No. 7 UNC, No. 12 Miami atop ACC entering tough stretch run
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. >> North Carolina sits atop the Atlantic Coast Conference standings, right where the Tar Heels were expected to be when they were the preseason No. 1 pick. Now, though, they've got plenty of company.
The league is set for quite a finishing leg to the regular season.
With less than two weeks left, seven teams have at least nine ACC wins. And they're dotting one another's closing schedules in what amounts to a playoff before the ACC Tournament begins in Washington, D.C.
"It definitely feels different for me," UNC coach Roy Williams said Tuesday. "This time at the end of the year you hope you're involved and look to see who's playing who and which location. But you're doing for two or three. Now you're doing it for seven, eight or nine teams."
The seventh-ranked Tar Heels (22-5, 11-3) were picked to win the league ahead of Virginia and rival Duke. They hold the league lead behind player of the year candidate Brice Johnson, who has an ACC-best 16 double-doubles entering Wednesday's trip to nearby rival North Carolina State.
Right behind them is No. 12 Miami (22-5, 11-4), which beat No. 3 Virginia in a critical matchup Monday night. Then there's No. 11 Louisville (21-6, 10-4), which won't play in the league or NCAA tournaments due to a self-imposed postseason ban connected to an ongoing probe into escort allegations.
From there, Virginia (21-6, 10-5), No. 15 Duke (20-7, 9-5), No. 23 Notre Dame (18-8, 9-5) and Clemson (16-11, 9-6) form the top half of the 15-team league.
The Cavaliers swept the regular-season and tournament titles in 2014, then won the regular season again last season while compiling a two-year record of 36-5 against ACC opponents. Their only two losses in the past month have come at Duke and at Miami by a combined four points.
Now they get a visit from the Tar Heels on Saturday, a big day that also includes Louisville's trip to Miami.
"It's nice that when you have a big game, you have another big game waiting for you in the next couple of days," Virginia's Malcolm Brogdon said after Monday's loss. "We can redeem ourselves."
And the big matchups keep coming in the final week. Miami visits Notre Dame next Wednesday, then the regular-season finale includes UNC at Duke and Louisville at Virginia on March 5.
Virginia has the toughest remaining schedule. Throw in a trip to Clemson, and its final three opponents have won 70 percent of their ACC games.
"For everybody, the top six teams, it's going to be crazy," Miami guard Angel Rodriguez said after a weekend loss at UNC. "We're all a game away from each other, so things can change quickly."
The top four seeds get a double-round bye at the ACC Tournament, though Louisville's postseason ban opens a potential slot. Rick Pitino's Cardinals play three of their final four on the road, starting Wednesday at Pittsburgh (19-7, 8-6).
"When you're not in the tournament, I think you're looking for silver linings and challenges," Pitino said. "So this will prove to be a good one."
It's still unclear how many NCAA bids the league will get. Clemson, Pittsburgh and Syracuse (18-10, 8-7) probably represent the last of that group, while teams like reigning ACC Tournament champion Notre Dame are trying to bolster their resumes.
"I guess when you look at it," Fighting Irish coach Mike Brey said, "we're playing for seeding in two tournaments right now."
There's also some drama at the bottom of the league, too.
North Carolina State (14-13, 4-10) is all but certain to end a four-year streak of NCAA Tournament trips, but ACC-leading scorer Anthony "Cat" Barber (23.2 points) is a strong player of the year candidate despite the Wolfpack's record.
Then there's Boston College (7-20, 0-14), which is flirting with becoming only the sixth team in league history to go winless in league regular-season play and first since Maryland went 0-14 in 1986-87. The Eagles host Virginia Tech on Tuesday night.
"I knew coming in this was a long process," BC coach Jim Christian said. "This is not an instant turnaround process. That's all you can do is keep building and stay positive, and that's what we've tried to do."