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Four Takeaways from Virginia Tech’s win over No. 5 Duke

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Virginia Tech picked up a potential signature victory as they took advantage of Grayson Allen’s suspension and ran past No. 5 Duke for a 89-75 home ACC win.

The Hokies jumped out to a big early lead that turned into 47-31 by halftime as they were never seriously threatened in the second half. The Blue Devils were playing without Allen — the junior Player of the Year candidate who was suspended indefinitely following his third tripping incident in a win over Elon — for the first time and the 10-day layoff, a tough road game and the conference opener all combined for an ugly effort.

Here are four things we learned from this game.

1. Duke still has to figure out its defense: The biggest takeaway from this game is that Duke’s defense needs to improve a lot in order from them to win the national championship. While Duke’s offense suffered without Grayson Allen, its defense was completely atrocious in allowing Virginia Tech looks from all over the floor.

Perimeter defenders were getting blown by and big men weren’t protecting at the rim — a total failure that led to Virginia Tech shooting 55 percent from the field and 61 percent from three-point range.

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Allen’s return to the lineup should obviously help with some of the perimeter problems but the bigger issue here is Duke’s glaring lack of a rim protector. Amile Jefferson is more of a rebounder and best suited with a big man next to him while freshmen like Marques Bolden and Harry Giles are just returning from injury. Bolden can wall up and be a presence, but he’s never been noted as a plus shot blocker, while Giles is at his best as a rebounder.

We can’t expect Duke to just develop a rim protector overnight — although that can improve a bit — but they can get better at preventing guards from just coasting to the bucket. And this entire Duke team can also stand to be more physical on the defensive end.

2. Virginia Tech picked up a signature victory: Buzz Williams didn’t exactly put his team through a rigorous non-conference schedule leading up to this point, but it doesn’t matter now, as the Hokies have a win over a potential No. 1 seed.

While Virginia Tech had only a road win at Michigan to show for its non-conference schedule, this win should certainly give the Hokies a lot of momentum. The key for this team securing a NCAA tournament bid could come in the next few games. If Virginia Tech is able to split its next four games (at N.C. State, at Florida State, Syracuse, Notre Dame) then it will be off to a solid start heading into a winnable home game against Georgia Tech.

You wouldn’t think of Blacksburg as a place you wouldn’t want to play but the Hokies have knocked off three top-10 opponents at home over the last calendar year.

3. Duke’s freshmen are still adjusting to the college game: We heard so much about Duke’s freshmen class entering this season and they’re finally all seeing the floor as we begin conference play (even seldom-talked-about forward Jack White got minutes for Duke in the Virginia Tech loss…).

But this talented group still has adjustments to make as we enter the tough part of the schedule. After the hot start, guard Frank Jackson was only 3-for-9 from the field for six points in the Virginia Tech loss while Jayson Tatum (18 points, seven rebounds) picked it up after a slow shooting start.

Harry Giles showed some flashes in finishing with four points and six rebounds (the offensive putback, in particular, was a classic Giles play when he was healthy as he has such a natural gift of timing on offensive putbacks) but he doesn’t have the wind or confidence to be relied on yet.

Marques Bolden contributed three rebounds off the bench and didn’t provide any rim protection when Duke desperately needed some.

Tatum and Jackson will be aided by Allen’s return and Giles and Bolden will get more comfortable as they get more healthy and active but this Duke team is still going to need a lot from its veterans to make a title run.

4. Virginia Tech’s balance is tremendous: The Hokies don’t have one-and-done, five-star prospects or a lot of pro prospects. They’re not going to get the hype of certain teams because their own conference is littered with teams that have both.

But the Hokies are filled with confidence and aggressive players who perfectly embody what Buzz Williams likes out of his teams. Williams has multiple guards who can attack and make plays in Seth Allen, Justin Robinson and Justin Bibbs while Chris Clarke has become a versatile double-double threat who is one of the toughest players in the ACC. Ahmed Hill is a valuable slasher while Zach LeDay is underrated on the interior.

