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ACC Race Is Shaping Up To Be A Great One

It’s still early in the 2015 conference race, of course, but I definitely see at least a trio and maybe even a quintet of power teams, several very dangerous mid-level teams and some surprisingly competitive lower-end teams.

Notre Dame's Jerian Grant learned quickly that nothing comes easy in the ACC.
Notre Dame's Jerian Grant learned quickly that nothing comes easy in the ACC.
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

This season is starting to remind me of the 1997 ACC season.

That's a compliment - the 1997 ACC regular season race was the best of my lifetime. It featured power teams, upset-minded mid-level teams, pesky lower-end teams, a series of great games and a number of raging officiating controversies.

I know that the NCAA Tournament overshadows everything these days - and, even in my mind, it does trump everything else - but I'm a traditionalist and believe that the regular season and the ACC Tournament do have value. Until March gets here, I'm going to enjoy the regular season race.

It's still early in the 2015 conference race, of course, but I definitely see at least a trio and maybe even a quintet of power teams, several very dangerous mid-level teams and some surprisingly competitive lower-end teams. We've already seen a number of fantastic conference games and have endured one (off-the-court) officiating controversy.

The one theme we've seen so far in the ACC this season is the ability of the worst teams to play the best teams close … but the inability of those bad teams to close the deal.

Virginia Tech - clearly one of the ACC's weakest teams - took Syracuse to the wire in Blacksburg, losing 68-66 after missing a 3-pointer at the buzzer. Miami, a strong mid-level team, took powerful Virginia into double overtime before losing. Georgia Tech, a lower echelon team, took Notre Dame into double overtime on the road, then came within a point of upsetting Syracuse at home. Wake Forest, another basement dweller, gave powerful Louisville and Duke fits in Winston-Salem. Clemson, a team with no offense, stayed in the game at Louisville to the final seconds. Even Boston College went to Miami and took the much stronger 'Canes into the final minute before losing by four.

And the early meetings between top teams have been classics - North Carolina's one-point loss to Notre Dame at home … North Carolina's one-point victory over Louisville in the Dean Dome … Virginia's narrow victory at Notre Dame.

However, the only real upset we've seen so far was N.C. State's homecourt victory over Duke Sunday - and how shocking is that at a place where State had won two of the previous three meetings. Heck, Sunday's 87-75 Wolfpack win wasn't as lopsided as the 88-74 whipping they put on Duke's 2010 national champs in the PNC Arena.

There will be more ACC upsets in the next two months.

There were some epic upsets in 1997.

Wake Forest, which was coming off back-to-back ACC championships behind Tim Duncan, was the preseason favorite, ranked No. 4 nationally in the preseason AP poll. North Carolina, building around sophomores Antwan Jamison and Vince Carter, was the No. 2 ACC pick and was No. 8 nationally.

Duke, trying to recover after the disaster of 1995 and the somewhat limited comeback of 1996 (from 13-18 to 18-13), was supposed to be better with the return of injured guard Trajan Langdon and the eligibility of transfer Roshown McLeod. The Devils were picked third in the ACC and No. 10 nationally. Clemson was also a preseason top 20 team, while Virginia and Maryland each made top 20 appearances during the season.

The ACC was deep in 1997 - and that depth showed in the conference season.

It started with North Carolina's early crisis.

The Tar Heels lost their ACC season opener at Wake Forest, which was no big deal. But they followed it with a home loss to Maryland … and with a road loss at Virginia.

At that point, UNC was 0-3 in the ACC and on the brink of disaster. The outlook for the Tar Heels looked worse in their next game at home - as lightly regarded N.C. State dominated Dean Smith's reeling team for 38 minutes. But guard Ishua Benjamin suffered an epic meltdown in the final two minutes, throwing away the victory and giving the Tar Heels a bit of life.

It wasn't much - UNC still lost at Florida State and Duke to finish the first half of the ACC season a dismal 3-5.

