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ACC Reset: Does ACC title run through Durham or Charlottesville?

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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 recaps 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?

What is still 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: Zion Williamson, Duke

This decision really is not all that difficult. As of today, Zion Williamson is likely the favorite to win National Player of the Year; he’s been atop the NBC Sports Player of the Year Power Rankings for more than a month. The numbers he is putting up for the No. 1 team in the country more than speak for themselves — 19.8 points, 9.4 boards, 2.3 assists, 2.1 steals, 1.9 blocks — but it is more than that. He’s the most unstoppable force in college hoops. He is the piece that allows Duke to play the way they want to play this season. His versatility defensively is a major reason the Blue Devils are one of the top three teams in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric while his ability to grab-and-go in transition and make plays using his out-of-this-world physical gifts is why the Blue Devils are an impossible matchup.

Williamson is a special, special talent. By the end of the year, even the world’s biggest Duke haters will be forced to agree.

THE ALL-ACC FIRST TEAM

  • ZION WILLIAMSON, Duke
  • R.J. BARRETT, Duke: There are 353 teams in college basketball, and Barrett is ninth nationally in scoring and putting up those numbers while playing on the No. 1 team in the country. Let’s not overthink this.
  • DE’ANDRE HUNTER, Virginia: Kyle Guy is Virginia’s leading scorer and Ty Jerome is arguably their best player, but for my money Hunter is the guy that needs to be recognized on this list. He’s the most talented player on the roster and is the guy that allows the Wahoos to be matchup proof.
  • NICKEIL ALEXANDER-WALKER, Virginia Tech: Not only is Alexander-Walker one of the best players in the conference — he’s averaging 18.5 points, 4.3 boards, 3.8 assists and 2.5 steals while shooting 46.8 percent from three — he’s probably the most improved as well. He’s turned into a knockdown jumpshooter than is a playmaker defensively and thrives initiating offense and running pick-and-rolls. He’s become a lottery pick.
  • CAMERON JOHNSON, North Carolina: North Carolina’s best player to date this season, which is odd considering Luke Maye was their preseason all-american, Nassir Little is the future top five pick that can’t seem to crack the starting lineup and Coby White is the freshman getting all the hype.

POSTSEASON PREDICTIONS

  • NCAA: Duke, Virginia, North Carolina, Virginia Tech, Florida State, N.C. State, Louisville, Syracuse, Clemson
  • NIT: Miami, Boston College, Notre Dame, Pitt
  • OTHER/NO POSTSEASON: Wake Forest, Georgia Tech
(Darryl Oumi/Getty Images)

THREE THINGS WE’VE LEARNED

1. DUKE’S FRESHMEN ARE WORTH THE HYPE

This is hardly breaking news.

Zion Williamson has been absolutely sensational. R.J. Barrett is a guy that has his flaws as a basketball player, but those flaws will not be all that visible when he’s playing against college athletes. Cam Reddish is struggling to find his role on this Duke team and has still managed to put up 13.5 points in just 23.8 minutes while shooting 35.6 percent from; if only all freshmen could struggle like that.

And then there is Tre Jones, the unsung hero on this Duke roster. He is a game-changing defensive presence, precisely the kind of point guard that Duke has been looking for since … well, since Tyus Jones. The Blue Devils are the favorite to win the national title this season because of those four players.

So yes.

Duke’s freshmen are worth the hype.

2. VIRGINIA MIGHT BE BETTER THAN THEY WERE A YEAR AGO

This is my favorite storyline of the season to date. Coming off of the most embarrassing loss in the history of college basketball, the Wahoos entered this season carrying the burden of being the only No. 1 seed to have ever lost to a No. 16 seed, and they’re doing so while already being saddled with the reputation of being a choke artist.

Let’s call it like it is: In the last five NCAA tournaments, Virginia has either blown a lead they shouldn’t have blown or lost earlier in the tournament than they should have based on their seed. People remember things like that, since that is the time when the most people are paying attention to college basketball.

(Eric Espada/Getty Images)

Now stop me if you’ve heard this before, but this might actually be the best Virginia team that we have seen in the Tony Bennett era. They’re as good defensively as we have become accustomed to this program being, but this team is better offensively than a typical Virginia team. Kyle Guy has been very good once again this season. Ty Jerome continues to play like a future pro. Freshman Kihei Clark has given them the lineup versatility that we knew they were lacking. Most importantly, De’Andre Hunter has given Virginia a dynamic combo-forward than can defend up and has NBA ability on the perimeter.

This is a dangerous basketball team.

3. “THE REST” IS LOADED THIS YEAR

Before the season started, one of the questions that we had about the ACC what who would be the team that would be the best of the rest; who would win the race for fourth in a league that is going to be dominated by Duke, Virginia and North Carolina.

