A little more than two weeks from now we’ll be headed into the ACC tournament in Washington, D.C., the heart of ACC country. (How do you like the location of the tournament now, Maryland?)
If the season ended today, North Carolina would be the top seed in the tournament while Miami, Virginia and Notre Dame would also have double-byes.
N.C. State would play on ACC tournament Tuesday – surely in front of dozens at the Verizon Center – and so would Georgia Tech, Wake Forest and Boston College. But the season doesn’t end today.
There are two weeks left. Most conference teams have four games remaining. And just about all of them have some important questions left to answer.
Here are the most interesting questions left to ponder in the ACC:
1. How many ACC teams will position themselves for NCAA tournament bids?
One-third of the conference membership appears to be a lock for the NCAA tournament. Those five teams are: North Carolina, Miami, Virginia, Notre Dame and Duke.
Beyond those five, though, it becomes a little murkier. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, the granddaddy don of the science of bracketology, included Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Florida State in his most recent projection, which was last week.
But that was before Syracuse and Florida State both lost two games. The Seminoles’ tournament hopes took a huge blow with losses against Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech. Pitt, even with a victory against Syracuse, seems destined for the bubble, and Syracuse still has work to do, too.
Then there’s Clemson, which probably needs to win two of its final three games and then win at least one game in the ACC tournament to feel confident about its chances. The ACC will get at least six teams in, and probably should get seven in. But who will it be?
2. Which UNC team is the real UNC?
The Tar Heels have been an enigma for a while now and never was that clearer than last week, when they fell apart down the stretch of a one-point defeat against Duke, and then responded with a complete annihilation of Miami in what might have been UNC’s best game of the season.
So which is it? Is UNC more the team that couldn’t finish against Duke and nearly lost against Boston College? Or are strong showings in victories against Maryland and Miami more reflective of the Tar Heels’ reality?
The next two weeks should tell us. None of UNC’s final four regular-season games – at N.C. State, at Virginia, against Syracuse, at Duke – are guaranteed wins.
The Tar Heels will need to play at a high level, like they did against Miami, in all of them. If they do, they might yet prove to be the team many thought they’d be before the season began.
3. And, can anyone catch UNC atop the ACC standings?
The Tar Heels enter the final two weeks of the regular season with a one-game lead over Virginia, Louisville and Miami, and a two-game lead over Duke. In terms of first-place implications, the most important remaining conference game is probably UNC at Virginia on Saturday.
A Tar Heels win there, if they first avoid losing on Wednesday at N.C. State, would go a long way toward solidifying at least a share of first place for UNC. But the race remains open, with Virginia, Louisville, Miami and Notre Dame all still with a shot.
UNC, though, clearly has the best chance of finishing alone in first place. Winning out would accomplish that but if the Tar Heels can get to 14 ACC wins – a finish that would allow for one more loss – that’d likely be good enough for at least a share of first place entering the tournament.
There again, though, this is where the unbalanced schedule has a great effect. UNC’s only game against Virginia is on Saturday, on the road. Lose that one and there’s a strong chance the Tar Heels will also lose the No. 1 seed in the ACC tournament – and possibly a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
4. Will Duke’s Amile Jefferson come back this season?
We’re approaching late February now and there’s no indication that Amile Jefferson, Duke’s senior forward who hasn’t played since early December after suffering a broken foot, will be back anytime soon.
If he were to return, Jefferson would undoubtedly provide a boost to the Blue Devils, whose lack of depth has been tested again amid the sprained ankle that Matt Jones suffered last week in a victory at UNC. But Jefferson’s long absence has raised an interesting question:
At this point does it make more sense for him to take a medical redshirt year and come back next season, fully healthy? Even if he came back, Jefferson’s contributions at this point would be limited by time. There are only so many games left, even if Duke is able to make a run in March.
If he redshirts and returns for next season, though, Jefferson could provide a needed upperclassman presence to a team that – like last season – will be heavily reliant on freshmen.
5. Who becomes the clear choice for ACC Player of the Year?
And does a clear, obvious choice even emerge? Right now, the ACC Player of the Year looks like a three-player race among UNC’s Brice Johnson, Virginia’s Malcolm Brogdon and N.C. State’s Cat Barber. A case can be made for Duke’s Grayson Allen, too.
The argument for Barber, N.C. State’s do-everything guard, was building momentum until Virginia limited him to 14 points during a Cavaliers’ victory last weekend. He scored eight points in N.C. State’s victory at Clemson on Saturday, further diminishing his player of the year case.
The race might just come down to UNC’s game at Virginia on Saturday. Johnson has compiled 16 double-doubles this season – including two last week – while Brogdon has elevated his play from very good to (usually) great during the past month or so.