By Charlie Manolakis
Now that 2019 has arrived and it’s time for us all to go back to work, school and the gym to work off the holiday pounds, it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on what’s really important—ACC basketball is finally here.
Before we start, a huge thank you to Mychal for the opportunity to contribute to the great work he does here on the ACC Basketball Report, and to you for reading as well!
***Editor’s Note: Flattery will get you everywhere***
With a little direction taken from the great Ken Pomeroy along the way, let’s take a look at what each team should expect in the first week of the new year.
Thursday, January 3:
#22 NC State at #56 Miami
KenPom projection: NC State 80, Miami 78
Another match-up between two programs with seasons heading in starkly different directions. While Miami has struggled to replace Dewan Hernandez’s presence inside, Kevin Keatt’s Wolfpack have gotten an unexpected lift from front court transfers Wyatt Walker and DJ Funderburk en route to a 12-1 start, including a great home win against top-10 Auburn. Their lone loss coming by 4 points on the road against a good Wisconsin side. If for nothing else, the back court talent on both sides of this one will be electric and absolutely worth a watch if you haven’t seen these teams play. While Chris Lykes, Anthony Lawrence & Miami crew may still be adjusting to expanded roles this season, their scoring and playmaking potential are always a threat.
The duo of Markell Johnson and Torin Dorn spearhead an exceptionally deep and experienced Wolfpack attack. That depth, paired with the Wolfpack’s upper hand in the post and especially on the boards, will ultimately prove too much for the Canes to overcome. The furious pace Keatt’s team plays at will only increase the risk of fatigue and foul trouble impacting Miami’s short rotation.
Pick: Even on the road, I like State to cover much more than the projected 2 points. If Miami can’t keep opponent’s off the glass, this season could be a long one in Coral Gables.
Saturday, January 5:
#31 Syracuse at #68 Notre Dame
KenPom projection: Syracuse 68, ND 67
While the Irish get to return to the Joyce Center following their opener against VT, the start to their ACC campaign doesn’t get much lighter here. The Orange may be off to a more up-and-down start than expected (though the ship has steadied some with the return of Frank Howard), Jim Boeheim’s vaunted 2-3 zone is yet again one of the most stifling defenses in the country. Boasting the tallest roster nationwide, top-10 marks in both steals and blocks help them force turnovers on more than 24% of their opponents’ possessions. Despite being one of the best teams at getting to the free throw line, Syracuse’s struggles have been on the offensive end, where their 3-point shooting (29.9%) rates among the worst. And when you play at a slower tempo, all it takes is one worse-than-normal night (say, hypothetically, 16-48 from the floor) and suddenly, even making 22 free throws might not be enough to save you in your own gym against Old Dominion.
Pick: Take the under. With the talent they have, I wouldn’t be shocked to see the Orange take over this game and start to establish their rhythm offensively. However, Boeheim’s teams haven’t posted a winning ACC record away from the Carrier Dome since 2014, their first season in the league. The students are finally back from vacation (and desperately want a distraction from the last Orange ACC team they ran into). Look for them to be enough to inspire this young team to a huge early win. Irish +1.
#7 UNC at #84 Pittsburgh
KenPom projection: UNC 82, Pitt 73
The margin between these two teams looks a lot closer than anyone would have predicted back in November. While Tar Heel fans have already grown weary of the careless turnovers and poor defensive execution that have plagued even their better performances in a 9-3 start, the Pitt Panthers have been one of the pleasant surprises of the early ACC season. Pitt has received outstanding contributions from freshmen Xavier Johnson, Trey McGowens, Au’Diese Toney, and St. John’s transfer Malik Ellison. Pair that with significant steps forward from upperclassmen Jared Wilson-Frame and Kene Chukwuka, Jeff Capel has his team playing at a much higher level than anyone thought possible after last year’s 0-18 run.
Fortunately for the Heels, there have been plenty of positives too. Cam Johnson (16.7 ppg, 30/61 from 3) and Luke Maye (14/10/2) are well on their way to all-ACC years, freshman Coby White has been sensational, and Seventh Woods has quietly stepped as the solid, steadying, veteran yin to White’s electric (if occasionally out-of-control) yang at the point. While many in the media want you to click on another article about 5-star freshman Nassir Little not starting, here’s the reality: He’s already playing 20 minutes, already scoring 10.8 per game (only trailing Johnson, Maye, and White), and he’s playing more and more of those minutes with the first-team rotation, which gives him the space on the court to fully take advantage of his explosive athleticism. Those numbers are only going to increase as he grows more comfortable in Roy Williams’s system and cleans up his mistakes on the defensive end, and with his ability, look for them to improve a lot and for the conversation surrounding him by March to be very different.
Pick: Don’t be surprised to see this one stay close into the second half, but even on the road Carolina’s talent and depth will allow them to separate late. Carolina -9.