I just named six talented players for the Hokies and any of those guys can lead them to victory. If all six of them finish in double-figures — as the Hokies did in the win against Duke — that’s when Virginia Tech can hang with any team in the country. This team is going to get plenty of battles in the ACC and they’ll be equipped to handle most of them because of this team’s unique toughness and balance.

College Basketball Conference Reset: The ACC’s best players and biggest story lines

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College basketball’s non-conference season is coming to a close, and to help you shake off post-holiday haze and the hangover of losing in your fantasy football playoffs, we’ll be providing you with some midseason primers to get you caught up on all the nation’s most important conferences.

Today, we’re taking a look at the ACC.

PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Luke Kennard, Duke

I’ve written about this quite a bit in our Player of the Year Power Rankings this season, but to me, Kennard deserves to be a first-team all-american as of today. If it wasn’t for the fact that Josh Hart, Frank Mason III and Lonzo Ball have been straight ballin’ on teams that could win a national title, Kennard would have a legitimate argument as National Player of the Year through the first six weeks of the season. He’s averaging 20.3 points, 5.8 boards and 3.1 assists with shooting splits of 53.2/42.2/88.5, and he’s been the best player on the floor for Duke in their biggest games, including last Monday, when he was maybe the only reason Duke didn’t get taken to the wire by Tennessee State.

ALL-ACC FIRST TEAM

  • Luke Kennard, Duke
  • Joel Berry II, North Carolina
  • Justin Jackson, North Carolina
  • Michael Young, Pitt
  • Amile Jefferson, Duke

RESETS: ACC | Big Ten | Big East |Pac-12 | SEC | Big 12

WHAT WE’VE LEARNED

  1. Does Duke have reason to be concerned?: We thought they were going to be awesome. You’ve heard this 1,000 times over by now, so I’ll keep it brief: Grayson Allen, Jayson Tatum and Harry Giles III – before the knee scope – were supposed to be the guys that were all-america candidates on this team. Six weeks into the season, Luke Kennard has been a first-team all-american and Amile Jefferson isn’t too far behind. But last week, it looked like Duke’s season was on the verge of going off the rails. There was Grayson Allen’s trip and meltdown, but perhaps more concerning was that Duke won two games they were favored in by a combined 53.5 points by just 21 points total. And then there were Kennard’s comments, which questioned the selfishness of this team.
  2. North Carolina will push the Blue Devils: The Tar Heels lost Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson to graduation and haven’t skipped a beat. Part of that is because Joel Berry II and Justin Jackson have both been terrific this season. Berry is playing like the point guard we’ve wanted him to be since he got to campus, and Jackson has embraced his role as the team’s go-to scorer. Their front line isn’t great, but it doesn’t need to be. As long as Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks, Tony Bradley and Luke Maye keep getting to the glass and keep getting opposing bigs in foul trouble, that should be enough. Kenny Williams’ improvement is also noteworthy, as is the fact that Theo Pinson hasn’t yet suited up for a game.
  3. Not as top heavy, but there may be more balance: Both Louisville and Virginia are elite defensively, but with Donovan Mitchell and Deng Adel failing to improve as much as some (namely me) thought and with Austin Nichols getting the boot, those two look like they’re a step below the Tobacco Road blue-bloods, even with last week’s wins over Kentucky and at Cal, respectively. That said, teams like Notre Dame and Florida State have been impressive in non-conference play while the likes of Virginia Tech, N.C. State, Pitt, Clemson and Miami all look as if they’ll be good enough to put together a tournament profile worthy of at-large consideration, at the least. And then there’s Syracuse, who has the talent to be a top 25 team but has yet to have the performances on the court to back that up.

