ACC Conference Reset: How many contenders are there?

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College basketball’s non-conference season is finally coming to a close.

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.

Who has been the best player in the biggest leagues?

Who is on track to get an NCAA tournament bid?

What have we learned about the conference hierarchy, and what is left for us to figure out?

We break it all down here.

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

MIDSEASON ACC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Marvin Bagley III

He’s getting overshadowed some by fellow freshman Trae Young, but Bagley has been awesome this season. He’s averaging 21.2 points and 10.9 rebounds while shooting 61.7 percent from the floor and a respectable 34.6 percent from 3-point range for a 6-foot-11 forward. He’s gone into Duke and been dominant, helping the Blue Devils to a 12-1 record while easing the burden – and dimming the spotlight – on Grayson Allen. If Duke wins its sixth national championship, Bagley very well could be the reason why.

THE ALL-ACC FIRST TEAM

  • MARVIN BAGLEY, Duke
  • BONZIE COLSON, Notre Dame: The 6-foot-6 power forward is one of the most fun watches in college basketball. The senior is at the height of his powers, averaging 21.3 points on 54.1 percent shooting
  • LUKE MAYE, North Carolina: He’s averaging a double-double of 18.1 points and 10.5 rebounds a year after putting up 5.5 and 3.9, respectively. Pretty clear he’s no NCAA tournament fluke.
  • GRAYSON ALLEN, Duke: It’s nice to only be talking about Allen’s game after last season’s tripping-induced meltdown. His 137.1 offensive rating is by far a career best, as is his 45.2 percent mark from 3-point range.
  • KYLE GUY, Virginia: The top knot may be gone, but Guy’s production has stayed with the new haircut. He’s getting buckets in bunches while carrying a big offensive load for the Cavaliers.

POSTSEASON PREDICTIONS

  • NCAA: Virginia, North Carolina, Duke, Miami, Clemson, Notre Dame, Florida State, Louisville
  • NIT: Virginia Tech, Syracuse, North Carolina State
  • OTHER/NO POSTSEASON: Wake Forest, Georgia Tech, Pittsburgh, Boston College
Marvin Bagley III (Steve Dykes/Getty Images)

THREE THINGS WE’VE LEARNED

1. VIRGINIA STAYS VIRGINIA: Tony Bennett’s program continues to be one of the most consistent in the country. The losses of Malcolm Brogdon and Anthony Gill led to a 23-11 season and a five-seed in the NCAA tournament last year. The Cavaliers looked prime for a slip with the graduate of London Perrantes and the transfer of Marial Shayok, but instead they’re 11-1 and an established ACC frontrunner.

Of course, Kyle Guy’s offense and Devon Hall’s emergence on that end of the floor has been huge, but it’s all about defense with the Cavaliers. They’re allowing an opponent effective field goal percentage of 42.4, seventh in the country. That’s powered by an opponent 2-point shooting percentage of 39.9, an absurdly low number. The pack-line just produces, or, rather, stops others from producing.

2. THIS DUKE TEAM LOOKS FAMILIAR: A truly special group of freshmen – including a dominant big man, an efficient point guard and a dynamic wing – surrounding a special senior. The Duke of 2017-18 is looking suspiciously like Mike Krzyzewski’s 2014-15 team that cut down the nets at Lucas Oil Stadium.

The separation between the two right now is defense – the Blue Devils currently rank 73rd in adjusted defense – but that 2015 group was pretty brutal on that end of the floor as well until its NCAA tournament run rocketed them up the rankings. If Duke continues to rate as the country’s best offense, the defense only has to get marginally better for this Duke team’s season to finish in the same manner as 2015’s.

3. LUKE MAYE IS A STAR: Maye’s career path is astounding. He went from agreeing to initially walk-on at North Carolina to barely playing as a freshman to being a rarely-used reserve as a sophomore who became a sensation with his breakout play in UNC’s run to through the NCAA tournament to a national championship last year. He’s proving he’s no novelty act this season.

