The first full week of ACC conference play delivered plenty of drama. There have been upsets, close games, blowouts, and some amazing plays. A couple of themes that I found to be common last season have returned. One is that it is very difficult for anyone to win a league game on the road, no matter who they are (just ask Duke). The other is that there are no surprises in the ACC, as there have been several blowouts in a game between pretty even teams, and there have been some close games in games that should have been a mismatch. Last week, I said Duke, North Carolina, and NC State were all 0-1 in conference play for the first time ever. This week, while both Duke and NC State have won a game, all 3 lost on the same day, on Saturday, for the first time in 6,518 days, as it hadn’t happened since the 1996 ACC Tournament quarterfinals in Greensboro. (And North Carolina’s 4th ACC school lost on Saturday, too.)
1. Syracuse (16-0 overall, 3-0 ACC, Last Week: 1st)
Syracuse remains ranked 2nd in the nation, and is one of 4 teams left who are undefeated, remaining without a loss after easy wins over Virginia Tech and North Carolina. The Orange have one of the nation’s most balanced attacks, getting significant contributions from guards Tyler Ennis and Trevor Cooney, and forwards CJ Fair, Rakeem Christmas, and Jerami Grant. This team is definitely the ACC’s best shot at another national title this year, and I believe they will be a 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. I fully expect them to beat Boston College tonight, even in a game on the road, but when the Orange host Pittsburgh on Saturday their undefeated record will be on the line.
2. Pittsburgh (15-1, 3-0, 3rd)
Speaking of Pitt, they improved to 15-1, and stayed perfect in conference play, with home wins over Maryland and Wake Forest. The Panthers have proven it will be difficult for anyone to win in the Petersen Events Center. This week, however, they will have to play in a couple of tough environments away from home. First they travel to Georgia Tech, and then they go to undefeated Syracuse. If Virginia loses to Duke or Florida State, the Pitt-Syracuse game could potentially be between the final 2 undefeated teams in conference play (and could very well be for the #1 spot in these power rankings). The writers who vote in the AP Poll have been hesitant to rank Pitt, despite their record, due to a weak schedule. But after a 3-0 start to conference play, the Panthers find themselves ranked 22nd in the nation.
3. Virginia (12-4, 3-0, 5th)
It was no surprise on Wednesday night when Virginia blew out a Wake Forest team who always seems to struggle on the road. But it was a surprise, at least to me, when the Cavaliers backed it up with a 76-45 win on the road against NC State. I know State is amongst the bottom half of the conference this year, but anybody winning an ACC road game by 31 points is very impressive. They will have a chance to really impress a lot of people when they travel to Duke tonight, even if Duke is suddenly unranked, as no one ever seems to win at Cameron Indoor. Their contest this weekend will be at home against a Florida State team they already beat by 12 in Tallahassee. And all this from a team that lost by 35 to Tennessee just 2 weeks ago.
4. Duke (12-4, 1-2, 2nd)
Perhaps the Blue Devils should be lower, as they are under .500 in conference play at this point. Then again, that still puts them in a big tie for 7th, which is probably a little higher than you might expect out of a 1-2 team (keep reading, there’s several of them). They fall to 23rd in the AP Poll, although they still have kept intact their streak of being ranked every week since 2007, now at 127 weeks. This all comes after the shocking loss at Clemson on Saturday, after Duke had won easily over Georgia Tech earlier in the week. That being said, I still think Duke will be a national title contender at season’s end, they’ve just hit a couple of bumps in the road with their losses to Notre Dame and Clemson, which I remind you were on the road, where just about everybody struggles in the ACC. This week, Virginia and NC State come to Cameron Indoor Stadium, where the Blue Devils have won 25 in a row, including 10 conference games. By the way, the last time Duke and North Carolina lost conference games on the same day was January 20, 2010. That year, Duke went 20-2 from that point on and won the national championship.
