Early Season Conference Catchup: ACC

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College basketball league play is nearing. Here is where the ACC stands so far.

<p> Duke a surprise team in the ACC? Athlon says yes. Blue Devils the clear top team as NC State, North Carolina find footing.</p>

For most college basketball teams, players are preparing for finals. For those of us watching the sport, we’re preparing for midterms, so to speak.

As the non-conference seasons start to wrap up and league play to begin around the new year, Athlon is looking back and looking ahead at each conference.

We’ll start with the ACC where Duke has pulled off the impossible and managed to surprise people.

EARLY SEASON CONFERENCE CATCHUP: ACC
Other conferences: Big 12 | Big East

Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton

Surprise team: Duke.
Virginia Tech and Maryland may be the true sleepers in the ACC, but few picked Duke to be the class of the ACC (ahem, Athlon was one of the exceptions). Everything that needed to happen for Duke to take charge in the ACC did happen: Mason Plumlee has improved across the board, Rasheed Suliamon has given the Blue Devils scoring and defense on the perimeter, Ryan Kelly has been healthy, and Quinn Cook has exceeded all expectations as point guard.

Disappointing team: Florida State.
The Seminoles figured to take a step back after major personnel losses following last year’s ACC tournament title, but no one expected this slide. The ‘Noles lost to South Alabama to open the season and have lost three of their last four including Minnesota, Mercer and by 25 to Florida. Michael Snaer has been streaky and the defense has been lackluster. The normally stingy Seminoles are allowing opponents to score 68.4 points per game and shoot 41.1 percent from the floor.

Where did he come from? Erick Green, Virginia Tech.
New coach James Johnson has turned up the tempo at Virginia Tech. No player has benefitted more than Erick Green, who is among the nation’s leading scorers at 24.6 points per game. That’s nearly 10 points per game more than he averaged a year ago. With a thin roster, the Hokies need everything they can get from Green.

Where did he go? Ian Miller, Florida State.
A foot injury has hobbled Miller so far this season, so he should probably get a pass in his struggles to transition from sixth man to starter. Miller’s output has dropped from 10.3 points to 6.7 despite playing similar minutes per game. His assist output, however, has doubled.

Key stat: North Carolina’s free throw shooting.
The Tar Heels are last in the ACC in free throw shooting (61.7 percent) and last in the nation in percentage of points scored off free throws (11.6 percent). A year ago, North Carolina scored more than 20 percent of its points off free throws.

THREE THINGS TO WATCH IN CONFERENCE PLAY

Duke guard Seth Curry

How will Seth Curry’s leg injury play out? The Duke senior is battling persistent leg pain, but it hasn’t hindered his play so far. He’s second to Mason Plumlee on the team at 16.1 points per game, but he’s taken the most 3-point shots for a squad that leads the ACC in that category.

Will NC State put it together? The Wolfpack have lost two games this season to to teams with one loss between them in Oklahoma State and Michigan, though the loss to the Cowboys was by 20 in Puerto Rico. NC State entered the season with momentum as a heralded freshman class joined the veteran core that reached the Sweet 16 last season, yet the Wolfpack hasn’t jelled as a potential ACC contender would. The top three scorers from last season -- C.J. Leslie, Lorenzo Brown and Scott Wood -- rank third through fifth in scoring this year.

Are either of the Virginia schools for real? Not much was expected from the Cavaliers and Hokies to start the season, as Virginia lost Mike Scott and Virginia Tech began a rebuilding process with a new coach. Yet both teams have picked up impressive wins in late November and into December with wildly different styles. Virginia has held five teams to fewer than 50 points, including Tennessee. The Cavs also defeated Wisconsin 60-54 in Madison, one of the toughest road trips in basketball. Meanwhile, Virginia Tech is running up and down the court at 82.2 points per game.

ACC POWER RANKINGS

Player of the year watch
Mason Plumlee, Duke
Erick Green, Virginia Tech
Alex Len, Maryland
Freshman of the year watch
Rasheed Sulaimon, Duke
T.J. Warren, NC State
Seth Allen, Maryland
Coach of the year watch
Mike Krzyzewski, Duke
James Johnson, Virginia Tech
Mark Turgeon, Maryland

1. Duke (9-0). The early win over Kentucky is probably less impressive than in once seemed, but the Blue Devils defeated three opponents in the Battle 4 Atlantis (Minnesota, VCU and Louisville) who have gone a combined 24-5 this season. Duke followed that up with a win over Ohio State (6-1).

2. NC State (6-2). The Wolfpack’s 69-65 win over surprising Connecticut in Madison Square Garden was an encouraging sign as was a close call with Michigan. Richard Howell is already one of the best rebounders in the league. Now he leads the team in scoring.

3. North Carolina (7-2). Like NC State, North Carolina is searching for answers before the ACC season starts. Point guard and post play haven’t been as steady as they’ve been in recent years in Chapel Hill, and the Tar Heels are getting torched from the 3-point line.

4. Maryland (8-1). Seven-foot-1 sophomore Alex Len (13.9 points, 8.7 rebounds) has been a revelation, and Dez Wells has had the impact expected. The Terrapins are nearly halfway to last year’s win total (17).

5. Virginia Tech (8-1). Since Thanksgiving, the Hokies have defeated Iowa and Oklahoma State by double figures and lost at West Virginia by 1, signs the hot start may not be a fluke.

6. Virginia (8-2). Akil Mitchell and Darion Atkins are among the most improved players in the ACC on both sides of the court. Will the defensive prowess continue into the conference season?

7. Miami (5-1): The Hurricanes lost to Florida Gulf Coast without Durand Scott. They’ve gone 3-0 with Scott, including a win over Michigan State.

8. Georgia Tech (6-2). Freshmen Marcus Georges-Hunt and Robert Carter have helped make the Yellow Jackets more competitive in Brian Gregory’s second season. Balance double-digit losses to Cal and Illinois with wins over Saint Mary’s and Georgia.

9. Clemson (5-3). Milton Jennings was suspended for a Nov. 28 loss to Purdue following an arrest. He’ll be the Tigers’ top players, so his status with coach Brad Brownell will determine if Clemson is competitive in the ACC.

10. Florida State (5-4). The Seminoles need to get their act together quickly. That will be tough with five road games in the first seven games of January.

11. Boston College (4-5). The Eagles are still rebuilding as the top six scorers are sophomores and freshmen. That’s not a bad thing at some places. It is at Boston College.

12. Wake Forest (4-5). The Demon Deacons picked up where they left off last season, and that’s not a good thing. Losses to Iona (94-68), Nebraska (79-63), Richmond and Seton Hall (in which Wake squandered a big second-half league) signal this is going to be another long year in Winston-Salem.

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