Conference play begins Saturday in the ACC, and it’s officially go time for much of the conference.
The magic number will be 11. If you’re a team that doesn’t reside at either end of the eight-mile stretch of Rte 15-501 that runs from Durham to Chapel Hill, you better get to 11 conference wins to feel good about receiving an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.
A couple of surprising teams, such as Virginia and North Carolina State, enter ACC play in better shape than a few others that need to really rack up wins to prove their worth after a forgettable nonconference slate.
Let’s take a look to see what the ACC teams are doing well, what they’re struggling with, and how they can get a ticket to the Big Dance.
Boston College Eagles (5-9)
What’s working: The youth movement is in full effect at Boston College. Five freshmen are averaging at least 17 minutes per game, and backup guard John Cahill is the only senior in the rotation.
What’s not: Everything else. The Eagles struggle in just about every phase of the game but especially in rebounding. They get less than 25 percent of their missed shots while allowing opponents to grab nearly 35 percent of their own. For a team with a pretty average shooting percentage, Boston College can’t afford to let teams extend possessions while rarely getting more than one look at the offensive end.
Best win: A 15-point home win against Stony Brook of the America East Conference.
Worst loss: A 75-61 home drubbing vs. cross-town rival Boston University.
How the team reaches the NCAA Tournament: It’s almost inconceivable that the Eagles could turn around their season to be competitive in the ACC. Boston College’s ticket to the NCAA Tournament would almost certainly require four wins in four days in the ACC Tournament.
Clemson Tigers (8-6)
What’s working: Defense is this team’s calling card, as coach Brad Brownell wants Clemson to grind out victories at a slow pace. The Tigers rank in the top 50 for defensive efficiency, based on Ken Pomeroy’s stats, averaging 0.918 points per possession on defense.
What’s not: Team shooting. The Tigers are shooting a subpar 43 percent from the field. Reserve Catalin Baciu, who averages less than 10 minutes per game, is the only player shooting better than 48 percent from the field. Only one player averages more than one made 3-pointer per game. Clemson has scored more than 70 points only three times this season.
Best win: A 71-55 road win at Iowa.
Worst loss: A 75-68 loss at Hawaii.
How the team reaches the NCAA Tournament: I had high hopes for this Tiger team, which returned several key players, such as Andre Young, Tanner Smith, Devin Booker and Milton Jennings. But after a weak start with few good wins, the only way Clemson will reach the NCAA Tournament is if the Tigers win 13 games in ACC play, with three wins in four games against North Carolina, Duke and Virginia — unless the Tigers can win the ACC’s automatic bid via a conference tournament title.
Duke Blue Devils (12-2)
What’s working: In the words of Lil Jon: shots, shots, shots. They’re falling from everywhere for Duke, which ranks in the top 10 for 3-point percentage and the top 25 for 2-point percentage. Ryan Kelly, Seth Curry and Austin Rivers are all shooting better than 42 percent from long range.
What’s not: Defensive dominance. Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s teams are usually capable of suffocating opponents with a defensively fueled scoring run that buries teams in close games. This team has six blowout victories against overmatched opponents, but other teams — including not exactly dominant teams like Belmont, Tennessee and Washington — have been able to hang around far longer than they should.
Best win: A five-point win against Michigan State in which Coach K also passed his mentor, Bob Knight, for the most wins by a Division I coach.
Worst loss: Wednesday night’s five-point loss in Philly to Temple.
How the team reaches the NCAA Tournament: Barring an epic fail in which Duke falls well below .500 in ACC play, the Blue Devils are going to the NCAA Tournament. The question is how well they will be seeded, and that almost entirely depends on how well Duke plays in games against North Carolina, Virginia, Virginia Tech and Florida State. The Blue Devils get seven games against those teams, and if they win four or five of them to finish with 11 or 12 overall ACC wins, Duke should be on its way to a No. 2, 3 or 4 seed.
Florida State Seminoles (9-5)
What’s working: Ridiculously good defense, as usual. Chris Singleton is gone, and Bernard James has proven that he’s more than ready to become the Seminoles’ primary defensive stopper. The 26-year-old big man is averaging nearly three blocks per game for one of the best defenses in Division I.
What’s not: Clutch performances. In every Florida State victory, the Seminoles have won by double figures. But the team is 0-3 in games decided by five points or less, including overtime losses to Connecticut and Princeton. The Seminoles have to figure out how to get it done in winning time to excel in the ACC.
Best win: There are not a lot of great options here, but it’s probably a 73-53 win against Massachusetts in the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas.
Worst loss: Princeton at home in three overtimes.