#106 Boston College at #9 Virginia Tech
KenPom projection: VT 79, BC 64
An overtime loss at home to Hartford is never the way you want to enter ACC play and only more so when your schedule opens with Virginia Tech and UVA. But, here Jim Christian’s Eagles sit, with a trip to Blacksburg awaiting them. Led by one of my favorite players to watch in Ky Bowman and emergent freshman Wynston Tabbs, BC has shown plenty of promise in the early going, but consistency has to be a question with a 9-3 record against one of the softest non-conference schedules in the country. The loss to Hartford brings back questions about the November home loss to IUPUI as well. The Eagles have yet to face an opponent stronger than Providence, Minnesota, Loyola-Chicago, or DePaul. The Hokies (and the Hoos) will remedy that abruptly. While BC has played well away from home thus far, their opening gauntlet has the potential to get ugly. As with State-Miami, the guards in this one will be fantastic to watch. The match-up to watch however, is BC’s Nik Popovic against VT’s Kerry Blackshear down low. VT doesn’t have any front court depth behind Blackshear and if the combined efforts of Popovic and Bowman can get him in foul trouble early (a problem he’s no stranger to), the 6’11 Popovic would find himself matched up against 6’6 Ty Outlaw and BC could make this one interesting.
Pick: It won’t sway the outcome, especially in Blacksburg, but I like BC to get Blackshear in foul trouble and keep this one within reach. Hokies win, but BC covers +15.
#159 Wake Forest at #95 Georgia Tech
KenPom projection: GT 72, Wake 63
Two teams who have had challenging starts to the season and will be hoping to start 2019 on a more positive note. Coming off back-to-back losses at Tennessee (not a bad loss) and home against Gardner-Webb (a bad loss), Wake has one final tune-up against Cornell on Wednesday before travelling to Atlanta to face the Yellow Jackets. The Demon Deacons have struggled offensively for much of this year and will hope to find a way to remedy their turnover and shooting woes before a date with GT’s top-tier defense. Wake’s best chance for success will likely be at the foul line if they are able to take advantage of GT’s aggressive play, which drives much of their defensive success but can leave them vulnerable to fouling.
The Yellow Jackets recently followed up their best win to date (on the road against a solid Arkansas team) with an uninspiring loss at home to Georgia. Having also been competitive in road/neutral games against Tennessee, Northwestern, and St. John’s, they have certainly displayed more upside to date than the Deacons, and I especially like their chances in this one at home.
Pick: When in doubt, I’ll take the home team who knows how to play defense. Don’t see double digits here, but give me Wake +9 with GT in the win column.
#16 Florida St at #2 Virginia
KenPom projection: UVA 69, FSU 61
The fact that ESPN will pay more attention to Duke-Clemson than this likely top-5 clash boggles my mind. UVA looks as dangerous as ever and the Seminoles have quietly picked up right where their surprise Elite Eight run left off, putting together an 12-1 start against a very respectable non-conference slate, including a 5-1 mark against the KenPom top 100. While I don’t think they’ll be able to overcome the trio of Ty Jerome, De’Andre Hunter, and Kyle Guy (who are all also shooting 41%+ from deep) at JPJ Arena, the Noles have more than enough talent and depth of their own. They also have the size to challenge Virginia’s front court. This is one you won’t want to miss Saturday afternoon.
Pick: FSU +8, but the Cavs start 1-0 at home.
#34 Clemson at #1 Duke
KenPom projection: Duke 84, Clemson 68
Saturday at Duke, Wednesday at Syracuse, then next Saturday against UVA? This one might hurt a little, Tiger fans. Until Clemson shows they can score at a high level night in and night out, this is a team that will go as far as their defense carries them. Simply put, they’re 10-0 when they limit their opposition to 1 point or fewer per possession, and 0-3 when they don’t. The bad news? Duke has the #2 rated offense in the country, and that’s without even shooting the 3 well so far. They’ve only been held below that mark once this season and that was by a top-10 caliber Texas Tech team who Duke completely smothered on the defensive end of the floor and beat by double-digits anyways. The strength-on-strength match-up to keep an eye on here is the interior offense and defense for both sides. Both teams shoot 59%+ from 2 (top 6 in the nation) and hold their opponents below 45% (good for top 40 defensively). If they want to keep this one within reach, Clemson will need to contain Duke’s talented freshmen, who have been incredibly effective scoring in the lane off the dribble and make Duke beat them from the outside.
Pick: 16 is too many points for an experienced Clemson side, but this one is never particularly close. Clemson +16, but Duke rolls at Cameron.
Sunday, January 6:
#56 Miami at #42 Louisville
KenPom projection: Louisville 73, Miami 68
Pomeroy’s ratings have this one flagged as one of the most competitive games of the opening week. I’m not so sure. On one side, we have a battle-tested 9-4 Louisville team who played a top-50 non-conference schedule, beat Michigan St in OT and Seton Hall on the road. Their losses being neutral/road games against Tennessee, Marquette, and Indiana. The only real blemish on their record was last weekend’s humbling loss to Kentucky. Chris Mack has this team playing better than many expected in his first season at the helm and they’ve had a full week of practice to address what went wrong against the Wildcats. On the other side, the Hurricanes and their short bench will be coming off two days rest after their opener against the Wolfpack, one of the fastest and deepest teams in the ACC.
Pick: Tired Miami legs against a fresh, fired-up Louisville at home? Hammer the Cardinals -5.
**Had hoped to put this up before the VT-ND tipoff this afternoon, but life (and technology) often have their own plans. Appreciated the Hokies turning it on late to get me off to a 1-0 start.
Picks to date: 1-0
Against the KenPom “spread”: 1-0