ACC remains Duke and muddled middle

The ACC hasn't experienced a talent drain similar to the Pac-10 the past few seasons, but the league could be facing a similar haul when it comes time to hand out NCAA tournament bids.

It's not out of the question to think the ACC may receive only two or three bids in March. Duke is in a class by itself entering league play. The Blue Devils are the No. 1 team in the country and no other ACC team is ranked, nor should it be. The ACC has rarely had a season in which it's hard to project a single second team that is a lock for the NCAAs in early January.

The problem is that the teams below Duke must separate themselves from the league's bottom tier. That means teams such as North Carolina, Boston College and Maryland can't afford to lose to the likes of Wake Forest, Georgia Tech, Clemson and Virginia. But aside from Wake Forest, even these teams have enough talent to be tough outs.

The muddled middle of the ACC will be tough to break apart for the selection committee if there isn't separation. It's easy to see as many as seven teams finishing second behind Duke. So hold off on the Bracketology at this stage. You're likely to be wrong.

Team to beat: Duke

There are no teams that can seriously challenge Duke as it heads toward a regular-season title. There is that much of a gap. Even the loss of national freshman of the year, first-team All-American and ACC Player of the Year candidate Kyrie Irving to a toe injury hasn't diminished Duke's status as the class of the ACC.

The Blue Devils aren't unbeatable. They have flaws, especially inside, but they don't dip against lower-level competition. A team is going to have to outplay them to beat them. Marquette and Butler had their chances but couldn't go on a stretch run late to put Duke on its heels. Some team in the ACC will, likely on the road, but that won't derail the Blue Devils from winning the conference title. The experience of Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith is too much for Duke to slip in games that it should not.

The best of the rest

You can cast out a wide net to find candidates for this category. But does any team have a résumé that decidedly says it belongs in the tournament? No one outside of Duke.

" North Carolina may have finally figured itself out by limiting mistakes and getting a grasp on its perimeter rotation. But the Tar Heels have one win against a definite NCAA tournament team (Kentucky). Carolina had a shot to beat Texas in Greensboro, N.C., but couldn't close out the Longhorns on the final possession. Really, there is no excuse: The Tar Heels should finish second in the ACC and be in the NCAA tournament. If they miss out this season, there's something wrong with this roster. The Heels play Duke, NC State and Florida State twice and getting Maryland at home is a benefit.

" Boston College has experience with Reggie Jackson, Joe Trapani, Biko Paris and Corey Raji. Wins at Maryland, at South Carolina and against Texas A&M in Orlando should be enough to convince you that this team can be an NCAA participant. But a recent loss to Harvard is reason to pause, especially since it was the second home loss to an Ivy team this season (Yale). It makes you wonder if the Eagles can win the games they're supposed to once they get to league play. They have the talent to be a top-four team in the league and are in position for a bid. BC gets Duke once (on the road) but does have North Carolina, Miami and Virginia Tech twice. Getting NC State at home and a return game against Maryland may help.

" Maryland has the most productive power player in the middle in Jordan Williams. He can be the anchor that takes the Terps to the Big Dance. The guard play needs to be more consistent, and inexperience in that area has cost the Terps in close games against like competition (see losses to Illinois in New York, Temple in Washington D.C. and at Boston College). A nonconference game at Villanova next week is another opportunity to impress. The Terps have the talent and have traditionally been a second-half-of-the-season team, so they should do enough to earn a bid. Maryland gets Duke twice, North Carolina once (on the road), Virginia Tech twice and NC State once (at home) with a return game at Boston College.

" Florida State has an ACC Player of the Year candidate in Chris Singleton, but it seems every time you want to get on the Seminoles' bandwagon, they lose a game like they did at Auburn. The Seminoles missed out on chances to win key home games earlier in the season, losing to Florida and Ohio State, so a win over Baylor in Hawaii stands as the lone quality win. That's not enough. Florida State will have to earn a bid by finishing in the top three in the ACC. The Noles get Duke once (at home). If they win that game, we'll talk about the tournament. FSU plays Maryland and Virginia Tech once (both on the road) and gets North Carolina and NC State twice with a visit from Boston College.

