No. 1 Duke, No. 4 Virginia set to headline ACC season race
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Duke has earned must-see status with its touted freshmen and No. 1 ranking as the Atlantic Coast Conference schedule starts next week.
There isn’t nearly the same type of attention on fourth-ranked Virginia, even as the reigning league champion with returning experience and a defensive-minded style that is difficult for opponents. And yet, the Cavaliers are the league’s only unbeaten team and have the potential to win another title under Tony Bennett, even in a league featuring Duke, No. 9 Florida State, No. 10 Virginia Tech, No. 14 North Carolina and No. 20 North Carolina State.
“I told the guys before the (William & Mary) game that you should feel good about yourselves,” Bennett said. “Not too good about yourselves, but good — how you’ve played to this point, what you can be. But know in saying that, you have to recommit to how it is every game. I ask them to play in a way defensively that is challenging and demanding.”
Duke and Virginia were picked 1-2 in the ACC during the preseason. Now the Blue Devils and Cavaliers stand at No. 1 and No. 2 in the NCAA’s NET ranking (a new system to replace the RPI) as well as in KenPom’s national ranking.
More specifically, the Blue Devils rank second nationally in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency (119.1 points per 100 possessions) and No. 3 in adjusted defensive efficiency (87.0 points per 100 possessions). The Cavaliers are ninth in offense (115.9) and fifth in defense (88.0).
No other league team ranks in the top 10 of both categories.
Virginia’s advantage is experience, notably with the return of Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy and De’Andre Hunter — the team’s top NBA prospect who can defend multiple positions.
Duke, by comparison, starts with freshmen RJ Barrett (league-best 23.8 points) and Zion Williamson (19.8 points, 9.4 rebounds). Its only loss came against No. 7 Gonzaga in the Maui Invitational title game, though the Blue Devils beat No. 16 Kentucky (by 34 points on opening night), No. 12 Auburn and No. 11 Texas Tech in New York.
“When you’re a freshman, you haven’t really been coached against,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said after last week’s Texas Tech win. “Like in high school, someone might hold the ball on you . or triangle-and-2 guys on you. So they’re learning, (Williamson) and RJ especially, what really good teams will try to do to take way your strengths. And what that should do is make you better, once you learn how to do that.”
For the record, the Blue Devils and Cavaliers meet (at least) twice this season, first in Durham on Jan. 19 and then in Charlottesville on Feb. 9.
Here are some other things to know about the ACC with league play set to start next week:
While Florida State sits at No. 9, coach Leonard Hamilton sees a team that “has not really been totally in sync.” The Seminoles’ only loss came against reigning national champion Villanova, while wins against LSU and Purdue came by one-possession margins.
“That’s probably one thing I’m taking away from the early part of the season that makes me feel positive about: the fact that we still are not a well-oiled machine yet and we’re finding ways to have some level of success,” Hamilton said.
Virginia Tech has already earned its highest AP Top 25 ranking since February 1996. The Hokies have four double-figure scorers, shoot 50 percent from the field and rank fourth nationally in 3-point shooting (43.5 percent).
The pressing question for North Carolina is whether its defense will improve. The Tar Heels are ranked 25th in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency rankings, which would be the lowest of any Roy Williams-coached UNC team to reach a Final Four.
“There’s no question that the biggest gap of where we are now and where I think we can get to is on the defensive end of the floor,” Williams said. “We’ve got a lot longer to go there, a lot farther to go there.”
N.C. State is off to the program’s best start in 13 years and pursuing a second straight NCAA Tournament bid. Second-year coach Kevin Keatts has routinely run 10 players in the Wolfpack’s aggressive pressure style. The highlight was an upset of then-No. 7 Auburn last week.
“Every practice, every game, every timeout, every four-minute segment, I can honestly say they give me tremendous effort every time,” Keatts said. “That’s what I love about the bunch.”
Beyond its top six, the ACC has a crop of teams that will jockey for position and NCAA bids. Syracuse (No. 16) and Clemson (No. 22) started the year in the Top 25, while Louisville sits at No. 17 in the NCAA’s NET rankings under first-year coach Chris Mack.
AP Sports Writer Hank Kurz in Charlottesville, Virginia, contributed to this report.
Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap