Jim Boeheim has provided several memorable quotes during his four-plus-decade tenure as head coach of the Syracuse men’s basketball team (“dumb question,” most recently), but none quite as famous as one from the late Dennis Green: “They are who we thought they were!”
The football coach was referring to the 2006 Chicago Bears, who had just completed an improbable comeback against Green’s woeful Arizona Cardinals. But 10 years later, his statement applies to something else: the ACC men’s basketball landscape.
Before the season, we knew that the conference would be absurdly-loaded, with several terrific teams chasing Duke, the consensus favorite to win the national championship. Now, more than a month into the regular season, the ACC is living up to expectations.
The Blue Devils no longer top the national rankings, but there are plenty of reasons to believe they’re still the best team in the country. Coach K’s crew has one loss — a 77-75 defeat at the hands of No. 3 Kansas, in which the Jayhawks hit a game-winner with less than two seconds remaining. In that contest, Duke played seven guys, not including three of the nation’s most highly-touted recruits: Harry Giles (No. 1 in ESPN’s Class of 2016 rankings), Jayson Tatum (No. 3), and Marques Bolden (No. 16). Tatum and Bolden have since returned, and Giles will reportedly take the floor soon. It’s not necessary to rehash what you already know — Duke is the most talented team in the land, with arguably the greatest head honcho of all time running the show. The Blue Devils are a freight train.
The conference gets interesting when you look past Duke. The Blue Devils check in at No. 1 in KenPom.com’s national rankings; ACC teams occupy slots 5-7, with Virginia, North Carolina, and Louisville representing the conference. Those three squads each have exactly one loss, and every defeat came to a national contender — the Cavaliers fell to West Virginia (No. 9 in KenPom), the Tar Heels were toppled by Indiana (No. 14), and the Cardinals lost a nail-biter to Baylor (No. 10).
If you thought that string of three ACC teams in a row was uncanny, check out the twenties, where the conference claims five consecutive schools. Notre Dame, Florida State, Miami, Syracuse (we know that name!), and Clemson hold down No. 24-28. Further down the rankings, Virginia Tech, Wake Forest, and Pittsburgh sport a combined record of 24-5.
North Carolina State is the 13th-best ACC team, according to KenPom, and the Wolfpack features freshman guard Dennis Smith, Jr., one of the nation’s most electrifying players. Smith is about to be joined by Omer Yurtseven, a Turkish big man who had to sit out the first nine games of the season due to questions about his amateur status. Yurtseven, a former SU target, was a consensus top-25 recruit.
Syracuse hasn’t beaten a team inside KenPom’s top-75 yet, and its conference features 13 teams within the top-65. If the Orange doesn’t correct its issues before the calendar flips, Jim Boeheim’s team could struggle mightily when it enters the ACC slate.