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ACC Basketball Power Rankings, Vol. 1: Louisville flies high; UVA and FSU dominate with defense

We are already a month into the college basketball season, which is kind of hard to believe. With the Thanksgiving tournaments in the past, along with a few early-season league games as well, it’s time to roll back out our weekly ACC Basketball Power Rankings.

 

No. 1 Louisville

Louisville has, so far, lived up to its lofty preseason expectations. The Cardinals ranked second nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency — shooting 40.8 percent on 3-pointers and 58.4 percent from inside the arc (59.4 eFG%, No. 5).

Darius Perry is a little turnover-prone, but he’s run with the point guard baton early this season as Louisville has emphasized establishing Steven Enoch — 23 percent usage rate — on the block (63.3 FG% on post-ups).

(The Cards will also use plenty of high-low action for Enoch, too, usually working in concert with Jordan Nwora.)

Jordan Nwora has come out of the gates red hot, too; the Preseason ACC Player of the Year is shooting 50 percent on attempts from downtown (20-of-40 3PA). He’s absolutely lit opponents on fire with his catch-and-shoot prowess — 85.4 eFG%, per Synergy.

However, the engine for this Louisville team is Dwayne Sutton — a favorite of ours at the ACC Analytics page. He’s been everywhere defensively for Chris Mack’s club — 1.5 steals per 40 minutes — and an absolute maven on the offensive glass. Sutton is one of five players currently shooting above 75 percent on two-point attempts (83.3 2P%) and with an offensive rebound rate above 13 percent (14.9 percent).

 

No. 2 Duke

The loss of Cassius Stanley — 20 percent usage rate, 60.1 percent true shooting — is a tough pill to swallow, especially in quick succession after the Stephen F. Austin loss. There’s still a lot to like with this Duke team — one that can be elite on the defensive end, led by Tre Jones: 2.5 steals per 40 minutes.

Jones has, unsurprisingly, upped his usage (24.1 percent) this season, while emerging as the team’s primary initiator; he’s one of 17 players currently with a 22 percent usage rate, 33 percent assist rate and a steal rate of at least three percent.

In the half-court offense, Coach K has dialed Jones’ pick-and-roll usage way up this season.

Early on, Matthew Hurt and Wendell Moore Jr. have shown flashes; Duke run half-court offense through both of those guys (Hurt at the elbow, Moore on the wing), at times. The Blue Devils, however, need more reliable play — on both sides of the floor — from those two.

Vernon Carey Jr. has been mostly fine on the defensive side of the floor, though he struggled in space against Stephen F. Austin. Offensively, he’s been darn good; Carey is this team’s most reliable source of half-court scoring: 12 dunks, 1.02 points per possession on post-ups.

Also, if Joey Baker (10-of-20 3PA) can continue to Be A Thing, that becomes a game-changer for Duke as well.

 

No. 3 Virginia

Virginia is the gold standard when it comes to defense in college basketball — period. Once again, UVA ranks No. 1 in adjusted defensive efficiency (by a lot), according to KenPom. So far this season, Tony Bennett’s squad has held every opponent to under one point per possession; the high-water mark came against Vermont (0.93 points per possession), when Anthony Lamb, an NBA prospect, went wild and hit seven 3-pointers.

Outside of that, Virginia has dismantled every other foe.

As usual, opponents are letting it fly from deep against Virginia’s Pack-Line defense: 53 percent percent of opposing field goal attempts are of the 3-point variety, the highest rate in the country. But against Virginia’s length and crisp rotations, the vast majority of those flings aren’t going in. Virginia’s defense ranks No. 1 nationally in the following statistical categories:

  • Opponent effective shooting: 35.3 percent
  • Opponent FTA rate: 14.2 percent
  • Opponent 2PA shooting: 33.3 percent
  • Block rate: 18.8 percent

The evolution of Mamadi Diakite is massive for the Cavaliers, too. Diakite is no longer just a rim-running big who helps protect the paint on the defensive end. This looks like another player development success story for the reigning national champs.

Virginia can run half-court offense through Diakite — isolation face-ups or post-ups, similar to De’Andre Hunter from a season ago. His newfound 3-point stroke (8-of-16 3PA) helps space the floor, too. That’s a necessity for an offense (0.67 points per spot-up possession) that lost basically all of its range shooters from last season.

This development also allows Virginia to function offensively with Diakite, Jay Huff and Braxton Key on the floor at the same time. The spacing is still a little cramped; Virginia’s had to adjust, moving away from its favored block-mover sets, and diving all-in on spread pick-and-roll.

 

No. 4 North Carolina

There’s a long season ahead for North Carolina, with plenty of room for improvement. So far, though, UNC has played some nervy basketball. Cole Anthony has struggled with his shot, especially at the rim. His best basketball — outside of his detonation against Notre Dame — has come on the defensive end of the floor, mostly as a help defender.

Even with some of his issues shooting the ball, Anthony’s on-court presence is imperative to this team, currently.

When he sits, and it’s up to Leaky Black (37.5 eFG%, 21.9 percent turnover rate) to run the offense, things can go sideways for the Tar Heels.

