As the air in ACC country grows colder, the hearts of ACC Network and ESPN television executives are growing warmer.

The reason?

It would appear that the biggest 2 games in the ACC this season will be between North Carolina and Duke. The first of those games will be played in just 3 weekends when the Blue Devils make the 11 mile trip west to Chapel Hill.

This was a week of separation in the ACC, with Clemson’s flop at Virginia Tech, Wake Forest’s loss at Florida State, and Miami’s shocking defeat in Coral Gables (!!) to Louisville offering visual evidence of the gap in class between those 3 ACC contenders and the league’s best 2 teams, North Carolina and Duke. The Blue Devils did have a scare, winning a dogfight of a game with Georgia Tech at Cameron Indoor Stadium, avenging their early-season loss to the Yellow Jackets in Atlanta. But thanks to a career day from Kyle Filipowski, the Blue Devils survived, despite a red-hot Georgia Tech shooting effort and injuries to Mark Mitchell (knee) and Jeremy Roach (knee) limiting Duke’s bench down the stretch.

North Carolina, meanwhile, continued its roaring rampage of revenge with an obliteration of Syracuse at home over the weekend and a rivalry win over NC State in Raleigh midweek. The continuing story of intrigue in Chapel Hill involves the evolution of Carolina’s bench. In Hubert Davis’s first 2 seasons in charge in Chapel Hill, his Tar Heels teams redefined the meaning of “small rotation,” finishing 348th and then 360th (or dead last in the Power 6, if you prefer) in bench minutes per game, per KenPom. 

This year? The Tar Heels bench usage is vastly improved, even if still in the lower portion of the country (268th). Saturday against the ‘Cuse, Davis played all bench players down the stretch, save freshman point guard Eliot Cadeau, who took advantage of a blowout to get valuable extra reps. The Tar Heels aren’t the best team in the country, but they are playing like a team worthy of the No. 4 ranking they now hold.

It’s all shaping up to be a Tobacco Road race to the ACC regular season crown, with UNC and Duke right in the thick of things.

Should we do Power Rankings? Last week’s rankings are reflected below.

15. Georgia Tech (8-8, 1-4)

Last Week (LW): 14

The Yellow Jackets’ free-fall continues after losing 2 games they led late. The first, a rock fight with fellow Power Rankings bottom-dweller Notre Dame, saw the Jackets crushed on the glass, 48-33. Second-chance buckets helped Notre Dame force overtime, and the Jackets couldn’t score in the extra frame, mustering just 2 overtime points. Georgia Tech responded at Duke and shot 55% from deep, leading the Blue Devils by 1 point with just over 5 minutes to play. Kowacie Reeves also did this, which, good lawd:

But a strong 10-0 Duke run down the stretch put the Blue Devils up 9, and Georgia Tech left Cameron Indoor Stadium with the program’s 5th straight defeat, fully spoiling the goodwill of an 8-3 start.

14. Louisville (6-10, 1-4)

LW: 15

If you beat a program that was in the Final 4 a year ago on the road, you get a 1 week reprieve from the cellar. Former 5 star Tennessee transfer Brandon Huntley-Hatfield played the game of his life in the win over the Canes, pouring in 22 points and collecting 9 rebounds. Mike James had 26 for the Cards too, and he’s now eclipsed 20 points scoring in 3 straight games after doing it again in Saturday’s hard-fought loss to NC State.

13. Pittsburgh (10-6, 1-4)

LW: 12

The Panthers fall into the bottom 3 after getting embarrassed at home by Duke. The 53 point output was the lowest for Jeff Capel’s group in 2 seasons, a product of the team’s reliance on 2 freshman guards given the disappointing lack of production from Rhode Island transfer Ishmael Leggett, whose minutes continue to decrease. Blake Hinson remains one of the league’s most dynamic players offensively, but until guards Carlton Carrington, Leggett, and Jaland Lowe start to produce again, any NCAA Tournament dreams are long shots at best.

12. Notre Dame (7-10, 2-4)

LW: 13

Braden Shrewsberry’s 25 points helped the Fighting Irish pick up league win number 2 this season midweek when they won in overtime at Georgia Tech. The Fighting Irish won the rebounding battle 48-33, continuing a positive trend after besting Duke on the glass the week before. There’s not enough offense on this team to be postseason bound, but the defense and the rebounding are going to make them “upset alert” good all year.

11. Boston College (10-6, 1-4)

LW: 11

Earl Grant’s team is outstanding offensively, but they can’t get stops and it cost them a winnable game at Syracuse midweek. A loss to an angry, desperate Clemson over the weekend, where the Eagles were missing 3 starters out with flu, was more forgivable, but the Tigers managed 1.31 points per possession, a staggering number. Earl Grant’s teams always have defended, so history suggests this is a correctable. If it isn’t, it will be a long– and disappointing– year in Chestnut Hill.

Boston College did bounce back Monday night, rallying to defeat rival Notre Dame. They stole the game, then went viral with this epic troll:

How can you not love rivalry hoops?

10. Virginia (11-5, 2-3)

LW: 7

A week off didn’t solve the offensive issues plaguing Tony Bennett’s team, as the Cavaliers fell by 19 at Wake Forest. Virginia has lost 4 of 6, and the lone Power 6 team they have defeated in that stretch is Louisville. Senior Reece Beekman is having the best year of his career, with points, steals, assists, and FG% all career best, but he has almost no help, as NBA prospect Ryan Dunn isn’t an offensive threat and St. Thomas transfer Andrew Rohde hasn’t made the adjustment to the Power 6 level. The Hoos rank 167th in offensive efficiency, per KenPom, a horrific number spoiling a truly elite defense.

