We’re just a few day’s from the start of ACC conference play this weekend. Let’s glance at how the 15 teams look, top to bottom, in this week’s power rankings.
1. Syracuse (12-0, LW: 1)
Syracuse picked up a validating win over the Villanova Wildcats on Saturday in a battle of undefeated teams. The Orange trailed 25-7 in the first half before winning 78-62 and showing it going to be tough for anyone to compete with this team, particularly in the Carrier Dome. This week, the Orange host an Eastern Michigan team on Tuesday that was just blown out by Duke before the defending champions of the ACC, Miami, in their first ACC conference game. Duke was my preseason pick to win the ACC, but I think Syracuse is currently the best and will be very tough to beat. The Orange remained 2nd in Monday’s AP Poll, and are one of 8 undefeated teams remaining in college basketball.
2. Duke (10-2, LW: 2)
Duke’s only game over the week of Christmas was Saturday’s 82-59 blowout of Eastern Michigan, as mentioned above. The game featured very little drama for the Blue Devils, who are now ranked 7th in the AP Poll released today. Duke will travel about a 45 minute drive west of campus for a New Year’s Eve game listed as “at” Elon, although the game is really at a neutral site in the Greensboro Coliseum, and I’m sure there will be more Blue Devils fans than Phoenix fans in the building. That will be followed by their first true road game, which is also their first ACC game of the year, when they travel to South Bend to play Notre Dame, who will be playing their first ever ACC game.
3. Florida State (8-3, LW: 3)
The Seminoles got a Christmas break, taking the entire week off after their upset win over UMass on December 21. Tonight they host Charleston Southern out of the Big South Conference in their final tune-up before the start of conference play against Virginia on Saturday in Tallahassee. Before the season I picked the Seminoles to finish 12th in the ACC, due to the loss of some key players from last year, most notably forward Michael Snaer, and a few struggles on the road a year ago. However, they have proven in their non-conference slate of games they are worthy to be called contenders in this year’s ACC.
4. Pittsburgh (11-1, LW: 4)
Like the ‘Noles, the Panthers of Pittsburgh took the entire week off as part of a 10-day layoff in between their win over Cal Poly and their game on Tuesday against Albany. The break is well-deserved after starting the season with 10 straight wins, with the only loss in a 44-43 defensive battle against Cincinnati at the Jimmy V Classic in New York. That game against the Great Danes is their final non-conference contest before their inaugural ACC campaign begins in Raleigh against an NC State team that is better than I had expected.
5. North Carolina (9-3, LW: 5)
The Tar Heels hosted Northern Kentucky on Friday, and played poorly at times, although they eventually won 75-60. The team remains ranked 19th in the AP Poll, on the strength of wins against Louisville, Michigan State, and Kentucky, despite losses to Belmont, UAB, and Texas. The Heels seem to play to the level of their opponent more than anybody else in the country. If that’s the case, they will be capable of beating Syracuse or Duke yet still capable of losing to Virginia Tech or Boston College once conference play gets underway. Before ACC play, North Carolina will host UNC Wilmington on Tuesday, then will begin their conference slate on the road at Wake Forest on Sunday. The announcement that PJ Hairston will not be reinstated by the NCAA hurts the Heels, but they are also used to playing without him by now.
6. Virginia (9-3, LW: 7)
The Cavaliers defeated Norfolk State by 10 last Monday for their 9th win of the year, before taking a few days off before playing at Tennessee tonight in a good test for both teams before beginning play in their respective leagues. While guard Joe Harris isn’t quite having as stellar a season as many had predicted for the Wahoos, he is still an exceptional leader for this team. They move up after passing Notre Dame (keep reading to see why), and 2 of their 3 losses are certainly understandable, to VCU and Wisconsin. Their first ACC game is against another top-tier team in the conference, as they travel to Florida State on Saturday.
7. Notre Dame (9-4, LW: 6)
The Irish of Notre Dame have been an interesting team to watch throughout the season. At their best, they handled Indiana nicely, and had Ohio State beaten before the Buckeyes’ furious last-minute comeback. At their worst, the Irish have losses to Indiana State and North Dakota State. They had one of their bad games yesterday, when the Golden Griffins of Canisius took the Irish to overtime in South Bend, before the Irish were able to escape with a victory. I’ve barely heard of Canisius and have no clue where it is (I looked it up, it’s in Buffalo, NY), so Notre Dame’s close call against them drops them a spot in these rankings. The Irish have a few days off over New Year’s before starting conference play, and they will need it to prepare for their first ACC conference game at home against Duke on Saturday.
8. Maryland (8-5, 1-0 ACC, LW: 9)
The Terrapins beat Tulsa last night, 85-74, getting back on their feet after last week’s loss to Boston University. NC Central comes to College Park on Tuesday night, and the Terps shouldn’t overlook them, as they are playing on a 48-hour turnaround, and the Eagles have already defeated NC State on the road this season. Maryland is 1-0 in the ACC after beating Boston College in early December, and will try to improve to 2-0 when Georgia Tech comes to town on Saturday.