Grad transfer Christian Keeling was supposed to provided secondary scoring and creation for this offense, but he’s been ice cold (35.8 eFG%) to start the season.

The return of Brandon Robinson is critical for UNC. The Tar Heels had their best offensive game of the season against Oregon — 1.2 points per possession — and the off-ball movement and shooting of Robinson played a key role here.

Robinson isn’t Cameron Johnson, but his ability to hit shots from deep and move defenses around is incredibly valuable. It can also loosen things up for Anthony and the team’s other off-dribble creators.

In the clip above, Robinson drills an off-movement 3-ball in North Carolina’s slice/stagger box set play. With UNC clinging to a one-point lead, the Heels went back to this same set five minutes later in the closing stages against Oregon. Watch what happens here: the Ducks are worried about Robinson coming around for another catch-and-shoot look, which helps create a lane for Anthony to the hoop. (Garrison Brooks helps with a nice seal screen here, too.)

Armando Bacot — 15.7 percent offensive rebound rate, 9.7 percent block rate — looks like a future star. There’s a lot to like with this UNC roster, despite some growing pains.

 

No. 5 Florida State

It doesn’t look pretty at times for Florida State’s offense, especially in the half court, but this is one of the most impressive teams in the country, at this point in the season. Leonard Hamilton’s team is, once again, gigantic (No. 1 in average height) and crazy deep. And while FSU has long been known for its tenacity and defensive pressure under Hamilton, this season is different.

This defensive evolution has coincided with the decision to switch as aggressively as any team in the country. Last season, Duke disrupted opponents with a pressure-packed 1-5 switch scheme that allowed Zion Williamson and Tre Jones to cause havoc. FSU is taking that model and dialing the pressure up even further, while entrusting its bigs — Raiquan Gray, Malik Osborne, Dominik Olejniczak and Balsa Koprivica — to defend guards in space.

It’s a bold strategy, but with NBA prospects like Devin Vassell — an ace 3-and-D prospect who added to his game in the offseason — and Trent Forrest leading the charge, but one that’s currently producing serious results. FSU is picks up full court, then falls back to it’s switch-heavy scheme.

Florida State’s defense ranks No. 3 nationally in adjusted efficiency, while also ranking inside the top 25 in effective shooting, turnover rate, block rate and steal rate. FSU already has three wins over top 25 teams this season; in those three victories, Florida State held Florida, Tennessee and Purdue all to 0.8 points per possession.

Freshman forward Patrick Williams is a stud, too.

 

6. Notre Dame

John Mooney is averaging 14.3 points and 13 rebounds per game, but the All-ACC forward hasn’t quite gotten off to an ideal (45.2 eFG%) start. However, the Irish have pieced together some solid offense through precision ball movement (64.2 percent assist rate) and turnover avoidance (13.1 percent turnover rate), two staples of a Mike Brey offense.

Juwan Durham — 13.7 percent block rate, 3 percent steal rate — has given this team some defensive punch, too.

 

No. 7 Virginia Tech

If you thought the Hokies were 3-point-heavy under Buzz Williams, welcome to the Mike Young era in Blacksburg. Virginia Tech has ratcheted up its volume of attempts from beyond the arc, while flashing some of the most detailed half-court offense in the country.

So far this season, 48.5 percent of Virginia Tech’s field goal attempts are of the 3-point variety — No. 12 in the nation, up from 43.7 percent last season. The Hokies have connected on 43.1 percent of those looks (No. 6), which has translated to an effective shooting clip of 58.3 percent (No. 8).

Led by Landers Nolley (31.5 percent usage rate, 8.8 3PA per 40 minutes), no team in the country derives a larger chunk of its points — 47.7 percent — from the 3-point shot.

According to Synergy, Virginia Tech has an effective shooting rate above 56 percent on both spot-up and off-screen attempts in the half court, too.

 

No. 8 NC State

NC State has beaten up on the easy parts of its schedule, but also found the more challenging parts to be, well, just that — a challenge. NC State is 0-2 this season against top-75 KenPom teams, though both of those games were close: a nail-bitter against Georgia Tech and Memphis, a game the Pack nearly came from behind to win.

The key for this team will be to make sure Markell Johnson is rolling the right way. An ankle injury kept him out against Georgia Tech; then he didn’t appear to have his normal pop the first three games he was back in the lineup, shooting a combined 2-of-17 on 3-point looks.

Over the last three games, however, Johnson has started to regain some of his junior year magic, including some daring finishes at the rim: 16.7 points per game, while shooting 10-of-16 out of the pick-and-roll, according to Synergy. He isn’t all the way back yet, but Johnson is getting there.

 

No. 9 Georgia Tech

The name of the game for Georgia Tech is obvious: everything starts with defense. The Yellow Jackets are on pace to post another top-50 defense under Josh Pastner. James Banks has pushed this team on that end of the floor. The veteran center was already one of the country’s top shot-blockers; however, he’s taken it to another level this year.

Banks ranks 12th nationally with a block rate of 13.2 percent — up from 9.3 percent last season. He’s rejected 26 shots in 172 minutes of action this season — good for 6.1 blocks per 40 minutes, which is a ridiculous rate.

