North Carolina’s defense was the story of the first half of league play.

Over a 10-game stretch dating back to a December loss to Kentucky in Atlanta, the Tar Heels ranked 2nd in the nation in defensive efficiency, per the analytics website Bart Torvik. 

Then the Tar Heels lost at Georgia Tech, surrendered over 80 in a home win over Duke, and gave up 80 and 86, respectively, in losses to Clemson in Chapel Hill and Syracuse at the JMA Wireless (Carrier Forever, y’all!) Dome.

Just like that, the Tar Heels’ vise grip on the ACC relented, and the door opened for Duke and Virginia. The Cavaliers didn’t lose for over a month themselves, and looked positioned to capture their 7th — yes, 7th — ACC regular-season crown in 11 years before they slipped up at home against a desperate Pitt team last week.

Enter Jon Scheyer’s Duke. If it is possible for a Duke team to be flying under the national radar, these Blue Devils are. Duke is 20-5, winners of 4 straight since their defeat at the Dean Dome on Feb. 3, and very quietly, supernova talents Jared McCain and Mark Mitchell are playing the best hoops of their lives, giving Kyle Filipowski, Tyrese Proctor, and Jeremy Roach what they have needed all along: extra help.

Duke may be in 2nd in the league standings, with a head-to-head loss at UNC, but the Blue Devils are the new No. 1 in the Saturday Road Power rankings — the first change at the top since early January.

With the calendar lurching toward March and the ACC Tournament, it’s the most wonderful time of the year in ACC Basketball. Here’s a fresh set of Power Rankings to guide us through the last full week of February.

15. Louisville (8-18, 3-12)

Last Week (LW): 13

The Cardinals climbed out of the cellar for 2 weeks but return after 2 non-competitive losses to Boston College and Pitt. There’s nothing Kenny Payne’s team does well. They don’t shoot (30.9% from deep), don’t defend the arc (opponents shoot 37%!), don’t take care of the ball (18.1% turnover rate), don’t protect the rim (320th in the country in 2-point field goal percentage against). You get the idea. Every metric points to poorly coached basketball team at a program that deserves much better.

14. Georgia Tech (11-15, 4-11)

LW: 15

Damon Stoudamire’s team snapped a 4-game losing streak Saturday with a win over Syracuse. It was the way the Ramblin’ Wreck won that impressed Stoudamire.

“For the first time in league play, we got stops repeatedly,” he said. “You have to guard. We were ahead defensively early in the year, and these guys thought they had it all figured out. It’s a game that humbles you. It’s a lesson that took too long to learn. But if you come and play for us in Atlanta, you will guard.”

Syracuse scored just .85 points per possession in defeat, shooting just 4-of-25 on 3-pointers. Georgia Tech, which has already defeated NCAA Tournament-bound UNC, Clemson and Duke this season,  welcomes Clemson to Atlanta for a rematch this week.

13. Notre Dame (9-16, 4-10)

LW: 14

Micah Shrewberry’s team has its first 2-game winning streak in ACC play, thanks to a grind it out 58-55 win over Georgia Tech on Valentine’s Day. The Fighting Irish visit lowly Louisville midweek, and if they guard the way they are capable (40th in KenPom Defensive Efficiency, 4th in the ACC), they could have a 3-game league winning streak for the first time since 2021-22, when Notre Dame won 2 games in the NCAA Tournament.

12. Miami (15-11, 6-9)

LW: 9

The wheels have officially fallen off in Coral Gables. The Hurricanes dropped 2 more games last week, including a backbreaking loss to Boston College, where the Canes blew a 5-point lead with 5 minutes to play. A season ago, the playmaking of Isaiah Wong and Jordan Miller, coupled with the shot-making of Nijel Pack, was enough to offset a mediocre defense. This season, Pack and NBA prospect Wooga Poplar have not picked up the slack, and the Hurricanes remain undersized and limited defensively. The result has been 7 losses where the Hurricanes have held 2nd-half leads, and an evaporating path to a third consecutive NCAA Tournament bid.

