ACC Basketball Power Rankings, 2/26

“The more things change, the more they stay the same”
-Jean Baptiste Alphonse Karr

It has been over three weeks since I’ve been able to publish my usually-weekly look into the ACC, and while there have been some thrilling outcomes in the ACC in that time, and a couple of teams have had the whole dynamic of their season change, for the most part the power structure of this year’s ACC is pretty close to where it was on February 1st.

It seems unbelievable, but there is just a little over a week left in the ACC regular season schedule, with most teams having only three games remaining (and a few having only two).

And yet, it also seems unbelievable that six teams still have a legitimate chance to win the ACC regular season title, and the top seed at the tournament in Washington, D.C.  There is even a realistic scenario which ends up in a six-way tie for the top spot.  One of these teams, Louisville, is not participating in the ACC Tournament after a self-imposed postseason ban, but with up to five other teams being in the mix, one amazing detail is that one of these teams will not earn a double-bye and will be playing as the fifth seed on Wednesday against either the 12th or 13th seed.

The games this weekend, with the top four in these rankings playing games amongst themselves, will go a long way towards determining who is the top seed in our nation’s capital in less than two weeks.

There are still other things to be settled, in the middle of the pack, and at the bottom, over the next nine days of regular season play.  Here are the updated power rankings:

1. North Carolina (23-5, 12-3 ACC, Previous Ranking: 1st, AP Poll: 8th)
4-3 since last rankings
Remaining Games:  Saturday at #3 Virginia, Monday vs Syracuse, March 5th at #15 Duke
The Tar Heels, despite losing three of their last seven, still have the best roster in the league, and are set up well for a deep run in March/April.  First, they have to survive a tough stretch over the next three games, and will likely need to win two of them or more to win the ACC regular season title.  Brice Johnson (17.0 ppg, 10.6 rpg) is one of the two frontrunners for ACC Player of the Year.

2 (tie). Virginia (21-6, 10-5 ACC, PR: 2nd, AP: 3rd)
4-2 since last rankings
Remaining Games:  Saturday vs #8 North Carolina, Tuesday at Clemson, March 5th vs #11 Louisville
Virginia and Miami are tied for second in these rankings.  Virginia was ranked third in this week’s AP Poll, but lost to Miami on Monday night.  Since the 64-61 loss was in Coral Gables (Virginia would have likely won in Charlottesville), and Virginia has a better overall resume, I leave these two in a tie despite Miami’s head-to-head victory.  The Cavaliers are led by guards Malcolm Brogdon (18.2 ppg, 2.8 apg) and London Perrantes (11.2 ppg, 4.4 apg), both of whom are likely All-ACC Players, and their defense allows just 59.7 ppg, third best in the nation.

2 (tie). Miami (22-5, 11-4 ACC, PR: 5th, AP: 12th)
6-1 since last rankings
Remaining Games:  Saturday vs #11 Louisville, Wednesday at #23 Notre Dame, March 5th at Virginia Tech
Since a January 30th loss to NC State, the Hurricanes have been on fire, with their only loss coming in Chapel Hill.  The Hurricanes do not have any superstars, with no one among the statistical leaders of the ACC in any major category other than Tonye Jekiri (fifth in rebounding, 9.3 rpg), and do not have any major statistical strengths or weaknesses.  Jim Larranaga’s club simply plays as a team, and as a result is in position to contend for their second ACC regular season title in four years.

4. Louisville (22-6, 11-4 ACC, PR: 3rd, AP: 11th)
5-2 since last rankings
Remaining Games:  Saturday at #12 Miami, Tuesday vs Georgia Tech, March 5th at #3 Virginia
The Cardinals self-imposed a postseason ban due to an ongoing NCAA investigation, which is a real shame for seniors Damion Lee (16.6 ppg) and Trey Lewis (11.7 ppg), both of whom transferred into the program for one good shot at the NCAA Tournament, something both have never experienced.  The focus for Rick Pitino’s team has now shifted to winning the ACC regular season title, something that can be done, but will likely need a couple of road wins against teams above them in these rankings, plus a little help.

5. Duke (21-7, 10-5 ACC, PR: 9th, AP: 15th)
5-1 since last rankings
Remaining Games:  Sunday at Pittsburgh, Tuesday vs Wake Forest, March 5th vs #8 North Carolina
At the time of the last power rankings on February 1st, the Blue Devils were in the midst of losing four of five, and falling out of the top 25 for the first time in over eight seasons.  Now, despite their very shallow depth, they have won five of six, including a huge 74-73 win in Chapel Hill, and their only loss was on the road at Louisville.  The turnaround of this team, which is led by sophomore Grayson Allen (20.9 ppg, 3.6 apg), has been impressive, as Mike Krzyzewski’s young team has matured before our eyes.

