College basketball’s non-conference season is finally coming to a close.
To help you shake off post-holiday haze and the hangover of losing in your fantasy football playoffs, we’ll be providing you with some midseason recaps to get you caught up on all the nation’s most important conferences.
Who has been the best player in the biggest leagues?
Who is on track to get an NCAA tournament bid?
What have we learned about the conference hierarchy?
What is still left for us to figure out?
We break it all down here.
Today, we’ll be taking a look at the [insert league].
MIDSEASON ACC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Zion Williamson, Duke
This decision really is not all that difficult. As of today, Zion Williamson is likely the favorite to win National Player of the Year; he’s been atop the NBC Sports Player of the Year Power Rankings for more than a month. The numbers he is putting up for the No. 1 team in the country more than speak for themselves — 19.8 points, 9.4 boards, 2.3 assists, 2.1 steals, 1.9 blocks — but it is more than that. He’s the most unstoppable force in college hoops. He is the piece that allows Duke to play the way they want to play this season. His versatility defensively is a major reason the Blue Devils are one of the top three teams in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric while his ability to grab-and-go in transition and make plays using his out-of-this-world physical gifts is why the Blue Devils are an impossible matchup.
Williamson is a special, special talent. By the end of the year, even the world’s biggest Duke haters will be forced to agree.
THE ALL-ACC FIRST TEAM
- ZION WILLIAMSON, Duke
- R.J. BARRETT, Duke: There are 353 teams in college basketball, and Barrett is ninth nationally in scoring and putting up those numbers while playing on the No. 1 team in the country. Let’s not overthink this.
- DE’ANDRE HUNTER, Virginia: Kyle Guy is Virginia’s leading scorer and Ty Jerome is arguably their best player, but for my money Hunter is the guy that needs to be recognized on this list. He’s the most talented player on the roster and is the guy that allows the Wahoos to be matchup proof.
- NICKEIL ALEXANDER-WALKER, Virginia Tech: Not only is Alexander-Walker one of the best players in the conference — he’s averaging 18.5 points, 4.3 boards, 3.8 assists and 2.5 steals while shooting 46.8 percent from three — he’s probably the most improved as well. He’s turned into a knockdown jumpshooter than is a playmaker defensively and thrives initiating offense and running pick-and-rolls. He’s become a lottery pick.
- CAMERON JOHNSON, North Carolina: North Carolina’s best player to date this season, which is odd considering Luke Maye was their preseason all-american, Nassir Little is the future top five pick that can’t seem to crack the starting lineup and Coby White is the freshman getting all the hype.
- NCAA: Duke, Virginia, North Carolina, Virginia Tech, Florida State, N.C. State, Louisville, Syracuse, Clemson
- NIT: Miami, Boston College, Notre Dame, Pitt
- OTHER/NO POSTSEASON: Wake Forest, Georgia Tech
THREE THINGS WE’VE LEARNED
1. DUKE’S FRESHMEN ARE WORTH THE HYPE
This is hardly breaking news.
Zion Williamson has been absolutely sensational. R.J. Barrett is a guy that has his flaws as a basketball player, but those flaws will not be all that visible when he’s playing against college athletes. Cam Reddish is struggling to find his role on this Duke team and has still managed to put up 13.5 points in just 23.8 minutes while shooting 35.6 percent from; if only all freshmen could struggle like that.
And then there is Tre Jones, the unsung hero on this Duke roster. He is a game-changing defensive presence, precisely the kind of point guard that Duke has been looking for since … well, since Tyus Jones. The Blue Devils are the favorite to win the national title this season because of those four players.
Duke’s freshmen are worth the hype.
2. VIRGINIA MIGHT BE BETTER THAN THEY WERE A YEAR AGO
This is my favorite storyline of the season to date. Coming off of the most embarrassing loss in the history of college basketball, the Wahoos entered this season carrying the burden of being the only No. 1 seed to have ever lost to a No. 16 seed, and they’re doing so while already being saddled with the reputation of being a choke artist.
Let’s call it like it is: In the last five NCAA tournaments, Virginia has either blown a lead they shouldn’t have blown or lost earlier in the tournament than they should have based on their seed. People remember things like that, since that is the time when the most people are paying attention to college basketball.
Now stop me if you’ve heard this before, but this might actually be the best Virginia team that we have seen in the Tony Bennett era. They’re as good defensively as we have become accustomed to this program being, but this team is better offensively than a typical Virginia team. Kyle Guy has been very good once again this season. Ty Jerome continues to play like a future pro. Freshman Kihei Clark has given them the lineup versatility that we knew they were lacking. Most importantly, De’Andre Hunter has given Virginia a dynamic combo-forward than can defend up and has NBA ability on the perimeter.
This is a dangerous basketball team.
3. “THE REST” IS LOADED THIS YEAR
Before the season started, one of the questions that we had about the ACC what who would be the team that would be the best of the rest; who would win the race for fourth in a league that is going to be dominated by Duke, Virginia and North Carolina.