The Deacons led the league at the midway point with a 7-1 league mark. Oddly, the only Wake loss at that point was at home to Maryland - and was the result of the first of those bizarre officiating errors.

Duke was 5-3 at the break. The Blue Devils had survived a surprising game in Cameron against Florida State. Senior Jeff Capel had a horrible night and was either booed or not booed (the issue is debatable) at one point when Coach K sent him to the scorer's table.

But Duke prevailed in overtime. The Devils lost in overtime at Clemson when center Greg Newton fumbled away a pass for what should have been a game-winning layup in regulation. Duke also lost at home to Wake Forest - the Deacons record ninth straight win in the series. Afterwards, Newton popped off to the press about how "soft" and "babyish" Tim Duncan was (Duncan had just posted 26 points and 14 rebounds on Newton, who had seven points and five rebounds). Reporters, eager for a story, hoofed it across Cameron to get Duncan's reaction to Newton's remarks.

The Wake big man responded with a straight face, "Greg Newton is the best player I've ever seen."

The really odd thing about 1997 was how the conference race spun on the head of a pin at midseason. The second-half standings looked nothing like the first half. For instance, 3-5 UNC finished 8-0 for an 11-5 finish. Wake Forest's 7-1 halfway record turned into 4-4 - another 11-5 mark. N.C. State, 0-8 for the first half, came in at 4-4 in the second half - the same as Wake!

As for Duke, Coach K shook up his lineup going into the midseason North Carolina game, benching Newton and starting freshman Chris Carrawell in his place. That meant an extremely small lineup - guards Jeff Capel, Trajan Langdon and Steve Wojciecowski along with forwards Roshown McLeod and Carrawell. Newton still got some minutes off the bench, but his playing time declined as the season played out.

Duke's new small lineup came in to its own on the night of Feb. 5, when the Devils traveled to Wake Forest and broke their nine-game losing streak to the Deacons. It's not true - as some have asserted, that the 6-6 Carrawell shut down Duncan that night. McLeod actually guarded him most of the night and Duncan had a great game - 26 points on 11-of-13 shooting.

But for a few minutes down the stretch, Carrawell did keep the ball out of Duncan's hands and that was enough to give Duke the 73-68 victory.

After that game, Duke was a title contender.

The Devils got a break when referee Rick Hartzell screwed up a week later in Charlottesville. Duke led Virginia 59-58 with five seconds left when Cavalier guard Curtis Staples went to the free throw line for two shots. Before Staples could shoot, Virginia coach Pete Gillen sent Willie Dersch (a player Duke had tried very hard to recruit) to the scorer's table to check in for Staples as a defensive replacement.

Hartzell saw Dersch and waved him in, but Dersch made the little shooting motion to let him know he was coming in for the shooter. The ref nodded and handed the ball to Staples, who promptly made both free throws to give Virginia a 60-59 lead.

At that point, Hartzell should have stopped play and allowed Dersch into the game. Instead, he took no action as Duke inbounded the ball to Wojo. Everybody else knew what was supposed to happen - the Virginia players stood like statues and the scorekeeper buzzed his buzzer and didn't start the clock.

As Wojo raced the ball upcourt, the scorer finally started the clock and it was down to three seconds when a Virginia player (Norm Nolan if I remember correctly) clobbered Wojo as he tried to put up a shot.

University Hall was in chaos as the refs tried to sort everything out. The refs huddled and after a long delay (more than 10 minutes), came to the following conclusions:

-- Even though Hartzell screwed up by not blowing his whistle and allowing Dersch to enter the game, play should have continued - the scorekeeper has no ability to stop the game, so even though he was buzzing frantically, play continued.

-- The clock should have started when it was inbounded. They went to the monitor with stop watches and timed the final play. Instead of three seconds still on the clock, they put it at one second.

-- The foul against Nolan (I think) stood and Wojo had two free throws.

The senior guard still had to make his two free throws and it wasn't easy with Virginia fans throwing ice at him as he shot. But Wojo made two and Virginia couldn't score in the final second and Duke escaped with a 61-60 victory.

