The Atlantic Coast Conference has gone through some unusual and troubling woes early in the season, although three teams remain ranked in the top eight.
Louisville (0-6) and Florida State (1-5) cannot stay out of their own way, while Duke (5-1) is balancing a mixture of experience and youth under first-year coach John Scheyer. Top-ranked North Carolina (4-0), meanwhile, is trying to rewind and reach the national championship game again after getting that far and falling to Kansas last season.
Fifth-ranked Virginia (4-0) has shown it may be the best team in the ACC with its early-season performances, taking down No. 5 Baylor and No. 19 Illinois. But is this team ready for the likes of No. 14 Arizona, No. 18 Alabama or No. 9 Arkansas?
Players like Miami junior guard Isaiah Wong and Virginia senior forward Jayden Gardner may not be seen today, but they could easily make this list next month. They are returning players who have not only gotten better, but are expected to take another jump this season and have an argument to be a first-round pick in the 2023 NBA draft.
We will start with the fifth spot going to Justyn Mutts.
#5, Justyn Mutts, Virginia Tech
Mutts, a sixth-year senior, had the interest of multiple NBA teams after leading Virginia Tech past Duke to become the ACC champions last season.
The New Jersey native returned for another year as part of a young and talented team. Mutts led the team last season in rebounds (7.4 per game), steals (43) and assists (123). As one of only two returning starters, Mutts is responsible for establishing a culture for the transfers and new guys in Blacksburg.
An aggressive forward who has an established role on the block, Mutts can use his body to get to his spot. He has also found new swim moves and fakes that he can use to score. With his above-average athleticism, he keeps his teammates fueled with high-powered dunks, while also catching alley-oops from them as well.
So far, the numbers will not wow. He's averaging 11.0 points, 4.0 assists, 9.0 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game while shooting 60.0%.
#4, Dane Goodwin, Notre Dame
The sharpshooter has had an impressive start early this season.
The fifth-year senior can shoot off the dribble and is arguably the best shooter in the conference, possessing "in the gym" range. He has also not missed a free throw through five games this season (11 of 11). Meanwhile, his defense surprises casual viewers. He has underrated defensive involvement on and off the ball.
Goodwin is averaging 15.4 ppg and 5.2 rpg while shooting 52.6% from 3-point range and 54.9% overall. If he is open, then it is most likely cash.
#3, Armando Bacot, North Carolina
Bacot has finally gotten comfortable over the last two games, adding to the double-double record he holds. He has been off to somewhat of a slow start, because he's been in a lot of foul trouble early in the season. He has to get back to defending at a high level with his mind and not just his hands.
Bacot is averaging 16.8 ppg on 53.1% shooting, with 1.0 steals and 1.2 blocks per game as well. He must lower his turnovers per game down (3.0 per game), and he must find his dominance on those boards again, averaging 12.0 rpg this season (13.1 rpg last season).
Bacot scores eight to 14 points a game on putbacks and second-chance opportunities. That keeps the defense honest, helping UNC with the elite guards the Tar Heels have.
Bacot will only improve with time and more reps.
#2, Terquavion Smith, N.C. State
The North Carolina native could have made his way onto an NBA roster last season due to his upside alone. But he came back to school to sharpen his tools. There has not been a point guard this good at N.C. State since Dennis Smith Jr., the No. 9 pick in the 2017 NBA draft. He's a shifty guard with impressive impromptu skills and counters as he drives the lane.
Look at this sick finish in a heartbreaking defeat to Kansas on Wednesday.
Smith has a lot of Bones Hyland (Denver Nuggets) and Jordan Clarkson (Utah Jazz) in his game. He's a combo guard with an interesting size and a quick twitch who can fill it up in a hurry. He is entertaining, gets the fans in their seats and has only gotten better since his freshman season.
In 33.7 minutes per game this season, Smith has had a usage of 29% and still carries a true shooting percentage of 55%. He is averaging 17.7 ppg, 5.0 apg and 2.7 rpg.
The most underrated piece of his game is his defense. The guard has taken a jump significantly, averaging 2.5 steals per game, while carrying a heavier offensive load, which makes it even more impressive.
However, Smith has the ball in his hands so much that turnovers happen: 3.8 per game. If he can find a way to minimize that, Smith could finish the season as the best player in the ACC.
#1, Caleb Love, (UNC)
Caleb Love could have been a top-20 pick in the draft last year. However, the heartbreaking defeat in the national championship game fueled him to return for his last dance, with Armando Bacot and backcourt mate R.J. Davis. One thing he has shown is an even more impressive scoring ability in the midrange, outside of his floater, this season.
Caleb Love went off against Portland in the first round of the Phil Knight Invitational. He scored 23 points on 66% shooting,and he did it at all three levels.
His pace has made his game even more deadly, and when he is at his best, he is going at his own pace. That is in regards to scoring and passing. And if he has the right matchup, he has shown that he has locked in on defense this season as well.
Love holds the No. 1 spot, and in a few weeks Smith may find his way into that slot. Maybe someone else will be the ACC's most impressive returning player. We will have to wait and see.
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