It’s no secret that it’s been a tough year so far for the ACC.

The conference managed to keep the ACC-B1G challenge competitive, falling only 8-6 thanks to a strong final day. But as the nonconference slates of November and December come to a close, the league continues to see only mixed results in marquee games.

Take Saturday, for example.

Yes, Brad Brownell and Clemson blasted a hot South Carolina squad. Pittsburgh also got a much-needed win, nipping St. John’s

Unfortunately for the ACC, those were the sole highlights. The league was throttled in other marquee nonconference games, with Kentucky crushing North Carolina at Rupp Arena, Southern Cal bullying Georgia Tech, Indiana edging Notre Dame, and worst of all, Western Kentucky outclassing Louisville. In a good year, the ACC loses maybe 2 of those games. Instead, ACC teams dropped all 4, with many of the losers limping into conference play without much meat on their tournament resumes.

The ACC sits just 5th in the KenPom Adjusted Efficiency ratings, besting only the Pac-12 among Power 6 leagues. The league continues to have just 1 team ranked in the AP Top 25 (Duke, who remains No. 2), and only 2 teams (Duke, Virginia Tech)  in the Top 25 of the Bart Torvik efficiency metric (a preferable one to KenPom until at least mid-January, when enough basketball has been played to “cook” out the algorithm on KenPom that so heavily weights the prior season’s production.)

With nonconference play winding down, the ACC won’t have much of a chance to alter its 2021-22 image until March, unless a team really heats up in conference play.

Speaking of heating up, does the slow start across the conference spell hot seat trouble for some of the league’s head coaches? It’s difficult to see how Jeff Capel III survives this season at Pitt, which has gone poorly on the floor and off it (the decommitment of star recruit Judah Mintz was especially crushing).

Beyond Capel, who else is in trouble? Jim Larrañaga has probably done enough to retire on his own terms at Miami. But with a new athletic director, you really never know. Mike Brey will never be fired at Notre Dame, but reports of an “amicable parting of ways” are more and more frequent, especially after Notre Dame’s rough start.

The most interesting case? Chris Mack at Louisville. Mack came from Xavier as a truly hot commodity, but he’s yet to win an NCAA Tournament game at Louisville and, now in season 4 on campus, the Cardinals look like a team regressing, not improving. Louisville won’t tolerate basketball anonymity long — and while Mack probably gets a 5th season, he won’t get more than that if things don’t improve.

As for the power rankings, it’s Duke, Wake Forest and everyone else right now.

Last week’s list is here. 

15. Pittsburgh (4-7)

A win is a win! A buzzer-beater in the Gotham Classic to pick up a road “W?” That’s even more fun.

The Panthers still have work to do to climb out of the Power Rankings cellar, beginning with a tricky game against a sneaky good Jacksonville team at home Tuesday. But No. 14 is on the near horizon.

14. Georgia Tech (5-5)

Last year’s ACC Tournament champions have lost their past 4, with the 3 most recent defeats coming by at least 14 points. They are an absolute zero offensively outside of Michael Devoe, but what is concerning to Josh Pastner of late is the poor defense. The Jackets have gone from a top 75 KenPom Adusted Defensive Efficiency group a season ago to one just inside the top 100 and trending downward this season. If you can’t score, you better stop people! Tech can’t do either.

13. Boston College (6-5)

Earl Grant’s team plays hard and is 1-0 in the ACC. That’s good enough to be 13th in these power rankings after a week off for exams.

12. Syracuse (5-5)

The Orange had exams and a COVID pause. Perhaps when they come out of all of that, they’ll be more consistent shooting the ball and play better defense. The shots will fall eventually — there are too many good shooters on Jim Boeheim’s roster. I don’t think the defense is a quick fix, unless Boeheim abandons his zone (he will not).

11. Virginia (7-4)

The Hoos hit a bunch of shots (61.8%, and 52% from 3) in their blowout win over Farleigh Dickinson. Of course, that was Farleigh Dickinson. The Knights are 0-10 for a reason, err …lots of reasons, probably. Still, Jayden Gardner and Armaan Franklin seeing the basketball go in a bunch was good medicine for the Cavaliers, who are still a threat to make the NCAA Tournament if they can find a way to score with at least some consistency.

10. Notre Dame (5-5)

Beat Kentucky and lose to Indiana.

If that’s not a microcosm of the past few years for this program under Brey, I don’t know what is. The Fighting Irish don’t get enough stops (94th in KenPom Defense) to win games when they shoot 4-for-22 from deep, as they did Saturday against the Hoosiers. The next 3 games — 2 buy games and Pitt — are a key stretch for Notre Dame, which has to figure out how to get more stops.

9. NC State (7-4)

Just when Saturday Road thought it had been unfair to NC State, they go and lose to Richmond for the first time in program history. In Charlotte, no less. This was absolutely a “we miss Manny Bates” loss — the Spiders made 24-of-40 field goal attempts in 2-point range and outscored the Wolfpack by 14 in the paint. Kevin Keatts’ squad has to rebound collaboratively and play great helpside defense to have any chacne at a successful ACC season. Friday night at the Spectrum Center they rebounded but forgot to help inside. The result was another missed résumé opportunity — and unlike Purdue, this loss does actual harm, as Richmond entered just 6-4.

