ACC Decade in Review, Part 1: The Five Best Teams

Posted by ACC Team on December 26th, 2019

As we approach the beginning of a new decade, it’s a good time to reflect on the past 10 years of basketball in the ACC. Recently, the Rush the Court ACC microsite team — Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk), Matt Auerbach (@mauerbach24), and Mick McDonald (@themickmcdonald) — got together to select the five best teams and players that the league has produced from the 2009-10 through 2018-19 seasons. Today we reveal our choices for the top five ACC teams of the decade. There were a bunch of excellent squads to choose from — 12 ACC teams earned #1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament (four each for Duke, North Carolina and Virginia); eight of those advanced to the Elite Eight; and, four ultimately went on to cut down the nets on Monday night. To put these elite squads in order, we not only considered their specific accomplishments but also the competition that presented against them in any given year. Here are our choices for the top five ACC teams of the last decade.

#5) 2018-19 DUKE

Zion Williamson and the 2018-19 Duke Blue Devils fell short of expectations, bowing out to Michigan State in the Regional Finals. (Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
  • Overall: 32-6 (AP-1)   ACC: 14-4 (3)
  • KenPom: AdjEM – 30.62 (4)   AdjO – 120.0 (7)   AdjD – 89.3 (6)
  • ACCT: Champs   NCAA: L in Regional Finals
  • Key Players: Zion Williamson (22.6 PPG), RJ Barrett (22.6 PPG), Cam Reddish (13.5 PPG).

The year of Zion started with a bang as the Blue Devils blew out Kentucky 118-84 in the Champions Classic season opener, thrusting Duke into an immediate role of national favorite. Led by its two consensus first team All-Americans, Williamson and Barrett, Duke was rolling right along before its season was turned upside down on February 20. That was the night that Zion blew out his shoe and injured his knee in the opening minute of North Carolina’s dominant win over the Blue Devils. Entering that game, Duke was 23-2 and sported a KenPom efficiency margin of 35.92, which was on pace to become the second-best mark of the entire decade (2015 Kentucky – 36.91). The Blue Devils would never be the same. As other top teams around the nation hit their stride in March, Duke regressed. When Williamson returned for the postseason, his young supporting cast appeared both tired and tentative. The Blue Devils were fortunate to get by UCF and Virginia Tech at the buzzer before bowing out to Michigan State, 68-67, in the Elite Eight. In the end, their elite top-end talent couldn’t overcome their woeful outside shooting (30.8% 3FG).

#4) 2009-10 DUKE

  • Overall: 35-5 (AP-3)   ACC: 13-3 (1-Tie)
  • KenPom: AdjEM – 33.29 (1)   AdjO – 121.0 (1)   AdjD – 87.5 (5)
  • ACCT: ACC Champs   NCAA: National Champs
  • Key Players: Jon Scheyer (18.2 PPG), Kyle Singler (17.7 PPG), Nolan Smith (17.4 PPG).

This was probably the toughest team on this list to rate. Their accomplishments and metrics rank among the best of the decade; only last year’s Virginia squad logged a higher KenPom rating; they are one of only two teams to finish among the top five in both offensive and defensive efficiency; and they are the only team to win both the ACC Tournament and NCAA Tournament. But the consensus opinion is that this was the least talented of Mike Krzyzewski’s five championship teams. Perhaps it was its style of the play — Duke ranked 229th nationally in tempo –- or the lack of NBA lottery picks that the program is known for. Even though none of the players from this squad reached star status in the pros, five members carved out NBA careers of two or more years. That depth helped Duke rip West Virginia 78-57 in the national semifinals before hanging on to beat Butler in one of the most riveting title games ever. The entire game was played within a window of seven points – Duke’s largest lead was six and Butler’s biggest edge was one. It all came down to Gordon Hayward’s half-court fling that rimmed out at the horn, giving Duke the 61-59 win.

#3) 2016-17 NORTH CAROLINA

Joel Berry celebrates North Carolina’s 2017 National Championship, one year after losing the 2016 title game at the buzzer to Villanova. (USA TODAY)
  • Overall: 33-7 (AP-5)   ACC: 14-4 (1)
  • KenPom: AdjEM – 28.22 (3)   AdjO – 120.7 (9)   AdjD – 92.5 (11)
  • ACCT: L in Semis   NCAA: National Champs
  • Key Players: Justin Jackson (18.3 PPG), Joel Berry (14.7 PPG), Kennedy Meeks (12.5 PPG).