6. Notre Dame (19-8, 10-5 ACC, PR: 4th, AP: 23rd)
4-2 since last rankings
Remaining Games:  Saturday at Florida State, Wednesday vs #12 Miami, March 5th vs NC State
The Irish were not a team I expected to contend for another ACC title, after losing the two best players off last year’s ACC Tournament-winning squad, but they are doing just that, and will be a threat to defend their title in two weeks.  Mike Brey’s club is led by junior guard Demetrius Jackson (16.4 ppg, second in ACC with 4.9 apg), but is exceptionally balanced, with five players averaging in double figures.  Zach Auguste is one of these, averaging a double-double (14.1 ppg, third in ACC with 10.1 rpg)

7. Syracuse (18-10, 8-7 ACC, PR: 7th)
3-2 since last rankings
Remaining Games:  Saturday vs NC State, Monday at #8 North Carolina, March 5th at Florida State
The Orange have been relatively streaky throughout the season, and while they are currently in a two-game losing streak, they have had more ups than downs, and they are currently projected as a 10 seed in the Big Dance.  Jim Boeheim’s team can boast the top two players in the league in steals, Michael Gbinije (2.3 spg) and Trevor Cooney (1.6 spg).

8. Clemson (16-12, 9-7 ACC, PR: 6th)
3-4 since last rankings
Remaining Games:  Tuesday vs #3 Virginia, March 5th at Boston College
In mid-January, the Tigers were riding high on the strength of a five-game winning streak, including three straight over ranked opponents.  Since, however, the Tigers have gone 4-6, only winning consecutive games once, and have practically played themselves out of the NCAA Tournament.  Jaron Blossomgame is third in the league at 18.3 ppg, but overall the Tigers have simply sputtered, especially on the road.

9. Pittsburgh (19-8, 8-7 ACC, PR: 8th)
2-4 since last rankings
Remaining Games:  Sunday vs #15 Duke, Wednesday at Virginia Tech, March 5th at Georgia Tech
The Panthers have struggled recently, losing four out of six, but according to bracketmatrix.com they are still within the projected NCAA Tournament field.  That being said, they are not guaranteed into the field, because if this tough stretch for Jamie Dixon’s team continues, they could find themselves sweating out Selection Sunday (and the entirely unnecessary two-hour long Selection Show).

10. Georgia Tech (16-12, 6-9 ACC, PR: 13th)
4-3 since last rankings
Remaining Games:  Saturday at Boston College, Tuesday at #11 Louisville, March 5th vs Pittsburgh
For arguably the first time in his tenure, Brian Gregory has done an impressive coaching job, as his Yellow Jackets have won four out of five and currently find themselves likely to qualify for the NIT.  For the second straight year, there is a “what if” factor around this team regarding losing several close games, but they have finally started pulling some of them out, with all four wins in this recent stretch coming by six or less, and the last two by a combined three points.

11. Virginia Tech (15-13, 7-8 ACC, PR: 12th)
3-3 since last rankings
Remaining Games:  Sunday at Wake Forest, Wednesday vs Pittsburgh, March 5th at #12 Miami
While the Hokies have struggled against the tougher half of the ACC, they are still better than expected in Buzz Williams’ second year in Blacksburg, and will only get better as Williams’ tenure continues.  With a strong finish, a team that went 2-16 in the league a year ago may reach the NIT.

12. Florida State (16-12, 6-10 ACC, PR: 10th)
2-5 since last rankings
Remaining Games:  Saturday vs #23 Notre Dame, March 5th vs Syracuse
Earlier in February, the Seminoles looked like an NCAA Tournament team, but now Leonard Hamilton’s team is in the midst of a five-game losing streak, their worst since 2007.  This team started the season poorly, and now they appear to be ending the season the same way, with the NIT now much more of a realistic-looking scenario than March Madness.

