No. 2 Virginia in firm control as ACC enters stretch run

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — The Atlantic Coast Conference’s stretch run looks more like a coronation than a race.
Second-ranked Virginia has all but wrapped up the league’s regular-season championship and could rise to No. 1 in the Top 25 on Monday for the first time since the Ralph Sampson era. The rest of the league is far behind — No. 16 Clemson is the closest at three games back — and playing for postseason positioning amid a jumbled mess in the standings with roughly three weeks left.
Consider: six teams are within two games of the second-place Tigers in the loss column, including No. 9 Duke, No. 21 North Carolina and No. 25 Miami.
“Somebody is going to come out of that pack,” Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton said after Wednesday’s loss to Virginia. “We hope that’s going to be us.”
The intrigue now is focused on who will claim the remaining top-four seeds at next month’s ACC Tournament in Brooklyn and the double-round bye that comes with them.
At this point, that’s all anyone can hope for considering how well the Cavaliers are playing.
Virginia (23-1, 12-0 ACC) has won 15 straight games and is poised to go back to No. 1 in the Top 25 on Monday after Villanova’s loss to St. John’s on Wednesday night, assuming the Cavaliers beat Virginia Tech at home on Saturday. That would also keep them on course for something that seemed unthinkable when they were picked to finish sixth in the preseason: the possibility of becoming an unbeaten regular-season champion.
In all, only eight teams have ever gone unbeaten through the ACC regular season, the last being Duke (16-0) in 1998-99. The challenge is even tougher since the league moved to an 18-game schedule in 2012-13.
“The guys have done a terrific job,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said after his team rallied from 11 down to win at Florida State on Wednesday. “Would I have thought we’d be 12-0 at this point? Probably not, but they’re playing the right way and they don’t quit, that’s for sure.”
The Tigers (20-4, 9-3) have won four straight since managing just 36 points in a loss at Virginia on Jan. 23 to climb into sole possession of second place, as well as to put the Tigers within reach of their first NCAA Tournament trip since 2011.
“It’s not like we have this great margin for error,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell said after Thursday’s win against Pittsburgh. “We still have to play really well to win games. Fortunately for us, we have. But we can’t be looking and worrying about a lot of other things and take our eye off of our preparations.”
Then there’s the Blue Devils (19-5, 7-4), the preseason ACC favorite and No. 1-ranked team. Touted freshman Marvin Bagley III has been terrific (21.2 points, 11.4 rebounds), but Duke has struggled defensively nearly all year and didn’t match North Carolina’s aggressive second-half edge in Thursday’s rivalry loss in Chapel Hill.
Now Duke has lost three of four, including the home loss to Virginia on Jan. 27 along with a loss to a St. John’s team that was 0-11 in the Big East at the time.
“We’ve got to figure out something,” Bagley said. “We can’t continue to lose games like this.”
Behind the Tar Heels and Hurricanes, Syracuse (No. 37 in the RPI), Florida State (41st) and Louisville (43rd) are in solid position for NCAA Tournament bids. North Carolina State (No. 65 in the RPI with several marquee wins ) and Virginia Tech (67th) are also in the mix — the Hokies beat the Wolfpack on Wednesday — to give the league a shot at 10 bids a year after getting a record nine teams into the field of 68.
There’s a bit of intrigue at the bottom of the league standings, too.
Pittsburgh (8-17, 0-12) is flirting with becoming only the seventh team to go winless in ACC regular-season play. Kevin Stallings’ Panthers have suffered 10 of their 12 league losses by double-digit margins and have failed to reach 60 points in nine of those games.
Boston College went 0-18 two seasons ago, but before that, the ACC hadn’t had a winless team since Maryland (0-14) in 1986-87. The Panthers’ best chances to avoid that fate could come in two home games: Tuesday against Boston College (14-10, 4-7) and Feb. 21 against Wake Forest (9-15, 2-10).
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