As I promised on my season preview back in November, here is our official conference preview for 2014-2015. Oddly enough, for reasons probably easily Googleable but I'm too lazy for, four ACC teams have already played conference games (prior to Christmas). But let's be honest: the true conference schedule is starting now.
The conference has had a decent start to the season. As of the final 2014 polls, the league boasts five top-25 teams (Duke, Virginia, Louisville, Notre Dame, and North Carolina); two unbeaten teams (Duke and Virginia); and all teams over .500. In the ACC/B1G Challenge, however, the ACC didn't find things easy, walking away with an unfortunate 6-8 record.
The conference is slightly different than last year, and in my opinion, for the better. Out is Maryland; in is Louisville. In a league rich in basketball history, and known for outstanding coaches, the addition of the Cardinals is a perfect fit (especially since geography means nothing in college alignment anymore). As you may recall, Louisville won the NCAA Championship in 2013, and annually is one of the nation's best teams.
This conference preview will present the conference opponents in the order they face Syracuse, and will recap what each school has done to this point in the season, and what to look for from that team in conference play.
Season Thus Far: The Hokies are 8-5 through the non-conference schedule. They played a pretty unremarkable slate, and certainly struggled. Its only ranked opponent, West Virginia, blew them out 82-51 on December 30. But VT's worst loss has to be the 65-63 loss to Appalachian State, which was a home game for the Hokies.
What to Look For: Things won't get easier for the Hokies in-conference. Instead of local cupcakes, they'll be facing conference powerhouses. While Virginia Tech is shooting the ball well (49%), that's basically the only good stat of note. With tough games at UNC, Virginia, and Louisville (among others), the Hokies will have to play strong at home, and probably get some road upsets, to compete in this year's ACC.
Season Thus Far The Yellow Jackets enter conference play sitting at 9-3. Their losses are to Marquette (in the Orlando Classic), South Carolina Upstate (at home), and at Dayton (and who am I to say a loss to Dayton is a bad loss?). That Upstate loss is the only one that looks real bad. Notable wins to date include Georgia, Northwestern, and Vanderbilt. GT is a good rebounding team, averaging 39.5 per game, but can have trouble scoring or creating offense.
What to Look For: The road schedule for the Yellow Jackets is particularly tough, with games against currently-ranked teams Notre Dame, Virginia, Duke, and UNC. I think most of the ACC will be able to dominate Georgia Tech, particularly offensively, so look for the Yellow Jackets to be a bottom-feeder.
Season Thus Far: Heading into the New Year, Florida State is 8-5 overall and 0-1 in the ACC. They lost a game at Notre Dame back on December 13, 83-63. They also face Mississippi State on January 2 before settling into the conference schedule. While the Seminoles can shoot the ball (47.7% so far), the defense is giving up 68.2 points per game, making the games really close no matter which way they go.
What to Look For: While many people expected the Seminoles to compete at the same level as they did last year, that just hasn't seemed to been the case thus far. If they can clamp down on defense and play with less mistakes, this could be a team that could make some moves. Otherwise, it'll have to rely on the other team tipping the ball into their basket for the win, like Florida just did, if they're going to win a lot of games.
Season Thus Far: The Deacon Demons are another team already having played a conference game, and sits at 8-6 overall, 0-1 in the conference. The ACC tilt was a loss at NCState on December 6. Wake lacks a premiere win thus far, and played quite a middling schedule so far, with only three other power conference games outside the NCState game (losses to Arkansas, Minnesota, and Florida). Freshman guard Mitchell Wilbekin suffered a 3-game suspension for the dreaded "undisclosed NCAA violation" but returned for the December 31 win against Princeton.
What to Look For: Though my gut says not to expect much out of Wake, I don't really know if the season thus far has shown us what to expect out of this team for the conference schedule. The calendar seems to be both front- and back-loaded with tough teams, with the more likely winnable games sandwiched in between. I call the Demon Deacons to be my wildcard team -- they could surprise, or they could disappoint.
Season Thus Far: Tigers basketball will forever be the little brother to the football team, and its 8-4 record going into conference play demonstrates that. But this team is battle-tested: five games against power conference schools translated into four victories, notably an overtime win against Arkansas.
What to Look For: If Demarcus Harrison can shoot lights out, Clemson can be a tough team to beat. But the Tigers face a gauntlet to start the ACC season, with games against UNC, at Louisville, at Pitt, and at Virginia. It's entirely possible they lose those first four games (they then host Syracuse), and lose any momentum they had. That's my guess, and I think that will be a hole too deep for the Tigers to dig out of to salvage the conference season.
Season Thus Far: At 7-4, Boston College is pretty much where you'd expect them to be. Their four losses were against UMass, West Virginia, Dayton, and Southern California. Notable wins are against New Mexico and Providence.
What to Look For: BC has a penchant for playing teams tough, so you never want to sleep on the Eagles. Then again, you never want to go all in on them either. They get the honor of opening ACC play at Cameron Indoor against Duke, so, there's that. Hey also host their neighbors to the north - Harvard - in a non-conference game on January 14. You know, to break up the monotony of the ACC. The Eagles will be a middle of the pack ACC team, with probably one or two good upsets to their resume.
