As the calendar turns to 2022 and the eyes of the college sports universe begin to shift focus towards college basketball, the ACC hoops picture is clear at the top. Duke reigns, and should continue to reign after it ends the health and safety protocol pause caused by COVID-19 issues in the program. 

Beyond that, the waters are murky.

Virginia Tech should be the league’s second-best team, but they are 0-2 in conference play before the calendar turns to January. UNC is inconsistent. Louisville is a hot mess. Syracuse? They don’t guard anyone. Wake Forest? Steve Forbes’ team is fun and we want to believe, but where are the quality wins? We know FSU is talented, but we haven’t seen it all come together in Tallahassee yet this season, and a 3-week health and safety protocol pause hasn’t helped. Clemson is starting to make us believe, but we’ve been fooled by Brad Brownell outfits before. The same could be said for Miami, which may feature the league’s best backcourt, but has been exposed near the tin on occasion in nonconference play.

The good news is the speculation that dominates the slow part of the schedule around Christmas is about to give way to the furious pace and grind of January league play. When that happens, we’ll finally get some answers.

Here are a set of power rankings to frame the ACC hoops situation as the league begins conference play in earnest this week. Last week’s list is here. 

15. Boston College (6-5)

Boston College missed 2 measuring stick games (at Wake Forest, home against FSU) due to a health and safety protocol pause. Prior to that, they laid an egg against Albany. With Pittsburgh playing a little better, the slump-and-pause bumps the Eagles into the cellar.

14. Pittsburgh (5-7)

Jeff Capel III’s team held off a solid Jacksonville team Tuesday at home, 64-55. The victory gave the Panthers 2 consecutive wins ahead of a home tilt against Notre Dame on Tuesday night. A road trip to a desperate Virginia Tech follows, so Pitt’s exit from the cellar may be short-lived.

13. Georgia Tech (6-5)

The Jackets got off the schneid with a 72-62 win over city rival Georgia State last week. The win was nice, but what Josh Pastner will value most ahead of league play is the emergence of a scoring companion for star Michael Devoe. Senior guard Jordan Usher dropped 30 in the win over Georgia State and is now averaging 15 points a game, having scored in double figures in Tech’s past 3 games, which have included tilts against highly-ranked USC and a terrific LSU team. The computers continue to tell us that Georgia Tech can defend. What they have to do is find ways to score beyond Devoe. Perhaps a breakthrough is coming in that area thanks to Usher’s emergence.

12. NC State (7-5)

Things have gone poorly for the Wolfpack since they led No. 1 Purdue by 12 with 7 minutes to go in Brooklyn earlier this month. The Wolfpack blew the lead against the Boilermakers, losing in overtime. They followed that collapse up with a loss to Richmond for the first time in school history. The NCAA then put the Pack on probation for a season, punishing them for the sins of the long since gone Mark Gottfried regime. A day later, the Pack were pummeled in Raleigh by a middling Wright State team that had, up to that point, been one of the biggest disappointments in college basketball in 2021.

The Pack continue to be dominated on the glass in the absence of Manny Bates. NC State has won the rebounding battle just twice this season and were outrebounded 41-38 by the Raiders last week.

11. Virginia (7-5)

The Hoos were routed by Clemson last week, dashing for now the dreams of Virginia fans who hoped the team had turned a corner offensively after an 82-point outburst and 60% shooting against Farleigh Dickinson. It turns out that FDU is just bad, and Virginia still can’t score. Virginia visits Syracuse this weekend in what suddenly seems like a very critical game for their shaky at-large hopes.

10. Notre Dame (6-5)

No team in the ACC is more difficult to figure out right now than Notre Dame. The Irish have one of the season’s better wins, defeating Kentucky earlier this month. They are also shaky enough to be pushed for 40 minutes by Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. Of course, credit the Irish for hitting free throws late and beating the Islanders by 10 points. The fact the team made a season-high 16 3-pointers also seems to bode well for the future. But consistency has been fleeting for Notre Dame, and after losing their conference opener to Boston College, they desperately need to win at Pitt on Tuesday evening.

9. Syracuse (6-5)

The Orange routed Brown last night to close their nonconference slate at a pedestrian 6-5. We know the Orange can score and shoot: Jim Boeheim’s team ranks 19th in Adjusted Offensive Efficiency, per KenPom and 25th nationally in three-point field goal percentage.

The vaunted Syracuse zone, force of so many March’s past, has yet to confuse anyone this season. The Orange rank outside the top 150 in the Adjusted Defensive Efficiency metric, and given their length issues, that’s not likely to improve a ton. Defense will be a matter of want to and commitment for Syracuse in conference play, and without better effort, the Orange will miss the NCAA Tournament because they can’t get stops.

