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With ACC Basketball Season Winding Down, Who Can Still Do What?

At least 10 of the 15 ACC teams enter the home stretch of the regular season with something very important to play for. The bottom four - Wake Forest, Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech and Boston College - can only dream of the future, aside from the very improbable chance of winning the ACC Tournament and the league's automatic ACC bid.

Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

Three weeks remain before the ACC regular season warps up on Saturday, March 7.

There are no Sunday games to close out the regular season this year since the ACC Tournament has moved up to a Tuesday start. The last regular season game will be either Duke at North Carolina or Virginia at Louisville (the times have not yet been set, but both will be Saturday night). It's possible that the outcome of those two games will decide the regular season race.

Possible … but not likely.

Virginia now has a two-game lead in the loss column on its two closest pursuers (Duke and Notre Dame). The Cavaliers are heavy favorites in their next five games - and with a five-game sweep, they could render the Louisville finish meaningless (at least in terms of the ACC title).

That would be a significant accomplishment - no non-Big Four team has ever won back-to-back outright ACC championships. Virginia won one outright and shared two more in a row during Ralph Sampson's last three years in Charlottesville … but two in a row outright? Never happened.

[For the record, Duke has won four straight outright regular season titles twice, from 1963-66, and from 1997-2000; UNC has won three straight twice; N.C. State won two straight with David Thompson; nobody else has more than one in a row].

Actually, it would be wrong to say that the Virginia at Louisville game would be meaningless, even if the Cavs do go into that game with the regular season title clinched. A No. 1 NCAA seed is still in play and the Cavs are very much a part of that discussion.

So is Duke - and while the current bracket projections have both Duke and UVa getting No. 1 seeds, I think that's unlikely. I believe that one will get a No. 1 and the other a No. 2. Even though the two teams don't meet again (unless it's in the ACC Tournament championship game), they are very much dueling for prime NCAA seeding.

In that context every game is important.

But at least 10 of the 15 ACC teams enter the home stretch of the regular season with something very important to play for. The bottom four - Wake Forest, Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech and Boston College - can only dream of the future, aside from the very improbable chance of winning the ACC Tournament and the league's automatic ACC bid.

Syracuse has, of course, self-imposed a postseason ban.

Everybody else goes into the last three weeks of the season hoping to position themselves for postseason play. Here's what is at stake for those 10 teams:

-- VIRGINIA (23-1, 11-1 ACC, No. 3 RPI) - The Cavs' magic number to clinch the regular season title is five (either five Virginia wins or a combination of Virginia wins and Duke/Notre Dame losses totaling five). Even four would be a significant number - if the Cavs tie for the regular season title, they might not get the No. 1 seed in the ACC Tournament, but they would still officially be regular season co-champs.

As mentioned, a No. 1 seed is still very much in play, but that depends not only on how the Cavs finish out (including the ACC Tournament), but how such teams as Gonzaga, Wisconsin, Kansas, Villanova Gonzaga - and Duke - close out the season.

Maybe more important than actual wins and losses for the Cavs is the return of Justin Anderson. The Cavs have not lost since the 6-6 junior went out with a broken finger, but I doubt that even the most rabid Virginia partisan would deny that Anderson is a vital part of their team and that if Virginia hopes to make a Final Four run, he must be back in the lineup and at full speed.

Anderson is expected back at the end of the month, but just getting him back is not enough. They must re-integrate him into the rotation. That can be a problem. We all remember UNC in 1984 and how the enforced return of Kenny Smith after a broken wrist disrupted that team's chemistry. And Nolan Smith never adjusted to the return of Kyrie Irving for the 2011 NCAA Tournament. On the other hand, Duke was able to re-integrate an injured Grant Hill in 1992 and Carlos Boozer (just in time for the Final Four) in 2001, so it's not necessarily a problem - just something to watch out for.

-- NOTRE DAME (22-4, 10-3 ACC, No. 26 RPI) - Even though the Irish record is very similar to Duke, there's a reason why the Devils are a contender for a No. 1 seed and Notre Dame is not.

The Irish are still suffering for one of the weakest non-conference schedules in college basketball (334th) - certainly the weakest for any top 25 team. That's enough to take them out of the running for a No. 1 or probably a No. 2 seed.

But when it comes to the ACC regular season race, Notre Dame is almost even with Duke - I say almost because if the Devils and Irish tie in the standings, Duke will win the tiebreaker. But they do have an equal chance to win or share the ACC regular season title.

Obviously, Virginia must lose twice more for that to happen. But even is that does occur, Notre Dame must sweep its last five ACC games to take advantage of the opportunity.

Four of them are games the Irish should win, but the next to last game on the schedule is a trip to Louisville and that will be tough.

-- DUKE (22-3, 9-3 ACC, No. 5 RPI) - Nobody else in college basketball has three road victories to match Duke's resume wins at Wisconsin (the almost certain Big Ten champ), Virginia (the likely ACC regular season champ) and Louisville.

Duke currently has 10 top 50 RPI wins, which is more than anybody else in college basketball (Kansas has nine).

