UNC Basketball: Battle 4 Atlantis Draw Heightens Pressure on Tar Heels

The good news for UNC basketball is that the Tar Heels are one of three teams in the Battle 4 Atlantis field that can expect to bring lofty rankings into the November tourney. The bad news is that three is an odd number.

Now that the draw has been announced, North Carolina knows that the other two power teams in the Bahamas (Wisconsin and Florida) are on the opposite side of the bracket. As a result, UNC is only going to get one game that can really help its own ranking, and that will be in the tournament final.

Had either the Badgers or Gators landed on the Tar Heels’ side of the draw, there would’ve been an opportunity for two signature wins and a corresponding chance to salvage a potential runner-up finish with an earlier statement victory. Instead, Marcus Paige and company will be expected to cruise into the finals, and any stumbles will really do a number on their positioning in the Top 25.

UNC opens the tournament facing undermanned Butler, which (even with a healthy Roosevelt Jones) lacks the offensive firepower to keep up with Roy Williams’ troops. The Heels then get the winner of Oklahoma and UCLA, which should be a great game in its own right but won’t provide North Carolina with an opponent close to its own stature.

The Sooners, who return most of their roster from a 23-win team, are the better bet to hold a spot in the national rankings as they arrive in the Bahamas. Even so, an offense that couldn’t outscore North Dakota State last March will have an awfully tough time trading shots with the Tar Heels now that top forward Cameron Clark is gone.

UCLA, meanwhile, is starting from scratch after the departure of four starters and its top reserve. The Bruins have loads of freshman talent, but UNC can see the young talent and raise them a veteran Wooden Award favorite in Paige (not to mention the experienced front line of Kennedy Meeks and Brice Johnson).

The upshot is that North Carolina is going to open with two opponents that it’s expected, by any measure, to beat handily. That leaves only the title game, likely against the Florida-Wisconsin winner, to make any sort of impression on the selection committee or the Top 25 voters.

Obviously, UNC is a program that enters any tournament with a championship on its mind. However, even the Tar Heels are often in a position to save face with a second-place finish. That won’t happen in the Bahamas.

A loss to mighty Wisconsin (or even the less-loaded but dangerous Gators) won’t especially hurt North Carolina. However, with the brutal ACC still ahead, the Tar Heels will be a lot happier if they can secure a high-quality win in November than if they limp home with a second-place finish and a national ranking that hasn’t gotten any stronger.

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Lakers, Celtics Renewing Historic Rivalry with Battle for Prospects at NBA Draft

LOS ANGELES — Amid the backdrop of a Celtics-Lakers rivalry that has fallen into disrepair on the court, Thursday night will have to serve as the latest showdown.

After Green won the 2008 NBA Finals and Gold bounced back in 2010, it’s now 2014…and Boston and L.A. have both had to sit out the entire playoffs and wait for the NBA draft to get back some of the spotlight.

The Celtics pick sixth and the Lakers seventh, meaning it’s entirely possible that the Celtics will take the prospect whom the Lakers would prefermaybe even potential future star Joel Embiid.

It’s also possible that a prospect such as longtime Lakers fan Julius Randle would rather play for the Lakers (for whom he had a sensational workout) than the Celtics—and perhaps to that end he decided not to work out for the Celtics a second time Tuesday. (ESPN’s Chad Ford tweeted that Randle skipped Boston on Tuesday to meet with GQ Magazine in New York. Randle told Kentucky Sports Radio he skipped it because he’d already worked out for the Celtics, not because of GQ.). It’s also possible, just speculating, that Randle has already been told the Utah Jazz have promised to take him at No. 5.

The Celtics and Lakers have been working out many of the same playersmost prominently, point guard Marcus Smart and forwards Noah Vonleh, Aaron Gordon and Randlewith both clubs highly intrigued by the possibility that potential No. 1 overall pick Embiid, stock falling with his foot fracture, might be worth the gamble anyway as a future superstar center.

They both are also eyeing one of the few current superstar big men who is looking for a future home—Kevin Love—and trying to figure out how to get him. The Celtics’ efforts appear focused on constructing a trade this offseason while the Lakers more likely are waiting for 2015 free agency.

