Ranking the ACC: Late February Edition

There are only two weeks left in the regular season, and everyone is still alive for a post-season berth.  The top 5 should be locks for the NCAA Tournament, but Georgia Tech and FSU have some work left to do.  UVA, UNC, BC, Miami and NC State all have a shot at the NIT.  Interesting games are on tap for the final two weeks, with teams fighting to avoid last place, Duke, Maryland and Virginia Tech fighting for the ACC Title, and the middle-of -the-pack teams fighting for a tourney bid. 

1.  Duke:  No question the best team in the league.  Scheyer looks like the Player of the Year, and the Devils are getting maximum effort out of everyone, as usual. 
2.  Maryland: Except for the blowout loss at Cameron, Maryland has exceed expectations and is a lock for the tourney.
3. Virginia Tech: Seth Greenberg is having his best season, thanks in large part to Malcolm Delaney.
4. Wake Forest:  This one is a surprise to me, as I predicted they would struggle after losing Teague and Johnson.  Ish Smith has been fantastic and Gaudio is proving some critics wrong this year.  The question is whether the Deacs will respond after two tough losses.
5.  Clemson:  The Tigers had a rough stretch of games, but are coming on strong and seem to be back on track for another tourney bid.  Perhaps this is the year they can win a first round game in March.
6.  Florida State:  FSU has been more consistent than usual this season.
7.  Georgia Tech:  Underacheiving, but could make the tournament.
8.  Virginia:  After an incredible start to the ACC schedule, the Cavaliers are falling back to Earth a bit.
9.  Boston College:  BC has had its moments, but just does not have the talent this year.
10. UNC: Heading for their worst season since the Doherty years. Let's see if they can pull it together to make the NIT. The backcourt is going to have to step up, and last place is still a possibility.
11.  Miami:  The U has not been able to replace the production and leadership of Jack McClinton.
12.  NC State:  Losing seven straight killed any optimism surrounding the program after a good start, but after beating Wake, State has a chance to avoid a last place finish if they can get wins over Miami and Boston College.

The Battle for Last Place

What started out as a promising season for State and Carolina (see Grading the Early Season) has turned into a disaster.  Since beating Duke to get to 2-3 in the ACC, the Wolfpack have lost 5 straight conference games and did not look good in any of them.  The Tarheels, who started the season ranked #4, have only won 1 of their last 8 games.  Their one win was of course against NC State.  To make matters worse for Carolina, they have lost Ed Davis for the season due to a wrist injury.  The good news is that one of these struggling teams will finally get a win on Saturday.

The State-Carolina game has not meant anything to the world of college basketball for a long time.  Not since the days of Jimmy V has State been remotely competitive with North Carolina.  Sure, State has won a couple games here and there, but not enough to make it interesting.  Well, State is finally on par with UNC.  When the final horn sounds on Saturday evening, State or Carolina will be sitting in last place in the ACC.  Yes, after 20 years, these teams finally have something to play for- to stay out of the cellar.

Over the past few games, State has shot poorly, lacked the toughness and resiliency that they showed earlier in the season, and has looked completely stagnant on offense and over-matched athletically on defense.  UNC has lacked toughness, leadership and has also struggled to score points.  Based on what has transpired recently, it is unlikely that this will be a pretty game to watch.  This game will be won by the team that plays harder and avoids mental errors. 

Prediction:  I'll play it safe and take Carolina by 10.

Duke-UNC Round 1

Obviously, this is not your typical Duke-UNC matchup.  Nobody would have predicted UNC to be 2-6 halfway through the ACC schedule, having lost six of their last seven.  Many of the concerns heading into the season for UNC have proven to be legitimate.  The Heels lack leadership and chemistry, and are not getting the excellent guard play to which they are accustomed.  Ed Davis and Deon Thompson have been solid in filling the void left by the loss of Hansbrough, but there is not a player that has risen to the challenge of replacing Lawson, Ellington and Green.  In addition, even Roy Williams would admit that this is far from his best coaching job.

Duke, on the other hand, has for the most part answered any questions raised about their backcourt depth and potential defensive issues.  Scheyer, Smith and Singler have carried the team, and Dawkins has contributed just enough to help out on the perimeter in spots.  Interestingly, Scheyer and Smith seem to be getting better as the season goes on and are not getting worn down, despite the fact that they each average around 36 minutes per game.  Duke has had success employing a deep rotation of big men to defend, screen and rebound, with Miles Plumlee providing the most offensive punch.  

The Devils are in a familiar position- first place in the conference- and are the clear favorite on Wednesday night.  However, they have struggled on the road some this year, and UNC is always ready for Duke.  If Larry Drew II plays well and the Heels can hit some outside shots, then this could be another great game between the two rivals.  Otherwise, UNC might be fighting to stay out of last place on Saturday against NC State.

Prediction:  UNC wins by 5.