ACC Conference Catchup: Duke, Virginia and Louisville give the league star power

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Jahlil Okafor (Getty Images)

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.

MORE: All of CBT’s Conference Catchups

Today, we’ll be taking a look at the ACC.

MIDSEASON ACC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Jahlil Okafor, Duke

Okafor has been the best player in the country this season, so naming him the Player of the Year in the ACC shouldn’t come as any surprise. What Okafor does for Duke is hard to limit to just one paragraph. He’s a lethal scorer on the block if you try to guard him one-on-one but he’s also a talented enough passer that Duke can run their offense through him.

THE ALL-ACC FIRST TEAM

  • Jahlil Okafor, Duke
  • Jerian Grant, Notre Dame: Grant is second in the league in scoring (18.4 points) and leads the conference averaging 6.2 assists. His return is the biggest reason the Irish look like a top 25 team.
  • Montrezl Harrell, Louisville: Harrell is not only averaging 16.0 points and 9.3 boards for the Cardinals, but he’s also their emotional leader and defensive sparkplug.
  • Justin Anderson, Virginia: Anderson is the leading scorer for a top five team and an ACC contender, shooting 60.9 percent from three on the season while playing his typical brand of defense.
  • Rakeem Christmas, Syracuse: The fact that Christmas is one this list is the most surprising part of the ACC season. The senior center is averaging 17.3 points and 8.8 boards.

THREE THINGS WE’VE LEARNED

1. Duke is the ACC’s best, but Virginia’s not far behind: The Blue Devils are clearly the best team in the league — they’re the closest thing to Kentucky outside of Lexington — but the Cavaliers are going to give Duke a run for their money for the league title. Virginia doesn’t have the same kind of talent that the other ACC contenders have, but they are the most disciplined and detail-oriented defense in the country. There offense isn’t high-powered, but it is efficient and balanced. All Tony Bennett does is win.

2. North Carolina is a step below the top three: Entering the season, the ACC looked like it had a pretty clear-cut top four, but through the first month and a half of the year, it’s become pretty clear that the Tar Heels are a step below Duke, Virginia and Louisville. Part of the issue is that Marcus Paige hasn’t quite found a groove this season — he will eventually — but the other part is that North Carolina just doesn’t have the ideal personnel for Roy Williams’ system. They’re still good, but they’re closer to being a top 20 team than they are a real ACC title contender.

3. There’s a major drop off after the top five: Add Notre Dame into the mix with Duke, UVA, Louisville and UNC and the top five in the ACC are better than the top five in any league in the country. After that? It gets ugly, as there isn’t a single program that looks like a lock to make the NCAA tournament. The best of the bunch is probably Syracuse, and they are in a bit of a rebuilding year this season. Florida State and Pitt lost key players, N.C. State has underperformed, Miami has fallen off a cliff since they’re hot start.

THREE STORY LINES TO FOLLOW

1. Will Louisville find a third-scorer, and what happens with Chris Jones?: Terry Rozier and Montrezl Harrell is the best one-two punch in the conference, but the Cardinals have yet to find a consistent third-option offensively. Chris Jones wants to be that guy, but he hasn’t grasped the concept that he’s not Russ Smith yet. There’s an argument to be made that Jones has been to worst offensive player on any top 25 team this season. He was benched in Louisville’s last win and has caused chemistry issues all season long.

2. When will the real Marcus Paige show up?: Marcus Paige is currently averaging 13.6 points and 3.8 assists while shooting 34.4 percent from three. That’s not exactly bad, but when you consider that Paige was showing up on most preseason first-team all-american lists, those numbers are a bit underwhelming. Some of it is that he’s been playing out of position as a pure point guard, but some of it is that Paige is just missing shots he usually makes. The ceiling for this Carolina team changes if he plays like an all-american.

3. Can Syracuse play their way into the Big Dance?: There are all kinds of issues with this Orange team. For starters, they have just one point guard on the roster — freshman Kaleb Joseph — and he’s been up and down in that roll. Rakeem Christmas and Chris McCullough have been really good up front, but there is no depth behind them. Michael Gbinije has played great of late, but he and Trevor Cooney have had consistency issues throughout their careers. They’ve played much better in recent games, but the lack of a marquee non-conference win could end up being a killer.

