After all the twists and turns, the ACC season is slowly turning back toward where we all thought it would way back at the beginning.
Duke has won seven in a row since losing at home to N.C. State and has been re-installed as the Vegas national title favorite. North Carolina, after absolutely destroying Virginia on Saturday, 65-41, is the first to 11 wins. And when they get together again in two weeks, there’s a pretty good chance they’ll be playing for the regular-season title and No. 1 seed in Brooklyn.
That possibility sure looked unlikely for a while. Florida State made a run. Louisville still lurks. Virginia gets another shot at North Carolina. Notre Dame got to 10 wins Saturday against N.C. State. This isn’t settled yet, not by a long shot.
But everything is once again pointing toward the final game of the season in Chapel Hill, just as it did when this all started, just as it has so often in the past.
If the atmosphere at the Smith Center is anything like it was Saturday – and it will be, if there’s that much on the line – that’d really be something.
If Duke plays the way it has played of late, especially against North Carolina in Durham, the Blue Devils will be tough to beat.
If North Carolina plays defense the way it played against Virginia on Saturday, the Tar Heels may be impossible to beat.
It was probably North Carolina’s best defensive performance of the season, but it also highlighted Virginia’s biggest flaw, the reason why the Cavaliers aren’t as equipped for March this time around. London Perrantes is terrific, but if you can get the ball out of his hands, there’s no Joe Harris or Malcolm Brodgon waiting to take the open shot.
The Tar Heels held Perrantes to 12 points on 10 attempts; his teammates were 12-for-44 from the floor. For a team that waits patiently for its best shot, Virginia sure takes a lot of 2-point jumpers – or, perhaps more accurately, was forced into them by North Carolina’s defense Saturday. And that’s without Kenny Williams, out for the season after suffering a knee injury in practice before the N.C. State game.
It was a comprehensive annihilation. When North Carolina went up 17 midway through the second half, it was Virginia’s largest deficit of the season. Moments later, the Tar Heels were up 25. At the pace the Cavaliers play, that’s not easy. At the pace the Tar Heels like to play, it’s pretty hard not to score more than 41.
“For us, it’s kind of weird, because we’re used to scoring in the 80s and 90s,” Joel Berry said. “At one point, I think I looked it up and it was like 41-29. It just felt different, but I mean, if we have to win a game like that, we have to win it like that. A win is a win. Like Coach said, if we have to play at someone else’s pace, we’re going to do our best to beat them at it.”
Afterward, Roy Williams complained that the Tar Heels gave up too many open shots that the Cavaliers just missed – “I kept saying, ‘Gosh, he was open,’ ” Williams said – but he may feel differently after watching the video. North Carolina pushed Virginia’s offense out, denied the Cavaliers the shots they wanted and the open shots the Tar Heels gave up were long 3-pointers and those tough 2-point jumpers.
There was more to this North Carolina defensive performance than missing shots, although Virginia certainly cooperated with that part of it.
“They did miss a lot of shots that they usually make, but we had a lot of activity on the defensive end tonight,” Theo Pinson said. “Some credit goes to us. At the same time, that’s how the game goes sometimes.”
Duke clearly has things figured out, fending off a push from Wake Forest on Saturday in a game the Blue Devils may well have lost a month ago. The defensive effort is engaged, and Grayson Allen, Luke Kennard and Jayson Tatum seem to have figured out how to share the ball. The win at Notre Dame injected Duke with a newfound confidence that the Blue Devils have displayed against both North Carolina and Virginia to move back up the standings.
As for the Tar Heels, they’re 11-2 since starting the ACC season with that baffling loss at Georgia Tech. There’s also the no-show loss at Miami and the final five minutes of the Duke game, but other than that, they have taken care of business, knocking off Florida State and Notre Dame and Virginia, albeit all at home (or in Greensboro). They still have to go Virginia, but they get Louisville and Duke at home.
“We’ve got a big-time stretch coming up,” Pinson said. “No celebration. We’re happy about the win in the locker room, but we’ve got another big game on Wednesday against Louisville.”
If the Tar Heels can hold serve against Louisville, it may all come down to the Duke game. That’s how it looked in the middle of November. That’s how it looks again in the middle of February, both Duke and North Carolina having circled back around to where they started.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock