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ACC Basketball Power Rankings, Vol. 7: Led by Tre Jones, Here Comes Duke; UNC lands in the basement

This week’s ACC Basketball Power Rankings certainly shake things up a good bit, including North Carolina falling all the way to the very bottom. We also take a look at Duke’s versatility, Jordan Nwora’s 3-point shooting, Notre Dame’s small-ball adjustment, the emergence of Joe Girard — and more.

 

No. 1 Duke

One of the buzzwords associated with this year’s Duke team is depth. After a couple seasons of tight rotations — headlined with some of the best players in recent college basketball — the Blue Devils can go 10 deep this season. This affords Mike Krzyzewski more than just the ability to make mass substitutions and avoid overburdening any of his players; the most important aspect of Duke’s depth is its functional versatility.

Duke can play through the post with Vernon Carey Jr. (29.7 percent usage rate, 62 eFG%) — intertwined with high-low actions from Matthew Hurt (40.3 P%). However, even when VCJ struggles, like he did at Georgia Tech (6-of-14 2PA), or takes a back seat offensively, like he did against Wake Forest (3-of-6 2PA), Duke’s offense can still hum.

Tre Jones, Cassius Stanley and Wendell Moore Jr. are all future NBA players with the ability to create off the bounce; Jones, especially, has found a groove with his pull-up jumper and pick-and-roll game. As a sophomore, Jones is shooting just under 37 percent on his 3-pointers (26.2 3P% last season); his true shooting percentage of 54.6 percent is a big jump from his freshman campaign, too.

According to Synergy Sports, Duke has scored 0.98 points per pick-and-roll possession when Jones has either used the possession or passed to someone else who finishes the possession.

In the win over Wake Forest, Duke posted one of its most efficient offensive performances of the season: 1.32 points per possession. That’s the fifth time this season Duke’s scored above 1.25 points per possession in a game.

Back in early December, Duke won a key ACC road game over Virginia Tech by downsizing in the second half. After allowing 41 first-half points, Duke put Jake White at the 5, with four guards on the floor, too. Duke switched (almost) everything defensively, outscored VT by 17 points over the final 20 minutes and returned to Durham with a victory.

As a team, Duke has scored 1.08 points per spot-up possession this season (No. 14 nationally), per Synergy; last season, the Blue Devils scored under 0.82 points per spot-up possession. Duke, which ranks inside the top 50 nationally in 3-point percentage, doesn’t have to bludgeon opponents at the rim or in transition, though they can do that, too.

Hurt, Stanley and Joey Baker can all space the floor and shoot efficiently off the catch. All three of those guys are scoring at least 1.09 points per possession on spot-ups this season, and are shooting above 40 percent on 3-point looks.

Plenty of potential roadblocks loom on the horizon; however, this Duke team looks equipped to handle most anything at the moment.

 

No. 2 Florida State

Florida State was able to catch its breath last week with just one game — a 78-68 win at Wake Forest. FSU committed 22 personal fouls in Winston-Salem; Wake attempted 32 free throws. This marked just the second time this season the Demon Deacons have attempted 30+ free throws in a game.

Even with the foul-line boost, though, Wake Forest managed to score just 0.95 points per possession. This game marks the 13th time this season FSU has held an opponent to one or fewer points per possession.

Florida State bricked plenty of jump shots in this game; the Seminoles went 6-of-23 on 3-point attempts and shot 4-of-15 on midrange FGA. However, FSU turned Wake Forest over 17 times and pummeled Danny Manning’s club at the rim (17-of-24 FGA).

Devin Vassell should be the (slight) frontrunner for ACC Defensive Player of the Year, at the moment; Tre Jones, of course, factors in on this equation as well. At Wake Forest, Vassell finished with two steals and three blocks — a five-stocks performance.

Vassell — arguably the best help defender in the country — is now up to 2.4 steals and 1.8 blocks per 40 minutes this season.

Once again, Trent Forrest was a dog for Leonard Hamilton’s defense, too. Forrest finished with four steals, to go along with his 14 points (5-of-8 FGA at the rim).

 

No. 3 Louisville

Louisville looked uneven at times against Notre Dame, but Chris Mack and his club will happily take a 2-0 week, especially as it precedes two road games this week: Pittsburgh and a mega-matchup with Duke.

Before the road win in South Bend, though, Louisville defended its home floor with a wonderful defensive showing against Miami. Coming in to this game, even after a tough outing against Duke, Miami’s guards ranked among the best nationally in pick-and-roll efficiency. Mack and the Cards had something cooked up, though.

In the win over Notre Dame, Louisville explored more ball-screen switches with Sutton, though not as aggressively as the Miami performance. Notre Dame’s 4-out approach in the second half — 40 points — put a dent in what had been a solid stretch of defensive basketball for the Cards, going back to the Miami win.

Back during the early December win over Pittsburgh, Louisville stayed committed to the gap principles of its pack-line defense. However, it will be interesting to see if Dwayne Sutton is utilized differently this time.

Also, quick shout to Jordan Nwora, who continues to have a monster season. After his sluggish performance at Kentucky, ripped has absolutely ripped nets since: 23.7 points per game in the three contests since then, including 12-of-19 on 3-pointers (63.2 3P%).

According to Synergy, Nwora has an effective shooting rate of 79.2 percent on catch-and-shoot looks in the half court. This ranks No. 4 nationally among with players 50+ possessions.

 

No. 4 Virginia

Last week wasn’t a pretty one for fans of Virginia Basketball. In back-to-back losses against Boston College and Syracuse, UVA failed to scored above 0.85 points per possession in both games; the ‘Hoos also posted effective shooting rates under 37 percent against the Eagles and Orange.

Last week, Virginia shot a combined 31.9 percent from the field — including a 10-of-47 performance on 3-point attempts. Yikes! (Ty Jerome, where art thou?)

Quick tip of the cap, though, to Braxton Key. While playing with a bandaged left wrist, Key continues to emerge as one of the most versatile defenders in the ACC. After his four-steal performance against Syracuse, Key now has five straight games with two or more steals. (Key also hounded and frustrated Syracuse’s Elijah Hughes, who finished with 7-of-20 FGA and six turnovers.)

Key now averages 2.2 steals per 40 minutes, which is a monster number. Going back to the 2009-10 season, only one other Virginia player — Jontel Evans (2010) — finished a season with a steal rate of at least 3.5 percent. After posting a steal rate of 3.2 percent during last season’s title run, that’s jumped to 3.7 percent this season.

 

No. 5 Virginia Tech

How much fun is Tyrece Radford? Unless you’ve been tasked with guarding Radford, he’s an absolute joy to watch. Speaking of watching, let’s check in on NC State’s off-ball defense against the dynamic freshman guard.

Yeah, that’s not great.

Virginia Tech didn’t have its fastball on offense against NC State, although the Hokies still managed to squeeze out 1.02 points per possession. Landers Nolley was the primary hub, as usual, hitting tough shots and attacking NC State’s switches. Radford, however, was a serious catalyst as well.

The 6-foot-1 Radford scored 18 points while shooting 8-of-10 at the rim. According to Synergy, Radford is shooting nearly 78 percent at the rim in the half court. He’s also scored a ridiculous 1.7 points per possession (82.4 FG%) on basket cuts, which ranks 12th in Division I.

For someone of his size, these are simply incredible numbers. Mind you, Radford has just four dunks this season. Instead of raw power and above-the-rim play, Radford finishes with craft and a deft use of angles around the cup. He’s a low-mistake player (6.1 percent turnover rate), too, who hits the offensive glass with power, too: 12.2 percent offensive rebound rate.

Radford is one of only four players in the country that’s 6-foot-4 or shorter with an offensive rebound rate above 10 percent.

 

No. 6 NC State

Playing once more sans CJ Bryce, NC State had its worst offensive performance of the season at Virginia Tech. The Wolfpack managed to score a measly 0.83 points per possession on 36.2 percent effective shooting (6-of-30 3PA) — both season lows.

DJ Funderburk had a strong game: 18 points (6-of-8 FGA at the rim) and four offensive rebounds. But it wasn’t enough, especially with Markell Johnson and Braxton Beverly a combined 2-of-13 on 3-point attempts.

