One game separates the top 5 teams in the ACC basketball standings heading into the final weekend of the regular season. 

The battle for the league’s Player of the Year award is just as tight.

In both cases, the top contenders aren’t exactly sprinting to the finish line.

Frontunners Pittsburgh, Miami, Virginia and Clemson, the teams currently holding down the top 4 seeds in the rapidly approaching ACC Tournament, have all lost within the past week.

Many of the individual stars have also stumbled of late, making an already difficult choice for Player of the Year honors that much tougher.

North Carolina’s Armando Bacot was held to just a single point in Monday’s win at Florida State. NC State’s Terquavion Smith suddenly can’t throw the ball in the ocean from the beach, collecting more fouls (13) than 3-pointers (9) in his past 4 games, while Clemson’s Hunter Tyson and Miami’s Isaiah Wong have both been up and down.

Only Wake Forest’s consistent Tyree Appleby and NC State’s rapidly rising Jarkel Joiner, the league’s best player over the past month, have put together forceful closing arguments.

While the jury on who the pick should be is still out until after Saturday’s games have been played, here’s something to remember while the deliberations are ongoing

Player of the Year isn’t an award of immediacy. It should be chosen on the basis of an entire body of work, not just the final few performances.

By that premise, the list of legitimate candidates can be narrowed to just two.

Bacot and Appleby.

The UNC big man was the preseason pick to win the award after narrowly losing out to Wake’s Alondes Williams a year ago. He has put together another strong effort, averaging a double-double at 17.0 points and a league-leading 10.9 rebounds per game while shooting better than 56% from the floor.

Monday night in Tallahassee notwithstanding, Bacot has carried the Tar Heels on his back for the past 2 seasons. His importance to UNC is best illustrated by the results of its 2 games against Virginia this season.

Bacot injured his ankle in the opening minute and didn’t play again in UNC’s 65-58 loss in Charlottesville on Jan. 10. With a healthy Bacot on the floor Saturday, the Tar Heels reversed that decision by beating the Cavaliers 71-63 in Chapel Hill.

 Appleby, meanwhile, is on pace to become the 1st player in ACC history to lead the conference in scoring and assists in the same season – a feat fellow Deacon Williams came within, literally, a couple of baskets of accomplishing in 2021-22.

The transfer from Florida is averaging 18.6 points and 6.2 assists per game while also ranking 2nd in the league in steals and 1st in minutes played. Those numbers are amazingly similar to the averages of 18.5 points and 5.2 assists put up by last year’s winner.

Because their teams are buried in the middle of the standings and because the award is Player of the Year, rather than Most Valuable Player, the nod once again goes to a 1-and-done transfer portal Deacon.

There’s not as much debate surrounding the ACC’s other postseason honors.

Because the league only bestows the privilege of voting for its official awards to a select few, I don’t have an actual say in who wins. But if I was able to cast a ballot, this is how it would look:

Coach of the Year

Kudos to Pittsburgh athletic director Heather Lyke for sticking with Jeff Capel after last year’s dismal 11-18 showing, his 4th losing season in as many tries with the Panthers.

Even though the decision was likely based on economics, not faith. Capel’s buyout would have been $15 million had he been fired in 2022. That number dropped to just $5 this year.

As it turns out, the former Coach K protege saved the Panthers $10 million and rewarded his boss’ faith by producing one of the season’s most impressive turnarounds. At 21-9 (14-5), his team – bolstered by effective usage of the NCAA transfer portal – is tied for the lead in the chase for the regular-season ACC title despite Wednesday’s upset loss at Notre Dame.

It’s a success made all the more impressive considering that Pitt’s top incoming freshman Dior Johnson sat out the entire season after encountering a legal problem. and its best returning player John Hugley appeared in only 8 games because of injury and personal issues.

Rookie of the Year

Kyle Filipowski wasn’t the most heralded member of a Duke freshman class highlighted by Dariq Whitehead and Dereck Lively II. But that quickly changed when the 7-foot New York native started the season by winning the ACC’s 1st 4 Rookie of the Week awards.

He has since been honored 3 more times to match former Blue Devil Jahlil Okafor for the 5th-most in conference history.

Filipowski is Duke’s top scorer and rebounder at 14.9 points and 8.9 rebounds per game. He leads all freshmen nationally with 13 double-doubles and is the No. 1 power conference rebounder among 1st-year players.


First team: Appleby (Wake Forest), Bacot (UNC),  Smith (NC State), Wong (Miami), Tyson (Clemson).

Second team: Filipowski (Duke), Joiner (NC State), Blake Hinson (Pittsburgh), Jamarious Burton (Pittsburgh), Jeremy Roach (Duke).

Third team: Judah Mintz (Syracuse), El Ellis (Louisville), DJ Burns (NC State), Jordan Miller (Miami), Reece Beekman (Virginia).

All-Freshman team: Filipowski, Mintz, J.J. Starling (Notre Dame), Mike James (Louisville), Dereck Lively II (Duke).

Sixth Man of the Year

Florida State’s stranglehold on the award comes to an end after 4 straight seasons in which it was won by a member of the Seminoles.

Though there’s no specific number criteria for the number of games a player must come off the bench in order to qualify for the honor, the criteria I’ve used is that it has to be at least half of those in which he’s played.

As such, Virginia’s Ben Vander Plas squeaks in just under the wire.

The graduate transfer from Ohio University started only 14 of his 28 games, providing the Cavaliers with a solid inside-outside presence that helped them get back into NCAA Tournament contention after missing out a year ago.

Vander Plas averages 7.4 points and 4.6 assists while handing out 40 assists and showing 41% from the floor in just under 25 minutes per game.

Defensive Player of the Year

With all due respect to UNC’s Leaky Black, who has been as good a lockdown defender as there’s been in the ACC for the past 5 seasons, the award goes to the best defensive player on the best defensive team in the league.

For the 2nd straight year, that is UVA’s Reece Beekman.

Beekman’s ability to shut down the opponent’s best perimeter player doesn’t always show up in the boxscore. And he doesn’t get as many steals as others around the league because the Cavaliers’ pack line defense is designed to force teams into taking bad shots rather than forcing turnovers – although he does rank 6th in the league with 39.

But the 6-3 junior is the catalyst for a defense that is limiting teams to a .419 shooting percentage and an ACC-lowest 60.6 points per game.

Most Improved

Picking up on the momentum from its 1st ever ACC Tournament championship in 2022, Virginia Tech got off to an 11-1 start this season. Since then, not a lot has gone right for the Hokies. They’re just 6-12 in the conference and will need another miracle run in Greensboro next week to earn an NCAA bid.

One of the few bright spots for Mike Young’s team has been the play of sophomore point guard Sean Pedulla. A backup to Storm Murphy last season, Pedulla has raised his scoring average by 10 points from 5.4 to 15.3 this season. Although his 3-point shooting percentage has dipped slightly, he’s at least doubled his output in assists (118-47), rebounds (113-42) and steals (40-21).