Top 10 games on ACC schedule: Questions for Duke, UNC; what games Pitino may miss
An overview of what the most interesting conference will offer up this season -- beyond Duke and Carolina
The ACC has unveiled its conference schedule for 2017-18, a season after putting a league-record nine teams in the 2017 NCAA Tournament. For some, the 15-team ACC last season represented arguably the toughest, deepest league in college basketball history, reinforced by North Carolina winning the national title.
Others may point to the Big 12 as a stronger conference in every mainstream metric, but regardless, the ACC was as compelling and creative from a coaching perspective as any conference in recent memory. For the season ahead, the league will have a hard time matching 2016-17, but will not be short on intrigue or mega-matchups.
The ACC will play 135 regular-season games. Here are the 10 most interesting (subject to change by the time we get to conference play). And if you're thinking that will be after Christmas, well, not exactly. Duke plays at Boston College in the first conference game on Dec. 9. No, it doesn't crack the top 10.
Here are the top 10 ACC conference games (in chronological order), and a few notes below that.
The Cavaliers return to Blacksburg after dropping a two-overtime game there last season. Both teams project as NCAA Tournament-good, but which group will be better this season is in question. The Hokies haven't had a better regular-season record than UVa since 2010-11, which was Tony Bennett's second season in Charlottesville.
This game features UNC point guard Joel Berry II and Notre Dame combo forward Bonzie Colson, the two preseason favorites for ACC Player of the Year. Plus, Berry will get a good head-to-head matchup against Notre Dame's Matt Farrell, who should develop into one of the nation's strongest senior point guards.
The Blue Devils' first tough test on the league schedule. Miami returns Bruce Brown, a dark horse ACC Player of the Year choice. The Hurricanes will have experience, and some size, on Duke. But the Blue Devils will have the talent edge. Should be a terrific game, one that helps decide the top of the standings.
The Hurricanes welcome a Louisville team that will boast Deng Adel, Ray Spalding, Brian Bowen and Quentin Snider. The Cardinals, a No. 2 seed in last season's Big Dance, lost a dynamite player in Donovan Mitchell, who was a lottery pick (No. 13 overall to the Utah Jazz) in June's draft. There's enough scoring and athleticism coming back to keep Pitino's team in the mix near the top of the ACC.
This CBS game may wind up as a gut-check for the Cavaliers. Sophomore guard Kyle Guy has an outstanding opportunity for a breakout game at Cameron Indoor. By this point, Grayson Allen, Marvin Bagley III or Trevon Duval should be established as Duke's star, the alpha ... in theory.
Obviously, a Devils-Heels game makes this list. UNC gets the first home game. It's always a compelling watch, and a Duke win at the Dean Dome may wind up being the victory that lifts the Blue Devils to their first standalone ACC regular-season title since 2006.
Everyone will be shooting for the reigning national champions on the road in conference play, but this spot is especially trying. Middle of February -- the dog days of the college calendar -- against a very good team on its home court and looking for No. 1 or No. 2 seed status.
Mike Brey has coached Notre Dame to 24-plus wins in four of the past five seasons with NBA talent and experienced rosters. The Fighting Irish are a fascinating team because they don't project to have a lot of depth, yet Colson and Farrell may wind up as two of the league's six or seven best players. Can they be good enough to get Notre Dame to last year's status? That status: a 5 seed.
Caps a five-day stretch in February that offers particularly tasty ACC tips. Conference games at this stage set up seeding for the ACC Tournament, with teams also jockeying for positioning in the NCAA bracket. Cardinals vs. Blue Devils should be a top-15 win for the selection committee to assess. Pitino vs. Krzyzewski -- two Hall of Famers -- is always worth viewing.
The Tar Heels won at Cameron in the regular-season finale in 2016. There are guys on this UNC roster who were on that team (Berry, Theo Pinson, Luke Maye). The second UNC-Duke game doesn't receive near the buildup as the first, in part because the regular-season finale happens while some leagues are handing out auto bids, and the conference tournament presents more chances for big wins. But it's hard to envision how this game won't mean something big for the resumés. Also: player of the year voting closes after this game. Will Berry be battling Bagley or Allen for that honor, and could this game decide it?
- Pitino has a potential five-game suspension coming for the first five ACC games, a punishment by the NCAA, which is in the appeal process. If Pitino loses, he'll be out from Jan. 2-16. Pitino not only would be barred from coaching games, he would be restricted from any communication with his team. The games Pitino would miss: Jan. 2 vs. Pittsburgh; Jan. 6 at Clemson; Jan. 10 at Florida State; Jan. 13 vs. Virginia Tech; Jan. 16 at Notre Dame. His first game back would be Jan. 21 at home vs. Boston College.
- The past seven seasons these three programs have finished atop the ACC standings: North Carolina (2011, 2012, 2016, 2017), Virginia (2014, 2015), Miami (2013).
- Krzyzewski has the challenge of coaching his least-experienced team. Duke's ACC schedule starts with BC, then Duke gets a home game vs. Florida State (on CBS), followed by road tilts against NC State and Pittsburgh, followed by a home game against a Wake Forest team that lost a lottery pick in John Collins. Duke's tougher tests won't come until mid-January at the earliest, most likely.
- Virginia Tech could be better than its record. Why? An experienced and talented Buzz Williams team on the verge of breaking through still must deal with home-and-homes against Duke, Louisville, Miami and Virginia. That's a tall task for a team looking to prove itself as one of the five or six best in the conference.
- North Carolina figures to battle Duke, Miami and Louisville to win the ACC, and a stretch that could dictate the Tar Heels' chances comes in February. Get a load of this: vs. Duke on Feb. 8, at NC State on Feb. 10, vs. Miami on Feb. 12. That's three games in five days. Doable, but stressful.
- Last season's ACC Tournament in Brooklyn (won by Duke) proved to be a success in attendance and watchable games, not to mention the ACC moving its title game from Sunday afternoon (prior to the bracket reveal) to the headlining spot on Saturday night. The tournament will be held at Barclays Center again from March 6-10, 2018.
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Kansas, Duke, Tennessee and Gonzaga are also in the top five