The ACC may not be quite ready to reclaim its crown as the best conference in NCAA basketball, but it’s not far off, either. The addition of three former Big East powers is set to make what was already a grueling league schedule even tougher for the mere mortals hoping to vie with the Tobacco Road elite.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the traditional powerhouses have players like Jabari Parker on their side. Duke’s freshman sensation has forced his way into the National Player of the Year conversation...and he’s not even the only serious Wooden Award candidate in the conference.
Who else is set to give Parker a run for his POY money in the ACC? Read on for a look at the stars, games and high-powered teams that will emerge from the first season of this new-look conference.
North Carolina State 10-3
Wake Forest 10-3
Florida State 9-3
North Carolina 10-3
Georgia Tech 9-4
Notre Dame 9-4
Virginia Tech 8-5*
Boston College 4-9**
*Includes one ACC win
**Includes one ACC loss
North Carolina is the most unpredictable team in the country
Are the real Tar Heels the ones who demolished Michigan State by 14 points in East Lansing, or the ones who lost at home to Belmont? The answer is probably a large helping of both, making them simultaneously a threat to upend Syracuse or Duke and a potential signature win for Boston College or Virginia Tech.
The Syracuse backcourt is doing just fine without Michael Carter-Williams
Entering the season, the veteran Orange front line was an obvious strength, but the loss of two backcourt starters left the perimeter game a mystery for Jim Boeheim. Thanks to the brilliant debut of freshman Tyler Ennis and a huge improvement by sniper Trevor Cooney, the guards are actually performing even better as a unit than C.J. Fair and company in the ’Cuse’s unbeaten start.
Pitt’s offense is no joke
Yes, the Panthers embarrassed themselves in a nationally televised loss to Cincinnati, but the 43 points they put up against the Bearcats have been a halftime total for them on a good night. Despite losing Steven Adams and Tray Woodall to the NBA, Pitt is actually looking like a more dangerous offensive team now that Lamar Patterson and James Robinson are sharing the playmaker’s role.
Boston College is only a good team on paper
With gutty forward Ryan Anderson and sweet-shooting Olivier Hanlan returning from a team that looked to be coming together late last year, Steve Donahue’s Eagles seemed on the cusp of a turnaround. Instead, they’ve flopped against a tough opening schedule because Anderson is their only rebounder and no one (including Hanlan) is making three-pointers.
Can Duke handle big-time front lines?
The Blue Devils’ two early losses have included serious rebounding disparities against Kansas and Arizona. Jabari Parker has been otherworldly, but undersized Duke could still be vulnerable to upsets against the likes of Georgia Tech (with Robert Carter Jr. and Daniel Miller up front) or perennial nemesis Florida State (Okaro White, Robert Gilchrist and Boris Bojanovsky).
Can the new kids in orange steal the show?
It’s hard to imagine any team walking into the ACC and taking the spotlight away from the Tobacco Road powers, but Syracuse has been making it happen. If Duke and UNC can’t muster enough three-pointers to punish Jim Boeheim’s zone, the Orange’s first season in the conference will end in a league title (not to mention a No. 1 seed).
How will Notre Dame hold up without Jerian Grant?
The Irish lost their do-it-all point guard to academic troubles, leaving a big hole in the offense for Eric Atkins and Pat Connaughton to fill. Mike Brey’s roster still has some major talent—including freshman Demetrius Jackson to step in at the point—but confidence is in short supply after a narrow escape from lowly Canisius.
Will the newcomers make defense the new face of the conference?
The ACC has historically been a league of peerless offenses—witness the Division I assist charts, where four of the top five career totals belong to Atlantic Coast point guards. With Pitt and Syracuse joining Florida State, Virginia and Clemson, though, that tide may be turning.
North Carolina at Duke (March 8)
There’s no better rivalry in college basketball than the Blue Devils and Tar Heels, and—as usual—it should have an ACC crown on the line. Of course, this time around, UNC’s place will probably be to play spoiler for Duke’s championship hopes, but that’s a role Roy Williams’ team wouldn’t mind too much.
Syracuse at Duke (Feb. 22)
The Orange’s real welcome to their new league comes late in the season when they visit the toughest home floor in the conference (and one of the best anywhere). Even one of the country’s top defenses will struggle to contain Duke’s marksmen in front of the Cameron Crazies, and freshman Tyler Ennis is in for a long night running the point in a hostile environment.