13. NC State (14-14, 4-11 ACC, PR: 11th)
2-4 since last rankings
Remaining Games:  Saturday at Syracuse, Wednesday vs Boston College, March 5th at #23 Notre Dame
The Wolfpack are going to miss the NCAA Tournament for the first time in Mark Gottfried’s five-year tenure (barring a miracle run in Washington D.C.).  The Pack simply haven’t played up to expectations as a team, although Anthony “Cat” Barber (first in ACC with 23.5 ppg, fourth in ACC with 4.5 apg) has exceeded them, and is one of the two frontrunners for ACC Player of the Year.

14. Wake Forest (11-17, 2-14 ACC, PR: 14th)
1-6 since last rankings
Remaining Games:  Sunday vs Virginia Tech, Tuesday at #15 Duke
Two months ago, many national analysts said Danny Manning’s rebuilding project at Wake Forest was “ahead of schedule,” but now, with the Demon Deacons assured a worse ACC record than last year, the same cannot be said.  Devin Thomas (15.8 ppg, second in ACC with 10.8 rpg) is a bright spot, but only has two regular season games left in his college career as he comes back from a two-game suspension.

15. Boston College (7-21, 0-15 ACC, PR: 15th)
0-7 since last rankings
Remaining Games:  Saturday vs Georgia Tech, Wednesday at NC State, March 5th vs Clemson
The Eagles are in danger of becoming the first ACC team to go winless in conference play since Maryland in 1986-87, and the first Power Five conference team to go winless in conference play in both football and basketball since 1977.  Their best chance on paper to win a game was probably Sunday at Wake Forest–and they trailed 37-4 at one point.  Enough said.

Advertisements

Hamlin Bucks Trends to Win Daytona 500

Sunday, in his 11th attempt, driving car #11, Denny Hamlin won the thrilling 58th Daytona 500, the first 500 victory of his career.

Hamlin picked up the biggest win of his career by coming from fourth on the final lap, passing leader Matt Kenseth before beating Martin Truex Jr. to the line by mere inches.  The margin of victory of 0.010 seconds was the closest in Daytona 500 history.

The win marked the first Daytona 500 victory for Toyota, and the first for owner Joe Gibbs since 1993 (Dale Jarrett).

Hamlin entered Daytona Speedweeks as one of my favorites, and his car showed speed all week leading up to the 500, but leading up to the race, Hamlin was not historically in a great position to win his first Daytona 500.

Consider the trends of the Daytona 500 throughout its 58-year history, and particularly over the last 15 years of restrictor plate racing (although restrictor plate racing has been around since 1988, it has been most similar to today’s restrictor plate racing only since 2001).

Last weekend, Hamlin won the Sprint Unlimited, a season-opening exhibition race at Daytona.  Before 2016, the winner of the Sprint Unlimited had only gone on to win the 500 five times, and had never done it since 2000 (Bobby Allison in 1982, Bill Elliott in 1987, Dale Jarrett in 1996 and 2000, and Jeff Gordon in 1997).

In fact, over the nearly six-decade history of the Daytona 500, a driver who has won any of the preliminary events during Speedweeks generally does not win the Daytona 500, but instead someone who has shown speed and performed well but not won in the Sprint Unlimited, Daytona 500 Pole Qualifying, and Can-Am Duels.

Another potential strike against Hamlin’s chances to win, at least according to the trends of the previous 15 editions of “The Great American Race”, is that he led the most laps.  While early in the 500’s history, it was common for one driver to dominate the race and take the checkered flag, Hamlin became just the third driver since 2001 to lead the most laps and win, joining Michael Waltrip in the rain-shortened 2003 edition, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 2014.

Lastly, Hamlin was not the leader at the white flag, but found a way around all three of the cars in front of him to beat Truex by inches.  Hamlin becomes only the third driver in the last 23 Daytona 500s to make a last-lap pass for the win, joining Kevin Harvick in 2007 (who ironically pushed Hamlin to the win), and Ryan Newman in 2008 (who, like Hamlin, passed a #20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota).

Not only are last-lap passes to win the 500 rare, but throughout Speedweeks it appeared the leader at the white flag would have control over the pack, and would be very hard to pass them.

Kenseth had actually led from lap 160 of the 200-lap race until the third turn of the final lap when Hamlin and Truex got around (in fact, after Kenseth got sideways, he slowed to save his car from spinning out, and as a result fell back to 14th).  The leader at the white flag had won every stock car event so far during Speedweeks, including Hamlin, who was not hardly threatened over the final 2 1/2 miles of the Sprint Unlimited.

With a train of Gibbs Toyotas behind Kenseth, plus Truex in a Gibbs-affiliated Furniture Row Racing Toyota, it did not appear that Kenseth, a two-time 500 winner, would be touched.