It remains to be seen whether or not Celtics president Danny Ainge, who played on Boston’s championship teams in 1984 and ’86, or Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak, who was on the Lakers’ title team in ’85, gets his team back to an elite level fastest.

What is there for Ainge and Kupchak to do Thursday hinges on what Cleveland, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Orlando and Utah do ahead of them—and what trades do or don’t go down.

The Lakers also just might like Randle more than the Celtics, and the Celtics might like Smart (widely reported to have impressed them) a little more than the Lakers. Vonleh has long been on both clubs’ radar, with Gordon impressing in recent workouts in which the Lakers and Celtics both asked him to guard NCAA leading scorer Doug McDermott.

For the Lakers, the focus has been on who has the upside to be star in this league, not just a good player.

It’s not a science, but here’s a personal projection of upside (in order) of all guys besides Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker, among the top eight the Lakers really liked as far as back as the draft lottery: Embiid, Dante Exum, Vonleh, Randle, Smart, Gordon.

The idea that the 6’9” Randle doesn’t have the upside of the others has faded with the realization that he can do a lot more than the banging and close-in shooting he did at Kentucky. Randle is more athletic than many realize, and he might have NBA three-point range already.

Smart impressed with his intensity in the Lakers’ two workouts with him, and the same went for his workouts elsewhere, including Boston. The question for a GM is whether you can depend on a guard who has definite leadership qualities but a shaky shot. Smart acknowledged he has to improve his jumper to keep every defense from going under on screens.

Smart’s “competitive level,” which he called his greatest strength, is so strong that Boston is interested in him despite already having poor-shooting Rajon Rondo at point guard. Of course, Rondo is also set to become a free agent next year.

Gone from Boston already are the leaders Rondo shared the floor with in those NBA Finals against the Lakers—with the Celtics jettisoning Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen and embracing the total rebuild more than the Lakers have with Kobe Bryant.

Both clubs already learned in the 1990s that it’s tough to be perennial powers, but they’re approaching things differently now. The Lakers don’t have the 10 first-round picks in five years that Boston does, including the sixth and 17th this season, as precious rebuilding tools or trade chips. But the Lakers, who gave up future picks to invest in the failed Dwight Howard-Steve Nash partnership, do have salary-cap space and the intention of overhauling via free agency.

It wasn’t that long ago that the rivals were going head to head as they tried to get into the NBA Finals.

Their front office duel then centered on Kevin Garnett, whom both teams wanted to acquire form Minnesota. While the Lakers felt they had a superior offer of Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom, L.A. was snubbed as Timberwolves vice president Kevin McHale chose to deal with his old Celtics teammate Ainge for Al Jefferson.

(Side note: From the cutting-room floor of my column on Bryant’s legendary 1996 predraft workout for the Lakers: then-Lakers assistant coach Larry Drew said when it was over: “That guy’s the truth!” Ironic, considering the Bryant workout was being held at Pierce’s home gym at Inglewood High school—but Pierce wouldn’t be nicknamed “The Truth” by Lakers center Shaquille O’Neal until 2001.)

Now the Celtics and Lakers are lining up back-to-back in the draft, and if something happens like Embiid dropping to Boston and going on to stardom, or Ainge using his higher pick to land Love in trade and lock him into Boston long-term, it’ll be another memorable footnote in the historic rivalry.

Kevin Ding covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.

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John Wall Holds Edge over Damian Lillard in Battle of Young Elite Point Guards

Thursday night’s game between the Washington Wizards and Portland Trail Blazers was a contest between two teams in similar positions in their respective conferences. Both teams are all but assured of making the playoffs, but have fallen behind in the race to secure home-court advantage in the first round.

Of course, the highlight of this game was the marquee matchup of Washington’s John Wall and Portland’s Damian Lillard, perhaps the two most dynamic young point guards in the game. Both players lived up to their billing, at least on the stat sheet. Lillard scored 23 points, dished out 10 assists and grabbed six rebounds, while Wall posted 24 points, 14 assists and two boards.  