Season Thus Far: The U is 10-3. Two of those wins were against the Charlotte 49ers, in games played November 23 and 25. That's a thing? Anyway, the Hurricanes have losses to Green Bay, Eastern Kentucky, and Providence. They do have two particularly nice wins, against Florida and against Illinois. The Miami defense is good, holding opponents to 59.7 points per game.
What to Look For: Given that stat, I'd say if you want to prevent that 10-3 trend from continuing, you might want to shoot well, have efficient offensive possessions, and limit your mistakes. Otherwise, this could be an upper-middle class team this season.
Season Thus Far: The Tar Heels sit at 10-3 and a #19 ranking heading into conference play. I feel like a lot of people weren't too high on them heading into the season, and they've proven their worth. Playing one of the hardest non-conference schedules I've seen, UNC beat UCLA, Florida, and Ohio State, and lost to Butler and Kentucky. Battle-tested? For sure!
What to Look For: Roy Williams always has a way of getting the best out of his players, and we've seen just that this season. The Tar Heels will be a tough game, no matter who or where they play. Schedule-wise, they get to play most of the tougher games at the Dean Dome, including the annual final game against Duke. Look for UNC to compete for the ACC title.
Season Thus Far: The Pitt Panthers are a respectable 10-3 through the non-conference. Marquee wins over St. Bonaventure and Florida Gulf Coast University highlight their schedule (just had to note that, since my brother and sister are alumni of those schools respectively). Pitt lacks a big win, and they lost to Hawaii, San Diego State, and Indiana, so you wonder whether the 10-3 record is deceiving.
What to Look For: Pitt's going to struggle through the ACC. Looking at their resume, players, and stats thus far, nothing really jumps off the page. They'll always play tough at home, but that won't be enough to put the Panthers at the head of the class in the ACC.
Season Thus Far: Unblemished at 12-0, the Blue Devils have lived up to their #2 ranking. They rank near the top in several offensive categories, with 85.3 points per game, while shooting 52.5% from the field. This team is all about the gas petal, as teams like Michigan State, UConn, and Stanford have learned.
What to Look For: Duke will dominate. They're probably a more complete team than last year, returning key veterans Quinn Cook, Rasheed Sulaimon, and Marshall Plumlee, while welcoming potential rookie of the year Jahlil Okafor. I'd be real surprised if Duke isn't a #1 or #2 seed in the ACC tournament.
Season Thus Far: Our old friend, the Louisville Cardinals, come into their first ACC game with a 12-1 record and a #5 ranking. And that one loss was to #1 Kentucky. So, surprise, Louisville is really good. Hell, they're halfway to a Big Ten title, having beaten Minnesota, Ohio State, and Indiana. The story with the Cards is defense. National rankings: 8th in points allowed at 54.2ppg; 7th in blocks at 6.6 per game; and 5th in steals at 10.8 per game.
What to Look For: While the Cards struggled at times against Kentucky, they also showed toughness in clawing back a few times. This is a team that knows how to play at a high level, and knows how to win. They'll make waves in the ACC, and should challenge Duke for the title.
Season Thus Far: What many have dubbed a surprisingly good team this season, the Irish sit at 13-1 (1-0 in ACC) along with a #14 ranking.The sole loss was a 1-point loss at Mohegan Sun against Providence, so just chalk that up to an old Big East showdown basically in the Friars' backyard. The Irish have a great offense: 1st in the nation shooting 55.4%, and 3rd in the nation at 86.1 points per game.
What to Look For: Notre Dame needs a few good tests, and we'll see if that offense can really put up this kind of production.We should have a pretty good idea of that after they play at UNC January 5 (Big Monday) and host Virginia on January 10. A split of those games will go a long way to positioning the Irish for a deep ACC run.
Season Thus Far: The #3 Cavaliers are a perfect 12-0 heading into the ACC. They're good. I can't way they've really been tested, but they're holding opponents to 48.3 points per game -- including 26 from Rutgers, and 27 by Harvard.
What to Look For: While they're not exactly tested, they are a good team. A good home schedule should allow them to stay near the top, both in the conference standings and in the national rankings.
North Carolina State
Season Thus Far: The Wolfpack is 10-4 (1-0 ACC), having a victory over Wake on December 6. Including a December 14 loss against Wofford, NCState is 2-3 since that date. Not a good time to be struggling, what with a gauntlet of Virginia, Duke, and UNC in a one-week period beginning January 7.
What to Look For: This just won't be a good year for the Wolfpack. They'll probably score a few upsets if their shooters happen to be hot in a game, but otherwise NCState is a lower-middle class team in the league.
And there you have it. I'd do one of these for Syracuse, but, you know the season thus far and you know what to look for. The Orange have been improving, and with a very favorable start to the conference, if they don't take advantage, it'll be a tough season. But I don't expect that to happen.
First up for Syracuse: this Saturday at Virginia Tech. Keep it here for the usual preview.