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ACC Tournament 2014: Power Ranking Top Title Contenders

FILE - At left in a Feb. 1, 2014 file photo, Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim  yells to his team during a college basketball game against Duke in Syracuse, N.Y. At right in a Feb. 22, 2014 file photo, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski yells to his team during a college basketball game against Syracuse in Durham, N.C. Madness is ramping up with conference tournaments starting this week and the NCAA tournament just around the corner. What better time to look at match-ups fans might like to see, like Kentucky's Julius Randle facing fellow freshman Aaron Gordon at Arizona or Duke coach Krzyzewski, the career wins leader, against No. 2, Syracuse's Boeheim. (AP Photo/File)
Uncredited/Associated Press
Richard LangfordCorrespondent IMarch 7, 2014

A wild ACC season is about to give way to an equally wild conference tournament.

It's been a season of inconsistency across the board in the ACC. CBS Sports' Jon Rothstein highlights the unpredictability of it all:

Syracuse and Duke, however, appeared to be two of the three schools (Virginia being the third) above the others in this regard. That has quickly become a thing of the past.

Those two have lost a combined three straight games, and they were uninspired losses against lesser competition. This has allowed Virginia to extend its lead atop the conference standings and leave a jumbled mess behind it.

As things stand, here is how I rank the top contenders to win the conference tournament.

 

No. 1: Virginia

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA - MARCH 01:  Head coach Tony Bennett of the Virginia Cavaliers looks on against the Syracuse Orange during the second half at John Paul Jones Arena on March 1, 2014 in Charlottesville, Virginia.  Virginia defeated Syracuse 75-56.  (Pho
Rich Barnes/Getty Images

I will feel a little better about Virginia's chances if it loses to Maryland in its regular-season finale on Sunday. It's been so long since the Cavaliers have lost that it would be best just to get a blemish out of the way before the tournaments start.

Still, there is a reason this defensively stout team has won 13 straight and not been on the losing end since a Jan. 13 setback to Duke. That is because it is the best team in the conference.

Head coach Tony Bennett has this team playing some of the best defense in the country, which forces teams to grind out points in the half court.

Luke Winn of SI.com explains how Virginia does this:

Evidence (to me) that Virginia has the best transition-limiting defense in the country: The Cavs and Clemson are the only teams to rank in the top 10 on Synergy in "lowest percentage of defensive possessions allowed in transition" and in the top 10 on hoop-math.com in "lowest percentage of initial field-goal attempts allowed in transition." And in both situations, Virginia is stingier than Clemson, giving Tony Bennett's team a slight edge.

Steve Helber/Associated Press

That defense is only getting stingier as the season progresses. During the current 13-game win streak, Virginia has not allowed more than 67 points in any contest. Over that span, the opposition has only reached 60 three times.

Virginia is not the most efficient offensive team, which certainly leaves it vulnerable. It does, however, have two competent scorers in guards Malcolm Brogdon and Joe Harris. The pair combines to average 23.9 points per game.

Virginia's consistent defense makes it a solid bet in any tournament. 

 

No. 2: North Carolina

Gerry Broome/Associated Press

The Tar Heels got off to a terrible start this season, but it's safe to say they've turned that around.

After starting off ACC play with an 0-3 record, it appeared as if the school was not going to be able to recover from the absence of P.J. Hairston.

The Tar Heels began to make up for the lack of Hairston's scoring punch by playing quality defense. Roy Williams has his team playing more zone than ever, and it is working. 

The Tar Heels will enter their final game of the regular seasonagainst Duke on Saturdayon a 12-game winning streak. They have not lost since Leslie McDonald and Kennedy Meeks were inserted into the starting lineup. 

Marcus Paige has been at the center of most of the success. The sophomore guard has turned into a wonderful scorer and still does a solid job of getting his teammates involved. He is averaging 16.9 points and 4.5 assists per game. 

North Carolina will be hurt by its lack of shooting, including from the charity stripe, but it still has the athleticism and defense to make a run at the title. 

 

No. 3: Duke 

Chuck Burton/Associated Press

First things first with Duke. Head coach Mike Krzyzewski suffered a recent health scare following an unexpected loss to Wake Forest.  

Steve Wiseman of The Herald-Sun reports that the 67-year-old suffered from dizziness and was taken to Duke University Hospital for testing. Thankfully, he appears to be just fine.

Associate head coach Steve Wojciechowski spoke to the press about the situation: 

He has not been ill. He's actually in as good a shape as can be. I just think the emotion of the game, obviously we weren't playing as well as we needed and there was a great emotional investment into the game. Maybe the emotion got the better of him. But we expect a full recovery.

It appears that Duke will have its legendary leader on the sidelines going forward. 

The Blue Devils have had a fine season and were in line for a possible No. 1 seed until the loss to Wake Forest. 

A No. 1 seed is still not out of the question, but it's unlikely. Duke has now lost two of its last four. 

Still, with an outstanding offensive game led by freshman Jabari Parker and sophomore Rodney Hood, there is no doubting that Duke is capable of playing like a No. 1 seed.

Duke and North Carolina's contest on Saturday will go a long way toward settling the seeding for the ACC tournament, but as we sit now, I have to rank Duke below North Carolina as the Blue Devils struggled with the Tar Heels' 1-3-1 zone in a defeat on Feb. 20.  

Talk to me on Sunday and I may have a different pecking order. 

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