This is the first of two redemption teams on this list. The core of this Tar Heels’ unit was on the wrong end of the most iconic NCAA Tournament moment of the decade – Villanova guard Kris Jenkins’ buzzer-beater to beat North Carolina for the 2015-16 title. From a statistical standpoint, this was not a dominant team like some of the program’s other championship squads, but this group had a collective clutch gene that gave Roy Williams his third title. The magical postseason run began when North Carolina rallied from a late five-point deficit to beat Arkansas in the second round. Multiple players made winning plays the rest of the way. Unheralded sophomore Luke Maye came off the bench to score 17 points and knock out Kentucky with a last second jumper in the Elite Eight. Jackson and Meeks each topped 20 points as the Tar Heels edged Oregon, 77-76, at the Final Four, and Berry earned Final Four MOP honors with 22 points in the 71-65 title win over Gonzaga.

#2) 2018-19 VIRGINIA

  • Overall: 35-3 (AP-2)   ACC: 16-2 (1-Tie)
  • KenPom: AdjEM – 34.22 (1)   AdjO – 123.4 (2)   AdjD – 89.2 (5)
  • ACCT: L in Semis   NCAA: National Champs
  • Key Players: Kyle Guy (15.4 PPG), De’Andre Hunter (15.2 PPG), Ty Jerome (13.6 PPG).

Tony Bennett’s guys completed the ultimate redemption story by claiming the school’s first National Championship in program history. The postseason failure of the 2017-18 Cavaliers’ squad was monumental. They entered NCAA Tournament play as the top overall seed and exited as the first No. 1 seed to ever lose to a #16 (UMBC). The pressure on the 2018-19 Cavaliers to perform in the Big Dance almost got to them early – trailing Gardner-Webb in the opener by 14 points in the first half before rallying to win handily. Although clearly the nation’s best team from a statistical standpoint, Virginia needed a series of miracle finishes to claim the title like we haven’t seen since the run put on by Jim Valvano’s N.C. State team in 1983. And like the 2016-17 Tar Heels, several Cavaliers contributed along the way. Support players Kihei Clark and Mamadi Diakite combined to execute the play of the tournament and get Virginia into overtime against Purdue, where Virginia ultimately prevailed, 80-75. In the Final Four, Guy made three pressure free throws with 0.6 seconds remaining to beat Auburn, 63-62. Naturally, the title game went into overtime and led by Hunter’s 27 points, the Cavaliers claimed the crown 85-77. Jerome was also tremendous at the Final Four, averaging 18.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and 7.0 assists, leading Virginia to the biggest year-over-year NCAA flip-flop in college basketball history.

#1) 2014-15 DUKE

The 2014-15 Duke Blue Devils are RTC-ACC’s choice as ACC team of the decade. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
  • Overall: 35-4 (AP-3)   ACC: 15-3 (2)
  • KenPom: AdjEM – 32.48 (3)   AdjO – 124.5 (3)   AdjD – 92.0 (11)
  • ACCT: L in Semis   NCAA: National Champs
  • Key Players: Jahlil Okafor (17.3 PPG), Quinn Cook (15.3 PPG), Justise Winslow (12.6 PPG), Tyus Jones (11.8 PPG).

The makeup of Coach K’s fifth championship team was far different than the veteran group of Blue Devils that won the title five years earlier. Duke had been recruiting one-and-done players since Kyrie Irving in 2010-11, but never before had Krzyzewski relied on multiple freshmen as the core of his team. Okafor (ACC Player of the Year) was dominant in the paint and was a consensus first team All-American. Cook provided steady leadership as a senior captain, while the rookies adjusted to college competition. It took a little while for this group to find consistency, but they closed in fine fashion – winning 18 of its last 19 contests. Entering the NCAA Tourney, defense (38th in KenPom) was thought to be Duke’s Achilles heel. But the Blue Devils became suddenly stingy – holding their first five tournament opponents to under 0.90 points per possession. In the Final Four, Duke blitzed Michigan State, 81-61, but then found itself down nine versus Wisconsin in the second half of the title game. Surprisingly, the comeback was led by a relatively unknown (at the time) freshman named Grayson Allen. Down the stretch, Jones (Final Four MOP) made the key baskets to close out the Badgers, 68-63. What probably gives this squad the edge over the other champs on this list is the high level of competition around them that year. The 2014-15 season featured four of the 11 highest rated teams in the decade, according to KenPom, including a Kentucky team that started the season 38-0.

Others Receiving Votes: 2011-12 North Carolina, 2015-16 North Carolina, 2015-16 Virginia, 2017-18 Virginia.

Brad Jenkins (383 Posts)

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