As it turns out, there is more than one team vying for the title of “best of the rest”, and there is legitimate reason to wonder whether or not each of those teams can crack the top three in the league.

Let’s start with Virginia Tech, who has emerged as the best team that Buzz Williams has produced in Blacksburg. We knew, coming into the season, just how good Justin Robinson was, but with the emergence of Nickeil Alexander-Walker as a legitimate star in the league, the Hokies all of a sudden look like they have the best backcourt in the ACC. They start four seniors, they are betting quality minutes off their bench and we still haven’t seen Landers Nolley or Chris Clarke. This team is for real.

I think the same can be said for Florida State. While M.J. Walker has not quite taken the step forward I think everyone expected him to take, Mfiondu Kabengele has developed into one of the most productive players in the ACC. Trent Forrest has embraced the point guard role while Terance Mann is playing the best basketball of his life. If Phil Cofer can get back to where he was last season, the Seminoles are a very real threat to get back to the Elite Eight.

I also believe that N.C. State belongs in this conversation as well. I have so much respect for what Kevin Keatts is able to do when running a program, and it only took him one year to get the Wolfpack to be what he wants a basketball team to be: They’re loaded with guards, they love to press, they have a number of guys that can really shoot the rock and their bigs are good enough to get the job done. They’re probably third-best of this group, but that still leaves them as something close to a top 15 team this season.

(Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

THREE STORYLINES TO FOLLOW

1. CAN A GROUP OF FRESHMEN WIN A NATIONAL TITLE?

Only twice in the one-and-done era has a team that was built around freshmen won the national title. Kentucky did in in 2012 with Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist running the show. Duke did it in 2015, as Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow carried them to a title. This Duke team, however, is different in the sense that their four-best players are all freshmen. Neither the 2012 Kentucky team nor the 2015 Duke team had this little upper-class influence on their roster. 

That said, I think the reason that there is a very real shot Duke can get this done is the presence of a couple of key veterans pieces. Javin DeLaurier and Marques Bolden don’t play all that much, but the options that they provide Duke — Bolden with his size and rim protection, DeLaurier with his versatility and shot-blocking — let Mike Krzyzewski change looks based on opponent.

But the two biggest reasons why I think Duke can avoid the fate of other freshman-led teams — besides, you know, the fact that their Big Three is awesome — is the presence of Jack White and Tre Jones. Those two are elite level glue guys that make a major difference in the way Duke can play. We took a deep dive into their impact on the program last month.

2. WILL SYRACUSE TURN THIS THING BACK AROUND?

The Orange are the team in the ACC that has been the toughest to figure out early on this season. On the one hand, this is a team that wasn’t all that good last season that managed to gather quite a bit of preseason hype due to the fact that they won three NCAA tournament games and returned everyone of note from last year’s team.

So I get it.

But it’s also worth noting that this is a team that was elite defensively last season and not only added a couple of talented offensive weapons, they brought back Oshae Brissett and Tyus Battle, the former a sophomore expected to make the leap and the latter and all-american and NBA draft hopeful. I know that they have lost to some teams they should not have lost to, but I think the ceiling is still there.

That said, it seems like the best place for Syracuse to be heading into the NCAA tournament is as a No. 10 or No. 11 seed. So maybe the Orange are right where they want to be.

3. WHAT HAPPENS WITH NASSIR LITTLE VS. ROY WILLIAMS?

The most annoying topic of discussion this season has been the debate over whether or not Nassir Little deserves more playing time for North Carolina. The truth is this: Little plays a position where North Carolina has depth to spare. We know Roy Williams wants to play with two big men. We also know that he already has Luke Maye and Cameron Johnson on the roster. If Little wants to get minutes, he is either going to have to outplay one of those guys — one of whom was an all-american last season and the other who has been playing at an all-american level this season — or be good enough to convince Williams to play small.

And while Little has been effective this season, he hasn’t done either of those things. It might happen as he continues to get acclimated to the college level and figures out what Williams wants from him, but it hasn’t happened yet.

The reason Little isn’t playing more isn’t a conspiracy. He just has a lot in front of him to beat out.

(Sam Wasson/Getty Images)

THREE PREDICTIONS

1. VIRGINIA WINS THE ACC TITLE AGAIN

The Cavaliers are legit this season. I’m on board with the idea that this is Tony Bennett’s best team in Charlottesville, and I think they prove that with their fourth ACC regular season title in the last six seasons.

2. DUKE JOINS VIRGINIA IN THE FINAL FOUR

I also think this is the year that Virginia breaks through and makes it to the Final Four. The narrative will always be “you can’t win the big one” until you win the big one. Ask Jay Wright. Or Bill Self. Or Mark Few. Or Jim Calhoun. Tony Bennett is the next on that list.

