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The Race For The Regular Season Title

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NCAA Basketball: St. Francis (PA) at Duke
Dec 5, 2017; Durham, NC, USA; Duke Blue Devils center Marques Bolden (20) dunks during the second half against the Saint Francis Red Flash at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Duke won 124-67. 
Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

Duke has won four ACC titles in the last nine years.

This season, the No. 1 Blue Devils will try to make it five conference championships in 10 years – a pretty remarkable accomplishment.

But that quest won’t come for another three months.

There is a championship available before that – and the race for the ACC regular season championship starts this weekend when Duke travels to Boston College.

Let’s be clear – the official ACC championship is determined by the tournament in March. You may or may not like that, but that’s the way it is. Duke was the 2017 ACC champion, not North Carolina (which won the regular season).

It’s been that way since the ACC was formed in the spring of 1953. Even before that – when the same ACC schools were part of the Southern Conference, the champion was determined by the postseason tournament, not the regular season.

It’s interesting that the two strongest advocates of that setup were Coach Everett Case of N.C. State and Duke athletic director Eddie Cameron. Is it a coincidence that the two schools that have outperformed their regular season record the most in the tournament are State and Duke? The Pack has won or shared just seven regular season titles, while winning 10 tournament titles. Duke has won or shared 19 regular season titles, while winning a record 20 tournament titles.

On the other hand, the two biggest opponents of the tournament format in the league’s early days were UNC coach Frank McGuire and Maryland coach Bud Milliken. Is it just chance that both schools have underperformed in tournament play? The Tar Heels have won or shared 31 regular season titles, but just 18 tournament titles. The Terps, before leaving the league, won or shared five regular season titles … and just three tournament titles.

All that doesn’t mean that the regular season title is not worth winning – as I pointed out earlier this season, Coach K’s goal at Duke is to win championships and since 1990, the ACC regular season title IS a championship. It might not be as significant as the real ACC championship, but it’s more valuable than the PK80 title that the Devils just won.

The truth is that Duke has not done a good job in securing the regular season title in recent years. In those nine seasons that have seen four ACC titles, Duke has won a share of exactly one-regular season title in that time, tying Maryland for first in 2010.

Since then, Duke has finished second four times, third once and fifth twice – the last two seasons.

Yet, oddly, Duke has the best overall regular season record for the nine-year span that we’re talking about (four games ahead of second-place UNC, which has won four regular season titles in that span).

Last year’s race was in some degree shaped by the unbalanced nature of the modern ACC schedule. Back in the early days, when McGuire, Milliken and company were arguing that the regular season winner should be the champion, they made the valid point that a balanced home-and-home schedule made the regular season a better test of a team’s strength than a three-day tournament.

But the expansion of the ACC in the 21st Century has created the kind of regular season monster that caused the creation of the tournament in the first place. Teams DON’T play balanced schedules any more. Some teams have much softer tracks to the regular season title than others.

A year ago, Duke played almost the toughest conceivable ACC schedule. The Blue Devils had to play first-place UNC twice, and the three teams that tied for second (Florida State, Louisville and Notre Dame) all on the road. Duke also got NCAA Tournament teams Virginia, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest on the road. Throw in Syracuse, which missed the tournament, but was a tough game in the Carrier Dome (where Duke played them) and a patsy on the road (which Duke didn’t get to play them).

That all changes this year. Duke’s ACC schedule, while not a walk in the park, is MUCH easier.

To begin with, Duke gets two games each with Pittsburgh and Wake Forest, which look like two of the league’s weakest teams. Duke gets road-only games with Boston College, Georgia Tech, N.C. State and Clemson – which all look like second-division teams.

The only road games against the stronger ACC teams are at UNC (Duke plays them twice every year), at Miami and at VirginiaTech.

On the other hand, most of the league’s powers have to come to Cameron – UNC, Virginia, Louisville, Notre Dame and Virginia Tech (Duke plays the Hokies twice). Also, Duke gets Syracuse out of the Carrier Dome and in Cameron.

There are obviously some tough matchups ahead, but overall, the schedule is remarkably favorable to a regular season title run.

And it starts Saturday in Conte Forum.

This is a much better Boston College team than we’ve seen the last two years. Jim Christian has a talented and experienced backcourt in Jerome Robinson and Ky Bowman – a pair of North Carolina prep products who have found a home in Boston. The frontcourt is much better this year with the addition of 6-8 grad transfer Deontae Hawkins and 6-8 freshman Steffon Mitchell.

But BC will be without Hawkins for the Duke game – and the rest of the season. He was averaging 12 points and almost 10 rebounds when he was hurt in the first half of the Eagles’ loss at Nebraska in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge – indeed, his injury was a big reason for that loss. Jeff Goodman broke the news Wednesday that Hawkins is out for the season.

That puts more pressure on Mitchell, who has similar physical skills, but nowhjere near the experience or the maturity.

` Christian’s Eagles are 2-34 in ACC play over the last two years – last in the league both seasons.

This is a better BC team. It’s still probably a second-division team, but if I had to guess, I would expect BC to finish ahead of Pittsburgh and maybe Wake Forest in the standings.

Either way, Duke has to play nine ACC road games and in an ideal world, a championship contender would get the nine worst teams on the road and the nine best teams at home.

If Duke is going to make a run at its first ACC regular season title since 2010, then it has to start with a win at Boston College. It’s certainly going to be a significant game in the standings for most of the month of December – Duke at BC is the only ACC game before Christmas, so the winner is going to sit atop the standings for a long time … while the loser will be alone in last place.

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