The (Tobacco) Road To The Final Four: The Rise Of Luke Kennard

    ACC conference play is ready to heat up in college hoops. A primer on the league as we head into 2017.

    December 31, 2016

    With the calendar set to turn, ACC conference play is set to heat up in college hoops. Let’s check in on the league as we head into 2017.

    It’s New Year’s Eve, which means we’re ready for conference play to kick into full swing across the college basketball landscape.

    With non-conference season coming to a close in the ACC, let’s get better familiar with what is taking place in the league as we head into the New Year.

    Non-conference player of the year: Luke Kennard, Duke

    As the calendar turns, Kennard has positioned himself to be a first-team All-American. While players such as Josh Hart and Lonzo Ball would join him in the conversation for national player of the year, there’s no question that—despite having an abundance of talent—the Blue Devils would not be 12-1 without Kennard. The 6-6 sharpshooter is averaging 20.4 points, 5.9 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game, and he’s shooting 42.7 percent from three-point range. He has been head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s best player in the team’s biggest games, and he was instrumental in the team not getting upset by Tennessee State last Monday.

    Before he was suspended, Grayson Allen was a huge part of Duke’s team—and the Blue Devils will need him back and focused for a national title run. But Kennard does so many things well. He has good instincts and is versatile in addition to be a lights-out shooter. Coming into the year, Allen, Jayson Tatum, Marques Bolden and Harry Giles were the Duke players cited in most college hoops conversation. But not anymore.

    As we toast to 2017, Kennard has been the best player on arguably the country’s most talented team.

    Duke hasn’t put it all together yet, as Allen, Tatum and Giles were the preseason names that most college hoops experts brought up when discussing the team’s chances in March. But to have Kennard and Amile Jefferson playing at such a high level is a bonus heading into league play. Allen certainly needs to become a more focused and mature player both on and off the court. But this is a team that has not played its best basketball yet, but it is bound to hit its stride sooner than later.

    Non-conference all-ACC first team:

    G Luke Kennard, Duke
    G Joel Berry II, North Carolina
    F Justin Jackson, North Carolina
    F Michael Young, Pitt
    F Amile Jefferson, Duke

    Fast breaks

    North Carolina SF Justin Jackson

    …Because Justin Jackson decided to return to North Carolina for his junior season, the Tar Heels are set up to have a very deep run in March and a great shot at claiming a national championship. The 6-8 small forward is enjoying a phenomenal third year thus far, and there’s no reason to not expect the production to continue as ACC play heats up. He had 34 points against Kentucky, and he is connecting on nearly 41 percent of his three-point attempts after registering a .292 percentage in the 2015-16 season. That long-distance improvement has been an important development in his game. It’s refreshing to see players test the NBA waters at the league’s draft combine but ultimately come back to school after realizing that it may be the best for his future.

    Expect the Tar Heels to push the Blue Devils for the league crown. Despite Roy Williams and Co. losing Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson, Jackson and Joel Berry II have been terrific this year. Berry is the smooth point guard that UNC fans were hoping to see play upon his arrival, and Jackson has emerged as a go-to No. 1 scorer. The key will be if front court players Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks and Tony Bradley continue to clean up on the boards and provide a solid presence near the rim.

    Duke-UNC at the top of the league? As it should be. Along with Villanova, Kansas, UCLA and Kentucky, they look like the cream of the crop in the national title conversation.

    …How many NCAA Tournament bids can the league claim? Expect to hear a lot of discussion about the high number of ACC teams vying for a spot in the dance, as the league is the strongest in the country. Come Selection Sunday, the ACC could possibly get as many as 11 teams (11!) in the field. The conference’s depth should be supported in the various computers, but it will probably take a few upsets of top-tier teams such as Duke and UNC by the league’s bubble teams to get to that 11 mark. And those same bubble teams can’t afford any bad losses to teams such as Boston College and Georgia Tech.

    …We already knew that Virginia’s defense was beautiful to watch, at least that’s how I see it. I’m sure there are plenty of college hoops fans that don’t enjoy watching the Cavaliers clamp down on their opponents, but I enjoy watching it every time Tony Bennett’s squad is in action. But in the Cavaliers’ win over Louisville this past Wednesday night, it was their offense that seemingly made the difference. Bennett had eight players score between six and 10 points in a road victory at the KFC Yum Center, displaying a balanced offense that complements its tight defense very well.

    …While Virginia displayed its scoring depth in the win over Louisville, Florida State continued to get production from a deep bench in its ACC opener against Wake Forest. Leonard Hamilton had 11 different players see double-figure minutes, as 12 Seminoles saw action against the Demon Deacons. This depth will be much-needed moving forward, as a tough six-game stretch looms, beginning on Saturday in Charlottesville.

    …Louisville has one of the nation’s best defenses, but the Cardinals’ shooting is worrisome. On the flip side, Notre Dame is sizzling hot shooting as a team, and the Irish take care of the basketball. But can Mike Brey’s team get enough stops in crunch time?

    Saturday’s best games

    No. 5 Duke at Virginia Tech, Noon ET, ESPN2: Allen remains suspended indefinitely after his third tripping incident, but the Blue Devils have plenty of star power without him. The Hokies, though, have five players averaging double figures in scoring, and it’s a VT squad that should be a consistent tough “out” in conference play. Duke is such an efficient shooting team inside the arc, though, which makes it tough for any team to combat.

    No. 20 Florida State at No. 12 Virginia, 2 p.m. ET, ESPNU: Florida State was able to get past Wake Forest after a late rally earlier this week, but Hamilton’s squad will need to play much cleaner basketball against a Virginia team that is looking to push Duke and North Carolina for the conference crown. The Cavaliers are riding high after their 61-53 victory at No. 6 Louisville to open ACC play, as they held the Cardinals to 19 made field goals. Dwayne Bacon and the ‘Noles will see their toughest defense yet on the season.

    No. 6 Louisville vs. No. 16 Indiana (Indianapolis), 12:30 p.m. ET, CBS: The Cardinals are looking to bounce back after the loss to Virginia on Wednesday, but they’ll be facing a salty Hoosiers squad coming off of a setback to Nebraska. Expect Rick Pitino’s team to play suffocating defense and cause problems for Tom Crean’s squad, which has been the model of inconsistency. The Hoosiers have beaten Kansas and North Carolina but have lost to IPFW and the Cornhuskers. Wild season thus far.

    Finally, here is the ACC moment of the week:

    See you next week! Happy New Year!

    MORE: College Basketball Weekend Primer – Dec. 30-Jan. 1


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