8. Florida State (6-4)

When FSU plays NC State on Saturday, it will have been almost 3 weeks since we last saw the Seminoles in action in a win over Lipscomb. Whether the Seminoles move up in these rankings will depend on how they come out of the health and safety protocols pause: they play 2 road contests, at NC State and at Wake Forest, and need to win at least one to avoid an 0-3 league start.

7. Louisville (7-4)

After being pummeled by Western Kentucky, the Cardinals entered a COVID pause, costing them their annual tilt with rival Kentucky. In the end, that’s probably a good thing for a Louisville squad that really struggles offensively. The Cardinals rank just 121st in KenPom Adjusted Offensive Efficiency. That’s what happens when you rank 312th in pick-and-roll offense, per Synergy, and you are a high volume 3-point shooting team that doesn’t make threes. Can this be an NCAA Tournament team? Yes. The Cards defend well enough to beat anyone. But Chris Mack better find answers on offense– and fast.

6. Clemson (9-4)

Clemson continues to play excellent basketball since losing its conference opener at Miami.

The Tigers routed Virginia this week, extending their winning streak to four games.

More important, after squandering résumé-building opportunities early in the year, the Tigers now have wins over Drake, South Carolina and Virginia in their past 4. These will be all be valuable “Ws” when the committee evaluates resumes in March.

5. Miami (9-3)

The Canes play NC State in Coral Gables Wednesday evening, their first game since the team’s Christmas break. Miami is playing good basketball in December, and they ride a 5-game winning streak that includes a victory over Clemson in their ACC opener. I’m not ready to say Miami is an NCAA Tournament team, but in an odd scheduling quirk, they play their first 4 ACC games in the Watsco Center. Two of those games, including a New Year’s Day tilt with Wake Forest, are potential résumé wins.

Jim Larrañaga has made a living of overachieving with teams that used great guard play to offset deficiencies elsewhere. This team fits that mold. 

4. Virginia Tech (8-5)

The Hokies’ struggles away from Blacksburg continued last week with a lopsided loss at Duke. No shame in that, of course, but for the Hokies to truly be the team computers think they are, they’ll need to find a way to win games away from home. For now, a home win over Pitt this week will do, as the Hokies league schedule softens after an 0-2 start.

3. North Carolina (9-3)

The Tar Heels bounced back from their blowout loss at Kentucky with an easy win over Appalachian State in the Dean Dome last week. More important, the Heels found their footing defensively again, limiting the Mountaineers to 50 points on just 31% shooting. North Carolina, like Virginia Tech, has really struggled away from home. The Heels are just 2-3 away from Chapel Hill, and whether that’s a problem or a matter of tough scheduling will be determined over the next 8 days when Carolina visits Notre Dame and Boston College.

2. Wake Forest (11-1)

The computers still don’t trust Wake Forest.

At No. 49, the Demon Deacons barely crack the top 50 of Bart Torvik’s rankings, which are less influenced by the preceding season than KenPom’s numbers. Wake remains outside the top 50 in KenPom’s metrics.

At some point, though, you are what your record says you are, and Wake Forest is 11-1 with at least one quality win (at Virginia Tech).

This week will be interesting and provide some answers, as Wake visits struggling Louisville on Wednesday before visiting another team with a good record that computers don’t like — Miami — on Saturday. Two road games against bubble teams? That’s just what the doctor ordered to determine whether Wake Forest is real.

The thinking here is that they are for real. Alondes Williams is a walking bucket and for all the lousy computer numbers on defense, the Demon Deacons are allowing just a 41% field goal percentage against from 2 and are limiting opponents to just 30% from deep. They also force 15 turnovers a game — and score at a 1.21 point per possession clip after turnovers. Those are all “good team” type numbers.

Win both of these games, and you approach “NCAA lock” status in January.

1. Duke (11-1)

Duke vanquished Virginia Tech with ease last week, dominating the second half after a nip and tuck first 20 minutes. Two promising things came from the victory, besides a nice résumé win for the Blue Devils.

First, Wendell Moore Jr. continues to be a revelation as a scorer. Expected to be a veteran leader away from the court, it’s his production on the floor that has surprised, as even the most bullish Blue Devils fans didn’t expect him to be averaging 17 points per game and adding 5 rebounds and assists per night heading into the meat of conference play. His passing ability in particular has been valued, especially as teams start defending him like a genuine scoring threat.

Coach K’s best teams have always balanced youthful energy and NBA talent with veterans, and Moore is providing that leadership this season.

Second, Trevor Keels was 5-for-8 from the floor and looked like a player comfortable in his role in the win over Virginia Tech. How he contributes on a team where Moore and Wooden Award candidate Paolo Banchero dominate the box scores was always going to be fascinating. Keels is such a talent on offense that if he accepts an auxiliary role, this Duke team won’t just be the presumptive favorite to win their first league title until 2010; they’ll be a Final Four favorite as well.