College basketball: Louisville, Duke, North Carolina could be gridlocked at the top of the ACC
There are no more "Saturdays with Grand Canyon" on the schedule. Say goodbye to those exotic jaunts to Maui or Las Vegas or Atlantis.
The ACC basketball season is here, starting with two games on Wednesday and six more on New Year's Eve, and the next trip to New York City will be to Brooklyn for the ACC tournament at the Barclays Center on March 7.
ACC opener tonight at Louisville! pic.twitter.com/Wo3LmqhNaF— Virginia Basketball (@UVAMensHoops) December 28, 2016
With nine teams in the top 50 of the RPI, and 12 in the top 75, this should be quite a season, maybe even better than last year when six teams made the Sweet 16 and the league combined to win 19 NCAA tournament games (both records).
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Five games to watch
1. Duke at Louisville (Jan. 14): The Cardinals are right now in the middle of a Kentucky-Virginia-Indiana-Notre Dame grinder but it's this visit from the Blue Devils that might ultimately decide the ACC race.
2. Duke at Notre Dame (Jan. 30): The Fighting Irish have won an incredible five of the past six from Duke, including the past two meetings in South Bend, Ind.
3. UNC at Duke (Feb. 9): The first game between these two is always the best one. Duke has won the initial meeting in six of the past seven seasons, including all three in Durham.
4. UNC at NC State (Feb. 15): The Wolfpack needs some marquee wins in league play and this is one of its best chances. Auction off the 5,500 seats at renovated Reynolds Coliseum and play this one there.
5. Louisville at UNC (Feb. 22): The Cards' only trip to the Triangle comes during the most difficult stretch of the Tar Heels' schedule (after consecutive games with Notre Dame, Duke, NC State and Virginia)
Five names to watch
1. Grayson Allen, Duke: The preseason player of the year was expected to make news, just not like this. The junior guard starts conference play on an indefinite suspension after a third tripping incident.
2. Joel Berry III, UNC: There are few competitors in the ACC like the Tar Heels' junior guard. His health (he missed two games with an ankle injury) is paramount to the Heels' chances of an ACC repeat.
3. Bonzie Colson, Notre Dame: Whatever the undersized junior forward lacks in height (6-foot-5), he makes up for in heart. There's no shortage of fight in the Irish's emotional leader.
4. Donovan Mitchell, Louisville: Rick Pitino has a deep roster, but he needs someone to emerge as the "bus driver." The 6-foot-3 sophomore guard is the most logical choice.
5. Jerome Robinson, Boston College: Broughton's own already has scored at least 20 points in nine games for the Eagles. Third-year coach Jim Christian just needs to get his sophomore guard some more help.
1. Dennis Smith Jr., NC State: So far, so good from the Fayetteville point guard prodigy (18.9 points per game, 5.5 assists), but his bones will be made in what is expected to be his lone season in ACC play.
2. Jayson Tatum, Duke: With a minor foot injury behind him, the smooth 6-foot-8 freshman wing looks like he's ready to take over as Duke's primary scorer. He's got a mix of both Brandon Ingram and Justise Winslow to his game. That's a scary combo.
3. Jonathan Isaac, Florida State: A little under the radar compared to Smith, Tatum or Duke's Harry Giles, but look at a mock draft and you'll see Isaac's name in the top 10 with the others. The springy 6-foot-10 freshman forward is off to a strong start (12.9 ppg, 7.0 rpg) for the Noles.
4. Kevin Stallings and Josh Pastner: The two new coaches in the league this season, Stallings at Pitt and Pastner at Georgia Tech, walk into very different situations. Stallings has a pair of standout seniors (Jamel Artis and Michael Young) but not a lot of depth. Pastner doesn't have much talent on the roster but he's there for his recruiting prowess.
5. Bryan Kersey: The ACC's new director of officials has big shoes to fill. Kersey replaces John Clougherty, who retired after for more than 40 years as a game official and league supervisor.
1. Marcus Paige: Man, that 3-pointer with 4.7 seconds left in the national title game was an all-timer. So was his 35-point masterpiece at NC State in Feb. 2014. All corners of the Triangle respected Paige's game.
