It’s hard to believe, but we’re nearing the midway point of ACC conference play. That being said, this is the biggest week of conference play yet, as there are some really big games both tonight and over the weekend with 3 matchups between teams among the top 4 in these power rankings. While the top 4 and bottom 3 in these power rankings remain unchanged, there’s a lot of volatility amongst the teams in the middle. I expect that to continue as the season progresses.
After some struggles I’ve previously mentioned of the “Big 4”, the ACC members from North Carolina, they all won their game this weekend, and actually posted a 7-1 record on the week, with the only loss being North Carolina’s defeat at Virginia. Tobacco Road faces a tough week coming up, however, with Duke traveling to Pittsburgh and Syracuse and Wake Forest hosting Syracuse. Also, somebody has to lose when NC State and North Carolina renew their rivalry. A different set of 4, the teams south of North Carolina (Clemson, Georgia Tech, Florida State, Miami), did have a tough week, going 2-6, including Clemson’s back-to-back losses after their 4-1 start.
1. Syracuse (19-0 overall, 6-0 ACC, Last Week: 1st)
As mentioned for the last couple of weeks, there are still 3 undefeated teams left, including 1 in the ACC, the Syracuse Orange. Syracuse is also still the only undefeated team in ACC conference play, placing them among the 21 Division I teams undefeated in conference play. Their undefeated record remained intact with their 64-52 win over Miami, although that game was closer than the final score would indicate. The last time a team who was 2nd in the AP Poll, as Syracuse is, and the last undefeated team in ACC play went to Winston-Salem (Miami, last year), Wake Forest ruined their perfect record, so Syracuse should watch out for a potential “trap game” on Wednesday night. That potential trap is because a much-anticipated date with #17 Duke is lurking on Saturday at the Carrier Dome. The Orange leads the conference, and is 7th in the nation, with 9.3 steals per game, which is a steal and a half more than anyone else in the ACC.
2. Pittsburgh (18-2, 6-1, 2nd)
The Panthers rebounded nicely after last week’s loss to Syracuse, beating Clemson overwhelmingly, 76-43, before avoiding an upset in an 83-79 win at Maryland. Now Pitt moves into its toughest week of conference play so far, but there’s a silver lining: both games are at home. First, #17 Duke comes to the Petersen Events Center tonight, then Virginia comes in on Saturday. The Panthers are 3rd in the conference in points per game, and lead the league in assists per game and field goal percentage. All this is led by senior forward Lamar Patterson, who averages 17.9 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 4.7 assists per game, although the stats underestimate just how good he is until you’ve seen him play.
3. Duke (16-4, 5-2, 3rd)
After Duke’s narrow win over Virginia 14 days ago, I said to a friend that if Duke could get their act together they could still be a Final Four caliber of team. All they’ve done since then is blowout NC State, before winning both their contests this week convincingly, at Miami and at home against Florida State. Duke has now improved to 5-2 in conference play after their 1-2 start, but they’ll have to do some work to avoid a 3rd or 4th loss this week, with a very difficult pair of road games. Tonight, they travel to #18 Pittsburgh, before traveling Saturday to #2 Syracuse. This Duke team is relatively young, but we’ll see exactly how mature they are by the end of this week.
4. Virginia (15-5, 6-1, 4th)
The Cavaliers move to 6-1 in conference play with a 15-point win over North Carolina and a 20-point win over Virginia Tech. That 1-loss record has them currently tied for 2nd in the league with Pittsburgh, although they remain behind Duke in these rankings due to Duke’s head-to-head win and better non-conference résumé. That being said, Tony Bennett’s team is having an excellent season. Allowing just 56.2 points per game, they are 2nd in the conference, just a tenth of a point behind Clemson, and 3rd in the nation. Their 6-1 record, and their share of 2nd place in the standings, may be in jeopardy this week, as they travel to Notre Dame on Tuesday and #18 Pittsburgh on Sunday.
5. Florida State (13-6, 4-3, 6th)
Despite Florida State’s 78-56 loss to Duke on Saturday, they move up a spot in these rankings. They did also beat Notre Dame, 76-74, back on Tuesday, and other teams around them in last week’s rankings struggled. Additionally, hardly anyone looks their best on trips to Cameron Indoor Stadium. The Seminoles rank 2nd in the ACC with a .480 field goal percentage, which may explain why they have played better than expected this season. Wednesday the Noles travel to NC State, followed by a Saturday home game against Clemson, who they’ve already beaten on the road.