9. Syracuse Orange (11-5, 2-3)

LW: 10

The Orange were lit up at UNC (what else is new?) but did win midweek over Boston College, limiting a quality offense to just 59 points and 0.83 points per possession. A big week looms, with two résumé opportunities in a visit to Pittsburgh and a home tilt with Miami– both Quad 2 opportunities.

8. Virginia Tech (10-6, 2-3)

LW: 9

The Hokies continue to flummox Saturday Road. They beat an outstanding Clemson team handily, frustrating Wooden Award candidate P.J. Hall and shooting 54.2% from beyond the arc. They then drop a very winnable home game to Miami, despite winning the rebounding battle and 33 points from Sean Pedulla. With all due respect to Jon Rothstein — “Consistently inconsistent.” That’s the theme of Hokies hoops in the Mike Young era.

7. NC State (12-4, 4-1)

LW: 5

In desperate need of a Quad 1 win, the Wolfpack had everything lined up the way you’d want last week when North Carolina came to PNC Arena: a sold-out midweek game at home, a confident group coming off a rout of Virginia, and a banger inside in D.J. Burns who had given Carolina trouble a year prior. Burns was fine, and he limited Armando Bacot to just 9 points and 5 rebounds. But the Wolfpack couldn’t score, shooting 9% from three (2-21) and averaging a season low 0.75 points per possession. Yes, the Wolfpack didn’t let Carolina beat them twice, nipping Louisville on the road on Saturday. But Kevin Keatts’ team lacks a quality victory, and remains middle-of-the-pack until they can beat anyone good.

6. Clemson (12-4, 2-3)

LW: 6

The computers still love Clemson, who ranks 31st in KenPom and 25th in Bart Torvik’s efficiency rankings, both valued by the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee. Brad Brownell’s team has lost 3 of 4, though, and none of the losses was particularly close, including a 15-point loss to Virginia Tech on the road last week. There’s time to right the ship in league play, and the résumé is strong, with non-conference wins at Alabama and a terrific Boise State team. But a 2-0 week this week, with winnable games against Georgia Tech and Florida State on tap, is essential if the Tigers want a top 4 seed at the ACC Tournament.

5. Miami (12-4, 3-2)

LW: 4

The Hurricanes’ home loss to Louisville was baffling, but Jim Larrañaga’s team is thin and battling 3 ankle injuries with Wooga Poplar, Norchad Omier, and Nijel Pack all considered day-to-day.

“We just haven’t been fully healthy since November,” Larrañaga told Saturday Road after the Hurricanes bounced back from the stunning Louisville loss to win at Virginia Tech over the weekend. “I think when Norchad and Wooga get to 100 percent, we have a better team, not just because they are full go but because we’ve had players who have gotten better stepping up while they battle the injuries. We just need to peak at the right time.”

A rivalry-game win over Florida State this week would be a great start to making that a reality.

4. Florida State (10-6, 4-1)

LW: 8

Did we write off Florida State and Leonard Hamilton too soon? It looks that way, as the Noles have won 4 straight games after a lackluster non-conference that included a loss to Lipscomb. Florida State’s win over Wake Forest midweek was vintage Hamilton– with Jamir Watkins the best guard in the building on both sides of the ball and the Noles overwhelming the Demon Deacons with depth, winning the bench scoring battle 26-13.

Florida State needs more quality wins, but two Quad 1 opportunities await this week with games against Miami and Clemson.

3. Wake Forest (12-4, 4-1)

LW: 3

The Demon Deacons’ first league loss came on the road at the Tuck, a graveyard for ACC foes over the past decade. There’s no shame in a loss there, and Wake rebounded to clobber Virginia in the friendly confines of Joel Coliseum on Saturday. During Wake Forest’s 9-game win streak preceding the FSU loss, the Demon Deacons rose from 133rd to 47th in the NET rankings, a key metric used by the Selection Committee. They also jumped from 78th to 42nd in KenPom. More critically, Steve Forbes got Efton Reid eligible, upping the defensive ceiling of this team for the meat of league play. A borderline Quad 1 opportunity awaits Wednesday night at NC State.

2. Duke (13-3, 4-1)

LW: 2

The Blue Devils may have injury concerns moving forward with Jeremy Roach and Mark Mitchell, who missed the bulk of the last 10 minutes of Duke’s rally against Georgia Tech on Saturday. But as Kyle Filipowski starts making shots, Duke becomes capable of leaning on him, as they did Saturday when his 30 points helped the Blue Devils overcome a day where Georgia Tech shot 55% from the field.

Jeremy Roach, the team’s heart and soul, also helped Duke commit a season low four turnovers before exiting with an injury. Whether Roach can sit a game or two out to rest the knee remains to be seen — the injury doesn’t appear to be structural, instead more “wear and tear” on the senior, who favored his right knee considerably Saturday afternoon. But the Blue Devils are ruthlessly efficient on offense thanks to improvements from their sophomores, and if Roach is present to be the straw that stirs the drink, this is a Final Four capable group.

1. North Carolina (13-3, 5-0)

LW: 1

Don’t look now, but Eliot Cadeau is growing up. Early candidate for pass of the year? This look, through D.J. Burns, to Armando Bacot to put the Wolfpack to bed.

But we knew Cadeau could pass. It’s the 11 points on a willing 4-of-8 inside the arc that makes the Tar Heels more lethal than ever offensively. You want to sit outside on RJ Davis? Cool. Cadeau will get into the gaps and if you don’t help, he’ll score or drop a dime to Bacot or a cutter. You want to help or sit in the gaps? Have you met RJ Davis? Cadeau made 7 of 13 2-point shots this week, while taking just 2 (open) 3-pointers. That’s his game, and as he finds it, Carolina becomes an even better team than the one that has already beaten Arkansas, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Florida State and Clemson this season.