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College basketball picks: Can Duke or Louisville take charge in the ACC?

Men's College Basketball, Clemson Tigers, North Carolina Tar Heels, Arizona Wildcats, Duke Blue Devils, Louisville Cardinals, NC State Wolfpack, Syracuse Orange, Ohio State Buckeyes, Florida State Seminoles, Mississippi State Bulldogs, Wisconsin Badgers, Michigan State Spartans, Michigan Wolverines, Iowa Hawkeyes, Penn State Nittany Lions, Auburn Tigers, Florida Gators, Kansas Jayhawks, Texas Longhorns, Purdue Boilermakers, Maryland Terrapins, Oregon Ducks, Washington Huskies, Kentucky Wildcats, Arkansas Razorbacks, BYU Cougars, Gonzaga Bulldogs

Duke and Louisville will face off Saturday (ESPN, 6 p.m. ET) in a game that should have a lot to say about the ACC title race ... though both the Blue Devils and Cardinals (who are tied with quietly strong Florida State for the ACC lead) have shown their flaws. ESPN.com's college basketball experts delved into their biggest questions heading into that game, the state of the ACC in general, and the most surprising players rising on NBA draft boards.    

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Just when we thought Duke and Louisville were rounding into form as the ACC's clear headliners, the Blue Devils lost to Clemson on Tuesday and the Cardinals struggled to put away Pittsburgh in overtime. With that in mind, what is the biggest question you're looking to have answered in Louisville-Duke on Saturday?

Myron Medcalf, senior college basketball writer: I want to see if Tre Jones can emerge as a more efficient leader. The loss at Clemson highlighted some of the challenges the Blue Devils have had this season with Jones, who finished 6-for-15 from the field in the loss.

For the second season in a row, Duke is an elite defensive team (22.5% defensive turnover rate) with Jones on the floor. But there is a dramatic difference on offense (1.02 points per possession vs. 1.19 PPP) with and without him, per hooplens.com. The latter number doesn't tell the full story, but the Blue Devils showed a significant uptick in offensive efficiency with Jones a year ago. I think the matchup against Louisville, which has stalled point guards such as Zavier Simpson and Ashton Hagans this season, is a good test to see if Jones will make the right decisions and improve as a leader for this young Duke team.

Jeff Borzello, college basketball insider: I'm curious to see whether Louisville has solved its point guard issues and whether David Johnson's emergence against Pittsburgh was for real. The Cardinals have had problems against ball pressure this season, and Darius Perry and Lamarr Kimble have each had bouts of inconsistency. But Johnson, a freshman who missed several months in the summer and fall because of a shoulder injury, broke out with 11 points and four assists off the bench Tuesday night.

People in the program had high hopes for Johnson in the summer before the injury, and they were counting on him to solve some of the point guard questions. If he can provide some more playmaking ability in the half court, the offense could take a step forward. A test against Tre Jones and Jordan Goldwire is a big opportunity.

John Gasaway, college basketball writer: I want to see if Louisville can score when its 3s aren't falling. We don't know the answer because, to the Cardinals' credit, there hasn't been a conference game yet where Chris Mack's guys were off from the perimeter.

Fun fact: Louisville has shot better on 3s (44.4%) than on 2s (44.0%) to this point in ACC play. Jordan Nwora is shooting a rather incredible 57% from beyond the arc against conference opponents. Yet on paper, this is the classic "die by the 3" offense if there's ever a spell of cold shooting. The Cardinals aren't great, or haven't been, at scoring in the paint, taking care of the ball or crashing the offensive glass. Duke has a strong defense -- that Clemson episode notwithstanding -- and this game could be a telling test for an offense that has been able to coast on its 3-point ability.

Jordan Schultz, insider/analyst: I need to see more from the Louisville players not named Jordan Nwora. Senior center Steven Enoch is an improved player, but he's not someone Chris Mack highlights offensively. Maybe the answer is Dwayne Sutton knocking down a few 3s, or perhaps it's David Johnson having another double-digit performance, as he had against Pitt. To be sure, you need multiple weapons to contend with a juggernaut like Duke -- which entered the week as college basketball's lone top-five team in adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency, per KenPom.


There are a lot of folks lamenting the state of the ACC this season, but there's still a lot of season left. Give us a team currently ranked in the bottom half of the league standings that you think could catch fire and become relevant over the final two months.

Borzello: It feels as if half the teams have three losses in the league, so I'm going to half-cheat and take one of those teams. (Full cheating would be taking Virginia, which is now 3-3 after Wednesday's loss.) NC State is clearly the fourth-best team in the league when playing in Raleigh. The Wolfpack are 10-1 at home this season, with the lone loss coming by one point in overtime in the season opener against Georgia Tech. But they've also lost by double digits to Clemson and Virginia Tech this month on the road.

NC State isn't playing at the tempo at which most Kevin Keatts-coached teams have played in the past and it's also not forcing turnovers at the same rate previous Wolfpack teams did under Keatts. But they have a number of different weapons, they're versatile and have plenty of experience. NC State gets Louisville, Duke and Florida State at home this season, so they will have chances to end up on the right side of the bubble.

