UNC finally begins conference play tomorrow, opening on the road against Virginia. I prefer it when conference play doesn't start until January; while the Fox Sports deal makes that impossible – six of the twelve ACC schools had conference games in December – Carolina is typically a big enough name that they don't hit the network until the new calendar year. The last time the Heels had a December conference game was 2005; for Duke it was 2006. But now that conference season is upon is, the ACC is going to be a huge chunk of my life for the next few months. So what can we make of this year's, one-ranked-team conference?
First, that only having one ranked team isn't going to last. It looks bad now, compared to the eight schools from the Big East, or the five apiece from the Big Ten and Big Twelve, but strong ACC play will propel another two or three teams up, while the Big East schedule will drag teams down. Someone's coming out of this conference besides Duke with ten conference wins, after all. Looking at Ken Pomeroy's ratings gives a better prediction at how things are going to pan out. There's three to five levels of talent in the ACC, depending on how finely you want to grade. Let's run down the list:
The bad: There are four teams with rankings of 80 or higher; three of them look like toast already, with completely inexplicable losses. Virginia (embarrassing loss: Seattle) we'll get into in detail tomorrow morning. They're only team of the four with an ACC game under their belt, a win over Virginia Tech. Georgia Tech (Kennesaw State) is an incredibly young team after losing four starters from last season, leaving pretty much only Iman Shumpert as the only name you'd recognize. Tech plain and simply can't shoot, and yet they've played Syracuse to within four, and only lost to Georgia by one. They could be dangerous at home, but they're only one game above .500 even now. They're fortunes look bleak this year.
N.C. State is the team without a bad loss. They're down here solely for having lost Tracy Smith for ten games (eleven if you count East Carolina). They suffered defensively in his absence, but still went 10-4, and their four losses were all to teams Pomeroy's ratings think quite highly of. They'll be a threat as the season marches along, and shouldn't stay in this category for long.
If Wake Forest jumps out of this category, it will only be to a new one that can fully encompass how bad this team is. They've lost to Stetson, Winthrop, Wilmington, and Presbyterian. Their defense is horrid. They have practically no experienced players, as well as a new coach. The best thing you can say about the Demon Deacons is that they don't foul; they're already below .500 and I doubt they'll win more than two conference games.
The average: There's a second cluster of four ACC teams all ranked in the forties and fifties under Pomeroy's system. Taking them from lowest to highest, we'll start with Boston College. The Eagles are a very flaky team, as their 0-2 record against the Ivy League this year attests. Steve Donahue starts his coaching tenure at BC with an experienced starting lineup and absolutely no depth. Sensibly, their playing a very slow tempo to compensate. They have one of the most efficient offenses in the country and a horrible defense, but the pace of play hides both of these. They've also rarely gone on the road, but managed to upset Maryland in College Park. They may win some games early because of their unpredictability, but they'll fade down the stretch and finish in the NIT, I'm afraid.
Miami lost to the same Rutgers team UNC saw by 16, but that's the only bizarre performance on their schedule to date. (Yes, Central Florida is better than you think.) The Hurricanes haven't changed much from the team that came in last in conference last season, but they weren't as bad as their record showed, either. They'll be pretty close to .500, with most of their losses coming on the road. Clemson's 11-4 record hides the fact they haven't beaten anyone of note, just like their undefeated records did in years past. I don't know if the Tigers' defense is as strong as it looks, or merely a byproduct of that weak schedule. They've been a defensive team for quite a few years, of course, and new coach Brad Brownell was known for his D at Wright State. It's not looking like they're going to end that losing streak in Chapel Hill this season, though.
And then there's Florida State, a team who would probably be thought more highly of had they not dropped a road game to a very, very, bad Auburn team this week. The Seminoles are the same defensive-oriented team they've been for the last couple of years, allowing only one team to break seventy points this season, and that was in a blowout win over UNCG. The problem comes when they allow their opponent to slow the pace of the game – all of their losses have come in four of the six games with less than 70 possessions. Their offense is what's going to keep them from the top echelon of the conference, as they're a big team that doesn't seem to get a lot of points from their frontcourt. They should make it into the NCAA's, however, and are definitely a danger to the Heels, as they can shut down perimeter shooting while still having the height to give Henson and Zeller fits.
The good: This leaves the last four teams. The less said about Duke, the better. They're very good, and almost in a league of their own, but the talk about there being nothing between them an undefeated season is overplaying it. I agree with Drew Cannon; they're susceptible to a couple of teams. UNC and Florida State are the first two to come to mind, but Tracy Smith could do some damage with State, and Maryland could pul one off on sheer hate alone.
That leaves three teams jockeying for second place. UNC is the obvious favorite, at least on this blog. The Heels have flourished since they dropped off the radar after the Illinois loss, and I think the lack of a spotlight has done them good. That relative anonymity won't last long in January, but the team as a gentle introduction to the ACC slate, and I think it will serve them well. Maryland is in the opposite boat, with three straight road games, beginning at Duke and ending at Villanova. The Terps are a small team outside of Jordan Williams, and are waffling between point guards. If any team of these four is going to slip to 8-8 or lower, it'll be Maryland. They've already lost at home to BC, and they played a weak non-conference schedule that could make them look better than they actually are.
Finally, there's Virginia Tech. The Hokies return practically everyone from last season, and was expected to be one of the contenders. Their four losses pretty much sum up the poor reputation of the ACC, as they lost to the three best teams on their schedule and their ACC opener to archrival Virginia. Their another slow, defensive-minded team, but there's a reason they were the most impressive ACC win on Carolina's schedule last season. They don't match up well with the Heels, with poor rebounding, few big men, and a tendency to get their points inside. This is the best argument for UNC to take second place; their advantage over the other main contender. This season could turn out like 1999, where only three teams finished with winning records in conference. The expansion to twelve will probably bring a fourth, but even with that type of performance, the conference can represent it self just fine come March.