ACC Basketball Power Rankings, Vol. 6: Trent Forrest pushes FSU’s defense, Vernon Carey works as Duke’s hub, Clemson’s defense of Markell Johnson

There’s a lot to cover after the first full week of league play in the ACC, including seven games on Saturday. In this week’s ACC Basketball Power Rankings, we take a look at Duke’s Vernon Carey Jr., Trent Forrest and Florida State’s go-go defense, Clemson’s pick-and-roll defense against Markell Johnson and the shot-making of Syracuse and Notre Dame.


No. 1 Duke

Duke’s offense hummed last week; the Blue Devils posted effective shooting rates above 60 percent and scored at least 1.2 points per possession in both wins over Boston College (+39) and Miami (+33). On the other end of the floor, Duke, which ranks No. 3 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, held BC (0.66 points per possession) and Miami (0.84 points per possession) to paltry offensive efforts.

In only one game now this season has an opponent scored better than one point per possession against Duke: Stephen F. Austin.

Vernon Carey Jr. hasn’t been perfect defensively this season. The freshman big can experience issues in space; at times he fails to set the edge in ball-screen coverages. And when he loses sight of his man, that offensive player can become a dangerous screener.

However, he’s done mostly well at that end of the floor this season. VCJ player super hard and has workable help instincts, knowing when his presence is needed at the rim for some protection: 3.6 blocks per 40 minutes.

Offensively, Carey continues to function as a hub for the Blue Devils. This is a fairly egalitarian roster and rotation, which allows Mike Krzyzewski to play multiple styles. Duke has a handful of players that can carry the offense on a particular night — or at least function as a catalyst. But Carey — 29.6 percent usage rate, 18.4 points per game, 55 FG% on post-ups — powers this ship.

Most of the time, when the ball goes in, a shot will go up, which is good: that’s what Duke wants — Carey’s post scoring. However, it certainly doesn’t hurt that VCJ is a functional post passer, who can keep the offense moving with his post gravity.

Duke’s horns set — which can feature several different initial actions, including a handoff for Tre Jones — is a foundational element of this year’s roster. It’s one of the ways Duke gets to high-low looks for Carey and Hurt. And when Hurt’s playing this well, in the middle of the floor, it opens things up for reversals and spot-up looks.


No. 2 Florida State

There’s a delightful irony with the Florida State basketball program. For the 2019-20 season, this may be the most fun team in the country — singing carols, posting dank memes, all soundtracked by an awesome pep band. This same Florida State bunch, however, must be the least fun team to play against.

Florida State’s pressure-packed defense can turn the heat up against anyone. In only one of FSU’s 15 games this season has an opponent posted a sub-20 percent turnover rate: Western Carolina (19.5 percent). This team also ranks No. 2 nationally in block rate: 17.5 percent.

At the head of things for Florida State is senior point guard Trent Forrest — one of 11 Division I players with a 20 percent assist rate, two percent steal rate, two percent block rate and 60 percent shooting at the rim.

Forrest is one of the most intelligent players in the ACC — a wonderful mix of basketball smarts and high-level experience. He’s seen everything on this level of basketball, and he plays with chaotic energy and unbridled leadership.

As soon as he gets the ball in transition, Forrest morphs into one of the best downhill attackers in the country.

Florida State’s half-court offense has been choppy at times season; however, Forrest — with a strong first step and power to his game — still gives Leonard Hamilton a player that can crack a set defense with his handle.


No. 3 Louisville

For the fourth time in the last five games, Louisville’s offense struggled during the home loss to Florida State. After scoring just over one point per possession at Kentucky, The Cards barely eked out one point per possession against the Seminoles — while turning it over on nearly 25 percent of their possessions.

If not for a monster shooting effort from Jordan Nwora — 32 points, five 3-pointers — this could’ve been really ugly. Outside of Nwora, the rest of Louisville’s roster combined for just 33 points (3-of-13 3PA).

Florida State switches 1-5 defensively, which Louisville tried to attack by posting Steven Enoch against smaller defenders, after a ball screen. Enoch scored on one of those looks in the second half, but for the most part, FSU bottled this up like it normally does: front the post, help in behind. Watch Devin Vassell fly on this help effort.

As we’ve discussed before, Louisville has a home run hitter on offense with Nwora; however, this team is missing a go-to No. 2 scorer (Enoch, I suppose) and someone that can collapse a defense with a dribble. (It was encouraging to see David Johnson used against FSU, even if he struggled.)

So much of Louisville’s offensive actions and sets were blown up by FSU’s aggressive, switch-happy defense. Even when the Cards scored, it wasn’t with the same normal offensive flow. Look how hard Nwora has to work here for a bucket.

