The bubble has taken full shape, and teams are beginning to try on their slippers for the big dance.
Of the 31 conferences in Division I, 29 are statistically still in a stranglehold for the top spot. This week, as we turn our attention to the ACC, it is no different.
With just five conference games left to play, the ACC has three contenders left to take home the regular season crown. Duke, North Carolina and Florida State are within just two games of each other. Duke and North Carolina, however, are the only ones that control their own destiny.
1. The Duke Blue Devils (23-2, 10-1) not only have the best statistical chance at the title, but the most common sense chance as well. Duke has been virtually untouchable in ACC play this year. The Blue Devils have won eight of their 11 conference games by double digits.
While Duke passes the eye test, more in-depth analysis does show hope for North Carolina and Florida State. Duke has not played especially great on the road this year and has definitely had games where it doesn't play a full 40 minutes of basketball.
In games against Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina and Miami, Duke was very lackluster during certain stretches throughout the game. Quality play from veterans Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler have pulled Duke through those tough stretches.
While Smith (21.4 ppg) and Singler (17.4 ppg) keep Duke in every game, it has been the play of Seth Curry that has held this team above water in the past week.
A dominant second half against North Carolina last week allowed Duke to keep the top spot in the ACC. Led by Curry's hot hand and Smith's senior poise, Duke escaped Cameron with a big win over its heated rival.
2. North Carolina (19-6, 9-2) is hot on the Heels of Duke. Fans in Durham consider the success of Carolina bittersweet as they truly engage some serious competition. The competition, however, is closer than it may appear. Despite blowing a 14-point second-half lead against Duke, UNC is playing as consistently as any team in the nation. Having won 15 of their last 18, the Tar Heels are poised to make a serious two-week run.
North Carolina has spread the love as far as scoring goes this season. On any given night, Harrison Barnes, Tyler Zeller, John Henson, Reggie Bullock, Dexter Strickland or Kendall Marshall has and will carry this team. That kind of disbursement gives North Carolina a real shot at playing some basketball deep into March and early April.
Teams have struggled recently keying on one player for the Tar Heels. North Carolina is led in scoring by Zeller (14.5 ppg) and the freshman sensation Barnes (13.6 ppg). Since Marshall has taken over the starting point guard position, North Carolina has become a much more efficient team and can put up points in a hurry.
The big surprise for North Carolina this year has been its improvement defensively. North Carolina is just allowing 65.1 points per game in its conference victories this season. The Tar Heels also boast the top rebounding team in the nation, pulling down just over 42 rebounds per contest.
Admittedly, North Carolina will have to start shooting the three ball better if it wants to continue its success. The Tar Heels are just 10-of-55 (18 percent) from beyond the arc in their past three games.
3. Florida State (18-7, 8-3) is clinging to life as far as a regular season title goes. Hating to reference a Justin Bieber song, the Seminoles are living with a "never say never" attitude. With a favorable schedule heading out, Florida State has a small chance at a share of the title.
The recent loss of Chris Singleton is a tough blow. Florida State is led in scoring by Singleton (13.8 ppg) and Derwin Kitchen (9.9 ppg). The Seminoles, who already have a tough enough time scoring on the road, will miss the leadership of Singleton as they move forward from here on out. Their only hope of a title lies within their schedule, which includes Miami, Wake Forest and North Carolina State.
The remaining ACC schedule and my prediction for each team goes as follows (Current Standings)
1. Duke Blue Devils Final Record (27-4, 13-3 ACC)
Feb. 13 At Virginia 81-69 W
Feb. 20 Vs. Georgia Tech 93-70 W
Feb. 26 At Virginia Tech 74-77 L
Mar. 2 Vs. Clemson 79-70 W
Mar. 5 At North Carolina 75-78 L
Things to Keep in Mind: Duke trailed Virginia by nine at home in the second half earlier this season. The Cavs might give them a scare tonight in Virginia. Duke doesn't play great on the road, and Virginia Tech will be looking for a win to stamp on its tournament résumé. Duke loses to North Carolina in the season finale as the two teams split the regular season title.
2. North Carolina Tar Heels (23-7, 13-3 ACC)
Feb. 19 Vs. Boston College 80-70 W
Feb. 23 At NC State 78-68 W
Feb. 27 Vs. Maryland 70-72 L
Mar. 2 At Florida State 74-69 W
Mar. 5 Vs. Duke 78-75 W
Things to Keep in Mind: UNC is not shooting the ball great lately, which could cause some problems against quality opponents. I think the Tar Heels' defense is enough to carry them through BC and NC State. Their loss comes at home to Maryland, which is also in desperate need of a signature win on its resume. As stated earlier, UNC pulls off a close one at home to end the season.
3. Florida State Seminoles (21-9, 11-5 ACC)
Feb. 19 At Wake Forest 73-64 W
Feb. 23 At Maryland 66-70 L
Feb. 26 Vs. Miami 68-62 W
Mar. 2 Vs. North Carolina 69-74 L
Mar. 6 At NC State 70-61 W
Things to Keep in Mind: The injury proves too much for the Seminoles down the stretch. I think they win the games they should win and lose the ones they are expected to lose. A great season at 11-5 in the conference could have coach Leonard Hamilton up for ACC coach of the year.
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