NCAAM Teams
Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer 321d

ACC's depth will be on display this weekend

Men's College Basketball, Florida State Seminoles, Virginia Tech Hokies, Clemson Tigers, Notre Dame Fighting Irish, NC State Wolfpack, North Carolina Tar Heels, Wake Forest Demon Deacons, Virginia Cavaliers

On Wednesday night, Grayson Allen's unexpected return from tripping purgatory (trurgatory? you're right, we can do better) and Mike Krzyzewski's injury-induced temporary farewell either partially or entirely overshadowed the following facts:

  • Duke beat Georgia Tech 110-57.

  • Georgia Tech was coming off a 12-point home win over North Carolina.

  • Virginia Tech, which beat Duke by 15 in the ACC opener, lost to NC State 104-78, thanks in large part to freshman guard Dennis Smith Jr. ...

  • ... who posted a 27-11-11 triple-double ...

  • and also did this.

  • Virginia, the No. 2-ranked team in adjusted efficiency (per KenPom.com) at the start of the night, gave up 88 points in 69 possessions at Pitt ... to move to 1-2 in ACC play.

  • Oh, and Louisville lost at Notre Dame.

  • And Syracuse beat Miami (to move to 9-6).

  • All of which came one night after North Carolina had barely survived Clemson in overtime -- an ending that featured one of the most interesting postgame handshakes in recent memory.

Needless to say, it's been a slightly crazy week in the ACC.

The contours of the league we thought we knew seem to have shifted somewhat in the past few weeks. Suddenly, the top of the league -- Duke, Virginia, UNC, Louisville, in whichever order you prefer -- doesn't seem quite so codified. At the very least, that top four doesn't seem quite as far ahead of the rest of the pack as it might have coming out of nonconference play. The tiers that once seemed obvious just might have blended into something even deeper, more fluid and, perhaps, more interesting.

This weekend's otherwise muted schedule is an excellent test for this notion. There are no obvious marquee matchups among those "top four" on either Saturday or Sunday. But there are at least three games, and maybe four, that feature teams that were supposed to be outside that group, but who are all very much in the mix at this early-ish stage.

  • No. 21 Virginia Tech at No. 12 Florida State, Saturday, 2 p.m. ET, ACC Network

  • Clemson at No. 23 Notre Dame, Saturday, 3 p.m. ET, ESPNU

  • NC State at No. 14 North Carolina, Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN

  • Wake Forest at No. 11 Virginia, Sunday, 8 p.m. ET, ESPNU

Chief among them? Florida State. As a matter of fact, the No. 12 Seminoles arrive at the weekend 2-0 in league play, their victories comprising a home win over Wake Forest and a road win -- yes, a road win -- over Virginia. The Noles were a frequent top-25 flier to begin the season, for obvious reasons, including the return of star sophomore Dwayne Bacon and the arrival of lottery-pick-potential freshman stud Jonathan Isaac. But few imagined they'd be this good this early in the season, if ever.

Not only does this edition of FSU's defense look like 15th-year coach Leonard Hamilton's best since 2011-12 (when Florida State won the ACC tournament and earned a No. 3 seed in March), but the offense has managed to slash last season's ugly turnovers and stagnant sets while pushing the pace every bit as much as it did a season ago.

Bacon's play is a similar story: The highest-ranked recruit (before Isaac arrived) in school history is taking just as many shots, and accounting for just as many possessions, but finishing better from everywhere (he's 12-of-19 from 2 to start the ACC season, for example). And fewer turnovers give him the look of a classic sophomore breakout. Isaac has integrated into the lineup seamlessly, while Xavier Rathan-Mayes -- FSU's only offensive option two seasons ago, who had to adjust to a new role when Bacon showed up -- has figured out how to play alongside his high-volume compatriot.

The result looks like a worthy insurgent into the ACC title-contention crowd, though we're about to find out for certain: Beginning Saturday, FSU will play five straight ranked teams in the next 14 days: Virginia Tech, Duke, UNC, Notre Dame and Louisville.

Such insurgency is not contained to Tallahassee, Florida. In South Bend, Indiana, a team that has appeared in back-to-back Elite Eights continues to play some of the best offensive basketball in the country -- and, more often than not, do enough on the defensive end to get by. That's how the Irish handled Louisville at the Joyce Center Wednesday, and why their only two losses this season came to good teams (Villanova and Purdue) on neutral floors, and it's the same approach they'll take when Clemson comes to town Saturday, which, hey, you know what? Clemson's losses are pretty respectable, too.

Sure, Oklahoma isn't great, but that late-November loss came by single digits, and the Tigers' only other defeats were to Xavier (also by six points) and, as mentioned, in overtime to longtime bully UNC on Tuesday. Coach Brad Brownell's team is playing a cautious, low-turnover brand of offensive hoop, and it doesn't always sing, but it does provide a solid tillage from which star forward Jaron Blossomgame's game can, um, sprout. (About being better than trurgatory ...)

Which barely leaves enough room to discuss NC State and Smith Jr., whose performance against the Hokies Wednesday night was arguably the best we've seen any guard not named Malik Monk have all season, and which made the idea of the Wolfpack actually knocking off their hated rival in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, not entirely fantastical. Or, for that matter, Wake Forest, which -- don't look now -- is also bad-loss-free, with a top-30-level efficiency outfit on the offensive end, and with serious potential to upset the established order in this league even more.

And that's all after just one week. Who knows what things will look like in two or three. Saturday should give us a better idea.


No. 13 Wisconsin at No. 20 Purdue Boilermakers, Sunday, 4:30 p.m. ET, CBS

This weekend's slate might require a more nuanced appreciation (or a particular fondness for ACC-related insanity) than most conference Saturdays, but Sunday has at least one fairly massive game on deck. The two quasi-favorites to win the Big Ten at the start of league play -- with Indiana as a 1b, or maybe 2a, mostly thanks to a quirky schedule -- now look like even clearer front-runners following the Badgers' road win in Bloomington on Tuesday. Coach Greg Gard's subtle tweaks to former coach Bo Ryan's classic formula continue apace, led in large part by Ethan Happ, whose aggressiveness on the offensive end (even after a shot has gone up) has made him even more of a block-working nightmare for opposing interior defenders.

The Badgers scored 1.23 points per possession at Indiana. Purdue, on the other hand, gave up 91 points in 81 possessions in an overtime home loss to Minnesota, a fact that does not bode well for its chances of stopping Gard's team in the Kohl Center. Still, what has made Purdue so impressive in the past this season is not just coach Matt Painter's typically solid defensive setups, but the fact that for the first time in years the Boilermakers don't have to bully their way into the paint to generate points. Quite the opposite, actually: Purdue is shooting 40.6 percent from 3 this season. One hot night is all it takes for a win -- this season more than most.

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