Conference Reset: ACC has plenty of questions after non-con play

Mason Plumlee and Duke look like the only sure thing in the ACC this season. (US Presswire)

The ACC has been a mix of good and bad in the first two months of the season. It is home to the No. 1 team in the country, but it also has arguably the biggest disappointment in the nation in Florida State. North Carolina hasn’t exactly been a bright spot – but Maryland is developing into a threat. What about NC State and Miami? There are many questions hoping to be answered in conference play.

Here’s our ACC reset:

Teams on track to make the Field of 68: Duke, North Carolina State, Maryland

Teams with work to do: Miami, North Carolina, Georgia Tech, Virginia, Florida State, Virginia Tech, Clemson

Teams already out, barring a miracle: Boston College, Wake Forest

Most memorable moment to date: The ACC needed to go 4-2 on the second day of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge to forge a tie -- and did. But it was memorable more for the fact that Duke knocked off Ohio State and Miami beat Michigan State. Throw in a Virginia win over Wisconsin, and the ACC proved it could stand toe-to-toe with the best conference in the country -- despite being in a down year. It’s when Duke staked its claim as the No. 1 team in the country and Miami showed it’s an NCAA tournament team when healthy.

Storyline you were too busy to notice: Where are the really good teams in this league? There’s Duke -- and then a huge drop-off. Will there be anything resembling a conference race down the stretch? NC State has plenty of talent, but it’s still an inconsistent group. Maryland hasn’t beaten anyone, and North Carolina and Miami aren’t healthy. Heading into the season, Duke, North Carolina and NC State were expected to wage a terrific race for the title. We won’t have that this season.

Coach feeling the heat: Wake Forest raised some eyebrows when it hired Jeff Bzdelik in 2010. He was coming off three straight sub-.500 seasons at Colorado. Since arriving in Winston-Salem, Bzdelik hasn’t done much better, going 28-47 in two and a half seasons. Sure, the Demon Deacons are 7-5 right now, but they’re heading for a cellar battle with Boston College. Wake Forest is in too talent rich of an area to be so mediocre.

Player who needs to step up: Maryland has a gaudy record, but it’s one without much substance. Are the Terps for real? We’ll find out soon enough, but Nick Faust will have to step up on the perimeter. Alex Len is a future lottery pick down low, and Dez Wells can slash from the wing. But Faust needs to be a more consistent perimeter shooter if Maryland is going to knock off NCAA tournament-caliber teams. In his last five games, he has scored in single digits four times and is shooting just 15-for-36 from the field in that span.

Team better than its record: I wrote on Thursday that Florida State’s early struggles could cost the Seminoles an NCAA tournament bid this season -- and I still think that’s true. But Leonard Hamilton’s troops are also better than their 8-5 record would indicate. They have wins over BYU and Saint Joseph’s and will pull off wins in ACC play. The losses to South Alabama, Mercer and Auburn are simply mind-boggling, especially considering the first two were at home.

Team not as good as its record: With six teams possessing double-digit wins after two months, there are several candidates. Virginia has only had Jontel Evans for four games, and the Cavaliers do have 10 wins -- but losses to George Mason, Delaware and Old Dominion are more telling of what this team is. The CAA is way down this year, and Virginia is 0-3 against it. Georgia Tech is a surprising 10-2, but it has a win over Saint Mary’s and not much else. Both teams have to prove themselves in ACC play.

Three must-see games:

  1. Duke at North Carolina State (Jan. 12)
  2. Duke at North Carolina (March 9)
  3. North Carolina State at Maryland (Jan. 16)

Player of the Year favorite: If Mason Plumlee is the front runner for National Player of the Year honors at the midway point, he’s certainly the front runner for ACC Player of the Year. Plumlee has been a dominant performer throughout the season, at the same time also becoming one of the most improved big men in the country. Duke can throw it down to him, and it’s almost guaranteed to either get a basket or get free throws. Plumlee is also a very good defensive rebounder and can block shots. If Duke continues to play well, it will be hard to catch Plumlee.

Freshman of the Year favorite: This one came down to two players: NC State’s T.J. Warren and Duke’s Rasheed Sulaimon. In the end, though, Warren has been arguably the most efficient scorer in the country and is tough to pick against. He’s shooting 69.4 percent from the field and 61.5 percent from 3-point range (albeit on 13 attempts). He leads the country in effective field-goal percentage. Warren isn’t explosive, but he can score at all three levels and is crafty with his mid-range game.

Probable all-league team: Erick Green (Virginia Tech); Seth Curry (Duke); Durand Scott (Miami); Mason Plumlee (Duke); Alex Len (Maryland)

Ranking the teams from first to worst:

1. Duke: The Blue Devils have the best collection of wins in the country, with victories over Louisville, Ohio State, VCU, Minnesota, Kentucky and Temple. They showed signs of slowing down against Santa Clara and Davidson but remain undefeated and No. 1 in the country. Duke can hurt teams in so many different ways, with Plumlee dominating down low and Curry knocking down shots. Sulaimon is a great two-way player, while Ryan Kelly is a matchup problem. The key is Quinn Cook, who has developed into a very solid point guard -- will he keep it up in ACC play?

