No. 5 Cavaliers, No. 7 Tar Heels look like ACC front-runners
Dec. 31, 2015
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina started the year ranked No. 1 and as the Atlantic Coast Conference favorite, while Virginia enjoyed its own top-10 ranking as the Cavaliers look to claim the league's regular-season crown for the third straight year.
Both enter ACC play this week still looking like the class of the league.
The No. 5 Cavaliers (11-1) and the No. 7 Tar Heels (12-2, 1-0 ACC) have lost a combined three true road games by a total of 11 points, but also boast impressive nonconference wins — none better than UNC's win against then-No. 2 Maryland.
The Tar Heels, who opened league play with Wednesday night's 80-69 home win against Clemson, have also dealt with multi-week injuries to starters Marcus Paige and Kennedy Meeks.
Paige, the preseason ACC co-player of the year with Virginia's Malcolm Brogdon, missed the first six games with a hand injury before returning against Maryland. Meeks suffered a bone bruise on his left knee two games later in the loss at Texas more than two weeks ago.
It's unclear exactly when he'll be ready to return, though coach Roy Williams didn't sound optimistic this week on having Meeks back for this week's ACC games, including Saturday at home against Georgia Tech.
"It's great that (outsiders) picked us, but we've got to go out there and do it," sophomore Justin Jackson said of winning the ACC. "If they picked us and we don't do anything, then what does that really mean?"
Virginia, which opens ACC play Saturday at home against reigning champion Notre Dame, played its most challenging non-league slate in coach Tony Bennett's seven seasons to become more battle-tested for ACC and postseason play. They lost at George Washington, but have wins against Ohio State, West Virginia, Villanova and California — a game they won in overtime on London Perrantes' 3-pointer with 10 seconds left to help validate that scheduling plan.
"Heading into conference, that's what we wanted," Bennett said of the Cal test. "And here we are."
Here are some other things to watch as ACC play begins:
SHORT-HANDED DUKE: Reigning national champion Duke (11-2) took a big hit when senior forward Amile Jefferson went out indefinitely with a foot injury. Mike Krzyzewski's 15th-ranked Blue Devils have a high-scoring sophomore in Grayson Allen and a talented freshman class led by Brandon Ingram, but played seven guys in an overtime loss to Utah and open ACC play Saturday at Boston College. "Amile is a big loss for us," Allen said, "but next man up and were ready to play."
VETERAN HURRICANES: Miami, led by seniors Sheldon McClellan and Angel Rodriguez, was picked to finish fifth in the ACC, but the No. 13 Hurricanes looked better than that during a dominating three-game show at the Puerto Rico Tipoff that included wins against ranked Butler and Utah teams. Miami (11-1) opens ACC play Saturday against Syracuse as a team no one will want to play.
LOUISVILLE THRIVES: Things looked grim when Louisville started the season amid allegations that an ex-staffer hired an escort and other dancers to strip and have sex with players and recruits from 2010-14. But the No. 18 Cardinals (11-2) have lost to Michigan State and Kentucky, currently ranked No. 1 and No. 10, by a combined six points. "It just takes time for all these guys to learn these things," coach Rick Pitino said after the Kentucky loss. "If we don't get too many losses come March, we are going to be one hell of a basketball team."
CAT'S ENERGY: North Carolina State's thin roster is heavily reliant on point guard Anthony "Cat" Barber, who ranks 10th nationally in scoring (23.1 points) while playing more than 38 minutes per game. Can Barber hold up, both production and health wise? It's going to be a big factor in whether coach Mark Gottfried's Wolfpack can return to the NCAA Tournament for the fifth straight year.
RISERS: Looking for a team predicted to finish in the bottom third of the ACC that could surprise? Take a look at Wake Forest under second-year coach Danny Manning. Picked 11th, the Demon Deacons (9-3) have neutral-floor wins against Indiana and UCLA, and won at LSU on Tuesday night. And considering the team only recently got senior point guard Codi Miller-McIntyre back from a preseason foot injury, this is a team that could frustrate a lot of favored league opponents.
AP Sports Writers Hank Kurz in Charlottesville, Virginia, and Joedy McCreary in Durham, North Carolina contributed to this report.