There still may be another great for the offense, provided Johnson finds something close to his shooting touch from a season ago. NC State’s offense clicked in the 2018-19 season because Johnson was an absolute menace shooting off the dribble — from the pick-and-roll and isolation. He abused switches, rocking opponents to sleep before lifting for jumpers, or bursting through gaps and for rim attacks. Teams could try to take the ball out of his hands with traps, but then NC State could play 4-on-3 on the back side.

As a junior, Johnson shot 41.2 percent (54.7 eFG%) and scored 1.09 points per possession on off-dribble jumpers in the half court. This season, sadly, those number are way down: 24.6 percent shooting (31.6 eFG%) and 0.63 points per possession.

The traps are still there; opponents are committed to getting the ball out of Johnson’s hands, which is made easier without Bryce. There’s one less secondary scorer on the floor and it forces Kevin Keatts to play Manny Bates and Funderburk — two non-shooters — together. As of right now, it’s a little too easy to halt NC State’s half-court offense: load up on Johnson and force him into tough shots.

 

No. 7 Notre Dame

The margins in ACC basketball can be razor-thin at times — just ask Mike Brey. Notre Dame held second-half leads over both NC State and Louisville; the Irish, however, came up short in both games — by a combined eight points.

Notre Dame got hot for a period of time in the second half against Louisville when Brey went to a small-ball lineup around big man John Mooney.

Brey subbed Juwan Durham out of the game less than 30 seconds in after halftime. Surrounded by four shooters, Notre Dame kept things simple: spread pick-and-roll, pass to the advantage. If Louisville switched, hit Mooney on the block. If there was a gap to attack, seize it, force rotations and pass around — look for shooters.

It worked, too. After shooting 31.4 percent from the floor in the first half (2-of-13 3PA), Notre Dame scored 40 points in the second half, while shooting 8-of-17 on 3-point looks. However, it wasn’t quite enough.

 

No. 8 Syracuse

It was far from pretty, but Syracuse’s road win at Virginia falls into the bin of You’ll Take It However You Can Get It. Something else to keep an eye on: the emergence of freshman guard Joe Girard.

After a prolific prep basketball career, close to 68 percent of Girard’s field goal attempts this season are of the 3-point variety. In Charlottesville, Girard scored 19 points and splashed 5-of-11 3-point attempts, while also handing out three assists. Over the last eight games, Girard has averaged 15.1 points while launching 8.4 3-point attempts per game (37.3 3P%).

This kind of production is notable for Syracuse. All of a sudden, the Orange feature a solid perimeter trio on offense: Elijah Hughes (in the midst of a nice season), Buddy Boeheim and Girard.

 

No. 9 Georgia Tech

Georgia Tech is one of those teams that, if it were eligible, no one would want to play in an opening round NCAA Tournament game, provided the Yellow Jackets (8-8, 3-3 ACC) had the resume to get in. Josh Pastner’s club hasn’t won consecutive games since the first week of December, but this team grinds games down to a pulp.

Powered by James Banks and Moses Wright, Georgia Tech’s frontline allows limited airspace around the rim. Banks averages 4.2 blocks per 40 minutes — up from 3.4 last season — and he’s unafraid of anyone at the rim.

Playing a mix of zone and man-to-man, Georgia Tech has held opponent to just 44.3 percent shooting at the rim in the half court, per Synergy. The Yellow Jackets rank No. 12 nationally in that statistic.

(The shifting defensive styles would add to the difficulty of preparing for GT in a hypothetical tournament setting, especially with limited practice time. It’s not apples to apples, but Oregon may have benefitted from this some during last season’s NCAA run.)

 

No. 10 Miami

Miami shook off back-to-back miserable offensive performances against Duke and Louisville — two top-15 defenses — with a win over Pitt. This wasn’t exactly a scintillating display offense, however; the Hurricanes missed 18 of their 24 3-point attempts and turned the ball over on a quarter of their possessions.

Led by the star backcourt of Chris Lykes and Kam McGusty, though, Miami shot 21-of-27 on 2-point attempts (77.8 2P%). Shooting above your head like that can clean up mistakes elsewhere. Lykes and McGusty went a combined 10-of-10 on 2-point looks, too.

 

No. 11 Pittsburgh

A few days after a fun comeback win in Chapel Hill, Pitt traveled further south and threw up a bit of a clunker at Miami. The Panthers fell behind 16-0 right out of the gate; Pitt finished the game a bricky 3-of-16 on 3-point attempts, too. Overall, Jeff Capel’s club managed to score 0.91 points per possession, not great, especially against a so-so Miami defense.

