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ACC Hoops Could Have Several National Title Contenders

5 December 2015: Virginia guard (15) Malcolm Brogdon during an NCAA basketball game between the Virginia Cavaliers and the William & Mary Tribe at John Paul Jones Arena in Charlottesville, VA. (Photo by Jeffrey Lack/Icon Sportswire)
Jeffrey Lack/Icon Sportswire

If there’s one main takeaway from the first six weeks of the 2015-16 college basketball season, it’s that there will likely be a lot of parity in this year’s NCAA Tournament field.

While Michigan State has put together the most impressive body of work to date, no team is playing anywhere near the level Kentucky was at this time last winter, nor is there a group that has looked anywhere near as talented as Duke did in this past Big Dance.

To put it simply, no one is dominating, and the type of balance seen so far is an indication that a whole lot of teams have the potential to be national title contenders by the end of the year.

Four ACC squads fit that category.

Virginia, North Carolina, Miami and Duke are all ranked in the Top 15 of the AP Poll. All four have already picked up at least one loss each, but they have also shown at times why they’re capable of beating anyone in the country when at their best.

The No. 5 team in the nation, UVa has been one of the hottest teams in the land in recent weeks. This month alone, the Cavaliers have been tested by an Ohio State team that later beat Kentucky, then-No. 14 West Virginia, then-No. 12 Villanova and a California squad that boasts a pair of superstar freshmen.

They passed all of those tests.

No coach in the country teaches defense better than Tony Bennett, and the 46-year-old has a veteran roster that has bought in entirely. Senior guard Malcolm Brogdon is one of the most talented two-way players in the country, and his team isn’t unfamiliar with winning after bringing ACC regular-season titles to Charlottesville each of the last two seasons.

As well as UVa has played at times, UNC may be even better when everything is clicking.

The Tar Heels slipped up on the road against Northern Iowa and Texas, but even while key players have battled injuries — first with Marcus Paige and now with Kennedy Meeks — they’ve managed to take down Maryland and UCLA.

Paige has become the face of the program over the last three years, but senior power forward Brice Johnson has been the difference lately. Johnson is averaging 24.7 points and 9.3 rebounds per game in his last three outings, and UNC as a whole has been about as productive offensively as anyone else in college basketball.

When it comes to basketball, Miami is often an afterthought (OK, in the last decade, you could also say football). But while it’s easy to forget, it shouldn’t be overlooked that the Hurricanes were ranked as high as No. 2 nationally just three seasons ago.

The Hurricanes seem to overachieve under Jim Larranaga every single year, and they’ve finished higher than predicted in the ACC standings every season since Larranaga arrived in Coral Gables in 2011. This is easily the most loaded roster the 66-year-old has had since his 2012-13 squad that reached the Sweet 16.

22 November 2015:  Miami (Fl) Hurricanes guard Sheldon McClellan (10) and other celebrate the win in Butler v Miami, the Championship Game of the Puerto Rico Tip-Off. (Photo by Bradley Rex/Icon Sportswire)

(Photo by Bradley Rex/Icon Sportswire)

Senior guard Sheldon McClellan leads the way, scoring 16.3 points per contest and averaging 51.4 percent from beyond the arc. He’s joined in the backcourt by fellow senior Angel Rodriguez (12.4 PPG, 3.82 APG), while defensive standout Tonye Jekiri makes an impact down low.

Larranaga’s rotation can go about nine-deep, and he has six players capable of scoring in double figures on any given night. Despite a one-point loss to Northeastern — the Hurricanes’ only misstep of the year — Miami has proved it should be taken seriously by obliterating Utah early in the season and beating a Butler squad that’s currently ranked No. 9.

Duke is the most interesting of the ACC’s threats to win it all.

From this point on, the Blue Devils’ season really can go one of two ways: Either the freshmen grow up quickly and attempt another run in March like last season’s squad, or they stay in rebuilding mode and simply fight for a spot in the top third of the conference.

This year’s Duke team isn’t even close to as dangerous as the 2014-15 edition, and it won’t be even by the end of the year. That said, the Blue Devils have one of the best coaches in the history of the game in Mike Krzyzewski, and if they improve, they could still easily compete in a field that’s not as strong as last year’s.

17 November 2015:  Duke Blue Devils guard Brandon Ingram (14) in action during a game in the Championship Classic between the Duke Blue Devils and the Kentucky Wildcats at the United Center in Chicago,IL.

Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire

Freshman Brandon Ingram has already made a significant leap in the last few weeks, averaging 22 points and 8.3 rebounds per game over his last four performances, while hitting on 10 of his last 20 three-point attempts. Freshman Luke Kennard has shown flashes as well, with 24 points in an overtime loss to Utah and 22 against Utah State.

Duke’s young players will have to grow up quickly, especially with senior big man Amile Jefferson out indefinitely with a foot injury. If the freshman class plays progressively better throughout the year, however, the Devils will be a tough out, and it’ll only be a plus when Jefferson returns later in the season.

Roughly two-and-a-half months remain before the regular season wraps up and the NCAA Tournament tips off. Only one team can win it all in the end, but don’t be surprised if at least a couple ACC programs are still involved in the late weeks of March.

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