Obviously, the Devils are in the mix for a No. 1 seed, but it's not a slam dunk. The Devils will need to finish strong to secure that lofty ranking.

The schedule does give Duke a bit of a break - four of the final six games on the schedule are at home. And one of the two road games is at lightweight Virginia Tech.

It is interesting that Duke is a perfect 5-0 since dismissing Rasheed Sulaimon, including wins at Virginia and Syracuse, plus a 30-point home victory over Notre Dame.

Is that enough evidence to suggest that the team's chemistry is better without the talented Sulaimon? Or is it simply evidence that the youngest Duke team in 32 years is growing up late in the season?

We know this team is resilient. We know it is poised on the road and in the clutch. We know that it has the best inside-outside balance of any Duke team in many, many years.

Still, Duke needs help - and a perfect finish -- to catch Virginia for the ACC regular season title. But it's looking more and more likely that the Devils will earn a bye into the Thursday semifinals of the ACC Tournament (a win Wednesday night vs. UNC would virtually clinch that) and, when it comes down to it, the ACC Tournament determines the official ACC champion.

-- LOUISVILLE (20-5, 8-4 ACC, No. 15 RPI) - The Cardinals weren't going to be a No. 1 seed even before their homecourt loss to N.C. State Saturday.

But that defeat does put Louisville in a tough spot when it comes to ACC Tournament seeding. Right now, the Cards are tied for fourth with UNC. It seems likely that one of the two will miss the top-four bye and play on Wednesday.

Louisville, which has been plagued by erratic shooting, has struggled against the best teams. The Cards got a split with UNC, but lost at home to Kentucky and Duke and at Virginia. They are 5-5 vs. the top 50 and only the homecourt win over North Carolina came against a top 30 RPI team.

If the NCAA seeding were done today, I'd guess Louisville would be a No. 4 seed - but that could change a lot in the final weeks of the season.

The good news is that the schedule still gives Louisville a chance to improve its standing with the selection committee. They finish the regular season with home games against Notre Dame and Virginia.

Two wins in those two games could do a lot to burnish a relatively blah resume.

-- NORTH CAROLINA (18-7, 8-4 ACC, No. 10 RPI) - That RPI rank is a testament to the strong schedule the Tar Heels have played - the third-strongest in college basketball. And that ranking could improve with two games against Duke coming up.

But the rest of the regular season schedule is very manageable for the Tar Heels - two games with Georgia Tech, a home game with their favorite patsy, N.C. State, and a dangerous road trip to Miami.

North Carolina has been floundering lately, losing three of their last four games. The Heels are a lackluster 3-7 against the top 50.

All of which points to how important a win Wednesday night at Duke would be for Roy Williams' team. It's worth noting that under Williams, UNC has the same record against Duke in Cameron (5-6) as in the Smith Center (5-6).

But it's vital for UNC that the Tar Heels at least get the split from the Blue Devils - both to improve their potential NCAA seeding and to avoid losing that valuable ACC Tournament bye. With a sweep of the Blue Devils, UNC could make the case that it deserves to start the NCAA Tournament in Charlotte in place of Duke.


Those five teams are NCAA locks.

But they could be the ACC's only NCAA entries. The league's potential bubble teams have struggled in the last two weeks - although N.C. State and Pittsburgh helped revive their flagging hopes with big wins Saturday.

Syracuse would be in this bunch, but the Orangemen have taken themselves out of consideration. They were probably NIT-bound anyway.

-- PITTSBURGH (17-9, 6-6 ACC, No. 50 RPI). - The Panthers appeared dead in late January when they suffered three straight ACC loses, including an overtime defeat at the hands of Virginia Tech.

But Pitt has won four of five games since, losing only to Louisville on the road. Among the wins were homecourt victories over Notre Dame and North Carolina. Those are the Panthers only top 50 victories in nine tries.

The coming week is vital to Jamie Dixon's crew. They play at Virginia tonight and at Syracuse Saturday. After that, they finish with four games against ACC also-rans (although games at Wake and FSU are on the road).

Pitt has no real chance at the bye into the ACC quarterfinals. Dixon's team will almost certainly start play in Greensboro on Wednesday. They aren't going to get a high NCAA seed.

In fact, if the Panthers make the field at all, it will be bye the skin of their collective teeth. It's going to take a strong finish to do that - starting with a split this week.

Note: As far as the NCAA is concerned, Pitt's overall record is actually 16-7. One win in Hawaii came against a non-Division 1 team.

-- N.C. STATE (15-11, 6-7 ACC, No. 48) - The fact that a team with a losing ACC record could be considered a bubble team says something about the ACC (and the weakness of the NCAA at large field).

Still, the RPI is in range and few bubble teams have two wins of the caliber of N.C. State's victories over Duke and Louisville (on the road).

The problem is that the Wolfpack went 2-6 between those two wins. N.C. State has not won two games in a row since beating Wake Forest and Charleston Southern in early December. That better change next Saturday when they return to action at home against Virginia Tech.

The fact is that N.C. State can't afford any more slipups. They have to beat VPI (at home), Boston College (on the road) and Syracuse (at home) down the stretch. And they really need to do some damage in road games at UNC and Clemson - two historical death traps for the Pack. And a win or two in the ACC Tournament wouldn't hurt.

