Now that the ACC goes through the trouble of playing an 18-game schedule to determine a regular-season champion – the No. 1 tournament seed, to traditionalists – such a rigorous campaign may yet settle upon a team as the ACC’s best that clearly was nowhere close to the ACC’s best team.
In a year when Syracuse and Duke have both spent the entire season ahead of Virginia in the polls, it doesn’t seem to make any sense at this point in the season that the Cavaliers would have perhaps the best chance to end the regular season atop the conference.
They just might.
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Syracuse is still undefeated. Duke is rolling. And they both could end up chasing Virginia, which has lost only one ACC game – at Duke, narrowly, on Jan. 13.
For all of the Cavaliers’ nonconference struggles, losing head-scratchers to Tennessee and Wisconsin-Green Bay and home games against Wisconsin and Virginia Commonwealth, they have been ruthlessly efficient against lesser opponents in conference play and show no signs of wavering.
That puts them squarely in prime position, since the only meeting between Syracuse and Virginia, on March 1, is in Charlottesville. The Cavaliers will be heavily favored in their six games before then – the toughest coming at Clemson – while the Orange faces a rougher stretch with difficult games at Pittsburgh and Duke.
Even if Syracuse does arrive at that point undefeated, if Virginia tops the Orange and takes care of business otherwise to finish 17-1 in the ACC, there’s nothing the Orange can do to recapture the No. 1 seed in the ACC, even if they are the No. 1 team in the country.
Essentially, Virginia – which lost by 35 to a team, Tennessee, that N.C. State beat by seven – controls its own destiny in the ACC at this point.
Duke, meanwhile, still has to play Syracuse at home and both games against North Carolina – the first, in Chapel Hill, on Wednesday – but the Blue Devils should have the edge in all eight of their remaining games, which would likely put them somewhere in the top five in the polls. That might only be good enough for third place in the ACC, at 15-3.
This all presupposes all three teams hold to their current form in this closing stretch, and if the ACC has been anything this season, it has been unpredictable. Still, the most likely set of results predicates the regular-season title squarely on that March 1 game at Virginia, and a win by the Cavaliers on their home court would be impressive, but not impossible.
As good as Syracuse has been this season, the Orange may find itself in the unusual position of having to go undefeated merely to capture the top seed in the ACC tournament.
Blame the unbalanced, 18-game schedule if you want, an unavoidable consequence of continuing expansion, but Virginia has the smoothest path to the top seed in Greensboro. The Cavaliers had to go to Durham, but they don’t have to go to Syracuse or Chapel Hill.
Does that mean the Cavaliers are, at this moment, the best team in the ACC? Not quite. On a neutral court, Syracuse and Duke would both be favored over Virginia, while a matchup with Pittsburgh would be too close to call. But the Cavaliers have made the most of their circumstances in conference play, and they’re poised to reap the rewards.