" NC State had a slew of chances for quality wins in its nonconference schedule but lost to Georgetown in Charleston, S.C., at Wisconsin, at Syracuse and at home to Arizona. Tracy Smith (knee injury) wasn't available in any of those games, and his return to the lineup and the start of league play mean it's a fresh start for the Wolfpack. NC State has its team together for the first time and can go earn a bid if it finishes in the top three and has quality wins within the conference. The problem for the Wolfpack is that they play Boston College and Maryland one time each -- both times on the road. NC State does play Duke and North Carolina twice, meaning the Pack may need to win two of those four games.

" Virginia Tech was already without J.T. Thompson for the year and has since added Dorenzo Hudson and Cadarian Raines to the injury list. If the Hokies still finish in the top four with this depleted roster, it will be the best coaching job ever by Seth Greenberg. The Hokies have won five straight games, including a win over Mississippi State in the Bahamas prior to Hudson's injury. But nonconference losses to Kansas State, UNLV and Purdue and a loss Virginia to open ACC play leave the résumé a bit light, so the Hokies will have to take care of their opportunities in league play.

" Miami was within one possession of winning at Memphis. The Hurricanes had a tremendous homestand against Ole Miss and West Virginia, although those two teams are looking like NIT squads right now. Losing to UCF in Sunrise, Fla., is looking like a quality loss, with the Knights distinguishing themselves as the class of Conference USA. There were times against Duke in the ACC opener that Miami looked like a real contender. Having Malcolm Grant and Durand Scott hitting shots and getting to the hoop from the perimeter and Reggie Johnson rebounding and scoring inside mean the Canes are contenders for a top-five finish. Miami must do more than look the part and actually win some key games in ACC play to build its résumé. The Hurricanes have to do something to stand out come March.

Not quite there yet

" Virginia: Tony Bennett would argue that the Cavaliers are a work in progress and a young team that will struggle at times, though road wins at Minnesota and Virginia Tech proved this group can cause trouble. When Mike Scott and Will Sherrill are healthy, the Cavs have two of the more productive frontcourt players in the league. Virginia won't make the NCAAs, but the Cavs should be real pests the next two months.

" Georgia Tech: The Yellow Jackets were always going to struggle in the post after the departures of Gani Lawal and Derrick Favors. But the overall inconsistency has been a problem. There were times Georgia Tech looked like it had the makings of a postseason team with wins over UTEP and Richmond and close losses to Syracuse and Georgia. But losses to Kennesaw State, Northwestern, Siena and Charlotte highlighted the youth of this team. Georgia Tech will steal some games this season, but the Yellow Jackets figure to finish in the bottom tier.

" Clemson: Have the Tigers figured out Brad Brownell? The Tigers have won six games in a row after dropping four of six. Clemson struggles to score and rebound at times. But when Demontez Stitt is on his game, the senior point guard can lead the Tigers to some wins in the ACC. Don't expect the Tigers to be pushovers -- they will beat someone they're not expected to beat this season.

" Wake Forest: How bad are the Demon Deacons? Stunningly bad. Few expected things to be this awful when Jeff Bzdelik took over for Dino Gaudio. Gaudio was criticized for his team's poor performance late last season, but the Deacons weren't this poor in November and December. To be fair to Bzdelik, there has been a talent drain, so let's see what happens once recruiting is in full swing, but losses at home to Stetson, VCU, Winthrop and Presbyterian have to be demoralizing. The Demon Deacons also lost to UNC Wilmington. If Wake doesn't finish last, it'll be rather shocking.

Player of the year chase

There is a real race here. Duke's Nolan Smith is the leader in the clubhouse, with his double-figure scoring, timely buckets, leadership and increased responsibility with Irving's injury. Singler is as consistent and tough a matchup as anyone in the league.

