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ACC Basketball Power Rankings, Vol. 5: New Year’s Resolutions, Elijah Hughes turning a corner, Kihei Clark’s playmaking, Louisville’s offense at Kentucky

We are running out of time in the year and this decade, for that matter. Before conference play really fires up, let’s check in on this week’s post-break ACC Basketball Power Rankings.

 

No. 1 Duke

The Blue Devils didn’t look particularly sharp in their first game back after the winter break — a 75-50 win over Brown. However, Duke was, once again, without Tre Jones (foot). In his absence, Duke went just 2-of-16 on 3-point attempts; the half-court offense just doesn’t have the same snap sans Jones. Jordan Goldwire has played well in his place, but Duke’s 1-5 pick-and-roll looks are neutralized — for the time being.

As usual, Vernon Carey Jr. dominated in the paint. This wasn’t his best defensive performance; he was out of position on a few ball-screen coverages. Offensively, though, VCJ did his thing: 19 points (8-of-12 2PA), two offensive rebounds and three assists — a new career high.

Carey — who is shooting 55 percent on post-ups attempts, per Synergy Sports — has quick feet and good hands. During the win over Brown, he even showed the ability to spin away from his dominant hand for a paint attempt.

While VCJ’s passing is only a small part of his game, the rookie big man is willing to facilitate. Carey has the ability to feel out double teams and make passes to cutters.

 

No. 2 Louisville

The Tyrese Maxey Show was too much for Louisville on Saturday, as the Cards fell on the road in an overtime thriller to Kentucky, 78-70. There’s no need to panic for Louisville, though. Despite a tough shooting game (45.5 eFG%) Chris Mack’s club played pretty well on the road against a quality team; however, this performance did show one (possible) flaw.

As good as Jordan Nwora is — and he’s really good — games like this can happen when he’s the high-usage offensive alpha. Nwora has made strides playing with the ball this season, but he’s most comfortable moving without the ball — running off screens or into jumpers. (As a prospect, he projects as a combo forward with spot-up skills.)

To be clear, this could be chalked up as a bad shooting night. It may be as simple as that. But Kentucky’s tenacious off-ball defense put the clamps on Nwora and Ryan McMahon — Louisville’s two snipers — who went a combined 2-of-11 on 3-point attempts.

Immanuel Quickley served as the primary defender for Nwora. Quickley is four inches shorter than Nwora, who also outweighs the Kentucky guard by 35 pounds. As his normal catch-and-shoot looks were denied, Nwora was unable to take advantage of his size advantage against the quicker Quickley.

And when a big was switched on him, like Nick Richards (who was awesome in this game), Nwora didn’t have the speed or craft to drive to the rim. Instead he settled for jumpers, like this step-back with 19 second left on the shot clock.

There aren’t too many teams that can replicate Kentucky’s personnel; however, Louisville opens the 2020 part of its schedule with Florida State, which has speed, length and capable switch defenders. How will the Cards look to counter another aggressive defense?

 

No. 3 Florida State

Florida State, with all of its long-limbed defenders, has leaned in to a switch-heavy defensive profile this season. So far, only three Florida State opponents have scored better than one point per possession in a game, including Indiana when Devonte Green had his out-of-body experience.

According to KenPom, Florida State ranks inside the top 10 nationally in steal rate, block rate and opponent turnover rate. Opponents have assisted on just 40.8 percent of their field goals, too, which is on pace to be a low for Leonard Hamilton era in Tallahassee. It’s also a byproduct of all that switching.

 

No. 4 Virginia

Going back to the 2010-11 season, only two Virginia players have handed out 12+ assists in a single game: Ty Jerome, twice last season, and Kihei Clark, who kicked out 13 assists — to two turnovers — in the win over Navy.

For UVA, this game was a little too close for comfort; Navy held a lead with around nine minutes to play in the second half. However, there are some signs of encouragement. Despite a three-turnover performance from Mamadi Diakite, Virginia scored 1.17 points per possession — the team’s second-best mark this season.

Amazingly, this was just the second time all season that Virginia’s offense has cracked one point per possession, thanks to 8-of-19 3-point shooting. This was also the first time all season that the Cavs have shot above 40 percent on their 3-point looks.

Braxton Key had arguably the best game of his senior season, too. Key posted four stocks — three steals, one block — and scored 15 points (6-of-6 FGA at the rim).

 

No. 5 NC State

With CJ Bryce (concussion protocol) out, NC State tried some new things out in the home win over a frisky Appalachian State team, including lineups with DJ Funderburk and Manny Bates on the floor together.

During the Kevin Keatts era, the Wolfpack have consistently played 4-around-1 basketball — with one true big and four guards/wings. That type of personnel is imperative for NC State’s 4-out spread pick-and-roll attack and 1-4 off-ball switching on defense.