11. Florida State (13-12, 7-7)

LW: 8

The Seminoles have lost 5 of 6 after falling to Duke and struggling Virginia Tech last week. Leonard Hamilton has gotten the most of this group defensively, as the Seminoles rank 30th nationally in creating turnovers and 57th in defensive efficiency, a nearly 200-spot improvement over last year’s team, which finished 239th, per KenPom. But without the expected leap from NBA prospect Baba Miller, the Seminoles lack the high-end talent of Hamilton’s best teams, which competed for ACC titles and played deep into March. One wonders if Hamilton, 75, will have the energy and enthusiasm to fix it?

10. Virginia Tech (14-11, 6-8)

LW: 12

The Hokies won’t be an NCAA Tournament team, but they could grab a NIT spot with a strong finish. A win over Florida State midweek helped, and reminded us of what Mike Young basketball is at its best: crisp offense (1.26 points per possession), tremendous shooting (11-for-23 from 3, 28-for-32 at the charity stripe). The Hokies at their worst are the group we saw on Saturday in Chapel Hill, disinterested defensively (1.30 ppp allowed) and dominated on the glass (43-31 rebounding advantage for UNC). Without a Justyn Mutts or Keve Aluma to win the tough fights inside or guard a switch, the ceiling for Virginia Tech is lower, and it has shown on the court over the past 2 seasons.

9.  Syracuse (16-10, 7-8)

LW: 10

The Orange can’t seem to get out of their own way.

Judah Mintz goes for 25 points with 3 steals in a win over No. 7 North Carolina last Tuesday, putting the Orange in the bubble conversation.

Naturally, Syracuse goes on the road and lays an egg at Georgia Tech, all but ending any bubble conversation. Syracuse is as good at guard as anyone with Mintz and JJ Starling (23 points in the win over UNC), but the Orange rank 321st in defensive rebounding and were overwhelmed on the glass at Georgia Tech, 49-28. When that happens, it’s hard to win, and with Benny Williams dismissed from the program, it’s not likely to get better in the frontcourt for Syracuse this season.

8. Boston College (15-10, 6-8)

LW: 11

The Eagles have won 4 of 6 after sweeping Louisville and Miami last week. Earl Grant’s team bounced back from its worst offensive week of the season with its best, lighting up Louisville and Miami to the tune of 1.27 points per possession over 2 games. Quinten Post averaged 20 points a contest last week while making 6-of-10 3-pointers. Post now ranks 22nd nationally in 3-point percentage at 46%, the best number in the country among frontcourt players with 75 or more attempts. Post added a career high 6 blocks in the win over Louisville, too, aiding an Eagles defense that is starting to guard a bit better down the stretch. 

7. NC State (16-9, 8-6)

LW: 7

NC State finally picked up a Quad 1 win this past weekend, winning at Clemson on this moment of floater brilliance from DJ Horne.

At 75th in the NET, with a record 4-9 against Quad 1 and 2 and a strength of record of 63rd, Saturday Road isn’t even sure State is on the bubble yet, but with the win over Clemson, at least Kevin Keatts’ team can dream of a late run that puts them squarely in the NCAA Tournament conversation.

6. Wake Forest (16-9, 8-6)

LW: 5

The Demon Deacons had 2 immense opportunities to bolster their résumé last week and failed to capitalize. Did Wake Forest pass the proverbial eye test in both — playing close at Cameron and losing in the final minute at Virginia? Yes, but “passing the eye test” hasn’t been the issue in the Steve Forbes era. The metrics also say this is a tournament team, as Wake Forest ranks 26th overall in KenPom and 30th in Torvik, indicators of good basketball being played. The problem for Wake Forest, as in burst bubbles of prior seasons under Forbes, remains a lack of big-time wins. Wake’s lone Quad 1 win to date came in November, when the Demon Deacons beat a shorthanded Florida team at Joel Coliseum. This week, when Wake hosts Pitt and Duke, seems like a defining one for the Demon Deacons résumé.

5. Clemson (17-7, 7-7)

LW: 4

Oh, Brad Brownell.

You just can’t make this easy, can you?