5. Florida State (11-4, 2-1, 6th)
Florida State moves up a spot after a pair of convincing wins. First, on Thursday, they beat Clemson on the road, something Duke couldn’t accomplish, and then, on Sunday, destroyed a decent Maryland team by 24. The value of the Clemson win wasn’t really felt until mid-afternoon on Saturday, after the Clemson-Duke result sunk in. The value of the Maryland win was immediately apparent, as the Seminoles killed the Terrapins in every facet of the game. This week the Noles have a couple of tough road contests. First they play at in-state rival Miami, and then they will go to Virginia to play a team that beat them by 12 earlier in Tallahassee.
6. Clemson (11-4, 2-1, 12th)
While “Death Valley” is technically Clemson’s football stadium, the term applied to Littlejohn Coliseum on Saturday when Duke came to town. The Tigers pulled off a shocker and beat the Blue Devils, 72-59, including a 13-2 run in the final 6:28 to seal the victory. Clemson skyrockets in these rankings, even with their loss on Thursday to Florida State, after the win, and is now making a case that they could slip in the NCAA Tournament. And this is a team I picked to go 9-21, and just 2-16 in conference play. They’ve matched that projected win total in just 3 games, and I’m sure they probably aren’t done yet, considering this week they’ve got a couple of relatively easy games (by ACC standards, anyway), at Virginia Tech and at home against Wake Forest.
7. Notre Dame (10-6, 1-2, 4th)
The Irish had a tough week. First of all, they lost at home to NC State and on the road to Georgia Tech, a pair of games that they should’ve won, at least on paper, and were pretty close as well. Secondly, their win over Duke was probably devalued a little bit by Duke’s loss to Clemson. I thought Notre Dame would be struggling in conference play after they lost their best player, Jerian Grant, after he was dismissed from the team in late December. But after they beat Duke, I thought they had figured out how to compete without Grant. Their last two losses would tell me otherwise, perhaps even making the Duke win a fluke. The Irish go to Maryland on Wednesday before hosting Virginia Tech on Sunday night.
8. Miami (9-6, 1-2, 10th)
The Hurricanes, although they lost their top 6 scorers from a year ago, are still the defending ACC champions, and they played like it on Wednesday night, when they beat North Carolina, 63-57, in Chapel Hill, in their only game of the past week. While it was a struggling Tar Heel team that they beat, winning that game on the road was still a huge step for a very young Hurricanes team and coach Jim Larranaga. Wednesday the Hurricanes have a big game, for a couple of reasons. The opponent is Florida State, and the game is important as the teams battle for the title of the 2nd best program in the state (behind Florida, of course). It is also important because the Canes have the game at home, against a tough ACC opponent, and can really make a statement with a win. They also play Georgia Tech this Saturday.
9. North Carolina (10-6, 0-3, 7th)
You could make a case that the Tar Heels should be lower, as they are currently the only winless team in ACC play after losses this week by 6, at home against Miami, and by 12, at Syracuse. However, this is an overall evaluation of each team in the ACC based on the entirety of their schedule, although conference play is naturally a little more important, and this team does have wins over Michigan State, Louisville, and Kentucky. But they are really struggling, and are looking to play better when they host Boston College on Saturday after a much-needed few days off. By the way, the only other time the Heels started 0-3 in ACC play was 1997, when they went on to win the ACC Tournament and make a run to the Final Four.
10. Maryland (8-7, 2-2, 8th)
A week ago, Maryland sat at 2-0 and technically led the ACC by a half game (they had won a December conference game, as well as their game on the opening weekend of ACC play on January 4). Now, after a 20-point loss at Pittsburgh, and a 24-point loss at Florida State, the Terrapins sit at 2-2 in the ACC and just a game over .500 on the season. A week ago, I said this was probably an NCAA Tournament team. While I understand both of those losses were against good opponents on the road, the Terrapins showed no signs of being able to play well consistently in the ACC. Maryland hosts another struggling team on Wednesday when Notre Dame visits College Park, before they get a few days off over the weekend to prepare for their final 13 conference games.