It’s why Torin Dorn was such an important piece over the last two seasons: strong enough to hang with opposing bigs and work the glass, while opening the floor up offensively as a small-ball power forward.

Pat Andree and Jericole Hellems have mostly managed those minutes this season, although there’s some interchangeability with Bryce and Devon Daniels; however, sans Bryce, Keatts had to shuffle the deck, playing Funderburk and Bates at the same time.

As a result, NC State crushed App on the offensive glass — 17 offensive rebounds (43.6 percent offensive rebound rate), one of the best numbers of the Keatts era. Bates and Funderburk combined for nine offensive rebounds and six dunks (12-of-17 FGA at the rim).

The spacing was a little iffy in the half court. NC State either stashed Funderburk in the corner or put one of the two bigs in the dunker spot along the baseline while the other worked screen-roll action with Markell Johnson.

One of the ways for non-shooters to combat those potential spacing issues, though, is to cut along the baseline.

This may not be something we see all that much from Keatts once Bryce returns. But it does, however, extend the rotation — without adding another player to the mix. Another lineup combination like this adds one more card for Keatts to play if need be.

 

No. 6 North Carolina

There are several problematic trends with this year’s offense at North Carolina. Of course, losing Cole Anthony is a killer; however, even with Anthony in the lineup, the team’s spacing was cramped, which neutralized some of the secondary actions.

Shooting has obviously been a primary concern; North Carolina’s 3-point attempt rate hovers close to 30 percent. Further complicating matters, the Tar Heels are shooting just 29.8 percent on their 3-point looks. UNC ranks outside the top 300 nationally in terms of effective shooting: 45 percent.

Along with that, though, North Carolina is turning the ball over at its highest rate since the 2014-15 season (18.4 percent) and shooting under 64 percent, as a team, from the free throw line.

In only one December game have the Heels scored better than one point per possession — at Gonzaga, a 13-point loss.

 

No. 7 Pittsburgh

Due to exams and a 10-day holiday break, Pittsburgh will play just five games in the month of December. Only two of those games came against teams currently in the top 60 of KenPom’s adjusted efficiency ratings: a home win over Rutgers and an 18-point loss at Louisville.

Pittsburgh will close out the calendar year with a matchup against Canisius (No. 224 in KenPom) on Dec. 30. After that, Pittsburgh has four games over the first two weeks of January, including road games at North Carolina and Miami, and a rematch with Louisville.

It’s (relatively) safe to say: we will know more about Xavier Johnson — 5.9 assists and 4.6 turnovers per 40 minutes — and the Panthers in a few short weeks.

 

No. 8 Virginia Tech

Landers Nolley threw down another monster performance in Virginia Tech’s blowout win over Maryland Eastern Shore: 18 points (3-of-8 3PA), 10 rebounds and three assists. Nolley continues to have a delightful oddball season as the ubiquitous fulcrum of Mike Young’s offense.

(This Virginia Tech squad spaces the floor so darn well; look at how wide this pindown is for Hunter Cattoor. It’s a wonderful combination: Virginia Tech’s off-ball precision and Nolley’s ability to facilitate in the half court.)

Along with Kaleb Wesson of Ohio State, Nolley is one of only six Division I players, currently, with a defensive rebound rate of 20 percent, an assist rate of 15 percent and a 3-point clip of at least 40 percent (20+ 3PA). Of that group, Nolley has the highest usage rate, too: 32.5 percent.

 

No. 9 Notre Dame

There are currently six players in Division I with at least 20 dunks this season and a block rate of at least 12 percent. That list includes USC’s Onyeka Okongwu — a bouncy, high-motor lottery prospect — Mike Watkins of Penn State, NC State’s Manny Bates (20 dunks, 17.9 percent block rate) and Juwan Durham (22 dunks, 14.4 percent block rate) of Notre Dame.

After blocking five more shots in 21 minutes during the win over Alabama A&M — his seventh game this season with three or more blocks — Durham now averages 5.7 blocks per 40 minutes, a massive number.

According to Synergy, Durham is shoot above 74 percent around the basket in the half court, too.

 

No. 10 Syracuse

Up in the northern most ACC city, a potentially important development is taking place. After functioning primarily as a spot-up weapon during the 2018-19 season — playing alongside Tyus Battle and Frank Howard — Elijah Hughes is starting to work as a much-needed playmaker for Syracuse.

The success and sustainability of this transition will play a major role in determining the ceiling of this Syracuse team.

In the win over Niagara, Hughes handed out nine assists — for the second time this season. Hughes averaged just 1.8 assists per 40 minutes during his redshirt sophomore season; now as the offensive centerpiece for Syracuse, that number has jumped to five assists per 40 minutes — a significant improvement.

