ACC basketball preview: Will it come down to Duke and Louisville?
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Last year couldn't have gone much better for the ACC.

The conference had the best player (Zion Williamson), the best team (Virginia), and three 1-seeds in the NCAA Tournament. The Cavaliers' title was the third for the ACC in five seasons.

Though the bottom half of the conference could be weak this season, the ACC enters mid-December with three top-10 teams — Louisville, Duke, and Virginia.

Here's your ACC preview:

theScore's projected order of finish (last year in parentheses)
1. Duke (3)
2. Louisville (T6)
3. Virginia (T1)
4. Florida State (4)
5. North Carolina (T1)
6. NC State (T8)
7. Syracuse (T6)
8. Pittsburgh (T14)
9. Virginia Tech (5)
10. Notre Dame (T14)
11. Miami (T11)
12. Clemson (T8)
13. Boston College (T11)
14. Georgia Tech (10)
15. Wake Forest (13)

5 key questions

What's standing in Duke's way?

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Duke doesn't have Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett, or Cam Reddish anymore. But the Blue Devils do have depth, balance, and more experience than the team that lost in the Elite Eight last year.

Through 10 games, Duke's bench accounts for 38.3% of its minutes, per KenPom. While that number is bound to drop when rotations shrink in conference play, it's still very un-Duke. Mike Krzyzewski hasn't had a bench that plays even 30% of his team's minutes since 2012. Nine players are averaging between 13 and 25 minutes per game. Only Tre Jones is averaging more than 30.

The loss to Stephen F. Austin aside, Duke has been as solid as any team in the country in what's shaping up to be a wide-open year. The Blue Devils are forcing turnovers at their highest rate in a decade and they're tough to beat on the glass. Duke's also been a better 3-point shooting team than it was a year ago.

Six-foot-10 freshman Vernon Carey is the X-factor. He already has seven double-doubles and leads the country in fouls drawn per 40 minutes.

Is Jordan Nwora the best player in college basketball?

Michigan State guard Cassius Winston was a no-brainer choice for preseason player of the year.

Jordan Nwora has made his case in the first month of the season.

The 6-foot-7 forward shoulders more responsibility than any player in the ACC, but it hasn't stopped him from thriving. Nwora has averaged 20.8 points and 7.5 rebounds per game for Louisville while also playing solid defense.

In Chris Mack's second season, the Cardinals' roster is better top-to-bottom, which is why they're an early national championship contender. But Nwora makes it all go.

How far can Virginia go with this offense?

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As it stands now, this would be Tony Bennett's worst offensive team in 11 seasons at Virginia.

It would also be his best defensive team.

The defending national champions are a fascinating story this year, even if they aren't a great watch. Despite the losses of De'Andre Hunter, Ty Jerome, and Kyle Guy, Virginia's defense has somehow gotten better. It limited Syracuse to 34 points in its season opener, kept Maine to 26, and held North Carolina below 50 in a 56-47 win.

The offense, though, has major issues. The Cavaliers are shooting just 24.9 percent from 3-point range, the 10th-worst mark nationally. They don't get to the foul line, either. The offense runs primarily through 6-foot-9 senior Mamadi Diakite, who is only making 46.8% of his 2-point attempts. Things got extremely ugly against Purdue when Virginia scored just 40 points in 58 possessions in a 29-point loss.

We knew the Cavaliers would be more limited this year. But not to this extent. Virginia needs freshman Casey Morsell and junior Tomas Woldetensae to get going. They're a combined 11-of-66 (16.7%) from beyond the arc.

Will Cole Anthony get some help?

North Carolina lost twice last week, falling to 6-3 on the season. The Tar Heels failed to score 50 points in either game — a 74-49 loss to Ohio State and a 56-47 defeat to Virginia.

UNC had three losses by Dec. 8 for the first time since 2011. It's extremely uncharacteristic for a Roy Williams team to be scuffling this much on offense.

Cole Anthony needs some help.

The prized freshman, who scored 82 points in his first three college games, hasn't been as productive recently. Over his last six games, Anthony has averaged 15 points on 14.5 field-goal attempts. He's committed multiple turnovers in every contest. Anthony's usage rate ranks third among freshmen (Virginia Tech's Landers Nolley is second), and it's taken a toll on his efficiency.

But the Tar Heels haven't found many reliable options elsewhere. Anthony was the only player in double figures in the team's loss to Ohio State. Six-foot-10 freshman Armando Bacot scored 11 against Virginia and could be the Tar Heels' second-best option, but UNC is still waiting on another guard to step up and provide offense alongside Anthony. Christian Keeling, who averaged 18.7 points per game for Charleston Southern last year, has yet to score in double figures and is shooting 31.6% from the field.

Will this be a down year for the conference as a whole?

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Since the ACC expanded in 2013-14, at least six teams from the conference have made the NCAA Tournament each year. In 2017 and 2018, nine ACC schools made the field of 68. Seven reached the tournament in 2019.

But once you get past the top five teams or so, the ACC is full of clubs going through rebuilding seasons.

ESPN's Joe Lunardi projected six teams to make the field in his mock bracket this week, with one of those squads (NC State) reaching the tournament in a play-in game. Per KenPom, only seven ACC teams rank in the top 50.

After reaching three consecutive NCAA Tournaments, Virginia Tech is one of the least experienced teams in the country, and has a new coach in Mike Young. Syracuse, which has made nine of the last 11 tournaments, has no seniors and has already lost four games. Notre Dame, which made seven of eight tournaments from 2010 to 2017, is already 0-2 in ACC play and is in danger of missing the NCAA Tournament for the third consecutive season.

As opposed to previous years where the ACC could get 60% of its teams in the field, this year feels top-heavy.

More in this series

ACC basketball preview: Will it come down to Duke and Louisville?
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