RALEIGH, NC – Louisville and Duke have both reached No. 1 in the AP Top 25 poll and are Final Four contenders, even in a wildly unpredictable year in college basketball.
That has the third-ranked Cardinals and fourth-ranked Blue Devils looking like clear favorites in an Atlantic Coast Conference race that includes reigning national champion and 16th-ranked Virginia, No. 17 Florida State — and a lot of uncertainty as the league shifts fully into the rest of the conference slate. The uncertainty is not surprising, the league l ost 13 of its 15 all-conference performers from last year as it shifted into its first 20-game schedule. The change led to 14 of 15 ACC teams opening the season with a league game in November.
Louisville and Duke entered the Christmas week ranked in the top 11 of KenPom’s adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency rankings, with No. 2 Ohio State the only other team to join them in both.
The Cardinals have preseason ACC player of the year Jordan Nwora as the league’s top scorer (21.2 points). And they rank second nationally on KenPom by allowing 85.6 points per 100 possessions, trailing only Virginia (82.0).
“I’ve been preaching to these guys all year long that there are going to be nights when our offense isn’t clicking … and they don’t turn the ball over because they’re really trying to work the clock and get a good" shot, Louisville coach Chris Mack said after the Dec. 18 win against Miami (Ohio). “It’s nice to know that in those times you can really hang your hat on the defensive end.”
The Blue Devils lack the star power of last year’s squad led by Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett, but have a deeper rotation this year with freshman Vernon Carey Jr. leading the way inside and sophomore point guard Tre Jones atop a fullcourt pressure defense.
“I feel like we’re able to adapt pretty well to whoever we’re playing and whatever situation we’re in,” Duke senior Jack White said. “I think our depth is a big factor behind that.”
Some other things to know about the ACC entering the bulk of the league schedule:
Virginia’s offense is a significant concern.
Last year’s Cavaliers ranked second in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency (123.4 points per 100 possessions) amid their methodical tempo on their way to the national title. This year’s Cavs entered the week ranked 180th (100.2) and failed to score more than 65 points in the first 11 games.
“This is probably the most inexperienced team that we’ve had maybe since I’ve been here,” coach Tony Bennett said after Sunday’s home loss to South Carolina. “That’s hard. You just keep trying to figure out ways to get it.”
TAR HEELS IN FLUX
North Carolina must navigate a favorable January schedule while freshman star Cole Anthony recovers from knee surgery.
The Tar Heels peaked at No. 5 nationally but they’re unranked for the first time since 2014. Anthony, averaging 19.1 points, i s expected to be out until the second half of January.
UNC has had difficulty generating easy baskets, though freshmen Anthony Harris and Jeremiah Francis have offered some optimism with their recent debuts. And the January schedule only has one team — rival North Carolina State — picked to finish in the top half of the ACC as they try to get back on course for an NCAA Tournament bid.
Syracuse is trying to recover from a 6-5 start, the worst through 11 games in the tenure of Hall of Fame coach Jim Boeheim.
With a roster featuring five freshmen and no seniors, the Orange’s losses began with a 48-34 loss at home to Virginia for the lowest point total in Boeheim’s more than four decades as coach.
“Obviously, our young guys just aren’t ready for top-50 teams,” Boeheim said after a loss to Iowa in early December.
Florida State continues to lurk as a potential and often-overlooked contender despite reaching the NCAA Elite Eight in 2018 then the Sweet 16 last year. They have experience with juniors Trent Forrest and M.J. Walker along with sophomore Devin Vassell.
Then there’s North Carolina State, which ranks in the top 10 of KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency. Two of the Wolfpack’s losses came against highly ranked Memphis and Auburn, and N.C. State aims to return to the NCAAs after being on the wrong side of the bubble last year.
GAMES TO WATCH
The biggest game comes Jan. 18, with Louisville visiting Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium in the only regular-season meeting between the teams. The Cardinals also face Florida State and Virginia twice, including a trip to Charlottesville on March 7 in the regular-season finale.
The Blue Devils also visit Virginia (Feb. 29) while playing twice against rival UNC and instate neighbor N.C. State.
AP Sports Writer John Kekis in Syracuse, New York; and Hank Kurz in Charlottesville, Virginia; contributed to this report.
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