9. NC State (9-3, LW: 8)
The Wolfpack prepared over Christmas for a home matchup with 25th-ranked Missouri, and the Pack led the Tigers for much of the contest before losing at the end, 68-64. While NC State lost all 5 starters from last year, they returned the valuable TJ Warren, who has converted from 6th man to leader nicely. In addition, they are getting some excellent play from multiple freshman, and better quantity and quality of minutes from center Jordan Vandenburg of Australia. UNC Greensboro, who has played well in games with Wake Forest and Virginia Tech, and even beat the Hokies, will be in Raleigh tonight, before the Pack face a stern test to open conference play, hosting Pittsburgh.
10. Miami (7-5, 0-1 ACC, LW: 11)
The defending champions of the ACC will end a week-long holiday break tonight when they take on Loyola (MD). It is their first game since beating Atlantic-10 opponent La Salle on December 22. The Hurricanes won’t play again between tonight and Saturday, and need all the preparation time they can get for an extremely difficult 3-game stretch to start conference play, traveling to Syracuse and North Carolina before hosting Florida State. It’s been a struggle for the ‘Canes after losing their top 6 players from last year, including 4 overtime games already, winning just 1 of them. One of those losses was to Virginia Tech in an early December conference contest, which was at home.
11. Wake Forest (10-3, LW: 10)
Wake Forest’s 10-2 start was much better than the starts they have had over the first 3 years of coach Jeff Bzdelik’s tenure, but 9 of those 12 games were at home, and the other 3 were at a neutral site during the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in The Bahamas. Saturday, they played their first road game of the year when they traveled to Cincinnati to play Xavier. The game was close for the first 15 minutes, then Xavier abruptly pulled away and the Deacons were never within single digits again, and lost 78-63, resulting in a drop from 10th to 11th in this ranking. The game must have reminded the Deacon faithful of last year’s winless road record in ACC play, when only 2 of the 9 games were decided by single digits. The Deacs will end a week of rest over the New Year’s holiday with their first conference game at home against North Carolina on Sunday, which is the start of a tough 3-game stretch to start league play.
12. Clemson (8-3, LW: 12)
The Tigers are ending an 11-day resting period tonight, when they host VMI at Littlejohn Coliseum. In their last contest, back on December 19, they lost to Auburn on the road by 2, in a game that Clemson should have won, at least on paper. Conference play for Clemson starts in Chestnut Hill against a struggling Boston College team. It is these type of games the Tigers will have to find a way to win if they don’t want to stay in the cellar of the ACC, particularly considering their next 2 contests when they come home from Boston will be with Florida State and Duke.
13. Georgia Tech (9-4, LW: 13)
The Yellow Jackets beat Charlotte on Sunday, 58-55, on the road. While the win has some quality to it, particularly since it did come on the road, it was probably closer than coach Brian Gregory and his staff would have liked, considering the same Charlotte team lost by 44 to another ACC opponent when they played Florida State on December 17. That game was their last non-conference game to prepare, as the Jackets are improved but still young and will likely struggle in this tough league. Young teams usually struggle on the road, which is where the Jackets start their league schedule, at Maryland and Duke.
14. Virginia Tech (7-5, 1-0 ACC, LW: 14)
The Hokies lost their 2nd straight contest on Saturday, losing to UNC Greensboro, 55-52. Coincidentally, it was the 2nd straight game that the Hokies have scored just 52 points, although one loss was by 3 and the other was by 30. It has been a struggle for 2nd year head coach James Johnson, with the Hokies losing 5 non-conference games, including the aforementioned loss to the Spartans, as well as a loss to the Spartans of USC Upstate (and another you can’t blame them for against the Spartans of Michigan State). They are undefeated after 1 ACC game, with their overtime win in Miami on December 8, and will resume ACC play on January 7 when they host Syracuse. Before that they will host Maryland Eastern Shore on Tuesday.
15. Boston College (4-9, 0-1 ACC, LW: 15)
The struggles of Steve Donahue’s Eagles continue, with a 19-point loss to VCU on Saturday on a neutral floor in Brooklyn. Out of the Eagles 4 wins, only 1 is against a quality opponent (Washington), with the other 3 coming against Florida Atlantic, Sacred Heart, and Division II Philadelphia. While none of the teams they’ve lost to are morbidly bad teams, with the worst being Auburn, there are still a few games they’ve played that an ACC team should have won, or at least been competitive. All 5 starters from last year’s team are back, but the Eagles have regressed, surely putting Donahue on the hot seat before conference play is even in full swing. They have already lost an ACC game to Maryland, on December 12, and after traveling to Harvard on New Year’s Day, they will resume ACC play at home against Clemson.