If Boston College is in the race for second, that will mean Jackson has played phenomenally well in ACC play. Florida State's Singleton might be the best all-around player in the league, since he's one of the top defenders in the country. If the Seminoles are in play for a top-three finish, it will be because of Singleton. Keep an eye on NC State's Tracy Smith. His arrival could be a reason for the Wolfpack remaining relevant throughout the next two months. Virginia Tech's Malcolm Delaney, Maryland's Williams and North Carolina's Tyler Zeller also have to be in the conversation.

Grading the preseason picks

1. Duke: No problem here.

2. Virginia Tech: Injuries have prevented the Hokies from being consistent enough to be a second-place team.
3. North Carolina: Still could finish second through fourth. No issue here.

4. NC State: Injury to Tracy Smith prevented the Wolfpack from winning big games. Now he's back so the Wolfpack can finish in the top four.

5. Florida State: The Seminoles play defense as well as any team in the country, but they struggle to score. Horrible Auburn loss raises serious questions.

6. Maryland: Sure, the Terps lost to BC at home and haven't had that signature win yet, but they have talent to finish in the top three.

7. Clemson: Way too high. There wasn't enough talent returning to warrant a seventh-place pick.

8. Miami: The Hurricanes were up from 12 and, despite inconsistencies, should finish in the top six.

9. Georgia Tech: The Yellow Jackets will probably finish in the 9-11 range.

10. Boston College: If the Eagles team that beat Maryland and A&M shows up, not the one that lost to Yale and Harvard, it can challenge for a top-five finish.

11. Virginia: Wins at Virginia Tech and Minnesota should mean the Cavs finish much higher. But injuries have meant they are hard to project. Still, expect Virginia to finish in the six to nine range.

12. Wake Forest: Pathetic. Demon Deacons are one of the worst power-six teams in the country.

Rookie of the year

Irving would have won this award easily had he not injured his toe on Dec. 4 against Butler. His return is unknown. Irving's foot is in a cast and the hope is that he can rehab without needing surgery. If he has surgery, his season is definitely over. North Carolina's Harrison Barnes was the first-ever first-team preseason AP All-American freshman. Barnes still can be special. His numbers have been solid but not spectacular, with an average of 11.9 points a game. This may be a flyer here, but if Irving doesn't come back and Barnes doesn't stand out enough, the award could go to NC State's C.J. Leslie by default. Leslie has had his moments of inconsistency, but he has the potential to be a double-double player throughout ACC play. With Irving out, Barnes should win the award in a runaway. But he hasn't done enough yet to prove that he'll be consistent enough to take the honor. So hedge on Barnes but keep Leslie in your sights.

Best place to watch a game

Duke wins this but ever so slightly. I may be in the minority, but I enjoy games at the Smith Center and the Comcast Center (liked Cole, too). Covering games at Cameron isn't as much of a joy because you're jammed in the press row with sweaty, blue-stained students dripping over you, so if you're claustrophobic Cameron isn't the place for you to work. But for overall atmosphere, it's hard to top with the noise level, the intimacy and, of course, the fact the home team won't disappoint. But when the Tar Heels are at their zenith, the Smith Center can rock, especially in the student section that was born during the Matt Doherty era by moving down behind the basket on risers. And it's hard to top the intensity of the students at Maryland. The Duke students may have more gimmicks, but the Maryland students tend to bring a bit more vitriol to their passion.

Games to watch

Jan. 12: Duke at Florida State

Jan. 19: Duke at NC State

Jan. 26: North Carolina at Miami

Feb. 1: North Carolina at Boston College

Feb. 2: Duke at Maryland

Feb. 9: North Carolina at Duke

Feb. 12: Maryland at Boston College

Feb. 15: Maryland at Virginia Tech

Feb. 20: NC State at Maryland

Feb. 26: Duke at Virginia Tech

Feb. 27: Maryland at North Carolina

March 5: Duke at North Carolina


NCAA (3): Duke, North Carolina, Maryland

Second round: UNC, Maryland

Final Four: Duke

NIT (5): Boston College, Florida State, NC State, Miami, Virginia Tech

CBI: Virginia

CIT: Clemson

Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.