ACC Player of Year race is tight, first-team All-ACC is not

Five top candidates battling for league honors

Entering the final week of the ACC regular season, some separation in the conference Player of the Year race has formed, with a trio of players moving ahead of the pack.”The two players I’m most impressed with in college basketball this year — one never gets any credit — Justin Jackson, to me, should be one of the key guys for the Wooden award,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said after losing at UNC on Wednesday. “The other guy is [Luke] Kennard. They mention guys in the draft. If I was drafting, Kennard would be in my top five picks because he’s unstoppable. He’s a great passer. He’s a great shooter. He’s got the mind of a genius on the basketball court, and Justin Jackson — those two guys, I don’t know which one I would pick for player of the year. They’re both awesome.”That’s high praise coming from a Hall of Fame coach, especially when Donovan Mitchell, who is widely considered to be a third candidate for the postseason conference honors, is already on his team.Throw in Notre Dame’s Bonzie Colson and Wake Forest’s John Collins, and it’s tough to recall a more clear-cut All-ACC First Team in recent history. All of that makes determining the best player in the conference extremely difficult.Kennard has carried Duke for much of the season, eclipsing Grayson Allen as the team’s most reliable scorer and best all-around player. He should become the fifth Blue Devil all time to score more than 20 ppg and shoot over .500, and the first to do so since Christian Laettner.Kennard has scored just shy of a quarter of Duke’s points this season and is hitting three-pointers at a .461 rate. His showcase game was his second-half performance at Wake Forest, where he was perfect from the field in leading a Duke comeback, culminating with a game-winning three-pointer.Jackson has made a late-season run, leading the Tar Heels as they close in on a second straight ACC regular-season title. He’s led the team in scoring 16 times, including eight of the last nine games. The Wisconsin and Florida State games are the only games against ranked foes in which Jackson didn’t lead the team in scoring.Bonzie Colson is the ACC’s leading rebounder and, according to KenPom’s rankings, is the best all-around player in the conference.Mitchell and Collins also have strong cases, although the prevailing wisdom is that it will come down to Jackson and Kennard.Regardless of how the final voting shakes out, the five players will likely produce one of the biggest separations between first and second team All-ACC in league history.With this year’s new voting system (four representatives from each team), it will be tough to compare the separation to previous years, but the clearest-cut first team in ACC history was the Phil Ford-led squad in 1978. The fifth member of the first-team that year, Mike O’Koren, had more than twice as many votes as the leading vote-getter on the second team, Gene Banks, giving the top five a 126-vote spread over the second team.Only three first-teams since the turn of the millennium (and ACC expansion) have shown significant separation from the second team, showing just how rare this year’s Player of the Year candidates are.