But the Eastern Conference Wizards have learned a valuable lesson while visiting the West Coast: There’s no comparing the league’s two conferences. They headed west following a stirring March 15 victory over the Brooklyn Nets, their 10th win in their last 14 games.

But that guaranteed them nothing. 

Washington’s 116-103 loss to the Blazers—though not nearly as embarrassing as Tuesday’s defeat at the hand of an already-eliminated Sacramento Kings—was yet another reminder that this is not a team built to compete in the Wild West.

The struggling Blazers didn’t even need leading scorer LaMarcus Aldridge—still on the shelf with a back injury—to dispatch Washington. Small forward Nicolas Batum continued his sterling all-around play of late, with 12 points, 14 rebounds and five assists. Reserve big man Dorell Wright stepped into Aldridge’s starting spot and chipped in 15 points and seven rebounds of his own. And shooting guard Wesley Matthews led all scorers with 28 points.

The Wizards simply could not match that kind of firepower. Sure, they have quality players like Trevor Ariza (15 points), and a budding young star in Bradley Beal (18 points, on subpar 6-of-18 shooting). But even the astonishing renaissance of veteran Drew Gooden (18 points) could not help overcome the Blazers.

So the outcome of this might raise the question, does a win for Lillard’s team mean he is the better player? Absolutely not. If anything, the result of Thursday’s game obscures the fact that Wall is in the midst of an astonishing run of play, and that he is on the verge of claiming the title of league’s best point guard.

 

The Difference Between Lillard and Wall

John Wall and Damian Lillard have a lot in common. Both are 23 years old—born a little less than two months apart. Both were lottery picks: Wall at No. 1 overall in 2010 and Lillard at No. 6 overall in 2012. Both are athletic freaks who demonstrated their hops in the 2014 Slam Dunk Contest (won by Wall). And both made their first All-Star team in February.

Most importantly, Lillard and Wall both have a noted flaw in their game, one clear obstacle between each player and elite status. 

For Lillard, that flaw is his defense. He can shoot the three, take his man off the dribble and run an elite offense. In fact, Lillard might be the most important cog in a Portland scoring attack that ranks first in the NBA in points per 100 possessions.

But the Blazers also rank a paltry 19th in defensive efficiency, despite what appears to be an above-average defensive frontcourt of Aldridge, Batum and Robin Lopez. And Lillard is a big reason for that. He has yet to translate his top-shelf athleticism into elite defense. This has often forced the Blazers to switch Batum onto opposing point guards as SB Nation’s Dane Carbaugh explained in February:

Of course, a lot of this has to do with Lillard’s deficiencies on defense. His inability to fight over screens and his issues staying in front of ball-handlers — particularly by overplaying the dominant hand and biting on the first dribble move — has made him the weakest link on defense for Portland starters.

This forces Batum on to many opposing point guards by default, and unless the Blazers can improve the young guard’s defensive habits, we should continue to see Nicolas Batum guarding the ball-handler earlier in games.

As for Wall, his weakness was his shaky jumper. While he may just be the fastest player in the league with the ball in his hands and capable of getting by nearly any defender, Wall’s poor jump shot allows opposing defenses to play off him. Until this season, he certainly couldn’t make shots from beyond the arc, as he shot an embarrassing 24.3 percent on three-pointers during his first three years in the league.

But that might be changing.

Thursday’s game was an auspicious moment in Wall’s career—with his 5-for-10 performance from distance, he improved his three-point shooting percentage on the season to 36.4 percent. With this season’s league average hovering around 36.0 percent, this marks the first time in Wall’s career that he’s shown to be at least an average three-point shooter.

In fact, Wall has shot the three significantly better than Lillard since the All-Star Break:

This should terrify the rest of the league. Wall could already finish, distribute and defend at an All-Star level. If he can continue to shoot the three this well, he will be all but unstoppable.

Wizards coach Randy Wittman has gone out of his way to praise Wall’s tenacious two-way game of late, as he did following their win against Brooklyn, per The Washington Post‘s Michael Lee:

John, sometimes, I think we lose sight of some of the things John does and I would be remiss to not mention the game that he had. The aggression that he played in that fourth quarter, really ignited us. I thought he played both ends of the floor as hard as he could.”