6. North Carolina (12-7, 2-4, 8th)
How does a team that lost 76-61 on Monday night, even if it was to Virginia, move up 2 spots in these rankings? First of all, other teams around them struggled and subsequently fell in the rankings. Second of all, that team, North Carolina, made a decent Clemson team look absolutely awful in an 80-61 game that was worse than the score would indicate. It took 6 tries, but this team finally played to its potential in a conference game. This team has been unusual to watch, and not just because of the 3 non-conference wins over top 11 teams in addition to some very bad losses. Statistically, their 2-4 record doesn’t make sense, because they are among the ACC leaders in almost every stat category on both the offensive and defensive ends. But, the team with the most points is the one who wins, not the most rebounds, assists, steals, or blocks. The Tar Heels travel to Georgia Tech on Wednesday before hosting NC State on Saturday, playing with a little momentum for the first time in conference play this year.
7. Clemson (13-6, 4-3, 5th)
A week ago, Clemson was off to a 4-1 start in conference play, and was the surprise team in the league. This week, reality caught up with them a bit, with a 76-43 loss at Pittsburgh and a 80-61 loss in Chapel Hill, where they’ve now lost 57 in a row, the longest such streak in NCAA history (sorry Clemson fans, had to say it; I know you’re tired of that one). Even with a 76- and 80-point defensive effort, they have still allowed just 56.1 points per game, which leads the nation, although what was a comfortable margin is now less than a tenth of a point. After a few days off to heal the wounds of Pittsburgh and North Carolina, they will travel to Florida State on Saturday, where they hope to avenge their previous 56-41 home loss to the Seminoles.
8. Wake Forest (14-6, 4-3, 11th)
The Demon Deacons picked up their first road win in ACC play in 2 years on Wednesday, beating Virginia Tech 83-77, before coming home to beat Notre Dame, 65-58. The road win was just the 2nd in Jeff Bzdelik’s tenure in Winston-Salem (and the first for many of the players on this young team), and Bzdelik also has won 3 out of 4 in conference play for the first time at Wake. In “Total Offense” (I combined the rank of each team in each major offensive stat), Wake is 5th in the conference, and is also 5th in “Total Defense”. These last 2 wins were, in large part, due to the re-emergence of senior forward Travis McKie, who had 24 and 14 points, respectively, including going 5-5 on 3-pointers, and he was named ACC Co-Player of the Week (along with Pitt’s Lamar Patterson). The Deacons also have won 13 straight at home, although that record is in jeopardy when 2nd-ranked Syracuse visits on Wednesday. Georgia Tech will also visit the Joel Coliseum on Saturday.
9. Miami (10-9, 2-5, 7th)
Miami falls 2 spots after a pair of losses, although the fall may not be completely fair. The losses were to Duke (67-46) and Syracuse (64-52), both among the top 20 in the nation and the top 3 in the conference. The Hurricanes made that game against #2 Syracuse very interesting, leading 47-46 with under 7 minutes remaining, before a long dry spell from the floor, in addition to some timely Orange free throws, blew the Hurricanes’ upset bid. This week, Jim Larranaga’s team will travel to Maryland on Wednesday before a rare February non-conference game on Saturday when Norfolk State comes to Coral Gables. The Hurricanes rank either 14th or 15th in the ACC every major offensive category, which means, even with a pretty good defense, the Hurricanes are struggling to win games.
10. NC State (13-7, 3-4, 12th)
NC State moves up two spots after a pair of gutsy wins over the last week over Maryland and Georgia Tech. Against Maryland, they were without TJ Warren, and only scored 20 in the first half, trailing by 9, before coming back to win 65-56. Against Georgia Tech, the Wolfpack came back from down 11 in the second half to win in overtime on a runner by Warren, who returned from his ankle injury. Warren is averaging 22.1 points per game, which leads the ACC and ranks him 9th nationally (the next highest ACC player is Olivier Hanlan in 50th at 18.9 ppg). The Pack host Florida State on Wednesday before making the short trip down Tobacco Road to play North Carolina on Saturday.
11. Maryland (11-9, 3-4, 9th)
The Terrapins went from 3-2 to 3-4 over the last week with a couple of tough losses. First, the Terps lost at NC State 65-56, blowing an 11-point lead on the road, before hosting Pittsburgh, and coming back from down 12 only to lose 83-79. I was surprised to see Maryland is 2nd in the conference in rebounding, at 72.4 per game, although they are in the bottom 4 in the conference in assists per game, field goal percentage, and points allowed per game. If the Terps want to remain a mid-level ACC team, they’ll have to win games this week at home with Miami on Wednesday and at Virginia Tech on Saturday.
12. Notre Dame (11-9, 2-5, 10th)
The Irish of Notre Dame lost another pair of close games this week, to Florida State (76-74) and Wake Forest (65-58), both on the road. It’s hard to put the Irish this low, as their 5 conference losses are by a total of 29 points, which is less in 5 losses than Clemson’s margin in one loss to Pittsburgh (in the worst blowout of the year in conference play so far). After the pair of road losses, this week the Irish have a pair at home in Purcell Pavilion against Virginia on Tuesday and Boston College on Saturday.
