In a very down year for the most storied college basketball league in the nation, the two major questions are will anyone blemish Duke's perfect record? And who will finish second to the Blue Devils in a wide-open ACC filled with flawed teams?
The ACC looks like the fourth-best conference in the land behind the Big 10, Big 12 and Big East. The ACC hasn't been this bad in a long, long time. The closest it's come in recent history was 2000, when just three teams made the NCAA Tournament. But even in 2000 the ACC has two top-15 teams in Duke and Maryland with North Carolina squeaking in as an eight seed.
Most ACC teams have played themselves into such a deep hole that they'll need at least 10 conference wins just to get on the bubble. The league will be lucky to garner three bids and none of those teams will get a high seed unless someone finds a way to win 12-plus ACC games.
Let's take a look at each of the 12 teams, including my predictions for final conference records.
The Eagles combine one of the most efficient offenses in the league with one of the least efficient defenses under new coach Steve Donahue. Don't be fooled by their snail-pace, Boston College can score – the team is making almost 55 percent of its two-point shots and nearly 40 percent of its 3s while never turning the ball over. The problem for the Eagles is that their defense is so bad it leaves the offense little room for error. The Eagles don't rebound well at either end of the floor, they can't force turnovers and the opposition is shooting nearly as well as Donahue's squad.
Prediction: 9-7 (T-4th)
Another ACC team playing with a new coach, the Tigers seemed destined to win somewhere between seven and nine games this year. They are the very definition of mediocrity – they don't excel in any area but they have few glaring weaknesses. Turnovers are their biggest problem on offense but their biggest strength on defense, as the players seemed to have retained some of the turnover-forcing mentality of Purnell's pressing attack. They could improve by simply taking fewer outside shots – the Tigers are hitting just 33 percent of their 3s but over 50 percent of their twos.
Prediction: 8-8 (T-6th)
The Blue Devils are the only thing keeping the ACC from becoming the worst of the BCS conferences in basketball this year, remaining a favorite in the national title chase despite losing Kyrie Irving indefinitely with a foot injury. Their insane 44% shooting from behind the 3-point line has turned them into the nation's best offense and their defense has become one of the best at generating turnovers. The Devils have about a 20 percent chance to finish a perfect 16-0 on the year according to Pomeroy, an insanely high number with two months still to play. Ohio State, by contrast, has an 11% chance to go undefeated in Big 10 play.
Prediction: 14-2 (1st)
Leonard Hamilton has carved out an identity for his Florida State teams – long, athletic squads that are great defensively and turn the ball over far too often to be effective offensively. It's the same story this year for the Seminoles, who have the nation's best defense inside the arc and block a higher percentage of shots than any other team. But until this team learns how to take care of the ball it will never go from good to great – the Noles are turning it over on one out of every four possessions so far this year. That's by far the worst in the ACC and ranks among the highest turnover rates in the whole nation.
Prediction: 9-7 (T-4th)
Simply put, the Jackets can't shoot – they are hitting under 29 percent of their 3s and under 47 percent of their twos so far this season. The shooting has overshadowed the fact that they are rebounding reasonably well and doing well in the turnover department on both ends. But when they go cold, they go very, very cold – like getting blown out by Kennesaw State cold. Unless they drastically improve their shooting, this Tech team will find itself in the bottom third of the league and Paul Hewitt might finally, mercifully be fired.
Prediction: 6-10 (10th)
This is the year that a very average North Carolina team will be able to take advantage of a soft ACC – in most seasons this Tar Heel squad would have to fight to break .500 in league play. But this isn't most seasons, and the Heels are just good enough to rise above the mediocrity. Despite four losses on the resume, the Heels are one of the few ACC teams with a signature win – beating Kentucky at home. They are going to need to start making some free throws though, as their 63 percent ranks among the worst in all of D-1 basketball.
Prediction: 11-5 (2nd)
North Carolina State
If NC State wants to have any shot at finishing in the top tier of the league this season, the defense needs to take a huge leap forward. The Pack is the worst defensive rebounding team in the ACC, allowing opposing teams a second chance on more than a third of its shots. The Pack also continues to struggle at forcing turnovers, making easy baskets few and far between and limiting the Pack's ability to run. A healthy Tracy Smith might help the rebounding numbers and unusually poor shooting inside the arc, but the Pack defense is going to have to get a lot better very quickly if it wants to win the 10-plus ACC games they'll need to earn a Tournament berth.
Prediction: 8-8 (T-6th)
A December loss to Boston College already has them one game in the hole in the ACC, but the Terrapins do get one more big opportunity to bolster their out of conference resume when they travel to Villanova in mid-January. The Terrapins have quietly played some of the best defense in the conference – holding opponents under 40 percent on twos and 31 percent on 3s. They're normally atrocious defensive rebounding has become above-average while their offensive rebounding remains stellar. In short, this is one of the few teams that might be NCAA Tournament worthy in the league this season.
Prediction: 10-6 (3rd)
While the Hurricanes put up a good fight at Cameron last weekend, the Hurricanes aren't going to be able to make much noise in the ACC unless they fix their turnover problem. They give the ball up too often and don't take it away often enough – a combination that makes it difficult to win close games. This is a team good enough to win eight or nine ACC games, but this year eight conference wins won't even put you on the NCAA bubble.
Prediction: 7-9 (9th)
While nowhere near the level of Wake Forest, the Cavaliers have a myriad of problems on both sides of the ball. On offense they have trouble scoring inside the arc, don't get any offensive rebounds and don't draw a lot of fouls. On defense they give up way too many open looks from the outside and can't force turnovers. They do two things well – defensive rebounding and not making unforced errors. A tough conference schedule makes an 11th place finish the most likely outcome.
Prediction: 5-11 (11th)
Losing Dorenzo Hudson for the year is the kind of blow that no ACC team can absorb. While he wasn't their best player, he was their best defender and provided a steady presence on offense. Without the senior, it's hard to envision the Hokies living up to their preseason No. 2 ranking in the league. Virginia Tech is a team that doesn't shoot well from outside, doesn't rebound well and turns the ball over a little too often. Malcolm Delaney might need to average 30 points a game over the next two months to get the Hokies to the Big Dance.
Prediction: 8-8 (T-6th)
Welcome to the Jeff Bzdelik era! It's hard to put Wake's awfulness into words, but right now the team is about the equivalent of a bad Conference USA team. Losing to them would be akin to losing to East Carolina – no team apart from Duke is making the dance with a loss to Wake on their resume. The only question surrounding the Demon Deacons this year is whether or not they will actually win a league game. Pomeroy gives them about an eight percent chance to go 0-16 in the league, which seems low until considering every other team in the league has a zero percent chance to go winless.
Prediction: 1-15 (12th)