Indeed, we are seeing the improvement, and it goes beyond vague terms like “leadership.” Wall has improved his game in a very real, tangible way. 

While he may not have the teammates necessary to make a real impact on the playoffs, John Wall should be commended for fixing the holes in his game and carrying the Wizards to their first postseason since 2008. If the front office can surround him with more talent, Washington could become a major player in the next few years.

 

*Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are courtesy of Basketball-Reference.

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Old Kentucky Fans Battle in Dance-off in the Stands

Some people, regardless of age, will do anything to get on camera.

During Tuesday’s Alabama-Kentucky game, two Wildcats fans engaged in a dance-off. The guy on the right gets style points for his outfit, and the man on the left gets bonus points for involving another person.

The battle was too close to call, so you can judge for yourself.

[cjzero]

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Rick Pitino’s battle against social media

Rick Pitino does not hate social media, unless you take him out of context.

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Best Tweets from Los Angeles Clippers’ Battle with Golden State Warriors

The Golden State Warriors were able to get back on track after losing three of their last four Thursday evening against the Los Angeles Clippers 111-92.

The game was never close, as Golden State led by double digits after the first quarter of play. Guard Stephen Curry stayed hot the entire evening, going 8-of-10 from the field and leading his team with 22 points.

The Warriors had six players score double digits, including Andrew Bogut, who grabbed 17 rebounds to go along with his 14 points. The home squad shot 49.5 percent from the field, despite going 6-of-21 from beyond the arc.

Blake Griffin paced the Clippers with 27 points, DeAndre Jordan pulled down 20 rebounds and Darren Collison added 22 points while dishing out five assists, but it was not enough for Los Angeles, as they were outplayed the entire evening.

The game did not disappoint, especially from a hype standpoint. After the two teams battled in two previous meetings, they matched up for the first time since a postgame confrontation in December.

Rusty Simmons of the San Francisco Chronicle provided some in-game insight via Twitter on Curry, who was having another great evening:

Halfway through the game, the Warriors were taken over. Not on the court, however. San Francisco Giants closer Sergio Romo took over the Warriors Twitter account with Golden State up by double digits.

Romo was all over the coverage, using the hashtag #RomoTakeover. Here are some of his best moments:

The Warriors gave Romo a #DubNation T-shirt for his participation. He enjoyed the rest of the game from a suite. Romo wouldn’t have to worry about the Warriors not getting a “dub” of their own, as they blew out Los Angeles by more than 15 points.

The Warriors still find themselves at the bottom of the Western Conference standings. They are building, however. A run-and-gun style offense still needs to learn to play defense. If they can continue playing the way they did against a Top 5 team in the West, then they should be able to do it all season long.

As for Los Angeles, the Clippers find themselves among the best in the Western Conference with the All-Star break nearing. Getting Chris Paul back will be necessary, but developing a better defense should be the main goal for Los Angeles.

The Western Conference, especially the Pacific Division, will be fun to watch as the rest of the NBA season unfolds.

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Harrison twins propel Kentucky past Tennessee in SEC battle

Andrew and Aaron Harrison combined for 40 points to pace the Wildcats.

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No. 2 Syracuse handles No. 11 Villanova in battle of unbeatens

Trevor Cooney scored 21 points, Tyler Ennis had 20 and C.J. Fair added 17.

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Louisville vs. Kentucky: Score, Grades and Analysis from Battle for Bluegrass

The Battle for the Bluegrass belonged to the No. 18-ranked Kentucky Wildcats on Saturday at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky. Behind a dominating performance in the paint, the Wildcats knocked off the No. 6 Louisville Cardinals, 73-66.

In the first half, Julius Randle was dominant, scoring 17 points on 7-of-8 from the field. He battled leg cramps in the second half, but his teammates provided plenty of support.

Fellow freshman James Young continues to demonstrate his all-around skills. He made several key passes and hustle plays in a pivotal second-half stretch that won the game for Kentucky. He finished with 18 points, 10 rebounds and four assists.