How the team reaches the NCAA Tournament: After whiffing at every opportunity to get a quality win, the Seminoles need to get to 10 or 11 wins in conference play. They can afford 10 wins if one or two of those are against North Carolina and Duke. They need 11, maybe even 12, if they can’t beat the big boys. Florida State will likely have a good enough record that one or two quality wins would propel the Seminoles to a No. 7 or 8 seed.
Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (7-7)
What’s working: Daniel Miller and the defense. New Yellow Jackets coach Brian Gregory has the team playing good defense, and Miller is the anchor. He’s blocking about three shots per game. Miller also has increased his rebounding by 50 percent despite playing similar minutes to last season, and his scoring and assist rate is up.
What’s not: Progress everywhere else in the lineup. After a 7-4 start that included no really ugly losses, Georgia Tech is regressing entering ACC play, losing three in a row to Mercer, Fordham and Alabama. The Yellow Jackets weren’t competitive at all in the home game against the Crimson Tide.
Best win: A somewhat surprising 13-point win against VCU.
Worst loss: A 72-66 loss at Fordham.
How the team reaches the NCAA Tournament: Like quite a few other ACC teams, it’s conference tourney title or bust.
Maryland Terrapins (10-3)
What’s working: Team development. We don’t know what this Maryland team will do in ACC play. But it’s clearly getting better with Alex Len eligible to play and Pe’Shon Howard healthy. Len figures to be the big man who will take pressure off Terrell Stoglin who has shouldered much of the scoring burden for the Terrapins thus far this season.
What’s not: Ball pressure. Maryland is one of the worst teams in Division I at forcing turnovers, and that forces the team to play good defense for longer stretches. That’s not this team’s specialty right now.
Best win: A seven-point victory against a decent but not great Notre Dame team in the BB&T Classic in Maryland’s backyard at the Verizon Center.
Worst loss: A 26-point thrashing at the hands of Iona in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off.
How the team reaches the NCAA Tournament: Maryland needs to win at least one game against Duke and North Carolina, then win the majority of games against other ACC bubble teams and potential NCAA Tournament teams, including NC State, Virginia, Virginia Tech, Miami and Florida State. That’s seven games in total, and the Terps need five or six wins to get an at-large bid.
Miami Hurricanes (9-4)
What’s working: Early season survival. With Reggie Johnson sidelined until mid-December, the Hurricanes just managed to avoid anything awfully embarrassing while playing a ridiculously small lineup. Those guards have developed a strong shooting touch, with Shane Larkin, Rion Brown, Garrius Adams and Malcolm Grant shooting at least 37 percent from 3-point range.
What’s not: Rebounding. Not surprisingly, the Hurricanes struggled to box out opponents when Kenny Kadji was basically the only healthy big man for much of the season thus far. The return of Johnson changes everything for coach Jim Larranaga, and the Canes have high hopes entering ACC play.
Best win: It’s not much to write home about, but the Canes’ only true road win is a respectable 15-point victory at Charlotte.
Worst loss: An overtime loss at Ole Miss.
How the team reaches the NCAA Tournament: Miami has almost an identical situation as Maryland. Both teams have gained key players mid-season, and both teams lack quality wins in nonconference play. Therefore, it’s all about getting a top-notch win against North Carolina or Duke, then beating up the other contenders in the middle of the pack. Miami likely needs at least 11 wins in ACC play to convince the committee that the Canes with Johnson are worthy of a bid.
North Carolina Tar Heels (13-2)
What’s working: Speed. It kills. Or so they say. The Tar Heels are running at a break-neck speed of nearly 75 possessions per game, with sophomore point guard Kendall Marshall igniting the offense with 10 assists per game. Marshall isn’t even in the top seven on his team in scoring, but he doesn’t need to be as he sets up everyone else with his laser-guided passes.
What’s not: Late-game presence. This team remains one of the younger ones in Division I despite a ton of talent back from last season. The lack of experience came out in a one-point loss at Kentucky in which John Henson had his attempted game winner blocked — and everyone froze. Even though several seconds remained, the team looked like they conceded after the block. The Tar Heels haven’t had to play a tight game in the final minute since — and they likely won’t play too many of those in conference play — but look for coach Roy Williams to have this team better prepared whenever the next such occasion arises.
Best win: The season opener against Michigan State, an impressive 12-point victory, was a sight to behold as the teams played on an aircraft carrier off the coast of San Diego.
Worst loss: There’s not much shame in this one: a 10-point loss at UNLV.
How the team reaches the NCAA Tournament: Like Duke, North Carolina is a near lock to reach the tournament. The Tar Heels will be in contention for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and to make that happen, North Carolina needs to at least split with Duke and get to 12 or 13 ACC wins. Anything less than that would be considered a disappointment anyways.
