boston College, and Clemson, plus the toughest games - Virginia and Duke - at home. There's a chance to get some serious results there.
Virginia Cavaliers, 10-3 (RPI: 148 | KenPom: 25)
So Far: If Florida State is inconsistent, then what is Virginia? The Cavs started off the season with a four-point loss at George Mason and lost to Delaware at home by six just days later. Then they somehow righted the ship and beat Wisconsin and Tennessee, the former on the road. And then they go and lose to Old Dominion at a neutral site, though that did come with out ailing point guard Jontel Evans. Still, I'm not sure there's a tougher team in the conference to get a bead on than UVA. They're still incredibly boring-yet-efficient, but they also aren't stacked with talent and if they can't get jumpers to fall will have a hell of a time winning games. They don't seem likely to be a major threat to challenge for the top spots, but they'll certainly be a thorn in everyone's side.
Significant Contributors: Joe Harris (15 ppg, 47% three-point shooting), Akil Mitchell (13.2 pgg, 9.1 rpg), Darion Atkins (8.1 ppg, 4.8 ppg), Evan Nolte (6.3 ppg, 43% three-point shooting)
Biggest Strengths: For everyone who complains about the Big Ten basketball brand, it's time to take a look at some of the teams in the ACC, starting with Tony Bennett's Virginia. They're the second-slowest high-major team in the country - Pittsburgh is the slowest, so don't expect much better in the coming years - and it's still boring, rip-out-your-eyes basketball. But, as ever, it's pretty effective, especially on the defensive end with that damnable packline defense, which makes it extraordinarily difficult to get easy shots on the inside. They have the second-lowest points allowed per possession in the conference, and the second-lowest defensive eFG%. Offensively, they're deadly with the three-ball, at 38% as a team, the third-best mark in the ACC, but it's all about execution in their offensive sets: 65% of their baskets are assisted, good for second-best in the ACC. (Behind, shockingly, Maryland.) There's a lot Virginia doesn't do well, but damned if they don't execute on both ends of the floor.
Fatal Flaws: Virginia won a lot of games last year on the brilliance of Mike Scott, who was as effective a player as there was in the conference last year. They lack anyone even approaching him this year, with Darion Atkins and Akil Mitchell offering little more than pale imitations. They're still liable to get outphysicaled by opposition, as they're made up more of technicians than athletes, Justin Anderson aside. Both of those combined means there's very little in the way of easy points for them: almost everything comes through a set, often a jumper at the end of it. Against a team like Maryland with a very good defense, that's going to be a challenge. Defensively, they lack an elite post presence, which is mitigated somewhat by Bennett's defensive style. But that same style leaves them in the line of fire if a team can shoot from outside, which is how George Mason beat them.
Against Maryland: February 10th in College Park, March 10th in Charlottesville
Clemson Tigers, 8-4 (RPI: 186 | KenPom: 71)
So Far: I suspected Clemson was in serious danger of falling off the map before the season, and they're trending dangerously close to bottom-feeder status early in the year. They've played three top-100 opponents - Gonzaga, Purdue, and Arizona - and though they didn't get blown out by any of them, they didn't mount a serious challenge, either. Their best win? Over UTEP. And that's outdone somewhat by the fact that they lost by - seriously, get this - 23 points to Coastal Carolina. There's a distinct lack of quality on this roster, and it's showing through. Some of their early showings weren't bad, even if they lost, but little since then has engendered much confidence.
Significant Contributors: Devin Booker (11.6 ppg, 7.5 rpg), K.J. McDaniels (11.3 ppg, 4.9 rpg), Milton Jennings (10.7 ppg, 5.7 rpg), Rod Hall (6.4 ppg, 4.2 apg)
Biggest Strengths: You can't accuse them of not buckling down and playing defense, which is Brad Brownell's strong suit. They're fourth in the conference in eFG% (30th nationally) and force more turnovers than anyone in the ACC save Florida State. They play aggressively, as usual, and are especially tough to beat inside the three-point arc, with solid size from Booker and Jennings. There's not a ton of proven talent on the perimeter, but there are some interesting players. Adonis Filer is a jumping jack of a two-guard who reminds me of an athletic, less skilled Terrell Stoglin: he's a chucker, but is quick and draws a lot of fouls. McDaniels is interesting, too: he's an athletic and dangerous slasher, who can be a difference-maker getting to the rim or on defense. They can cause some teams trouble with their combination of athleticism, size, and defense.
Fatal Flaws: If you're going to try to out-athlete teams in the ACC, better make damn sure you have elite-level guys. And I don't think Clemson does. Filer and McDaniels are interesting, but are they going to out-athlete Nick Faust and Dez Wells? Probably not. Against a roll-out-the-ball coach like Tim Floyd, that works, but when the athletes or coach is better on the other bench, there's not a lot going for Clemson. They don't shoot particularly well - 32% from three, 64% from the line - and have struggled to put up points against solid defenses - they're tenth in the ACC in points per possession. ACC defenses will be better suited to deal with their defense and will be better able to dictate the pace - Clemson consistently looks to slow it down - plus be able to out-athlete them, and I doubt Clemson will have the offense to keep pace.
