The casual fan could be forgiven for wondering if there's an ACC bylaw stipulating that there can be only one great team per year in this league.
Yes, the conference has produced the last two national champions: Duke last year and North Carolina in 2009. But why does it seem like lately those two legendary programs have taken turns succeeding in March? It's been seven years now since the ACC put two teams in the Elite Eight. And beyond the league's big two, NCAA tournament success has been notably elusive the last few years. Over the past four tournaments no ACC team besides Duke or North Carolina has reached the Sweet 16. In other words, while the league always has a serious national title contender the ACC has struggled to give that contender some company in March.
Coming into this year, it looked like that was going to change. Duke was ranked No. 1 in the preseason, and the Blue Devils were joined in the top 10 by a resurgent North Carolina. Also ranked in the preseason top 25 was Virginia Tech, while the likes of Florida State, North Carolina State, and Maryland all lurked in the "Also receiving votes" small print.
What a difference nine weeks makes. Duke is still ranked No. 1, of course, but as my colleague Drew Cannon pointed out the other day, the Blue Devils, incredibly, don't have a single ranked opponent remaining on their schedule. Talk about a crowded middle: throw a stick at the ACC and you'll hit no fewer than eight teams with four losses.
Is there a team somewhere in that crowded middle that can make Duke break a sweat? One that could even live to see the second weekend in this year's NCAA tournament? Let's review the top four candidates.
The Terrapins may not get much respect from pollsters, but Ken Pomeroy's computer is more favorably impressed, ranking Gary Williams' team a respectable No. 13 nationally. Then again it's hard for humans or even a computer to know what to make of Maryland right now. The Terps have lost four games -- to Pitt, Illinois, Temple, and Boston College -- by a combined 20 points. The problem in terms of evaluating this team is that the rest of their schedule has been filled with blowouts against the likes of Colgate and NJIT. On paper Maryland has an outstanding defense, one that makes life miserable for opponents foolish enough to attempt two-point shots. And if 6-10 sophomore Jordan Williams could make 70 or even 65 percent of his free throws instead of 50, you'd be looking at one serious force of nature in terms of efficiency. That being said, I feel like I'll have a much better sense of the Terps' true potential in about ten days. By then we'll have seen how they've fared on the road at Duke and at Villanova.
North Carolina (10-4)
The last time we checked in on the Tar Heels, we found that Roy Williams' team simply wasn't scoring enough dad-gum points, as the coach might say. Since then UNC has shown glimmers of respectability on offense, scoring right at a point per trip in both their close win against Kentucky and in their close loss against Texas. Moreover the Heels' upcoming schedule -- with road games at Virginia and Georgia Tech, and home games against Virginia Tech and Clemson -- could plausibly result in this team getting off to a 4-0 start in ACC play. But the concerns that everyone voiced with respect to UNC back in November aren't necessarily dead and buried just yet. Beyond Tyler Zeller, it's hard to find a reliable workhorse in this offense. John Henson's been outstanding on D and indeed he's excellent on the offensive glass, but his 35 percent FT shooting certainly gives opposing defenses a handy option on any given possession. And much heralded freshman Harrison Barnes is, at best, still rounding into form, having made just 40 percent of his twos and 32 percent of his threes. The Tar Heels, as always, have talent, but whether their stars will align in a way to produces points over the next two months is the question at hand in Chapel Hill.
Virginia Tech (9-4)
The Hokies return just about everyone from a team that barely missed out on last year's NCAA tournament. Usually that's a recipe for improvement, but to this point in the season Seth Greenberg's team, rather puzzlingly, has stayed more or less exactly where they were in 2009-10: a very good defense and a so-so offense. Malcolm Delaney is still Malcolm Delaney, logging a ton of minutes and doing a little of everything. But with too many turnovers and too few offensive boards, Virginia Tech simply isn't getting enough bites at the apple on offense.
Florida State (11-4)
If Virginia Tech presents a case of split personality in terms of a strong defense and a less-strong offense, then Florida State is downright Jekyll-and-Hyde. The Seminoles might have the best defense in the country. So far this year opponents have made just 29 percent of their threes and 39 percent of their twos against the long and rangy likes of Chris Singleton and Xavier Gibson. The problem for Leonard Hamilton is that this may also be the worst offense in the ACC. While FSU crashes the offensive glass with abandon, they also turn the ball over on 24 percent of their possessions and shoot with only average accuracy even when they do hang onto the rock.
In other words, I'd have to say Duke is the favorite to win the ACC. (That's going out on a limb, I know.) Of course the Blue Devils may get some competition from -- or even lose a game to -- mysterious Maryland or those talented Tar Heels. Stranger things have happened. But right now it looks like the ACC's recent pattern of producing one elite team per year is likely to continue in 2011.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider . John also makes bold predictions about Duke on Twitter: @JohnGasaway. College Basketball Prospectus 2010-11 is now available on Amazon.
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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