The ACC might well become the best college basketball conference in the country next season, when Louisville joins the league and Maryland leaves, but for now it likely isnt even the third-best.
And if you put as much stock in the RPI as the NCAA tournament selection committee does, then you could feasibly argue that the ACC isnt among the top four conferences. Indeed, the league ranks fifth, according to realtimeRPI.com behind the Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and the rebuilt Big East.
Languishing behind other leagues isnt something anyone expected before the season began. To rank second or third is one thing but fifth? Behind the Big East, which the ACC has been most responsible for destroying during the past 10 years?
With the addition of Syracuse and Pittsburgh, the ACC was supposed to be the strongest conference in the country.
Duke, though, hasnt exactly lived up to its preseason hype. North Carolina, after non-conference victories against Louisville, Michigan State and Kentucky, hasnt been the same team since the start of ACC play. Virginia, Clemson and Florida State, off to strong starts in league play, were erratic in November and December.
So no, the ACC might not be the best conference in the country. It could, though, be the best in one respect.
No league features the wealth of defensive juggernauts the ACC does. Good defense doesnt always make for the most crowd-pleasing basketball, and no SportsCenter producer will choose a strong 30-second defensive stand that ends in a contested shot over a Jabari Parker dunk.
Still, in a season that has been mildly disappointing, defense should be a point of pride for the ACC.
Seven of the leagues 15 teams rank among the top 45 nationally in fewest points per possession. No other conference comes close to matching that. Clemson (1), Virginia (4), Syracuse (8) and Miami (9) are in the top 10 in fewest points allowed. And seven ACC teams rank among the top 45 nationally in field goal percentage defense.
The Southeastern Conference comes close to matching that, with six teams among the top 45. No other power conference has more than three in the top 45 in field goal percentage defense. The Big 12, which on paper has been the strongest conference in the country, has just two.
Statistically, at least, this looks like the strongest the ACC has been defensively since the 2009-10 season, when six teams finished ranked among the top 40 nationally in field goal percentage defense. One of those teams was Duke, which won the 2010 national championship.
Since then, no ACC team has even made the Final Four. If that drought ends this season, it will likely be because a teams defense carried it that far. Oddly enough, the ACC team that might present the greatest challenges defensively doesnt even rank among the top 10 in the league in field goal percentage defense.
Syracuse, with its formidable 2-3 zone defense, is holding opponents to 41.3 percent shooting. That ranks 11th in the conference, but 90th nationally and that speaks to the defensive strength up and down the ACC.
In the ACC, defense has been the equalizer this season. Its why Clemson embarrassed Duke in Littlejohn Coliseum and why Florida State, after a defensive lapse last season, again looks like a viable contender.
Brad Brownell, the Clemson coach, said earlier this week that his team was still trying to find its offensive rhythm. While the Tigers continue to search for that, theyre holding teams to 37.2 percent shooting fourth-best in the nation and 0.9 points per possession, which is tied with Virginia for eighth-best in the country.
Clemson plays at North Carolina on Sunday and the Tigers will have an opportunity to improve to 1-56 against UNC in Chapel Hill. Clemsons 56-game losing streak at UNC the longest streak of futility in Division I college basketball history has been well documented.
Yet it got us thinking: Whats the second-most dubious streak going in ACC basketball? One possibility to consider: N.C. State at a Mike Krzyzewski-coached Duke team. The last time the Wolfpack won in Cameron Indoor Stadium with Kryzewski on the Duke bench? 1988. Jim Valvano was N.C. States coach.
Since then, N.C. State is 0-22 against K-coached Duke teams in Cameron. The Wolfpack won there in 1995, when Krzyzewski was on medical leave.
Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter