Just 2 weeks ago in this space, Saturday Road was wondering if anyone was going to pose a threat to North Carolina waltzing its way to the program’s 42nd regular-season conference championship.

Then the Tar Heels slipped up in Atlanta, looking ahead to their rivalry tilt with rival Duke, opening the door a bit for the Blue Devils. The window appeared closed again after North Carolina dispatched of Duke with relative ease in the Dean Dome on Feb. 3, but the Tar Heels followed up the win over Duke with a quick turnaround home loss to Clemson and suddenly, as the old saying goes, “we’ve got ourselves a game.”

Duke, which has impressed since the loss in Chapel Hill, is just 1.5 games behind the Tar Heels in the standings, and farther down Tobacco Road, Wake Forest trails by just 2.5 games and appears to have steadied itself after losing 3 of 4 to close the month of January. Monday night will provide some clarification: Wake Forest travels to Duke for a 7 pm tip on ESPN.

But the team to watch might just be Virginia, and shame on anyone who counted out a Tony Bennett team when the Hoos started 2-3 in league play. There’s a reason Bennett’s teams have won 6 of the previous 10 ACC regular-season crowns, and the way Virginia defends, it was inevitable they would get rolling if they ever figured out how to score. Enter sophomore Isaac McKneely, who has scored in double figures in 5 of Virginia’s past 7 games, easing the pressure on All-American Reece Beekman to do it all offensively. The result has been an 8-game winning streak and suddenly, a Cavaliers team that looks capable of winning Bennett a 7th ACC regular season title in 11 seasons.

Let’s dive into the evolving ACC race– and the bubble conversation– with a fresh batch of power rankings, shall we?

15. Georgia Tech (10-14, 3-10)

Last Week (LW): 11

The Yellow Jackets can’t handle even a sliver of success. After upsetting then-No. 3 North Carolina on Jan. 30, the Ramblin’ Wreck have dropped 3 straight games, including a nightmarish loss to Wake Forest last week where they scored just 13 points in the opening half. Damon Stoudamire will win in Atlanta, but not until his teams guard. Georgia Tech ranks 15th in the ACC in defensive efficiency in conference play, and this week, they rank 15th in the Saturday Road Power Rankings.

14. Notre Dame (8-16, 3-10)

LW: 15

The Fighting Irish climb out of the cellar after pulling the life support on Virginia Tech’s NCAA Tournament hopes on Saturday afternoon at the Joyce Center. The Fighting Irish had 3 players in double figures in the win (Markus Burton, Braeden Shrewsberry and Kebba Njie) for just the 5th time in league play. Notre Dame is 3-2 in those games, and 0-8 in all their other league contests. With a defense ranked 43rd in KenPom Defensive Efficiency, it’s hard to not think of what this team could have been if they could score.

13. Louisville (8-16, 3-10)

LW: 14

It will not, or should not, be enough to save Kenny Payne’s job, but the Cardinals have won 2 of 3 and eclipsed their ACC win total of a season ago on Saturday when they bludgeoned Georgia Tech in the KFC Yum! Center. Had the Cardinals closed out a furious rally against Syracuse in the JMA Wireless Dome midweek, they could have secured the program’s first 3-game winning streak in the Payne era. That sentence alone is why a change will be made.

12. Virginia Tech (13-10, 5-7)

LW: 10

One surefire way to end any hope of playing in the NCAA Tournament is to lose to an offensively inept Notre Dame team after a bye week. That’s what the Hokies did on Saturday, their 3rd consecutive loss after a 13-7 start had put them squarely in the bubble picture. Does Saturday Road believe Mike Young is on the hot seat if he misses a second consecutive NCAA Tournament? No. Would he be if he hadn’t won the ACC Championship with that tournament run in 2021-22? Absolutely. How this season ends will define how much pressure is on Young in 2024-25.

11. Boston College (13-10, 4-8)

LW: 12

The Eagles lost a heartbreaker at home to Florida State midweek and were pasted by Duke in Durham over the weekend. Still, Earl Grant’s team has won 2 of 4 and has a chance to improve their conference tournament seed this week by collecting wins over Louisville and Miami in the friendly confines of the Conte Forum.

10. Syracuse (15-9, 6-7)

LW: 13

The Orange stopped the bleeding (barely) by holding off a late Louisville charge at home on Wednesday, but lost for just the second time in the dome over the weekend when Clemson stormed out to a huge lead and held on for a 9-point victory. The dismissal of forward Benny Williams from the team earlier in the week does little to help Syracuse’s tepid frontcourt, which already ranked 305th in the country in offensive rebounding and 279th in the country in defensive rebounding. Syracuse has excellent guards but little chance against teams who have quality post play.

9. Miami (15-9, 6-7)

LW: 5

Saturday Road held out as long as we could, but it’s time to admit defeat on Miami. The Hurricanes, even when healthy, just aren’t good enough defensively to beat elite teams and they miss the shot-making and creative ability of Isaiah Wong, the 2022-23 ACC Player of the Year, too much to compensate this season. A lopsided loss at Virginia where the Cavaliers suffocate you can happen, but compounding that by blowing a 2nd-half lead in a Quad 1 game against North Carolina feels like the death knell to the team’s NCAA Tournament hopes. A controversial lane violation call ended the upset bid, and squandered 20 points, 11 rebounds, and 3 blocks from Norchad Omier — easily the preseason All-ACC big man’s best game of the season.