The Blue Devils would end up winning eight straight ACC games before losing to UNC in the finale in Chapel Hill.

Still, Duke's 7-1 second half record meant that Duke finished at 12-4 and claimed the ACC regular season title.

The 1997 postseason was not so great for Duke. The Devils ran out of gas in March, losing four of their last six games - including an ACC Tournament loss to N.C. State (which reached the finals of the ACC Tournament in Herb Sendek's first season) and in the second round of the NCAA Tournament to Providence.

The ACC did put eight of its nine teams into postseason play - six into the NCAA Tournament and two in the NIT. Only UNC had any real success, reaching the Final Four and giving Dean Smith his record-setting 877th career victory in the second round against Colorado.

But while the postseason might not be that memorable for Duke and the ACC, the regular season was perhaps the best conference race in modern times.


There is still a long way to go in the ACC this season before we reach postseason. It's possible that one of the power teams - Duke? Virginia? Louisville? - will seize control of the conference race the way the Cavaliers did a year ago.

But it's equally possible that the ACC may contribute to surprise us as it did in 1997 … and it has so far this season.

"Teams can change dramatically between January and February," Georgia Tech coach Brian Gregory said Monday as he prepared his Yellow Jackets for their second game in 11 days against Notre Dame.

Syracuse is an example of a team in change. Jim Boeheim's team appears to be finding itself after a rough start. The team that lost at home to Michigan and St. John's - and on a neutral court to so-so California - has now won six straight games. It would be eight straight had the Orange not choked away a game they should have won on the road at No. 7 Villanova.

Boeheim has lost talented freshman Chris McCullough to a knee injury, but guard Trevor Cooney appears to have broken out of the slump he was mired in since February of last season. With him bombing 3-pointers again, the Orange are going to be tough to beat.

The schedule certainly appears to break in Boeheim's favor - the Orange get three bottom feeders in a tow (two at home) before they face Miami (also at home) and finally have to take a road trip to UNC.

Syracuse could have a lot of momentum at that point - or the Orange could stumble against one of the ACC's suddenly dangerous lower echelon teams.

It's still not clear whether Syracuse belongs among the ranks of the ACC heavyweights. Notre Dame and North Carolina are also poised to challenge the projected big three.

The Irish got off to a somewhat misleading 14-1 start. The trouble was, it came against one of the weakest non-conference schedules in the nation and it came mostly at home. Notre Dame's one-point win at North Carolina seemed to validate the Irish start. I don't think the hard-fought loss to Virginia - even if it was in South Bend - did anything in diminish what Mike Brey's team has accomplished.

As for North Carolina, the Heels continue to be hard to figure. The 12-4 overall record is fairly unremarkable, but UNC has more top 20 wins (four) than anybody else in college basketball. Last Saturday's last-second victory over Louisville proved that the Tar Heels can challenge the heavyweights.

Or maybe UNC is a heavyweight. The first 15 games of the season would not suggest that, but remember 1997 - both Duke and UNC elevated their games at midseason.

As of today, I'd rate Virginia, Duke and Louisville as the league's heavyweights. North Carolina, Syracuse and Notre Dame aren't far behind. Call them light-heavyweights.

The middleweights are Miami and N.C. State - they certainly have at least a punchers chance against any of the top teams.

After that, it's a bunch of teams that have yet to distinguish themselves - except by playing the tough teams close. It's not enough to be competitive or to take a top team on the wire - they need to start winning some of those games to escape the lightweight ranks.

As it stands today, the ACC would be lucky to get eight NCAA teams with maybe one more in the NIT - and that's being generous.

But I'm betting that we see some more surprises by the bottom feeders. Wake Forest and Georgia Tech, especially, have the potential to upset the race. Clemson and Florida State have some weapons. And even Boston College and Virginia Tech are better coached than they've been in the last few years.

The 2015 regular season has to play out, but it has the chance to be one to remember.