Maye is averaging a double-double while shooting 52.8 percent from the floor and 45.9 percent from 3-point range. He’s adding in 2.5 assists and 1.1 blocks per game too for good measure. He’s not a complete rags-to-riches story as Maye had plenty of high-major offers coming out of high school, but his development – in conjunction with his expanded role – is something rarely seen in the college game today, especially at a blue blood like North Carolina.

Luke Maye (Steve Dykes/Getty Images)

THREE STORYLINES TO FOLLOW

1. HOW MANY CONTENDERS ARE THERE?: Duke is probably the consensus favorite to win the ACC, but the conference looks strong at the top. How many teams can legitimately lay claim to contender status? Right now, the number looks like six, including the Blue Devils.

Virginia’s case has already been laid out above. The Cavs are going to defend, and that’s going to give them a shot. The Tar Heels, a loss to Wofford notwithstanding, look a worthy successor to last year’s title team. Miami’s defense looks legit, Clemson has wins over Ohio State, Florida and South Carolina while Notre Dame and Florida State have looked intriguing enough.The bottom of the league may be soft, but the top will be a brawl.

2. WHAT’S NEXT FOR LOUISVILLE?: David Padgett and the Cardinals are 10-2, but their best win is over an Indiana team that already has six losses (shoutout to Indiana State and Fort Wayne). Against their only other real competition, Purdue and Seton Hall, Louisville lost by nine and two points, respectively. So, how good is this team?

Here’s betting they’re somewhere around “meh.” The offense hasn’t really hummed all year, and the defensive numbers are probably inflated by substandard competition. With a mediocre offense and a good-but-probably-not-great defense, Louisville is probably on track for the bubble. Then begins the incredibly intriguing situation regarding its coaching position.`

3. COACHES ON THE HOT SEAT: Clemson’s Brad Brownell and Boston College’s Jim Christian both entered the season under some serious pressure to win. The Tigers made the NCAA tournament in Brownell’s first season, 2010-11, but haven’t since while Christian’s Eagles had six ACC wins in his first three seasons, including an 0-18 campaign in 2016.

Both are off to strong starts – Clemson is 11-1 while BC is 10-3 with a win over Duke – but both their futures will likely be decided in how the next three months play out. What’s good enough? For Clemson, it’s probably a tourney birth. For Boston College, the bar is probably competency and competitiveness in the ACC. The other situation to monitor is Pitt. Kevin Stallings is in just his second year, but season No. 1 was something of a debacle and this campaign already features losses to Navy and Montana. If the Panthers can’t hang in the ACC, it wouldn’t be shocking to hear the drum beat from Pitt fans to give Stallings an early hook gain some momentum.

THREE PREDICTIONS

1. BONZIE FOR PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Marvin Bagley is the best player in the conference, but here’s betting that Colson gets the nod for ACC Player of the Year. Colson is going to put up big numbers, Notre Dame should be pretty good and voters will probably break any ties by giving the nod to a senior with a distinguished career over a freshman who was never destined to spend more than a few months on campus. Right, wrong or indifferent, that’s the way it often works. And Colson is awesome, so he could just win the thing going away.

2. DAVID PADGETT DOESN’T KEEP THE LOUISVILLE GIG: Padgett has done a good job in a bad situation. He’s kept Louisville together despite the turmoil that’s inherent to the circumstances of losing a Hall of Fame coach and athletic director amidst the fallout of a federal investigation into corruption in college basketball (what an amazing sentence, tbh). The Cardinals are playing well and go into tonight’s game against Kentucky with a puncher’s chance. Still, it seems unlikely he’ll win enough to force Louisville to keep him on, and given the expectations in the program and fan base, that would seem to be the only way they hire a 32-year-old with no previous head coaching experience on full time.

