Analysis of conference races through the prism of schedules can quickly become very cliched, but in the 2017 ACC, the key to regular season success really is different from the other high-major leagues.
It’s only January 11 — with nearly two full months of regular-season ball before the ACC Tournament — and yet the pivot point of the ACC race already seems relatively clear.
Unimpressed skeptics will say that in analyzing conference schedules, every game matters.
“Well, gotta win the high-end games at home. Ya better consistently win middle-of-the-pack games, too. Oh, and don’t give away bad losses on the road. In other words, win every kind of game, smarty pants!”
Sure, each tier of competition matters, and at a certain point, schedule-based analysis can lose its specificity. However, this season’s ACC does stand out from the pack to a certain extent.
Let’s briefly touch on other high-major leagues to frame the comparison.
In the Big East and Big 12, a pack of contenders doesn’t really exist. It’s Villanova and Kansas in those two conferences, with a maximum of three legitimate challengers in pursuit, very possibly only one by late February. (We’ll see.)
In the Pac-12, UCLA, Oregon and Arizona appear to stand above the crowd at this early juncture. Moreover, teams such as Oregon State, Washington State, and Washington haven’t been very dangerous. The Pac is a top-heavy conference at the moment, trying to build middle-tier heft.
The SEC? It’s Kentucky, then South Carolina and Florida, and then 11 teams almost certain to miss the NCAA Tournament. Catch the (SEC basketball) fever!
The Big Ten probably comes the closest to matching the ACC, with a highly contentious race that probably won’t sort it out very soon. Yet, notice all the road wins of significance in the conference thus far. Indiana has lost twice at home. Nebraska lost to Northwestern, which lost to Minnesota, which lost to Michigan State. It’s a fierce environment in the Big Ten, but home courts have not been supreme strongholds.
It’s different in the ACC.
Georgia Tech, picked to be at the bottom of the conference by many pundits, ambushed North Carolina in Atlanta. Boston College handily defeated Syracuse in Chestnut Hill. North Carolina State eviscerated Virginia Tech in Raleigh. Pitt outlasted Virginia in overtime in the Steel City. Miami got healthy at home versus N.C. State. Notre Dame parried several Clemson thrusts to beat the Tigers at home, days after handling Louisville in South Bend.
Spread across its 15 teams, the ACC has no easy outs. That’s different from most of the high-major leagues, with the possible exception of the Big 12 (if only because that conference has only 10 member schools, but Oklahoma is very frail and Texas has a long way to go). Going through the ACC this season will very likely involve at least four losses if not more. The quality of depth is just too great. Therefore, it seems foolish to place too much emphasis on breaking the ACC into three or four different competitive tiers.
Virtually every gymnasium is a tough one to conquer.
Consider this: Through roughly two full weeks of league play, how many teams have recorded high-end road wins? It’s a short list.
Virginia won at Louisville, and Florida State won at Virginia (which means the Cavaliers canceled out their great win with a home loss). Yes, Notre Dame won at Pittsburgh, but the Panthers do not rate as “high-end” material this season under Kevin Stallings.
Duke is 0-2 on the road, having lost to league leader Florida State on Tuesday night.
Syracuse is 0-2 on the road. So is Virginia Tech.
All told, 13 of 15 ACC teams have lost a conference game on the road. That’s a more revealing stat than the fact that 13 ACC teams have lost a conference game of any kind. The losses are being accumulated on the road in a balanced, deep conference.
Expect a lot more home-court conquests as the season goes forward in a league which should punish all its foremost contenders.
When this grueling competition nears its crescendo, expect one detail of ACC basketball to separate the top team in the conference from the Nos. 4 and 5 seeds in the ACC Tournament: high-end road wins. Florida State — having won at Virginia while protecting its home floor against Duke — has the very early lead, but the Seminoles weren’t a target when they eclipsed the Hoos in Charlottesville. They have everyone’s attention now, so if they can go into a Tobacco Road lair (North Carolina this Saturday, Duke at the end of February) and prevail, the achievement will carry a lot of weight. Any other road win in matchups among the top six teams in the conference figures to substantially reshape the trajectory of the ACC race.
There will be blood in the ACC over the next two months.
Every team will suffer its share of wounds and wipeouts. The teams which can gather themselves in daunting road environments against top-tier contenders will be the last ones standing in early March. They’ll get the top two seeds in the ACC Tournament and will have the best chance to soar to the 1 line on Selection Sunday.