11. Wake Forest (11-5, 1-2, 9th)
At this time last week, the Wake Forest campus was rejoicing over their win against North Carolina. But neither team has won a game since, devaluing the win for the Deacons, both in the sense that Wake wasn’t able to validate the victory, and in the sense that North Carolina has continued to struggle, showing it wasn’t necessarily just a great night for Wake when they beat the Heels. Wake struggles, as they have been for the entire Jeff Bzdelik tenure, have come on the road. To the Deacs’ credit, however, those losses were to Virginia and Pittsburgh, 2 of the top 3 teams in these rankings. And perhaps a 9-0 run in the closing moments of the Pitt game will build some momentum going into games against NC State and Clemson this week.
12. NC State (11-5, 1-2, 11th)
This week was a mixed bag for NC State. On Tuesday night, they did something Duke had previously failed to do, leaving South Bend with a win over Notre Dame. But after they came home, Saturday they were completely embarrassed at the hands of Virginia, losing 76-45 on their own floor. The Wolfpack drop a spot based on that loss, which is unfortunate because they were primed to gain position after the win over the Irish and the struggles of the teams just ahead of them. I believe this team is capable of competing, but they are a young team. We should keep in mind that their 2 losses are to Pittsburgh and Virginia, each among the 3 undefeated teams left in conference play. The Wolfpack face a pair of road tests this week, although they won’t leave North Carolina, playing at Wake Forest and Duke.
13. Georgia Tech (10-6, 1-2, 13th)
It was a tough decision, but the Yellow Jackets remain at 13th after losing at Duke and beating Notre Dame at home. I really hated to leave the Jackets here, as they looked as competitive this week as they have all season. But with a record of 1-1 for the week, and the fact that they beat the same team (Notre Dame) as the team right ahead of them (and did it at home while NC State did it on the road), they are stuck here, at least for now. They don’t have to leave Atlanta this week, and will have a couple of home games that, with a win, would help their status in the conference. In particular, if they can find a way to beat Pittsburgh on Tuesday night, they will get the attention of the ACC. The other contest is this weekend against Miami.
14. Virginia Tech (8-7, 1-2, 14th)
After beating Miami in their first conference game back in December, the Hokies struggled this week in their next 2, losing to Syracuse and Boston College. They did stay within single digits of Syracuse in the first half before the Orange pulled away to win by 20, and the loss to the Eagles was by just 3. I must admit that this team, which I projected in the preseason to go 1-17 in the ACC, is better than expected. That being said, when they host Clemson on Wednesday night, they will have a chance to win more games in the first 4 games of conference play than I said they would win all year. They will also travel to Notre Dame on Sunday night.
15. Boston College (5-11, 1-2, 15th)
Boston College retains the place they’ve been for most of the season in these rankings, but they showed some signs of improvement on Saturday with a 62-59 win over Virginia Tech. You might wonder why that win didn’t put them over the Hokies in these rankings. These rankings are written to show who the best teams are, and who’s playing the best right now, but also takes into account the entire body of work. That being said, based on the Eagles’ 5-11 record, which makes them the only team below the .500 mark (and they are well below it), and the fact that the game against Virginia Tech was a close game that could have gone either way, I will leave them here, at least for now. This week, they will get a couple of chances for a confidence-boosting win, when they host Syracuse and play at North Carolina.
Game of the Week: #22 Pittsburgh at #2 Syracuse (Saturday, 4:00 PM ET)
This is a matchup of the top two teams in these rankings, as well as the two highest ranked teams in the ACC according to both the AP Poll and the Coaches Poll. Both teams are obviously playing very well, with only one loss between them (and if Pitt had scored 45 points on Cincinnati, they would both be undefeated, at least in theory). These two programs are very familiar after playing some contests during their time in the Big East that were as meaningful as this one, or more. Three things make me believe Syracuse will win here. One is that they have been tested more than Pitt, as they have played a tougher schedule, and Pitt lost to the toughest team they’ve played so far. Another is that this game is at the Carrier Dome, one of the biggest and loudest venues in the country, not just the ACC. Lastly, Syracuse has a very balanced roster, with great players at each position, and can use one of their many strengths to find any of Pitt’s weaknesses. I do think the game will be relatively close.
Syracuse 66, Pittsburgh 59.