But give Mark Gottfried credit. In his first three years at N.C. State, he managed to convert similarly unpromising bubble teams into NCAA teams. Can he do it a fourth straight time?

-- CLEMSON (15-10, 7-6 ACC, No. 78 RPI) - The Tigers may have blown their NCAA hopes way back in November. Back-to-back losses to Winthrop (at home) and Gardner-Webb (on a neutral court) still look terrible. And December losses to South Carolina and Rutgers (at home) are equally damning.

Just like last year Clemson has improved over the course of the season. But is that improvement too late?

Clemson's RPI is an unacceptable 78, but the Tigers are a respectable 3-4 against the top 50. There aren't any real signature wins on the resume, although Clemson did beat SEC bubble teams Arkansas and LSU early in the season.

The Tigers will have to improve their resume down the stretch. That would mean sweeping two games with Georgia Tech, beating N.C. State in Littlejohn and upsetting either Duke or Notre Dame on the road.

Even that might not be enough - Clemson will start ACC Tournament play on Wednesday and probably needs a deep tourney run - in addition to a strong regular season finish - to make it.

-- MIAMI (15-9, 6-6 ACC, No. 62 RPI) - When the Hurricanes beat Duke in Cameron, they looked like a real NCAA threat. But they've gone a mediocre 3-6 since then.

The Hurricanes have a better RPI than Clemson and have the same 3-4 record against the top 50. Plus, they have the signature win (at Duke) that Clemson lacks.

It all comes down to which of the bubble teams play better down the stretch. No, it's more than that - all five have put themselves in a position where they have to do something noteworthy down the stretch to get a bid. It's too late for merely winning the games they are supposed to win.

Miami has a game with Boston College (postponed from Sunday until tonight) and two games with Virginia Tech left. Those won't help (although a loss would be devastating). The 'Canes do have a trip to Louisville and a home game with UNC coming up. That's where Miami can burnish its resume. - that and in the ACC Tournament.

That's asking a lot. Over the last month, the ACC's middle echelon teams have stumbled toward the finish line - alternating an occasional good win with some bad losses.

It's now reached the point that at the moment, none of them are on the good side of the bubble. But things can change and it's not too late for any of the four to change their postseason destination.

Otherwise, the ACC might end up with as many NIT teams as NCAA teams. Any of the four bubble teams that miss the NCAA Tournament will be strong NIT candidates. They can join the one ACC team that is on the NIT radar without hope of an NCAA bid:

-- FLORIDA STATE (14-12, 6-7 ACC, No. 115 RPI) - There was a time when any ACC team with a winning record was a lock for the NIT. No longer - the NIT selection is actually more logical and consistent than the NCAA committee has been in recent years.

Even for the NIT, FSU doesn't have a great resume - no top 50 wins … a 3-9 record against the top 100. … just five wins against the top 150.

That's why the 'Noles aren't in contention for the NCAA. And, as of today, FSU is nothing more than an NIT bubble team.

FSU needs to pad its resume in the next three weeks - a win over Boston College won't help much and games with Louisville and Virginia will be tough. But an upset over NCAA bubble teams Pitt and/or Miami would help.

It's not much, but the 'Noles do have something to play for.


Team goals are not the only thing left to play for.

Strong play down the stretch could determine All-ACC honors and the individual awards.

One award is already settled - Duke's Jahlil Okafor is the cinch ACC rookie of the year. He'll likely be joined on the rookie team by teammates Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow. The other two spots are less certain - UNC's Justin Jackson, Virginia Tech's Justin Bibbs, Miami's Deandre Burnett, FSU's Phil Cofer and Xavier Rathan-Mayes, N.C. State's Abdul-Malik Abu will all get support.

The All-ACC first team is harder to nail down.

Duke's Okafor and Notre Dame's Jerian Grant are locks - and are the two prime contenders for ACC player of the year. Rakeem Christmas of Syracuse and Terry Rozier of Louisville are frontrunners for two more sports.

The rub is Virginia. The Cavs are likely to win the regular season title and deserve recognition. Justin Anderson seemed solid for one spot - he was in fact, a POY candidate -- but missing the last month of the season might cost him a first-team spot. Malcolm Brogdon should earn a first-team spot and is my choice for defensive player of the year.

That would leave Anderson, Louisville Montrezl Harrell, N.C. State Trevor Lacey, Duke's Quinn Cook among the top contenders for the second team.

UNC's Marcus Paige is an interesting case. He's a returning first-team pick and he was the preseason POY, but as it now stands, Paige is battling for second-team honors. And where do you put BC's Olivier Hanlon, who has good numbers (fourth in the league in scoring) on the league's worst team?

I think coach of the year comes down to Virginia's Tony Bennett (provided he brings the Cavs in for a second straight regular season title) or Notre Dame's Mike Brey, who had turned a 15-15 (6-12 ACC) season into a top 10 team.

Still, the voters are often swayed by the last few weeks of the season and there are enough important games left to alter any of these early projections.