8. Florida State (13-10, 7-5)

LW: 9

The Seminoles let a résumé opportunity — and likely the chance to stay in the NCAA Tournament bubble conversation — slip away at home this weekend in a 80-76 loss to Virginia. Jamir Watkins (21 points, 4 rebounds, 2 blocks, 2 steals) was marvelous, but the Noles let a Virginia offense that ranks well outside the top 100 in KenPom Offensive Efficiency score 1.27 points per possession and build a comfortable, multiple possession lead throughout the game. After a fast start to league play, the Seminoles have lost 4 of 6. Hopes of a double bye at the ACC Tournament, where they will have one more shot at March Madness, are fading fast.

7. NC State (15-9, 7-6)

LW: 4

Another team that Saturday Road just can’t trust is the Wolfpack, who dropped 2 games last week after appearing to turn the corner in wins over Miami and Georgia Tech the prior week. Kevin Keatts’ squad has lost 5 of 7, including 2 potential résumé builders last week to NCAA Tournament bubble teams Pitt and Wake Forest. To get back into the bubble conversation themselves, the Wolfpack have to find a way to win those games — not just appear competitive.

6. Pitt (15-8, 6-6)

LW: 8

The Panthers have won 3 in a row, thanks to a frontcourt that finally started rebounding the ball in league play. The Panthers entered conference play ranked in the top 50 nationally in offensive and defensive rebounding, but found themselves in the bottom half of the ACC in rebounding margin through their first 9 league games, when they went 3-6. They are now up to 15th in defensive rebounding nationally, and a +9 edge on the glass was the key factor in their huge win at NC State last week.

Jaland Lowe had 20 in the win over the Wolfpack, as he continues to rocket up lists of the nation’s best freshmen in 2024.

5. Wake Forest (16-7, 8-4)

LW: 6

The Demon Deacons are starting to come together, posting big margin victories over non-tournament teams that have helped elevate them to a top 30 spot in KenPom’s Efficiency rankings (28th). The defensive improvement is what intrigues Saturday Road, because with an arsenal of good shooters and a skilled offensive big in Andrew Carr, the Deacs were always going to score. But the defense has crept into the top 50 in KenPom’s efficiency rankings and ranks an eye-opening 21st over Wake Forest’s past 10 games, per Bart Torvik. 

Throw in the latest Steve Forbes transfer marvel, Hunter Sallis, who is playing the basketball of his life as Forbes transfers tend to do, and you have a squad that not only should make the NCAA Tournament, but can win a game or two once invited.\

4. Clemson (16-7, 6-6)

LW: 7

Welcome back to the top 5, Tigers!! This was the best basketball team in the ACC in November and December, and they managed to earn that distinction last week as well with a beautiful win at North Carolina. Brad Brownell’s switch to a zone defense befuddled the Tar Heels, who managed just .76 points per possession — about .25 ppp below their season average — against Clemson’s zone in 23 possessions. PJ Hall’s 25 points, 9 rebounds and 3 assists did the rest, helping Clemson earn just its second win in program history in Chapel Hill.

Hall followed the magic act at the Smith Center with 15 and 10 at Syracuse, and it looks like he may make UNC star RJ Davis work for what seemed like inevitable ACC Player of the Year honors down the stretch.

3. Duke (18-5, 9-3)

LW: 3

The Blue Devils bounced back from the North Carolina loss with a 2-win week, but what else did you expect against Boston College and Notre Dame? This week will tell us more about Jon Scheyer’s team, with Wake Forest visiting Cameron Indoor and a weekend trip to the Tucker Center in Tallahassee, scene of too many painful Duke defeats over the past decade. After a frustrating night in the Dean Dome, Mark Mitchell was magnificent for the Blue Devils last week, posing a double-double (13, 10) in the win over Notre Dame and scoring 17 points with 7 rebounds and 3 assists in the win over Boston College. Mitchell has long been a tenacious defender — but the 10-for-shooting, with a pair of big threes, is what raised eyebrows watching Duke last week.

2. Virginia (19-5, 10-3)

LW: 3

Virginia has won 8 consecutive games thanks to improved offense and the patented suffocating defense that has won the program 6 of the past 10 regular season ACC championships. Reece Beekman, who should be a consensus All-American but was somehow left off the 10-person Bob Cousy Award Finalist list, continues to lead the march, and he scored a career-high 21 in the win at Florida State. If there is a better on-ball defender in America than Beekman, I haven’t seen him play.

But Bennett is finding ways to use Ryan Dunn as a screener that are helping the Hoos generate better drives and, as a result, more open jump shots as defenders help inside. That’s freed up McKneely, who is starting to give Virginia the extra scoring oomph it needs to complement a top-10 KenPom defense.

1. North Carolina (19-5, 11-2)

LW: 1

The Tar Heels have dropped 2 of their past 4 after their electric start to ACC play, and the field has closed the gap. The largest reason? The defense, which hadn’t allowed over a point per possession since December, surrendered that number against Georgia Tech (L), Duke (W) and Clemson (L). The Tar Heels were better on Saturday in Coral Gables, limiting the Hurricanes to under 1 ppp and holding Miami’s prolific guards to just 6-for-23 from deep.

But the Tar Heels still needed a career day from Elliot Cadeau (19 points, 8 assists, 2 made 3-pointers) and 25 points from RJ Davis to survive. In addition to getting back to playing better defense, the Tar Heels need more from graduate transfer Cormac Ryan. The New Yorker scored in double figures on 7 occasions in North Carolina’s 10-game winning streak, which spanned half of December and almost all of January. Ryan has scored just 6 points per game in February, shooting an icy 25% (4-for-16) from beyond the arc in that stretch. Ryan is a tough kid who adds smart positional defense, as we saw against Duke, and is beloved in the locker room, but he was brought to Carolina to space the floor and hit jump shots. If he’s not doing that, the Tar Heels become easier to guard — and suddenly vulnerable.

Still, for all the doom and gloom above, the Tar Heels are the best team in the ACC, and still very much in the fight for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.