In my judgment, the ACC is one of the country's premiere basketball conferences year in and year out, and this year is no exception. I currently would rank the conference as the second best (along with the Big Ten), right behind the Big East.
Then again, some might argue that the difference between the three conferences is negligible. All three are extremely balanced and will be well-represented in the NCAA tournament. The bottom line is that it will be just plain fun to watch it all play out over the next few months.
In Duke, the ACC has the deserving No. 1 team in the country and an early favorite to win it all. Boston College, Maryland, North Carolina, N.C. State and Wake Forest are all top-25 caliber teams and appear to be tournament worthy. Virginia Tech is not far behind, while Clemson, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Miami, and Virginia will be tough to beat at home.
If Sean Williams can improve on a good freshman year, having been suspended the first two months of this season, the Eagles could challenge Duke for the league's top spot. When he's on the floor, Williams provides a defensive presence inside with his shot-blocking and rebounding that is extremely valuable.
The offense is anchored by Craig Smith and Jared Dudley. Both are rugged, smart and tough inside players. Add Sean Marshall and Tyrese Rice to the mix and B.C. has four double-figure scorers and some good three-point shooters as well. The Eagles take good care of the orange and sport a 1.40 assist-to-turnover ratio as a team – which is outstanding.
They are also solid on the glass and play tough defense. The perimeter shooting is a bit streaky, but this team rarely beats itself and has been good on the road under coach Al Skinner.
Oliver Purnell's club encountered a bit of a losing streak after winning its first 11 – not an ideal way to head into conference play.
But the Tigers do have a deep roster with a nice blend of experience and youth, as well as size and speed. Nine players play double-figure minutes, and each has led the team in scoring in at least one game this season.
The offensive attack is balanced and versatile. Forcing turnovers and grabbing 15 offensive rebounds per game has led to plenty of extra shots for Clemson, but 59 percent free-throw shooting has negated some of that advantage and could be a problem all year. The Tigers will be tough at home, but could struggle on the road.
Coach Mike Krzyzewski's All-American seniors J.J. Redick and Shelden Williams have been splendid. Redick, an early season player of the year candidate, has really expanded his offensive game beyond just being a great shooter. With his ballhandling and conditioning much improved, he is now a scoring threat from almost anywhere on the court. Williams, meanwhile, simply dominates inside and can sink his free throws.
Those two players are carrying the Blue Devils, but the continuing improvement of freshmen Greg Paulus, Josh McRoberts and Martynas Pocius, along with the steady play of Sean Dockery and Lee Melchionni is why Duke should take the ACC title.
The return of DeMarcus Nelson, perhaps the team's best athlete will give the Blue Devils the depth and versatility they need to be one of the nation's best defensive teams and most explosive offensive teams – and that's a championship combination.
Leonard Hamilton was a master rebuilder at Oklahoma State and Miami, and has the Seminoles headed in the right direction down in Florida. Using an 11-man rotation, he's getting 31 points per game from his bench.
The Seminoles have shot well and scored a lot from the field, but the schedule has been soft (allowing a team with quite a few new faces to get comfortable). Turnovers have exceeded assists, but FSU has out rebounded opponents by eight per game. They are improving, and could make it to the NIT.
Despite scoring 73 points per game, the Yellow Jackets are a team that struggles on offense at times. The roster includes just one senior, so this is a team that still is searching for its identity.
Anthony Morrow leads the team in scoring and is a terrific shooter – particularly from three-point land – but he's been the only consistent perimeter threat. Inside, Jeremis Smith and Ra'Sean Dickey are combining to score baskets and grab rebounds. But turnovers have outpaced assists, in part because young players often try to do too much, too fast.
This team has good athleticism, works hard on defense and will compete, but the offensive deficiencies will be hard to overcome.
Maryland is the most experienced team in the league and one of the most talented. Senior Chris McCray is the top scorer, averaging 16 points per game on a team that averages a league-best 84. McCray has been superb, shooting 58 percent from the field, 40 percent from behind the arc and 90 percent from the free-throw line (there are very few players in the "50/40/90 Club").