THREE PREDICTIONS

1. Duke takes home the league title: They’re the best team in the conference, they have the best player in the country and they’re the most difficult team in the league to matchup with. The two keys for Duke: Quinn Cook continuing to embrace his role as the off-guard and Justise Winslow’s ability to matchup with power forwards on the defensive end of the floor.

2. Notre Dame’s defensive issues catchup with them: The Irish are one jumper from LaDontae Henton from being undefeated entering ACC play, and they’ve done it while posting the nation’s second-most efficient offense, according to Kenpom. But they are also atrocious on the defensive end of the floor, finding themselves ranked between Akron and New Hampshire at No. 147 nationally. Notre Dame will win their share of games this season, but they need to find a way to tighten things up on that end.

3. The ACC sends two teams to the Final Four: I’m sure I’m not the only one that’s hoping Duke makes it to the Final Four and gets a chance to square off against Kentucky, but if any conference is going to send two teams to the Final Four, the ACC is the safe bet.

HOW THEY FINISH

NCAA: Duke, Louisville, Virginia, North Carolina, Notre Dame, Syracuse

NIT/CBI: Pitt, N.C. State, Miami, Florida State, Boston College

NO POSTSEASON: Clemson, Virginia Tech, Wake Forest, Georgia Tech

Boum, Jones lead No. 13 Xavier over No. 19 UConn, 82-79

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STORRS, Conn. – Souley Boum scored 21 points, Colby Jones added 20 and No. 13 Xavier went on the road and held off No. 19 Connecticut 82-79 Wednesday night.

The win was the 13th in 14 games for the Musketeers (17-4, 9-1 Big East) and it gave them a season sweep over the struggling Huskies (16-6, 5-6).

Jack Nunge had 12 points and Jerome Hunter added 11 for Xavier, which led by 17 in the first half and 39-24 at halftime.

Jordan Hawkins scored 26 of his 28 points in the second half for UConn, leading a comeback that fell just short.

Tristen Newton added 23 points for the Huskies, who won their first 14 games this season but have dropped six of eight since.

The Musketeers never trailed but had to withstand UConn runs that cut the lead to a single point four times in the second half.

A three-point play from Hawkins made it 78-77 with 2:40 left. But a second-chance layup from Nunge put the lead at 80-77 just over a minute later.

Newton was fouled with two seconds left by Desmond Claude, but his apparent attempt to miss his second free throw went into the basket.

Boum then hit two free throws at the other end, and Newton’s final attempt from just beyond halfcourt was well short.

Xavier jumped out to a 9-0 lead as UConn missed its first nine shots.

A 3-pointer from Zach Freemantle gave the Musketeers their first double-digit lead at 20-9, and another from Jones pushed it to 35-18.

BIG PICTURE

Xavier: The Musketeers lead the Big East, and the win over UConn was their ninth conference victory this season, eclipsing their total from last season.

UConn: The Huskies came in with a 17-game winning streak at Gampel Pavilion dating to February 2021. They fell to 1-4 against the four teams in front of them in the Big East standings. The lone win came at Gampel against Creighton.

UP NEXT

Xavier: The Musketeers continue their road trip with a visit to Creighton on Saturday.

UConn: Doesn’t play again until next Tuesday, when the Huskies visit DePaul.

No. 12 Iowa State holds on to beat No. 5 Kansas State 80-76

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AMES, Iowa – Jaren Holmes matched his season high with 23 points as No. 12 Iowa State held on to beat No. 5 Kansas State 80-76 on Tuesday night.

The Cyclones (15-4, 6-2 Big 12) moved into a three-way tie atop the conference standings with the Wildcats and Texas.

Gabe Kalscheur added 19 points for Iowa State. Osun Osunniyi finished with 16.

Markquis Nowell led Kansas State (17-3, 6-2) with 23 points.

A 3-pointer from Holmes gave Iowa State a 59-49 advantage with 8:12 remaining. Kansas State responded with a 10-1 run to trim the margin to 60-59.

Caleb Grill’s 3-pointer steadied the Cyclones and pushed the lead back to 63-59 with five minutes left.

