The ACC's Best Team?

DURHAM, NC - FEBRUARY 25: C.J. Barksdale #42 of the Virginia Tech Hokies battles for a rebound with Matt Jones #13 and Amile Jefferson #21 of the Duke Blue Devils during their game at Cameron Indoor Stadium on February 25, 2014 in Durham, North Carol - Grant Halverson

It's not as cut-and-dry as it seems.

As of today, what is the ACC's best team?

The league standings say that it is Virginia, which clinched the ACC regular season title Saturday with a victory over Syracuse. The polls that will be released today will list Duke as the highest ranked ACC team. And there still could be some holdouts for Syracuse, which seemed like the ACC's dominant team for most of the season and remains the league's top seed on brackets released over the weekend by Joe Lunardi and Jerry Palm.

Heck, there could be an argument made for North Carolina, which has won 11 straight games and is the first team in NCAA history to beat the No. 1, No. 2, No. 3 and No. 4 teams in the preseason coaches' poll.

That's why the 2014 ACC Tournament is going to be so exciting - once we get past the first two days of bad basketball by mediocre teams.

By Sunday night March 16, we're going to have a better idea of which of the ACC's Big Four is really the best. But right now, it's a tough call.

Obviously, Virginia is basking in its regular season clinching win over Syracuse - even if it is to some degree a product of having the weakest ACC schedule of among the contenders. I see that even many Duke fans are conceding the (current) top place in the ACC hierarchy to the Cavs.

I'm not sure they are wrong, but I'm not sure they are right either. Let me ask you - and answer honestly - which would be the toughest opponent for Duke in Greensboro - Virginia, Syracuse, or North Carolina?

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The answer to that is the answer to the eye test. And I know it varies from individual to individual.

Allow me to give you my take on Duke-Virginia.

Both teams struggled to find their identity. The Cavaliers were exceptionally mediocre in the pre-ACC season. They choked away a home game with Virginia Commonwealth, were beaten by double-digits at home by Wisconsin, then followed that up with a stunning loss on the road at Green Bay. Tony Bennett's team finished up 2013 with a horrendous 35-point loss to an NIT-bound Tennessee team.

On New Year's Day, Virginia was 9-4, unranked and seemingly headed nowhere.

But the Cavs turned it around almost overnight. On Jan. 4 - five days after the disaster in Knoxville - Virginia went to Tallahassee and manhandled a Florida State team that was playing very well at that point. The Cavs came home and routed Wake Forest, then went on the road again and blasted N.C. State by 30.

Duke was never quite as bad as Virginia was early, but the Blue Devils took just a little bit longer to find itself. The Devils entered ACC play with a 14-2 record with both losses coming to top 5 teams. Duke did have good wins over Michigan and UCLA, but anybody who saw the Devils struggle past East Carolina and Vermont at home understood that the young Blue Devils had not gelled - especially on defense.

Those problems surfaced as Duke opened ACC play 1-2 with losses on the road at Notre Dame and Clemson. In both cases, Duke led after 30 minutes, but collapsed down the stretch. The Devils almost dropped out of the top 25 after the Clemson loss.

At that point, Duke started to turn it around - and the pivotal game was against Virginia.

On the night of Jan. 13, Virginia visited Cameron. Freshman Jabari Parker, still mired in his midseason slump, was only a minor factor in that game. But Rasheed Sulaimon, who had literally disappeared from the Duke rotation in December, came off the bench and played a spectacular game with 21 points. Amile Jefferson was also spectacular with 10 points and 15 rebounds.

Duke seemed to be in control most of the way. The Devils led by eight at half and had a double-digit lead with just over three minutes to go.

That's when Virginia staged a furious rally and took a two-point lead with less than a minute to play. That minute was clearly the turning point in the season - Rodney Hood missed a shot in the lane, but Jefferson rebounded and got the ball to Sulaimon for what proved to be the game-winning 3-pointer. At the other end, Jefferson deflected a pass intended for Joe Harris, spoiling Virginia's answer, then sank two free throws to clinch the 69-65 victory.

Now, I don't suggest that we should consider the Duke the better team because the Devils beat Virginia that night. The game was in Cameron and that was a huge advantage for the Devils. Virginia didn't get a rematch in Charlottesville.

But I offer that as the moment when Duke found itself - just as Virginia did on its Tallahassee trip. I'll make you a deal - I won't hold Virginia's truly awful 2013 performance against the Cavs if you don't hold Duke's pre-Virginia struggles against the Devils.

Let's just compare the two teams SINCE Jan. 13.

Since that date, Virginia is a perfect 13-0 … Duke is 10-2.

Edge to the Cavs, right?

Well, maybe. But I should point out that Duke's two losses were at Syracuse (in overtime) and at North Carolina - two places Virginia didn't have to go.

In that span, both teams won at Pittsburgh - Virginia on a last-second 3-pointer by Malcolm Brogdon … Duke won going away by 15. Both teams beat Syracuse at home - Duke in a four-point thriller … Virginia by 19 with a dominant stretch run (although it helped that Syracuse was without Jerami Grant for most of the game).

Ten of Virginia's 13 wins during the streak were by double digits. The Cavs suffered two close calls in that stretch - the last-second win at Pitt and a tough struggle in Blacksburg against rival Virginia Tech.

Eight of Duke's 10 wins in that stretch were by double digits - the exceptions were the four-point victory over Syracuse and the two-point thriller against Maryland.