3. N.C. STATE WILL SURPRISE: The Wolfpack raised some eyebrows when they knocked off Arizona, but that proved to be more about the Wildcats as it tipped off their three-game losing streak. NC State followed it up with losses to Northern Iowa and Tennessee, and then dropped one to Greensboro. So, not exactly a completely promising non-conference slate for Kevin Keatts’ group. They’re still kind of intriguing, though, The offense is pretty good, the defense seemingly has to get better and there’s plenty of talent on the roster. The Wolfpack probably won’t immediately figure it out and become an NCAA tournament shoe-in, but look for them to jump up and cause some problems for the league’s top teams.

Flagler, No. 6 Baylor rally late, top No. 14 Gonzaga 64-63

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USA Today
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — In a rematch of the 2021 national championship game, Adam Flagler hit a pair of 3s as No. 6 Baylor scored the final eight points to rally past No. 14 Gonzaga 64-63 Friday night.

Gonzaga’s Rasir Bolton missed a wild, driving layup try at the buzzer.

Two seasons ago, Baylor beat the then-undefeated Zags 86-70 to win its first title. This time, the Bears didn’t take the lead for good until Jalen Bridges made two free throws with 16 seconds left.

“Adam is a great leader, but no one knew he wasn’t feeling well today,” Baylor head coach Scott Drew said. “To be honest, some players wouldn’t have played. He played through the pain and left it all out on the court. As a coach, I appreciate that.”

The Bears (6-2) trailed 63-56 before Flagler hit a 3-pointer with 1:33 left. Flagler’s 3 with just over a minute to play cut Baylor’s deficit to 63-62.

After a Gonzaga shot clock violation, Flagler’s 3-point attempt for the lead was off the mark, but Bridges was fouled by Drew Timme on the rebound attempt. Bridges hit two foul shots to put Baylor ahead.

The Zags (5-3) had a final chance when Bolton caught an inbounds pass near his own foul line with 4.6 seconds remaining. He drove the lane, but his off-balance shot went high off the glass and missed as the buzzer sounded.

“We took two balls down hill and tried to make plays at the rim. At that point in the game, those are tough,” Gonzaga head coach Mark Few said. “It’s very disappointing. They made plays, man.”

Freshman Keyonte George had 18 points and seven rebounds for Baylor. Flagler had 11 points and Langston Love added 10.

“I trust my work. I was able to knock them down,” George said. “My teammates believe in me each and every day. They give me that confidence in a big game to make big shots like that.”

Malchi Smith scored 16 points for Gonzaga. Anton Watson added a double-double with 13 points and 13 rebounds. Timme had nine points.

Baylor led by as many as 12 in the first half before Gonzaga closed to five at the break.

Watson’s basket put Gonzaga ahead 41-40. From there, the teams swapped leads over the next 13 minutes as the second half featured two ties and 14 lead changes.

A thunderous dunk from Smith gave Gonzaga its seven-point lead with under two minutes to go.

BIG PICTURE

Baylor: The win was a big rebound for Baylor after its 26-point loss to Marquette earlier in the week. The loss was the Bears’ most lopsided since they fell to Kansas 82-56 in 2007

Gonzaga: After opening the season ranked No. 2 in the AP preseason poll, the Zags have now lost two of three.

STAR WATCH

Timme began the night leading the Bulldogs in scoring at 20 points per game. He was hampered by foul trouble against Baylor and got his first field goal with six minutes remaining. He fouled out with 16 seconds to play.

REMATCH PLAYERS

Four players on the floor Friday night had significant minutes in the championship game two years ago including Flagler, Timme and Watson, along with Baylor’s Flo Thamba.

UP NEXT

Baylor: The Bears return home to host Tarleton on Tuesday before playing Washington State on Sunday in Dallas for the Pac 12 Coast-to-Coast Challenge.

Gonzaga: The Bulldogs return to Spokane for three straight beginning Monday when they face Kent State for the first time in school history.

Carr scores 19, No. 2 Texas beats No. 7 Creighton 72-67

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AUSTIN, Texas – Texas had pressured Creighton’s shooters into a miserable night, only to watch a late flurry of 3-pointers start swishing.

