2018-19 ACC expert picks: Predicted order of finish, overrated and underrated teams at mid-term
The ACC again looks like the best basketball league in the land
The ACC expects to be among the best conferences in college basketball every single year, but after a strong start for several of the league's perceived middle-of-the-road teams it's looking like another year where it will challenge the Big 12 and Big Ten for best basketball conference in the land.
Duke and Virginia having early success comes as little surprise and rarely will do much to boost the league's reputation, and the same goes for North Carolina, which still stands as one of the 15 most dangerous teams in the country despite its 9-3 start. The league's great strength so far in the 2018-19 season is its depth, which is anchored by Florida State, Virginia Tech and NC State. All three teams have double-digit wins to this point in the season and just one loss, announcing their arrival to conference title contention with their consistency across their non-conference schedule.
Four ACC teams were in the top 10 and six in this week's NCAA Tournament with multiple teams capable of making a run into the second weekend. As many as three ACC teams appear to be in the mix for a Final Four appearance and national championship contention.. That shapes up for a very exciting slate of conference play, where the "iron sharpens iron" line of thinking suggests that the ACC could be well-represented in the
While some recent Duke teams carried loads of talent without the promise of fulfilled potential, the Blue Devils have nothing on their resume to suggest this team needs to improve or evolve to win a national championship. Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett are not only two of the top five NBA Draft prospects but two of the top five players, right now, in college basketball. Duke ranks No. 2 in the nation in offensive efficiency and applies pressure to other teams to keep up with a top-15 pace, but the sneaky storyline regarding this year's greatness is a top-five defensive efficiency rating. This group doesn't look like it will need to rely on zone or be handicapped by its struggles on the defensive end, and that's terrifying for opponents when you consider the challenge they present with their offensive firepower alone.
Yes, the Orange do have the history of proving people like me wrong with their performance in the NCAA Tournament and yes, this year's team has two excellent players who can lead a turnaround with Oshae Brissett and Tyus Battle. But given Syracuse's top-20 preseason ranking it's hard not to identify the Orange as one of the early disappointments in the ACC. CBS Sports Bracketology expert Jerry Palm has Syracuse all the way down to a No. 10 seed now after four losses in the first 13 games and the pollsters dropped them from the top 25 long ago, so perhaps we've reached "rightly rated" territory now, but as other teams have exceeded expectations through the first third of the season the Orange have left a lot to be desired.
Underrated: NC State
The fun part of this prediction is that we'll know real soon whether I'm correct or totally blinded by the Pack's 12-1 start. A woeful strength of schedule rating kept pollsters and power-rankers hesitant to move the Pack up in the rankings. After falling four points and a handful of offensive fouls short against Wisconsin, wins against Vanderbilt, Penn State and Auburn (then ranked in the top-10 of the polls) began to turn public perception.
But it's my belief that with even with a mostly-reloaded roster Kevin Keatts can have NC State in the mix for a top-four seed in the ACC Tournament by the end of the year. Keatts has instilled an up-tempo and aggressive style of play that this year has the Pack ranked No. 3 in the country in forcing turnovers and No. 5 in effective field goal percentage. If I'm wrong and the stock has peaked, we'll know it by how they look in the next two weeks with a trip to Miami on Jan. 3 and a date with North Carolina in PNC Arena on Jan. 8.
Player of the Year: Zion Williamson, Duke
Zion Williamson has exceeded what was expected of a generationally-hyped prospect coming out of high school. As conference play begins, the Duke star is averaging 19.8 points and 9.4 rebounds per game and converting on 72.4 percent of his 2-point attempts (No. 21 in the country among all D-I players). His contributions on the offensive end -- making moves to the basket, cleaning up on the glass and distributing the ball to his teammates -- often take the headlines, but Zion's role in making Duke a top-tier defensive team elevate him above the rest in the Player of the Year/MVP type discussions.
Freshman of the Year: Zion Williamson, Duke
If Zion Williamson ends up winning both POY and FOY, it would be the second time that's ever happened in the ACC play and both instances have been Duke players in the recent one-and-done era. The first time was with Jahlil Okafor in 2014-15, when the Blue Devils went on to win the national championship, and the second was last season with Marvin Bagley III and a team that reached the Elite Eight. That's a super small sample size, but it seems like good things happen when Duke's best freshman is the best overall player in the league.
Coach of the Year: Mike Krzyzewski, Duke
Fun fact here: Coach K has won the league's Coach of the Year award five times, but not once since 2000. Voters who lean into the "who does more with less" criteria for the award have overlooked the greatest college basketball coach of all time through four ACC regular-season championships and three national championship-winning seasons, but it'll be hard to defend that omission in 2018-19 if this freshman-laden group continues to rank as one of the best offensive and defensive teams in the entire country.
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