It’s a question of toughness, again, at North Carolina, and depth at Duke and how a postseason ban affects morale at Louisville. Virginia, Miami, Pittsburgh, Florida State – there’s no shortage of issues that need answering there, too.
One thing appears decided in the ACC as we approach mid-February: Boston College will finish in last place. Just about everything else, though, will depend on how teams during the final month of the regular season answer the most critical questions surrounding them.
So let’s look at those questions – with a special focus on the Triangle’s three teams – and also put into perspective the postseason prospects for each:
Key question: Will the Eagles make history as the ACC’s first 0-18 team? Boston College has lost all 10 of its conference games by double-digits.
Postseason prospects: Well, Boston College will play in one more postseason tournament than Louisville.
Key question: Can the Tigers’ offense stay afloat down the stretch? After that 5-1 start in the ACC, Clemson has lost three of five – and scored 65 points or fewer in all three of those defeats.
Postseason prospects: Nerve-wrecking. You’d like to think that an 11-7 ACC finish, which Clemson appears headed toward, would be enough to secure an NCAA tournament bid, but it’d likely result in a tense Selection Sunday.
Key question: When is Amile Jefferson coming back, and what will his return mean for the Blue Devils? The past couple of months Duke’s lack of depth has been a focal point for critics and a reason for some (many?) of the Blue Devils’ shortcomings. Jefferson’s return, whenever it comes, changes the entire dynamic, and it’s logical to think that Duke should be a better team when he gets back than it would have been if Jefferson would have been healthy and playing all along.
Postseason prospects: After the loss against Miami on Jan. 25 some were starting to question whether Duke could do enough to make the NCAA tournament. Barring a meltdown, the Blue Devils should have little trouble making it, but what sort of seed will they get? And could a strong finish – say 6-2 down the stretch – be enough to send Duke to Raleigh?
Key question: How much better can super freshmen Dwayne Bacon and Malik Beasley be in February and March than they were in November? You know the old saying as seasons grow longer: The freshmen aren’t freshmen anymore. If it holds true the Seminoles could be quite dangerous.
Postseason prospects: The Seminoles have won six out of eight after an 0-3 start and resuscitated their NCAA tournament hopes in the process. A 5-2 league finish should secure at an at-large bid.
Key question: Will the Yellow Jackets ever find a way to close? Eight ACC losses for these guys, and all eight by single digits.
Postseason prospects: You get the sense Georgia Tech will be busy in mid- to late March trying to find a successor to Brian Gregory, whose tenure – unless something changes dramatically – will be defined by an inability to win close games.
Key question: What happens to this team, one of the surprises in the ACC, now that Louisville has imposed a postseason ban amid a prostitutes-for-recruits scandal?
Postseason prospects: Cue the sad-sounding music. To be serious, though, the postseason ban is heartbreaking for Damion Lee and Trey Lewis, the graduate students who transferred to Louisville in large part so they could experience the NCAA tournament. It’s another example in college sports of the innocent being punished for the crimes of the guilty.
Key question: Are the Hurricanes, as the cliche goes, pretenders or contenders? Miami’s best win is against Duke, but outside of that there’s not a lot on its resume. A three-game stretch later this month against UNC, Virginia and Louisville will answer that question.
Postseason prospects: Miami is playing for seeding now, and a strong performance during that critical three-game stretch could elevate the Hurricanes into the discussion for a No. 2 seed.
Key question: How long can Cat Barber keep this up? Barber has scored at least 26 points in five of the Wolfpack’s past six games and he has been, single-handedly, the reason why N.C. State has been competitive. With Barber on this kind of a roll N.C. State has become the proverbial “team that nobody wants to play.” Because who knows if Barber will go off for 40 and lead the Wolfpack to an upset.
Postseason prospects: Not good but, again, Barber gives the Wolfpack something few other teams have: a high-volume scorer who can keep his team in it and give it a chance to win games late. The Wolfpack would need a strong regular-season finish and then a run in the ACC tournament to warrant NIT consideration, though.
Key question: Can this team, at last, find some grit and some toughness? And will this question go away eventually? It has surrounded UNC for the past two years now, if not before that. Coach Roy Williams might have said it best after his team’s defeat at Notre Dame on Saturday night: “I’ve got a wonderful bunch of kids, but we’ve got to decide that we want to compete when it’s tough, not just when it’s easy.” And here’s the thing for the Tar Heels: It only gets tougher later on in February.
Postseason prospects: In this wide-open season, the Tar Heels are still very much in the mix for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. UNC would likely secure one with a strong regular-season finish and a decent (at least making it to the semifinals) showing in the ACC tournament.
Key question: Is the defense what we thought it was – which isn’t very good – or can the Fighting Irish show some significant improvement there? Holding UNC to 74 points on Saturday is a good sign.
Postseason prospects: Victories in four of their last seven games would give the Fighting Irish an 11-7 conference record and 20 wins overall – numbers that should be a lock for the NCAA tournament.
Key question: Can the Panthers elevate their play against some of the ACC’s most formidable teams? Pitt lost by double digits against Louisville, Clemson and Virginia – and against N.C. State, for that matter – and that’s not a good sign given what’s ahead: games against Miami, UNC, Louisville (again) and Duke.
Postseason prospects: A .500 conference finish sounds about right and that would leave Pitt pretty much where it was last year: on the bubble.
Key question: Can the Orange avoid prolonged stretches of offensive inefficiency? Syracuse is 8-7 when it averages fewer than 1.1 points per possession, according to kenpom.com. When the Orange exceed that number it has lost just once.
Postseason prospects: Sound – if Syracuse wins the games it should. A 10-win conference season should be enough to get Jim Boeheim and Co. back in the NCAA tournament.
Key question: Are the early-season road troubles really a thing of the past? With road games left against Duke, Miami and Clemson, the answer could decide whether the Cavaliers win the ACC’s regular season again.
Postseason prospects: Fine and dandy, thanks. Virginia is likely to be in the mix for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and would probably have a strong case with 14 or 15 ACC wins and a win or two in the ACC tournament.
Key question: Will the Hokies’ motivation fade as their reality settles in?
Postseason prospects: Dim but if Virginia Tech remains motivated it can be a dangerous spoiler for the likes of, say, Florida State and Miami – both of which visit Blacksburg later this season.
Key question: Can the Demon Deacons muster enough mental fortitude to break out of their funk? Since that devastating last-second loss against Virginia, Wake Forest is 0-3 – and none of the losses has been close.
Postseason prospects: Bleaker than the environment will be at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., during day one of the ACC tournament.