After his 500 win, Hamlin told Marty Smith of ESPN that he did not intend to jump out of line to try to pass his teammates, but only moved to the outside to block a run by Harvick, who then pushed him to the win.

You might think it would be common sense that a driver would want to be leading at the white flag, but there have been years that the aerodynamic environment of the cars made passing easier, and in some of those years I have said before the 500 that I would want to be second at the white flag if I were driving in the race.

All of this being said, Hamlin winning NASCAR’s biggest event is a surprise to no one in the sport.  Hamlin’s win in the Sprint Unlimited was his third in that event, and he has also won twice in the Can-Am Duels, so he has experience winning at the World Center of Racing.

The thing about trends is that they are not always followed, as is the case here.  Three trends went against Denny Hamlin’s chances to win his first Daytona 500, but a car that was one of the favorites throughout Speedweeks, and showed plenty of muscle from the time it was unloaded, enabling Hamlin to nullify all of the tendencies above, and win by less than a foot.

With his prior prowess on the superspeedway, and his amazing run from fourth to the front, one thing is for sure.

Denny Hamlin’s name will forever be engraved on the Harley J. Earl Trophy.  And he earned it.

 

 

 

2016 Daytona 500, Results
(Finish. Driver, Start, Team, Manufacturer, Laps Led, Points)
1. Denny Hamlin, 11, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota, 95, 45
2. Martin Truex Jr., 28, Furniture Row Racing, Toyota, 2, 40
3. Kyle Busch, 4, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota, 19, 39
4. Kevin Harvick, 9, Stewart-Haas Racing, Chevrolet, 0, 37
5. Carl Edwards, 10, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota, 0, 36
6. Joey Logano, 5, Team Penske, Ford, 0, 35
7. Kyle Larson, 14, Chip Ganassi Racing, Chevrolet, 0, 34
8. Regan Smith, 27, Tommy Baldwin Racing, Chevrolet, 0, 33
9. Austin Dillon, 21, Richard Childress Racing, Chevrolet, 1, 33
10. Kurt Busch, 8, Stewart-Haas Racing, Chevrolet, 0, 31
Notables:
14. Matt Kenseth, 2, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota, 40, 28
16. Jimmie Johnson, 26, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet, 18, 26
20. Brad Keselowski, 25, Team Penske, Ford, 1, 22
36. Dale Earnhardt Jr., 3, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet, 15, 6
37. Chase Elliott, 1, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet, 3, 5

Super Bowl 50 Preview: Carolina Panthers vs Denver Broncos

Super Bowl 50
Carolina Panthers (NFC Champions, 17-1) vs. Denver Broncos (AFC Champions, 14-4)
Sunday, 6:30 pm ET, CBS
Levi’s Stadium, Santa Clara, CA
Favorite: Panthers by 5

The biggest sporting event in the American culture (and arguably the third biggest in the world behind the World Cup and the Olympics) is tonight, and while Super Bowl storylines generally are not hard to find, this year’s golden anniversary edition seems to have even more of an abundance than normal.

Perhaps the biggest is Peyton Manning.  The surefire first-ballot hall of famer-to-be has led his Denver Broncos team back to the Super Bowl, just two years after being humiliated by the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII, 43-8.  Many around the game believe Manning could be retiring after the Super Bowl, so the story of whether or not the 39-year old will or will not retire, and whether or not he can finish his illustrious career with a storybook ending of a second Super Bowl title, has been a major talking point for the last two weeks leading up to the big game.  Manning will be the oldest quarterback to start a Super Bowl, and is the first starting quarterback to ever lead two teams to multiple Super Bowl appearances.  Manning is in his fourth season with Denver after a remarkable 14-year stretch with the Indianapolis Colts.

Manning was not even starting for Denver just a few weeks ago, sitting on the bench behind up-and-comer Brock Osweiler after a foot injury, before coming into Denver’s game in Week 17 against the Chargers and leading the Broncos to victory to secure home-field advantage in the AFC Playoffs.  After defeating the Steelers, 23-16, and the Patriots, 20-18, Manning and the Broncos are back in the Super Bowl for the eighth time in their rich history (tied for the most appearances ever), as they look for their third title.

The Broncos opponent, the Carolina Panthers, do not quite have the history of their opponents, as they have only appeared in the Super Bowl once, a loss to the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVIII, after coming into the league as an expansion team in 1995.  The Panthers have amassed a strong recent history, as this season marked their third straight NFC South Division title (prior to this streak the division had never been won by any team in consecutive years since its inception in 2002).

