North Carolina's big wins puts Heels among elite top three
Let’s get this out of the way: The greatest conference in college basketball history the ACC is not. ... yet.
Don’t blame the powerhouses, though. Even though North Carolina has two losses it would like to forget, the Tar Heels have three wins as good as anyone in the country. Meanwhile, Syracuse and Duke are contending for the ACC and probably more thanks to the play of key freshmen — Jabari Parker at Duke and Tyler Ennis at Syracuse.
The rest of the ACC has some work to do. After the top three, the league’s other teams are works in progress. We’ve seen signs of encouragement from teams like Pittsburgh, Virginia, Notre Dame and Florida State, but not enough to think any of them can challenge the league’s top three.
Early Season Report Card: ACC
Bubble watch: Florida State, Maryland, Notre Dame, Virginia
Best win: North Carolina 76, Michigan State 65
Worst loss: St Francis (NY) 66, Miami 62
Power rankings so far
3. North Carolina
6. Florida State
7. Notre Dame
8. NC State
10. Georgia Tech
12. Wake Forest
13. Boston College
14. Virginia Tech
Important non-conference games remaining:
Duke vs. UCLA (Dec. 19)
Virginia Tech vs. VCU (Dec. 21)
Florida State vs. UMass (Dec. 21)
Villanova at Syracuse (Dec. 28)
Parker has head-to-head losses to fellow top freshmen Andrew Wiggins at Kansas and Aaron Gordon at Arizona on neutral courts, but it’s hard to be too critical about the Duke forward. Parker has been Duke’s go-to player from the start, averaging 22 points (second in the ACC) and 7.6 rebounds (fourth) per game. He’ll be in the No. 1 overall draft pick and national player of the year discussions all season.
Top freshman (non-Jabari Parker division): Tyler Ennis, Syracuse
Ennis was a five-star freshman, too, but he may be in danger of being lost amid talk of Parker and other rookies. All Ennis has done is step in as a freshman to lead an undefeated team while compiling 50 assists to 11 turnovers.
Top newcomer: Rodney Hood, Duke
Duke’s other ridiculously versatile wing, Hood is averaging 18.9 points and five rebounds. His season will be overlooked due to the presence of Parker, but Hood’s mid-range game has been lethal as he’s improved from shooting 50.6 percent from 2-point range in his final year at Mississippi State to 61.6 at Duke.
Surprise player: Marcus Paige, North Carolina
Paige is every bit the MVP contender in the league as C.J. Fair or Parker. Might as well call him the MVP of the Bluegrass State as he was the top player on the court in wins over Louisville (32 points) and Kentucky (21 of his 23 points came in the second half). Paige’s development from an average point guard to the top player for the Heels has been staggering. On a team that had been reeling from the absence of P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald, who was reinstated Wednesday, Paige ended up picking up the slack.
Early season flop: Boston College
With returning veterans, Boston College looked like a team that could work its way onto the NCAA bubble. By early December, Boston College looks like it will be ACC Tournament or bust. The Eagles lost virtually every notable non-conference game (Providence, UMass, Toledo, UConn, Purdue, USC).
Lingering concerns: Where will the ACC find depth?
Duke, North Carolina and Syracuse are as good as any top three teams in any league, but where will the ACC find its second tier? Pittsburgh started 9-0 before scoring only 43 points in its first real test against Cincinnati (in fairness, Cincinnati scored only 44). Notre Dame has lost to Indiana State and North Dakota State at home, and that’s before facing teams in a new league. Virginia has lost to VCU, Wisconsin and Green Bay as Joe Harris has slumped to 11.3 points per game. Florida State may be the team to watch as the Seminoles’ big men are starting to emerge. Florida State’s three losses include an overtime loss to Michigan and one-point defeat in Gainesville.
Best NCAA resume: North Carolina
The losses to Belmont and UAB were baffling, and Wednesday's loss to Texas suggests Carolina's Jekyll and Hyde act isn't finished. No team has three better wins than Kentucky, Michigan State and Louisville — three of Athlon’s top four teams. With McDonald returning and marked improvement by James Michael McAdoo and Kennedy Meeks, North Carolina may be closer to winning the ACC than landing on the bubble.