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The Race For The Championship


Earlier this week, Florida State's Michael Snaer said on ESPN's "The Experts" that he was "100 percent confident … no doubt" that the Seminoles will win the ACC championship.

I assume that he's talking about the regular season championship, since it's awfully early to start projecting three wins in Atlanta in March, when the ACC championship will be decided.

But if that's the case, you have to concede that Snaer has a reasonable basis for his confidence after his buzzer-beating 3-pointer beat Duke in Cameron last Saturday, putting FSU in great position to win its first ACC regular season championship.

At the moment Snaer broke Blue Devil hearts, the top of the ACC standings looked like this

  • Duke 4-1 16-3
  • Florida State 4-1 13-6
  • UNC 3-1 16-3
  • N.C. State 3-1 14-5
  • Virginia 2-1 15-2

(Just a note about how the standings are listed. Many fans will look at the above and ask, 'Why is Duke listed ahead of FSU after losing to FSU?' The answer is that the ACC doesn't apply tiebreakers until it's time to determine tournament seedings. Before that, the protocol is to list teams in this order (1) best conference record; (2) best overall record; (3) alphabetically. Small point and rather meaningless, but that's I know it's something that bugs people).

Okay, in the five days since FSU's win in Durham, Duke, FSU and North Carolina have added conference wins. Virginia dropped off the pace a bit by losing at home to Virginia Tech last Sunday. N.C. State added a big win that day at Miami, but lost Thursday night at UNC.

So, going into this weekend, the top of the standings look like this:

  • Duke 5-1 17-3
  • Florida State 5-1 14-6
  • UNC 4-1 17-3
  • N.C. State 4-2 15-6
  • Virginia 3-2 16-3

So let's try and handicap the race for the regular season title.

I'm going to begin by throwing out the seven ACC teams that currently sport a losing record. I still hold out the remote hope that Miami (2-3, 11-7) could play themselves into consideration for an NCAA bid, but the 'Canes ain't going to challenge for first in the ACC.

I'm also going to rate N.C. State and Virginia as extreme longshots.

The Wolfpack's loss at UNC was not a big blow - and they get another shot at the Tar Heels later in Raleigh - just as Virginia's narrow loss at Duke is the kind of game that a conference contender can accept.

But both teams have unforgiveable losses at home to a lower echelon team. Contenders don't lose at home to the likes of Georgia Tech or Virginia Tech (even if it is a rivalry game). The Cavs looked like the ACC's third-best team for most of the season, but the loss of senior center Assane Sene (he'll be out at least to the end of February after ankle surgery) is a blow - a blow that makes them an extreme longshot to overcome the three teams ahead of them in the standings.

N.C. State is in a little better shape. The Pack still has UNC and FSU coming to Raleigh, but only gets Duke in Durham. I could be wrong, but I think when N.C. State and Virginia meet in Raleigh Saturday, the winner will emerge as the frontrunner … for fourth place (and the final bye in the ACC Tournament).

That leaves three real contenders.


Give the ACC media credit - we tagged UNC, Duke and FSU (in that order) as the top three teams in our preseason poll. For most of November and December, when Florida State floundered, it looked like we grossly overrated them. Now, after their recent surge, it appears we might have underrated them.

There is precedent for a team to struggle in the pre-ACC season, then surge in conference play. Indeed, it's happened in each of the last two seasons.

Two years ago, Maryland was 10-4 with some ugly performances before the start of conference play - before going 13-3 and tying Duke for the ACC regular season title. Last season, North Carolina was even worse - starting 7-4 and struggling on offense. When the Tar Heels lost an early January game by 20 points to a mediocre Georgia Tech team, no one would have guessed that UNC would surge to the ACC regular season title.

UNC's 2011 loss at Georgia Tech was very much like FSU's ACC opener. The Seminoles lost by 20 points at Clemson - indeed, by almost the same score (79-59) that UNC lost at Georgia Tech the year before (78-58).