A big part of the reason for that is quarterback Cam Newton, the NFL’s Most Valuable Player for the 2015 season.  Newton, who won a Heisman Trophy and a BCS National Championship at Auburn, is trying to become just the second player ever to win a Heisman, a collegiate national title, an NFL MVP, and a Super Bowl in a career (Marcus Allen, running back for USC/Los Angeles Raiders).  Newton is the first Heisman winner to start a Super Bowl since Jim Plunkett in Super Bowl XVIII, and just the third ever.  Newton was the first overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, and this Super Bowl is the first in which both quarterbacks are former #1 picks (Manning was picked first by Indianapolis in 1998), as well as the first matching up the top two picks from the same draft, as Broncos linebacker Von Miller was picked second behind Newton in 2011.

Newton has improved each season, and has now led this Panthers team to the brink of the franchise’s first championship in his fifth season.  This season, Newton threw for 35 touchdowns, and rushed for 10, becoming the first player in NFL history to throw for 30 or more and run for 10 or more.  His 45 total touchdowns were the most by any player in a single season since, ironically enough, Peyton Manning in 2013 (56 total; 55 passing, 1 rushing).

Opposite the quarterbacks in this game will be a pair of very stellar defenses.  In fact, Super Bowl 50 features the top two teams in the league in defensive efficiency, with Denver 1st and Carolina 2nd.  Each unit leads the league in multiple statistical categories.

The Broncos made franchise history this year by leading the NFL in total defense (yards allowed) for the first time.  The league leader in total defense is 9-2 in the Super Bowl, although one of the losses was just last year by the Seahawks.  Denver allowed the fewest rushing yards per attempt (3.28) and the third least rushing yards per game (83.6).  The defensive front led the league in sacks (52), while generating pressure on 35 percent of dropbacks, which also leads the NFL.

The Panthers lead the NFL in takeaways (39), turnover differential (+20), and points off turnovers (148), as well as interceptions (24).  These stats do not include the postseason, in which the Panthers have forced nine turnovers, including six interceptions.  Carolina is one of two teams (Bengals) to have more interceptions than allowed touchdown passes this season.  Carolina has also allowed the sixth least yards, and the sixth least points, although Denver leads and is second in the two categories, respectively.

It’s safe to say it isn’t likely either defense will be what keeps their team from winning the Vince Lombardi Trophy.

The Denver defense is, however, facing, the best offense they have seen all year, as the Panthers are the highest-scoring offense in the NFL (31.3 points per game), which would tie them for the fourth highest-scoring offense to win a Super Bowl.  Teams to lead the NFL in scoring are 10-9 in Super Bowls, although such teams have lost four of their last five appearances (the 2009 Saints, who beat Peyton Manning and the Colts, are the exception).  The Panthers offense, with Newton and his supporting cast of characters including running back Jonathan Stewart, tight end Greg Olsen, and left guard Michael Oher (of The Blind Side fame), is a very efficient well-oiled machine, leading the league in scoring despite ranking only 11th in yards gained, although they were second in rushing yards despite the lack of a 1,000-yard rusher.

The Broncos offense has been less efficient, averaging just 22.2 points per game.  However, four of the last six teams to reach the Super Bowl with that low of a scoring average have won.  The Broncos are 14th in passing yards and 17th in rushing yards (out of 32 teams), and only 19th in points per game.  However, Brock Osweiler started seven of the Broncos’ 16 regular season games, and Manning has been very efficient since his return.  Manning has not thrown an interception in the playoffs, making this his first postseason of two games or more without an interception.  Denver has not had to score a lot of points to be successful this season due to their stingy defense, a point evidenced by their two playoff wins with 22.5 points per game, almost exactly equaling their regular season average, with both of those games coming against top five offenses in the Steelers and Patriots.

One storyline in this Super Bowl that is not getting as much attention as it probably should is the coaching matchup.  While we have been spoiled with the coaching matchups in recent Super Bowls, including Bill Belichick vs. Pete Carroll last year and John Harbaugh vs. Jim Harbaugh just three years ago, and while the resumes of these two coaches don’t quite match those of other recent Super Bowl coaches, both are still among the best in the league.

