As the season crawls toward conference play, the ACC is beginning to resemble a diagram from a geology textbook. Like layers of sediment and rock stacked to create a cliff face or a river bed, it’s becoming clear which teams are shale and which are granite.
Said geology was defined and firmed up quite a bit by the annual ACC/Big Ten Challenge, which played out Wednesday and Thursday. Starting from the top of both the metaphorical cliff and the actual standings:
No. 5 Louisville continued their scorched earth campaign. The Cardinals dismissed Miami (Ohio) and Nebraska out of hand with comfortable double-digit wins, then obliterated poor Tennessee State, 107-52. Aside from No. 19 Arizona State last week, the tightest margin of victory Jeff Walz’s 8-0 team has left a gym with all year is 17 points. Given their upcoming opponents, don’t expect anyone to get closer than that until Louisville travels to Notre Dame (more on the Irish in a bit) on Jan. 10.
No. 13 North Carolina State remains unbeaten at 8-0. The Wolfpack beat Michigan 66-55 on Thursday, then ran Old Dominion out of Reynolds Coliseum 85-56 to close the week. While they continue to score in an impressive and balanced fashion, their efficiency does leave something to be desired. As mentioned last week, four players are averaging double figures this year for the Pack, accounting for 53.8 of the team’s 75.2 points per game. Those are very nice raw totals, but they’re also coming on .457/.346/.699 shooting splits. It feels a little nit-picky putting a microscope on shooting percentages with an undefeated team, but those numbers rank State well below their fellow top 15 competitors. That might not matter until March, and Wes Moore has a habit of coaching in-season improvements into his teams, but it is something to keep an eye on going forward.
Undefeated Virginia Tech (also 8-0) drew a relatively easy match in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, hanging a double-digit home win on a 5-3 Rutgers squad, 67-51. The Hokies are making their bones largely on great shooting (their .394 3FG% is good for 22nd in the nation and behind only Louisville in the ACC), but they also have a juggernaut in the paint in Regan Magarity. The redshirt senior has logged a preposterous stat line through eight games: 14 points and 14.3 rebounds per game, which is tied with Minnesota’s Taiye Bello for best in the country. Add that caliber of interior anchor to their cadre of perimeter threats, and Tech looks capable of hanging with almost anyone. This team that was projected to finish in the bottom third of the ACC in both the preseason oaches’ and Blue Ribbon polls, but Kenny Brooks’ Hokies are emphatically arguing otherwise so far.
Boston College finally dropped a game, losing a close 57-61 affair to Providence on Tuesday. The Eagles were uncharacteristically out-rebounded (46-38) in that contest, and it likely cost them their previously perfect start to the year. They bounced back in style on Sunday, however, snagging 49 boards en route to a 74-60 win over Columbia. BC’s 47.1 rebound per game average is good for 14th in the country and first in the ACC, and while that one momentous team strength appears to be wallpapering over quite a few other deficiencies, it’s difficult to argue with a 7-1 record and difficult to lose too many games when a team so consistently and thoroughly dominates the glass. Opponents can’t score if they never come down with the ball in the first place.
Florida State buried Penn State, 87-58 on Thursday, moving to 7-1 on the strength of an 11-26 team shooting effort from behind the arc. This might have been a lightning-in-a-bottle game for the Seminoles, who are a .273 3FG% team this year even factoring in Thursday’s .423 performance. So far, Nicki Ekhomu (.353) and Kiah Gillespie (.303) are the only ‘Noles shooting north of 30 percent from three this year. This wouldn’t necessarily be a huge concern if FSU simply didn’t take many shots from deep, but Nausia Woolfolk, Savannah Wilkinson, and Kourtney Weber are a combined 21-87 downtown. The point being that if the ‘Noles can muster even a little improvement shooting treys, it will add an important extra dimension to an already formidable team. If this week’s game was the start of a positive trend in that area and not just a fluke, it could potentially be huge for FSU.
No. 2 (previously 1) Notre Dame started the week looking like they have all year, with a 105-71 wholesale demolition of No. 14 Iowa. Then came Sunday, and the Game Of The Week Of The Year with the No. 1 Irish hosting No. 2 UConn. This was an archetypal “it was close until it wasn’t” game. A terrific first half from both teams ultimately had the Huskies up 44-41 heading into the locker room. Notre Dame kept things close through the third quarter, but there were cracks appearing for Muffet McGraw’s team that turned into fissures in the final period. UConn pulled away, outscoring Notre Dame 24-12 to ultimately salt away a comfortable and unexpected 89-71 victory over the defending national champions. Despite typically prolific performances from Arike Ogunbowale (17 points, 10 rebounds, five assists) and Jackie Young (18 points, seven rebounds), and despite the other three Irish starters all finishing in double figures scoring, they never strung together a coherent, good stretch of play after halftime. The frustration of both the players and McGraw became increasingly evident as things got further and further out of hand, and that lack of composure ultimately defined the day. Notre Dame is obviously still one of the best squads in the country and will have a plenty decent shot to defend their crown, but they finally looked mortal.
Georgia Tech took a fairly respectable 67-54 loss to No. 7 Maryland in College Park on Thursday. Teams don’t typically hang their hats on moral victories, but if an unranked squad goes into a top 10 opponent’s gym and plays mostly well enough to hang (including smoking the Terps, 26-9 in the third quarter), it has to count for at least something. The week ended on a happier note for the Yellow Jackets with Sunday’s 78-71 victory over crosstown rival Georgia State. That win was the 300th of head coach MaChelle Joseph’s career, and moved the team to 6-2 this year. Francesca Pan is continuing her outstanding season and career in Atlanta, and put up 22 points, five boards, two assists and four steals against Georgia State.
Miami is sitting at 7-2 after a mixed bag of results this week. The No. 21 Hurricanes played a perplexing game on the road at Purdue, falling to the Boilermakers 63-74. Even with a bounceback 73-58 thumping of Colorado on Sunday, a double-digit loss to an unranked opponent might cost the ‘Canes a top 25 ranking, as they are out of today’s poll.
Syracuse (also 7-2) likewise took a road loss early in the week and followed it up with a dominant win (98-55 over Towson), but the particulars of the No. 12 Orange’s L this week will prove far less detrimental to them than Miami’s. Against No. 20 Minnesota, ‘Cuse played a poor first quarter, getting outscored by the Gophers, 23-14. They then outscored Minnesota for the rest of the game, but couldn’t muster quite enough to overcome the slow start, eventually losing, 68-73. They will drop a few spots, but should still be in good shape going forward. (Also of note: freshman forward Kadiatou Sissoko, who has given the Orange solid rotation play so far, is out 3-5 weeks recovering from a meniscus injury.)
The rest of the conference, in descending order and in various states of disarray and/or wreckage: 5-3 Clemson, 5-3 Duke, 5-4 UNC (including a disastrous 85-73 home loss to Maine on Sunday), 5-4 Pitt, 4-4 Wake Forest, and lowly 3-5 Virginia.
To return to the geology metaphor: it is becoming increasingly clear which teams are gems, which ones could turn into diamonds if they can survive the heat and pressure, and which are, well, just plain old rocks.