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2018 Virginia Basketball Countdown: Top 5 ACC defenses

I think you know who is number one.

NCAA Basketball: ACC Conference Tournament-Virginia vs Louisville Nicole Sweet-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday, I broke down the Top 5 backcourts in the ACC for the upcoming season (judging by my mentions, Syracuse fans were NOT happy). Today, we’re taking a look at the Top 5 defenses in the conference.

KenPom released its preseason rankings, and the ACC is well represented with Duke (No. 2), North Carolina (No. 3), and Virginia (No. 4) all coming in the Top 5. That trio is joined by Syracuse when just adjusted defense is sorted, but it’s tough to tell what to expect out of some of the ACC squads on the defensive end. Only one member of last season’s ACC All-Defensive team—Clemson’s Elijah Thomas—returns this season. If you include players that got votes for ACC Defensive Player of the Year, you can add our very own Jack Salt and Notre Dame’s Rex Pfleuger to the list.

Virginia finished last season at No. 1 in defense per KenPom, their highest ranking under Tony Bennett. We know the Hoos will be good, but who else will make it tough to score in conference? Can any of Duke’s freshmen play defense, or will Coach K be forced to revert to a zone again? Can FSU or Clemson build on their late season pushes in the NCAA? Will UNC play defense at all?

Let’s take a look.

Honorable Mention: North Carolina

Honestly, this is just an “I respect KenPom” honorable mention. KenPom has UNC seventh nationally and fourth in the ACC in his 2018-19 preseason rankings. Their three-point defense was terrible last season (311th in the nation at 38%), but they limited teams inside the arc to just 45% stealing. Luke Maye offers a solid presence defensively and can match up with a four or five at times if needed.

5. Florida State

Coach Leonard Hamilton said last year at ACC Media Day that he likes to be fluid with his guards/forwards. Hamilton loves a long, lean, dynamic player that can function in just about any role (outside center) on the court, and his defense is often difficult to face because of it. The Seminoles last season gave up a lot of open looks from three with opponents shooting 36% from beyond the arc, but they were tough on 2-pointers and steals. I expect more of the same with Terrence Mann, PJ Savoy, MJ Walker, and Phil Cofer returning and bringing that length. Throw in the 7-4 Christ Koumadje at center and things get real hairy as you get closer to the basket.

4. Duke

KenPom has the Blue Devils as No. 5 in AdjD for this upcoming season, but until I see how their quad of freshman actually perform on the court, I’m not putting them in the top three. Marvin Bagley III, while an amazing player, was a terrible defender and forced Coach K to move to that zone to make up for his inability to play man. Will Coach K need to do that again? That’s yet to be seen. While that zone defense saw the Blue Devils climb into the Top-10 defensively last season, opponents often got open looks. According to recruiting reports on the new trio of Zion Williamson, Cam Reddish, and RJ Barrett, that won’t be an issue this season. We’ll see, I guess.

3. Clemson

I really like Aamir Simms and Elijah Thomas as the anchors of this defense. Brad Brownell brings back his team leader in steals from last season in Marquise Reed (58), as well as in blocks in Thomas (79). KenPom has them at 11th in the country in preseason, and last season the Tigers were Top-25 in block percentage at 13.3. Their allowed 2-pt shooting % of 43.9% in 2017-18 was 8th best in the country and shows Clemson was able to alter and block shots near the basket.

2. Syracuse

The Syracuse 2-3 zone is a pain in the ass, and it’s effective as hell. Coach Boeheim returns a ton of experience and adds his son to the squad this year, so I assume Buddy has been setting up his stuffed animals in a passable zone since he was a child. The trio of Pascal Chukwu (7-2), Marek Dolezaj (6-10), and Oshae Brissett (6-8) clog things up down low, and Frank Howard (6-5) and Tyus Battle (6-6) make passing up top a nightmare. Elijah Hughes, a transfer from ECU, has had a year to become more familiar with the zone and could be a major factor for this team.

The Orange don’t let teams make a lot of threes, make two-pointers extremely difficult, and were third best in the country last year in block percentage at 17.4%. Both Howard and Battle are threats to steal the ball, too.

1. Virginia

This should not be a surprise. If there’s something the Hoos have shown year in and year out under Coach Bennett, it’s that they are going to make your life just miserable defensively. The Hoos are preseason No. 2 in AdjD according to KenPom (behind Kansas), and De’Andre Hunter should be a legitimate option for the conference DPOY. Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy have continued improving defensively each year in Charlottesville, and Jack Salt and Mamadi Diakite are nightmares for opponents down low.

Virginia doesn’t foul, makes you work for a good shot, and will just demoralize you until you heave up a bad three with that Pack Line defense. Last season, the Hoos threw an extra wrinkle in the defense as they upped their steals (11.2%), led by Jerome (3.5%). Last year, Virginia averaged a Pack Line Pledge at 54.0 points surrendered per game. That’s...very good.

Agree? Disagree? Leave your comments below!