While Broncos coach Gary Kubiak and Panthers coach Ron Rivera are both in their first Super Bowl as a coach, neither is a stranger to the big stage of the Super Bowl, as both appeared in Super Bowls as a player, making them the sixth and seventh men to play and coach in a Super Bowl.  Kubiak is the first to do so with the same team, however, as he was on the Denver Broncos roster when they lost Super Bowls XXI, XXII, and XXIV, as the backup quarterback to John Elway.  Rivera played on the winning side of Super Bowl XX as a member of the legendary 1985 Chicago Bears, and was the Bears defensive coordinator in 2006 when they lost to Peyton Manning and the Colts in Super Bowl XLI.  Rivera is the 2015 NFL Coach of the Year.

Ironically enough, the last coach of both teams before Kubiak and Rivera is the same man, John Fox.  Fox led both franchises to a Super Bowl, losing Super Bowl XXXVIII with Carolina and XLVIII with Denver.  Fox parted ways with the Broncos after last season, before Denver hired Kubiak, who has reached the Super Bowl in his first season with the team (but not his first as an NFL head coach after his stint in Houston).  Rivera, like Newton, is in his fifth year with Carolina, who fired Fox after a 2-14 season in 2010 that resulted in Newton being picked first by the Panthers in the 2011 Draft.

The milestone Super Bowl marks the return of the NFL’s championship match to the San Francisco Bay Area for the first time in 31 years, since Stanford Stadium hosted Super Bowl XIX in 1985.  Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, the home of the San Francisco 49ers since 2014, hosts its first Super Bowl.  Since the first outdoor Super Bowl on the West Coast in 13 years will begin at 3:30 local time, the first half of the Super Bowl will be played in daylight for the first time since Super Bowl XXXVII in San Diego, which was also the last Super Bowl played in California.  Coldplay will perform the halftime show, while Lady Gaga will sing the national anthem.

As I mentioned, there are no shortage of storylines in this Super Bowl, but the story of the MVP and fresh new face of the league reaching the Super Bowl and going against the legendary veteran in what could be his final game is the biggest, and could also come into play in determining who wins.  While the Broncos defense is statistically the best in the league, they can and will be matched by the Panthers defense, with neither team’s defense giving them an advantage in the game.  That being said, while the Broncos offense is statistically average, the Panthers offense has been tremendous all year.  While, because of the strength of both defenses, I don’t expect a lot of points from either side in this game, I do expect the Panthers offense to reach the end zone enough to outscore the Broncos, who will struggle offensively against the Panthers defense.

Panthers 24, Broncos 13.

 

 

ACC Basketball Power Rankings, Week of 2/1

Legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi, whose name is on the trophy that will be awarded to either the Carolina Panthers or the Denver Broncos at the conclusion of Sunday’s 50th Super Bowl, once said, “It’s not whether you get knocked down, it’s whether you get back up.”

In the ACC, getting knocked down is a fact of life.  No one has been undefeated in ACC play since Duke in 1999, and only twice since has a team only lost one game in conference play (and never since 2002).  Yes, North Carolina is currently 8-0, but the schedule is about to get much tougher for the Tar Heels, and with the ACC as deep from top to bottom as ever, even a complete team like Roy Williams has this year will not have a perfect run through the ACC.

Therefore, who gets back up the best from the setbacks they are sure to face in the ACC will go a long way towards determining who has a good season, and who has a bad one.  In this exciting season, even good programs like Duke and NC State have been knocked down plenty, and how they respond over the second half of ACC play will be what their fans remember from this season.

How the league in general responds is something to watch this week–after having six teams among the top 25 in the AP Poll last week, the ACC is down to four ranked teams entering February.

1. North Carolina (19-2, 8-0 ACC, Last Week: 1st, AP Poll: 2nd)
Last Week:  def. Boston College
This Week:  Monday at Louisville, Saturday at Notre Dame
The Tar Heels have been the most complete team in the league by far through the first half of the league slate, albeit against (so far) the league’s easiest schedule (according to kenpom.com).  Still, the Heels have played only one close game in the ACC so far, and that’s without Marcus Paige (12.7 ppg, 3.9 apg) being at his best.  Carolina’s schedule is much tougher in the back half of league play, starting tonight at Louisville.  I firmly believe this team will not go undefeated in conference play, as the league is too deep for anyone to do that, but it will be intriguing to see how long they can stay perfect in the league.

