Let’s be honest, from Syracuse to Charlottesville down to Tobacco Road, the real holiday season has little to do with Thanksgiving turkeys, Christmas lights or menorahs. The true reason we celebrate in ACC country is the start of college basketball season. Each week in this space we’ll take a look at the most interesting and important happenings around the league that made college hoops a national phenomenon.
BUILDING RESUMES: The ACC often coasts on reputation. It was the heart of college basketball for so many years, that in recent seasons it’s been assumed the league was one of the best in the nation, top to bottom, even when the non-conference record hasn’t supported the notion.
This isn’t looking like one of those seasons. The ACC is truly daunting, especially at the top. Duke, North Carolina, Miami, Notre Dame, Louisville and Virginia are all Final Four contenders. Florida State and Virginia Tech aren’t that far behind. One thing that has often separated the ACC from, say, the 10-team Big 12 is the number of inferior teams at the bottom that essentially amounted to a night off for the Dukes of the world.
But that’s not really the case either. Pitt is awful and Wake Forest has some bad, bad losses. But other than that, there aren’t really any cake walks on the schedule, and even Wake is looking much better of late and handed Illinois its first loss Tuesday night.
Just looking at how the ACC has fared against other big conferences is impressive. Duke handled Michigan State in the Champions Classic. Virginia absolutely destroyed Vanderbilt in the NIT Tip-off. Notre Dame did the same to LSU and got a nice victory against Wichita State. North Carolina, even with a loss to Michigan State, has wins over Stanford and Arkansas. N.C. State took down then No. 2 Arizona.
And that doesn’t even mention the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, which as of this writing the ACC was dominating.
There are more big games coming up in that Challenge and other marquee matchups ahead such as Syracuse taking on Kansas in Miami. It’s quite possible things could even out, but so far the ACC is proving itself worthy of the six or seven NCAA Tournament bids it will almost surely receive in March.
WHAT’S IN THE CARDS?: I included Louisville in the list of potential Final Four teams above, but not without some reservation. The Cardinals still have most of what was supposed to be one of the best teams in the country before (another) scandal rocked the program in the fall.
Now Louisville has gone from having a national championship winning Hall of Famer for a head coach to the young and inexperienced David Padgett, who struggled to even get a staff put together in the chaos.
The Cards lost their first real test of the season Tuesday at Purdue, but they were at least competitive against a solid Big Ten team. It was also their first real look at what the hostile road environments are going to be like this season, FBI T-shirts in the student section included.
Louisville’s next game is against Seton Hall, which started the season in the Top 25 before losing to Rhode Island. That’s quietly become one of the most interesting matchups of non-conference season as it will be an opportunity to see how each team with high expectations responds to early challenges.
HOKIE HOOPS: Virginia Tech players aren’t getting quite the hype some ACC stars such as Marvin Bagley or Bonzie Colson have received, but it’s interesting to note the Hokies have two of the conference’s top five scorers with Ahmed Hill and Justin Bibbs each averaging more than 19 points per game.
Buzz Williams’ team has quietly become an offensive juggernaut, averaging 98.7 points per game, a number that will be tough to hold against better competition, but impressive nonetheless.
Less impressive: The Hokies are second to least in the ACC in scoring defense, allowing 74.1 points per game.