Virginia and the State of the ACC Race

Outside of the excitement in John Paul Jones Arena, last night was an interesting one around the ACC.

In Chapel Hill, UNC blew a 10 point lead with 2 minutes to play, losing to Duke 85-84. The Tar Heels appeared to have the game in hand, but clutch shooting by Duke and mental lapses by UNC led to their dropping a huge conference game. Tyler Zeller can't be feeling too well today, after he missed key free-throws, tipped a ball into his own basket, and did a terrible job defensively, giving Austin Rivers an open look to win the game at the buzzer.

An even bigger shocker took place in Chestnut Hill, where Boston College pulled off a 64-60 win over the Seminoles, who were in the midst of a 7-game conference winning streak. They had a chance to separate themselves from the pack and grab sole possession of first place in the conference, but now the Noles remain in a three-way tie for first at 7-2.

What does it all mean for the Hoos? It depends on one's expectations. Currently, the ACC is pretty clearly divided into two halves. Duke, UNC, FSU, UVA, NC State, and Miami are likely the teams that will finish 1 through 6 in some order. Here are the current standings among these teams for reference (via theacc.com):

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(Miami plays at home against VT tonight)

I could see two current goals for the team. First, the more realistic one - because the top 4 seeds in the ACC tournament get byes, finishing fourth is huge. Doing so allows Virginia to avoid the grind of playing four games in four days, while also preventing the possibility of a bad loss (to BC, say) in the first round. Luckily, UVA currently owns the head-to-head tiebreaker over both the Wolfpack and Hurricanes, as the Hoos prevailed over each in their only meeting of the year.

The schedule looks about even amongst the three: Each team plays the "top-tier" of Duke/UNC/FSU 3 times (2 home, 1 road). Miami has two home games against the "cellar" of BC, Wake, and Georgia Tech, while Miami and UVA have completed those games for the year. NC State and Miami still play each other, guaranteeing a loss for someone. KenPom has UVA and Miami finishing 10-6, with the Wolfpack at 9-7. This would set up a likely second round ACC rematch between Miami and UVA . This would not be fun at all, considering last year's nightmare, but isn't a bad outcome.

Then again, why finish 4th when we can finish first? Can Virginia elevate itself back into the "top-tier"? There is no reason why not, as two 3-point road losses are no reason to believe otherwise. However, looking at individual teams, the task is daunting.

In any path toward breaking into the top three and competing for a title, UVA must win their home games over FSU and UNC to avoid head-to-head sweep tiebreakers. Even still, the team would need to gain two games on Duke; the Blue Devils play losable games against FSU and UNC, but the rest of their schedule consists of easy road games at Wake Forest and Boston College and a host of home games against non-threatening teams.

Passing Florida State and UNC is more plausible. The Seminoles still travel to NC State and Miami; if the Hoos get 'em at home, even an 11-5 record could be enough for a tie. UNC actually plays an even harder road slate, travelling to NC State, Miami, Duke, and Virginia.

What does it all mean? Despite the three-way tie for first, Duke has a stranglehold atop the conference. Florida State has a chance to compete if they could claim another win over the Blue Devils at home. UNC and Virginia will have a hard time making up ground, as schedules, current records, and tiebreakers all work against them.

UPDATE (5:30 PM): For those KenPom fans out there, Pomeroy tweeted the following: "Simulator now says Duke has a 54% shot at the ACC one-seed. UNC 23%, FSU 17%, UVa 4%, Miami 1%, NC State 1%." So, there you have it, you could have just read that and skipped the rest of this post.

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