2. NC State: Arguably the most talented team in the league, the Wolfpack were up and down to start the season, getting blown out by Oklahoma State and then losing to Michigan. Since then, though, they have won seven in a row and are starting to hit their stride. NC State has one of the best offenses in the country, with upwards of six players capable of hurting you. C.J. Leslie and Lorenzo Brown need to be consistent against good teams, and the defense needs to improve. When everything’s clicking, though, this team is tough to beat.

3. Maryland : The Terrapins continue to fly beneath the radar, despite winning 12 games in a row. They lost the season opener to Kentucky, and their best win is over Northwestern. As a result, Mark Turgeon’s group has a lot to prove in league play. Alex Len has developed into a top-five pick, and Dezmine Wells has made an immediate impact after transferring from Xavier. They’re effective at both ends of the floor, but they need to take better care of the ball and find some shooters.

4. North Carolina: Heading into the season, many of us simply expected North Carolina to be an ACC title contender -- despite losing four starters from last season. The Tar Heels had -- and still have -- plenty of talent, but it’s taking time to come together. James Michael McAdoo is a future lottery pick, but he’s had to shoulder too much of the load for UNC’s offense. The win over UNLV in late December could be a momentum-gainer for league play, but wings P.J. Hairston and Reggie Bullock have to hit shots more consistently. Is freshman PG Marcus Paige ready for the ACC?

5. Miami: The Hurricanes are going to be a weird case to examine come late February. They lost to Florida Gulf Coast without Durand Scott early in the season, and big man Reggie Johnson is out until mid-February with an injury. With its entire allotment of players, Miami is a legitimate top-20 team and ACC contender. Can the Hurricanes hold down the fort until Johnson returns? If they struggle without him, it won’t matter that they’re undefeated with Scott and Johnson in the lineup.

6. Florida State: The Seminoles are one of the most disappointing teams in the country, entering conference play with an 8-5 record -- a record that includes losses to South Alabama, Mercer and Auburn. In the past, the ‘Noles have been able to make up for mediocre non-conference performances with a couple of big wins in league play -- but that won’t happen this year. Michael Snaer is still one of the best players in the league, but point-guard play has been poor and the defense isn’t as intimidating as the past few years.

7. Virginia: The Cavaliers are going to be an interesting team to keep an eye on the first few weeks of league play. They had some really bad losses in non-conference play, going 0-3 against the CAA. But they’re still one of the best defensive teams in the country, and their pace keeps them in games. The absence of Jontel Evans has been noticeable, but Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell have stepped up as an inside-outside duo. The opening schedule for ACC play isn’t too intimidating, so a hot start could help with momentum going forward down the stretch.

8. Virginia Tech: The Hokies were one of the feel-good stories of the first month, starting 7-0 with wins over Iowa and Oklahoma State under first-year coach James Johnson. They have regressed to the mean since then, losing four of their last six. Despite the recent struggles, guard Erick Green is still one of the best guards in the country -- capable of carrying Virginia Tech offensively at times. Inside, Jarell Eddie has been a factor. Defensively, the team has some issues, giving up a combined 185 points in its last two non-conference games.

9. Georgia Tech: Brian Gregory has this team playing very well heading into conference play. The Yellow Jackets do have a couple losses to California and Illinois, but they also defeated Saint Mary’s and have won their last six games. Defensively, they’ve been very solid, forcing difficult shots and rebounding. They don’t have too many go-to-guys, but the Yellow Jackets are balanced and have multiple options. Freshmen Marcus Georges-Hunt and Robert Carter are going to be a good duo for years to come.

10. Clemson: Brad Brownell’s squad finished one game above .500 last season and also ended up 8-8 in the ACC. Can the Tigers match that this season? Doubtful. Their best wins in non-conference play were over UTEP and South Carolina, and they also lost by 23 to Coastal Carolina. They do play solid defense, but the offense is in trouble. Devin Booker has been solid on the interior, but the perimeter options need improving. A tough opening schedule doesn’t help.

11. Boston College: Can the Eagles stay out of the cellar? After the first month, it would have seemed unlikely, as they had lost to Bryant, Charleston and were just 3-5 overall. Five wins in a row, though, have given Steve Donahue and co. some optimism. Ryan Anderson has been one of the best players in the conference, being a double-double threat on a nightly basis. Olivier Hanlan and Joe Rahon have also formed one of the better freshman backcourts in the country.

12. Wake Forest: Jeff Bzdelik needs some results in Winston-Salem -- and fast. Unfortunately for him, it won’t come this year. They tied for last place a season ago, and finishing in the top nine or 10 of the league would be a legitimate goal. They have won three in a row, including a victory earlier this week against Xavier. Travis McKie and C.J. Harris give Wake two capable wing scorers, and seven freshmen give the Deacons some optimism for the coming years.

For more college basketball news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnCBB on Twitter, subscribe to our RSS Feed and subscribe to our College Basketball Newsletter. You can follow Jeff Borzello on Twitter here: @jeffborzello

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