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KEY STORY LINES IN LEAGUE PLAY

  1. Another Challenger outside of Tobacco Road?: Duke and North Carolina are the two best teams in the league. I say that because I think both of those teams are among the top six teams in the country – along with Kentucky, Kansas, Villanova and UCLA – and I think there’s a pretty clear delineation between the top six and the rest of the country. That said, there are a trio of teams that are at least worth mentioning here. Louisville has proven to have the nation’s best defense, but there are enough question marks with their shooting that we cannot put them in the same breath as the blue-bloods. Virginia is essentially dealing with the same problem: They’re elite defensively but do they scare you offensively? Notre Dame is the exactly opposite. The Irish don’t turn the ball over at all and they shoot the lettering off the ball. But are they tough enough to get stops in crunch time? For my money, I don’t think any of those three will mount a serious regular season title challenge.
  2. How many bids will the league get?: This will be the most interesting debate once we get near Selection Sunday. The conference is loaded. That we know. But how many bids can it actually support? My guess is that 11 will get in, as the league’s overall depth will bring up their computer numbers, but for that to happen, two things must be true: Duke, UNC and Louisville drop games to some of the teams on the bubble, and none of those bubble teams drop games to the likes of Boston College and Wake Forest.
  3. Just how good will Duke be?: People are going to be sick of hearing about this pretty soon. Hell, I’m getting sick of writing it at this point. But at the end of the day, the Blue Devils have as much raw talent on their roster as anyone that I can remember, including the 2014-15 Kentucky team that started out the season 38-0. That doesn’t guarantee anything, not when Harry Giles III is clearly still getting into game shape, Duke is without a true point guard on the roster and Grayson Allen can’t stop tripping people, but it does set us up for what could end up being a fascinating season that does down as one of the most memorable, good or bad, Coach K’s career.
CHAMPAIGN, IL - NOVEMBER 29: Dennis Smith Jr. #4 of the North Carolina State Wolfpack drives to the basket during the game against the Illinois Fighting Illini at State Farm Center on November 29, 2016 in Champaign, Illinois. Illinois defeated North Carolina State 88-74. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
Dennis Smith Jr. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

BETTER THAN THEIR RECORD: N.C. State is currently sitting at 10-2 on the season, but they have yet to do much to prove themselves. They’ve lost to Creighton and Illinois and their best win came at home in overtime against Tennessee State. But consider this: Maverick Rowan only recently returned to the lineup after suffering a concussion early in the season and Omer Yurtseven, a potential first round pick, only got eligible three games ago. Throw in the fact that freshman Dennis Smith Jr. is starting to play like the guy that’s projected as a top five pick and the Wolfpack are a team flying under the radar.

BEAT SOMEONE AND WE’LL TALK: Virginia is ranked No. 12 in the AP Poll and is currently sitting at 11-1 on the season with a win at Cal. It’s foolish, at this point, to overlook a Tony Bennett-coached program, but after losing Malcolm Brogdon and Anthony Gill to graduation and with Austin Nichols off the team, I think they need to prove they’re still ACC title contenders.

Florida State also should be mentioned here. They have a ton of talent on their roster and a gaudy record, but their best win is against Florida at home. In other words, we know they’re good. Are they really top 25 good? We’ll find out in ACC play.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Brad Brownell has not been to the NCAA tournament since his first season with the Tigers. That was six years ago. This group has the pieces on the roster to get back – Jaron Blossomgame is awesome, Donte Grantham is underrated, Elijah Thomas will be eligible soon. And if it doesn’t? How many high major head coaches have been able to survive missing the NCAA tournament for six straight seasons?