Xavier Johnson turned the ball over four times in 24 minutes; he’s back up to 4.8 turnovers per 40 minutes. Johnson, who has a world of talent, is one of only 10 Division I players this season with at least 500 minutes of action and a turnover rate of 25 percent.

No. 12 Boston College

Boston College is 3-2 in ACC play, so far. Even after a nice home win over Virginia, that record, however, looks rather suspect. The Eagles still rank dead last (No. 159), among ACC teams, in KenPom’s adjusted efficiency rankings.

Over the weekend against Georgia Tech, BC’s offense, which is quite bad, scored 0.77 points per possession and posted an effective shooting clip of 32.5 percent — a season low.

 

No. 13 Wake Forest

Wake Forest’s defense is improved this season, but that’s not saying all that much; the Deacons still rank outside the top 130 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, per KenPom. After a couple nice defensive showing during a three-game win streak, Wake crashed back down without Chaundee Brown (lower body).

Wake Forest opened Saturday’s loss at Duke in a zone defense. So far this season, Wake’s zone has performed adequately; however, it offered no resistance to the Blue Devils in Cameron.

The Blue Devils got whatever they wanted — attacking gaps, feeding the post and pinging the ball around the perimeter, always one step ahead of the Deacs.

On a positive note, though, Olivier Sarr continues to have a nice season for Wake Forest, especially on offense: 11.9 percent offensive rebound rate and 17 dunks. Sarr also hit his first 3-point of the season — a pick-and-pop look with Brandon Childress.

 

No. 14 Clemson

Don’t look now, you guys, but here come the Clemson Tigers? With a top-50 defense and an offensive fulcrum in Aamir Simms, Clemson is now 2-3 in league play, thanks to consecutive wins over Tobacco Road squads — NC State and UNC.

In two of Clemson’s other three ACC games, the Tigers lost by seven points to Virginia Tech in the season-opener and fell to Miami by five points in overtime. Clemson lost to Florida State by 19 points, but the Tigers actually led at halftime in that game, too. The point here: Brad Brownell’s club is, at the least, here to compete.

Simms is also a really good player and a matchup problem for opponents as a small-ball 5 — one that can space the floor and facilitate. Simms is one of only eight players in the country that checks the following boxes:

  • 17 percent assist rate, 36 3P% (30+ 3PA), 2 percent steal rate, 2 percent block rate

 

No. 15 North Carolina

Welp, it’s over. And as impressive as North Carolina’s 59-0 record over Clemson in Chapel Hill was, it’s almost equally impressive as to how exactly it collapsed on Saturday.

North Carolina’s offense went frigid over the final six minutes of the game, while Clemson got hot. The Tigers erased a 10-point deficit over the final two minutes and won in overtime.

Possession after possession, Brad Brownell called up great action — misdirection sets that played into space and forced UNC’s defense into tough decision-making situations. Late-game execution was poor; the Heels cracked at the worst possible moments.

Now at 8-8, North Carolina (1-4 ACC) is staring down a brutally tough situation. The team is devoid of necessary perimeter scoring and playmaking; the return of Cole Anthony is completely up in the air, too. Jeremiah Francis missed the Clemson game and could be out longer. There’s no outside help coming; this will be handled internally. Buckle up. It could get worse, first.

 

Contributor Rankings

 David GlennBrian GeisingerJosh GrahamConsensus
1DukeDukeDukeDuke
2Florida StateFlorida StateFlorida StateFlorida State
3LouisvilleLouisvilleLouisvilleLouisville
4VirginiaVirginiaVirginiaVirginia
5Virginia TechVirginia TechVirginia TechVirginia Tech
6NC StateNC StateNC StateNC State
7Notre DameNotre DameNotre DameNotre Dame
8SyracuseSyracuseSyracuseSyracuse
9MiamiGeorgia TechGeorgia TechGeorgia Tech
10Georgia TechMiamiPittMiami
11Boston CollegePittBoston CollegePitt
12Wake ForestClemsonWake ForestBoston College
13PittBoston CollegeMiamiWake Forest
14ClemsonUNCClemsonClemson
15UNCWake ForestUNCUNC