2. Virginia (17-4, 6-3 ACC, LW: 3rd, AP: 9th)
Last Week:  def. Wake Forest, def. Louisville
This Week:  Wednesday vs Boston College, Saturday at Pittsburgh
After hitting four threes in the final minute to improbably stun Wake Forest, overcoming a 7-point deficit in the final 20 seconds, the Cavaliers put on their best performance of the year, particularly defensively, in a win at Louisville.  Both wins helped prove the Cavaliers can, in fact, win on the road. After some bumps in the road, the Cavaliers are back to the second spot in these rankings, and back in the top 10 in the AP Poll, heading into a stretch of games that will likely see them head to Durham on February 13 at 9-3 in the league.

3. Louisville (17-4, 6-2 ACC, LW: 2nd, AP: 19th)
Last Week:  def. Virginia Tech, lost to Virginia
This Week:  Monday vs North Carolina, Saturday vs Boston College
Simply put, scoring 14 points in the first half is not an optimal way to win games, but that’s what happened Saturday when the Cardinals hosted Virginia, eventually losing 63-47.  This roster full of transfers and young players has been pieced together tremendously by Rick Pitino, and his team has a chance for a huge statement win tonight with North Carolina coming to the Yum! Center.

4. Notre Dame (15-6, 6-3 ACC, LW: 4th)
Last Week:  lost to Syracuse, def. Wake Forest
This Week:  Wednesday at Miami, Saturday vs North Carolina
The Irish lost to Syracuse without point guard Demetrius Jackson, but came back to dominate Wake Forest on Sunday.  The Irish have won five of six against a moderately light schedule (by ACC standards, anyway), but head into a tough stretch over the next week:  at Miami, North Carolina, at Clemson, Louisville.  If the Irish can go 3-1, or even 2-2, in this stretch, they would prove they have what it takes to repeat as conference champions.

5. Miami (16-4, 5-3 ACC, LW: 5th)
Last Week:  def. Duke, lost to NC State
This Week:  Wednesday vs Notre Dame, Sunday at Georgia Tech
After beating Duke last Monday, coach Jim Larranaga improved to 8-5 all-time against North Carolina and Duke, a very impressive mark.  However, the Hurricanes could not back the win up, losing to NC State by 16.  This team is solidly within the NCAA Tournament, but if they want to move to the next level in the ACC, they will have to be better on the road (1-3 with the only win at Boston College).

6. Clemson (13-8, 6-3 ACC, LW: 6th)
Last Week:  def. Pittsburgh, lost to Florida State
This Week:  Tuesday at Wake Forest, Saturday at Virginia Tech
Even with the impressive array of wins the Tigers have compiled in the ACC, all of those were at home, although their lone road in in the conference at Syracuse looks much better now than it did at the time.  Simply put, the Tigers need road wins, and while games this week at Wake Forest and Virginia Tech aren’t going to get them in the NCAA Tournament with wins, they could keep them out with a loss.  NC State is the toughest road game left on the Tigers’ schedule, meaning they need to go 5-0 (or maybe 4-1) on the road or their resume won’t be good enough to make the NCAA Tournament.

7. Syracuse (15-8, 5-5 ACC, LW: 8th)
Last Week:  def. Notre Dame, def. Georgia Tech
This Week:  Tuesday vs Virginia Tech
I didn’t think the absence and subsequent return of a coach could make a huge difference, but for the Orange it certainly has.  They were 0-3 in ACC play without suspended coach Jim Boeheim, and fell to 0-4 after losing his first game back to North Carolina, but have since won five of six to reach the .500 mark in league play.  If they can go 3-0 against Virginia Tech, Florida State, and Boston College, and don’t self-destruct down the stretch, they should make the NCAA field.  Michael Gbinije (17.2 ppg) leads the league in steals (2.4 per game) and is fifth in assists (4.5 per game).

8. Pittsburgh (17-4, 6-3 ACC, LW: 7th)
Last Week:  lost to Clemson, def. Virginia Tech
This Week:  Saturday vs Virginia
Outside a loss to Purdue, the Panthers non-conference slate was practically as light as a feather, but they rode the momentum off a 10-1 start into a 4-1 start in conference play.  However, Jamie Dixon’s team has lost three of six, most notably including at home to NC State for the Wolfpack’s first league win, and is heading into a stretch of games against Virginia, Miami, and North Carolina, with the latter two on the road.  We will know more about this team shortly, as this stretch could prove them to be a team that is good but cannot keep up with the top tier of the league, or could prove them to be a legitimate contender in the ACC.