Duke will join them there as well, but that shouldn’t be much of a surprise. The Blue Devils are my pick to win the title.

3. THE ACC GETS AT LEAST THREE TEAMS INTO THE ELITE EIGHT

I really believe in the depth of this league, and I already told you I think that they are going to get two teams into the Final Four. This means that one of the other four top 15 teams find a way to win three games in March. That’s very doable.

New York senator the latest to propose bill to abolish amateurism

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A second state now has legislation in the works that would make it legal for college athletes to profit off of their name, image and likeness.

Kevin Parker, a New York state senator from Brooklyn, has proposed a bill similar to California’s Fair Pay To Play act, not only giving college athletes the ability to sell their NIL rights but also requiring athletic departments to give a 15 percent share of their annual revenue to the student-athletes. California’s bill, which will go into effect in 2023 if it is signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom, would make removing a student-athlete from their scholarship for accepting endorsement money illegal.

“It’s about equity,” Parker told ESPN. “These young people are adding their skill, talent and labor to these universities.

“You don’t need the shortcuts and the end-arounds because now we’re providing some real support for these student-athletes.”

New York joins the growing list of organizations that are pushing back against the NCAA’s rules on amateurism. South Carolina, Maryland, Colorado and Washington have had legislators discuss whether or not to make similar changes to the law, while Congressmen from North Carolina and Connecticut have made pushes at the federal level. Democratic Presidential candidate Anrew Yang has blasted the NCAA over their amateurism rules, while just last week, NBA agents made public the fact that they will be refusing to register for the NCAA’s proposed certification process.

Rick Pitino, Louisville settle lawsuit

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MARCH 19: Head coach Rick Pitino of the Louisville Cardinals looks on in the first half against the Michigan Wolverines during the second round of the 2017 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at the Bankers Life Fieldhouse on March 19, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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The University of Louisville and former head coach Rick Pitino have reached a joint agreement to drop their lawsuits against each other.

The two sides “have mutually agreed to dismiss their legal claims against each other, designate his departure as a resignation and move forward,” according to a joint statement that was released by the University and Pitino. Pitino will not be paid any money as a result of this settlement, but he departure will now be classified as a resignation, effective Oct. 3rd, 2017.

Pitino had sued Louisville for somewhere around $40 million.

“For 17 years, Coach Pitino ran a program that combined excellence on the court with a commitment to the program’s student-athletes, their academic achievement, and their futures in and out of basketball,” the state said. “Nevertheless, there were NCAA infractions during his term which led to serious consequences for the university. Although these infractions may not have occurred at Pitino’s direction or with his knowledge, the problems leading to NCAA infractions happened under his leadership. We thank Coach Pitino for his years of service to the University of Louisville basketball program and wish him well.”

“Today I move on to a new chapter in my life,” a statement from Pitino reads. “Against my lawyer’s advice, I’m dropping my lawsuit with ULAA. I am very proud of the many accomplishments my teams achieved at Louisville. I’m so thankful and honored to coach such dedicated athletes. I’m also disappointed in how it ended. But as head coach I am held responsible for the actions of all team members. I still have so much passion for the game and so many goals I want to achieve. From this day forward I start my climb.”

Kentucky lands commitments from two more elite prospects

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John Calipari is getting his work done early in the 2020 recruiting class, as he added two more commitments over the weekend.

On Thursday, it was Lance Ware, a 6-foot-10 post player from Camden, New Jersey, that announced his commitment. Ware is a top 50 recruit that held offers from the likes of Michigan, Ohio State and Miami. The bigger news, however, came on Saturday afternoon, when Terrance Clarke announced that he will be enrolling at Kentucky whenever he ends his high school tenure. Clarke is currently a member of the Class of 2021, but the plan is for him to reclassify and graduate high school this year.

Clarke is a consensus top three player in 2021 – and he may be the No. 1 player in that class, depending on who you ask – and should immediately vault into the top five of the 2020 recruiting class. An athletic, versatile wing that stands 6-foot-6, Clarke is a potential lottery pick given his physical tools and the way that he projects as multi-positional defender with the ability to create off of the dribble. Ware, like Nick Richards and E.J. Montgomery before him, projects as the kind of player that will spend 2-3 years in Lexington.

Clarke and Ware join top ten prospect B.J. Boston and another top 50 recruit, Cam’Ron Fletcher, in Kentucky’s 2020 class. That’s three wings in the class with Johnny Juzang, Kahlil Whitney, Dontaie Allen and Keion Brooks currently on campus. Throw Montgomery into the mix, and that’s eight players that fit somewhere into a lineup as a wing or a face-up big man, and it seems rather unlikely that all five of the guys currently at Kentucky will leave the school this offseason. Put another way, this looks like the end of Kentucky’s pursuit of the likes of Jalen Green and Josh Christopher.

