With college football now officially behind us and conference play just beginning to heat up, what better time to catch you up on the power-six conference picture? This week, your humble ESPN.com writers are doing just that. ESPN Insider’s Doug Gottlieb kicked off the festivities Tuesday with some current Big Ten rankings. Today, we continue with a look at the ACC, where Duke reigns over a conference suffering through what appears to be its biggest collective down season in decades.
1. Duke Blue Devils. No surprise here. The Blue Devils aren’t just the best team in the ACC. They’re the best team in the country. That’s a little scary, considering the Blue Devils lost star freshman point guard Kyrie Irving -- arguably their best player when he was on the floor -- to a freak toe injury in early December. Nolan Smith, who deserves player of the year consideration for his all-around excellence and Kyle Singler, who’s been his typically impressive (if not show-stopping) self, have kept the Blue Devils rolling along. Duke has gotten major contributions from sharpshooters Andre Dawkins and Seth Curry and forwards Mason and Miles Plumlee. Duke would be tops in the ACC even if the rest of the conference wasn’t a jumbled mess. At this point, the question isn’t whether Duke will win the ACC. It’s whether they’ll go unbeaten in doing so.
2. Maryland Terrapins. In the preseason, the biggest question in the ACC revolved around this No. 2 spot. No one was dethroning Duke; that much was obvious. What was less clear was which team would emerge as a No. 2. Two months later, we’re no closer to an answer. In the meantime, let’s go with Maryland here. The Terps have losses, sure, but they’re all good losses, including Sunday night’s near-miss at Duke in which Maryland pushed Duke to the brink until the Blue Devils pulled away in the final minute. The Terps have been sneakily playing some of the toughest defense in the country, and that should help them stay near the top of this ACC fray for much of the season.
3. North Carolina Tar Heels. Speaking of sneakily tough defense, ladies and gentlemen, your North Carolina Tar Heels! Given the addition of Harrison Barnes, the No. 1-ranked recruit in the class of 2010, North Carolina’s early struggles are no doubt disappointing. But the Tar Heels, for all their offensive impotence, have morphed into a rangy, foul-averse defense that can challenge teams with its length and athleticism. Barnes has been playing better lately, but he’s yet to make the type of impact his preseason hype indicated. But even if Barnes and company don’t get better on offense -- and they might not -- this group of Tar Heels will still get its fair share of wins in the ACC.
4. Virginia Tech Hokies. The Hokies’ poor start -- along with those of UNC, NC State and FSU -- are one reason why the ACC didn’t have any non-Duke teams ranked in either poll this week (and likely won’t for the foreseeable future). But even with all those struggles, including losses to UNLV on the road and Purdue and Virginia at home, the Hokies are still a bubble team. That’s not what they wanted, but it’s still enough to rank them higher than the rest of the ACC.
5. Boston College Eagles. Sure, Boston College has its share of questionable losses to date this season. The Eagles have dropped a pair of home games to Ivy Leaguers Yale and Harvard, not to mention an ugly road loss at Rhode Island. But Boston College has two things few teams in the ACC do: a truly elite offense -- ranked No. 3 in the nation by Pomeroy as of Tuesday night -- and a legitimate star. That star is junior guard Reggie Jackson, who shoots the lights out, doesn’t turn the ball over, and assists his teammates at a very high rate. The Eagles are already showing the effects of former Cornell coach Steve Donahue’s influence; this is a ruthless, intelligent offense that can play with any team in the country. So why are the Eagles ranked No. 5? They don’t play a lick of defense. But they’ll be fun to watch as the season progresses, and even with that ugly D, an NCAA tournament berth is looking like a probability.
6. NC State Wolfpack. It’s hard to tell what to project for this NC State group. Sidney Lowe’s team lost its most important player, senior forward Tracy Smith, for 10 games in November and December. NC State went 6-4 in that stretch, but all four losses -- to Georgetown, Wisconsin, Syracuse and Arizona -- can be classified as “good” losses given the circumstances. (Reserve an exception for NC State’s 87-47 loss at Wisconsin. Away or not, that’s just plain bad.) But Leslie is regaining his pre-injury form, and Lowe has gotten encouraging performances from freshmen Ryan Harrow and C.J. Leslie thus far. If those three can congeal over time, they could make a run in conference play.
7. Florida State Seminoles. This is where things start to get really ugly. Florida State is Boston College’s polar opposite -- an elite defensive team that can’t score to save its life. The Seminoles are going to need that defense to win some games in ACC play, because after a neutral court loss to Butler, an inexplicable road loss to Auburn Jan. 3, and a 12-point loss at Virginia Tech, the NCAA tournament is very much in doubt.
8. Clemson Tigers. With no good wins and a couple of bad losses on the docket, the Tigers aren’t likely to make the NCAA tournament unless they seriously exceed expectations in the ACC. But they’re not the worst team in the conference, either, thanks in large part to solid seniors Demontez Stitt and Jerai Grant. Grant has been especially impressive. The 6-foot-8 forward scores at an efficient rate, rebounds well on the offensive and defensive end, and is one of the best shot-blockers in the country.
9. Miami Hurricanes. Miami gave Duke a tough test in Durham Jan. 2, but other than that, this has been a somewhat disappointing year for a team many saw as a potential dark horse candidate in the ACC. That’s primarily due to the Canes’ ugly defense, which shares the rare distinction of being both foul-prone and turnover-averse. Usually, it’s one or the other. (Aggressive teams foul a lot, but they also force a lot of turnovers, and vice versa.) With Miami, somehow, it’s both, and that has kept the Canes -- a pretty good offensive team, actually -- from surprising anyone this season.
10. Virginia Cavaliers. At least Virginia gave its downtrodden fans something to be excited about. In back-to-back games on Nov. 29 and Dec. 5, Virginia won at Minnesota and at Virginia Tech, arguably the two best results of Tony Bennett’s young career at the school. Unfortunately, senior Mike Scott, a fantastic rebounder and inside scorer, lost the rest of his season to injury this week. That means Virginia gets moved down a notch or two in these rankings, and it means an already difficult season gets even tougher for Bennett and company. But with Scott back next season on a medical redshirt and some intriguing talent on the way, maybe Virginia fans won’t be so downtrodden this time next year.
11. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. Want to know why the ACC is so bad? It’s not just that the conference lacks a contender or two to compete with Duke at the highest levels. It’s that even teams that are typically at least decent are far below that standard this season. One such team? Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets are 7-7 to date thanks in large part to some truly paltry outside shooting and the unfilled holes left by NBA draft picks Derrick Favors and Gani Lawal. Tech coach Paul Hewitt has survived some fan uprisings in recent years thanks to the huge buyout in his contract. But it’s going to be hard to outlive this.
12. Wake Forest Demon Deacons. One piece of good news for Georgia Tech: At least they’re not as bad as Wake Forest. It’s been a tough first season for new coach Jeff Bzdelik, who was hired -- somewhat controversially -- after the surprising fire of former coach Dino Gaudio this offseason. The good news for Wake is that Bzdelik managed to keep Gaudio’s impressive recruiting class together. The bad news for Wake is that it hasn’t seemed to matter much. The Demon Deacons are far and away the worst team in the ACC on a per-possession basis according to Pomeroy. They’re arguably the worst power-six team in the country. Rebuilding under a new coach is never fun, but it’s been especially rough in Winston-Salem this year.