On the Mark

Player of the Week

Markell Johnson, NC State

Markell JohnsonMarkell JohnsonAs the engine for one of the country’s most explosive offenses, NC State’s Markell Johnson delivered a career high 27 points against a top-ten Auburn team. Along with the spectacular offensive performance, which included 5 made three-point attempts, the junior added 4 rebounds, 4 assists, and 3 steals.

The 175-pound guard was outstanding in the second half and scored 19 of his 27 points after the break. Johnson scored in the most important stretch of the entire 40 minutes. After Auburn tied the game at 47 with 10:22 remaining in the second half, Johnson scored 10 straight points for the Wolfpack—a run that included a 3-pointer, four-point play, a transition three, followed by a steal all in less than two minutes. This gave the Wolfpack a comfortable 8-point edge over the Tigers.

Although Johnson’s minutes are slightly down from his sophomore year, he has developed into a more reliable and efficient scorer. He is creating his own shots and drilling pull-up jumpers that he normally did not make in his first two seasons wearing an NC State uniform. The 6-foot-1 junior is ranked second in the conference in 3-point field goal percentage, converting on 50% of his threes this season. In what has been one of the nation’s softest non-conference schedule, the Wolfpack finally locked down a signature win and make a convincing argument to crack the top-25.

Who’s Hot

Tre Jones, Duke

Carrying his team to a third victory against a top-15 team this season, Tre Jones stuffed the stat sheet with 13 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists, and 6 steals. The freshman point guard played a stifling defense and made key floaters against Texas Tech on a night that his teammates RJ Barrett, Zion Williamson, and Cameron Reddish were struggling to get into an offensive rhythm. The high-level defender was unselfish and a leader on the court for the entire game. Jones is invaluable for the Blue Devils and if he continues to play with the intensity that he has in Duke’s non-conference stretch, he should be in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year.

Nik Popovic, Boston College

The 6-foot-11 forward came up huge in the Eagles’ first true road game of the season at DePaul. The junior scored 19 points and drilled two free throws with two seconds remaining to seal the game. Since an overtime loss to Providence two weeks ago, the Eagles have picked up three straight victories. In the three wins, Popovic is averaging 17.3 points and 9 rebounds and has improved in almost all aspects of his game from his sophomore season. Nik Popovic and teammate Ky Bowman have enough talent to pull several conference upsets this season.

Who’s Not

Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets

Georgia Tech head coach Josh Pastner is in the middle of a rebuilding season and has had a rough 6-5 start to the season. The Yellow Jackets are very young, but do have talent in sophomore point guard Jose Alvarado and ESPN 100 freshman guard Michael Devoe. Tennessee, Northwestern, and St. John’s have all handed Georgia Tech a loss this season, which are all understandable, but a loss to Gardner-Webb is one that Pastner wishes he could take back. On Saturday, the Yellow Jackets fell to in-state rival Georgia at home with a final 70 to 59. Georgia Tech is not getting blown out in their losses, in fact they have led late in several of those games, but are struggling to close out the final minutes.

Top Five ACC Teams’ Holiday Wishlist

Current ACC standings are based on each team’s overall record before league play begins. Here are the top five teams that hold the best non-conference record along with one wish:

Virginia Cavaliers (11-0)

Improved rebounding: Once again, the undefeated Cavaliers’ elite defense will be one of the toughest to pick apart. If there is one thing that the Hoos must improve on, it is rebounding. Tony Bennett’s team ranks last in the conference in offensive boards and total rebounds per game, averaging 8.9 and 33.6 respectively. Although Virginia defeated South Carolina this past week, one concern jumped out: the Gamecocks converted 12 offensive rebounds into 14 second-chance points. Second-chance points is what could get the Cavaliers beat, especially against teams like Duke and North Carolina—two teams that thrive off the glass and lead the conference in rebounding.

Duke Blue Devils (11-1)

Better free throw shooting: If there was one flaw that could come back to haunt the Blue Devils, it would be their free throw shooting. With driving forces in RJ Barrett and Zion Williamson, the Duke teammates find themselves at the charity stripe often. Barrett has connected on only 45 of his 69 free throw attempts this season (65.2%), while Williamson has shot only slightly better. In tight games, which will be more common in ACC play, free throws become critical down the stretch. As a team, the Blue Devils are shooting a poor 68% from the line, ranked 13th in the conference. Luckily, this is something that every player can practice and improve on.

Florida State Seminoles (11-1)

Less turnovers: Averaging nearly 16 turnovers per game, Florida State has been surprisingly careless with the ball. In the Seminoles’ first nine games of the season, the team turned the ball over in 22.4% of its possessions. Florida State has multiple players turning the ball over in more than a quarter of their possessions, including senior Terance Mann who is struggling with a higher turnover rate than his junior year. The Seminoles tallied 20 turnovers in each of their past two games against much lower competition in North Florida and Saint Louis. While this is all very fixable, it is hard to be optimistic that the Seminoles will be stronger with the basketball in time for conference play when turnovers have been a consistent pattern.

NC State Wolfpack (11-1)

Tougher non-conference schedule: Head coach Kevin Keatts has done a phenomenal job at making the Wolfpack relevant again. NC State is off to an incredible 11-1 start, but the schedule has definitely been in their favor. Outside of Wisconsin and Auburn, in which the Wolfpack split the two, NC State has played lower competition in every non-conference game. According to KenPom rankings, Keatts’ team’s strength of schedule sits at no. 343 in the country, with 5 of their 11 wins outside of the top 300. Look, the Wolfpack have the talent and depth to knock off any ACC opponent. The question is if their non-conference schedule has prepared them for a mentally and physically draining ACC schedule. The Wolfpack will be tested in their first two ACC opponents—Miami and North Carolina.

Virginia Tech Hokies (10-1)

Bigger size: Virginia Tech’s starting five includes four guards—all 6’6’’ or less—which contributes to the team’s lack of size. Unfortunately, players are not going to grow several inches overnight. Right now, the Hokies are ranked 14th in rebounds per game right in front of Virginia. Bigger teams have posed a problem for the undersized Hokies. In Tech’s lone loss to Penn State, the Hokies were overwhelmed by the Nittany Lions’ inside tall and physical presence and were outrebounded 36-29, which included fourteen Penn State offensive rebounds. Despite the team’s lack of size, the Hokies are a great shooting team, connecting on 59% of their field goals this season. Virginia Tech’s stars–Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Justin Robinson—must continue to shoot well in order to make up for rebounds that larger teams have an advantage of getting.

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