LAS VEGAS, NV - DECEMBER 17: Justin Jackson #44 of the North Carolina Tar Heels drives to the basket against De'Aaron Fox #0 of the Kentucky Wildcats during the CBS Sports Classic at T-Mobile Arena on December 17, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Kentucky won 103-100. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Justin Jackson (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

POWER RANKINGS, POSTSEASON PREDICTIONS

Tourney teams

  • 1. Duke: The Blue Devils are just so loaded, but the one thing to watch for is the thing we’ve been warning you about since Derryck Thornton transferred: Does Duke have a point guard? When they faced a stingy defensive team in Tennessee State, the Blue Devil offense looked bad.
  • 2. North Carolina: This team is going to go as far as Joel Berry II and Justin Jackson take them. Their front court is good enough, they have good role players that can do a job and Roy Williams has as much experience in the tournament as anyone. But Berry and Jackson are the difference-makers, and they’ve unquestionably made a difference this season.
  • 3. Louisville: I’m still not really sure what to make of the Cardinals, although that win over Kentucky sure seemed pretty convincing. They’re elite defensively but they haven’t shot consistently. Their front court length has actually been the strength of this team through 12 games, and while that’s a good thing for Rick Pitino, I’m not sure this team has Final Four potential if Donovan Mitchell and Deng Adel aren’t the two most indispensable pieces on the roster.
  • 4. Notre Dame: I really do love this Notre Dame team. The way they spread the floor, the way that over-looked players like Matt Farrell and Bonzie Colson have been playing at an all-ACC level, the way that Mike Brey is totally willing to roll with four guards and a 6-foot-5 “big man”. They have to get tougher, however, and learn to close out wins.
  • 5. Virginia: As I mentioned earlier, the Cavaliers are going to be a nightmare to try and score on regardless of who they put on the floor, but my concern with this team is on the offensive end of the floor. I don’t know who the points are going to be coming from with Austin Nichols out of the mix. No one on the team is averaging double-figures.
  • 6. Florida State: I think the Seminoles are real this season, real enough that a top four finish isn’t out of the question. We know about the talent they have offensively – Dwayne Bacon, Jonathan Isaac, Xavier Rathan-Mayes, Terrence Mann – but it’s their return to a grind-em-down defensive mindset that has me more intrigued.
  • 7. Virginia Tech: The Hokies are flying under the radar at this point. They’re 10-1 on the season with a win at Michigan and their only loss coming by three points to Texas A&M on a neutral. Overloooked is probably exactly the way that Buzz Williams likes it.
  • 8. N.C. State: The Wolfpack are the team that I’m most intrigued with in the ACC. We’re only just now seeing what they can be when they’re at 100 percent, as they played the majority of their non-conference slate without Maverick Rowan and Omer Yurtseven, who are both starters. Throw in top five pick Dennis Smith Jr. and a stable of scorers on the perimeter, and I think this is a team capable of both making a Final Four and missing the NCAA tournament.
  • 9. Miami: Miami, to date, hasn’t taken a bad loss this year. But they also lost to the two teams they’ve faced that rank inside KenPom’s top 75, and their only top 100 win is against a Stanford team that hasn’t been very good. On paper I like this group, but they have some work to do.
  • 10. Pitt: I think Kevin Stallings is going to get it done and get back to the Big Dance. A lot of that is depending on the fact that A) SMU won’t look like a bad loss come March and B) that win at Maryland is going to be a road win over a top six team in the Big Ten on Selection Sunday. Michael Young and Jamel Artis deserve a trip to the tournament.

NIT teams

  • 11. Clemson: I think Clemson is going to be the victim of numbers in the ACC. They’re probably good enough to be a tournament team in any other conference, but not everyone can win enough games to be at-large viable, and someone has to be 12th.
  • 12. Syracuse: The Orange have been the most disappointing team in the conference to date, although that is probably due to the fact they were overrated entering the season. This team has a ceiling of top five in the conference, but unless they learn to rebound out of that zone and Tyler Lydon plays like he did against Georgetown the rest of the year, they’re in trouble. If they lost at home by 33 to St. John’s, what happens when they host good teams in league play?
  • 13. Wake Forest: The Demon Deacons are actually better than I expected this season. John Collins has been one of college basketball’s biggest surprises, but Danny Manning’s boys are still probably a year or two away from really competing for a bid.