An 11-point Longhorns lead was down to three.

That hardly rattled Marcus Carr and the second-ranked Longhorns, who stepped up with big late shots of their own and steady free-throw shooting to secure another impressive early-season victory, 72-67 over the seventh-ranked Bluejays on Thursday night.

Carr scored 19 points and made two free throws with 10 seconds left as Texas held off Creighton’s furious late-game rally.

Creighton struggled through a wretched 3-point shooting night, but pulled within 62-59 thanks in part to five points in a row by Baylor Scheierman. Carr’s baseline jumper and an easy layup by Tyrese Hunter when Creighton lost him on an inbound pass with 46 seconds left stretched the Longhorns’ lead again.

That didn’t quite close the door on Creighton, which got two more 3-pointers from Scheierman, who had missed his first nine attempts. That forced Texas to finish it from the free-throw line behind Carr and Brock Cunningham. Cunningham’s two free throws with 4 seconds left were his only points of the game.

“There’s going to be a bunch of times one of us has to go down there and knock down a bunch of free throws,” Carr said. “We talk about it all the time.”

The matchup was part of the Big 12-Big East Battle and Texas earned its second win over a top-10 opponent in its new arena. The Longhorns (6-0) beat then-No. 2 Gonzaga on Nov. 16 and have their highest ranking since they were No. 1 during the 2009-2010 season.

“I don’t think we’ve proven anything,” Texas coach Chris Beard said. “We’re just a team that’s trying to get better.”

Hunter scored 15 points for Texas.

Ryan Kalkbrenner had 20 points and 13 rebounds for Creighton (6-2), and Ryan Nembhard scored 17 points. The Bluejays were 4 of 27 on 3-pointers.

Scheierman, a 44% shooter from beyond the arc this season, made three 3s in a row late. His off-balance shot from the right corner over a defender pulled the Bluejays within 68-65 with 11.4 seconds left.

Scheierman finished with 13 points and 11 rebounds.

“The reality is you are gonna have nights,” Creighton coach Greg McDermott said. “It just happens. We don’t ever want him to stop shooting.”

BIG PICTURE

Creighton: Kalkbrenner was all but unstoppable on a 9-of-10 shooting night for the Bluejays, who kept launching from long range instead of looking for their 7-foot-1 center.

Texas: The Longhorns couldn’t force their usual numbers of turnovers and fast-break points, but were exceptionally clean with the ball on offense. Texas had just three turnovers that Creighton turned into three points.

FORMER TEAMMATES

Texas senior forward Christian Bishop played three seasons at Creighton before transferring prior to last season. He finished with six points and four rebounds in 16 minutes.

“We understood what this game was, not just for our team but for Christian,” Carr said.

TIRED TEAM

McDermott suggested his team maybe just wore out. The Bluejays went 2-1 in the Maui Invitational last week and then played their first game of the season on an opponent’s home court.

“Three games in three days against ranked teams (in Hawaii) and then to come in here,” McDermott said. “That’s a lot to ask of my team.”

UP NEXT

Creighton hosts in-state rival Nebraska on Sunday.

Texas plays No. 16 Illinois in New York City on Dec. 6 in the Jimmy V Classic.

No. 20 Maryland upsets No. 7 Notre Dame at the buzzer, 74-72

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Diamond Miller scored 31 points, including the game-winner at the buzzer, to lead No. 20 Maryland to a 74-72 victory over seventh-ranked Notre Dame on Thursday night in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.

Irish guard Sonia Cintron’s layup had tied the game with 15 seconds left off before Maryland held for the last shot. Miller hit a contested mid-range jumper just before time expired to give the Terrapins a victory over a top-10 opponent. It was the 15th lead change of the game.

Miller also grabbed a game-high 12 rebounds to go along with five assists. Shyanne Sellers added 17 points.

Maryland (7-2) picked up its first win over Notre Dame (6-1) since 2007.

