All about the ACC: Title chase begins

Duke and North Carolina were considered the teams to beat in the ACC heading into the season, and with conference play beginning Saturday, that still is the case.

Austin Rivers and Duke suffered a setback on the road this week but will be ready for Georgia Tech.
(US Presswire)

Indeed, those two are the only teams with a realistic shot at the league title. Everyone else is playing for third place. And while the Duke-UNC scrum for the top spot will be a good one – they play Feb. 8 in Chapel Hill and March 3 in Durham – the race for third should be even better because the bulk of the league looks evenly matched.

Here’s a look at each team’s opening league game, plus a quick rundown on the league as a whole as conference play gets under way.

The opening games

Saturday: Duke at Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech at Wake Forest, Boston College at North Carolina, Florida State at Clemson, Miami at Virginia
Buzz: For the most part, the first day of the league schedule has a bunch of yawners. A notable exception is Miami’s visit to Virginia, which involves two teams that have the talent to finish third in the league. UNC should maul Boston College, but the other visitors – Duke, Florida State and Virginia Tech – should be victorious.

Sunday: Maryland at North Carolina State
Buzz: As with Miami-Virginia, this is an early shakeout game in conference play. This is the only meeting between the teams this season, and Maryland has won nine in a row in the series.

The league favorites

Duke: The Blue Devils suffered their second loss of the season Wednesday night at Temple. Duke’s defense was shredded, and that issue has raised its head at times this season. Still, this is a gifted offensive team that can overwhelm foes with its array of options. An 8-0 start in league play seems likely; the Feb. 8 game at North Carolina is Duke’s first real opportunity to lose a league game.

North Carolina: Duke is a gifted offensive team, but the Tar Heels have even more weapons. UNC has scored at least 82 points in seven consecutive games and 11 times overall this season. The Heels are blowing out teams by an average of 21.2 points per game, and their defense has been surprisingly good. It helps having shot-blocking F John Henson as your last line of defense. The one potential chink in the armor is that the Heels have been bad from the free throw line, hitting a league-low 64 percent. As with Duke, the Heels should be 8-0 when the teams meet Feb. 8, though UNC does have a tougher early-season league schedule than Duke.

[Final tuneup: Duke tumbles at Temple]

The contenders

None: This is a two-team race. The question is who finishes third – and how far back the third-place team finishes.

The question marks

Florida State: The Seminoles struggle to score at times – there really isn’t anyone on the roster who is that proficient at creating his own shot – but they play lockdown defense and have a nice group of big men. Getting off to a fast start in league play may be difficult. Four of the first six league games are on the road, and one of the home games in that stretch is against North Carolina.

Miami: There haven’t been any wins of note for Jim Larranaga’s team, but there haven’t been any bad losses, either. Miami has an excellent backcourt, and the frontcourt has potential with Reggie Johnson and Kenny Kadji, who has played well of late. Miami has shot better than 50 percent from the floor in four consecutive games, and while the Hurricanes have been spotty on defense, that offense is a reason UM could finish as high as third in the league. Four of the first six league games are on the road, and UM is 1-3 on the road so far.

Terrell Stoglin has surprised many by leading the ACC in scoring through the non-conference schedule.
(US Presswire)

Maryland: G Terrell Stoglin has been an offensive revelation, averaging a league-leading 21.8 points – an increase of 10.4 ppg over last season. The Terps carry a seven-game winning streak into the start of conference play, but a victory over Notre Dame is their best win thus far. In addition, they have been blown out by Alabama and Iona. The early portion of the conference schedule isn’t that daunting, but a 2-2 start still seems likely.

North Carolina State: The Wolfpack have a win over Texas, but they really haven’t beaten anyone else of note. They also don’t have any bad losses. While the defense is nothing special, the offense has been better than expected. And talk about a balanced attack: The Wolfpack have an astounding five players averaging between 12.2 and 12.9 points per game. It’s not a stretch to see this team start 4-0 in conference play.

Virginia: The Cavaliers look to be one of the three or four teams that have a shot at third place. A loss to TCU is troublesome, but there are nice wins over Michigan, Oregon and LSU. The Cavs carry an 11-game winning streak into league play, their longest since 1992-93. This isn’t an overly gifted offensive team, but the Cavs play solid defense and take good care of the ball.

Virginia Tech: The Hokies haven’t been to the NCAA tourney since 2007, and they seem destined to be on the NCAA bubble yet again. They don’t have any marquee non-conference victories, but they have a shot at a fast start in league play. One positive for coach Seth Greenberg: His team’s perimeter defense has been excellent.

[Off-court trouble: Video of UCLA fan’s marriage proposal gone wrong]

Wait until next year

Boston College: BC is the only league team with a losing record, and the question is whether the Eagles can avoid the league basement. Given the ugly nature of some losses – by 22 to Holy Cross and 14 to Boston University – that answer would seem to be “no.” The first league game? At North Carolina. Yikes.

Clemson: The Tigers look to be the best group in this category, but that’s not saying that much. They own a win over Iowa, but they also have lost to Coastal Carolina and Hawaii; they also fell at home to South Carolina, which is the worst team in the SEC. Clemson plays good defense, but the Tigers’ offense scares no one. One positive about the league schedule: The Tigers play Duke and UNC just once each.

Georgia Tech: The Yellow Jackets are entering league play riding a three-game losing streak, including setbacks to Fordham and Mercer. A 10th-place ACC finish is a legitimate goal.

Wake Forest: Wake was expected to bring up the rear in the league race, but the Demon Deacons appear to be a bit better than Boston College and Georgia Tech. Wake should battle Georgia Tech for 10th place.

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Mike Huguenin is a Yahoo! Sports college sports editor. Send Mike a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Thursday, Jan 5, 2012