It didn’t take long after college football crowned its new national champion Monday for college basketball to move in and take center stage.
Only 24 hours after Clemson’s stunningly lopsided victory against Alabama on the gridiron, all eyes in North Carolina turned to the hardwood, where all four state ACC schools were matched against one another with UNC taking on NC State in Raleigh and Duke traveling to Winston-Salem for its first true road test against Wake Forest.
The rivalry games were just a prelude to a long grind of a league schedule that promises to be full of surprises, if the now completed nonconference schedule is any indication.
Here’s now all four state schools and the rest of the ACC stack up as we head into the meat of the college basketball season:
The Blue Devils were expected to be one of the nation’s best teams when they started the nonconference schedule. Two months later, not only are they better than expected, they’re the sport’s version of the Beatles.
Duke opened the season with a thorough domination of top-ranked Kentucky and, save a two-point loss in Maui to another top-five team — Gonzaga — the Blue Devils cruised through their nonconference schedule. Duke owns wins over Auburn, a 21-point whitewashing of Indiana and an 11-point win over Texas Tech.
The team is led by two superstar freshmen: ESPN darling Zion Williamson is a unicorn — a high-flying 285-pounder whose highlight film dunks have wowed arena crowds, TV audiences and social media. He’s also averaging 20 points and 9.5 rebounds and hitting two-thirds of his shots from the field.
RJ Barrett is the team leader, averaging nearly 23 points and seven boards and firmly establishing himself as Duke’s go-to guy in crunch time.
Coach Mike Krzyzewski has also surrounded his two stars with a strong supporting cast, including shooter Cam Reddish, who would be the top dog on virtually any other team, and Tre Jones, a freshman point guard who plays suffocating defense and distributes the ball with error-free precision.
The Blue Devils are also getting a boost from the upperclassmen. Javin DeLaurier threatened a team record by hitting 16 straight shots, and Jack White provides rebounding and outside shooting as a high-energy stretch four off the bench.
Unlike recent freshmen-led Blue Devil teams, this year’s Duke squad is led by its defense. Duke leads the nation in blocks per game, is second in steals and fifth nationally in field-goal percentage defense.
Duke blew out a veteran Clemson team in its conference opener and served notice that it is every bit as good as all the ESPN hype has promised.
The Tar Heels are still a work in progress as they look to iron out issues on both ends of the court and Roy Williams finally settles on a style that best fits his roster. To this point, the Hall of Fame coach has stuck with his preferred inside-out approach with 6-foot-9 sophomore Garrison Brooks starting at the five. But there will likely be a time in which he decides to go with a smaller lineup that allows highly touted freshman wing Nassir Little to best utilize his talents.
Regardless of which way Williams ultimately goes, his team will have to shore up both its shot selection and defense in order to make any noise either in the regular season or come tournament time.
UNC was 13th in the ACC in scoring defense, allowing an average of 72.1 points heading into Tuesday’s rivalry showdown at State. It has been able to offset by outscoring its opponents, as it did in its most impressive win to date — a 103-90 victory against Gonzaga on Dec. 15.
But despite ranking second behind only Duke among conference teams in scoring at 89.9 points per game, the Tar Heels have been inconsistent in their shooting accuracy. Senior guard Kenny Williams, in particular, has been an enigma. A career 35-percent shooter from 3-point range, Williams has made just 14 of his 57 attempts (24.6 percent) from beyond the arc so far this season.
In spite of that, UNC is still well positioned to make a serious challenge for the ACC title and make a deep run into March as Williams starts to find his range and freshman stars Little and Coby White continue to get more comfortable with their roles and the college game.
The Wolfpack have exceeded all expectations this season. Picked for the middle of the pack in the ACC, State won 12 of 13 nonconference games to start the season, including an upset of then-No. 7 Auburn and double-digit wins over Penn State and Vanderbilt. State also had a comeback victory over Miami in its conference opener to have its best start to the regular season since the 1973-74 national championship team.
The Pack leads the ACC in shooting, hitting 52.1 percent from the field. Six players are making more than half their shots, including the team’s top three scorers: Torin Dorn, Markell Johnson and C.J. Bryce. State’s two big men — DJ Funderburk and Wyatt Walker — are hitting more than 60 percent from the field.
Despite only returning three contributors from last season, coach Kevin Keatts has assembled a deep team. State is getting more than 35 points per game from a bench that includes Devon Daniels (10.5 points), freshman Jericole Hellems (7.9), grad transfer Eric Lockett and transfer Blake Harris. Twenty times this season, a player has come off the bench to score in double figures.
