By Charlie Manolakis
Another exciting week of ACC basketball is ahead. Look for more later this week as we move towards another full slate Saturday, but fortunately we don’t have to wait more than a few short hours to see the best conference back in action. Here’s a preview of everything we can look forward to the next couple nights.
Picks to date: 8-1
Against the KenPom “spread”: 5-4
Tuesday, January 8
#1 Duke at #158 Wake Forest
KenPom projection: Duke 90, Wake 69
I’m not sure what’s more absurd: that a freshmen-led team is favored by 21 points in not only their ACC road opener, but their first true road game, or that part of me really doesn’t find it that absurd to begin with. There is seemingly no greater joy for this team than completely obliterating their opposition and throwing down multiple highlight dunks along the way. Meanwhile, a less-than-inspiring defensive effort from the Demon Deacons that saw them concede 92 points (!!!) against Josh Pastner’s defensive-minded Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets—and on a night when Brandon Childress couldn’t miss from deep and otherwise might well have carried this team to a much-needed win in Atlanta—does little to inspire confidence in Wake’s ability to slow down Duke’s talented trio of freshmen. The only thing that keeps me grounded breaking down this matchup is that despite their struggles under Danny Manning, Wake does historically present a much tougher challenge in Winston-Salem and that 21 points is a massive, massive total.
Pick: Duke is going to roll here. But if they really don’t miss a beat and take this one by 30? Sheesh, look out world. Wake +21, if only for the sake of FSU this weekend.
***Editor’s Note: Disagree. Give me Duke with the points***
#6 UNC at #18 NC State
KenPom projection: UNC 87, State 86
Don’t blink or you might miss this one. According to KenPom, UNC plays at the 5th fastest tempo in the nation, and State only falls a hair behind at #14. Add to that a revitalized NC State program under second-year coach Kevin Keatts, who wants nothing more than to begin to establish a foothold among the ACC’s upper tier by knocking off its hated rival from across the Triangle. Since Roy Williams took over after the 2003 season, the Tar Heels have dominated the Wolfpack to the tune of a 28-4 record. That includes a 1-1 split in Keatts’s first season at the helm.
I don’t know any better than you how this one is going to turn out, but here are a few of the questions I believe will be critical to tonight’s outcome.
- Will the Tar Heels be able to contain Markell Johnson, especially in the pick and roll? He put on an absolute pick and roll clinic in the first matchup last season, posting 20 points and 11 assists (and it felt like twice that many to everyone wearing blue that day). Carolina in its own right has had difficulty this year stopping talented guards, both in the pick and roll (see Michigan) as well as simply off the dribble (see Texas). That will be a huge key if they hope to limit State’s open looks, which they’ve been knocking down better than almost anyone in the country.
- How will UNC’s talented freshmen Coby White, Nassir Little, and Leaky Black—all of whom will be needed tonight—- adjust to their first truly hostile road environment. Sure they played well this past weekend in Pittsburgh, but they haven’t seen anything like what’s waiting for them in PNC Arena tonight (and will be waiting again in Durham in late February).
- Finally, the contributions of each team’s bench may well be the deciding factor. Both teams have deep, versatile backcourts and (especially with the injury to Sterling Manley) much thinner frontcourt rotations. Carolina’s edge here may be that it can match the Wolfpack’s breakneck pace and offensive potency, while perhaps bringing more dangerous contributors off the bench too. If the Heels come out of Raleigh with a win, look for someone like Leaky Black or Seventh Woods to have made some of those critical, game-changing plays.
Pick: In an absolute thriller from start to finish, I’ll take the experience of Roy Williams and the Heels -1.
Wednesday, January 9:
#8 Virginia Tech at #85 Georgia Tech
KenPom projection: VT 72, GT 64
Unstoppable force? Meet immovable object. The Hokies create open looks for each other and knock them down better than anyone in the country, but travel to Atlanta to face an equally stingy defense in their own gym. That clash of strengths will be fascinating to watch, but I think the Hokies’ defense makes the difference in this one, capitalizing on GT turnovers to create transition buckets and holding the Yellow Jackets in check until their offense is able to kick into gear. The question is whether that happens before or after halftime. Don’t be surprised to see a bounce-back performance offensively from Ahmed Hill either after a 4 point, 1-9 outing against Boston College.
Pick: If VT heats up in the second half, I’m not sure GT has the firepower to climb back into it. Hokies -8.
#36 Clemson at #32 Syracuse
KenPom projection: Syracuse 69, Clemson 64
Those of you who read my last round of picks know I placed my faith in the wrong team wearing orange last weekend. Clemson unraveled in the opening minutes of the second half in Cameron, while Syracuse closed out a game impressively in South Bend which they would have dropped the past few seasons. The Irish closed Syracuse’s lead to 2 points three times in the second half, but the Orange responded with a run of their own each time and locking down defensively in the final 6 minutes, only allowing 4 points.
Pick: I want to trust Marcquise Reed and Clemson’s experience to lead them to another solid season, but the conference is deeper this year and I need them to show they can build on last year’s Sweet 16 success. Cuse -5 in the Carrier Dome.
#37 Louisville at #90 Pittsburgh
Coming off an impressive home win against Miami, Louisville needs to avoid a letdown here against an improved Pittsburgh team if they want to carry that momentum into Chapel Hill this weekend. This has all the makings of a trap game, which is only amplified by the brutal schedule Pitt drew to open ACC play. With their first eight against UNC, Louisville, at NC State, FSU, at Syracuse, Duke, at Louisville, and at Clemson, this matchup with the Cardinals may well be their best opportunity to snatch an ACC win until February. The Panthers will need a substantially improved effort from everyone though if they want to follow their 25-point loss this weekend with a victory Wednesday night.
Pick: I like Pitt to keep this one much closer, and wouldn’t be surprised to see it remain a close game into the second half. But Ken’s one-point line doesn’t leave much room to cover, and I do think Chris Mack’s Cards get it done in the end. Louisville -1.
#2 Virginia at #104 Boston College
KenPom projection: UVA 69, BC 58
Boston College showed impressively in a shorthanded effort in Blacksburg, but the road doesn’t get any easier here. It’s frightening to think the score from UVA’s impressive 65-52 win against Florida State was generous to the Seminoles, but until a late run against the end of Virginia’s bench in the closing four minutes, UVA led 61-34!! BC did give the Hoos a scare in Charlottesville last year, but expect Virginia to continue to take no prisoners on their march towards another ACC title.
Pick: It’s always the second and third game after an injury when the cracks start to show. BC fought well without Wynston Tabbs for much of last weekend’s game against the Hokies, but expect UVA to wear them down in the second half. Hoos -11.
#67 Miami at #20 Florida State
KenPom projection: FSU 79, Miami 69
These two in-state rivals will both be looking to improve on disappointing starts to ACC play. Miami had NC State right where they wanted them, but just wore down too much to close the game out down the stretch. We don’t need to harp any longer about what happened to FSU in Hoo-ville. With Hernandez now officially ineligible and Deng Gak out for the year as well, Ebuka Izundu and Sam Waardenburg will have their work for out for them against a massive Florida State front line and one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the country.
Pick: Three games in a week against three of the stronger and deeper teams in the conference is a tough ask for a shorthanded Miami side, but they have the talent to keep this one close. FSU gets the win, but I like the Canes +10.