Calipari is still recruiting Cade Cunningham despite the fact that many expect Cunningham to end up at Oklahoma State, where Mike Boynton hired his brother Cannen, but Cade has skyrocketed up the recruiting rankings as he has transitioned to playing the point. Kentucky is still in the mix for a handful of other forwards, including Scottie Barnes, Isaiah Todd and Greg Brown.

Tony Bennett turns down raise, signs contract extension

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Virginia announced that they have signed head coach Tony Bennett to a contract extension, keeping him under contract through the 2025-26 season.

This is not unexpected. He just won the national title. I think he earned a new deal.

What is unique here, however, is that Bennett turned down a raise. He asked for more money for his assistants and for some cash to be put towards improvements in both his program and the other Virginia sports teams, but he passed on getting more money put into his own bank account.

“[My wife] Laurel and I are in a great spot, and in the past I’ve had increases in my contract,” Bennett said in the news release. “We just feel a great peace about where we’re at, all that’s taken place, and how we feel about this athletic department and this community and this school. I love being at UVA.

“… I have more than enough, and if there are ways that this can help out the athletic department, the other programs and coaches, by not tying up so much [in men’s basketball], that’s my desire.”

That’s the dream scenario right there, being rich enough to turn down more money.

NCAA urges California governor not to sign ‘fair pay’ bill

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) The NCAA Board of Governors wants California Gov. Gavin Newsom to reject a new attempt to pay college athletes.

And it is prepared to take the fight to court if necessary.

In a six-paragraph letter released Wednesday, the board urged Newsom not to sign the legislation known as the Fair Pay to Play Act, which would allow college athletes to be paid for the use of their names, likenesses and images. The move comes two days after approval of the measure by the California Assembly, with the state Senate expected to consider the measure later this week.

The board warned that California schools may be declared ineligible for NCAA competition if the bill becomes law because they would have an unfair recruiting advantage.

“We’ve explored how it might impact the association and what it might do. We believe it would inappropriately affect interstate commerce,” Donald Remy, the NCAA’s chief operating officer and chief legal officer, told The Associated Press. “It is not intended to be a threat at all. It’s a reflection about the way California is going about this.

“I’m not saying there will never be a day we would consider that (legal action), but it is not meant to be a threat,” Remy said.

The NCAA said the measure would affect more than 24,000 athletes in the nation’s most populous state.

Should the bill pass, Newsom would have 30 days to sign or veto it. If he does nothing, the bill would become law. It would be the first measure of its kind and the outcome is being closely watched as one of the biggest challenges in years to the NCAA’s longstanding and far-reaching model of amateur sports. Over the past decade, that model has come under increasing pressure – and attacks in court – as critics push for big-time college athletics to clear the way for the athletes themselves to benefit financially.

NCAA rules prohibit athletes from profiting off their athletic skills. The organization, however, has recently begun considering rules changes to loosen those restrictions, though NCAA President Mark Emmert – and the board again on Wednesday – insist that players cannot be paid or become the equivalent of a university employee. Formal recommendations are expected to be made at the board’s October meeting.

It appears there is an appetite for significant changes.

Board members met with the working group studying these issues in August but neither Remy nor board member Denis McDonough would discuss specific proposals.

“The rules that we operate under, many of which date to 1975, may not be suitable for us in 2021 with the challenges and opportunities student-athletes face,” said McDonough, the White House chief of staff under President Barack Obama. “So we are and have been taking a very close look at how we can modernize those rules. We’re hoping the state of California would recognize that modernizing those rules for student-athletes across the country is the best way to do that.”

Supporters think those changes are already overdue and believe California’s elected officials should act now.

“The NCAA’s assertions are purposefully misleading,” said Ramogi Huma, executive director of the National College Players Association. “The 9th Circuit upheld a ruling concluding that the NCAA’s ban on player name, image, and likeness compensation does not bring forth a level playing field. The Big 12 commissioner stated competitive equity is `largely an illusion.’

“NCAA amateurism is a fraud. It’s a $14 billion a year industry with millionaire coaches. An NCAA ban on California colleges would amount to an illegal group boycott that would violate federal and California antitrust laws.”

The NCAA believes the California measure would violate the federal Commerce Clause and may not withstand a legal challenge; Remy cited a previous case in California in which the state tried to inhibit the NCAA from enforcing its rules. The NCAA won that case.

Should the measure pass, Remy said, the NCAA would penalize the schools, not individual athletes.

“There are two parts to this and part of this is the membership and that includes the California schools,” Remy said. “Schools and universities agree to comply with the rules of (NCAA) membership and there are a set of eligibility criteria that go along with being member institution. The California schools have consented to that criterion. So in that context it would be the schools that would directly impacted.”