As conference play begins across the country, SI is resetting the races in the top nine leagues. Next up is the ACC:
Even if the defense isn’t quite as smothering as it has been, it still is 18th in the country in efficiency. But the offense is eye-opening: Virginia is No. 2 in adjusted efficiency on that end this year, a sizeable jump from finishing at No. 24 a year ago. It’s startling because no one has been a revelation after the departure of Justin Anderson; it’s still well-known characters like Malcolm Brogdon, Anthony Gill and London Perrantes leading the way. The Cavaliers won’t run and gun their way to wins, of course. But if they can be relatively stingy defensively and score with anyone, watch out.
Imperfections abound in college basketball this year, so it makes little sense to focus on the Tar Heels’ two road losses by a combined six points, one of which came as without Marcus Paige. Better to note instead that North Carolina has the nation’s most efficient offense and five players averaging double figures. And forward Brice Johnson (team-best 16.2 points, 9.7 rebounds per game on 66.2% shooting) has finally emerged as the marquee name on this club. That’s good news for a team that didn’t want to rely solely on Paige anyway. Defense is a question (61st nationally in efficiency), but the scoring balance and depth suggest the Heels will be there to the end.
It’s a close call here for third, with Duke and Louisville also rating as strong candidates. But the Blue Devils suffer from the indefinite absence of Amile Jefferson (foot), and the Cardinals still haven’t beaten anyone of note, the close shave with Kentucky notwithstanding. Meanwhile, the Hurricanes hum along with the No. 6 most efficient offense, a balanced attack that has Sheldon McClellan (16.3 ppg) leading four players averaging double-digit production. And Miami also has very solid wins over Butler and Utah to its credit thus far. This is the team some figured Jim Larrañaga would field last year, once McClellan and guard Angel Rodriguez were eligible after transfers. Better late than never.
Pittsburgh. The Panthers have won 10 of 11 entering league play but doesn’t have a truly notable victory to its name. Its one venture against a top-25 team resulted in a 13-point loss to Purdue, and its schedule ranks 274th nationally, per kenpom.com. Still, the Panthers were undone by horrific defense a year ago, and they’ve made a huge jump to date there: from 202nd nationally to 99th. The offense, led by Michael Young’s 17.4 ppg, rates in the top 15. Young, a 6'9" junior, ranks in the top 20 nationally with a 31.7 player efficiency rating. He and Jamel Artis (15.5 ppg) have developed nicely over three years in Jamie Dixon’s system, providing a nice veteran corps. But we’ll see how long this lasts once the competition level jumps.
Notre Dame. This merits some qualification: No ACC team is sub-.500 as of the last week in December, so disappointment is relative. But at the moment, Notre Dame cannot be thrilled with its position. The Irish suffered losses to Monmouth and Alabama at the Old Spice Classic and then blew a 16-point second-half lead against Indiana at the Crossroads Classic. Anyone expecting a reprise of last year’s success severely underestimated the edge and attitude that Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton provided; Demetrius Jackson & Co. haven’t replicated that, and the Irish are a wince-inducing 168th nationally in defensive efficiency. Hope is far from lost, but the Irish will have to pile up meaningful wins to avoid any Selection Sunday nerves.
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Player of the year so far
Damion Lee, Louisville. There are many high-profile candidates—Duke’s Grayson Allen, Virginia’s Brogdon, North Carolina’s Johnson—but close inspection suggests that no one is delivering on both ends of the floor like Lee, the 6'6" forward who is maximizing his graduate transfer year after playing at Drexel. He’s averaging 18.1 ppg, yes, with an offensive rating of 135.6 that ranks 15th nationally and a signature effort of 27 points against Kentucky. But consider this as well: No other ACC player ranks in the top 20 nationally in offensive and defensive win shares. In fact, Lee is tied for the lead in the latter category (1.2). How long the Cardinals hang on as a contender will determine if Lee hangs in this race, but so far so good.
Best non-conference win
North Carolina 89, Maryland 81 (Dec. 1 at Dean Smith Center). Paige returned from an injury layoff just in time for the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, and he helped the Tar Heels notch a signature win over a fellow national title contender and former conference rival. Any doubts about North Carolina’s viability were eradicated that night.
Must-see January game
Miami at Virginia (Jan. 12). The Hurricanes have a couple games in January that will serve as barometers for just how good they are, but this is the first, with a visit from Duke coming later. Even threatening a championship-caliber team on the road will be an auspicious sign for Miami.