That loss seemed to confirm the disappointing mediocrity of the 'Noles. FSU was 9-6 overall at that point, including an 0-2 record against the Ivy League. The neutral court loss to Tommy Amaker's strong Harvard team wasn't too bad. But who could explain the homecourt loss to Princeton in which FSU scored 10 first-half points?

It's hard to believe that offensively challenge team has suddenly exploded. Through the first third of the ACC season, FSU is the best 3-point shooting team in the ACC (in conference play). After hitting just 30 percent from beyond the arc, the Seminoles have hit 42 of 102 attempts in six conference games - a sizzling 41.2 percent.

If they keep that up, Snaer's confidence is well-placed.

Of course, that's extremely unlikely.

Why? It's the nature of basketball. It's a game of streaks. You see it in game situations, when two teams will battle on even terms for 10 minutes, then one or the other will suddenly go on a big run. Usually competitive games are decided by which team has the best or the longest run. You see it in individual players too. The best recent example was Andre Dawkins in the first half against Wake Forest, when he nailed seven first-half 3-pointers, scoring 18 straight Duke points during one stretch. Then he failed to hit a 3 in the second half against the Deacs.

But you most often see it with teams over the course of the season. North Carolina got hot late last season. Duke got hot late in 2010 and made its run to the national title. Florida State is hot now.

But will it last?

Often, hot streaks are precipitated by coaching decisions. UNC took off a year ago when Roy Williams replaced the inept Larry Drew II with Kendall Marshall at the point. Duke got hot in 2009 when Coach K moved Jon Scheyer to the point and inserted Elliott Williams into the lineup. A year later, Duke exploded when Coach K installed Brian Zoubek at center and slowed the pace to take advantage of his presence on the boards and defensively in the lane.

FSU's surge seems to be tied to the return of Ian Miller, who missed the first part of the year with an injury. Although his personal numbers aren't flashy, his return coincided with FSU's offensive improvement. It also may be that senior Luke Loucks, a three-year wing guard, may be growing into the starting point guard position. Snaer has been seeing more minutes at small forward as Leonard Hamilton has gone to a three-guard alignment (which brings Okara White off the bench).

Florida State's back-to-back weekend thumpings of UNC (by 33 points) and Duke (just three points, but in Durham) has thrown the race wide open. It's going to be interesting in February. I can't help thinking about the 1997 season, which was one of the most competitive regular season races in ACC history.

At the time (unlike now) the ACC was loaded with heavyweights. Wake Forest had senior Tim Duncan in the middle and was the preseason favorite to win it all after winning the two previous ACC championships. North Carolina was loaded with sophomores Antwan Jamison and Vince Carter, plus sharpshooting junior Shammond Williams and gifted freshman point guard Ed Cota. Gary Williams had a powerful team built around senior Keith Booth (or "Kiet Boot" as Bobby Cremins insisted on calling him). Virginia was loaded with Harold Deane, Norm Nolan and Curtis Staples (the guy whose 3-point record J.J. Redick eventually beat). Rick Barnes had Clemson on the rise with Terrell McIntyre at the point and Greg Buckner on the wing and a load of wide bodies down low.

Six different ACC teams were ranked that season and even last-place Georgia Tech boasted a first-team All-ACC talent in Matt Harpring.

Duke got off to a slow start in the ACC, losing back to back games at Clemson (in overtime) and at home to Wake Forest. After that lopsided loss, Blue Devil center Greg Newton trashed Wake Forest's Duncan, telling reporters "he's not that much." The reporters gleefully raced to Duncan (who had 26 points, 14 rebounds and four blocks in Wake's 81-69 rout) and asked for his response to Newton's absurd comments. Duncan swatted Newton away with the contempt he deserved: "Tell Greg Newton I think he's the greatest center I've ever played against."

Mike Krzyzewski's response was more interesting. Concerned about Newton's erratic behavior - both on and off the court - he began to experiment with ways to play without the Canadian big man. He didn't have many options. Big man Taymon Domzalski, who had been a solid player as a freshman in 1996, was limited by bad knees. The next biggest players were 6-8 transfer Roshown McLeod and slender 6-8 Mike Chappell - both natural wing forwards.

