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ACC update: The biggest surprises and disappointments in the Top 25

The No. 6 North Carolina Tar Heels, No. 7 Notre Dame Fighting Irish, No. 9 Virginia Tech Hokies, No. 12 NC State Wolfpack and No. 18 Louisville Cardinals have all made statements to start the year.

NCAA Womens Basketball: Virginia Tech at Notre Dame
Virginia Tech head coach Kenny Brooks brought in an incredible transfer class this year.
Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

With the season now in full swing, the ACC has started to take form. Despite not many in-conference games having been played, the contending teams have already separated themselves from the pack. Some have impressed, others have disappointed, yet, for most, questions still remain. Here is where every Top 25 team in the ACC stands to start the month of December.

No. 6 UNC Tar Heels (6-1, 0-0 ACC)

After coasting through the first two weeks of the season playing relatively weak competition, the Tar Heels were tested last weekend during the Phil Knight Invitational Championship when they faced two Top 25 opponents in Oregon and Iowa State. North Carolina defeated Iowa State last week despite attempting twice as less 3-pointers. Despite the discrepancy, they managed to keep the three-point differential close. The Tar Heels finished 7-of-16 while the Cyclones went 9-of-35.

Deja Kelly, who ranks fifth in the ACC in points per game, led all scorers with 29 points. She is also getting to the free throw line more than any other player in the ACC (8.6 attempts per game). The story of North Carolina’s season so far has been that the scoring has been by committee. In their six wins this season, the Tar Heels have had five different leading scorers. Although Kelly is looked to as the No. 1 option on this team, the Tar Heels are more than capable of getting contributions from many others.

UNC, despite not shooting particularly well from the free throw line to start this season, has managed to pull together close wins against some of the best teams in the country. The reason for this has been keeping the turnovers low. According to Her Hoop Stats, the Tar Heels have the lowest turnover rate in the ACC at 13.6 percent. They play very fast and rank second in the conference in free throw attempts per game with 24. They only make 65 percent percent of their free throws, which is concerning. Improvement in that department is crucial, but credit the Tar Heels for exceeding expectations to start the year.

No. 7 Notre Dame Fighting Irish (6-1, 0-0 ACC)

Notre Dame has posted the best offense in the ACC and they’ve done so with their absolutely blazing efficiency. The Irish are the most efficient 3-point shooting team in the conference at 36.8 percent. They also rank third in rebounds in all of college basketball.

The Irish are leading the entire NCAA in free throw attempts per game at just below 32 a game. One has to wonder how sustainable this is, but that hasn’t mattered so far as they are making them at 73 percent. A lack of free throws seemed to have somewhat of an impact on Thursday’s game against Maryland. Notre Dame lost to the Terrapins thanks to a Diamond Miller buzzer-beater in a game where the Irish only attempted 15 free throws and made 10 of them.

No. 9 Virginia Tech Hokies (7-0, 0-0 ACC)

If we are basing the rankings on which team has played the most dominant basketball in the ACC, the Hokies would absolutely get my vote. Although they have yet to be seriously challenged much like Notre Dame has, the Hokies have posted the best net rating in the entire conference by a wide margin, outscoring teams by 50 points per 100 possessions. For context, the next best team in the ACC is outscoring teams by 35 points per 100.

The Hokies are led by Elizabeth Kitley, who is averaging almost 20 points, is second in the conference in scoring efficiency and has been a double-double machine. In Virginia Tech’s win against Longwood, Kitley recorded 23 points and 14 rebounds in only 25 minutes. The Hokies are beating teams by a margin of victory of 37 points per game, which is second in all of college basketball.

After Virginia Tech’s win against Longwood, head coach Kenny Brooks had nothing but great things to say about the team’s performance.

“I thought our defense was really good, we communicated the way we were supposed to, and executed the game plan … we have a big stretch coming up and this was a good way to go into that stretch.”

Unless teams ahead of them suffer some losses, it is likely that the Hokies will stay put in the rankings until they face some ranked opponents; however, if Virginia Tech continues to win in dominant fashion, it will be hard to leave them out of conversations about being the best team in basketball.

No. 12 NC State Wolfpack (7-1, 0-0 ACC)

Much like the Hokies, North Carolina State has been dominating its opponents to start the year. Remember when I mentioned that there was a team just behind the Hokies that had a net rating of 35? That would be the Wolfpack.

NC State is shooting almost 40 percent from three to start the season. The efficiency with which NC State’s offense operates has been beautiful to watch, and the defense has also been remarkable. Much like Virginia Tech, they haven’t been seriously challenged outside of Connecticut, which gave the Wolfpack their only loss of the season so far. The Wolfpack did secure a huge win road win against No. 10 Iowa last week that seems to have silenced any doubters thinking the UConn game was concerning.

No. 18 Louisville Cardinals (5-3, 0-0 ACC)

It’s been a rough start to the season for the Cardinals, who entered this season with championship aspirations in mind. They’ve lost three games, two of them to unranked opponents. The commonality in all three losses was simply bad offense.

Perhaps it was a matter of exhaustion, as Louisville mostly played a seven-woman rotation, but Ohio State absolutely ran it out of the gym in the fourth quarter on Wednesday. The Buckeyes ran a full-court press the entire game and Louisville handled it just fine until the fourth. In the half court, Ohio State shrunk the floor on Hailey Van Lith and put her in difficult scoring positions.

Van Lith is leading the ACC in minutes per game at 37.5. It feels as though she is being asked to do too much right now. She’s certainly more than capable of rising to the occasion, but it is concerning that she is being asked to do so much for the Cardinals this early into the season. The schedule does get easier for them in the month of December, but given the way they’ve played lately, it’s possible that many of the games end up being tight battles down the stretch.