Gasaway: I'll eschew a safe choice that's already ascended to the bubble (cough, cough, Borzello) and instead go with a forgotten and benighted group that's not even in "next four out" in Joe Lunardi's latest bracket. Give me Syracuse. With an overtime win at Virginia and a blowout victory at home against Boston College, the Orange have continued to improve their statistical look over the past 85 minutes of action. Buddy Boeheim and Elijah Hughes form one of Division I's most prolific 3-point duos (114 made 3s and counting) and Jim Boeheim's zone turns most games into a straightforward perimeter duel -- and that favors Cuse.

This is a group that has actually outscored the ACC by a wider per-possession margin than what Louisville has recorded thus far. No, Syracuse hasn't played Duke, Louisville or Florida State yet, and tough road games loom next at Virginia Tech and Notre Dame. Just saying, don't sleep on Boeheim's 3-point bombers.

Medcalf: Ugh. Um, Clemson? Borzello and Gasaway got the top choices, so I'll go with a Tigers team that has won three in a row, including against Duke. Tevin Mack is now playing at his third school (Texas and Alabama are the others) and Clemson is a much better team when he's on. The Tigers are 8-1 this season whenever he has scored 14 or more points.

For the most part, Clemson's résumé is sprinkled with losses only to top-50ish teams (Florida State, Minnesota, Colorado). And their home loss to South Carolina in mid-December doesn't look as bad after the Gamecocks' win over Kentucky on Wednesday night. Perhaps Clemson can build off its current run and make a push to the top half of the league. Anything seems possible at this point.

Schultz: Hint: This team was ranked inside the AP top 10 before the season and has one of the best players in America, period. North Carolina, anyone? Do we remember them?

Assuming Cole Anthony is nearing his return, the Heels -- currently 14th in the ACC standings -- are capable of digging themselves out of this crater and making a tournament push. That's how good Anthony is. The potential top pick in the 2020 draft possesses a lethal combination of speed, scoring and dynamite pick-and-roll ability -- which will only further highlight the continued growth of junior big man Garrison Brooks, who has notched four straight double-doubles, including a 35-11 outburst against Georgia Tech.


ESPN NBA draft analyst Jonathan Givony released his latest 2020 mock draft earlier this week. Of the college players projected in the first round (top 30), who's the one you're most surprised to see develop into a possible first-round pick?

Schultz: This is a fun question, because there are quite a few players who've clearly put in tremendous work to advance their games at warp speed (see Vandy's Aaron Nesmith, Dayton's Obi Toppin and Florida State's Devin Vassell). But the biggest surprise, quite literally, is Ohio State's Kaleb Wesson (No. 28 in Givony's mock).

The junior power forward has lost upward of 35 pounds to transform himself into a legitimate two-way player and an inside-out offensive weapon. Wesson, at 6-foot-9, 255 pounds, has the overall skill package to become a very good pro. While he will surely draw comparisons to Ohio State's former two-time All-American Jared Sullinger, the current Buckeye is actually more talented and shoots the long ball at a splendid 42.9% clip.

Borzello: Obi Toppin at Dayton is the obvious answer, but I'm impressed with the development of Florida State's Devin Vassell (No. 30).

I first saw Vassell at the Terrific 24 in Indianapolis back in the spring of 2017. Vassell wasn't playing on a major sneaker circuit and had only one high-major offer at the time. He showed athleticism and scoring ability at that event, but he came off the board one week later, committing to the school that first offered: Florida State. That's not the end of the story, though. Vassell wasn't considered a top-100 recruit and averaged 4.5 points as a freshman with the Seminoles. This season, he has broken out, averaging 12.3 points and shooting 37% from 3-point range -- and he has taken another step in ACC play. Vassell is developing into a key threat for Leonard Hamilton's team.

Medcalf: I saw Zeke Nnaji (No. 21) when he was a lanky 14-year-old playing with the Howard Pulley grassroots program in Minneapolis and never once thought I was looking at a future first-round pick. His evolution over the past three years has been impressive. And now he has positioned himself to make a lot of money as a 7-footer who is averaging nearly 17 points while connecting on nearly 80% of his free throws. Arizona has made 56% of its shots inside the arc with Nnaji on the floor. He has been a gem for Sean Miller's program.

Gasaway: Maybe I shouldn't be "surprised" that a player who was a top-50 recruit out of high school is showing up as a projected first-round pick, but Mississippi State's Robert Woodard II (No. 24) wasn't even the highest-ranked freshman who arrived in Starkville in the fall of 2018. That honor went to Reggie Perry, and, sure enough, Perry's doing good work this season as the Bulldogs' featured scorer.

Still, it's Woodard who has shown himself as a potential first-rounder thanks to his size (6-foot-7 with a reported wingspan of 6-11), ability to hit 3s and all-around versatility as a wing. I didn't necessarily see this coming when he was coming off the bench as a freshman and shooting 27% from beyond the arc.


ESPN.com expert picks for this weekend's top games

(Lines, when available, from Caesars Sportsbook. Predictors do not have access to lines when making score predictions.)

 

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