Pick 'n' Roll
Originally Published: Jan 27, 2013

The ACC finally has a race worth watching

Robbi Pickeral

RALEIGH, N.C. -- Time was tight. Roads were still melting. But just after 5 p.m. ET Saturday, on Interstate 40 near Exit 285 between Durham and Raleigh, one task seemed more necessary than usual: scanning the XM stations, searching for the Boston College-Virginia and Wake Forest-Georgia Tech scores.

After watching Duke throttle Maryland, and en route to an NC State-North Carolina showdown, there was already plenty of notable hoops action to absorb. And during most ACC seasons of late, those "other games" probably would have been an afterthought, what with Duke and/or UNC mostly dominating the top of the standings for the past decade and a half.

Roy Williams
Brian Spurlock/US PresswireRoy Williams is used to being near the top of the ACC, but this year is different.

But something feels different so far this season.

Upperclassman-heavy Miami -- still considered more of a "football" or "baseball" school -- is the only undefeated team in ACC play, at 5-0. Four teams, including top-ranked Duke and No. 18 NC State, already have two league losses. UNC has three.

Four upsets -- Miami and NC State over Duke, Maryland and Wake Forest over NC State -- have led to court-rushing celebrations. And it's only late January.

Even Georgia Tech and Boston College (both 1-5) had given conference foes fits.

Call it parity, call it mediocrity -- realistically, it's some combination of the two -- but there's finally a reason to pay early attention to what's going on throughout the ACC and to teams that don't play their home games near Tobacco Road.

"If you take somebody lightly in this league right now, you're going to lose,'' UNC coach Roy Williams said before his team blew out Maryland and Georgia Tech last week, only to be dominated by the Wolfpack. "I don't care who you are or who you're playing."

Williams said he thinks there's more balance in the league, from top to bottom, than any other time in his 10 seasons as the Tar Heels' coach.

A few of the wild swings:

• Virginia opened its ACC season by beating UNC, only to lose on the road versus Wake Forest and Clemson, only to then come home and win three straight by double figures. The Cavs are currently tied for third place in the league.

• Wake followed a two-point upset of 18th-ranked NC State with a 20-point loss at Georgia Tech (which had been the final winless team in the league, until Saturday). Predicted to finish near the bottom of the league, the Deacons are tied for fifth place, with four losses.

• Duke beat three top-five teams during a three-week stretch in nonconference play, only to go 2-2 in its past four games without starting forward Ryan Kelly. The Devils, like NC State, are trailing the No. 25 Hurricanes by two defeats.

There are multiple reasons for the trickle down of balance: New coaches (nine in the league since 2009-10) have finally had a chance to cultivate their teams and game plans, adding some new traction. Meanwhile, early (and earlier) entry into the NBA has left other squads, such as UNC, scrambling to fill holes they weren't expecting.

The traditional top teams -- especially now that Duke is rejiggering without Kelly -- aren't as good, and only three squads are ranked.

Meanwhile, Nos. 10, 11 and 12 in the ACC standings aren't quite as bad.

"The parity in the league -- it's early in the conference season, guys are still feeling guys out," Virginia Tech first-year coach James Johnson said earlier this week. "I think it's young. You put a lot of young players out there on the floor, the inconsistency with certain guys, you can see that."

Plus, the league is in the first year of a new 18-game schedule, meaning more contests and more opportunities for upsets -- and, the coaches hope, growth.

"I think North Carolina's pretty good," Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said last week. "They weren't that good earlier in the year, but they were [against the Terps last weekend]. Florida State's pretty darn good. They struggled early, they're athletic, gave us some problems. I think Virginia can potentially be better than they were last year.

"You can go through all the teams, see a lot more consistency. Wake Forest, Georgia Tech, we know are better. I do think it's a much deeper and better league than it was last year."

With the potential to be very different a month from now.

It will be curious to see, over the next few weeks, when separation in the standings starts to occur. Is Duke finally starting to mesh again, sans Kelly? Will clutch shooter Michael Snaer put Florida State on his back once again? Can Maryland and Virginia, who have the potential to be NCAA tournament teams, make a push? Which way will UNC go after losing to rival NC State for the first time since 2007?

From top to bottom, it's finally worth tuning in.

Mark Gottfried
Bob Donnan/US PresswireMark Gottfried's Wolfpack have a chance to shift the league's balance of power.

Five things I learned about the ACC on Saturday:

1. NC State has oodles of potential. Three guys recorded a double-double and two others scored in double figures to break the Pack's 13-game losing streak to rival UNC. If they can stretch Saturday's first 20 minutes of defense over entire games, as well -- wow.

2. Duke is still vulnerable. It was great to watch freshmen Rasheed Sulaimon (25 points) and Amile Jefferson (11 points, nine rebounds) stand out during a bounce-back win after Wednesday's debacle in Miami, but the team is still adapting while Kelly's right foot heals.

3. Virginia is a really, really good defensive team. So, duh, we already knew this. But considering only one ACC foe has scored more than 60 points (and one, FSU, managed only 36), it bears repeating.

4. UNC is confusing. What is this team good at, consistently? (Besides...