Louisville senior Russ Smith and junior Chris Jones were the lone bright spots for the Cardinals on offense. Smith had 19 points, and Jones finished with 18.

Here’s a closer look at the key points in the game.

 

Randle Untouchable Early

With the way the big freshman played in the first 20 minutes, there’s no telling what the final score would have been had cramps not knocked him out for most of the second half.

His play close to the basket not only resulted in 17 points, he also helped to get most of the Cardinals frontcourt in foul trouble early.

 

Cold Shooting

This game was far from a shootout. Both Louisville and Kentucky struggled from the free-throw line and the field. They made a combined 22.5 percent of their shots from three-point range. The Wildcats won despite making just 53.3 percent of their free throws. Louisville converted only about 64 percent of its attempts from the line.

This was a grinding, physical and hard-fought battle. Needless to say, neither team can expect to go far in March without better overall shooting performances.

 

Wildcats Dominate the Boards

The key to the game was the battle on the boards. Even with leading rebounder Randle on the bench for more than half the game, Kentucky still used its immense size advantage to enjoy a 44-36 edge on the glass.

Willie Cauley-Stein had 10 rebounds to join Young in double figures.

 

Grades

Russ Smith, Louisville: B-

“Russdiculous” had his moments, like this amazing slam over Randle in the first half.

But he missed a boatload of free throws late that cost his team. He was 5-of-10 from the stripe and had issues finishing against Kentucky’s size close to the basket. He was forced to drive most of the game, as he missed all five of his three-point attempts.

 

Julius Randle, Kentucky: B

Randle almost deserves an incomplete, but he was such a factor in the first half that you have to recognize his limited work.

He proved he could be big yet again in a marquee matchup, but it would have been nice to see him play in the second half.

 

Andrew Harrison, Kentucky: B-

Though he was a dreadful 6-of-12 from the free-throw line, Harrison did have 18 points in the game. For the most part, he played under control, took good shots and created for his teammates in the second half.

He added two assists in the game to go with his career-high in points.

 

James Young, Kentucky: A-

Young didn’t shoot the ball well (5-of-17), but his instincts, effort and feel for the game are most impressive. He’s the glue guy for the Wildcats and will ultimately help determine just how far they advance come March.

His double-double was huge in this one.

 

Chris Jones, Louisville: B-

Jones was just too small and inaccurate from the outside to be effective on Saturday. He made just three of nine attempts from three-point range and couldn’t continue the pace he set in the first half. All but three of his 18 points came in the first 20 minutes of the game.

In his defense, the Cardinals bigs couldn’t amount any offense to create space for him to work.

 

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Duke Basketball: Where Blue Devils Stand in Battle for ACC Supremacy

No college basketball league did more to improve itself while the conference-realignment merry-go-round was spinning this offseason than the ACC, but it was still a familiar name that sat atop the preseason projections.

The ACC may have added Syracuse, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and Louisville (starting next season), but Duke was ranked higher than any of its ACC brethren at No. 4 in the initial AP and USA Today Coaches polls.

Expectations were sky-high before the Blue Devils ever took the floor thanks to the returns of Quinn Cook and Rasheed Sulaimon and the premier additions of Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood. At the very least, this squad was going to win the ACC and find itself on the short list of candidates for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

However, with ACC play right around the corner, the Blue Devils may not actually be the cream of the crop in the league after all. Mike Krzyzewski’s squad sits at a solid 8-2, but those two losses came against the only two opponents Duke faced that are currently ranked in either poll.

Yes, one of the nine victories was against Michigan, but the Wolverines are a pedestrian 6-4 and were wildly overrated to start the season thanks largely to last year’s accomplishments of Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. (who are no longer there).

It is also worth mentioning that the Blue Devils needed late escapes at home against East Carolina and Vermont (which Duke only beat by one point on a late free throw). Coach K and Co. look much more vulnerable than many people expected through the early going.

That’s not to say there aren’t a number of positive signs through 10 games that will help Duke compete for a conference title once league play begins.

The bar was set incredibly high for Parker and Hood, yet somehow they have both surpassed it. Parker is the best stat sheet-stuffer in major college basketball and is averaging 22 points, 7.6 rebounds, 1.1 steals and 1.4 blocks a game, while Hood is posting nightly numbers of 18.9 points, five rebounds and just less than one steal a game.