By the time UNC visited Cameron to close out the first half of the regular season, Duke did not look like a contender. The Blue Devils were 4-3 in the league, which was still better than the disappointing Tar Heels. Dean Smith's last team (we didn't know that at the time) had opened ACC play with three straight losses and was on the verge of a fourth straight defeat when N.C. State guard Ishua Benjamin choked away a sure victory in Chapel Hill with three straight turnovers. Even with that gift win, the Tar Heels came to Cameron 3-4 in the ACC and even more out of the race than the Devils.

K started three guards that day, along with the 6-8 McLeod and 6-6 freshman Chris Carrawell. He benched Newton, hoping that would inspire him the way similar benching helped Elton Brand early in 1999 and Austin Rivers earlier this season. He gave Newton 28 minutes off the bench and got little production, Even so, Trajan Langdon (28 points) and Jeff Capel (19 points) went off from long range and Duke poured more sand on the buried Tar Heels with an 80-71 victory.

After an easy home win over Georgia Tech,. Duke traveled to Winston-Salem to take on the ACC frontrunning Deacons. K finally gave up on Newton. He started his UNC lineup again - three guards, McLeod and Carrawell - against a Wake team that started 7-0 Loren Woods and the 6-11 Duncan (6-10 Richard Peral came off the bench and played 35 minutes). The myth is that Carrawell shut down Duncan. He didn't - McLeod guarded him most of the game and Duncan had 26 points, but down the stretch, the 6-6 freshman with a bad shoulders did keep the ball away from Duncan and Duke pulled a stunning 73-68 victory over the No. 2 ranked Deacons.

That game seemed to set Duke on fire. K's small lineup bombed away - his great 1986-94 teams had never attempted more than 500 3-pointers in a season; his '97 team attempted more than 700. Langdon (44.1 percent) and Capel (43.7) were the most prolific, but Steve Wojciechowski (39.4 percent) and McLeod (37.5 percent) were also effective.

Duke followed the win at Wake was a 29-point homecourt victory at N.C. State, a controversial one-point win at Virginia (the night when time stopped in Charlottesville), a 10-point win at Florida State and a tough seven-point win over Clemson.

There was a disquieting moment when the shots didn't fall at No. 17 UCLA and Duke lost by four, but the Devils bounced back to whip Maryland by 12 in Cameron to clinch the ACC regular season title.

It was an amazing run - between the team's takeoff in late January and the end of February, Duke was probably playing as well as anybody in the country, The shift to a small lineup and a reliance on 3-pointers had ignited a remarkable spurt.

But that title clinching victory over the Terps was the end of it. The regular season finale at UNC was evidence that the streak was over.

Remember when we left UNC after the game in Durham, deep in the ACC second division with a 3-5 ACC record?

The Tar Heels got a break from the schedule. They got a non-conference gimmie right after the Duke loss and used it to pound Middle Tennessee State 99-49. Florida State, one of the ACC's few weak sisters, visited the Smith Center next, giving UNC a chance to build its confidence. Then Virginia, a much tougher team, visited Chapel Hill and the Heels were able to rack up a third straight homecourt win and even their ACC record.

Just as Duke was getting hot, UNC was getting hot. They kept their winning streak alive with narrow road victories over the ACC's two weakest teams (N.C. State and Georgia Tech). They extended it with a strong homecourt victory over Wake Forest, then with an even stronger road win at Maryland.

By the time Duke visited Chapel Hill, the Tar Heels had won eight straight and were probably playing the best basketball in the ACC. UNC was riding the same kind of streak Duke had been on earlier. They started too late to steal the regular season title, but where Duke was fading in the first week of March, the Tar Heels were gathering steam.

UNC rode its streak to a homecourt victory over Duke, an ACC Championship in Greensboro and a trip to the Final Four, before it all burned out with a dreadful shooting performance against Arizona in Indianapolis.

Duke stumbled to the finish line with an embarrassing ACC Tournament quarterfinal loss to N.C. State, managed to hold off Mark Gottfried's Murray State team in the NCAA opener, then fell to Pete Gillen's Providence Friars in the semifinals.