8. Florida State (6-4)

FSU found its offense again, or put differently, it found senior wing Anthony Polite (25 points) again in a big victory over Lipscomb. Unfortunately for FSU, the program hit a COVID pause just as they were readying to depart for the Orange Bowl Classic and a great neutral floor résumé game with UCF. Losing that game will sting for FSU, which has squandered all their other résumé boosting opportunities thus far. A tilt with North Florida, which was intended to ready the Seminoles for the ACC grind, has also been postponed, but the Noles are optimistic they will be healthy again when they visit Boston College on Dec. 29.

7. Louisville (7-4)

The Cardinals routed SE Louisiana to begin the week but were then ambushed, outplayed and outclassed by a Western Kentucky team sitting outside the KenPom Top 100 Saturday in Bowling Green. The Cardinals do have wins over Mississippi State and Maryland, both of which will age well come Selection Sunday. But losses like Saturday’s and a November loss to Furman, while coming against talented teams, aren’t games Louisville should lose.

A big mystery with Louisville continues to be that they deploy Noah Locke as their primary creator in the pick-and-roll. This is mystifyingly poor coaching, both because Locke, a fair ball handler but hardly explosive, has an athleticism deficit against most everyone and isn’t a guy who can get his own shot. He’s also not a great passer, as evidenced by the fact he averages less than 1 assist per game.

Locke is lethal as a catch-and-shoot 3-point shooter or a guy you run to a spot in transition. Mack isn’t using him that way, and it is also hurting his 3 point numbers — as Locke is connecting on just 31.3% this season. Locke is a hardworking player and a winner, as evidenced by his 3 years and 3 NCAA Tournament teams at Florida. But he’s not being used in a way that helps Louisville win.

6. Miami (9-3)

The Canes took a week off for exams, but resumed play Monday night with a buy game victory over Stetson. That was the Canes’ 5th consecutive win before they face NC State on Dec. 29. The Canes have a tremendous backcourt; how the frontcourt weathers league play will dictate this team’s ceiling.

5. Clemson (8-4)

The Tigers collected the ACC’s best win of the week when they blasted a hot South Carolina squad 70-56 Saturday night at Littlejohn Coliseum. The Tigers haven’t gotten much from ballyhooed transfer Naz Bohannon (5.1 points per game, 3.8 rebounds) thus far. But sophomore PJ Hall is making quite the leap: he’s the team’s leading scorer at 14.8 points per game, he’s also second in rebounds at 6.3 and he’s been a pleasant surprise defensively, collecting 1.2 blocks per contest. Hall does all the little things that impact winning: pass out of doubles, set hard screens, attack the glass. He has a chance to become an All-ACC player and if he does, Clemson’s ceiling gets a little bit higher.

4. North Carolina (8-3)

Before we get too negative, the Tar Heels did topple a nice Furman team handily on Tuesday, meaning the week wasn’t all bad news.

Unfortunately, the Heels were thoroughly outclassed and physically dominated by a SEC opponent for the second time this season, this time at Kentucky. As with the Tennessee game, most of UNC’s problems came due to a shifty, fast, small, explosive point guard who got into the paint, drew help and kicked to shooters or simply scored himself.

Sahvir Wheeler tortured UNC for 26 points, dishing out 8 assists as well. At times, Wheeler’s ability to simply outwork Caleb Love off the bounce was plain alarming:

But he also outhustled other Tar Heels in transition:

And, in a game where he was 12-for-15 from the floor, North Carolina did very little to make him uncomfortable.

The Tar Heels bigs are plenty capable of imposing their will on basketball games. And yes, Caleb Love is still having a wonderful season. 

But UNC has to figure out how to solve explosive, quick backcourts, or this won’t be the debut season many hoped for in Chapel Hill.

3. Virginia Tech (8-4)

Beating the daylights out of a senior laden Saint Bonaventure team was just what the doctor ordered after a tough week that saw the Hokies punked by Dayton on the road. The computers continue to love Mike Young’s team, especially on defense, as the Hokies have now entered the rarefied air of the top 20 in the KenPom defensive efficiency rankings. If Young’s team is going to defend that well, then plenty of good days await, as Young is a noted offensive guru in basketball circles.

2. Wake Forest (11-1)

Get on the bus now before it gets too crowded. Don’t be a fan later. Or something like that.

Wake Forest narrowly avoided upsets twice last week, first against VMI, which the Demon Deacons nipped 77-70 on Tuesday behind 36 — yes 36 — from Alondes Williams.

Williams then followed that up with 34 in Charlotte on Saturday to help the Deacs avoid an upset against Charlotte. This team is fun, they play great offense, and they have a genuine star. I don’t know if they defend well enough to be a real factor in the ACC, but there’s something to be said for chemistry and confidence. They have both.

1. Duke (10-1)

It’s not Duke’s fault these rankings are boring. Duke hasn’t faced a quality opponent since the Ohio State loss, but that will change this week when they square off with Virginia Tech, the only other team in the league right now that looks like it could play on the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. That game is in Cameron, but will be a nice litmus test before tricky road contests at Notre Dame and Clemson. I don’t know if Duke will go unbeaten in league play (I think not), but anything short of the program’s first ACC regular-season title since 2010 has to be considered a disappointment at this point.