Four other players average double figures, and coach Gary Williams uses nine-to-ten players to keep the pace fast and furious – and the strong contributions from a versatile bench certainly don't hurt.
And while it is true that careless turnovers have been a problem at times, this team is still good enough to challenge for the conference title, and will almost definitely have a nice tournament run.
The Hurricanes are near the bottom of the league in just about every offensive category, and as a result will be hard pressed to match last season's surprising conference record.
The defense is solid, and there is a talented triumvirate to build the offense around in Guillermo Diaz, Robert Hite, and Anthony King. However, it seems as though second-year head coach Frank Haith is still trying to find a combination that will enhance the floor-play of his guards and produce more points in the paint.
This team has played a good non-conference schedule and, if the aforementioned areas can be resolved, might surprise on the positive side.
The young and talented Tar Heels have surprised me with how well the freshman class of Tyler Hansbrough, Bobby Frasor, Marcus Ginyard and Danny Green has played to this point.
Hansbrough is an absolute beast inside. His intensity and skill level are more like those of an upperclassman. The other freshmen have shown great promise as well, but conference play will present a greater challenge. As Lorenzo Romar (Washington's head coach) said recently, "freshmen have to learn to play through a scouting report."
That's why the play of senior David Noel and junior Reyshawn Terry will be so important to the Heels' success. They will have to be very consistent and productive in conference play to help smooth out the inevitable bumps that most freshmen experience when the intensity and familiarity increases.
Like West Virginia, N.C. State is fun to watch. Ball movement, good spacing, excellent shooting and unselfishness characterize an offense that averages 77 points per game and takes (and thus far makes) more threes than anyone in the league.
The rotation is basically seven players, and everybody handles the ball, makes plays and hits perimeter shots, and that makes them hard to defend. On the other end of the floor, the Wolfpack have things under control, too, and currently lead the league in field goal defense.
They don't really have a guy who can go get 25 if needed, but they do have a defensive game changer in Cedric Simmons. He's averaging three blocked shots per game, leads the team in rebounds and is very disruptive with his length and athleticism.
With a core group of players that are freshmen and sophomores, first-year head coach Dave Leitao knows the going will be rough. His team has shown some grit on defense and on the glass, but has a long way to go on offense. The Cavaliers are last in field goal percentage, and only Miami scores fewer points.
The frontcourt has some height and skill, but lacks strength and experience. Sean Singletary is a very good guard, but appears to be pressing a bit to carry the scoring load and, as a result, is shooting just 38 percent while averaging 17 points.
Virginia will compete and play hard, and will be in games because of its defense and the ability of Singletary, but wins will be hard to get.
The Hokies are a very athletic team that gets after people defensively. They hold teams to 39 percent shooting and enjoy a plus-5 turnover margin, and that creates open-court scoring opportunities for a group of slashing and penetrating perimeter players.
In the halfcourt, Coleman Collins is a reliable if underrated inside presence who leads the team in scoring and rebounding. The Hokies are an average rebounding team and really don't shoot the three-point shot well or often. Nevertheless, if they can improve in these areas, this is a team that could be tournament worthy in March.
Although the Demon Deacons are improved defensively, can rebound with most teams and are averaging 77 points per game, the lack of an established point guard is all that's keeping them from being higher on my list.
Wake has good inside finishers in Eric Williams and Kyle Visser. Justin Gray is a top-flight perimeter shooter and scorer, and Trent Strickland can put the ball in the hoop, too. But so far they've taken nine less shots per game than their opponents – do to averaging 17 turnovers per game.
Freshman Shamaine Dukes recently got his first start at the point and had 11 points and 10 assists. If that's a sign of things to come, it would be welcomed by Skip Prosser. Solid play at point guard is essential for any team, but for Wake it's critical. Can a freshman handle the chore in the ACC? Wake hopes so.