Earlier in the season it looked like there were three or four truly elite teams in the ACC. The conference isn't making it easy for us, though - every one of the solid contenders has shown significant cracks. We already know what UNC has gone through - they have a couple of ugly losses, Marcus Ginyard is out for the year, and key backup William Graves has been suspended. They were supposed to be in cruise control straight through to Detroit, but now the road is certainly tipping uphill.
The Tar Heels have stabilized recently, but Duke and Wake Forest have both given us more immediate reasons for concern. Duke lost a close contest to Wake Forest, but then came out and got absolutely run over by Clemson. The 27-point loss was the worst for the Blue Devils in more that 20 years, and it forces us to question pretty much every element of Duke's game. It's obviously too early to panic about the team or write them off, but it certainly makes it clear that this team isn't the unbeatable force that they were masquerading as over the past couple of weeks.
Wake Forest raised just as many questions with their recent play. After making a statement by getting past Duke, they made a statement of a very different kind by losing two games that should have been easy wins. They lost a close game at Georgia Tech, then they got run over by Miami by the same 27-point margin as Duke fell by. The Deacons got very little help off the bench, and looked confused and often disinterested. They have now lost three of their last four games, and are not looking like a team ready for a deep run.
You could argue that Clemson is the strongest current team in conference. They are certainly playing well lately, but their biggest problem is that their two losses have been to UNC and Wake Forest, and neither game was particularly close. It's hard to love them any more than any other team in the conference.
Before the season I was quite certain that the eventual NCAA champion was going to come from the ACC. Now I'm not nearly so certain. The Big East has clearly moved past the ACC as the potential source of the champ in my eyes.
Big Saturday Showdown
Memphis and Gonzaga aren't the buzz teams that they have been in recent years, but they are still both undefeated in their conference and playing very well. That makes their Saturday showdown both interesting and important. I'm personally excited (and scared) about my Michigan Wolverines play in UConn, but this game is clearly the best non-conference game of the weekend. And perhaps the best game overall. Memphis won their game last year, but they couldn't cover the spread. This year Memphis comes in off a 13-game winning streak, and Gonzaga has won nine straight. This game ultimately doesn't mean much to either team - win or lose they will still both be in the tournament. It's a very good test of the progress both teams have made, though. For Memphis, it will be the best test of freshman Tyreke Evans as well. He has been very good recently, but this is the biggest test in more than a month. He'll need to find consistency against good opponents if this team wants to do anything in March.
There's a disturbing trend emerging in the SEC. Two coaches - Mark Gottfried of Alabama and Dennis Felton at Georgia - have been fired or forced to resign in the last 10 days. Mid-season firings don't really belong in college basketball, but they are a clear sign of the obvious - college basketball is big business. For bettors, these two squads have to become immediately suspect teams that certainly aren't worth a whole lot of trust. That's not a significant difference from the status quo - both teams have just one cover in their last seven games. It's hard to imagine that either team, both already badly struggling, will be able to focus and play well amid such turmoil.
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Speaking of the Georgia job, I can't miss out on commenting on the rumors of Knight's interest. With the obvious exceptions, I greatly respect what Knight has done and what kind of coach he is. There are few better. I just think it would be a terrible disaster for Georgia to choose him. He retired from Texas Tech for more reasons than just wanting to give his son the job. He was burnt out. Georgia has a real chance to do good things in a conference that just isn't that good. That's going to take a tremendous amount of energy and long-term commitment, though, and Knight just doesn't have that at this point. He'll be looking for quick fixes, so the team would be forced to do things to gratify him in the short term instead of building a team that can compete for the long term. It reminds me of the mistake that South Carolina football made in bringing in Lou Holtz. Or Steve Spurrier for that matter. Both are obviously big-name guys, but neither was interested in doing everything it takes to contend, and neither have. Georgia needs to avoid the same problem. That being said, as a bettor I really hope that Georgia does go with Knight. The public would jump all over the team with him at the helm, and the value in betting against would be fantastic.