RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Duke started the year as the nation's top-ranked team and Atlantic Coast Conference favorite. Yet as the start of league play arrives, little has gone to plan for the fifth-ranked Blue Devils.

And that could make for an interesting race for the ACC regular-season crown with No. 8 North Carolina, No. 10 Louisville and No. 12 Virginia lurking.

It's been a challenge for the Blue Devils (12-1) to keep their talented freshman class healthy , with Jayson Tatum (sprained foot), Marques Bolden (lower leg injury), Harry Giles (knee procedure) missing multiple games. And that has meant coach Mike Krzyzewski's visions of "hellacious, five-on-five" battles in practice haven't materialized.

 

 

Then there's junior guard Grayson Allen, now indefinitely suspended after tripping an Elon player Wednesday night — the third incident for him in the past 12 months. Duke's next game its league opener next weekend at Virginia Tech, and Krzyzewski said on Thursday's "Dan Patrick Show" that Allen "won't play until I feel good about the entire situation where he is at."

 

 

 

 

"Overall our guys have done great," Krzyzewski said after the Elon win . "But we're more in October mode than December, because the mistakes we make now are public or against teams that really can beat you. When you play exhibitions and stuff like that in October and early November, they don't show up as much."

The Tar Heels (11-2), returning veterans from last year's team that won the ACC title and made it to the NCAA final, have looked like Duke's strongest contender. They won the Maui Invitational and lost a 103-100 thriller against No. 6 Kentucky, and they soon could have versatile swingman Theo Pinson — possibly the team's top perimeter defender — back from preseason foot surgery.

UNC opens ACC play at Georgia Tech next weekend.

"Last year around this time, we started buying into the defensive end," junior point guard Joel Berry II said, "so hopefully when we come back from (Christmas) break we can pick it up on the defensive end a little bit more."

Here are other things to watch as ACC play begins:

LOUISVILLE'S EARLY TEST: There's no questioning the pre-conference resume of the Cardinals (11-1), who have beaten No. 15 Purdue and Kentucky with their only loss coming against No. 4 Baylor in the Battle 4 Atlantis title game .

They get a chance to ease into ACC play. Louisville's league opener comes Wednesday against Virginia, followed by a nonconference game against No. 16 Indiana then a trip to No. 25 Notre Dame.

Coach Rick Pitino referred to it as a "gauntlet" after the UK win . No argument here.

VIRGINIA'S SEARCH: Virginia (10-1) dismissed Memphis transfer and interior scoring threat Austin Nichols from the team in November, and that could make things tougher for an offense with one double-figure scorer (London Perrantes at 10 per game). It also could make the Cavaliers even more reliant on their calling-card defense.

SURPRISE TEAM?: Last year, Syracuse went from 9-9 in ACC play to the Final Four. Could North Carolina State have its own March surprise? There's touted freshman point guard Dennis Smith Jr. (18.9 points), and the Wolfpack recently added five-star freshman Omer Yurtseven after the Turkish 7-footer sat out the first nine games in an NCAA eligibility dispute .

 

 

Picked sixth in the preseason, N.C. State (10-2) has five double-digit scorers and room to grow.

STUMBLING ORANGE: Syracuse was picked to finish fifth in the league, but the Orange are struggling on the eve of league play. Syracuse (7-5) is coming off a 33-point home loss to St. John's.

BIDS PURSUIT: ACC coaches routinely talk about getting 10 teams into the NCAA Tournament. Last year, the league tied its record with seven bids, got an NCAA-record six in the Sweet 16 and two in the Final Four.

The league has six ranked teams, including No. 21 Florida State. And 12 of the 15 teams had started 9-3 or better as of Thursday, giving the league a deep well of bid contenders — assuming they keep winning.

"We are pleased we are 12-1," FSU coach Leonard Hamilton said, "and now let's get the party started."

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AP Sports Writers Gary B. Graves in Louisville, Kentucky; John Kekis in Syracuse, New York; Hank Kurz in Richmond, Virginia; Joedy McCreary in Durham, North Carolina; and Joe Reedy in Tallahassee, Florida; contributed to this report.

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Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap

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