Even the starters have embraced Keatts’ platoon attack. Braxton Beverly has seen his minutes decline but is still contributing 8.5 points per game as a part-time starter, outside threat and running the offense when Johnson goes to the bench. Bryce, who scored 17.4 points per game for Keatts at UNCW, is settling for a reduced role, scoring 11.2 in 10 fewer minutes a night.
Johnson has developed into one of the best point guards in the league, hitting 50 percent of his 3-pointers and ranking among assist leaders. He’s also hiked his scoring by 50 percent, averaging more than 12 points per game.
State is second in the ACC and seventh nationally in rebounding margin and has firmly established itself as a team challenging for the top tier in the league.
The Deacons were picked to finish 14th in the 15-team ACC this season, and to this point they have done little to suggest they are anything more than that. Among their nonconference losses are ugly setbacks to Houston Baptist and Gardner-Webb. They then opened their ACC schedule by losing at Georgia Tech, which was picked to finish 13th, before taking on Duke on Tuesday.
In Wake’s defense, coach Danny Manning’s team is the second-youngest team in the nation, with the bulk of their team belonging to a high-rated freshman class. But the inexperience crutch can only be taken so far considering that the only team younger than the Deacons is the top-ranked Blue Devils.
Although five-star wing Jaylen Hoard has shown flashes of his promise while ranking second on the team in scoring at 15.5 points per game and leading in rebounding at 7.7, classmates Isaiah Mucius, Sharone Wright Jr. have been slower to develop. Compounding the problem is that big men Ikenna Smart and Oliver Sarr have provided little help inside.
Besides Hoard, junior point guard Brandon Childress has been Wake’s only real bright spot. Following in his father Randolph’s footsteps, he leads Wake in scoring (17.3 points) and assists (55) while shooting 47 percent from 3-point range. But he’s going to need some help for Wake to make any significant improvement between now and the end of the season and perhaps keep Manning off the hot seat.
Even if Mucius and Wright are able to increase their production as the ACC schedule progresses and sophomore guard Chaundee Brown finally finds the consistency he’s lacked to this point in his career, the Deacons will have a hard time escaping the bottom of the league standings.
As for the rest of the ACC, here’s a look at how each conference team has performed so far this season.
As good as expected
Virginia: The Cavs entered conference play as one of the few undefeated teams left in the country. Of course, the real test will come in March as UVa hopes to bounce back from last season’s first-round upset.
Better than expected
Virginia Tech: The Hokies have moved into the top 10 after winning 11 of 12 nonconference games and their first two ACC contests. Virginia Tech is led by a deadly outside attack. The Hokies are hitting 44 percent of their 3-pointers to lead the league.
Florida State: The Seminoles won 12 of 13 in nonconference play, moving into the AP top 10 before a loss at Virginia in their ACC opener dropped them to 13. The Noles have wins over two ranked foes — LSU and Purdue — as well as UConn and Florida.
Pitt: Under new coach Jeff Capel and with a revamped roster, the Panthers are no longer the laughingstock of the league. Pitt has already topped last season’s win total, and led by freshman scorer Xavier Johnson, the Panthers should pull a few upsets in conference play.
About what we expected
Louisville: Under new coach Chris Mack, the Cardinals showed they’re still a contender. Louisville upset No. 9 Michigan State and played a tough schedule that included Tennessee and Kentucky. Jordan Nwora (17.9 points per game) is one of the most improved players in the league.
Syracuse: The Orange have been inconsistent, but Hall of Fame coach Jim Boeheim has one of the ACC’s best players in Tyus Battle (17.9 points), size inside with Oshae Brissett (8.5 rebounds per game), reliable shooting in Elijah Hughes and a stingy defense. Expect the Orange to steadily improve as conference play goes on.
Clemson: The Tigers withstood an early-season injury to Marcquise Reed and appear to be inching back to top 25 status now that they’re back to full strength. In addition to Reed’s scoring and playmaking (19.6 points, 4.0 assists), Clemson has big man Elijah Thomas (7.4 rebounds), who leads the conference in field goal percentage.
Georgia Tech: The Yellow Jackets are still in rebuilding mode, as their nonconference slate underscored. Tech won at Arkansas but lost virtually every other game against a name opponent, including Tennessee, Northwestern, St. John’s and Georgia. The Jackets also lost at home to Gardner-Webb.
Notre Dame: Last year, the Irish were derailed by an injury to Bonzie Colson. Their luck hasn’t improved, as Notre Dame has to go the rest of the way without veteran guard Rex Pflueger. Notre Dame is led by big man John Mooney (9.7 rebounds) and guard T.J. Gibbs (14.7 points, 3.9 assists).
Worse than expected
Boston College: The Eagles have player of the year candidate Ky Bowman but somehow lost to IUPUI and Hartford.
Miami: The Canes suffered a four-game nonconference losing streak and dropped their first two ACC games.