During the 2018-19 campaign, Hughes assisted on just 10 percent of his teammates’ field goals while on the floor. Again, he was a possession finisher, not a bridge to another player. This year, however, his assist rate has jumped to 28.1 percent, which ranks inside the top 140 nationally.

As his usage and passing load have increased, so, too, has his efficiency; Hughes is shooting 41.6 percent on his 3-point looks (101 3PA), and his effective shooting rate hovers just under 58 percent.

According to Synergy, Hughes has scored 0.82 points per possession (41 eFG%) on off-dribble jumpers in the half court.

 

No. 11 Miami

Miami pick-and-roll ball handlers have scored 1.07 points per possession (57.4 eFG%), which ranks No. 2 in the country, per Synergy. That number is tops the in ACC (by a wide margin); Florida State ball handlers rank second in the conference in terms of pick-and-roll efficiency — 0.85 points per possession.

Chris Lykes, Kameron McGusty and DJ Vasiljevic are all scoring above 1.2 points per pick-and-roll possession. Lykes, obviously, is the primary hub here: 69 points out of the pick-and-roll (62.5 eFG%). However, it’s nice to see secondary options like McGusty step up, too. This is something Miami simple didn’t have last year.

Lykes, who is so adept at leveraging his lack of height to weave and dribble around defenders, and McGusty both have usage rates north of 25 percent; Miami’s offense — No. 16 in adjusted efficiency, per KenPom — flows through these two guards.

Lykes has connected on 19 3-pointers (37.3 3P%), so far this season — with 11 of those triple coming without an assist.

 

No. 12 Boston College

Over the last two years, Nik Popovic established himself as one of the more efficient low-block scorers in the ACC. During his sophomore and junior seasons, Popovic shot a combined 55.5 percent on 2-point attempts (512 2PA). On post-ups last season, Popovic scored 0.99 points per possession (No. 7 in the ACC) and shot 54.2 percent, according to Synergy.

Prior to his back injury — Popovic is currently out indefinitely — the senior big was struggling to shoot the ball: 49.2 percent on 2-point attempts. Popovic shot just 22.2 percent on post-ups attempts, too.

Popovic has missed the last four games for BC — all victories for the Eagles, though, including wins over Notre Dame and Cal.

 

No. 13 Wake Forest

Senior guard Brandon Childress didn’t have his fastball in the team’s win over NC A&T — Wake Forest’s final game before break: eight points (0-of-7 3PA) and three turnovers. Childress, however, is the only ACC player with 25 percent usage rate and 25 percent assist rate, who is also shooting above 80 percent from the free throw line.

Through the first 12 games of the 2019-20 season, Childress (53 TS%) already has eight games of 15+ points, including three 20+ point performances.

 

No. 14 Georgia Tech

Georgia Tech has its hands full this week — a road game at Florida State on Tuesday, followed by a matchup with UNC in Chapel Hill. The Yellow Jackets are shooting under 27 percent on 3-pointers; they have also turned the ball over on 23.2 percent of their offensive possessions. Only one player on the roster — Michael Devoe — is shooting above 30 percent on 3-point looks (10+ 3PA). According to Synergy, Tech has scored under 0.74 points per spot-up possession.

Yeah, not great.

As a result, GT ranks 245th in adjusted offensive efficiency, per KenPom. This doesn’t bode well for Tuesday’s tilt with Florida State’s defense.

 

No. 15 Clemson

The Tigers are struggling offensively, but junior forward Aamir Simms is quietly having a nice season for Clemson. Simms is one of only two ACC players (Landers Nolley is the other) with a defensive rebound rate above 20 percent (21.9 percent) who is also shooting above 35 percent on his 3-point attempts (36.1 percent), too.

Simms is also one of six Clemson players with 30+ 3-point attempts this season as well. Close to 46 percent of Clemson’s field goal attempts are of the 3-point variety, which would easily be a high for the Brad Brownell era.

 

Contributor Rankings

 David GlennBrian GeisingerJosh GrahamConsensus
1DukeDukeLouisvilleDuke
2LouisvilleLouisvilleDukeLouisville
3Florida StateFlorida StateFlorida StateFlorida State
4VirginiaVirginiaVirginiaVirginia
5NC StateNC StateNC StateNC State
6UNCUNCPittUNC
7Virginia TechSyracuseUNCPitt
8PittVirginia TechVirginia TechVirginia Tech
9Notre DameMiamiNotre DameNotre Dame
10SyracusePittSyracuseSyracuse
11MiamiNotre DameMiamiMiami
12Boston CollegeGeorgia TechBoston CollegeBoston College
13Wake ForestBoston CollegeWake ForestWake Forest
14Georgia TechWake ForestGeorgia TechGeorgia Tech
15ClemsonClemsonClemsonClemson