9. Duke (15-6, 5-4 ACC, LW: 9th)
Last Week:  lost to Miami
This Week:  Tuesday at Georgia Tech, Saturday vs NC State
After a loss to Miami in which the Hurricanes were simply better in every facet of the game, Duke falls out of the top 25 for the first time since the preseason poll of the 2007-08 season (although in my opinion they should’ve been unranked two weeks ago).  They have a chance to right the ship this week with a pair of games against teams below them in these rankings, but these young Blue Devils are still searching for answers.

10. Florida State (14-7, 4-5 ACC, LW: 12th)
Last Week:  def. Boston College, def. Clemson
This Week:  Monday vs NC State, Saturday at Wake Forest
While the Seminoles have had their ups and downs, they played like they are capable on Saturday against Clemson, firing on all cylinders in a convincing victory.  While young, this team has the talent to continue this upward trend, as well as the schedule–they avoid North Carolina, Virginia, and Louisville the rest of the way–to make a run and perhaps finish over .500 in the league, giving them a decent chance at dancing in March, something many people did not expect when the ‘Noles started ACC play 0-3.

11. NC State (12-10, 2-7 ACC, LW: 11th)
Last Week:  lost to Georgia Tech, def. Miami
This Week:  Monday at Florida State, Saturday at Duke
It’s quite a long shot, but don’t count out the Wolfpack from extending Mark Gottfried’s streak of never missing the NCAA Tournament during his tenure.  After a win over Miami, the Pack have a little momentum, not to mention league Player of the Year contender Anthony “Cat” Barber (23.1 ppg, 4.6 apg), and while they need an incredible finish to the year to make the Big Dance, it’s the type of finish that they have accomplished before under Gottfried.  The only issue is, with “bad losses” to Georgia Tech and Wake Forest, they have very little margin for error, as they head into a pair of road games against teams they have already lost to once.

12. Virginia Tech (12-10, 4-5 ACC, LW: 10th)
Last Week:  lost to Louisville, lost to Pittsburgh
This Week:  Tuesday at Syracuse, Saturday vs Clemson
A little early momentum that had the Hokies as a surprise team at 4-1 in the ACC has fizzled, although it has happened not so coincidentally as the schedule got tougher.  This week, Buzz Williams’s club has two winnable games before the schedule toughens up again, but I think the team we have seen during the four-game losing streak is a little closer to what to expect in the stretch run than the team that came out firing in early January.

13. Georgia Tech (12-10, 2-6 ACC, LW: 13th)
Last Week:  def. NC State, lost to Syracuse
This Week:  Tuesday vs Duke, Sunday vs Miami
None of the Yellow Jackets’ conference losses are by more than eight points, and that’s with half of their games coming against ranked opponents.  Eight of their last 10 games are against the top 60 in the KenPom rankings, so even with two games left against the top five in these rankings, it is still an uphill climb for Charles Mitchell (leads ACC with 10.7 rpg) and company.  Can coach Brian Gregory save his job?

14. Wake Forest (10-11, 1-8 ACC, LW: 14th)
Last Week:  lost to Virginia, lost to Notre Dame
This Week:  Tuesday vs Clemson, Saturday vs Florida State
According to Bill James’ Safe Lead Calculator, the Demon Deacons’ 7-point lead with the ball with :20 left was 100 percent safe, but instead of finishing, the Deacs became only the fourth team in the last 50 seasons in college basketball to blow a “safe lead” (ironically, three of the four have come in the ACC).  Following the heartbreaking defeat, nothing went right against Notre Dame, and now the Deacs are under .500 overall, although no one is ranked on the remainder of their regular season schedule.  The question is, since Danny Manning’s club was certainly knocked down by the improbable loss to Virginia, will they be able to overcome that and win some games during their moderately easier stretch run?

15. Boston College (7-14, 0-8 ACC, LW: 15th)
Last Week:  lost to Florida State, lost to North Carolina
This Week:  Wednesday at Virginia, Saturday at Louisville
Last week’s ACC Digital Network Power Poll said “Eli Carter is doing everything he can.  Maybe if there were five of him.”  That sounds about right.  Unfortunately for the already-struggling Eagles, that brutal stretch everybody seems to hit in their ACC schedule is here this week, as they follow Saturday’s loss in Chapel Hill with games against Virginia and Louisville, both on the road, before playing the Tar Heels again at home.

Game of the Week:  #2 North Carolina at #19 Louisville (Monday, 7:00 pm ET, ESPN)