By Charlie Manolakis
What a wacky road it’s already been and we’re still just shy of a third of the way through the ACC regular season. What’s that, LeBron? Not three… Not four… Not five… Not six… Okay it’s six. Virginia, Duke, UNC, Virginia Tech, Louisville, and Syracuse all sit tied atop the ACC at 4-1. What’s even more remarkable is the five teams tied at the bottom at 1-4–Boston College, Wake Forest, Notre Dame, Miami, and Florida State, with Clemson teetering at 1-3. Only NC State, Georgia Tech, and Pittsburgh have both won and lost more than one game. If you’re just joining us, football fans outside of LA and New England, welcome aboard. This ACC train is still only picking up speed, and if all goes well it might just keep on rolling right into the first weekend of April.
Keep an eye out for more ACCBR as the week moves along. Mychal put out another podcast yesterday if you haven’t checked that out already and is set to release his updated power rankings heading into this week as well. I’ll be back in the next couple days as well with more on what to watch for the rest of the week, building up to what should be two highly entertaining Thursday night games plus another full weekend slate.
Picks to date: 19-6
Against the KenPom “spread”: 13-11-1
Monday, January 21:
#7 Virginia Tech at #8 North Carolina, 7pm
KenPom projection: UNC 79, VT 76
After a humbling loss to Louisville, UNC responded well last week, holding off strong performances from Notre Dame and Miami and posting a 2-0 mark. They’ll hope to carry that winning momentum into a Monday night visit from Virginia Tech. The Hokies in their own right were able to bring some positive mojo back in a commanding win over Wake Forest after running into the UVA buzzsaw in Charlottesville earlier last week. Both these teams, despite the ups and downs they’ve experienced through five games, find themselves positioned at 4-1 and among the crowd of six at the top. This matchup may well come down to which team’s respective incompetency is able to trump the other: the Hokies’ struggles on the road, or the Heels’ perplexing inability to play well at home.
On a serious note, the Tar Heels have struggled to contain talented perimeter players and prevent open looks for their opponents in recent games, which is precisely where the Hokies thrive offensively. They attack more methodically this year, but feature an abundance of dangerous perimeter threats who work to find quality shots and have the talent to convert inside and outside at an elite rate.
Carolina will more than likely need another strong performance off the bench if they want to secure this win. Look for the length of Brandon Robinson and Leaky Black to provide relatively quiet but critical minutes defensively (and maybe also to knock down a big shot or two), and for this to be a breakout opportunity for Nassir Little. Especially if he and the rest of the Heels can get to the rim early and challenge Blackshear’s ability to stay out of foul trouble, they can take advantage of the Hokies’ lack of frontcourt depth and open the door for Maye in the post as well. This is a huge chance for one of these two teams to step up and secure a big-time win and continue to build on their positive start.
Pick: Ultimately I think the Heels have enough to get it done at home, but as a fan, this Hokie team scares the dickens out of me. I’ll take UNC -3, even though it’s very likely they’ll need all of 40 minutes to get there.
Tuesday, January 22:
#47 Clemson at #33 Florida State, 7pm
KenPom projection: FSU 73, Clemson 67
After a frustrating start to the 2019 ACC campaign, Clemson was able to put together a nice win at home against a shorthanded Georgia Tech side.
Florida State meanwhile, dropped their third straight in spectacular fashion yesterday, giving away their double-digit halftime advantage against Boston College in Chestnut Hill. While the Seminoles are coming off just two days’ rest and seem for all the world to still be in a tailspin following Cam Reddish’s heroics in Tallahassee, I like them to rebound here.
First and foremost, if any team is built to withstand the short turnaround, it’s the 50-man rotation Leonard Hamilton seems to roll out every year. With one of the deepest and tallest rosters anywhere, they have more than enough size and athleticism to match up with Clemson’s Elijah Thomas down low, as well as Reed and Mitchell on the perimeter. I’m also still not totally convinced by Clemson’s seemingly comfortable 12-point win against GT, as Brandon Alston and Abdoulaye Gueye were significant losses for the Ramblin’ Wreck. (Our friend Mychal has some choice words about a few other factors which may or may not have contributed as well.) **Editors Note: Mike Eades Sucks**
Pick: More importantly, I’m not ready to give up on Florida State just yet, and I think this is where we start to see them finally put it all together. FSU -6.
