Mark the Date: March 1 Will Decide the ACC Regular Season ChampionPosted by Lathan Wells on February 10th, 2014
There are still tons of great ACC match-ups left to be played this season with roughly a month to go until the end of the regular season. Pittsburgh and Syracuse will square off again, continuing the old Big East rivalry in their new home. Duke and North Carolina, the best rivalry in college sports (sorry, Michigan-Ohio State football), will be at the forefront of the nation’s basketball consciousness twice more this season. And following the epic Duke/Syracuse meeting in New York on February 1, the nation gets to enjoy a rematch in Cameron Indoor on the 22nd of this month. However, most should probably go ahead and mark March 1 on their calendar now. That’ll be the day the conference championship will be decided.
Syracuse is currently sitting atop the conference with a perfect 10-0 record following their defeat of Clemson on Sunday night. Virginia, following another impressive performance in knocking off Georgia Tech on Saturday, sits at a very impressive 10-1. The two teams are going to square off on Virginia’s home turf in Charlottesville on the first of March, and this game will determine who takes the ACC. Crazy things can and may happen, but in looking at the relevant teams at the top of the conference standings and their respective schedules remaining, the road for these two teams seems destined to collide at John Paul Jones Arena with a title on the line.
Syracuse’s toughest games remaining (outside of the bout with the Cavaliers) are at Pittsburgh and at Duke. While a rematch with Pitt (Syracuse won the first meeting in 59-54 January 18) would appear to be a tough test for the undefeated Orange, it’s hard to project Pitt will overtake the nation’s number one team after struggling to defeat the ACC’s worst in Virginia Tech over the weekend in double overtime at home. That leaves the Duke game as the lone true test for Syracuse prior to meeting Virginia, and even if Duke responds with a win in a frenzied Cameron Indoor Stadium, that would merely move the Orange into a tie with Virginia with a conference loss apiece prior to meeting head-to-head.
Speaking of Duke (8-3), sitting tied for third at the moment with Pittsburgh, they have the only other credible shot of sneaking into the top spot. Wins over North Carolina (twice) and Syracuse would at least give them an outside shot of moving up to number one if the other teams falter. The problem is, as outlined above, there’s not much else for Syracuse to worry about other than the Blue Devils before they play Virginia. Making up three games in the loss column at this juncture seems to be nearly impossible.
Virginia has the easiest stretch of all the contenders remaining. Part of the reason so many are enamored by the Cavaliers’ 10-1 start is that the majority of the victories came against the meatiest portion of their schedule. Maryland, Clemson, Virginia Tech, Notre Dame, and Miami is a gauntlet by no stretch of the imagination, and that’s what the Cavaliers face going forward. Following that five-game waltz they’d meet Syracuse at home, potentially riding an amazing 12-game winning streak in the process.
So who can spoil the party and make the battle for the ACC a bit more muddled the rest of the way out? Clemson, already owning a home victory over Duke and challenging Syracuse on the road, could upend Virginia in Littlejohn Coliseum. Pittsburgh could come off of their uninspiring showing against the Hokies to shock Syracuse and give Jim Boeheim’s squad the possibility of having three conference losses by the time the year’s over if Duke and Virginia can upend them as well. There is always the possibility of teams under-performing in advance of a big game, too, such as if Syracuse falls flat against Boston College in advance of the matchup in Cameron or Virginia looks past the Hurricanes before they host the nation’s current number one team. Even after they play each other, Virginia and Syracuse will still have games remaining (Syracuse with Georgia Tech and Florida State at home, Virginia with a trip to Maryland remaining). With the way both of these teams are playing right now, though, they look to be the conference’s elite and have a comfortable enough lead in the standings and plenty of winnable games in front of them to make March 1st the day the ACC Champion is likely decided.