Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday we celebrate this week, once said “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
While the game of basketball pales in comparison to the significance of the civil rights movement, this quote is appropriate as we look at the last week in the ACC, and not just because Dr. King would have been 87 this past Friday. Eight ACC teams suffered tough losses in the last week, and six of them have lost consecutive games as they play their difficult ACC schedules. It isn’t just the teams in the cellar of the ACC that are battling through losing streaks, but legitimately good teams like Duke and Miami that have hit an arduous stretch in a difficult league.
The challenge for each of these teams is evident, as the ACC is as good from top to bottom as it has been since expanding to 15 teams, and there are hardly any games that could be considered breathers, even for the best teams in the league. How each of these teams deal with a losing streak, and whether or not they are able to remember that it is still very early in the conference schedule and there is still plenty of time to turn a season around, will help to determine the direction of the duration of their season.
King also said “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.” If any ACC team loses that hope in the wake of their recent disappointment, it could result in a very long two-month stretch to finish the season. In other words, to use a golf analogy, they don’t need to let a bogey on the fourth or fifth hole ruin the round.
1. North Carolina (16-2, 5-0 ACC, Last Week: 1st, AP Poll: 2nd)
Last Week: def. NC State
This Week: Wednesday vs Wake Forest, Sunday at Virginia Tech
The Tar Heels beat winless NC State in their only game of the week, but the perception of this team still improved as the teams around them in last week’s rankings all suffered a setback. As a result, the Tar Heels are the very clear choice as the top team in the conference, entering a week when they play a pair of games in which they will be heavy favorites. Ranked second, the Heels are now the only ACC team in the top 10 of the AP Poll, after Duke and Miami have fallen in those rankings. At 16.7 points and 9.7 rebounds per game, Brice Johnson is one of the leading candidates so far for ACC Player of the Year.
2. Louisville (14-3, 3-1 ACC, LW: 6th, AP: 17th)
Last Week: def. Pittsburgh
This Week: Wednesday vs Florida State, Saturday at Georgia Tech
The main knock on the Cardinals so far had been the lack of a big win on their schedule, but they were able to answer their critics with an assertive 59-41 win over Pittsburgh. Holding the Panthers offense to 41 points is more impressive to me than the win itself, as it shows how well the Cardinals defense is playing. This week the Cardinals have two games against the bottom half of the league, giving them an opportunity to further cement their status in the top tier of the ACC.
3. Clemson (12-6, 5-1 ACC, LW: 7th)
Last Week: def. Duke, def. Miami
This Week: Tuesday at #13 Virginia
For the first time in program history, Clemson has defeated three straight ranked opponents, with wins over Louisville, Duke, and Miami. While all three were at home, and doubters are wondering how well the Tigers will do against stellar competition on the road (that will be answered Tuesday at Virginia), the stretch is still a very remarkable one, as the Tigers are the first ACC team with such a stretch since Wake Forest in February 2004 (Chris Paul’s freshman year). The Tigers don’t have superstars, although Jaron Blossomgame (16.1 ppg) did score 17 against Duke and 25 against Miami, but they play together as a team with excellent chemistry, and have used that through this stretch. How this team is not ranked in the AP Poll (they are the second team listed as “receiving votes,” or basically 27th overall) is beyond me.
4. Pittsburgh (15-2, 4-1 ACC, LW: 5th)
Last Week: lost to Louisville, def. Boston College
This Week: Tuesday vs NC State, Saturday at Florida State
The Panthers were dominated on the road at Louisville, but responded with a dominant 23-point win over Boston College. Jamie Dixon’s team has played well all season, and has played unselfishly, as they rank seventh nationally with a 1.65 assist-to-turnover ratio. While Michael Young (17.2 ppg, 3.1 apg), Jamel Artis (16.1 ppg, 3.2 apg), and James Robinson (9.9 ppg, 5.0 apg) are the team’s three leading scorers, they are all averaging at least 3.1 assists per game; for a team to have three such players is rare. The Panthers can improve their standing, and perhaps get back into the top 25 (they fell out after losing to Louisville), with two games this week against the league’s bottom half.
5. Virginia (13-4, 2-3 ACC, LW: 3rd, AP: 13th)
Last Week: def. Miami, lost to Florida State
This Week: Tuesday vs Clemson, Saturday vs Syracuse
The Cavaliers bounced back from a pair of road losses with a home win over Miami, only to lose to Florida State, once again on the road. Like a lot of the ACC, Tony Bennett’s club is finding it tough to win on the road; they are 0-3 on the road and 2-0 at home in conference play, and overall are 1-4 on the road and 12-0 at home or a neutral site. If that form holds, the Wahoos will have a good week this week, but it will not be easy, as a couple of hot teams in Clemson and Syracuse are coming to Charlottesville.
6. Miami (13-3, 2-2 ACC, LW: 4th, AP: 15th)
Last Week: lost to Virginia, lost to Clemson
This Week: Wednesday at Boston College, Saturday vs Wake Forest
The Hurricanes also struggled on the road over the last week, losing to Virginia and Clemson in games closer than the 8- and 11-point margins would indicate. The AP Poll voters seem to understand the difficulty of winning on the road, and that, along with the fact 16 of last week’s top 25 all lost at least one game, resulted in the Hurricanes only dropping seven spots to 15th despite their losing streak. That being said, seeing this team in person on Saturday, they did not look like a top 15 team, but they do have a very quality resume already, and will have opportunities to build upon it in ACC play. This week they can right the ship with a pair of games against the bottom third of the league.
7. Notre Dame (12-5, 3-2 ACC, LW: 8th)
Last Week: def. Georgia Tech, def. Duke
This Week: Wednesday vs Virginia Tech, Saturday vs Boston College
After beating Georgia Tech at home, the Irish did something that is historically difficult for anyone to do, winning a game as a visitor at Cameron Indoor Stadium in a 95-91 thriller. The Irish have five double figure scorers, including leader Demetrius Jackson (17.5 ppg, 5.4 apg), who scored 24 points against Duke, and Bonzie Colson (12.2 ppg, 7.1 rpg), who scored 31 points off the bench in Durham. With a good week this week, the Fighting Irish would improve to 5-2 in the league, and it’s certainly possible with Virginia Tech and Boston College both coming to South Bend.
8. Syracuse (13-7, 3-4 ACC, LW: 13th)
Last Week: def. Boston College, def. Wake Forest, def. Duke
This Week: Saturday at #13 Virginia
Just two days after Duke lost at home to Notre Dame, the Orange also went into Cameron Indoor Stadium and left with a victory, as they also won a thriller, 64-62. That came after dominant wins over Boston College and Wake Forest, with the latter also coming on the road by 28. Saturday the road trip continues with the toughest game the Orange have played on the road all year at Virginia, and while the last two games were their first road wins of the year, the Orange have now proven they can win on the road. It’s up to them whether or not they will.