RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - The Atlantic Coast Conference title chase looked like a four-team race in the preseason, with Duke leading the way.
Now, with the bulk of the league schedule starting this weekend, those freshman-led Blue Devils have played every bit like the favorite. Reigning champion Virginia and newcomer Louisville look like their toughest competition, while North Carolina is trying to figure things out after a bumpier-than-expected start.
Second-ranked Duke has certainly lived up to its October billing. Freshman big man and preseason Associated Press all-American Jahlil Okafor has led Duke’s offense, while fellow rookies Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones are averaging in double figures, too.
Duke - which handed No. 4 Wisconsin its only loss - has won all 12 games by double figures.
“For us, it’s about playing hard for 40 minutes and seeing what we did wrong and improving and moving on to the next thing,” Duke junior Amile Jefferson said.
The third-ranked Cavaliers and fifth-ranked Cardinals also have looked strong so far - especially Virginia.
Despite losing veterans Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell from the program’s first ACC title team since 1976, the Cavaliers have been dominant with their lockdown defense and are off to their first 12-0 start since the Ralph Sampson era.
As for Louisville (12-1), its only loss came against top-ranked Kentucky. Louisville will play Duke on Jan. 17, and its possible Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski will aim for his 1,000th win when the teams meet.
“You have heard the expression about one weak link on a chain, the fence falls apart,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. “We have eight open links, eight guys that don’t understand what we do. We have four that do. So we have to close the links up week by week.
“What I’m hoping for is come March, we’ve got nine to 10 links that are closed.”
Here are things to watch in the ACC as league play gets rolling:
TAR HEEL TROUBLES: UNC was picked to finish second to Duke, but the No. 19 Tar Heels have given up too many offensive rebounds and committed too many turnovers in three early losses.
That had coach Roy Williams saying he was holding tougher practices because “being a nice guy’s not working.”
UNC (10-3) has won three straight since.
“We can really be good,” junior Brice Johnson said, “just because it’s a momentum thing for us and it’s a learning experience.”
IRISH’S START: No. 14 Notre Dame (13-1, 1-0) already has a league win from an early ACC opener against Florida State.
The Fighting Irish look determined to get back to the NCAAs after missing last year’s tournament. With the return of top-scorer Jerian Grant from an academic suspension, Notre Dame has won nine straight with its only loss coming by a point to Providence.
SHORTHANDED SEMINOLES: Florida State took a big hit when junior guard Aaron Thomas was declared ineligible for the season in mid-December.
Losing its leading scorer could be too much to overcome for a team trying to return to the NCAAs after a two-season absence.
NCAA PURSUITS: Teams in the middle of the league will feature plenty of jockeying for postseason positioning.
Syracuse had four losses entering Wednesday’s game against Cornell. North Carolina State has relied heavily on a backcourt led by Alabama transfer Trevor Lacey. The Wolfpack aim for a fourth straight NCAA trip under Mark Gottfried.
Pittsburgh is trying to return to the tournament for the 13th time in 14 years, while Miami has lost three of five after a strong start that included a national ranking.
FIRST-YEAR COACHES: The league’s three new coaches are preparing for their first run through the league. On Saturday, Jim Christian’s Boston College squad travels to Duke, while Buzz Williams and Virginia Tech host Syracuse.
On Sunday, Danny Manning’s Wake Forest squad, which lost a December league opener at N.C. State, hosts Louisville.
AP Sports Writers Gary B. Graves in Louisville, Kentucky, and Joedy McCreary in Durham, North Carolina, contributed to this report.
Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at https://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap
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