Cintron’s double-double led the Irish with 24 points and 10 rebounds.

Notre Dame’s leading scorer Olivia Miles got off to a slow start on Thursday due to foul trouble. She scored 12 of her 14 points in the final 15 minutes of the game to go along with seven assists and two steals.

BIG PICTURE

Maryland: The Terrapins picked up their second top-20 win of the season ahead of the upcoming Big Ten opener.

Notre Dame: The Irish have had issues with foul trouble this season, a problem that persisted on Thursday. Miles played just 25 minutes, including the majority of the fourth quarter, due to picking up her fourth foul late in the third quarter.

UP NEXT

Maryland: Returns to College Park for the program’s Big Ten opener Sunday against Nebraska.

Notre Dame: Stays home to host No. 3 UConn Sunday.

Virginia’s depth helping its rapid climb in the AP Top 25

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The starting five is the same, but that is where comparisons between the Virginia team that has climbed to No. 3 in the AP Top 25 and last year’s NIT quarterfinalists ends.

Yes, one more year together and a trip to Italy has made the first five significantly better, but part of the credit for that surely goes to another group: the reinforcements. They’ve helped the Cavaliers (6-0) already knock off No. 6 Baylor, No. 16 Illinois and Michigan.

Virginia has scored 70 points or more in its first six game for the first time since the 2003-04 season, and coach Tony Bennett said it was the offense – and not UVA’s signature relentless defense – that saved them in a 70-68 victory this week at Michigan in the ACC/Bg Ten Challenge.

“Our offense kind of kept us in it in the first half,” Bennett said, before the team put it all together, erasing an 11-point halftime deficit to disappoint a raucous Wolverines crowd.

Reece Beekman was the offensive catalyst, scoring 15 of his 18 points before halftime, but four others joined him in double figures, including Jayden Gardner. His foul-line jumper with 39.9 seconds left provided the last of his 11 points, and the winning margin.

Gardner, who led Virginia in scoring last season (15.3 ppg), is averaging 11.5 this year.

“We’ve got a lot of capable scorers and we’re just gonna keep playing together. And we’re playing very unselfish basketball right now,” Gardner said after scoring 24 against Maryland Eastern Shore. He went into the game with 31 points through four games.

“He’s not the most jumping type of guy, but he’s got so much power,” Hawks coach Jason Crafton said of Gardner, an East Carolina transfer with 2,068 career points. “That low center of gravity and the flexibility that he has to be able to get under people and hold his position is elite. When he wants the ball at a certain spot, he can get it there.”

The leader remains guard Kihei Clark, who already has a place in Virginia history, having retrieved a loose ball and fed Mamadi Diakite for a jumper that sent the Cavs’ Elite Eight game against Purdue into overtime on the way to winning the 2019 national championship.

Newcomers Ben Vander Plas, a transfer from Ohio, and freshman Isaac McKneely have given Bennett more options, and more scoring power than a year ago.

As a junior, Vander Plas had 17 points for No. 13 seed Ohio when the Bobcats upset Virginia 62-58 in the first round of the 2021 NCAA Tournament.

He scored seven straight in the second half against the Wolverines, twice scoring inside and then swishing a 3-pointer while trying to slow down bruising big man Hunter Dickinson.

“Ben, yeah. Just his poise and composure in the post, took advantage of some mismatches and he really gave us a great lift,” Bennett said. Vander Plas is the son of a teammate of Bennett’s at Green Bay, and his first name is a tribute to Bennett’s father, Dick.

McKneely scored 15 and made 4 of 6 3-point tries in an 89-42 victory against Monmouth

“He was standing in front of our bench. I’m like, `Listen, we’re not helping off him,”‘ Monmouth coach King Rice said he told his team, pointing at McKneely, a two-time player of the year in West Virginia. “And he kind of looked at me and I said, `Yeah, you, because you make all of them,’ and he started laughing.”

Ryan Dunn also made quite the impression on Rice in his first collegiate appearance, scoring 13 points with six rebounds and three blocks in almost 27 minutes.