In the end, North Carolina was a fundamentally stronger team than Duke in 1997. Both teams rode hot streaks and endured cold streaks. In the long run, Duke got hot a little earlier and that was enough to claim the regular season title.

But that season is good evidence that even with the balanced home-and-home regular season schedule, the regular season is not always the best way to crown a champion. Teams experience a lot of ups and downs during the course of a season. They get better. They have injuries or dissension and get worse. They get hot.

"Teams are ever evolving," Coach K said earlier this week. "Who you are one week is not necessarily who you are the next week."

Florida State is certainly proof of that. Over the last two weeks, the Seminoles have been the best team in the ACC.

But that doesn't mean they'll be the best team over the next two weeks.


Duke takes the coming weekend off from the ACC race. The Blue Devils will meet St. John's at noon in Cameron Saturday, then sit back and watch the other contenders do battle.

Actually, not much is going to change this weekend. Florida State doesn't play again until next Wednesday and UNC has a near-gimmie Sunday when Georgia Tech visits the Smith Center. The only weekend game that will have real impact comes Saturday afternoon when Virginia visits N.C. State.

After UNC beats Georgia Tech, the top three ACC regular season contenders will be 5-1 in the league. But don't make the mistake of thinking they are dead even. In this age of unbalanced ACC schedules, each faces a distinctly different future:

FLORIDA STATE: The Seminoles have the easiest path to the regular season title … by far.

FSU doesn't have another game with North Carolina and its only remaining game with Duke is in Tallahassee. The 'Noles do face road games at N.C. State and at Virginia, as well as a possible stumble at Miami. But just four of their remaining 10 ACC games are on the road.

Not only do they have less home games, but the road in the ACC is not the same for FSU as it is for Duke or North Carolina. Those two schools face a far tougher road environment than any other ACC team, even the contending 'Noles.

"The thing that impresses you about Duke is that they always take everybody's best shot," Wake Forest coach Jeff Bzdelik said last week before playing Duke.

That best shot includes the home crowd's best shot too.

We saw evidence of that when Duke went to Clemson. The Tigers enjoyed the first sellout of the season in Littlejohn for the Blue Devils' visit. A week earlier, Georgia Tech coach Brian Gregory praised the crowd at the Phillips Arena (Tech's home-away-from home this season) after the Duke game.

It was never more evident than earlier this week, when Duke had to deal with a tumultuous atmosphere at the Comcast Center as Maryland named its home floor for former coach Gary Williams.

"The crowd was off the charts," first-year Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said after the game. "It was fantastic to see. It was the first time I've seen it."

Turgeon said that the crowd impacted the game.

"We used the crowd on defense. That was great; it made a huge difference in the game for us. That was fun. I can't wait until we get to the point where we get our program where I know we are going to get it; where we are selling every game out, not just Duke and North Carolina. That is when it is going to be a lot of fun, when we sell out every game."

As the new Maryland coach noted, North Carolina gets the same treatment. There were 12,100 fans in the Donald Tucker Center to watch FSU's monumental beatdown of the Tar Heels. That's 4,200 more fans than the previous season high in Tallahassee. The followup crowd for Maryland's visit was 8,800. When FSU went to Wake Forest immediately after beating Duke, the crowd was more than 5,000 below capacity.

You want to bet Lawrence Joel will be filled when UNC visits on Jan. 31 and again when Duke comes to town on Feb. 28?

That's the flip side of the celebrity of those two giants. They get the publicity and the TV spots and the head start in recruiting, but they also get the focus of opposing teams and the fury of opposing fans. Every visit by Duke and/or Carolina is a prime time game for the team they're playing.

That's not the case for an upstart contender such as FSU.

When Krzyzewski was just starting to build his program, that situation had not evolved. I saw that first hand in 1986 - Coach K's first great year. I covered No. 1 North Carolina's trip to Virginia in early February and watched an inspired Cavalier team - fired up by an inspired crowd - upset the Tar Heels. Duke, which was about to take over the No. 1 ranking, traveled to Charlottesville a few days later. University Hall was sold out, but there were some empty seats and the atmosphere, while good, was nothing like the electricity they had generated for UNC's visit.

