ACC Basketball Isn’t Just Duke & UNC

ACC basketball gets the ESPN stage tonight with Wake Forest-Duke (7 PM ET) followed by North Carolina-Virginia Tech (9 PM ET). Neither the Tar Heels nor the Blue Devils have looked dominant this year and that means the conference race has dark-horse potential. Today the Notebook takes a look at five possible contenders, including the traditional Big Two…

Duke (15-2, 3-0): They don’t look unstoppable, but they haven’t been beaten yet in conference play and against the struggling Deacons that’s not going to change tonight at home. Duke relies on its guards, freshman Austin Rivers and Seth Curry, both the sons of notable basketball figures (current Celtic coach Doc Rivers and former Virginia Tech star Dell Curry). Rivers, after a strong December, has tapered off in conference games, while Curry suffers through disproportionate struggles against quality competition. What both are doing very well right now is playing defense and in Mike Krzyzewski’s world that will forgive a lot of sins.

Mason Plumlee anchors the post, and he’s a respectable 12 points/10 rebounds per game player, while his brother Miles and power forward Ryan Kelly are also relied on. Mason isn’t a star, so he needs consistent help here and consistency is the one thing that’s been lacking from Miles and Kelly.

North Carolina (15-3, 2-1): On paper this is the best team in the ACC and probably the best team in the nation, save perhaps Kentucky. But how does a team with this kind of talent ever lose a game 90-57 the way Carolina did at Florida State last weekend? I know Roy Williams played his scrubs most of the way down the stretch, but even allowing that, how does a starting five this good ever play so poorly that the coach decides it’s even an option? Does this suggest a lack of championship DNA in the current roster? I’m not ready to go that far, but whatever it suggests is not positive.

I harp on this so much, because when you evaluate the lineup there’s really nothing else to do but gape in awe. Carolina’s got two excellent big men in Tyler Zeller and John Henson. Both score and rebound, while Henson is a shotblocker that alters offensive gameplans. Harrison Barnes at small forward can go inside and out and is capable of being the best player in the nation. No one distributes the rock better than point guard Kendall Marshall. The two-guard area is a concern, where neither Dexter Strickland nor Reggie Bullock have stood up, but Bullock does do a good job of crashing the boards. Depth is also an issue, but even so, this starting five alone should be enough to walk home with an ACC title and #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Maybe it will still happen—in fact, I think it will. But as we sit here in January, Coach Roy still has some work to do on his team’s focus.

Virginia (14-2, 2-1): Cavalier forward Mike Scott has been called the program’s best player since Ralph Sampson, the 7’4” center who loomed large over college basketball from 1981-83 and went on to a good career with the Houston Rockets before injuries cut him short. Scott’s only 6’8”, but he’s a tough scorer and rebounder that’s an ideal go-to player. Joe Harris is pretty good on the wings, while Jontel Evans is respectable running the floor. What UVA needs is for Sammy Zeglinski to step and be consistent at the off-guard spot and most importantly, they need 7-foot center Assane Sene to become a real force, at least in terms of rebounding. If they get that, they can be that darkhorse champion. If they don’t, it’ll be a decent NCAA Tournament team—which is nothing to be ashamed of in Charlottesville—but no more.

N.C. State (15-3, 2-1): I like what the Wolfpack have going, and it’s impossible not to  be impressed with 6’4” Lorenzo Brown, who’s scoring, rebounding and sharing the basketball. Harrison Barnes might get the hype in Chapel Hill, but it’s Brown who’s playing the best of any player in this league right now. He’s part of a good group of wingmen in roughly the same height range—including Scott Wood and C.J. Williams who can shoot from the floor and go to the boards. Down low, State relies on Richard Howell and C.J. Leslie, who combine for 25 points and 15 rebounds a night. What the Pack lack is a true playmaker and without that this potential championship team will come up a little short.

Florida State (12-6, 3-1): After a slow start in December, the Seminoles are coming in ACC play, as evidenced by the thrashing of North Carolina discussed further up. FSU has got all the pieces in place, and it starts down low where 6’10” senior Bernard James posts a 10/9 each night and blocks a few shots for good measure. The backcourt is led by a solid senior playmaker in Luke Loucks, while Ian Miller and Michael Snaer are each double-digit scorers. What the ‘Noles need is a little more production underneath—even if it’s just on the glass-from Okaro White and their three-point shooting leaves a lot to be desired.

I can’t overlook raw talent at this point in the schedule and have to assume that North Carolina’s weekend loss was just an extreme case of the hiccups. And I can’t overlook history and have to assume Duke finds a way to finish second. But N.C. State, Florida State and Virginia all need to be observed carefully, because all three have their own case for making a run at upending the ACC applecart.