After a really tough stretch, Louisville has a chance to recover some — before a road game at Duke on Jan. 18. Before that, Louisville takes on Miami, Notre Dame and Pittsburgh — with those final two games on the road.


No. 4 Virginia

Over the weekend, Virginia’s defense put forth another masterful effort against Virginia Tech. The Hokies shoot a lot of 3-pointers (46.5 percent of their FGA are 3PA), and the Cavaliers give up a lot of (contested) 3-point attempts (48 percent of opponent FGA are 3PA). Saturday’s showdown in Charlottesville was no different; Virginia Tech hoisted 25 3-pointer (52.1 percent of VT’s FGA), but connected on just four of those looks (16 3P%).

Going back to the 2010-11 season, on only two occasions has Virginia Tech attempted at least 25 3-pointers and shot below 18 percent on said looks — both times against UVA.

As a result, Virginia, which featured more small-ball lineups, held Virginia Tech to a minuscule 0.62 points per possession — far and away the Hokies worst showing of the season.

Braxton Key put together another monster performance, too: 18 points, 6-of-6 FGA at the rim, two 3-pointers, 10 rebounds and three stocks (two steals, one block).


No. 5 NC State

Saturday’s game at Clemson is one that NC State would LOVE to have back. Playing without CJ Bryce, for the second straight game, the Wolfpack short-circuited on both ends of the court. There isn’t enough time to go through all of the defensive miscues — NC State’s ball-screen defense, especially on the weak side, was porous. With that in mind, let’s focus on offense, shall we?

Markell Johnson flailed with his shot (1-of-6 3PA) and decision-making (six turnovers); when he struggles in NC State’s pick-and-roll-heavy offense, there isn’t another obvious offensive off-dribble creator, especially sans Bryce. Understanding that, Clemson threw the kitchen sink at Markell in ball-screen defense.

The Tigers either “iced” screens — dropping and showing the help defender big man and forcing the action to one side of the floor — or straight doubled Johnson off screens.

DJ Funderburk is a really productive two-way big, but he struggles to confidently make plays in space against ice defense. This was an issue last season, too. (NC State has played minutes with Manny Bates and Funderburk on the floor together, which also makes it easier to trap Johnson — fewer shooters and playmakers to alleviate the pressure.)

On this possession, Funderburk catches in space and looks to attack off the dribble. That’s not his game, though. Funderburk has the ability to Euro-step and score on the break, but this type of dribbling, 23 feet from the rim against a set defense, isn’t his game. He’d be better off just shooting off the catch or going into a dribble handoff with Jericole Hellems or Johnson.

NC State had some good moments against ice coverage, though. Johnson passes to Manny Bates at the top of the key while Hellems cuts baseline. Clyde Trapp loses track of Hellems who gets the cut bucket. This is good off-ball movment. NC State needs more of that, too.

On this next possession, Bates sets a high ball screen for Johnson, which Aamir Simms shows hard on. The back three defenders for Clemson do a nice job covering up; the only open NC State player is Braxton Beverly, stashed in the far corner, which Johnson can’t see. This is excellent 3-on-4 back-side defense, initially.

Johnson, however, keeps his dribble, and when Simms retreats to Bates, Hellems rotates up. Johnson hits his release valve and Hellems attacks against a scattered defense.

Beverly, Hellems and Daniels all had decent games offensively for NC State on Saturday, but Kevin Keatts will need even more from his secondary creators if teams continue to send numbers at Johnson. That will happen, by the way, and Johnson will need to make better decisions as well.


No. 6 North Carolina

North Carolina’s first half against Georgia Tech was one for the ages — or one to forget if you’re a UNC fan. The Tar Heels started off frigid — missing their first 15 shots from the field. It wasn’t pretty, inside the Dean Dome, as North Carolina scrambled for offense. The only real relief came in the form of trips to the free throw line.

Eventually, though, North Carolina settled in on offense — sort of — thanks to Garrison Brooks. (The defense was a major issues, too, more on that below.) During his 36 minutes of service, Brooks used nearly 34 percent of North Carolina’s possessions while on the floor, a huge number. One of the reasons that number is so high: free throw attempts.

Brooks went an astounding 17-of-18 from the free throw line; it was just the fifth time since the 2010-11 season that a UNC player attempted at least 18 free throws in a game. The junior big also had a game-high seven offensive rebounds, which contributed to UNC’s 51 percent offensive rebound rate.


No. 7 Notre Dame

Notre Dame picked up its first ACC victory of the season in a wild game with Syracuse — a shootout that saw the Irish and Orange combine to go 30-of-62 on 3-point attempts. So far, this is the only game this season in which both teams have made 15 or more 3-pointers.

