The Notre Dame Fighting Irish kick off their second season in the Atlantic Coast Conference on Saturday evening as they host the Florida State Seminoles at the Purcell Pavilion. As you may have heard, Notre Dame's inaugural season in their new conference did not go particularly well, as they managed just 6 conference wins en route to the first sub-.500 season under head coach Mike Brey.
But a 9-1 start to the season, headlined by a thrilling overtime win over Michigan State, has renewed optimism that the Irish, also featuring the conference's top scorer thus far in Jerian Grant, can make a much better impression on their new conference foes the second time around.
With conference season set to be underway on Saturday (before reverting back to the remainder of the non-conference schedule), we thought we would preview the ACC with some predictions about what to expect from each of the 15 ACC members, which teams we think will be NCAA Tournament bound, and which players we should be keeping our eyes on throughout the season.
Every OFD staff-member chose Duke as their pick to win the conference, and anyone that has watched Coach K’s team up to this point in the season can easily see why. The Blue Devils are 8-0 with wins over Michigan State in Indianapolis and on the road against Wisconsin.
Top freshman Jahlil Okafor has been as good as advertised averaging over 17 points and 7 rebounds per game, but their other highly touted freshman Tyus Jones has been nearly as good averaging double figures in points and just under six assists per game. Furthermore, he’s done so while limiting "freshman mistakes," turning the ball over just once per game. Anyone that watched the Devils game in Madison saw Jones go off for 22 points while leading Duke in minutes.
Upperclassmen Quinn Cook and Amile Jefferson both look much improved in new roles this season. Cook has emerged as the team’s secondary scoring threat and seems to be more comfortable playing as a shooting guard instead of running the point. Jefferson has also benefited from the nearly seven foot Okafor playing on the opposite block allowing the 6’ 9" junior to play his more natural position of power forward.
Making things a little tougher for Duke is their conference schedule. The Devils have a difficult set of repeated opponents as they face UNC, Syracuse, Wake Forest, and Notre Dame twice this year (The Irish repeat the aforementioned Duke along with Georgia Tech, Clemson, and BC). While it wouldn't be too surprising if Louisville or Virginia were to win the conference, Duke clearly looks to be the team to beat.
1) Duke Blue Devils (75 points; 15 for 1st place votes, 14 for 2nd, 13 for 3rd, and so on)
2) Louisville Cardinals (69)
3) Virginia Cavaliers (66)
4) North Carolina Tarheels (57)
5) Notre Dame Fighting Irish (54)
6) Miami Hurricanes (50)
7) Syracuse Orange (47)
8) North Carolina State Wolfpack (42)
9) Pittsburgh Panthers (34)
10) Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (29)
11) Florida State Seminoles (22)
12) Clemson Tigers (21)
13) Boston College Eagles (17)
14) Wake Forest Demon Deacons (12)
15) Virginia Tech Hokies (5)
The OFD staff loves Duke this season, predicting them to win the ACC for the first team since 2011. Louisville and Virginia, also enjoying undefeated starts to the season, round out the top tier of the ACC, with every staff member putting them in 2nd and 3rd in some configuration. North Carolina's shaky start to the season has dampened some expectations, but each OFD writer kept the talented Tar Heels in their top 5.
Notre Dame's impressive start to the season has landed them in an aggregate 5th place, a spot that would surely cement their NCAA tournament status. 4pointshooter is the most optimistic, projecting Notre Dame in 4th, while alstein and JoeSchu have the most tempered expectations, pegging the Irish for a 6th place finish.
Miami, Syracuse, and NC State round out the "2nd tier" of the ACC, with each of us filing them somewhere between 4th and 8th. Pitt and Georgia Tech come in as frisky and decent 9th and 10th place teams, respectively. Florida State, Clemson, BC, and Wake Forest do not project to be ACC contenders this year, taking spots 11 through 14, while Virginia Tech was the unanimous cellar dweller.
Projected NCAA Tournament Bids
Duke, Louisville, Virginia, UNC, Notre Dame, Miami (all unanimous), Syracuse (4 votes out of 5), NC State (4)
The ACC has averaged fewer than 5 NCAA tournament bids in the past 4 seasons, but the OFD staff projects this all to change this season. With the addition of tournament-lock Louisville, the ACC is starting to look like a reasonable facsimile of the old Big East in terms of elite talent and depth. As a result, 3 of the 5 staff writers chose an unprecedented 8 ACC squads to be dancing come March. The ACC got similar hype last year, but fell apart rather quickly, as only 3 teams entered ACC play with less than 3 losses. This year, the conference appears to be much more solid, and 8 tournament teams seems quite plausible.
