The ACC has 4 ranked teams entering the final week of 2022, a vast improvement from a year ago, when only Duke entered the final week of the year among the Associated Press Top 25.

We all know the AP poll in basketball doesn’t mean much, in the end, but it doesn’t lack any purpose. The poll often is a solid peak at league strength. The more ranked squads a league has, the better, even if just from a perception standpoint, the league is viewed nationally and the more valuable league wins become on NCAA Tournament resumes. And, for better or worse, even in the basketball-crazed ACC, a ranked team ignites a fan base. It’s easier to turn the page from football to hoops when you have an AP ranking attached to your school’s name.

What’s fascinating, of course, is the ACC had 3 of the final 8 teams standing a season ago, despite having only 1 or 2 ranked teams for much of the 2021-22 season. Could we be headed to a reverse outcome this season? It’s possible the ACC will have as many as 5 ranked teams come next week’s poll, the 1st of 2023. But would it surprise anyone if only 1 of those 5, or even none, made the Elite Eight? The ACC is an improved league, but it also might be weaker at the summit than it was a year ago.

Still, the end of December is a great time to take inventory of where the league has truly improved — and that’s the middle of the league, which is where Saturday Road’s notebook begins this week.

Pitt is vastly improved — and a legitimate NCAA Tournament contender

Left mostly for dead on a hot seat entering the season, Jeff Capel III appears poised to save his job this season at Pitt. The Panthers are 9-4 and off to a 2-0 start in the ACC. But record alone doesn’t tell the story of Pitt’s improvement.

Instead, let’s focus on 3 key things: resume wins, record with John Hugley IV available, and what I call “spurtability,” which really is just a measure of how likely a team is to both go on and prevent big scoring runs. Pitt’s numbers in these areas suggest, at least to me, that this team is a quality basketball team.

First, Pitt has an excellent resume. The Panthers have 3 quality road wins, having won at Northwestern, at NC State and at Syracuse. That’s 3 Top 100 KenPom wins, with 2 of them (Northwestern, NC State) of the “Quad 1” variety in the NET ratings. EvanMiya, a great site to measure “in-season” performance without the algorithm from last season impacting efficiency numbers early, as it does at KenPom, rates Pittsburgh’s resume 55th, and that seems a bit low to us, especially given there isn’t a bad loss.

Second, Pittsburgh is 6-2 in games that Hugley plays. He was absent for the win at Syracuse, proof the Panthers can win without the All-ACC big man. But when/if Hugley returns from his injury, this team will only get better.

Finally, Pitt is excellent at producing — and limiting — opponent runs. Only Virginia Tech has allowed fewer runs of 10 points or more in the ACC this season, per Evan Miya. And no one in the ACC has gone on more 10-point runs than the Panthers, who average .77 such runs per game! These are all signs of a good team, which they weren’t expected to be, but have become.

Virginia Tech’s ceiling: Still High!

Despite the stunning loss at Boston College, Virginia Tech is too good on both ends of the floor to lose games soundly. As noted above, the Hokies rank 1st in the ACC (and 1st in the country, for that matter) at preventing 10-point runs. They haven’t allowed one all season! That statistic is just 1 example of why the metrics love the Hokies, who rank 27th in the NET, 29th in KenPom, and 23rd in KenPom Adjusted Offensive Efficiency. 

The wrist injury suffered by sharpshooter Hunter Cattoor at Boston College is going to hurt this team long-term, at least to some extent, but consider this: even with the BC loss, cemented by this Makai Ashton-Langford beauty:

the Hokies have won 24 of their past 29 games!! Boston College — a road game — is the only questionable loss. The other losses have been to College of Charleston in a functional road game (neutral tickets but played on Charleston’s home floor), to Texas in the NCAA Tournament, Clemson on the road and UNC last season at home right when the Tar Heels started to get hot. A 24-5 record in a season is 2 seed stuff — and that’s how well Mike Young’s team can play.

If there is a concern, it’s that they still aren’t defending at a high level. Perhaps, without Cattoor’s 40% high-volume 3-point percentage, that matters a bit more. But the Hokies have other options to take Cattoor’s shots, and the schedule is soft enough during early January to allow Cattoor to heal properly. A quality win vs. Wake Forest on New Year’s Eve would help, but there’s so much to like in Blacksburg and the Boston College loss doesn’t alter that analysis.

Games to Watch this Week:

If you are in bowl mania mode, make sure to hit up the DVR for these!

Dec. 30

No. 25 North Carolina at Pitt (Noon, ACC Network): The Tar Heels are back in the Top 25, but a trip to Pitt will test both how much Hubert Davis’ team has improved and my theories about the Panthers. Blake Hinson vs. Leaky Black will be appointment television.

NC State at Clemson (4 p.m., ACC Network): One of these squads probably is good. Is it Clemson, with PJ Hall healthy and blossoming into a double-double machine, or NC State, with the fun 1-2 combo of Terquavion Smith and Casey Morsell? A loss would drop the Pack to 1-3 in the ACC, soiling (somewhat) a solid 11-1 nonconference record.

Dec. 31

Virginia Tech at Wake Forest (Noon, ACC Network Extra): It would be better if ESPN picked up this game, which feels like a huge contest for both teams even though it is December. Wake Forest has quality wins at Wisconsin and Duke on its resume. Would a 3rd quality win all but guarantee good news during March, assuming the Demon Deacons simply beat who they are supposed to this season in league play? It might. As for the Hokies, as good as the team is (see above), a quality road win is lacking. This would qualify.

Louisville at No. 19 Kentucky (Noon, CBS): I don’t actually think Louisville fans should watch this, but if you are among those people who enjoys slowing down and staring at car accidents on the side of the road then, then this awful Louisville team’s 1st foray into Rupp Arena under Kenny Payne will be absolute must-watch carnage.

Jan. 3

No. 13 Virginia at Pitt (9 p.m., ACC Network): Another huge opportunity for Pitt on its home floor. The Cavs have dropped 2 games, undone by elite offenses in both, as well as a hobbled Reece Beekman. There’s a chance Pittsburgh can’t score well enough to challenge Virginia, but the Panthers are at home and if Hugley plays, they absolutely can pose a threat to Virginia in the paint.