“I was in the building when De’Andre Hunter came off the bench and had a breakout game,” Rice said of Hunter, now with the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks. “Dunn reminds me a lot of Hunter, and you can tell he’s young. But when he grows into that body with that skill set, he’ll be giving people problems for a long, long time.”

The Cavaliers open Atlantic Coast Conference play against Florida State, then host top-ranked Houston, which beat them 67-47 last season, a week later.

“A good schedule for sure and it tests you, it kind of shows you, win or lose, you see where you’ve got some holes,” Bennett said.

So far, the Cavaliers have been able to fill them all.

No. 4 Arizona turning heads early in the season

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David Cruz/USA TODAY Sports
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TUCSON, Ariz. — Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd knew there was talent on his roster. He wasn’t exactly sure how good the team would be.

The former longtime Gonzaga assistant had a similar view of last year’s team and that one turned out to be pretty good, running all the way to the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16.

This year’s team could end up being even better.

Buoyed by transfers and improved returning players, Arizona has rolled through the early part of its schedule, climbing to No. 4 in this week’s AP Top 25 after winning the Maui Invitational.

“I learned that we’re good,” Lloyd said. “We’re tough. We’re gritty. I think there’s going to be some great things for us to really double down on and some things to show our guys where we went the wrong way.”

Lloyd had a superb first season in the desert, earning coach of the year honors last season with a team that lost three players to the NBA.

The Wildcats (6-0) had to replace three NBA players again this season. Again, they made a seamless transition.

Improvement on the part of the returning players has been a big part of it.

Oumar Ballo, considered a project as a freshman at Gonzaga, has transformed into one of the nation’s best big men. The 7-foot, 260-pound center from Mali has vastly improved his footwork and developed patience in the post, setting himself up for good shots instead of trying to bull his way to the basket.

Ballo is averaging 19 points and 10 rebounds while shooting 76.7% from the field, fourth-best nationally. He was named Maui Invitational MVP after finishing with 30 points and 13 rebounds against No. 7 Creighton in the title game.

Not bad for a player who averaged 2.5 points and 6.3 minutes per game two years ago at Gonzaga.

“When he struggled, I still believed in him,” Lloyd said. “I didn’t need for him to be instantly successful for me to reaffirm my belief in him. When he struggled, we continued to love him and work with him and then he continued to hang in there and I think it is a great story.”

Fellow big man Azuolas Tubelis has made a few strides of his own, adding strength and toughness to his athletic, fluid game. The 6-10 forward leads Arizona with 19.3 points per game while grabbing 8.0 rebounds.

Fiery point guard Kerr Kriisa has rounded into a reliable floor leader, averaging 15.3 points and 7.5 assists while shooting 51% from the 3-point arc.

“I don’t pay attention to the antics because they don’t mean anything to me,” Lloyd said. “I know maybe that draws attention to him from other people but when it comes to just pure basketball, I mean he is doing a good job and I think he is really showing something.”

So is Courtney Ramey.

The Texas transfer has given the Wildcats a huge boost in his first season in Tucson, providing hounding defense, leadership and another scoring option. He’s averaging 16 points per game and has hit 10 of 16 from 3-point range so far this season.

Campbell transfer Cedric Henderson Jr. has provided an athletic lift off the bench and 7-foot Estonian Henri Veesaar has given Arizona solid minutes.

The mix of new and old has helped Arizona lead the nation with 97.5 points a game and rank second with 21.8 assists per game. The Wildcats climbed 10 spots in this week’s poll after wins over Cincinnati, No. 24 San Diego State and Creighton.

Arizona opens Pac-12 play Thursday at Utah.

“It was good to get the recognition, but we’re not satisfied,” Ramey said. “Our ultimate goal is to be No. 1 at the end of the season and be the final two teams playing, so I think the regular season matters but it’s not the ultimate goal for us.”

The Wildcats are certainly off to a good start.