Free throws by Osunniyi, Grill and Holmes sealed the victory in the final 24 seconds.

The first half featured eight lead changes and ended with Kansas State up 33-31.

A 3-pointer by Kalscheur ignited an early 9-0 run for the Cyclones and helped them build a 19-14 lead. Iowa State made just one of nine 3-point tries in the first 20 minutes.

BIG PICTURE

Kansas State was trying to extend its best start to a season since 1961-62.

Iowa State improved to 11-0 at home. The Cyclones have not lost back-to-back games this season.

UP NEXT

Kansas State hosts Florida on Saturday as part of the SEC/Big 12 Challenge.

Iowa State travels to Missouri on Saturday.

Georgetown snaps 29-game conference losing streak

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WASHINGTON – Primo Spears scored 21 points and Georgetown snapped a 29-game conference losing streak with an 81-76 victory over DePaul on Tuesday night.

Georgetown (6-15, 1-9) won its first Big East game since March 13, 2021, ending the longest skid in the history of the conference. The Hoyas also ended a 10-game losing streak this season.

Spears also contributed six assists for the Hoyas. Akok Akok scored 12 points and added six rebounds and four blocks and Brandon Murray recorded 12 points.

Umoja Gibson led the Blue Demons (9-12, 3-7) in scoring, finishing with 24 points, four assists and three steals. Javan Johnson added 13 points.

Spears scored nine points in the first half and Georgetown went into the break trailing 37-36. Georgetown used a 10-0 run in the second half to build a 12-point lead at 75-63 with 1:39 remaining.

Nance scores 21 as North Carolina survives Syracuse, 72-68

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SYRACUSE, N.Y. – Pete Nance scored 21 points, capped by a dunk with 19 seconds left that put North Carolina in front for good as the Tar Heels pulled out a hard-fought, 72-68 battle with Syracuse on Tuesday night.

Joe Girard hit from beyond the arc to put Syracuse up, 68-66 with 1:28 left, but after Nance hit the first of two free throws to get North Carolina within one, he missed the second free throw and in the scramble to gather in the rebound, the ball caromed toward the end line and Girard dove to save it. Instead, he flicked the ball right to Nance, who dunked for the lead.

Judah Mintz tried to drive the lane for a go-ahead layup but was called for an offensive foul that was upgraded to a flagrant foul. North Carolina took possession and Caleb Love converted three straight free throws to put the game away.

Armando Bacot scored 18 points and grabbed eight rebounds with four assists for North Carolina (15-6, 7-3 Atlantic Coast Conference). Love finished with 15 points and five assists.

Girard hit 4 of 9 from beyond the arc and finished with 18 points to lead Syracuse (13-8, 6-4). Mintz scored 17 points and had three steals and Chris Bell hit 3 of 5 from deep and finished with 15 points.

North Carolina has a week off before playing host to Pitt on Feb. 1. Syracuse plays at Virginia Tech on Saturday.

Green Bay fires Will Ryan after 11th straight loss

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GREEN BAY, Wis. — Green Bay fired Will Ryan three days after the Phoenix suffered their 11th consecutive loss.

Ryan, the son of former Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan, posted a 15-61 record in 2 1/2 seasons. Freddie Owens, who had been an assistant coach on Ryan’s staff, will be interim head coach for the rest of the season.

“UW-Green Bay is committed to continuing its legacy as an outstanding Division I athletics program in the future, and Phoenix men’s basketball needs to help lead the way as we work to elevate all of our programs and be a shining light for this region and beyond,” athletic director Josh Moon said in a news release announcing the move.

Moon thanked Ryan and his family for their contributions to the program and said that “we wish him all the best in his future endeavors.”

Stadium first reported Ryan’s firing.

Green Bay dropped to 2-19 overall and 1-9 in the Horizon League with a 72-38 home loss to Robert Morris.

Ryan was hired by Green Bay after going 14-13 in his lone season as the head coach at Division II program Wheeling (West Virginia). Green Bay went 8-17 in Ryan’s debut season and finished 5-25 last year.

Ryan had taken over for Linc Darner, who went 92-80 and posted a winning record in four of his five seasons.