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January 5, 2011 The Atlantic Coast Conference is perennially heralded as the nation’s best basketball conference or at worst, the country’s second best conference. Five of the last 10 National Champions have come out of the ACC and eight of the last 20 have come from the Atlantic Coast Conference. This year however, the conference is unusually weak. Sure, Duke seems to have a better team than the Blue Devils squad that won the entire thing one year ago, but the conference appears to have little depth. That begs the question, “Is this the weakest Atlantic Coast Conference ever?”

Duke has looked very good through 13 games; guard Nolan Smith and forward Kyle Singler are the best duo in the ACC and perhaps even the country. The Blue Devils are 13-0 with 11 wins coming by double-digits. Duke has impressive wins over the likes of Kansas State, Michigan State and Marquette. Kyrie Irving is a legitimate third scorer for Duke while Andre Dawkins and Seth Curry help stretch the floor for the defending National Champions. Brothers Miles and Mason Plumlee provide size and toughness around the basket. Duke is deep, talented and considered by most as the country’s team-to-beat, but usually the Blue Devils benefit from a tough ACC. This year, there doesn’t seem to be a legitimate contender to challenge Duke as the best in the conference.

Duke’s arch-rival North Carolina has plenty of young talent itself and have many of the pieces that lost 17 games a season ago, but rebounded to go deep in the NIT. North Carolina has improved since the start of the season and have a signature win over Kentucky in Chapel Hill, but the Tar Heels have just one other win against a school from a BCS conference and that came against lowly Rutgers. North Carolina’s four losses have all been highly contested, but were losses nonetheless. The good news is that North Carolina has not lost at home; the Heels lost to Minnesota, Vanderbilt and Texas on neutral courts and at Illinois. It’s hard to say at this point, but North Carolina looks to be the ACC’s best hope if someone if to challenge Duke within the conference.

Florida State, Maryland, Boston College and Virginia Tech seem to be teams that could finish the season squarely on the bubble. Florida State looked to be a program on the rise prior to Monday night’s loss at Auburn. The Seminoles have perhaps the best defensive player in the country in Chris Singleton and lots of size, but FSU lacks a go-to-scorer and often struggle to get quality shots in half-court sets. Maryland lacks a signature win, but have been competitive in every game; the Terrapins have a solid post-player in Jordan Williams and are a veteran group, but Maryland will need to beat Duke on Sunday to avoid an 0-2 start in conference play.

Both Boston College and Virginia Tech are teams that could finish toward the top of the ACC, but few would be surprised if either of these schools finished in the conference’s bottom half. Boston College is definitely the sleeper in the ACC; the Eagles were one of just two ACC teams to finish with an overall losing record a year ago, but BC seems to be on its way back into the conference’s upper-half. Junior Reggie Jackson has come from nowhere to be a big-time-scorer for Boston College while Joe Trapani gives the Eagles a threat to score from anywhere on the floor. Boston College has impressive wins against Texas A&M, California and at Maryland, but have losses to Yale and at Rhode Island.

Virginia Tech on the other hand began the year with high expectations. Malcolm Delaney in the backcourt and Jeff Allen in the frontcourt give the Hokies an extremely talented duo, but that has not resulted in big-time-wins. Virginia Tech doesn’t really have a terrible loss unless you count losing at home against rival Virginia, but Virginia Tech has missed some opportunities to pull off some solid victories. The Hokies lost to Purdue in overtime and were beaten handily by Kansas State and UNLV.

Clemson, Georgia Tech and Wake Forest tend to be NCAA Tournament mainstays, but this year, tournament hopes look bleak. Clemson’s best win came against Seton Hall in the Virgin Islands and the Tigers have managed to lose against all other mediocre competition despite playing a less than stellar non-conference schedule. Georgia Tech and Wake Forest however have been worse. Georgia Tech does not have a win against a team from a BCS conference and has a 20-point-loss at Northwestern, a 17-point-defeat at Kennesaw State and an overtime loss to Charlotte. Wake Forest is currently 6-8 with losses to Stetson, UNC-Wilmington and Presbyterian. Five of Wake’s eight losses have come by double-figures.

Virginia has been perhaps the most Jekyll-and-Hyde team in the ACC. The Cavaliers followed an impressive road win against Minnesota with another solid road win against arch-rival Virginia Tech, but Virginia has struggled against sub-par competition. The Cavaliers have losses to Seattle and Iowa State and are no stranger to taking it on the chin. Against Pac-10 schools Stanford and Washington, UVA lost by a combined 63 points. Forward Mike Scott has been a very consistent player for the Cavaliers, but senior Mustapha Farrakhan seemed to always play well in Virginia victories.

Miami and NC State came into the season as teams that could make some noise in the ACC following disappointing campaigns last season. Miami upset West Virginia last month and was quite competitive at both Memphis and Duke. The Hurricanes however were blown out at Rutgers and fell to a UCF team that we still don’t know all that much about. NC State on the other hand has managed to start 9-4 without its best player, forward Tracy Smith. The Wolfpack have no bad losses, but no real signature wins either. NC State could be a team that could get back to the NCAA Tournament if Smith can come back and play at the level he has been able to in year’s past. Smith shot 7-for-12 from the floor with 16 points in his first game back from injury against San Diego.

Despite Duke being the early overwhelming favorite not only to win the ACC, but the National Championship as well, the ACC is uncharacteristically weak. The ACC not only lacks depth, but it is very uncertain if there is even a solid number two in the conference. Up-and-coming programs like Florida State and Virginia Tech have lacked consistency while traditional ACC powers like Georgia Tech and Wake Forest are off to dismal starts. The verdict is still out on schools like Miami and NC State, but even if those two were able to have solid in-conference records, the conference is nonetheless weaker than it has been in many years.

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