Against Maryland: February 23rd in Clemson
Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, 9-2 (RPI: 102 | KenPom: 59)
So Far: Just like you had to wonder if N.C. State was overrated coming into the year, Georgia Tech was one of those teams that seemed like they might easily overachieve. After all, they lost relatively little of note from last season's team, and brought in pretty major reinforcements with Robert Carter and Marcus Georges-Hunt, both of whom are starting early in the year. That's paid off, as they've started the year fairly hot, with decent wins over Tulane, St. Mary's and Georgia, and their only two losses to California on a neutral court and Illinois on the road. It's not the resumé of a team likely to threaten for that second tier in the conference, but it's hardly one of a bottom-feeder, either.
Significant Contributors: Marcus Georges-Hunt (11.1 ppg), Robert Carter (9.7 ppg, 6.4 rpg), Kammeon Holsey (9.5 ppg, 5.3 rpg), Mfon Udofia (9.3 ppg, 3.6 apg)
Biggest Strengths: Really, they're a premium version of Clemson. Brian Gregory's always been a defensive coach, and he's putting that same fingerprint on GT now. The Yellow Jackets are 3rd in the country, just behind Maryland, in eFG%, largely fueled by their ridiculously good 38% defensive shooting percentage inside the arc. They can chalk that up to the length and athleticism they've assembled on the roster, especially with 6-11 Daniel Miller holding down the post - he leads the conference in blocks per game and block percentage, making it extremely tough to get easy looks inside. They're also one of the better rebounding teams in the conference, driven by the presence of Holsey, fourth in the conference in oReb%, and Robert Carter, ninth in dReb%.
Fatal Flaws: Again, they have many of the same problems as Clemson, too, though maybe even worse. Offensively, they're not just not quite there yet. Almost everything comes on the inside, with Holsey, Carter, and Georges-Hunt the primary offensive outlets. None of them can shoot, and in fact there's really no one on the roster who can consistently stretch defenses, perhaps Udofia aside. That's why they have the worst eFG% and the worst three-point shooting percentage in the conference, something that'll hold them back when, like Clemson, they'll have problems out-athlete-ing ACC opponents. They're tied with Wake Forest for last in the conference in points per possession, and I don't see that mark improving as competition toughens.
Against Maryland: February 27th in Atlanta
Virginia Tech Hokies, 9-4 (RPI: 137 | KenPom: 127)
So Far: If Florida State's the big disappointment, Virginia Tech's the most pleasant surprise, even with their recent collapse in form. No one expected anything from the Hokies coming into the year after replacing Seth Greenberg with one of his assistants and losing former star recruits Montrezl Harrell and Dorian Finney-Smith to Louisville and Florida, respectively. Yet here they stand, 9-4 with wins over Iowa and Oklahoma State. Unfortunately for them, they fell apart a little after their 7-0 start, dropping games to West Virginia (on the road by a single point, which isn't too bad), Georgia Southern (by five at home, which kind of is too bad), and Colorado State and BYU on neutral courts by giant margins. Neither CSU nor BYU are awful, but they're not the type of team that second-tier ACC teams should be losing to by 36 or 26, either. Still, Tech's shown enough to convince you that they'll be far from bottom-feeders.
Significant Contributors: Erick Green (24.4 ppg, 4.6 apg), Jarrell Eddie (14.8 ppg, 6.8 rpg), Robert Brown (10.6 ppg), Cadarian Raines (6.9 ppg, 6.3 rpg)
Biggest Strengths: Two words: Erick Green. There's not been a better player in the conference so far than Maryland's old nemesis, who has blossomed into an elite point guard as a senior. He's leading the conference in scoring, throwing in nearly five assists per game, and being used more than any other player: he takes, incredibly, 31% of Tech's shots when he's on the floor. And yet he still maintains his tenth-in-the-conference offensive rating, which is almost mind-bendingly efficient for the amount he's used. Green, when he's on, has been an all-American quality player this season, and he's the type of guy who could will Tech to a win over virtually anyone in the conference. They do have other strengths - they play strong perimeter team defense, with the ACC's best defensive three-point shooting percentage, and have the third-highest free throw rate in the conference, which gets them some easy points - but it's tough to see them competing at all without Green.
Fatal Flaws: Well, if Green has an off-day - as he did against BYU, when he went 4-17 from the field for only 12 points - Tech really has nothing going for them. They were run out of the gym by the Cougars, largely because their offensive performance was so middling. To make matters worse, they're a poor rebounding team and downright average defensively, where they're 9th in the conference in defensive eFG%. Throw in little depth and even less experience - Green is the only senior on the roster - and it's clear that Tech is, similar to Maryland last year, a team built around one player. Green's better than Terrell Stoglin, but his surrounding pieces aren't, so don't be surprised to see a season from VT that mirrors or looks slightly worse than the Terps' last year.