As Notre Dame received dazzling shot-making from TJ Gibbs (21 points, six 3-pointers), Prentiss Hubb (22 points, six 3-pointers) and John Mooney (28 points, 14 rebounds), the Irish managed to assist on 26 of their 31 field goals: 84 percent assist rate. That’s a really high number.

Once again, Juwan Durham was a force defensively for Mike Brey’s club — three blocks and six defensive rebounds.


No. 8 Syracuse

After Saturday’s nail-bitter at the Carrier Dome, Syracuse (70.2 percent) and Notre Dame (69.6 percent) rank first and second, respectively, in the nation in assist rate. While scoring just under 1.3 points per possession, Syracuse assisted on nearly 65 percent of its made field goals.


No. 9 Virginia Tech

After a tough showing against Virginia — 0.62 points per possession, six assists (46.2 percent assist rate — can the Hokies, one of the top assist teams in the country, put a better performance together on the road against Syracuse’s zone?


No. 10 Pittsburgh

Xavier Johnson and Trey McGowens have yet to find consistently efficient play this season; both guards have effective shooting rates under 48 percent and turnover rates above 23 percent. That’s not great, especially from a team’s primary playmakers.

At the end of the Wake Forest loss, though, McGowens had a chance to send things into overtime — Olivier Sarr had other ideas, though.


No. 11 Georgia Tech

The win over UNC in Chapel Hill on Saturday marked the best offensive performance of the Josh Pastner era at Georgia Tech. Led Jose Alvarado — 25 points, four 3-pointers — the Yellow Jackets scored 1.32 points per possession.

Georgia Tech finished the game with 13 dunks, including five from James Banks. Overall, the Yellow Jackets went 27-of-38 around the rim (71 FG%).

During Pastner’s time in Atlanta, Georgia Tech has just one other game when it scored above 1.3 points per possession: a 96-58 win over Tusculum in Feb. 2017.


No. 12 Wake Forest

After shaking off a slow start — Wake Forest trailed 22-6 with under 11 minutes to play in the first half — the Demon Deacons managed to comeback and pick up a key ACC road win over Pittsburgh, 69-65.

Wake Forest did well containing Xavier Johnson — 2-of-9 2PA, three turnovers — and got just enough range shooting to snag the win. Brandon Childress, Andrien White and Ismael Massoud combined to go 8-of-18 on 3-point looks.

The Demon Deacons have won three games in a row for the second time this season, and now have three win over top-100 KenPom teams: Davidson, Xavier and Pittsburgh.


No. 13 Miami

On the heels of an overtime road win at Clemson, Miami ran into a bit of a buzzsaw with Duke on Saturday night. Duke put the clamps on Miami’s pick-and-roll arsenal; the Hurricanes shot just 2-of-12 on 3-point attempts and scored under 0.85 points per possession, their two worst marks all season.


No. 14 Clemson

Clemson’s defensive effort against Markell Johnson — loading up in pick-and-roll coverage — was well executed. However, for a team that struggles so much offensively, the win over NC State marked a high point in the season.

The Tigers scored 1.19 points per possession — their best mark in nearly six weeks — while shooting 11-of-14 (78.6 FG%) on attempts at the rim. According to Synergy, Clemson shot 4-of-6 on field goal attempts from pick-and-roll rollers.

Also, Aamir Simms is good; he will be a matchup problem for teams as a small-ball center, just ask NC State.


No. 15 Boston College

So far, this has been a brutal offensive season for Boston College. Assuming Nik Popovic won’t be able to play against Virginia — which would be the sixth straight game he’s missed — it could get a whole lot worse for the Eagles.

BC ranks outside the top 250 nationally in offensive efficiency, effective shooting, 3-point shooting, 2-point shooting and free throw percentage. Going up against the nation’s most efficient defense on Tuesday seems like a recipe for disaster.


Contributor Rankings

David GlennBrian GeisingerJosh GrahamConsensus
2Florida StateLouisvilleFlorida StateFlorida State
3LouisvilleFlorida StateLouisvilleLouisville
5NC StateNC StateNC StateNC State
7Notre DameSyracuseVirginia TechNotre Dame
8SyracuseUNCNotre DameSyracuse
9Virginia TechVirginia TechPittVirginia Tech
10Wake ForestGeorgia TechSyracusePitt
11PittPittGeorgia TechGeorgia Tech
12MiamiWake ForestWake ForestWake Forest
13Georgia TechMiamiMiamiMiami
15Boston CollegeBoston CollegeBoston CollegeBoston College