#75 Notre Dame at #85 Georgia Tech, 7pm
KenPom projection: GT 67, ND 64
Despite following up their win against Boston College with solid performances in Chapel Hill and against NC State, the Irish weren’t able to get either of those results over the line and now sit among the crowd at 1-4. Georgia Tech had a difficult week as well, with a number of key pieces in and out of the rotation, and saw their 2-1 start slip to 2-3 against Louisville and Clemson.
Looking ahead to this one, the most apparent concern is that the Yellow Jackets will once again be without Jose Alvarado. AD Gueye and Brandon Alston are both questionable.
On the other side, John Mooney is having the best season in the ACC that no one is talking about. In the last four games, he’s averaged 19 points, 15 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 2.5 blocks, is 20/24 from the foul line, and has looked even more impressive than the numbers suggest. He’s taken a massive step forward to start his junior season and Mike Brey’s uncharacteristically young team will need more of the same from him if they hope to start piling up a few more wins in an incredibly competitive ACC this year.
Pick: The more I look at this one, the more I can’t help but agree with Mychal’s assessment from the pod that the Jackets don’t function well without Alvarado. They really missed him in McCamish Saturday against Louisville. Mooney leads the Irish to win #2 with Georgia Tech missing their floor general.
#153 Wake Forest at #1 Virginia, 9pm
KenPom projection: UVA 77, Wake 53
Even the best shooting teams are bound to have an off night and unfortunately the Hoos finally had theirs in Durham this weekend. While the much of America’s caught up in the “Oh look, Tony Bennett lost another big game” narrative (ignore that nonsense), here’s what jumps out at me: On a night when Virginia (1) shot 3/17 from deep and (2) struggled to contain Duke defensively (more on that in a moment), they still found a way to score 70 points on 64 possessions and stay in the game on the road against a Duke team that (frighteningly) probably doesn’t get enough credit for how dominant they’ve been defensively for much of the year. You don’t win 24 of 26 against the ACC (with both of last year’s titles to boot) without taking care of business in big games (and medium games. and small games), and I’ll wrap this tangent up by encouraging you to at least consider joining the half of the country with this team somewhere in your Sweet 16 come March.
To Wake’s credit, they played a fantastic game last Tuesday night, notching their first win of the ACC season against NC State on the back of Jaylen Hoard’s box score-stuffing 16P/10R/3A/3Blk/2Stl night. Unfortunately, the Deacs came quickly back to Earth in Blacksburg this weekend in a game that was never particularly in question, and I have a feeling we’re going to see more of the same Tuesday night in Charlottesville against a motivated UVA side.
Pick: Wake on the road. Hungry Hoos in JPJ, coming off the first two opponents they’ve allowed to shoot 50% from inside the arc since November. Yes it’s a lot of points, but don’t overthink this one. Hoos -24.
#2 Duke at #65 Pittsburgh, 9pm
KenPom projection: Duke 82, Pitt 69
So how about that team Virginia played the other night. Holy moly, folks.
Breaking news: Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett are pretty good at basketball.
They completely took over in the second half and Tony Bennett’s vaunted pack line defense seemingly had no answer. Up next for the Blue Devils is a Pittsburgh team who has set the precedent (barring their home opener against UNC) that they are not to be trifled with at the Pete, knocking off Louisville and Florida State in their previous two home contests.
One alarming statistical trend that jumps out at me (from the Panthers’ perspective, at least) is that they’ve had their shots blocked at the 3rd highest rate nationally, whereas Duke…did anyone see how high Zion got on that volleyball spike against DeAndre Hunter?? Anyways, the Blue Devils block over 18% of their opponents’ attempts, which trails only Auburn at the top of D1. As reliant as Pitt is at getting to the rim and drawing fouls, that will certainly be a matchup worth watching.
Following a run of eight consecutive games (dating back to November against Indiana) in which Duke limited their opponents to fewer than 1 point per possession, they have failed to reach that mark in their last three outings, and I like them to buckle down again here.
Pick: I’ve been impressed with what Capel’s team has already accomplished in his first year at the helm, but I don’t think Duke stumbles here. #DoItForTre -13.