Pitt at North Carolina State (Jan. 4)
The Panthers’ ACC debut comes against a fellow early-season surprise, as the Wolfpack have gotten off to a fast start behind the sensational play of T.J. Warren. At just 215 pounds, though, the 6’8” Warren will have his hands full against Pitt’s physical forwards.
Notre Dame at North Carolina (March 3)
The Irish are looking like a bubble team after scoring just one major win out of conference (against Indiana on a neutral court). They’ll be desperate as they make their first trip to the Dean Dome—in their last regular-season contest—to pit Eric Atkins against Tar Heels uber-guard Marcus Paige.
Jabari Parker, Duke
The only freshman who’s a top Wooden Award candidate, Jabari Parker has dominated every phase of the game from the get-go (including 22 points on 8-of-10 shooting in his college debut).
Tyler Ennis, Syracuse
Nearly as effective a ball hawk as predecessor Michael Carter-Williams, Tyler Ennis has been the best freshman floor leader in the country and has already logged three 20-point games of his own.
Cat Barber, North Carolina State
Anthony “Cat” Barber is a hard-working defender and potent (if streaky) scorer, but he’s really started to come into his own as a distributor since taking over as the Wolfpack’s No. 1 point guard.
Roddy Peters, Maryland
The Terrapins are well-stocked with scorers, and Roddy Peters has emerged as the point guard who gets the good fortune of setting them up.
Kennedy Meeks, North Carolina
He may not be built for the fast break at 6’9”, 290 pounds, but Kennedy Meeks is the Tar Heels’ toughest rebounder and a reliable low-post scorer to boot.
Jabari Parker, Duke
Jabari Parker is the best all-around defender in the conference, he’s logged a minimum of 15 points in every game this season and he leads Duke in rebounding.
C.J. Fair, Syracuse
The other serious Wooden Award candidate from the ACC, senior C.J. Fair is a fine rebounder and an excellent zone defender, but it’s his team-high 17.8 points per game that makes him so vital to the unbeaten Orange.
Marcus Paige, North Carolina
Marcus Paige has morphed from a deferential freshman into a game-changing shot-maker without sacrificing either his playmaking ability or his productive defense.
T.J. Warren, North Carolina State
The No. 6 individual scorer in the nation, T.J. Warren is also racking up steals and rebounds in bunches.
Freshman of the Year: Jabari Parker, Duke
Only Kentucky’s Julius Randle has any chance to catch Jabari Parker for National Freshman of the Year honors.
Coach of the Year: Jim Boeheim, Syracuse
Even with a wealth of returning talent up front, it’s no mean feat to come into a brand-new league and immediately win the title with a freshman point guard. Jim Boeheim stands a great chance of doing exactly that.
Player of the Year: Jabari Parker, Duke
Even if C.J. Fair’s Orange win the league title, Parker’s tremendous versatility—including a three-point stroke Fair can’t touch—gives him the edge in this battle of elite combo forwards.
The Orange won’t run the table by any stretch, but their defense is too consistent (and their offense too good at its best) to be caught by Duke or anyone else over the long haul.
Dark horse: North Carolina State
The usual Tobacco Road powers are far too strong to deserve this mantle, but the Wolfpack—coming off last year’s debacle as preseason favorites—would bring some poetic justice if they took the title from nowhere. With a scorer at T.J. Warren’s level (plus a healthy dose of luck), it’s not out of the question.
Shoo-ins: Syracuse, Duke, North Carolina, Pittsburgh, Florida State
Two Seminoles losses came by a combined three points away from home, and Pitt—which is short on quality wins at the moment—will benefit from the strength of its league schedule.
Hopefuls: North Carolina State, Virginia, Notre Dame
All three squads have the personnel to make it, but none can feel all that good about its nonconference record.
Long shots: Clemson, Georgia Tech
Both teams are long on grit—especially on defense, where the Tigers excel—but perilously short on reliable offense.
4. North Carolina
5. Florida State
6. North Carolina State
9. Notre Dame
10. Georgia Tech
11. Wake Forest
13. Virginia Tech
15. Boston College