ACC

What ACC basketball schedules can tell you about the strengths, weaknesses of your favorite team

Duke forward Jayson Tatum (0) finishes a second half dunk over the Tar Heel defense. The Blue Devils defeated the Tar Heels 93-83 at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., on March 10, 2017
Duke forward Jayson Tatum (0) finishes a second half dunk over the Tar Heel defense. The Blue Devils defeated the Tar Heels 93-83 at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., on March 10, 2017 cliddy@newsobserver.com

A handful of leaves have fallen or given up on green. Hummingbirds still dash about the yard chittering like playful children. Daytime temperatures ratify the calendar’s insistence summer isn’t entirely gone. Yet the release of ACC men’s basketball schedules earlier this month had some minds racing to chilly days thankfully far ahead, savoring possibilities that take us nearly to spring.

To some extent the optional, nonconference phase of schedules reflects the changed nature of this decade’s post-expansion ACC. In the three seasons since the bloated league traded Maryland for Louisville, it sent four teams to the Final Four, won a pair of national titles (Duke in 2015 and North Carolina in 2017), had 22 NCAA entrants and posted a combined 47-20 record in NCAA play. For good measure, conference clubs reached the NIT finals in both 2015 (Miami) and 2017 (Georgia Tech).

That showing returned the ACC to a status not seen since last century, when a breakeven record within the league almost assured NCAA inclusion. Last season 10 teams finished 9-9 or better in conference play; all but Syracuse at 10-8 got an NCAA bid. Such internal strength gives coaches leeway in crafting non-league schedules to fit their squad’s perceived developmental needs or their job security concerns.

The ACC office (and TV) dictate the league schedule; how it unfolds has a major effect on a team’s prospects. Every team is ordained to play twice in a three-day span sometime during the season, a taxing and gripe-inducing turnaround. When consecutive games come over five days, but are against heavyweights like Duke and North Carolina, as Louisville faces in mid-February, that’s trouble too. Three straight road games in ACC competition, Virginia Tech’s fate in February, is sure to sting, although the Hokies follow with an equally rare, compensatory three-straight home games.

This season the starter’s flag for non-league play drops on Nov. 10 for all but three ACC teams. The symmetry is similar for ACC openers, with two-thirds coming on Dec. 30. The notable exception in league competition is Duke’s Dec. 9 visit to Boston College, potentially a more compelling matchup than obvious at first glance.

The Eagles lost 34 of 36 ACC games over the past two seasons, and in 2017 won a single outing after New Year’s Day (over N.C. State). Hard-pressed coach Jim Christian takes on five bottom-50 teams but also scheduled at least three top-100 teams, the same as Duke. BC returns a pair of veteran guards – ACC All-Freshman Ky Bowman from Havelock and Raleigh’s Jerome Robinson, the league’s top returning scorer (18.7-point average) and steal-maker (1.7 per game) – who could lend an early-season edge against Duke’s breathtakingly inexperienced squad. Then again, the talent-rich Blue Devils will have 11 games under their belts by the time the teams meet in hostile, packed Conte Forum.

Duke’s pre-ACC shakedown cruise features one of the least challenging nonconference home schedules of Krzyzewski’s 37-year tenure. Of seven opponents invited to Cameron, only Furman rated in the top 100 by any measure (RPI) in 2017, finishing tied for first in the Southern Conference. The home opener against Elon is sure to elicit plenty of buzz, however – Steven Santa Ana, whom Grayson Allen tripped last December to his everlasting detriment, returns for the Phoenix. Should the highly programmed Cameron Crazies concoct something clever for the occasion, let’s hope they’re suitably repentant.

Conversely, Duke is one of three teams willing to venture outside the league after the turn of the year, meeting St. John’s at Madison Square Garden on Feb. 3. In two years under Hall of Famer Chris Mullin, the Red Storm have lost twice as often as they won. The only other stray 2018 contests are BC facing Dartmouth and Georgia Tech hosting Yale, loser to Princeton in the Ivy League’s inaugural conference championship tournament.

Four ACC teams, among them N.C. State, scheduled cautiously with 19 home dates. The Wolfpack, cozy hosts 18 or more times for the fifth consecutive season, need all the help they can get. Feeling his way, new State coach Kevin Keatts arranged nonconference home opponents that make even the other Coach K’s choices look formidable.

Four ACC teams, among them N.C. State, scheduled cautiously with 19 home dates. The Wolfpack, cozy hosts 18 or more times for the fifth consecutive season, need all the help they can get. Feeling his way, new State coach Kevin Keatts arranged nonconference home opponents that make even the other Coach K’s choices look formidable.

N.C. State takes on top-10 regular Arizona, coached by former Pack assistant Sean Miller, in a November tournament in the Bahamas. On the other hand, Keatts welcomes N.C. A&T and Presbyterian, two of the lowest-rated programs by any measure. Virginia Tech balances the same pair of bottom-10 teams with visits to Kentucky and Mississippi.

Pittsburgh also plays 19 friendlies. Feckless last season under new coach Kevin Stallings, the Panthers lost their top five scorers and were bumped by BC as a Big 10/ACC Challenge participant.

There’s less excuse for 19 home games at Georgia Tech, which opens against UCLA in Shanghai – the city in China, not the North Carolina town in Cleveland County. Surprise achievers last year, the Yellow Jackets return All-ACC big man Ben Lammers and ACC All-Freshman Josh Okogie. As for Louisville, the highly-regarded Cardinals are reloading again. Still, 10 of 12 games at the Yum! Center to open the season, and 19 overall, overdoes the home cooking.

Louisville continues its annual series with its neighbor from Lexington. Unfortunately Kentucky won’t face North Carolina, the end for now of a run that featured spirited clashes almost annually since the 2001 season.

The Tar Heels have enough on their plate, anyway. Roy Williams crafted the league’s toughest schedule. The national champs play 15 home games and no more than two in a row all season; only Miami has fewer home outings. Carolina could encounter up to eight top-100 teams, including Ohio State on a neutral court in its first year under Archie Miller, the fiery former N.C. State player and assistant coach. One saving grace: on Jan. 16 Clemson comes to Chapel Hill, where it hasn’t won since the Tigers first visited in 1926.

Jim Boeheim, the only man besides Williams coaching his alma mater in the ACC, changed his mind and plans to stick around past this season, after all. Boeheim, 72, added his son as a walk-on, accumulated the usual 18 home games, and has a bracing outside schedule featuring Maryland, Kansas in Miami, and a pair of former Big East rivals, UConn and Georgetown, now coached by Hall of Famer Patrick Ewing.

Last season another great big man, Danny Manning, got Wake Forest to the NCAAs for the first time since 2010 with a schedule much like this year’s. Illinois, Tennessee and perennial opponent Richmond are the certain top-100 tests. Don’t look for the Skip Prosser Classic, dedicated to the memory of the coach at both Xavier and Wake who died abruptly a decade ago. The series is on a planned hiatus until 2019-20.

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