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.

No. 22 Tennessee beats No. 3 Kansas 64-50 for Atlantis title

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PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas – Tennessee’s players proved to be determined defenders and relentless rebounders, along with having the kind of toughness to ensure the reigning national champions would have little chance to get comfortable.

It was all enough to give the 22nd-ranked Volunteers a title of their own, along with the blueprint that coach Rick Barnes hopes they follow the rest of the year.

Santiago Vescovi scored 20 points while Tennessee locked down on third-ranked Kansas in a 64-50 win Friday night in the championship game at the Battle 4 Atlantis, snapping the Jayhawks’ 17-game winning streak.

Vescovi hit five 3-pointers as the tournament’s most valuable player for the Volunteers (5-1), who dominated the glass, overcame their own turnover troubles and made the Jayhawks work for clean looks. And for the third time in as many days, Tennessee won without leading scorer Josiah-Jordan James (knee soreness).

Perhaps that’s why reserve guard Zakai Zeigler, who had 14 points and four steals, showed up wearing sunglasses to the postgame news conference after the Volunteers had danced and hollered through the on-court trophy ceremony.

“We know if you can’t stop the man in front of you, then you’ll have no shot at winning the game,” Zeigler said, adding: “We just like to play defense, and we just happen to be good at it.”

The Vols held the Jayhawks to 32.1% shooting, bothering them with size and length around the rim. They also took the ball right at the Jayhawks with 5-foot-9 Zeigler leading the way, down to him refusing to let go of a jump ball and trading words with 6-8 forward Jalen Wilson.

Zeigler’s night included a 3-pointer to beat the shot clock at the 7-minute mark to push Tennessee’s lead to 56-38. He followed with another big one from the right wing with 4:42 left after Kansas had closed within 11.

Wilson and Joseph Yesefu each scored 14 points to lead the Jayhawks (6-1), who shot 28.6% in the first half and never warmed up. They made 5 of 21 3-pointers in what was an all-around rough night, from losing starting guard Dajuan Harris to fouls with 9 minutes left to failing to keep the Vols off the glass (45-27).

“We played a team tonight that was older and more mature and obviously played stronger and tougher,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “We didn’t handle the situation near as well as what I would hope a poised team would.”

BIG PICTURE

Tennessee: The Volunteers opened the tournament with a win over Butler, then grinded through an overtime win against Southern California in Thursday’s semifinals. This time, Tennessee played in front the entire way en route to its first title in three tries at the Atlantis resort.

“I think the main thing from the whole week was stay together through tough times, that’s what you’ve got to do,” Vescovi said.

Kansas: The Jayhawks didn’t have an easy first two days in the Bahamas. First came a battle to the final minutes with North Carolina State. Then came Thursday’s overtime win against Wisconsin on Bobby Pettiford Jr.’s last-second putback. But they never looked in any type of offensive flow this time with their smaller lineup.

“I feel like if we were able to get them out of place and not just have them standing there, waiting to contest a layup, that could’ve gave us some better chances at finishing at the rim,” Wilson said.

STRONG RUN

Tennessee held its three Atlantis opponents to 36.9% shooting and 15 of 59 (25.4%) from 3-point range. The Volunteers also averaged a +9 rebounding margin, ending with having Jonas Aidoo (nine) leading five players snagging at least six rebounds against Kansas.

“You can be a good defensive team but if you can’t be a great one if you give them second and third shots,” Barnes said.

SIDELINED

Beyond Harris’ foul trouble, the Jayhawks played most of the way without Pettiford, who exited midway through the first half grabbing at his right leg.

Afterward, Self said he would be out “for a while” with a hamstring strain.

UP NEXT

Tennessee: The Volunteers return home to host McNeese State on Wednesday.

Kansas: The Jayhawks host Texas Southern on Monday.

BYU erases 23-point deficit, beats Dayton in overtime 79-75

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NASSAU, Bahamas – Gideon George scored 21 points and combined with Jaxson Robinson and Rudi Williams for BYU’s 15 overtime points as the Cougars came back from a 23-point deficit to beat Dayton 79-75 in overtime Friday.

BYU’s victory came in the seventh-place game in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament.

George’s 3-pointer with 2:19 left in regulation gave BYU (4-3) its first lead after Dayton scored the first 10 points of the game and led 32-9 with six minutes left in the first half.

