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The Halfway Point

Virginia is in the driver’s seat but the race isn’t quite over yet.

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Virginia v Duke
DURHAM, NC - FEBRUARY 13: Grayson Allen #3 of the Duke Blue Devils reacts after scoring the game-winning basket as time expires during their game against the Virginia Cavaliers at Cameron Indoor Stadium on February 13, 2016 in Durham, North Carolina. Duke won 63-62.
Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

The Duke-Virginia game in Cameron Saturday will mark the halfway point in the ACC regular season for the Blue Devils.

The game has a lot of intriguing story lines – it matches the top two ranked ACC reams (Virginia No. 2, Duke No. 4); the nation’s best defense (Virginia) vs. one of the nation’s best offenses (Duke); the top two teams in the current ACC standings; and the ACC’s best young coach (Tony Bennett of Virginia) against the nation’s best older coach (Mike Krzyzewski).

It’s also a game that could decide the ACC regular season race and (more importantly to my mind) decide which of the two ACC powers earns a No. 1 NCAA seed.

It’s also the next chapter in a series that consistently produces intriguing games.

Since 2014, when Virginia emerged as an ACC power under Bennett, the Cavs are 64-16 in ACC regular season play. By comparison, Duke is 56-24 in that span. But, oddly, the Cavs are 0-4 against Duke (in the regular season – Virginia did beat Duke in the 2014 ACC Tournament title game).

Now, don’t look at that record as a sign that Duke has dominated the Cavs. All four Duke wins have been thrillers, especially the two victories in Cameron. Just check out those four games:

2014 – Virginia’s defenses stifles Jabari Parker (8 points on 3-of-11 shooting), but Rasheed Sulaimon comes off the bench to score 21. With seconds remaining and Virginia up one, Rodney Hood misses a 15-foot jumper. But Amile Jefferson rebounds and gets the ball to Sulaimon in the corner, whose 3-point attempt hits the rim, bounces high in the air and drops through for the winning basket. Virginia has one more chance to win or tie, but Jefferson deflects a pass and ruins the Cavs’ last try. Duke adds two free throws in the last second for a 69-65 win.

2015 – Virginia is No. 2 in the nation and Duke No. 4 (hmm, does that sound familiar?) when the Devils visit Charlottesville. Duke wins 69-63 as freshman Tyus Jones hits two clutch 3-pointers in the final minute.

2016 – Duke leads most of the game, thanks to an incredible run midway through the game by freshman Brandon Ingram (25 points). But with seconds remaining, Malcolm Brogdon makes a remarkable shot in traffic down low to put the Cavs up 62-61. Duke gets the ball to Grayson Allen who drives. He probably traveled because he was probably fouled, but neither was called. Instead, Allen converted an off-balance 10-footer at the buzzer to give Duke a 63-62 win.

2017 – Duke’s easiest win in this stretch, thanks to Jayson Tatum, who poured in 28 points, including 6 of 7 3-pointers to help the Devils to a 65-55 victory in Charlottesville.

It’s a tragedy that the ACC’s unbalanced schedule has limited Duke and Virginia to one regular season matchup a year in the 2014-18 span.

But the unbalanced schedule hovers over Saturday’s game like a cloud, adding to the importance of the outcome. Get one thing straight – Virginia will remain in first place in the ACC standings, no matter who wins in Cameron.

Still, a Virginia win would almost guarantee the Cavs – barring injury or collapse – the ACC regular season title. The Cavs would have a 3-game lead in the standings over its closest pursuers, except for Louisville, which would be two games back. And it’s worth remembering that Virginia has owned Louisville since the Cards joining the league and the two teams have two head-to-head meetings remaining.

Aside from the home-and-home with Louisville, Virginia still has trips to Florida State, Miami and Syracuse remaining, plus home games with Virginia Tech and Notre Dame (which might have Bonzie Colson back for the regular season finale). The Cavs probably lose one or two of those remaining games, but if they beat Duke, that won’t matter.

Duke, on the other hand, is just entering the tough part of its ACC schedule.

Look at the teams (and their Pomeroy rankings) that the Blue Devils have played so far in the league:

  • No. 24 FSU
  • No. 29 at Miami
  • No. 73 at N.C. State
  • No. 81 at Boston College
  • No. 92 Wake Forest
  • No. 92 at Wake Forest
  • No. 211 Pittsburgh
  • No. 211 at Pittsburgh
  • Now look at what remains:
  • No. 3 Virginia
  • No. 8 North Carolina
  • No. 8 at North Carolina
  • No. 16 at Clemson
  • No. 30 Notre Dame
  • No. 34 Louisville
  • No. 43 Syracuse
  • No. 49 Virginia Tech
  • No. 49 at Virginia Tech
  • No. 111 at Georgia Tech

It’s pretty obvious that Duke’s schedule is backloaded – nine top 50 opponents remaining, vs. two top 50 opponents in the first eight games.