All that had changed by 1993.

The reception for Duke had been rising as Coach K piled success upon success, but it reached a peak during the 1992-93 season. The schedule that year was odd - it seemed like everybody in the league played Duke and UNC back-to-back. I made most of the trips and I was amazed by the different atmosphere at the six other ACC sites. This time UNC benefited as the crowds and the energy were focused on Coach K's two-time national champs.

In the years since, it fluctuates to some degree, but the basic fact doesn't change - Duke and UNC face a far different road test than any other ACC team.

That's to Florida State's advantage as the 'Noles make their run for the 2012 ACC regular season title. They'll have an easier time at N.C. State, at Miami and at Virginia than the Heels and Blue Devils will face when they go on the road.

Nothing is certain, but if the 'Noles can protect their home court, they are in great shape to fulfill Snaer's confident prediction.

NORTH CAROLINA: The Tar Heels have the toughest task remaining - by far.

The Tar Heels still face a home and home with Duke, plus competitive road games at Virginia, at Miami, at N.C. State and maybe at Miami. Where FSU has four ACC road games left, the Heels have six!

And, as noted before, the road is much tougher for UNC than anybody other than Duke.

UNC has should-win games at Wake and against Georgia Tech and Clemson in the Smith Center. A home and home with Maryland should yield two more wins (although the game at College Park is not a given).

The Tar Heels will need to catch fire as they did last year to survive that testing slate. It remains to be seen how much the loss of Dexter Strickland - the best perimeter defender on a team that has been even more challenged than Duke as a perimeter defensive team - will have on UNC's long-term prospects.

DUKE: The Blue Devils won't have it as easy as FSU, but their 10 remaining games aren't quite as tough as what UNC faces.

True, Duke still must travel to UNC and FSU, but next week's trip to Virginia Tech is the only other real road threat. Duke is 3-0 on the road in the ACC and should add two more wins at Wake and at Boston College.

The Devils get N.C. State and Miami at home and don't have to travel to Raleigh or Coral Gables. They should be able to handle Maryland and Virginia Tech in Durham. They don't have to face Virginia in Charlottesville.

Still, the loss to Florida State in Durham is going to be hard to overcome. It will probably take a win in Tallahassee for the Devils to match the streaking Seminoles. On the other hand, in view of UNC's tougher remaining schedule, a win at FSU and a split with UNC ought to be enough to stay abreast of the Tar Heels.

It's hard to look at this Duke team and project an ACC regular season title. Coach K still hasn't found a consistent offensive threat - although at least five players are capable of giving him all-star offensive nights (Rivers, Dawkins, Kelly, Curry and Mason Plumlee), none of the five has demonstrated the consistency to do it night after night.

In addition, Duke's defense is the shakiest it's been in years. There are stretches when Duke plays very good defensively - such as the last 12 minutes of the Maryland game; the first half against FSU - but defensive consistency has been the hallmark of Coach K's best teams and this team has not found that yet.

Until that discovery is made, Duke is not a championship team.

But what's fascinating about this season is watching Krzyzewski tweak his lineup, his rotation and his tactics, trying to find the key that will ignite the kind of run that he engineered in 1997 … and 2009 … and 2010 … and so many other times.

He doesn't always find it (think 2003 or 2007), but more often than not, he does.

So far he's juggled this team to a 17-3 record against the nation's toughest schedule. He has a team that struggled to win at Clemson and Georgia Tech, yet has managed to beat teams such as Kansas, Michigan State and Michigan on neutral courts.

Personally, I think the homecourt loss to Florida State was Duke's best performance of the season. True, the Blue Devils lost, but they barely lost to a talented team that was riding a hot streak. They made some mistakes down the stretch that cost them a game in which they led almost all the way … and even at that, it took a terrific play by Luke Loucks and a perfect shot by Snaer to end Duke's homecourt winning streak.

Snaer has a right to be confident. His team is hot.

Hopefully, Duke's hot streak is still to come.