Here’s the good news: the start of the ACC men’s basketball regular season is finally here, with five games Saturday afternoon and another Sunday evening.
Here’s the bad news: Just two of those games involve matchups between two teams in the national top 100, going by the Sagarin ratings. Those matchups are Miami (No. 26) at Georgia Tech (No. 72), and North Carolina (No. 46) at Virginia (No. 61).
Four league schools—Clemson, Virginia Tech, Boston College and Wake, are outside the top 100, between No. 109 (Clemson) and No. 163. These numbers are not likely to fundamentally change, since for the rest of the season ACC teams will just be playing one another. If one team rises above their current status, it will come at the expense of someone else.
Right now the league has three teams that we can comfortably project as NCAA Tournament teams: Duke, N.C. State and Miami. Having gone unbeaten thus far against the nation’s ninth toughest schedule, Duke is No. 1 nationally by a handsome 3.6 points over No. 2 Louisville (not yet an ACC member) in the Sagarin ratings, which means that at the moment Duke would be projected as a 4-point favorite over Louisville on a neutral court. (Duke in fact beat the Cardinals by five on a neutral court in November.) State and Miami weigh in at No. 25 and No. 26 nationally.
Then there is Maryland, which has gone 12-1 against one of the weakest schedules in Division I (No. 343), giving them an overall ranking of No. 37. Maryland could prove to be a tournament team but the jury will remain out until the Terps have played some tougher teams.
The fifth-highest ACC school is North Carolina (No. 46), who also has a poor strength of schedule (No. 201), followed by Virginia (No. 61), which also has a weak strength of schedule (No. 331).
Taken as a whole, Sagarin judges the ACC to be the fifth-strongest conference in the nation, behind the Big Ten, Big East, Big 12 and even the Mountain West Conference. That ranking is also not likely to change before March Madness—there aren’t any non-conferences games left, and hence the only possibility of the conference mean meaningfully changing is if the out-of-league teams ACC schools have played already see a sharp rise or fall in their performances the rest of the season.
This does not mean the league race will not be interesting, exciting and possibly highly consequential. Duke, State and Miami are near-locks for tournament play, and then there will be one or two more from among Carolina, Virginia, Georgia Tech and Florida State making the NCAA field. Not all of those schools are going to make it, and it’s faintly possible that none of them will.
That’s one reason why the Carolina-Virginia game is so important, as well likely being the most competitive game on this weekend’s agenda. A win for the Tar Heels followed by a home win against Miami next Thursday would put Carolina at 2-0 and much more firmly on track for an NCAA bid. A loss and Carolina would fall behind Virginia in the league pecking order, possibly affecting the Tar Heels’ still-fragile confidence.
Virginia has quality wins over Tennessee and Wisconsin to its credit, but also bad losses to Colonial Athletic Association members George Mason, Delaware and the woeful Old Dominion. Virginia’s style of play lends itself to tight, low-scoring, half-court oriented games, a style that has caused difficulties for much better Tar Heel teams than the current edition. Just like the last two seasons in Charlottesville (both narrow Tar Heel wins), look for a close game that will likely come down to half court execution and ability to hit the makeable shot in the final minutes.