As it turns out, there is more than one team vying for the title of “best of the rest”, and there is legitimate reason to wonder whether or not each of those teams can crack the top three in the league.
Let’s start with Virginia Tech, who has emerged as the best team that Buzz Williams has produced in Blacksburg. We knew, coming into the season, just how good Justin Robinson was, but with the emergence of Nickeil Alexander-Walker as a legitimate star in the league, the Hokies all of a sudden look like they have the best backcourt in the ACC. They start four seniors, they are betting quality minutes off their bench and we still haven’t seen Landers Nolley or Chris Clarke. This team is for real.
I think the same can be said for Florida State. While M.J. Walker has not quite taken the step forward I think everyone expected him to take, Mfiondu Kabengele has developed into one of the most productive players in the ACC. Trent Forrest has embraced the point guard role while Terance Mann is playing the best basketball of his life. If Phil Cofer can get back to where he was last season, the Seminoles are a very real threat to get back to the Elite Eight.
I also believe that N.C. State belongs in this conversation as well. I have so much respect for what Kevin Keatts is able to do when running a program, and it only took him one year to get the Wolfpack to be what he wants a basketball team to be: They’re loaded with guards, they love to press, they have a number of guys that can really shoot the rock and their bigs are good enough to get the job done. They’re probably third-best of this group, but that still leaves them as something close to a top 15 team this season.
THREE STORYLINES TO FOLLOW
1. CAN A GROUP OF FRESHMEN WIN A NATIONAL TITLE?
Only twice in the one-and-done era has a team that was built around freshmen won the national title. Kentucky did in in 2012 with Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist running the show. Duke did it in 2015, as Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow carried them to a title. This Duke team, however, is different in the sense that their four-best players are all freshmen. Neither the 2012 Kentucky team nor the 2015 Duke team had this little upper-class influence on their roster.
That said, I think the reason that there is a very real shot Duke can get this done is the presence of a couple of key veterans pieces. Javin DeLaurier and Marques Bolden don’t play all that much, but the options that they provide Duke — Bolden with his size and rim protection, DeLaurier with his versatility and shot-blocking — let Mike Krzyzewski change looks based on opponent.
But the two biggest reasons why I think Duke can avoid the fate of other freshman-led teams — besides, you know, the fact that their Big Three is awesome — is the presence of Jack White and Tre Jones. Those two are elite level glue guys that make a major difference in the way Duke can play. We took a deep dive into their impact on the program last month.
2. WILL SYRACUSE TURN THIS THING BACK AROUND?
The Orange are the team in the ACC that has been the toughest to figure out early on this season. On the one hand, this is a team that wasn’t all that good last season that managed to gather quite a bit of preseason hype due to the fact that they won three NCAA tournament games and returned everyone of note from last year’s team.
So I get it.
But it’s also worth noting that this is a team that was elite defensively last season and not only added a couple of talented offensive weapons, they brought back Oshae Brissett and Tyus Battle, the former a sophomore expected to make the leap and the latter and all-american and NBA draft hopeful. I know that they have lost to some teams they should not have lost to, but I think the ceiling is still there.
That said, it seems like the best place for Syracuse to be heading into the NCAA tournament is as a No. 10 or No. 11 seed. So maybe the Orange are right where they want to be.
3. WHAT HAPPENS WITH NASSIR LITTLE VS. ROY WILLIAMS?
The most annoying topic of discussion this season has been the debate over whether or not Nassir Little deserves more playing time for North Carolina. The truth is this: Little plays a position where North Carolina has depth to spare. We know Roy Williams wants to play with two big men. We also know that he already has Luke Maye and Cameron Johnson on the roster. If Little wants to get minutes, he is either going to have to outplay one of those guys — one of whom was an all-american last season and the other who has been playing at an all-american level this season — or be good enough to convince Williams to play small.
And while Little has been effective this season, he hasn’t done either of those things. It might happen as he continues to get acclimated to the college level and figures out what Williams wants from him, but it hasn’t happened yet.
The reason Little isn’t playing more isn’t a conspiracy. He just has a lot in front of him to beat out.
1. VIRGINIA WINS THE ACC TITLE AGAIN
The Cavaliers are legit this season. I’m on board with the idea that this is Tony Bennett’s best team in Charlottesville, and I think they prove that with their fourth ACC regular season title in the last six seasons.
2. DUKE JOINS VIRGINIA IN THE FINAL FOUR
I also think this is the year that Virginia breaks through and makes it to the Final Four. The narrative will always be “you can’t win the big one” until you win the big one. Ask Jay Wright. Or Bill Self. Or Mark Few. Or Jim Calhoun. Tony Bennett is the next on that list.
Duke will join them there as well, but that shouldn’t be much of a surprise. The Blue Devils are my pick to win the title.
3. THE ACC GETS AT LEAST THREE TEAMS INTO THE ELITE EIGHT
I really believe in the depth of this league, and I already told you I think that they are going to get two teams into the Final Four. This means that one of the other four top 15 teams find a way to win three games in March. That’s very doable.