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)
UNC 71, Lou 63… UNC is the best team in the league, period. Cardinals exposed some holes Sat vs UVA. Close but Heels pull away
— Chris Stiles (@cstiles24) February 1, 2016