As the year ends, we are now almost two months into the basketball season and on the cusp of the conference season being the bulk of the schedule going forward. Having seen the 12 ACC schools play we can obviously start asking serious questions about each team and consider whether or not the things we all thought were true before the ball was tipped are true now.
1. Who are the favorites for the NCAA Tournament at this point?
Six teams. UNC, Duke, Maryland, Florida State, Georgia Tech, and Clemson all have good records and good wins on the resume. FSU learned well the lessons of the comittee last year and registered a nice schedule which includes a win over Florida. UNC and Duke are locks at this point. Georgia Tech and Maryland are nearly locks who could play themselves out of the tourney if they finish 8-8 or worse. Clemson is the real enigma right now at 13-0 with no bad losses but not much in the way of a strong schedule(more on them later.) Miami and Wake Forest have been eliminated at this point which some bad losses and all sorts of indications that they will struggle in ACC play. The two Virginia schools are right on the edge but have been inconsistent and also have dropped some games they shouldn't. The same can be said for Boston College 2who has three losses which will look horrible to the committee if they are sitting on the bubble. That leaves NC State who has really steered clear of any bad losses outside of the turnover fest against Cinicinnati. The suspicion is the lack of depth will catch up with the Pack and deny them the 9-7/10-6 record they need to be serious tournament candidates.
2. Is Clemson for real?
It looks that way....for now. The most impressive wins on Clemson's schedule to this point are South Carolina, Minnesota, and Georgia. Only Georgia has any legitimate chops and even that is not much. Clemson also beat Applachian State by 30 which was not that interesting at the time but became so when the Mountaineers went to Puerto Rico and won the San Juan shootout by beating three BCS level schools, one of them being Virginia. It also should be noted that Clemson has throughly beaten the cupcakes on their schedule. Those kinds of trouncings tend to point to a team that is playing at a high level. At this point Clemson should enter ACC play 14-0 and no bad losses which means all they need to do is finish 9-7 and they should easily be into the NCAA Tournament at 23-7(not including ACC Tournament play.) The real test will be the two weeks beginning on Jan 3rd where Clemson plays three road games and hosts Georgia Tech and UNC. Clemson could very well go 0-5 since playing the Jackets and Heels at home will be not cake walk and road games in the ACC will forver be season killers. Clemson best hope for that five game stretch is 3-2 with two road wins and stealing one from either GT or UNC with the former being the likely candidate there. From that point on it is a matter of trying to win the six home games and grabbing a couple of road wins here and there to get to 9-7 and a top five ACC finish.
3. Who are the early candidates for the postseason awards.
Rookie of the Year- Brandan Wright, UNC. Wright has lived up to every expectation and then some. He has registered double figures in every game he has played and leads the conference in FG percentage. He is also one half of an incredible inside combination for the Heels.
Player of the Year-Tyler Hansbrough, UNC. Hansbrough is averaging 18 ppg and 8 rpg which is impressive considering he has Wright on the other block and he has taken so heavy shots from opposing defenses.
Defensive Player of the Year-Sean Williams, Boston College. After Shelden Williams won this last season for doing nothing more than getting weak side blocks I can only assume blocking a lot of shots is the only criteria. That being said Sean Williams is averaging 6.4 blocks per game. That is insane. He is also the national leader in blocks at present so I think he fits the bill.
Tyler Hansbrough, UNC
Brandan Wright, UNC
Sean Singletary, UVa
Jared Dudley, Boston College
Al Thornton, Florida State
Coach of the Year-Oliver Purnell, Clemson. This award is humorous to me in that the media sets the expectations and when a team exceeds those expectations the coach gets an award. If this is the way it is then Purnell obviously gets the nod for having a Clemson team that is appearing to be far better than 9th in the conference.
4. Besides Clemson who are the two other biggest suprises so far?
Maryland and Boston College...for opposite reasons. Many thought Maryland would come in with the same issues as last season, the first and foremost being zero focus or intensity on the court. However, the influx of two freshman guards who have essentially lit a fire under the upperclassmen. Maryland has look extremely good at times relying on a pressure defense which made them very dangerous a few years back. Players like D.J. Strawberry and Mike Jones have been slotted into comfortable roles and Gary Williams actually looks like he is enjoying himself again. On the other side of the coin you have Boston College who has been downright awful at times this season losing to Vermont, Providence, and Dusquesne. BC did beat Maryland at home but also got blown out by Kansas. In other words when BC shows up bad they are bad. However, they are capable of putting together a good effort now and again. But when you consider that BC and Maryland were slated to finish 3rd and 7th respectively it would be very easy two swap those spot based on what has been seen on the court so far.
5. Can UNC go 16-0?
Considering the issue purely based on what is on paper then UNC should be favored to win every ACC game they play. The Heels are a notch above the rest of the conference in terms of talent. The offense seems to be clicking in with a nice balance and it would appear the players are beginning to buy into the Roy Williams defensive system. The problem with going 16-0 in the ACC is you face any number of road games which can easily trap you, especially when one of those games is in that "purgatory they call a gym" in Durham. The schedule itself does not lend itself to go 16-0. In the early part of the conference schedule UNC travels to Blacksburg and Clemson within four days. There is nothing worse than playing at Littlejohn and Clemson also manages to find a way to knock of UNC down there. Assuming UNC emerges from those to road games unscathed and handles the trips to Wake and NC State with any issues UNC then heads to Durham where the Heels will be the better team but as always this game is a crapshoot. After that three of the final five games are on the road with games at Boston College, Maryland, and Georgia Tech. Tough does not even begin to describe how this particular run through the conference sets-up for the Heels. So on one side UNC has the personnel and edge to run the table. On the other side I think they could drop games at Clemson, any of the final three road matcups of the season or the contest at Duke. It just feels like 15-1 or 14-2. Of course I think the degree to which the other teams in the conference will shred each other will work to UNC's advanatage as well.