13. Georgia Tech (12-8, 2-5, 13th)
It’s tough to keep Georgia Tech this low, as they are the only team out of the bottom 5 to have won a game over the last week, and their other game was an overtime loss. However, the win was a 68-60 road triumph over Boston College, who continues to struggle, and has been below the Yellow Jackets all season. Their loss to NC State was in a game that would have moved them up in these rankings, but when their buzzer beater attempts in regulation and overtime missed, and they lost 80-78, they also lost their shot, at least for now, at a little upward mobility. Wednesday night the Tar Heels come to town, before Saturday the Yellow Jackets travel to Wake Forest. This team is better than 2-7, but unless they can pull an upset that’s where they’ll be.
14. Virginia Tech (8-11, 1-6, 14th)
No one wants to be the team to end a long streak, but it was Virginia Tech that was “that team” when they were the victim of Wake Forest’s first road win in 2 years. That 83-77 loss put the season in a nutshell: the Hokies fell behind early before running out of time while attempting a late comeback. After losing to the Deacs, Tech traveled to play in-state rival Virginia, and lost 65-45 in a clear mismatch. Interestingly, despite struggling mightily throughout the season, the Hokies lead the conference in defensive rebounds with 27.4 per game, are 3rd in overall rebounds with 38.6 per game, and are 3rd with 5.3 blocks per game. They are in the bottom 5 in the ACC, however, in every other major stat category. Wednesday night the Hokies travel to Boston College in a battle for 14th place, where they will try to avenge a 62-60 home loss to the Eagles, before hosting Maryland on Saturday.
15. Boston College (5-14, 1-5, 15th)
In their only game of the last week, Boston College lost at home to Georgia Tech, 68-60, dropping to 5-14 overall and 1-5 in conference play. With the Eagles’ struggles throughout the season, they are in danger of posting the worst overall record by an ACC team since the 1980-81 Georgia Tech team (4-23), and the worst win percentage in conference play since the 1986-87 Maryland Terrapins, the last team to go winless in conference play. While the Eagles win over Virginia Tech earlier in January helped them avoid the winless fate, they need 3 wins the rest of the way to avoid the worst overall record in that span. They’ll have a good chance for a win at home against Virginia Tech on Wednesday before traveling to Notre Dame on Saturday.
Games of the Week: Due to the magnitude of a trio of games amongst the top 4 in these rankings, all 3 are featured in this segment.
#17 Duke at #18 Pittsburgh (Tonight, 9:00 PM ET)
Duke has never played in the Petersen Events Center, so this game sold out quick. Pittsburgh has won 13 straight at home, and Duke has lost 2 out of 3 on the road, with both losses coming to unexpected teams. This time it wouldn’t be unexpected, as Pitt is a 4-point favorite. Pitt has a veteran team, while Duke’s relatively young team may struggle in this hostile road environment. These teams are pretty even, statistically, with one exception: Pitt is 6th in the ACC in rebounding, with 37.4 per game, while Duke is 12th at 35.4 per game. And there’s no stat to measure a true home-court advantage. I believe Pitt is one of the 10 best teams in the country, better than their ranking of 18th in the AP Poll, and it will show tonight.
Pittsburgh 72, Duke 66.
#17 Duke at #2 Syracuse (Saturday, 6:30 PM ET)
After Duke leaves Pittsburgh, they will have a few days to prepare for a Saturday trip to the Carrier Dome. Syracuse will have less time to prepare after they play Wake Forest on Wednesday night on the road. This is an interesting matchup, not just because of the prestige of the Kryzewski-Boeheim matchup and the significance in the standings, but because Duke is one of the best offensive teams in the league, while Syracuse’s game is built on their outstanding defense. It is extremely rare to have 3 undefeated teams in the nation at this stage of the season, and when a team is unbeaten this late, it is often a team you least expect to end the winning streak. While Duke beating Syracuse certainly wouldn’t be a shocker, it would still be an upset, but I think if Duke loses in Pittsburgh, as I have predicted above, and has a few extra days and a little extra motivation for this mega matchup, they will find a way to win.
Duke 75, Syracuse 73.
Virginia at #18 Pittsburgh (Sunday, 12:30 PM ET)
Pittsburgh could, potentially, be coming into this game on an adrenaline high, if they can beat Duke, and would have 5 days off in between games before hosting Pittsburgh on Super Bowl Sunday. Virginia will head to Pittsburgh after their trip to Notre Dame. A pick for this game comes down to simple statistics. These two teams are pretty even defensively, with Virginia 6th and Pittsburgh 7th in “Total Defense”, and the two teams ranking comparably in each individual category. However, on offense, Pitt leads the ACC in “Total Offense” while Virginia is 11th, with the Panthers outranking the Cavaliers in each individual category. That simple fact, along with Pitt’s home court advantage, gives the edge to Pittsburgh in this game that is for 2nd place outright in the conference standings, should both teams win their games earlier in the week.
Pittsburgh 72, Virginia 60.