Autobid or bust

  • 14. Georgia Tech: Josh Pastner took this job knowing what he was going to get himself into. Hey, at least he’s not at BC. Shout out to Ben Lammers for being awesome, though.
  • 15. Boston College: The bright spot for Boston College this season: Jerome Robinson is a stud. That may be enough to get the Eagles at least one ACC win this season.

ACC non-commital on HB2 stance

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With North Carolina unwilling to rescind their controversial so-called bathroom bill, the NBA has withdrawn its All-Star Game from the state this year and numerous high-profile music acts have canceled performances as a result.

The ACC is declining to join them with a hard-line, or really any, position.

“We don’t want to damage our league with any premature decisions,” commissioner John Swofford said on The David Glenn Show. “We’ll just see how it plays out.”

The ACC, of course, has quite the presence in the state with North Carolina, N.C. State, Duke and Wake Forest all in the Tar Heel State. Swofford’s comments are sure to draw the interest of the LGBT community, which has roundly been critical of the bill, which requires people to use the bathroom which corresponds to the gender on their birth certificate, and has recently been active in college athletics, opposing the Big 12’s potential inclusion of BYU in its expansion plans over concerns of the Church of Latter Day Saints school’s honor code.

North Carolina’s bill has also drawn the eye of the NCAA, which is requiring potential championship sights to provide information on local anti-discrimination laws.

One of the loudest voices in the ACC, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, has come out against the law.

“It’s an embarrassing bill,” Coach K said last month.

Florida State adds Class of 2017 forward

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Florida State added a Class of 2017 forward RaiQuan Gray on Monday after the playmaker took an official visit to campus. The 6-foot-7, 240-pound Gray had a solid summer playing for the Florida Vipers as he’s a bigger wing forward who can create mismatches with his size and ability to handle the ball.

Regarded as a three-star forward and No. 127 overall player in the Rivals Class of 2017 rankings, Gray is a nice addition to the Seminole frontcourt. He joins three-star guard Bryan Trimble Jr. in Florida State’s Class of 2017.

Florida State has done a great job of adding playmaking talent the last few classes and it’ll be interesting to see how Gray fits in with the other ball handling options on the roster.

Young scores 25, No. 24 Pittsburgh beats Notre Dame 86-82

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) Michael Young scored a season-high 26 points and No. 24 Pittsburgh held on after wasting a big lead for an 86-82 victory over Notre Dame on Saturday.

The Irish used a 9-0 run to cut a 16-point deficit to 79-77 on a 3-pointer by Demetrius Jackson and layup by Steve Vasturia. James Robinson ended a 1-of-9 shooting streak for the Panthers with a basket inside.

The Irish (10-5, 1-2 Atlantic Coast Conference) closed to 83-80 on a dunk by Jackson and had a chance to tie it on a 3-pointer by Matt Ryan, but it missed badly. Young hit a free throw with 11.5 seconds left. The Irish closed to 84-82 on a layup with 6 seconds left, but Robinson made a pair of free throws with 5 seconds left to clinch the win for the Panthers (14-1, 3-0).

Jamel Artis added 19 points for the Panthers and Sheldon Jeter had 18 as the Panthers dominated inside, outscoring the Irish 40-24 in the paint and outrebounding the Irish 34-24.

Jackson led the Irish with 26 points, Bonzie Colson and Steve Vasturia added 13 and Zach Auguste added 12.

Notre Dame cut Pittsburgh’s 18-point lead to four-points late in the first half, but the Panthers, playing their first road game, led 49-43 at halftime and regained control by opening the second half on a 9-2 run, capped by a 3-pointer by Artis as the Panthers won their 10th straight.

The Irish, who lost at home for the first time this season, used a 14-1 run to cut the lead to 73-64 on a basket inside by Bonzie Colson. Young ended the run by the Irish by making 3 of 4 free throws, and Sheldon Jeter had a three-point play to extend the lead to 79-68.