North Carolina State Wolfpack (11-4)
What’s working: A whole lot. Sophomore guard Lorenzo Brown is one of the most productive players in Division I, rivaling North Carolina’s Kendall Marshall for best facilitator in the ACC. And he’s got lots of talent to feed: C.J. Leslie, Scott Wood, C.J. Williams and Richard Howell.
What’s not: Public recognition. I hate to make guarantees, but I would be utterly shocked if the Wolfpack don’t pull off at least one win in three games against Duke and North Carolina. Until then, North Carolina State will remain under the radar, picking up wins that most people think they should win and losing games that are understandable.
Best win: A come-from-behind three-point victory against Texas in Madison Square Garden.
Worst loss: A 16-point home loss to Syracuse in a game that the Wolfpack could have played better and drawn greater national attention.
How the team reaches the NCAA Tournament: The Texas win is solid but not great so the Wolfpack need to reach double-digit victories in conference play. The conference opener against Maryland will go a long way toward foreshadowing the team’s NCAA Tournament hopes.
Virginia Cavaliers (13-1)
What’s working: Tony Bennett’s style. When Bennett arrived in the ACC from Washington State, I was dubious that a plodding style would succeed in a fast-paced, guard-dominated conference. Well, the landscape is shifting quickly, and Bennett is laying the blueprint for success with this team. The Cavs are among the slowest teams in the country, and they also play fantastic defense, allowing about 0.887 points per possession, according to Ken Pomeroy’s stats. With big man Mike Scott providing a high percentage scoring option, it’s hard for the Cavs to ever be too far out of a game unless everyone else goes ice cold.
What’s not: Team depth. Frankly, this isn’t even an issue for a team playing a slow pace with one or two high-quality reserves such as Assane Sene and Akil Mitchell. However, the transfers of K.T. Harrell and James Johnson leaves Bennett’s squad a little shallower than the coach intended entering the season.
Best win: A 12-point home win vs. Michigan in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.
Worst loss: A two-point loss to TCU.
How the team reaches the NCAA Tournament: Virginia’s win against Michigan should look good come Selection Sunday, but the Cavaliers haven’t guaranteed themselves a spot just yet. Virginia can probably afford to slip to 9-7 in the ACC, but it would behoove Virginia to stay in double figures for conference wins, especially if Virginia wants to get a good seed. Eleven or 12 wins in the ACC could easily propel Virginia into a No. 5 seed or better.
Virginia Tech Hokies (11-3)
What’s working: Erick Green. The junior guard has embraced the role of Dorenzo Hudson’s running mate in the backcourt, and the duo average better than 27 ppg and five apg. Hudson has had a slow start with his shooting stroke, but Green has helped carry the offense as needed.
What’s not: Victor Davila. The senior forward is having a rough season thanks to his inability to stay out of foul trouble. Davila is averaging nearly three fouls in 20 minutes per game, a major jump from the 2.4 fouls he averaged in more than 31 minutes per game last season. Not surprisingly, the rest of Davila’s stats are down.
Best win: Oklahoma State is the honorary member of the ACC this season, as the Hokies have played the Cowboys twice and won both times. The win in Stillwater qualifies as the best of the season because it was a true road game.
Worst loss: An eight-point loss at home to Kansas State hurts because it was a game the Hokies should have won.
How the team reaches the NCAA Tournament: For the love of Seth Greenberg, don’t let this team be stuck at 19-12 with no wins against the RPI Top 25 come Selection Sunday. I’m not sure America can take much more collective hand wringing from Blacksburg. To avoid that fate, Virginia Tech really must win two games out of five against Duke, North Carolina and Virginia, preferably with at least one coming on the road. Get that, plus 10 total ACC wins, and the Hokies should come in around a No. 8 or 9 seed.
Wake Forest Demon Deacons (9-5)
What’s working: The new season. Last season’s 8-24 disaster is a memory coach Jeff Bzdelik is eager to erase, and this squad has already surpassed last season’s win total with nine victories.
What’s not: Depth. The team’s top five scorers account for 87 percent of the team’s points. That’s going to be problematic against tougher competition in ACC play. C.J. Harris and Travis McKie are legit contenders for second or third team All-ACC, which would be a surprise to many if they make it. But they’re just not getting a lot of other help from the rest of the team. It’s hard to imagine that Harris will be able to maintain a 53 percent shooting clip overall and from 3-point range against the imposing defenses in the ACC.
Best win: A somewhat surprising two-point road win against Nebraska.
Worst loss: A shockingly ugly 28-point smack down at the hands of a weak Arizona State squad in the Old Spice Classic in Orlando.
How the team reaches the NCAA Tournament: Yes, this team has more wins than last year. No, they’re not a serious at-large candidate. Wake Forest must take the ACC title to get the auto bid.