For what it's worth, just six of the 11 games in UNC's current 11-game winning streak have been by double digits. The Tar Heels have endured close wins at Virginia Tech, at home against Pitt, at Florida State and the overtime thriller at N.C. State … plus the eight-point victory over Duke.

Just five of the 12 ACC wins Syracuse posted to open the conference season were by double digits. The Orange made a living winning close games. And with three losses in the last four ACC games, it's hard to make the case that Syracuse is currently the best team in the ACC.

So would I make the case that Duke is the best team in the ACC at this point?

Yes and no.

The difference in those two answers comes down to 3-point shooting.

Through the first 11 ACC games, Duke was one of the most deadly 3-point shooting teams in college basketball. The Devils were hitting 42.0 percent overall (232 of 552) and 43.0 percent against ACC opponents (117 of 272).

Against Maryland, Duke hit just 5 of 24 3-point tries. That was a bad night, but it was followed by an outstanding 10 of 18 3-point performance against Georgia Tech. But the 3-point woes reoccurred at UNC (5 of 22), continued against Syracuse (7 of 21) and persisted even against Virginia Tech (10 of 33).

That's 31.3 percent - even counting the 10-of-18 at Georgia Tech.

A trio of points:

-- It's possible that the pressure of playing five games in 11 days had something to do with the 3-point slump, although it should be noted that it started with a well-rested Duke team struggling against Maryland.

-- It is also possible that the quality of the competition had something to do with it, although Duke hit a solid 10-of-22 3s in the victory over Virginia - one of the best defensive teams in the league (and leading the ACC in 3-point defense) - and 15-of-36 in the first game at Syracuse (41.7 percent - right on the team's previous 3-point average). Duke hit an outstanding 13-of-25 3-pointers against Pitt, which also has one of the best 3-point defenses in the ACC.

-- It's also noteworthy that Duke won four of the five games during the slump, including a huge victory over Syracuse. If the Devils had hit 30 percent of their 3s in Chapel Hill (instead of 22.7 percent), Duke very well could have held on in that one.

My point is that Duke is still a very good team when the 3-pointers aren't falling. The Devils are now playing good defense, rebounding effectively and getting all-star play in the paint from Jabari Parker.

But it is 3-point shooting that lifts Duke to another level.

If the Blue Devils can keep doing the things they do well and shoot 40 percent from beyond the arch, they are the best team in the ACC … maybe the best team in college basketball right now.

If Duke's 3-point percentage remains where it has been over the last five games, the Blue Devils are going to be vulnerable to very good teams - such as Virginia or UNC or (a healthy) Syracuse.

The fun part is that no matter how much we speculate, we'll get the answer over the next two weeks. I'm convinced that the best team in the ACC will win the ACC title - the real ACC title.

That weekend in Greensboro is going to be spectacular.

ACC ODDS AND ENDS

-- The ACC has played itself down to one bubble team - Florida State.

Clemson's loss to Wake Forest last week was devastating to the Tigers. Even if they win out at home, it's very unlikely they can overcome a terrible non-conference strength of schedule (274) and a lack of good wins (just one top 50 win and three more top 100 wins as of Sunday's victory over Maryland).

N.C. State gave up the NCAA ghost in overtime against North Carolina.

It made me think - the Pack lost three games on length of the court drives for layups in the final 10 seconds. Just think how their resume would look if they could just stop the ball in the clutch - wins against Wake, Syracuse and UNC.

Florida State has a lackluster record - just 17-11 after Sunday night's victory over Georgia Tech - but the 'Noles have a much better resume with non-conference wins over UMass and VCU, plus close losses to Florida and Michigan.

If the 'Noles avoid a stumble at Boston College at mid-week, their NCAA hopes may come down to the regular season finale - when Syracuse visits Tallahassee.

Win that one and FSU would be on the right side of the bubble heading to Greensboro.

-- The Syracuse trip to FSU could have a big impact on Duke. If the Devils win out and the Orange lose one more, Duke will be the No. 2 seed in the ACC Tournament.

But Duke's finale with North Carolina may be even more important. Not only would a loss lock Duke into the No. 4 seed in the tournament, it could knock the Devils out of an NCAA spot in Raleigh.

Right now, Duke would appear to be slightly ahead of UNC in the NCAA seeding hierarchy. Despite UNC's win in Chapel Hill, the Devils have a better record, a better RPI and a higher ranking in the polls. But another loss to the Heels - this time in Durham - would very likely vault UNC ahead of Duke in the NCAA's eyes. A Duke win Saturday would make it cleatrcut: Duke>UNC.

Of course, whatever happens in Greensboro could change everything, but as it now stands Duke, UNC and Virginia appear to be competing for the two high-seeded spots in Raleigh.

-- I see the debate on the message boards about Duke's potential seeding. Just my opinion, but I think as of today, Duke has to be a No. 2 seed (no matter what Jerry Palm thinks). I do think that if the Devils win out - in the last two regular season games and in the tournament - there's almost no doubt that Duke will be a No. 1 seed.

But anything less than that and Duke is at best a No. 2 - a No. 3 if the ending is particularly ugly.

Just remember, I'm guessing like everybody else.

BTW: Have you looked at the NCAA selection committee lately?

The committee currently is chaired by Wake Forest athletic director Ron Wellman, but also includes LSU's athletic director - Joe Alleva. Alleva, of course, spent more than a decade running the Duke athletic program and was very close to Mike Krzyzewski.

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