It’s a shame this team is ineligible from postseason participation because the Yellow Jackets look frisky. Sophomore guard Michael Devoe has been very good, and made a big step forward after an up-and-down freshman campaign: 13-of-21 3PA (62 3P%), 12.5 percent turnover rate, 20 finishes around the rim (70 percent unassisted).

 

No. 10 Pittsburgh

It’s been just eight games, but early on Pittsburgh has seen its sophomore-led backcourt of Xavier Johnson and Trey McGowens struggle. Both Johnson and McGowens — who rank No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, in terms of usage rate on this roster — are averaging over four turnovers per 40 minutes.

Johnson (4.8 turnovers per 40 minutes) is as explosive as they come in college hoops; however, the dynamic point guard needs to improve his decision-making. Early on, he’s really struggled to finish in the half court: according to Synergy, Johnson has connected on a lowly 36 percent of his finishes around the basket — while also shooting just 25 percent (31.3 eFG%) on off-dribble jumpers.

No. 11 Syracuse

Syracuse ranks inside the top 50 nationally in terms of adjusted defensive efficiency, but last week the Orange allowed both Oklahoma State and Penn State to score over 1.1 points per possession. Unsurprisingly, Syracuse lost both of those games. If the zone doesn’t disrupt opponents, it’s hard for the Orange to win too many of those games; this team just doesn’t have enough offense.

Syracuse’s only other loss this season came against Virginia — when the Orange scored a paltry 0.58 points per possession.

It’s interesting to see how this team has adjusted on offense, though, to life without Tyus Battle. During the 2018-19 season, Syracuse assisted on 50.5 percent of its field goals; two seasons ago, the team’s assist rate hovered at 47.5 percent. Now, however, that number is up to 69 percent, which ranks third in the nation.

While that may seem encouraging, it’s also the result of this team lacking a go-to shot-creator. Syracuse has run just 33 isolation possessions so far this season, according to Synergy: 0.64 points per possession.

No. 12 Miami

Miami has already suffered three blowout defeats — Florida (20 points), UConn (25 points) and Louisville (13 points, though it was never that competitive). Grant, all three of those teams currently rank inside the top 55 of KemPom’s adjusted efficiency margin. The Hurricanes let a big lead slip on the road against Illinois, but held on to win in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Miami held Ayo Dosunmu in check, which is a nice feather in this team’s cap.

Chris Lykes is off and running again, too. Lykes has scored 1.13 points per possession (59.7 eFG%) out of the pick-and-roll this season, per Synergy. That ranks second in the country among players that have used at least 40 pick-and-roll possessions.

Lykes isn’t the only Hurricane hitting out of the pick-and-roll, though. According to Synergy, Kameron McGusty, Isaiah Wong and D.J. Vasiljevic have all used at least 10 pick-and-roll possessions while scoring at least one point per possession.

 

No. 13 Clemson

Tevin Mack looks like a revelation for the Tigers on offense. With Clemson losing Marcquise Reed to graduation, someone else needed to step up as this team’s offensive engine. Mack slumped in loses to Colorado and Minnesota — a combined 13 points on 4-of-15 FGA — but he’s been solid in every other game this season.

Mack has connected on 41 percent of his looks from downtown (44 3PA), while also shooting close to 83 percent at the rim. According to Synergy, he’s scored 1.19 points per spot-up possession.

 

No. 14 Wake Forest

Things looked incredibly wobbly the first two weeks of the season for Wake Forest. Since then, though, Danny Manning’s club has bounced back, nicely. Wins away from Winston-Salem over Davidson and Charleston are quite encouraging — as is a close lose to a talented Arizona team. The Demon Deacons have never been known for defense under Manning, but they managed to force future NBA players Nico Mannion and Josh Green into subpar games.

Olivier Sarr is in the midst of a nice start this season as well: 26 percent defensive rebound rate, 5.7 percent block rate. Has Wake Forest turned the corner with another big man project?

 

No. 15 Boston College

Boston College looks like a solid defensive team, but sans Wynston Tabbs it’s a mystery how this team plans to generate efficient offense. With Derryck Thornton at the controls — 31.5 percent usage rate, 87.6 offensive rating — BC ranks 241st nationally in both adjusted offensive efficiency and effective shooting (46.8 percent), per KenPom.

 

Contributor Rankings

 David GlennBrian GeisingerJosh GrahamConsensus
1LouisvilleLouisvilleLouisvilleLouisville
2DukeDukeVirginiaDuke
3VirginiaVirginiaDukeVirginia
4UNCFlorida StateUNCUNC
5Florida StateUNCFlorida StateFlorida State
6Notre DameNotre DameNotre DameNotre Dame
7Virginia TechNC StateVirginia TechVirginia Tech
8Georgia TechVirginia TechGeorgia TechNC State
9NC StateGeorgia TechNC StateGeorgia Tech
10PittPittPittPitt
11SyracuseMiamiSyracuseSyracuse
12Wake ForestSyracuseMiamiMiami
13MiamiClemsonClemsonClemson
14ClemsonWake ForestBoston CollegeWake Forest
15Boston CollegeBoston CollegeWake ForestBoston College