Joining projected conference champ Duke as unanimous tournament selections are Louisville, Virginia, UNC, Notre Dame, and Miami. On the bubble are Syracuse and NC State, although 4 of 5 writers believe each team will sneak in. The Orange are reeling after consecutive losses, but they have been an elite team for essentially six straight seasons and will likely remain a tough opponent with their tough defense and rebounding. The Wolfpack have sneaked into the tourney as a bubble team a few times in the past few years, and the staff picked them to do so again this year. Pitt finds themselves on the wrong side of the bubble after a shaky 5-3 start, despite making the tournament 9 of the past 10 years.
1st Team All-ACC
Tyus Jones (4), Jerian Grant (unanimous), Marcus Paige (3), Montrezl Harrell (4), Jahlil Okafor (unanimous)
Also receiving votes: Anthony Gill, Trevor Lacey (2), Angel Rodriguez
Finally, a little bit of disagreement among the OFD staff. It's the ACC, so naturally, there are plenty of great players for us to choose from. Just two players received unanimous support from the OFD voters. First, the homer pick, Jerian Grant. Grant also just happens to be the current leading scorer (19 ppg) and assist man (6.1 apg) in the conference and really showed out on the big stage against Michigan State with a career-high 27 points. He's really a no-brainer choice at this point, from homers and non-homers alike.
The second unanimous pick is Jahlil Okafor of Duke, the all-everything center who took the college basketball nation by storm before he set foot on campus in Durham. He's a shoe-in.
Montrezl Harrell of Louisville and Tyus Jones of Duke both received plenty of love from the OFD staff as well. Harrell found himself on many preseason All-American 1st teams and anchors a devastating Cardinals defense while shouldering the load offensively as well. And freshman Tyus Jones has been cool as can be thus far running point for undefeated Duke. Not all 5-star freshmen can handle the pace and spotlight so quickly, but Jones has jumped right in as the floor general for one of the best teams in the nation.
Finally, Marcus Paige earned the last spot on the OFD all-ACC squad, but he has had a rough start to the season despite plenty of preseason love nationally. He is shooting just 36% from the field but does have North Carolina out to a 6-2 start against a tough non-conference slate. Paige barely edged out NC State guard Trevor Lacey, who is averaging nearly 17 points per game while shooting 51% from the field and 42% from deep. The Alabama transfer fills up the stat sheet with nearly 6 boards, 4 assists, and over 1 steal a game.
Virginia forward Anthony Gill and Miami guard Angel Rodriguez also earned a vote each, while other worthy players such as Syracuse's Rakeem Christmas, Miami's Sheldon McClellan, Boston College's Olivier Hanlan, and Duke's Quinn Cook and Justise Winslow went voteless but merit consideration as the season progresses.
Freshman of the Year
Jahlil Okafor (4)
Also receiving votes: Tyus Jones (1)
Hardly a surprise, given that most prognosticators have Okafor as the National Player of the Year, number one overall pick in next summer's NBA draft, and a shoe-in for the National Freshman of the Year, despite plenty of other great rookies. In his own conference? Seems like a pretty safe bet for best freshman, at least. Despite the incredible hype, he hasn't disappointed yet, amassing 17 points and almost 8 rebounds per game on the young season, including against a couple of tough non-conference opponents for Duke.
His main competition might be his teammate Tyus Jones, who even as a freshman point guard looks completely in control of the court at all times. College basketball tends to be guard-driven, so if Jones starts to take control of the scoring load down the stretch, voters might start looking his way, at least when it comes to Freshman of the Year.
Player of the Year
Montrezl Harrell, Jahlil Okafor (tie - 2)
Also receiving votes: Jerian Grant (1)
We settled on a tie for the conference Player of the Year, as Louisville forward Montrezl Harrell and Duke center Jahlil Okafor each earned two votes in our five-voter poll. Harrell (whom I voted for), does not have nearly the star power around him as Okafor and will likely (and probably rightfully) earn a ton of credit for being the imposing man in the middle of his Hall of Fame coach's devastating defense. He also has no problem filling up the stat sheet with points and rebounds that voters love to look at so much. When all is said and done, Montrezl Harrell might be crowned given his status as the lone superstar on a likely top ten team.
But Okafor comes in with so much hype. We've talked about him a bunch already. He is almost certainly going first overall to the Los Angeles Lakers after Adam Silver rigs the draft 1985 Knicks-style. Even with the cadre of college stars and draft darlings around him, he will likely be the leading scorer on a team that would be shocking if they lose more than 5 games. He makes everyone around him better because of everything that he can do, both with the ball in his hand and in the defensive post. He's as can't-miss as they come, and it would be hard to blame voters for jumping on the hype train for Okafor.
Just one vote (coming from JoeSchu) for the conference's leading scorer and assist man in the early going, but Jerian Grant is a definite contender in the POY race and will likely remain one all the way through March with how well he is playing. Others may be preseason POY Marcus Paige, despite his early struggles, the aforementioned Tyus Jones, or Trevor Lacey following in the footsteps of T.J. Warren, his former Wolfpack teammate, from last season.