ACC Exam Week: Grading Out the 15 Schools

Posted by Lathan Wells on December 11th, 2014

It’s Exam Week in the Atlantic Coast Conference, so what better time than the present to analyze the basketball aptitude of the 15 member institutions? Below we present three groupings: the teams representing the head of the class; those with the potential to improve on their early season results; and the disappointments. There’s no sliding scale to our grading system, so the teams were evaluated on how they have performed no matter their preseason expectations (sorry, tough professor).

Top of the Class

  • Duke has earned nothing shy of an A+ thus far, playing like a team that’s clearly a national title contender. The freshmen and veteran holdovers have meshed beautifully, and the Blue Devils’ 8-0 record includes a quality win over Michigan State as well as a very impressive defeat of fellow contender Wisconsin on the road.
  • Louisville is having no problem representing its new conference in an 8-0 start, save for a head-scratching 45-33 win over Cleveland State. Knocking off Ohio State in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge as well as wins over Minnesota and Indiana leave the Cardinals looking like a contender for the crown too. Montrezl Harrell has been as good as advertised, and the long-awaited emergence of Wayne Blackshear makes this a very dangerous team.
  • Notre Dame sure missed Jerian Grant down the stretch last season. Now that its leading man is back from suspension, the Irish have started off hot. They’re a one-point loss to Providence from being 10-0 and they can present a quality win by virtue of besting Michigan State. Four double-figure scorers contribute to the 10th highest-scoring offense in the country at 85.1 points per game.
Coach Mike Brey and the Fighting Irish are thrilled to have Jerian Grant back (USAToday Sports)

Coach Mike Brey and the Fighting Irish are thrilled to have Jerian Grant back (USAToday Sports)

  • Could Virginia actually be better than last year’s conference championship-winning team? The Cavaliers have let Justin Anderson loose, and he has been nothing short of a star to pair along with Malcolm Brogdon. They’re still one of the best defensive teams in the country and have shown they can win playing multiple styles, counting road wins over Maryland and VCU already on the resume.
  • Miami is probably the pleasant surprise of the conference thus far, sporting a 9-1 record and earning a spot few saw coming in the national rankings. We’ll excuse the hiccup against Wisconsin-Green Bay (the same team that nipped Virginia early last year) since the Hurricanes have already beaten Florida and Illinois. Transfers Angel Rodriguez and Sheldon McClellan have allowed the other players who were asked to do too much last season to return to more comfortable supporting roles.

Those With Potential

  • North Carolina gets a C+ right now, hanging its hat on wins over ranked (at the time) opponents UCLA and Florida in the Bahamas. However, losses to Butler and Iowa where the team looked disinterested on the boards and putrid offensively can cause some comparisons to last year’s up-and-down team. Up next is Kentucky, a big chance to improve that GPA, but Marcus Paige has to start to resemble the player who was chosen as the preseason ACC Player of the Year.
  • North Carolina State‘s 7-1 start might not be terribly impressive, but the Wolfpack could easily be 8-0 had they pulled out a winnable road game against Purdue. Trevor Lacey‘s emergence has made this team much more explosive than thought, and the frontcourt players all look improved. This could very well be a team that fights for the upper tier of the standings in coming months.
  • Clemson is another 5-3 team that some might say is disappointing, but considering the Tigers lost the bulk of its offense in one player’s (K.J. McDaniels) exit to the draft meant expectations were low. They sport some poor losses to Winthrop, Gardner-Webb, and even Rutgers, but a recent overtime win over a ranked Arkansas team bought them some time to pump those grades up. Consistent play from Rod Hall, like they received against the Razorbacks, would be nice to see going forward.
  • Syracuse was in the “they’ll be good like they always are” preseason discussion, and surely the Orange will improve as the year goes on. However, their lack of consistent offense outside of Rakeem Christmas and the slow development of freshman point guard Kaleb Joseph are concerning. Their 5-3 record certainly isn’t any better than average, especially since those losses were to unranked California, St. John’s and a then-ranked Michigan team that has since gone off the rails. Jim Boeheim‘s team is in jeopardy of falling behind without a strong winning streak in the coming weeks.
Syracuse's uninspiring start is due in part to the slow maturation of Kaleb Joseph (Rich Barnes)

Syracuse’s uninspiring 5-3 start is due in part to the slow maturation of Kaleb Joseph (Rich Barnes)


  • It’s hard to say Boston College is underperforming after a nightmarish 8-24 campaign, but there was still some potential on the roster in Jim Christian’s first year at the helm. Olivier Hanlan has not looked good as the primary distributor, sporting a 1-to-1 assist to turnover ratio, and the Eagles are 0-3 on the road, with losses at Massachusetts, West Virginia and Dayton. There’s enough talent on this team, as shown with the surprising win over New Mexico, to have poached one of those games.
  • Likewise, Virginia Tech probably hasn’t underperformed according to most expectations, but the thought process was that Buzz Williams would make an immediate impact in Blacksburg to avoid the really bad losses in the non-conference slate they sustained a year ago. Northern Iowa and Penn State are forgivable, but Appalachian State and Radford are not. This is an ACC team, after all.
  • Pittsburgh‘s 5-3 record may seem out of place here considering some of the above 5-3 squads are currently showing potential, but one particular Panthers loss is the issue: at Hawaii. San Diego State and Indiana aren’t terrible losses, particularly since Cameron Wright‘s injury re-shuffled their lineup before the year began. Still, Jamie Dixon has enough talent to avoid narrow wins over the likes of Samford at home.
  • Wake Forest, also with low expectations and a new coach, is likely being penalized for its ACC affiliation more than actual expectations. But Danny Manning‘s team is sporting a 4-5 record, including rough losses to Delaware State and Iona. They’re also 0-1 in league play after losing to NC State last weekend. It could be another long year in Winston-Salem.
  • Georgia Tech is likely playing for Brian Gregory‘s job, so it would have been nice to see the Yellow Jackets steal some good early wins. While Rhode Island and Northwestern are nice, they’re overshadowed by losses to a depleted Marquette team and South Carolina Upstate. The latter is the kind of loss that a team that feels ready to contend in the ACC simply cannot afford.
  • Lastly, we present the most disappointing pupil of this Exam Week: Florida State. The Seminoles were a trendy pick to finish the year in the upper tier of the conference, but it looks like they’ll need to have an otherwordly conference performance after their disappointing early season results. The 4-4 record is bad enough, but a three-game losing streak right at the season’s start (including a befuddling loss to Northeastern) put the Seminoles in an early hole. Leonard Hamilton will have to work some serious magic to make this team relevant come March.
Lathan Wells (77 Posts)

A 30-year old unabashed college basketball fan, I currently reside in Richmond, Virginia. I especially enjoy following the ACC and the local teams, VCU and the University of Richmond. I hope to continue my journalistic pursuits in the sports arena full-time in the future, but in the meantime I am really enjoying covering the greatest sport there is for RTC. Follow me on Twitter @prohibitivefav.

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