Mike Sharavjamts’ basket gave the lead back to Dayton but George’s free throw with a minute left sent the game into overtime.

Dayton got the first points in overtime but Robinson’s 3-pointer gave BYU the lead for good halfway through the extra period.

Robinson had 14 points, Dallin Hall 12 and Williams 11 to join George in double figures for BYU.

DaRon Holmes II scored 21 points and Sharavjamts 15 for Dayton (3-4). The Flyers lost starting guards Kobe Elvis and Malachi Smith to lower-body injuries in the second half, Smith with with just seconds left in regulation.

Portland beats Villanova 83-71 in Phil Knight Invitational

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PORTLAND, Ore. – Moses Wood scored 16 points and Portland beat Villanova 83-71 on Friday in the Phil Knight Invitational.

Villanova (2-4) has lost three straight games, including an overtime loss to Iowa State on Thursday to drop below .500 for the first time since March 7, 2012.

Vasilije Vucinic’s layup with 4:16 remaining in the first half gave Portland the lead for good. The Pilots had an eight-point lead at halftime and scored the first 10 points of the second half.

Wood added six rebounds and three blocks for the Pilots (5-3). Tyler Robertson scored 15 points while shooting 6 for 12 (1 for 5 from 3-point range) and added seven rebounds and eight assists. Kristian Sjolund recorded 14 points and shot 5 for 7 (2 for 3 from 3-point range).

Caleb Daniels finished with 18 points and seven rebounds for the Wildcats. Villanova also got 14 points from Jordan Longino. Brandon Slater had 11 points.

Caleb Grill, Iowa State topples No. 1 North Carolina 70-65

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PORTLAND, Ore. – Caleb Grill has followed T.J. Otzelberger from South Dakota State to UNLV and now back to Iowa State hoping the pair could share a moment like they did Friday.

Taking down the No. 1 team in the country was another bookmark moment in a long journey for the pair.

“I’m actually really enjoying sitting next to him from this moment right now just thinking about how long we’ve known each other and how cool this really was,” Otzelberger said.

Grill hit seven 3-pointers and scored a career-high 31 points and Iowa State rallied in the final five minutes to stun No. 1 North Carolina 70-65 in the semifinals of the Phil Knight Invitational.

Iowa State (5-0) picked up just its third win over a team ranked No. 1 in the AP Top 25. The Cyclones are 3-22 against No. 1 teams, with the other wins coming against Kansas in 1957 and Oklahoma in 2016.

The Cyclones can now add North Carolina (5-1) to the list.

“I was just staying the course of the game. I never really thought about it and the game just kind of came to me,” Grill said.

Grill was averaging 7.3 points and had made just 4 of 24 3-point attempts for the season entering Friday. But he couldn’t be stopped from beyond the arc, hitting a pair of big 3s to spark Iowa State’s late rally. His deep fadeaway jumper just inside the 3-point line with 1:40 left gave Iowa State a 63-61 lead and the Cyclones did just enough at the free throw line in the final minute to close out the upset victory.

Grill’s previous career high was 27 points while playing for UNLV in the 2020-21 season against Alabama. He also hit seven 3-pointers in that game.

Grill originally signed with South Dakota State when Otzelberger was the coach there. He was released from his commitment when Otzelberger took the head job at UNLV and started his career at Iowa State before deciding to join his coach in Las Vegas.

When Otzelberger returned to Ames, Grill followed again.

“Just having him be the first person that really had belief in me, it’s just really special what he’s done for me and my family and everything we’ve done,” Grill said.

Jaren Holmes added 22 points and the Cyclones withstood off shooting games from Aljaz Kunc and Gabe Kalscheur, who combined for three points and missed all eight of their shot attempts. Both were averaging double figures scoring for Iowa State.

RJ Davis led North Carolina with 15 points, Armando Bacot added 14 and Caleb Love scored 12. But the Tar Heels will lament a series of mistakes in the closing minutes that allowed Iowa State to rally.

“We had wide open threes. We were able to get to the basket. We were able to get whatever we wanted, we just didn’t make those shots,” North Carolina coach Hubert Davis said.

North Carolina led 57-49 after Leaky Black’s layup with 5:43 left, but missed four of its final six shots and had four turnovers during that span.