Most impressively, though, is the efficiency with which these superstars score. Parker is shooting 55 percent from the field, 47 percent from downtown and 75.4 percent from the free-throw line. Hood is shooting 56.5 percent from the field, 45.7 percent from downtown and 85 percent from the free-throw line.

While Parker and Hood have drawn the most headlines, Cook is also playing the best basketball of his career from the point guard spot. He is scoring 14.7 points and dishing out 6.6 assists a night and, most importantly, has better than a 3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio.

Behind Parker, Hood and Cook, Krzyzewski has the best offense in the nation according to Ken Pomeroy’s pace-adjusted offensive efficiency ratings. In the battle for ACC supremacy this year, nobody will be able to find the basket as consistently as the Blue Devils in the critical moments.

However, if Duke is eventually outclassed in the ACC, there are a handful of potential culprits that will take the blame.

The Blue Devils rank an abysmal 101st in Pomeroy’s defensive efficiency ratings, which almost entirely cancels out the fact that they are so excellent on offense. They also rank an alarming 284th in the nation in rebounds per game, and that’s through 10 games, including contests against the likes of Davidson, Florida Atlantic, UNC Asheville and Gardner-Webb.

There is no established big-man rotation that Krzyzewski appears comfortable with yet, and the lack of a strong interior presence is a major contributing factor to Duke’s defense and rebounding concerns. Furthermore, for as great as Cook has been on offense, he is more of a personal escort to the rim on the defensive end.

That’s not even getting into the mysterious disappearance of Sulaimon. He never saw the floor against Michigan and only played five minutes in a blowout win against Gardner-Webb. It’s hard to imagine the Blue Devils winning the ACC without Sulaimon being somewhat of a factor for the entire season.

So with all this in mind, where do the Blue Devils stand in the conference pecking order?

It is probably safe to put them ahead of Virginia Tech, Maryland, Clemson, Wake Forest, North Carolina State, Georgia Tech, Notre Dame, Florida State, Miami and Boston College. They are also head-and-shoulders better than Virginia, although Joe Harris could give Duke’s defense some problems.

The comparisons get more tenuous when analyzing how the Blue Devils stack up against Pittsburgh, North Carolina and Syracuse.

The Panthers are on the short list of ACC contenders for now because they are undefeated, although that is largely due to a tissue-soft nonconference schedule. Duke will be much more battle-tested when league play begins, which is a testament to Krzyzewski’s willingness to challenge his team through scheduling. Let’s give the nod to the Devils here.

That leaves the Tar Heels and Orange.

North Carolina already has three monumental victories over Kentucky, Michigan State and Louisville (but also inexplicably lost to UAB and Belmont), and Marcus Paige has emerged as an absolute superstar. Even James Michael McAdoo is playing well, and the Heels may eventually add P.J. Hairston to the mix when his situation is sorted out.

A trio of Hairston, Paige (19.2 points, 4.2 assists and 1.7 steals a game) and McAdoo (13.8 points, 5.8 rebounds, 1.6 steals and 1.1 blocks a game) will be difficult for Duke’s porous defense to stop.

The Orange are undefeated and ranked No. 2 in both major polls. C.J. Fair is a stud in the making down low (18.1 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.9 steals a game), while freshman Tyler Ennis (12.3 points, five assists and 2.6 steals a game) has surpassed expectations as a floor-general and overall playmaker. Furthermore, the always-difficult 2-3 could at least slow Parker and Hood.

Both North Carolina and Syracuse are capable of exploiting Duke’s weaknesses with terrific ball-handlers against Cook and strong interior players that can rebound. It’s not difficult to imagine Fair and McAdoo having their way down low against the Blue Devils’ big-man rotation. 

Duke is unquestionably in the top three in the ACC pecking order, but if it wants to be the one holding the league trophy come March, there are some questions that need to be answered rather quickly.

 

Follow and interact with Bleacher Report writer Scott Polacek on Twitter @ScottPolacek.

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