The (Tobacco) Road To The Final Four: ACC’s Blue Bloods Rising

    Duke and North Carolina are peaking at the right time. While Louisville is one of the best teams in the country, the ACC title may go through Durham or Chapel Hill.

    February 18, 2017

    Duke and North Carolina are peaking at the right time. While Louisville is one of the best teams in the country, the ACC title may go through Durham or Chapel Hill.

    Don’t look now, but traditional blue bloods could be on the path toward a regular-season finale for the ACC title.

    Duke and North Carolina looked like the two best teams in the conference when they squared off nine days ago, with the Blue Devils claiming victory at home. But the regular season ends when these two teams square off in Chapel Hill in three weeks, and the game could decide the 2016-17 league title.

    Duke didn’t play its best game of the season earlier this week against Virginia, but it may have been its best win of the year. The Blue Devils stole a victory in Charlottesville despite having leading scorers Luke Kennard and Grayson Allen combine to hit on just 5-of-19 from the floor and Amile Jefferson on the floor for just 21 minutes because of foul trouble. Mike Krzyzewski’s squad received the best performance of the season from freshman forward Harry Giles, while fellow freshman forward Jayson Tatum scored a career-high 28 points, complete with six 3-pointers.

    Duke F Jayson Tatum went off in the second half against Virginia. (Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)

    The Blue Devils won their sixth straight game, 65-55, and are the hottest team in the ACC. They won when they weren’t at their best, and that’s a dangerous sign for ACC foes and whichever teams the Blue Devils draw in the NCAA Tournament.

    This squad is not yet where many prognosticators would have expected because it is still learning to play as a complete team following so many personnel issues as well as the absence of Coach K. But the preseason No. 1 team in the country has weathered the many storms it has had to battle all season long. And it is now in a three-way tie for second place in the league behind North Carolina.

    Despite the loss to the Blue Devils, UNC is still in good position to claim a No. 1 seed come Selection Sunday. Last Saturday when the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee released its initial Top 16 overall seeds, Roy Williams and Co. were placed as a No. 2 seed. Looking at the remaining slate, though, the Tar Heels could easily claim a top slot in The Dance if they hold serve. Despite facing a team that was on the verge of dismissing its head coach, UNC looked awfully good in its win this past Wednesday at NC State.

    North Carolina F Theo Pinson will be a key player for the Tar Heels down the stretch. (Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports)

    UNC improved to 22-5 on the season following the 24-point win over the Wolfpack, and it will have an opportunity to further strengthen its tournament résumé because the Tar Heels play Virginia twice and host Duke and Louisville down the stretch. Those are tough games, of course. But if it can play well and perhaps even split those games in close fashion, an ACC tournament title would position UNC very well for a No. 1 seed, especially if a team such as Baylor falls off of the No. 1 line. Of course, things will be more difficult now with sophomore Kenny Williams likely being done for the year after knee surgery. He was one of UNC’s best defensive players. Theo Pinson, who recently returned from an ankle injury, has a lot of versatility and will be a key Tar Heel moving forward because he can be effective on the perimeter and in the post.

    Duke travels to UNC on March 4 to close out the ACC slate. That game, if the college hoops gods are working for either squad, could determine the regular-season champ.

    As for the postseason, let’s take a look at how the 2017 ACC tournament would look if the season ended today based on the current ACC standings.

    ACC Standings

    Georgia Tech head coach Josh Pastner leads a Yellow Jackets squad that is trying to get back onto the NCAA bubble. (Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports)

    North Carolina 22-5, 10-3
    Florida State 21-5, 9-4
    Louisville 21-5, 9-4
    Duke 21-5, 9-4
    Notre Dame 20-7, 9-5
    Virginia 18-7, 8-5
    Syracuse 16-11, 8-6
    Virginia Tech 18-7, 7-6
    Miami 17-8, 7-6
    Georgia Tech 15-11, 6-7
    Wake Forest 15-11, 6-8
    Clemson 14-11, 4-9
    Pitt 14-12, 3-10
    NC State 14-13, 3-11
    Boston College 9-18, 2-12

    Clemson vs. Pitt
    Georgia Tech vs. Boston College
    Wake Forest vs. NC State

    Miami vs. Virginia Tech
    Clemson/Pitt vs. Notre Dame
    Georgia Tech/Boston College vs. Syracuse
    Wake Forest/NC State vs. Virginia

    North Carolina vs. Miami/Virginia Tech
    Duke vs. Clemson/Pitt/Notre Dame
    Florida State vs. Georgia Tech/Boston College/Syracuse
    Louisville vs. Wake Forest/NC State/Virginia

    …Virginia Tech is really going to miss the production of Chris Clarke, who tore the ACL in his left knee and will miss the remainder of the season. The versatile sophomore power forward was averaging 11.4 points and a team-leading 7.3 rebounds per game, but he suffered the injury in the second half of the team’s big double-overtime win over Virginia last Sunday. The Hokies had rebounding issues even with him on the floor, so this is a brutal blow because he was their best player on the glass. Clarke was also a good passer, especially in the transition game, as he often used his athleticism to bring the ball up the court on the break. The Hokies were able to get past Pitt earlier in the week, but this loss is huge because Clarke did so many things well. The Hokies have a tough test at Louisville on Saturday.

    …Notre Dame forward Bonzie Colson has been on fire as of late. The junior is averaging 24.3 points and 11.3 rebounds in his last four games while shooting 63.0 percent from the floor. He is the lone big man in ND’s smaller lineup, but he has been a double-double machine all season. Depending on their matchup(s) in the NCAA Tournament, the Fighting Irish could be dangerous because of their post game with Colson.

    …It’s always tough to see a head coach lose his or her job. But Mark Gottfried is 30-30 over his last two seasons at NC State. The bottom line is there has just been way too much talent to be .500 over a two-year span at this point in a tenure, even in the rugged ACC.

    Saturday’s best game

    No. 14 Virginia at No. 10 North Carolina, 8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN: The Cavaliers have to travel to Chapel Hill, a tough spot for a team that has lost three of four despite being up at the half in each of those three losses against Duke, Virginia Tech and Syracuse. UNC leads the nation in offensive rebounding and has an interior game that could overwhelm UVA. However, the Cavaliers are sound on the defensive boards. This is a different Cavs team than last season, but Tony Bennett’s squad did hold the Tar Heels to just five offensive rebounds in last year’s loss in the ACC tournament. This game should be close for the first 30 minutes, but the Cavs will wear down in the second half. Getting outscored significantly in the second half has been a trend in the team’s losses all season, including Duke having a 14-point advantage after the break earlier this week.

    Here’s your ACC play of the week:

    Enjoy the weekend hoops action!

    MORE: College Hoops Weekend Primer: Best Games, Bets For Feb. 17-19


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