With most teams now at or just beyond the one-third mark in their ACC college basketball schedules, one fact has become clear: there are four teams that can win the ACC regular season championship.
That statement isn’t necessarily to talk down the rest of the conference, but with North Carolina near the bottom and Florida State unable to beat those teams at the top of the league, only four schools have really shown that they have a legitimate chance to take the crown.
The Syracuse Orange are in the pole position for the conference title thanks to their unbeaten league and overall records so far this season. Syracuse hasn’t always had it easy in conference play, but whether it was a five-point win over Pittsburgh or Saturday’s victory over Miami, the Orange seem to be the best at making decisive runs late in games that swing the contest in their favor.
Freshman Tyler Ennis is often at the center of those runs. While the 12 PPG and 5.4 APG are impressive, the most impressive stat in his favor is that he’s playing 33.8 minutes per game. For him to have that kind of trust from Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim speaks volumes about his importance to the Orange’s success.
A pair of teams just a half-game behind 6-0 Syracuse at the top of the conference standings have also both proven themselves to be legitimate contenders.
First there’s the Pittsburgh Panthers (6-1 ACC) who have already had one shot at the Orange at Syracuse and came up agonizingly short, losing 59-54 after leading late in the game. Pittsburgh forward Lamar Patterson may now be the favorite for ACC Player of the Year honors (17.9 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 4.7 APG) and his numbers have sparked a resurgent Panthers offense that averages 76 points per game and shoots nearly 49 percent from the field.
Speaking of the Cavaliers, Virginia is also 6-1 in the ACC and is probably the most surprising team of the top four, especially after a shaky non-conference slate that saw multiple bad losses. Beyond a tough four-point loss at Duke, the Cavaliers have demolished their competition in every other ACC game this season by at least 12 points. A 20-point win over Virginia Tech Saturday set Virginia up for a big week that features games at Notre Dame and Pittsburgh.
Even with no player averaging more than 11.6 PPG (Joe Harris), the Cavaliers have shown few weaknesses to this point and have moved from a NCAA Tournament hopeful to a deserved participant in the ACC title conversation.
Then there’s Duke (5-2 ACC, fourth place), winners over Virginia on January 13. The Blue Devils will get no gift from the ACC schedule-maker this week. On Monday, Duke goes to Pittsburgh for the first time in ACC play, while a visit Syracuse awaits them on Saturday. A 2-0 week for Duke could change the complexion of the ACC race.
If Virginia and Duke were to both go 2-0 this week, old-school ACC fans everywhere would be sure to smile. This week will be a huge test for Duke freshman Jabari Parker, who leads the Blue Devils in both scoring (18.7 PPG) and rebounding (8.0 RPG). He had 14 points and 14 rebounds in Saturday’s win over Florida State, but shot just 3-for-13 from the field. Parker has hit only 23-of-63 (36.5 percent) from the field in his last five games. That must improve if Duke is going to end up first.
Syracuse is probably the most complete team, but Pittsburgh likely has the best player. Virginia has dominated throughout the ACC season except against Duke, and the Blue Devils are relying on a freshman to carry them. You can make the argument that any of these four teams could finish atop the conference by season’s end, but one thing’s for sure — there are no other contenders remaining for the ACC title.