Don’t get Saturday Road wrong — Clemson is as close to a lock as you can get in late February. The Tigers have a fantastic strength of record (22nd) and NET (27th) and the computers like them enough (30th in KenPom and 33rd in Torvik). But this is a squad that ought to be playing for a high seed, not one that drops home games to the likes of NC State and loses at least a seed line as a result. The Tigers have 2 more résumé opportunities before the ACC Tournament, a Quad 2 date with Pitt on Feb. 27 at home and a Quad 1 road opportunity to close the season at Wake Forest. Win both, and they wear white in the Round of 64. Lose both, and well, an 8 vs. 9 game might be all the Tigers can ask for, which is a shame for a team with an All-American in PJ Hall.

4. Virginia (20-6, 11-4)

LW: 2

Virginia lost its first home game in 2 seasons last Tuesday night when Pitt rolled into John Paul Jones Arena and made 14 3-pointers to bury the Cavaliers 74-63. Tony Bennett’s team responded Saturday, coming from behind to beat Wake Forest, 49-47, in a vintage Virginia performance that saw the Hoos suffocate one of the nation’s best offenses to the tune of .81 points per possession allowed.

Ryan Dunn had 7 blocks in the Virginia win, all but cementing ACC Defensive Player of the Year honors. Dunn’s teammate, Reece Beekman, had 20 points, 6 rebounds, and 4 assists in the win, and remains the nation’s best on ball perimeter defender, per Hoops Lens (.68 ppp against).

3. Pitt (17-8, 8-6)

LW: 6

The Panthers surge to No. 3 in Saturday Road’s rankings following their eye-opening win in Charlottesville. The Pitt frontcourt, lamented by many all season, outrebounded Virginia 35-25 in the win, and now ranks in the top 10 nationally in defensive rebounding percentage, a remarkable accomplishment given the Panthers ranked 11th in the ACC in rebounding margin through their first 9 league games.

Meanwhile, Blake Hinson is starting to look like February and March 2023 Blake Hinson again — his 41-point outburst Saturday was a thing of beauty, and it followed 27 at Virginia. Hinson’s brilliance and an improved frontcourt could be enough to get Jeff Capel’s squad back to the NCAA Tournament.

2. North Carolina (20-6, 12-3)

LW: 1

The Tar Heels remain a half-game ahead of Duke in the league standings, but the war between Hubert Davis and the month of February continues. The third year head coach lost just 2 games in February during his first season in Chapel Hill, but Davis is just 7-7 in February since. The good news is North Carolina is far more concerned with what happens in March. The bad news is that the Tar Heels are squandering a chance to put a chokehold on a number 1 seed. The Selection Committee seeded the Tar Heels 5th overall in its pretournament seeding list on Saturday, and that number will continue to drop if the Tar Heels don’t get back to playing the high level defense that allowed them to start 9-0 in league play in the first place.

On the bright side, Armando Bacot has posted 5 consecutive double-doubles, and his 25 points and 12 rebounds helped the Tar Heels rout Virginia Tech on Saturday despite not getting too many stops. But even with Bacot’s improved statistical production, the Tar Heels must defend to compete for championships, and the defense has fallen out of the top 50 from an efficiency standpoint in the past 5 games, per Torvik, after ranking in the top 5 nationally during Carolina’s 10-game winning streak.

1. Duke (20-5, 11-3)

LW: 3

We’ve known about Jeremy Roach and Kyle Filipowski for a long time now, and when Tyrese Proctor is good, Duke has as good a trio as anyone in the country.

The questions have consistently been about depth and versatility. Jon Scheyer is starting to find answers.

Duke is a marvelous offensive team (10th in KenPom Offensive Efficiency) but still a work in progress on defense.

Jared McCain is the emerging X-factor. McCain can light it up from the perimeter and did just that in Duke’s win at Florida State over the weekend, scoring a career high 35 on 8 — yep, 8 — 3-pointers.

McCain is a fiery competitor, and his rebounding prowess as a smaller guard reflects that. Despite being just 6-3, McCain has double doubles in 5 of Duke’s past 8 games, a 7-1 stretch for the Blue Devils.

Throw in the continued maturation of Mark Mitchell, the switch everything, physical wing whose weird shooting stroke is increasingly more “on” than “off”, and the Blue Devils are starting to look like a team that has the versatility to be a brutal out in March.