Is the ACC the best conference in college basketball this season?

Duke’s Zion Williamson: A dunking monster

Duke freshman Zion Williamson has an arsenal full of acrobatic dunks and photojournalist Chuck Liddy has been there for many of them. We take a closer look at a few from this season.
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Duke freshman Zion Williamson has an arsenal full of acrobatic dunks and photojournalist Chuck Liddy has been there for many of them. We take a closer look at a few from this season.

The ACC has been the best conference for college basketball, at least since it broke up the Big East before the 2013-14 season.

No other conference can match the ACC’s success in the NCAA tournament, which ultimately decides conference superiority. Twenty games into the season, it looks like there are five teams who are capable of winning the national championship.

In alphabetical order: Duke, Gonzaga, Michigan, Tennessee and Virginia.

(You were intentionally left off this list, Michigan State, and you know why.)

Two of them are from the ACC. Does that make the ACC the best conference in the country?

If Gonzaga wins the national title on April 8 in Minneapolis, does that make the West Coast Conference the best league in America?

So you have to define what “best” means. Is it the conference with the best coaches? The ACC.

Is it the conference that is best from top to bottom? The Big 12.

Is it the conference with the best wins outside of conference play? The SEC.

Is it the conference with the best computer rating? The Big Ten.

The SEC and Big 12 put on a refreshing January inter-conference challenge on Saturday, with the Big 12 (which only has 10 teams, remember) winning six. The annual ACC-Big Ten Challenge ended in a tie earlier in the season. So there’s no much blood to be drawn there.

North Carolina has the ACC’s best win out of league play (103-90 over Gonzaga) while Duke’s destruction of Kentucky (118-84 in the opener) counts as the most dominant display. The best win for Virginia, by the way, just might be at Maryland.

But Duke lost to Gonzaga and UNC lost to Michigan, so the “Power 5” conferences (subbing the Big East for the pedestrian Pac-12 to make the conference math work here) are basically pushing the chips across the table.

But in the postseason, it has not been close. The ACC has been the best conference since it expanded to 15 teams in 2014.

Over the past five NCAA tournaments, the ACC has had the most teams (37) in the field, the most wins (65), the best winning percentage (65.0), the most Sweet 16 appearances (17) and has tied for the most Final Four appearances (4) and national titles (2).

Will the ACC continue its success this March?

Let’s order “The Only* ACC Power Rankings That Matter” in a different way this week:

Group A: Bona fide contenders

Duke (17-2, 6-1 ACC)

Virginia (18-1, 6-1)

Duke’s Zion Williamson attempts a first half shot as Virginia’s Mamadi Diakite (25) and Jay Huff (30) at Cameron Indoor Stadium In Durham, N.C., Saturday, Jan. 19, 2019. Chuck Liddy

Either one of these teams can win the national title and it will actually be considered a disappointment if they both don’t make it to Minneapolis for the Final Four.

The Final Four is in a city that ends in “-apolis” so Duke automatically qualifies. I’m kidding (sort of).

This Duke team defends and defense travels. With a fully healthy Tre Jones in March, the Blue Devils will be just fine.

Virginia reminds me of North Carolina 2017. The Wahoos are clearly motivated by last year’s NCAA tournament exit. They are playing like a team with something to prove.

Group B: With the right draw ...

UNC (15-4, 5-1 ACC)

Syracuse (14-6, 5-2)

Virginia Tech (16-3, 5-2)

North Carolina’s Coby White (2) breaks to the basket between the Virginia Tech defense during the first half for two of his game high 27 points on Monday, January 21, 2019 at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C. Robert Willett

The Final Four is probably the ceiling for this group and it will take the right bracket to get there.

Roy Williams will have the Tar Heels playing their best basketball at the right time. That’s what makes Williams a great coach. The emergence of freshman Nassir Little will go a long way to UNC maximizing its potential. Avoiding a team with size (remember Texas A&M last year?) will also be very helpful.

Syracuse seems to excel at getting the right draw. “Bracket luck” is real and Syracuse’s last two Final Four appearances are the proof.

The Hokies can really shoot. Teams like that either get really hot, and make a run, or go home early. Buzz Williams is 0-2 in the NCAA tournament with Virginia Tech so maybe this team gets on a heater.

Williams addresses the media following the Tar Heels win over Virginia Tech on Monday, January 21, 2019 at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C.

Group C: A chip and a chair

Louisville (15-5, 6-1 ACC)

N.C. State (16-4, 4-3)

Florida State (14-5, 2-4)

In poker, when odds are long, the saying goes: all you need is “a chip and a chair.” These three teams will have a shot, and no one will be all that interested in seeing these names pop up in their region, but they’re also limited.

Louisville’s a great story in Chris Mack’s first season but there’s some smoke-and-mirrors to that ACC record.

N.C. State fights, in just about every game, but you can see the ceiling for this Wolfpack team.

The Seminoles really needed that home win over Duke for their mental health but the Seminoles, who made the final eight last year with essentially the same group, will be dangerous again in March.

Watch a time-lapse as NC State's Braxton Beverly makes a three-pointer as time expires to give the Wolfpack the victory over the Clemson Tigers at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C., Saturday, January 26, 2019.

Group D: Stranger things have happened

Clemson (11-8, 1-5 ACC)

Duke center Marques Bolden (20) battles for a first half rebound against Clemson forward Aamir Simms (25) and guard Marcquise Reed (2) at Cameron Indoor Stadium In Durham, N.C. Saturday, Jan.5, 2019. Chuck Liddy

Poor Clemson. That was an excruciating loss for the Tigers on Saturday at State. Imagine the reaction on Twitter if that was the Wolfpack’s best free-throw shooter who missed four straight with a chance to put the game away?

It’s probably not going to happen for the Tigers this year but does it really matter after the football title?

Group E: Thanks for playing

Pittsburgh (12-8, 2-5 ACC)

Georgia Tech (11-9, 3-4)

Boston College (11-7, 2-4)

Notre Dame (11-9, 1-6)

Miami (9-9, 1-5)

Wake Forest (8-11, 1-6)

Wake Forest’s Brandon Childress (0) celebrates with Torry Johnson (4) during the first half of N.C. State’s game against Wake Forest at LJVM Coliseum in Winston-Salem, N.C., Tuesday, January 15, 2019. Ethan Hyman

As they used to say on “Wheel of Fortune:” we have some wonderful parting gifts for you.

When I was a kid, I thought Pat Sajak was saying “party” gifts. I was like, what kind of party are you going to have with a $350 ceramic dalmatian figurine?

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