“We turned the ball over a couple of times and you just can’t do that in late-game situations,” Davis said. “You have to be sound and discipline and you have to do that on both ends of the floor and we just didn’t do it.”

NO. 1 LOSSES

North Carolina lost as the No. 1 team in the country for the first time since Nov. 21, 2015 when it lost 71-67 at Northern Iowa. The Tar Heels also lost as No. 1 to UNLV in 2011 at a Thanksgiving tournament.

BIG PICTURE

North Carolina: Pete Nance wasn’t able to contribute in the same way he did in Thursday’s opening round. Nance, who tied his career high with 28 points against Portland, didn’t score for the first 27 minutes and finished with seven points.

Iowa State: The Cyclones were playing a No. 1 team from outside their conference for the first time since 1999 when they faced Cincinnati in the championship game of the Big Island Invitational.

UP NEXT

Iowa State will face either No. 18 Alabama or No. 20 UConn in the championship game while the Tar Heels will face the loser for third place.

No. 8 Duke locks down late, holds off Xavier 71-64

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PORTLAND, Ore. – After a shaky offensive performance in the opening round of the Phil Knight Legacy tournament, Duke coach Jon Scheyer wanted to see Jeremy Roach get back to playing more instinctively, especially at the offensive end of the floor.

Roach responded with a season-high 21 points, Mark Mitchell added 16 and No. 8 Duke withstood Xavier’s second-half comeback for a 71-64 win on Friday.

The Blue Devils (6-1) advanced to the championship game thanks to the play of their standout guard and another strong defensive effort. Roach came one point shy of matching his career high, and the Blue Devils rebounded after an unexpectedly tight victory over Oregon State in the opening round of the event.

Roach was 3 of 14 shooting against Oregon State as the Blue Devils scored a season-low 54 points. He made 9 of 15 shots and had five assists against Xavier.

“There’s a lot that falls on your shoulders so you can end up overthinking it a little bit,” Scheyer said. “The thing that I love for him today is he just was him. And when he’s that way, he is to me the best guard in the country.”

The Musketeers (4-2) were held to two points over the final five minutes and missed their last four shot attempts. Souley Boum scored 23 points and Adam Kunkel had 13. Kunkel didn’t play the last 11 minutes after taking a hard fall committing a foul.

Xavier leading scorer Jack Nudge was 1 of 13 shooting and finished with five points.

“Jack played a great effort. He really did. He was ready for the game. He just had one of those nights where the ball didn’t go in the basket,” Xavier coach Sean Miller said.

At the same time, Miller was disappointed in what he called the “fracturing” he saw from his team.

“There were spurts and segments of the game where I thought we reflected our style, how we’re trying to play, whether it be defense and offense. But there were way too many segments of the game, if not most of the game, where we were at times in our own way,” Miller said.

Mitchell scored seven points in the opening minutes of the second half, including a pair of layups, and he hit a 3-pointer from the wing that gave Duke a 49-36 lead, its largest of the game.

That’s when Xavier’s comeback started. The Musketeers pulled within three points on several occasions, but Duke answered each time. Desmond Claude’s driving layup pulled Xavier within 63-60 with 5:51 left, but Ryan Young scored for Duke and Xavier didn’t make another basket.

Roach’s jumper with 2:40 left pushed Duke’s lead to 69-62.

“We like to play inside out but I mean, when guys are hitting shots it just opens up for everybody else,” Roach said. “Just try to continue to be consistent hitting shots and I think we’ll be fine.”

Kyle Filipowski had 12 points and was not Duke’s leading scorer for the first time in five games.

BIG PICTURE

Duke: The Blue Devils’ dominance on the backboards finally came to an end. Duke had outrebounded each of its first six opponents by double figures, the longest such stretch in school history. But Xavier’s interior size limited Duke to a 33-32 advantage on the glass. The Blue Devils had 12 second-chance points.

Xavier: The Musketeers played an Atlantic Coast Conference team for the first time since beating Virginia Tech in last year’s NIT Season Tip-Off. Xavier dropped to 0-2 against ranked opponents this season, having lost to Indiana last week. The Musketeers will play another ranked foe in Sunday’s third-place game.

UP NEXT

Duke will face the Gonzaga-Purdue winner in the championship game on Sunday, while Xavier will play the loser.