2. Malcolm Brogdon: The Cavaliers' 45-9 record is the best in the ACC since the league expanded to 15 teams and "Uncle Malcolm," the player of the year in the league in 2016, was a big reason why. He will be missed by the Hoos.
3. The Plumlees: For eight straight seasons, from 2008-09 through 2015-16, Duke had at least one Plumlee brother on its roster, including all three (Miles, Mason and Marshall) in 2011-12. With Marshall's graduation last year, the Blue Devils officially close the book on the Plumlee Era with two national titles, three ACC titles and a 21-6 NCAA tournament record.
4. Cat Barber: "Scared Money" did everything he could to keep a shorthanded Wolfpack team competitive last season.
5. Malachi Richardson: The Orange could still use the spindly 6-foot-6 wing, but he helped deliver an unexpected trip to the Final Four as a freshman and cashed in while the getting was good.
Predicted order of finish
1. Louisville (15-3): The last time the Cardinals beat Kentucky (in the 2012-2013 season), they won the national title. A Dec. 21 home win over the rival Wildcats might not equal another national championship, but the ACC race is there for the taking.
2. Duke (15-3): If Grayson Allen, Jayson Tatum, Luke Kennard and Harry Giles were all healthy and mentally focused, the Blue Devils would have a serious shot at 18-0. With only Kennard and Tatum locked in, Duke is still the odds-on favorite to win the league, but an early trip to Louisville on Jan. 14 (and no return date in Durham) looms as a potential tiebreaker.
3. UNC (13-5): Lots of preseason and early season talk about Duke, not much about a veteran UNC team. If junior Justin Jackson can continue his current trajectory, the Heels might take home a second straight ACC title.
4. Notre Dame (12-6): Teams with a better ACC record than the Fighting Irish (25-11) since Louisville joined the league: Virginia (29-7), Duke (26-10) and that's it. A softer league schedule has helped but coach Mike Brey has done more with less than anyone else in the league.
5. N.C. State (11-7): The parts are in place for sixth-year coach Mark Gottfried to put together his best team. The Wolfpack will need the steady play of senior Terry Henderson and sophomore Torin Dorn to balance out the learning curve of two uber-talented freshmen (Dennis Smith Jr. and forward Omer Yurtseven).
6. Virginia (11-7): Tony Bennett has won at least 11 ACC games every season since the conference schedule expanded to 18 games in 2013. That streak won't change but the Cavaliers, however good on defense they are, just don't have enough skill to avoid a slight drop off.
7. Virginia Tech (10-8): The Hokies haven't been to the NCAA tournament since 2007; that should change this March. Guard Ahmed Hill and wing Chris Clarke, a pair of sophomores, have come back from injuries to boost Buzz Williams' third team.
8. Clemson (9-9): Coaching is not Brad Brownell's problem it's the talent collection part of the job. Transfers Shelton Mitchell (Vanderbilt) and Elijah Thomas (Texas A&M) might be able to push the Tigers back into the NCAA picture after a five-year absence.
9. Florida State (9-9): The Noles have some nice wins (Minnesota, Florida) to build an NCAA tournament resume but are a classic "Could beat or lose to anyone in the league" team. Hence the .500 prediction.
10. Miami (8-10): A transition year for coach Jim Larrañaga's crew, coming off a 27-win, Sweet 16 season. The Canes will make everyone earn it, but a lack of scoring firepower is the primary problem.
11. Pittsburgh (7-11): Seniors Michael Young and Jamel Artis are superb but don't have enough help and the Panthers, by far, have the most difficult ACC schedule.
12. Wake Forest (6-12): The young Deacs will be frisky, as usual, at home but they've got to figure out a way to get better on the road in ACC play (4-56 the last seven years).
13. Syracuse (6-12): The Orange don't have enough shooters, as difficult losses to UConn, Georgetown and St. John's illustrate. It's going to be a long ACC season in upstate New York.
14. Georgia Tech (2-16): The Jackets' win at VCU was a good sign for first-year coach Josh Pastner. So is the development of junior big man Ben Lammers (15.2 ppg, 10.4 rpg).
15. Boston College (1-17): The way Syracuse is losing to former Big East foes, don't be surprised if the Eagles start 1-0 in the ACC ... and then lose 17 straight.
This article is written by Joe Giglio from The News & Observer and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network.