Young started the game with a three-point play 15 seconds in when he was fouled by Bonzie Colson and had 14 points in the first seven minutes on 5-of-6 shooting. He sat the first 10 minutes of the second half, though, after picking up two fouls in the final 64 seconds of the first half.

The Panthers overwhelmed the Irish early, jumping to a 13-0 lead as the Irish missed their first four shots and the Panthers made it 15-2 when Young made his fourth straight shot. Pittsburgh hit 10 of its first 12 shots, extending the lead to 28-10 on a 3-pointer by Chris Jones. Demetrius Jackson began getting the Irish back into it by making four straight 3-pointers, cutting the lead to 33-22.

TIP-INS

Pittsburgh: The Panthers entered the game leading the nation in free throw shooting at 79 percent. They made 20 of 24 on Saturday. … The Panthers were 10 of 19 from 3-point range. … Pitt’s reserves outscored Notre Dame’s bench 26-10.

Notre Dame: Jackson had a career-high five 3-pointers. … Notre Dame scored 43 points in the first half, the most allowed by Pitt in a half this season. … Notre Dame’s first turnover came 81 seconds into the second half when Rafael Maia stole the ball from Beachem. … Zach Auguste fouled out with 5:53 to play.

UP NEXT

Pittsburgh: travels to Louisville on Thursday.

Notre Dame: hosts Georgia Tech on Wednesday.

Indiana rallies past Notre Dame with 17-2 second half run

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Following a Demetrius Jackson tip dunk with 6:32 remaining that gave Notre Dame a 71-63 lead, Indiana looked to be in serious trouble at the Crossroads Classic in Indianapolis. They weren’t stringing together stops defensively, thus preventing them from making a dent in the Fighting Irish advantage despite knocking down shots on the other end.

But Indiana went to a zone defensively and received a much-needed spark from Troy Williams, sparking a 17-2 run that turned the eight-point deficit into an 80-73 victory.

The junior wing scored seven of Indiana’s final 17 points, finishing with 18 points and ten rebounds on the afternoon. Williams’ intensity, like that of his teammates, hasn’t always been present this season especially on the defensive end of the floor. But that changed down the stretch against Notre Dame, with Bonzie Colson (24 points, eight rebounds) and V.J. Beachem (18 points) both going quiet as a result. Notre Dame shot a respectable 45.5 percent in the second half, but a lot of that damage was done early in the stanza.

Mike Brey’s team led by as much as 16, but the Hoosiers managed to avoid the play that could have served as the knockout blow. Ultimately the Hoosiers would take advantage of Notre Dame’s missed opportunities, and their play in the final six-plus minutes should be something for Tom Crean’s team to build upon.

But the question that begs asking is a simple one: why can’t Indiana play that way on a consistent basis?

There’s no question that the talent is present, with Ferrell running the point and multiple players capable of scoring on the wings such as Williams, James Blackmon Jr. and Robert Johnson. But there hasn’t been a consistent commitment to getting stops instead of simply relying on their offensive talents and the mindset that “we’ll just get the points back on the other end.”

If Indiana is to compete with the likes of Michigan State, Maryland and Purdue in Big Ten play, they have to play with greater consistency and commitment on defense. Colson and Zach Auguste were a big reason why Notre Dame scored 46 points in the paint, as Indiana continues to struggle with its interior defense and that may be a trend the Hoosiers simply have to deal with. The move to zone helped Indiana account for this issue, and unlike their failed comeback attempt against UNLV last month the Hoosiers finished the job this time around.

The last six-plus minutes showed, to a certain extent, what Indiana is capable of when fully engaged. But the fact that they don’t play that way consistently is why there’s been so much frustration with this group. Can Saturday’s win serve as the spark Indiana needs? That remains to be seen.