North Carolina

ACC looks like a three-team race, and Florida State is the favorite

Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton has his team 6-1 in the ACC and in a three-way tie atop the league standings -- and the Seminoles’ most difficult portion of the schedule is already over.
Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton has his team 6-1 in the ACC and in a three-way tie atop the league standings -- and the Seminoles’ most difficult portion of the schedule is already over. rwillett@newsobserver.com

If a trend now six seasons old continues, we already know which team will win the ACC’s regular season. Well, check that: We know that one of three teams – Florida State, North Carolina or Notre Dame – will go on to finish first.

I know, I know. That’s really going out on a limb.

After the third weekend of conference games, the Seminoles, Tar Heels and Fighting Irish are all 6-1 in the league, all tied for first place. But here’s the point: in each of the past six seasons, the team that has gone on to finish first in the ACC also won at least six of its first seven league games.

North Carolina was a perfect 7-0 in the ACC at this point last season before it went on to win the regular season. So was Virginia in 2015, and Miami in 2013. Virginia finished first in 2014 after a 6-1 start, as did UNC in 2012 and 2011.

The most recent team to win the regular season after losing more than one of its first seven conference games? That’d be Duke and Maryland, in 2010. They were both 5-2 in the ACC at this point in their schedule, and they both finished 13-3 and in a tie for first atop the conference.

After three weeks of conference play, the ACC looks more and more like a three-team race. Virginia, at 5-2, is still in it (though it faces a difficult road – more on that below). And don’t count out Louisville, which played valiantly at Florida State on Saturday without point guard Quentin Snider.

But with the margins between the best teams – and even the worst – as thin as they are, Florida State, UNC and Notre Dame have a clear advantage. If one of those teams doesn’t go on to win the regular season, it’d be the first time since 2010 that sort of thing has happened.

In the ACC’s 14-team era, and now with 15 teams, no team has ever won the league after losing more than one of its first six ACC games. So while the likes of Virginia, Louisville and Duke still have a chance, one of those teams would have to make some history to wind up in first place.

Among the three teams tied atop the conference standings, Florida State has to be the favorite to win the regular season. Not necessarily because the Seminoles are clearly better than either UNC or Notre Dame, but because Florida State’s schedule is so favorable from here on out.

The Seminoles are 6-1 in the ACC after making it through, by far, their most difficult portion of the schedule. It was a stretch that included games against Virginia, Duke, Notre Dame, Louisville. Now Florida State has reached the other side. The combined record of its opponents in its remaining 11 conference games: 26-45.

Clemson’s 1-6 league record counts in that total twice, and the Tigers are probably better than that record indicates. But still, only one team left on the Seminoles’ schedule has a winning ACC record. That team is Notre Dame, which Florida State plays on the road on Feb. 11.

The remaining 11 conference games for UNC and Notre Dame, meanwhile, are much more difficult. UNC still has to play twice against Virginia, and Duke, and the Tar Heels have yet to play their lone game against the Fighting Irish. In addition to its road game at UNC, Notre Dame, meanwhile, still has to travel to Louisville, and it also has home games left against Florida State, Virginia and Duke.

It would be unwise to count out Virginia, just one game back of the trio tied atop the conference standings. And yet the Cavaliers’ remaining conference schedule is more difficult than any of the three belonging to the teams above them in the standings.

Virginia has two games remaining against UNC and Virginia Tech, which is an especially formidable opponent on its home court. The Cavaliers still have to go on the road to Notre Dame, then Virginia gets to try to defend its home court against Louisville, Duke and Miami.

And so if the Cavaliers become the first team since 2010 to win the regular season after losing more than one of its first seven ACC games, they’ll have earned it after surviving – and thriving – amid a particularly menacing remaining schedule.

DENNIS SMITH JR. COULD JOIN DUBIOUS CLUB

First the good news for Dennis Smith Jr., the N.C. State freshman point guard: He’s still projected as a top-five pick in the NBA draft. That’s unlikely to change. Now the bad: More and more, the Wolfpack look like a team with little chance of making the NCAA tournament.

Plenty of time left, lots of games – all of that. But N.C. State has provided no evidence that a turnaround is possible.

If the Wolfpack doesn’t reverse course, and if Smith enters the draft as expected, he could become the third player in ACC history to be a top-five pick after his team missed the NCAA tournament the previous spring.

It should be noted that history is limited to the 32 years since 1985, and the start of the NBA draft lottery. During that span, 61 ACC players have been lottery picks. Only nine of them (and two from N.C. State, more than any other ACC school) came from teams that missed the NCAA tournament.

And of those nine only two – Georgia Tech’s Chris Bosh in 2003 and Maryland’s Alex Len in 2013 – were top-five picks. Smith could become ACC’s the third top-five pick in the NBA draft lottery era to play on a team that didn’t reach the NCAA tournament. Not exactly the history he’s trying to make at N.C. State.

TRENDING UP

1. Florida State as a Final Four contender.

The Seminoles are for real, people, and they keep proving it. They just played as difficult a six-game stretch as any ACC team will play – with games against Virginia, Virginia Tech, Duke, UNC, Notre Dame and Louisville – and they made it to the other side with a 5-1 record. Not too shabby.

2. Appreciation for Ol’ Roy.

Few college basketball coaches are as accomplished as UNC’s Roy Williams, and yet he’s somewhat of an afterthought in the discussion of the game’s greatest coaches, both current and past. Williams’ 800th victory served as a reminder that he’s been as good as just about anybody ever has.

TRENDING DOWN

1. N.C. State’s NCAA tournament hopes.

Not to belabor the point but after a 2-5 start in conference play – one that includes a 51-point loss against its primary rival – there’s an argument to be made that the Wolfpack is the most disappointing major-conference team in the country.

2. Clemson’s momentum under Brad Brownell.

Florida State thrived amid its unfairly-tough portion of the conference schedule. Clemson, meanwhile, has lost six straight. The schedule has been brutal but, still, this had the potential to be a breakthrough year under Brownell, whose Tigers are floundering in his seventh season.

FINAL FOUR

The four worst ACC teams that included NBA draft lottery picks (selected in the same year):

1. 1994-95 Duke: went 2-14 in the ACC with Cherokee Parks, the 12th pick in the draft.

2. 1995-96 N.C. State: went 3-13 in the ACC with Todd Fuller, the 11th pick in the draft.

3. 2009-10 UNC: went 5-11 in the ACC with Ed Davis, the 13th pick in the draft.

4. 1991-92 Maryland: went 5-11 in the ACC with Walt Williams, the 7th pick in the draft.

Andrew Carter: 919-829-8944, @_andrewcarter

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