Against Maryland: January 5th in College Park, February 7th in Blacksburg
Wake Forest Demon Deacons, 6-5 (RPI: 204 | KenPom: 177)
So Far: Bye-bye, Jeff Bzdelik. Bz was already on the hot seat and needed some serious results to keep his job - results that he pretty clearly isn't getting. So far, Wake's lost to UConn and Iona on neutral courts, Nebraska and Seton Hall at home, and Richmond on the road. Their best win? Uhh...Mercery by three on a neutral court? Sure, let's go with that. Like I said, bye-bye Bz. It was fun while it lasted. For us, at least.
Significant Contributors: C.J. Harris (14.2 ppg, 42% three-point shooting), Travis McKie (14.1 ppg, 7.9 rpg), Codi Miller-McIntyre (7.8 ppg, 3 apg), Devin Thomas (6.5 ppg, 5.4 rpg)
Biggest Strengths: I'll always be confounded by a team as bad as Wake Forest having two players as good as Harris and McKie. They wouldn't be out of place on any team in the conference, and would probably be starters on all save Duke. McKie is one of the best rebounders in the conference and draws a ton of fouls, plus plays high-level defense. Harris is arguably the best shooter in the conference, Scott Wood included: his true shooting percentage, which includes free throws and three-pointers at weighted amounts, is third-best in the conference, behind non-shooters T.J. Warren and Mason Plumlee. Aaaaannnnnnddd...that's about it.
Fatal Flaws: Outside of those two guys, there's very little in the way of ACC-level talent. Guys like Devin Thomas and Madison Jones were fringe takes for a program like Wake, and yet they're starting games. It doesn't help that Wake is among the most inexperienced teams in the country, with six freshman and a sophomore among their top nine contributors. All that might be okay if Bzdelik took a Brownell or Gregory-type approach, building from defense, but Wake might be the worst defensive team in the conference, as they're bottoms in defensive eFG% and tenth in defensive efficiency. Throw in poor rebounding and the third-highest turnover rate in the conference, and you have the makings of a truly bad team here. McKie and Harris will win them a game or two, but don't expect much more than that in conference.
Against Maryland: February 2nd in College Park, March 2nd in Winston-Salem
Boston College Eagles, 8-5 (RPI: 140 | KenPom: 150)
So Far: BC might actually have overachieved, even if ever so slightly. Oh sure, they lost to Bryant, Harvard, and College of Charleston, but the last came on the road and the other two were a little predictable given that BC always seems to lose to their Northeast competition. They also gave Baylor a serious run on a neutral court and beat middling high-majors Auburn, Penn State, and Providence, which is, in truth, a little more than most would've expected. They're not there yet and will likely have to spend one more year in the basement - hey, they lost to Bryant - but there are signs of life in Chestnut Hill.
Significant Contributors: Ryan Anderson (15.9 ppg, 9.5 rpg), Olivier Hanlon (13.2 ppg), Joe Rahon (11.3 ppg, 4.2 apg), Patrick Heckmann (9.4 ppg, 41% three-point shooting)
Biggest Strengths: Anderson is, like Green, quietly one of the better players in the conference, someone who would fit in at a lot of upper-level ACC programs. He's always on the court, an efficient scorer who rarely makes mistakes, often gets to the foul line, and rebounds at a very high level. He'll cause problems for some of the ACC's more middling fours. This isn't necessarily a regular Steve Donahue team, given that they don't shoot very well from deep, but thanks to Anderson and slasher Patrick Heckmann, they get a lot of good looks inside the arc and have a respectable 51% eFG%, which is one of the better marks in the conference. And as you'd expect, they rarely make mistakes, with a low turnover rate and one of the higher defensive rebounding percentages in the ACC.
Fatal Flaws: Like Virginia Tech and Wake Forest, there's a distinct lack of genuinely ACC-level players on the roster, and the ones who are - like Hanlan and Rahon - are much younger that you'd really want. BC is one again one of the most inexperienced teams in the country, third among high-majors this year behind only Texas and St. John's. That leads to games like the one they had against Bryant, in which they fell apart down the stretch. And as I mentioned earlier, they shoot unusually poorly for a Donahue-coached team, only 33.5% from deep, seventh in the ACC. To make matters worse, they're one of the worst defensive teams in the conference, last in the ACC in defensive efficiency. Without top-notch defense or the great equalizer on their side, they'll struggle against a lot of talented, more experienced, and deeper teams.
Against Maryland: January 22nd in College Park, February 19th in Chestnut Hill
Like I said: right below Duke, there's a void, with no clear #2 and a bunch of viable contenders for the spot. Any one of UNC, State, or Maryland could easily get it, and write off Virginia (easy schedule), Miami (once healthy), and even Florida State or Virginia Tech at your own peril. The conference is middle-heavy this year.
Just for fun: if there was another media poll, after the non-conference slate but before the conference season, what would it be? Duke would top it, for sure, but who's #2? If I had a vote, it'd probably go N.C. State second, UNC third, and Maryland fourth - sorry, but the strength of schedule is an absolute killer - though those three could easily flip amongst each other. Then there's a roadblock of middling teams with decent wins and bad losses. I'd probably go Miami fifth - though obviously the injuries confuse things there - Georgia Tech sixth, Virginia seventh, Virginia Tech eighth, Florida State ninth, Clemson tenth, Boston College eleventh, and Wake Forest last. What say you?