ACC Conversation: Pre-Conference Edition – Part 1

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk), Matt Auerbach (@mauerbach24), Mick Mcdonald (@themickmcdonald) on January 3rd, 2019

Rush the Court ACC microsite writers Brad JenkinsMatt Auerbach and Mick McDonald recently got together to chat about the ACC heading into conference play. Here’s Part 1 of that conversation.

Tony Bennett and Mike Krzyzewski looked primed to battle it out for ACC supremacy. (pinterest.com)

Brad Jenkins: Happy New Year fellas! Now that we’re starting conference action, it’s a good time to access the ACC again. The national perception right now seems to be that this is going to be a DukeVirginia battle for league supremacy. Is that how you guys see it?

Mick McDonald: I do. I think you can make a pretty decent argument that those are the two best teams in the country, not just the ACC.

Matt Auerbach: I agree that there is a clear separation between those two and the rest of the league as well, but despite their relative struggles, I wouldn’t rule out North Carolina being a factor when all is said and done.

Mick McDonald: Virginia’s schedule leaves something to be desired to date, although a road win at Maryland and neutral win over Wisconsin are nice. But three of the Cavaliers’ next five games are against top 10 teams, so we’ll know for sure soon.

Brad Jenkins: What has impressed you most so far about Duke, Mick?

Mick McDonald: Is it weird to say Duke’s Zion Williamson, even with all his hype? He’s better than I considered and is truly a must-watch player. While RJ Barrett hasn’t been quite as efficient, his talent is undeniable. And Tre Jones is exactly the type of point guard Duke has needed the past few years. He really controls the game well.

Brad Jenkins: Yeah, this is the best defensive team Coach K has had in quite a while, led by Jones’ ball pressure. To rank among the top two in the nation in both blocks and steals is quite a thing.

Matt Auerbach: I would agree with all of that, but for me, the overwhelming difference between this Duke team and last year’s squad is its ability to defend in a man-to-man set. There have been moments where the Blue Devils’ defense has jumped out as the most impressive thing that they were doing, and given their offensive explosiveness, that’s saying a lot.

Mick McDonald: I thought Jones was the difference in the comeback against Texas Tech — he was terrific

Brad Jenkins: Speaking of the Texas Tech game, was it a good sign for Duke that it can win a game when the players are ice-cold from three-point range? Or is inconsistent shooting still a major concern?

Matt Auerbach: A little bit of both. I think their shooting will improve, but at some point, Jones has to be a more consistent threat from deep. Game pressure surely will help inside the league where the Blue Devils will be challenged more often than not.

Mick McDonald: Inconsistent shooting from deep is a concern for me, but it’s more about shot selection. Barrett shouldn’t be shooting so much from long range, while Jack White and Alex O’Connell (when he’s in the game) are knockdown shooters. That doesn’t even consider Cam Reddish, who I still think can be their biggest threat from distance if he embraces the role.

Brad Jenkins: As for the Cavaliers, I think a strong case can be made that they are better built for the 18-game league slate than Duke. Matt, I know you are uber-high on Tony Bennett’s club. Tell us why they should still be the favorite.

Matt Auerbach: Virginia just blends everything together in perfect harmony: an accomplished veteran backcourt with guys who can make shots; a young, dynamic point guard who adds a different element in handling ball-pressure and providing such on the other end. And truthfully, Bennett has had those things in the past, but De’Andre Hunter is the most talented player he has had at Virginia. Combine all of that with the bigs anchoring another elite defense on the back end, and I just think they’re the best team in college basketball right now. Virginia is the best bet to show up on a nightly basis — a critical component in a league that will be hotly contested.

Mick McDonald: This team feels a lot more like the Malcolm Brogdon-led team from 2016 than last year’s group. The 2018 version was great too, of course, but if Ty Jerome/ Kyle Guy/Devon Hall weren’t making jump shots, they struggled to score unless Hunter took over (and we saw what happened without him against UMBC). This year, Guy is become much more effective at creating his own shots, and Hunter is a match-up nightmare. Meanwhile, Jerome has turned himself into a potential first round pick and has the freedom to play off the ball with the addition of Kihei Clark.

Brad Jenkins: I see Virginia and Duke both finishing with just three or four losses this season. How do we think they will match up in their two head-to-head meetings?

Matt Auerbach: I just think Virginia is going to drive Duke crazy.

Mick McDonald: You saw what Texas Tech did to Duke. Virginia guards like that but can also score. They’re the perfect match-up for this Duke team. This is not to say that Duke won’t win one or both games, but thank goodness we get (at least?) two match-ups this season.

Matt Auerbach: The end of the Gonzaga game concerns me if I’m Duke. If Barrett plays against Virginia as he did the end of that game, you’re playing right into Virginia’s hands. Jones will be a key, and Reddish will need to be able to get loose, but I think Virginia will get the pace they want and it will drive Duke insane. Again, they’re great, but they’re only freshmen.

Brad Jenkins: The most likely outcome is a split, but if either pulls the sweep, I’d go with Virginia. They will defend Duke in the half-court like Texas Tech, but they won’t commit those live-ball turnovers that Duke cashes in for easy dunks. Lately Duke has had Virginia’s number because it could expose its only defensive weakness — deep open threes that most teams (other than Duke) could drain. That’s not the case this year. I agree with Matt, however, that North Carolina is still a contender for the regular season title. They have a slightly easier league schedule — KenPom favors the Heels in their first 12 league games — and Roy Williams has a knack for figuring things out when he has all the pieces. The question is do they have the pieces?

Mick McDonald: I think people are writing them off way too quickly. As you mention, Brad, Williams just figures things out. There is too much talent on a team coached by a Hall of Famer to not expect great things from this squad. I’d absolutely still take them third in the league. The Nassir Little situation has become an actual thing, but I still think Williams will figure out how best to use him alongside Luke Maye and Cam Johnson.

Matt Auerbach: I absolutely think they have the pieces — but for some reason, they just haven’t fit together yet. That said, they’re still going to be dangerous with a chance to beat any team they play.

Brad Jenkins: The key for the Tar Heels will be improving defensively. That’s how they will survive nights when the shots aren’t falling or they’re not overwhelming on the boards. Against good competition so far, they haven’t been able to overcome that.

Mick McDonald: Also, with the combo of how he plays and that hair, there might not be a more fun guy to watch in the country than Coby White.

Matt Auerbach: White has been terrific, and with a progression to the mean for Maye and Little getting it going, the best North Carolina has to offer should still be ahead.

Brad Jenkins: That’s a good wrap-up of the three primary contenders. Tomorrow we’ll look at the rest of the league, dubbing some as contenders and others as just pretenders.

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