It’s late January and Clemson still leads the ACC.

Cliff Ellis is on line 1, wondering if it’s time to party like it’s 1990.

The Tigers did drop a game last week, by 10 at Wake Forest, which continues to be the ACC’s most bubble-icious squad. But the Tigers still lead the pack, even if they aren’t the ACC’s highest-ranked team in the AP poll or even 1 of the league’s top-3 teams in KenPom.

The big reason?

PJ Hall, for the most part. The home-state hero is making a strong push for ACC Player of the Year honors, and he had another massive week for the Tigers (17-4, 9-1 ACC), who rebounded from the Wake Forest loss to upend Virginia Tech at home over the weekend.

Across 2 games, Hall scored 42 points, grabbed 17 rebounds, collected 3 steals and blocked 2 shots. Without him, Clemson would have dropped 2 games last week and lost its hold on 1st place in the league. With him, the Tigers stayed close enough to the Hokies for Hunter Tyson to play the hero.

Clemson isn’t going away, but it isn’t the league’s best team. That would be Virginia, which at 15-3 (7-2 ACC) is a legitimate contender for a 1 seed.

The great Kihei Clark: consummate winner

Virginia’s diminutive, soft-spoken point guard became the all-time winningest player in Virginia basketball history last week when the Cavaliers beat rival Virginia Tech at John Paul Jones Arena.

Clark stands 19 inches shorter than Ralph Sampson, but he stands tallest on the Virginia wins list, posting 111 victories for the Wahoos over the course of his storied career.

By now, Clark’s story is well-known. A 2-star recruit with just 1 Division 1 offer when Tony Bennett came calling, Clark has blossomed into a 5-year starter who helped Virginia win the national championship in 2019. He has averaged 4.4 assists per game during his career while playing over 30 minutes per contest for Bennett, and his 2-to-1 career assist-to-turnover ratio is the best in the country among Power 6 guards with more than 3 years of service.

In the win over Virginia Tech, with national championship teammate Ty Jerome and NBA superstar Steph Curry courtside, Clark put on an epic performance in registering win 111, scoring 20 points on 7-of-14 shooting, including a 2-of-5 clip from 3-point territory, and adding 5 assists in 35 minutes.

Clark is also 1 of the nation’s best on-ball defenders, a testament to his film study and attention to scouting detail and technique. Reece Beekman gets the attention, but it is Clark who is often tasked with being the tip of the spear of Virginia’s swarming defense, refusing to allow teams to get into their halfcourt sets comfortably.

On offense, it is Clark who is instrumental in getting into the paint with his dribble penetration, and this season he’s averaging a career high in assists (5.9) while leading an offense ranked in the top 20 nationally in KenPom Adjusted Offensive Efficiency. 

Playing for a coach who emphasizes the power of a collective over star power and who demands accountability toward detail and assignments on defense, Clark is essentially an assistant on the floor, the consummate winner and coach’s dream.

I reached out to Virginia to discuss the young man and his story in greater detail late last week, but Virginia declined to make either Clark or Coach Bennett available for comment.

Perhaps that’s just the Virginia way. No one is bigger than the team.

For now, no one in school history is as big a winner as Kihei Clark.

There’s hope for this Syracuse team … no, really

Syracuse’s big problem over the past 2 seasons has been that Jim Boeheim’s vaunted 2-3 zone hasn’t worked.

A season ago, the Orange finished under .500 for the 1st time in Boeheim’s career, due in large part to a defense that ranked a Boeheim Era-low 207th in Adjusted Defensive Efficiency.

This season? It’s been slightly better, with the Orange at least inside the top 150 again (127th). But the fundamental issue with Syracuse remains that it can’t get stops.

Eric Fawcett, a coach, college and NBA writer, and data analyst who also co-hosts the Florida Basketball Hour, had this to say about Boeheim’s continued reliance on the 2-3 zone:

“Right now, the Syracuse 2-3 zone is nowhere near as disruptive as we are used to seeing, in part due to the smaller perimeter they are employing,” Fawcett wrote via email. “Without elite length and athleticism, there is a lot of pressure on the guards to spring on the flight of the ball to exact positions, and right now those rotations are a step slow. It’s allowing offenses to freely move the ball, which is distorting the zone, and once that zone loses its shape it loses all effectiveness.”

Syracuse (13-8, 6-4 ACC) will have to get that fixed, but all is not lost. There’s still hope, thanks to the slightly improved defense balanced with another spectacular offensive basketball team. Syracuse is riding All-ACC candidate Joe Girard and 1 of the nation’s most talented freshman, Judah Mintz, to huge offensive outputs in league play.

Syracuse has scored at least 78 points in each of its past 4 games and during a current stretch where the Orange have won 10 of 13, they have been held under 1.1 points per possession just twice — in a 62-61 win over Notre Dame and a loss to Virginia.

The Orange certainly played like a team worthy of tournament consideration on Tuesday night, dropping a 4-point battle with North Carolina. In a well-played game, it was simply Syracuse’s few mistakes — an ill-timed turnover on a loose ball by Girard and Mintz being a bit too aggressive on a late drive — that did the Orange in against Carolina. In other words, an opportunity lost, but hope not.

Syracuse’s Selection Sunday hopes may ride on the next 2 games — tilts against Virginia Tech and Virginia — as well as whether the Orange can clean things up on defense. An NCAA Tournament berth is certainly possible though, which wouldn’t have seemed to be the case when the Orange dropped November games to the likes of Bryant and Colgate.

Games to Watch this week

Wednesday, Jan. 25

Wake Forest at Pittsburgh (7 p.m., ACC Network): A game with massive bubble implications in the Steel City. Lukas Harkins, who runs the great Heat Check CBB and is 1 of the nation’s most accurate bracketologists, has both Wake and Pitt in the “Next Four Out” category. A road win for the Demon Deacons could move them into the field, giving Wake yet another Quad 1 victory. For Pitt, a win would slow the bleeding after a stretch that has seen the Panthers drop 3 of their past 5, including a brutal loss at home to Florida State over the weekend.

Saturday, Jan. 28

NC State at Wake Forest (1 p.m., ACC Network): With Terquavion Smith returning on Tuesday night against Notre Dame, the game will feature the backcourt battle royale between Tyree Appleby, Wake’s star, and Smith, NC State’s best player. If Smith somehow didn’t play after his quick return, the game would become nearly a must win for Wake Forest, which can’t afford to drop many home games if it wants to finish the season on the right side of the bubble.

No. 20 Miami at Pittsburgh (4 p.m., ESPNU): The 2nd in a pair of massive home games for the Panthers this week. With John Hughley IV taking the season off to bravely attend to his mental health, the Panthers’ fatal flaw has been losing battles inside. A game against Miami — which is less formidable inside than many other teams and will give Pitt a chance at a profile-building win — might be just what the doctor ordered. At least Jeff Capel hopes that’s the case.

No. 24 Clemson at Florida State (5 p.m., ACC Network): A great “flip to” option while you watch Miami and Pitt. Clemson hasn’t won at the Tucker Center since 2015. FSU has won 3 of 4 since getting 5-star freshman Baba Miller back from the world’s stupidest NCAA suspension. What will give?

Monday, Jan. 30

No. 7 Virginia at Syracuse (7 p.m., ESPN): As noted above, a huge résumé opportunity for the Orange and perhaps a must win for Boeheim’s crew. Can Virginia shoot its way past the 2-3 zone? Can Syracuse’s guards pierce the packline? This is appointment television.