We’ll get a better measure of the talented young Blue Devils in the next few weeks than we’ve gotten in the last month.

But Duke is not the only intriguing story line as the ACC hits its halfway point:

-- How many NCAA teams can the ACC put in the field?

A year ago, the ACC had a conference record nine NCAA teams. The league appears to be on track to match or at least approach that number.

As of today, Virginia, Duke, North Carolina, Louisville and Clemson are as close to locks as it’s possible to be at this point in the season. Actually, I probably shouldn’t list Clemson here because of the Donte Grantham injury. The Tigers have an impressive resume at the moment, non-conference wins at Ohio State and Florida on a neutral court and a solid 5-3 ACC record, but the team is 0-1 without Grantham.

At the next level, Miami and FSU are in very good shape. And Virginia Tech, despite a slow start, is coming on strong.

That leaves three teams that face a tough, uphill fight – Notre Dame, N.C. State and Syracuse.

The Irish are handicapped by the absence of Bonzi Colson, who might have been the ACC POY without his foot injury (also three games without Matt Farrell, their second-best player). The committee will cut the Irish a break if – and only if – Colson can return before Selection Sunday and demonstrate that he’s at least close to the player he was before the injury.

N.C. State remains an odd mix of good wins (Duke, Arizona and Clemson) and bad losses (UNC-Greensboro at home, Northern Iowa). The Pack will need to stay strong at home and show a little more on the road – right now, a gut wrenching win at pathetic Pitt is the Pack’s only road win.

Syracuse also has a steep hill to climb. A slow ACC start atop a typically lackluster non-conference resume will require Jim Boehiem’s club to win somewhere other than the Carrier Dome.

It’s pretty safe to say that Georgia Tech, Wake Forest and Pitt are out of the running for an NCAA bid. BC might not be 100 percent out at the moment, but they are close.

-- Could Marvin Bagley win ACC player of the year honors?

Right now, the Duke freshman is leading the league in scoring and rebounding. He’s top 5 in field goal percentage. That’s a pretty strong case, especially with Bonzi Colson – the preseason favorite for the award – out with a foot injury.

His chief competition is probably UNC’s Luke Maye, who is fourth in the ACC in scoring and second in rebounding.

-- While Bagley is a virtual lock for ACC rookie of the year, the interesting question is how many of his first-year teammates at Duke will join him on the all-freshman team?

Gary Trent and Wendell Carter are among the top 20 scorers in the league – and are the No. 3 and No. 4 freshman scorers. Trevon Duval leads the ACC in assists.

Could all four make it?

Well, Syracuse freshman Oshae Brissett has a strong case – 14.9 pp (ahead of Trent and Carter) and 9.4 rebounds (just behind Bagley and Maye). Miami’s Lonnie Walker is starting to break out – his game against Louisville Wednesday night was all-star worthy – 25 points including a Jordanesque shot to force OT and blocking the potential game-winning 3 in the extra period. Georgia Tech point guard Jose Alvarado has been impressive at times.

Right now, I’d say the four Duke freshmen and Brissett are the most deserving. But the writers won’t want to load the team with four players from the same team. Plus, Lonnie Walker is coming fast.

--Will the home team dominance continue at the current pace?

At the moment, home teams are 40-17 in ACC play (70.1 percent).

If that rate continues, it would be the first time home teams have won 70 percent of ACC games since 2003 – and only the second time since 1980 (when ACC home teams won a record 75.0 percent of their home games).

This year’s figures are somewhat warped by the teams at the bottom of the standings. Wake Forest and Pitt are a combined 1-7 at home in ACC play. That means the rest of the league is 46-10 (82.1 percent).

The home court appears to be especially important for mid-level teams such as Boston College, N.C. State and Syracuse. All are formidable opponents at home, but extremely vulnerable at home. In fact, that trio is a combined 9-3 at home in the ACC and 1-10 on the road (the one road victory being N.C. State’s narrow win at Pitt Wednesday night().

But the home/road magic has also hit two good teams. UNC and Clemson are both 4-0 at home in ACC play … and 1-3 on the road.

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