ACC play is starting to heat up. A few games have already taken place, but most teams are just finishing up their non-conference slates. Saturday marks the first full day of conference action. With all ACC teams above .500 and just under half the conference in the AP Top 25 or receiving votes, there should be no shortage of exciting action.
Virginia Tech and Notre Dame kicked off ACC play with a New Year’s Day matinee matchup won by the Hokies 81-66. Ty Outlaw scored 14 points off the bench and shot 4-of-7 from 3-point range. The trio of Kerry Blackshear Jr., Ahmed Hill, and Nickeil Alexander-Walker all reached double-digit points as well, led by Blackshear’s game-high 21.
The Hokies are still in the race for a high seed in March but expect them to regress a bit in the New Year. The team currently shoots 44 percent from deep. That’s a great mark, but it’ll be tough to maintain against elite perimeter defending teams like Virginia. It also may not be sustainable for shootout games against Duke.
Still, Virginia Tech is a welcome surprise to the traditional powers in the upper-echelon of the ACC standings. The Hokies have only won two NCAA Tournament games since 1980 but sit at 12-1. Even if they come down to earth, the Hokies may push for the highest seed in March Madness in school history (the top mark is currently a 5-seed in the 2007 tournament).
On the other end of the court from the ACC-opening game was the Fighting Irish, a team that has dominated since joining the ACC for the 2013-2014 season. Notre Dame sits at 10-4 but is missing the star power that led the program to back-to-back Elite Eight appearances in 2015 and 2016. Bonzie Colson, Matt Farrell, Pat Connaughton, and Jerian Grant are all gone. The Irish are still a good team, just not an elite one like previous seasons. In a deep ACC, Notre Dame may be headed toward its first season as part of the conference when it wasn’t ranked at least once.
Miami is in a similar situation as the Fighting Irish. The Hurricanes don’t have as storied a program as Norte Dame, but Miami has enjoyed success lately. The program has two Sweet Sixteen appearances in the last half decade but has lost stars, Lonnie Walker and Bruce Brown.
The Hurricanes fell to 8-5 in the ACC’s second conference game of the season, an 87-82 loss to NC State. Miami squandered a 7-point halftime lead, allowing 50 points in the second half. Chris Lykes scored a game-high 28 points, but Miami wasn’t able to overcome a 13-0 NC State run midway through the second half after the Hurricanes had mounted a double-digit lead. The Wolfpack, meanwhile, are 13-1, the program’s best start since the 1973-1974 National Championship season.
Saturday’s full slate of action sees 12 ACC teams in action, highlighted by Clemson facing No. 1 Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium and a ranked-versus-ranked matchup of No. 9 Florida State and No. 4 Virginia.
The ACC is deep, but Duke and UVA still form a clear-cut top two. Duke’s trio of Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett, and Cam Reddish have stolen headlines, but another freshman, Tre Jones, has added a dimension to this already-elite Blue Devils team with his ball-distributing skills. Duke was supposed to be a three-man show, but the inclusion of a fourth talented freshman makes game-planning for Duke a nightmare for opposing coaches.
The Cavaliers, don’t have the flash of Duke, but they play a fundamentally-sound, efficient game. The airtight defense hasn’t taken a step back, but perhaps the most encouraging aspect of Virginia’s play is that the Cavaliers rank eight in offensive efficiency, according to KenPom, up from an average of 40th over the past two seasons.
Looking at the rest of the schedule over the next week, Boston College is the ACC team with the best opportunity to make some early noise in the conference. The Eagles are reeling from a home loss to Hartford but can wipe away those memories with strong showings against Virginia and Virginia Tech in the opening week of ACC play.