January is just around the corner. Conference play is finally here. And that means it’s time to reassess college basketball’s top teams and players, as well as its most competitive leagues, as the season kicks into gear. We’ll highlight surprises, disappointments, and player and freshman of the year candidates before ranking teams by tiers and making one bold prediction for the next two-and-a-half months.
Our third of six conference primers looks at the ACC, the deepest and most talent-laden of the six:
Biggest surprise: Notre Dame
Lose your top two scorers — one a first-round draft pick, the other a double-double machine — and unless you’re Duke or Kentucky, you’re supposed to regress. But don’t tell Mike Brey. The Fighting Irish coach has another top-10 offensive team, this time led by the ascension of junior point guard Matt Farrell and the eccentric front court duo of Bonzie Colson and V.J. Beachem. Notre Dame might not return to the Elite Eight, but it’ll knock off an ACC heavyweight or two with 40-minute scoring binges.
Biggest disappointment: Syracuse
Less than nine months after upsetting Virginia to reach the Final Four, the Orange lost to St. John’s by 33 points. At home. Let that sink in for a second. It tells you most of what you need to know about how Syracuse is following up its improbable run last March. The Orange are 0-5 against major conference teams, the first time Jim Boeheim will enter conference play without such a win since 1997-98. Point guard Frank Howard has folded against anything resembling stiff competition, and Tyler Roberson’s regression and lack of playing time has been puzzling. Even Tyler Lydon has been frustratingly inconsistent.
Player of the Year favorite: Luke Kennard, SG, Duke
While teammate Grayson Allen attracted preseason hype and attention, Kennard improved just about every facet of his game. And while Allen struggled (by his high standards) even before his suspension, Kennard became Duke’s most complete offensive threat, deadly popping out to the three-point line or curling into the lane. He’s revised his shot distribution to feature more two-point jumpers at the expense of three-pointers, and, per hoop-math.com, is shooting 56.7 percent on those mid-range attempts, up from 46.4 last year. But it’s not just the sophomore’s shooting, which has improved across the board; his decision-making is markedly better, and has allowed him to thrive as a focal point in the Blue Devils’ offense.
Freshman of the Year favorite: Jayson Tatum, SF, Duke
This might be a controversial pick considering Tatum missed all of November with a foot injury, and considering he hasn’t been overly impressive since. But the 6-foot-8 wing has offered anecdotal evidence that he’s not far away from being a force on both ends of the floor. He’s a matchup problem as a stretch-four, especially if his jumper proves to be one that opposing defenders have to honor, and he’s physically mature enough to defend on both the block and the perimeter. Tatum is one of a few reasons many expect the Blue Devils to be even better in February and March than they are now.
TIER 1: NATIONAL TITLE CONTENDERS
Duke could be really, really good. Amile Jefferson’s transformation has been just as big a story as Kennard’s. Injuries and suspensions, however, leave it well within the reach of the Tar Heels, Cardinals and Cavaliers. Of the three teams taking aim at Mike Krzyzewski’s crew, North Carolina is the most complete, and its quartet of upperclassmen — Joel Berry, Justin Jackson, Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks — make its threat the most earnest. And then there’s Louisville and Virginia, who currently boast the two staunchest defenses in college basketball. Neither is a fluke. This is quite the top tier. More on the title race below.
TIER 2: THE POTENTIAL DISRUPTERS
It’s this group right here that gives the ACC its girth. Florida State, Notre Dame and Clemson all look like very solid bets for the tournament. The Seminoles are loaded, and are a second-half collapse against Temple away from being undefeated. Dwayne Bacon is a stud, freshman Jonathan Isaac is a lottery pick, and Xavier Rathan-Mayes no longer must carry such a large offensive burden. Clemson has one of the conference’s most accomplished players in Jaron Blossomgame, and Blossomgame has a far more dependable supporting cast than he’s had in years past. Virginia Tech is right on the fringes of Tiers 2 and 3, but Buzz Williams certainly has the program trending in a positive direction.
TIER 3: THE POTENTIAL BUBBLERS
A diverse group, and another one that illustrates the depth of the ACC. What may be the conference’s 13th best team (NC State) has a potential lottery pick in Dennis Smith. What may be its 11th best (Syracuse) went to the Final Four last year. What may be its ninth best (Miami) is the 28th best team in the country, according to kenpom.com. It wouldn’t be at all surprising to see two, or even three of these teams dancing.
TIER 4: THE BASEMENT
There’s a pretty steep fall into the depths of the ACC’s bottom two. Neither the Yellow Jackets nor Eagles will sniff the postseason. But neither mars the depth of a 15-team conference.
Bold prediction: 13-5 wins the regular season title
North Carolina lost four ACC games and still won an outright conference title last year. This year’s field is even more treacherous. In fact, this might not even be that bold of a prediction: KenPom projects all four Tier 1 squads to finish 13-5, a measure of the difficulty of the Tier 2 and 3 games that litter every 2016-17 ACC schedule. The conference’s top-to-near-bottom strength should make the path to the regular season crown riddled with obstacles.
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