ACC questions set to be answered starting Saturday

Jan. 03, 2013 @ 10:39 PM

Finally, the games really mean something.
After almost two months against mostly mediocre and worse opponents, the ACC finally begins league play on Saturday, the start of proving who are going to contenders and who aren’t. No longer will the league’s members fatten up on the likes of Bryant (oh wait, it beat Boston College) and Flordia Gulf Coast (oh wait, it beat Miami).
For the most part, the teams are who we thought they were.
Yes, 13-0 and No.1-ranked Duke is now the favorite to win the league title instead of preseason choice N.C. State. But, the Blue Devils weren’t chopped liver and were picked by some as the best.
That was before they handled the toughest preconference schedule of any team, highlighted by beating five probable NCAA Tournament teams. It was before Mason Plumlee transformed from a role player to replacing State’s C.J. Leslie for player of the  favorite for player year, leading the Blue Devils with a 18.8 points per game average (that ranks second in the league) and leading the conference in rebounding at 11.2. And it was before Rasheed Sulaimon proved that he may be the best freshman.
The biggest threat to Duke? State seems to be the top contender, bouncing back from two early losses to sit 11-2 and boasting five scorers in double figures, the best field goal shooting percentage in the country (53.5 percent) and league leader in assists and steals (Lorenzo Brown).
Cases can be made for Maryland and North Carolina. The Terps have won 12 straight after losing their opener to Kentucky, received an upgrade in the addition of transfer Dez Wells after preseason polls were taken, and have a solid big man in Alex Lin. The question remains whether they have enough additional pieces.
The pieces finally seemed to fit for North Carolina coach Roy Williams when his young Tar Heels finally showed some toughness and beat then nationally-ranked UNLV. The performance came in part to a breakout game from P.J. Hairston as Reggie Bullock was unable to play after suffering a concussion in practice. ESPN reported Thursday that Bullock still hasn’t been cleared for Sunday’s opener against Virginia.
Below the top four, the picture gets little murkier.
Florida State and Miami were expected to be in the upper-echelon conversation. The Hurricanes (9-3) suffered a blow last week when center Reggie Johnson suffered a broken left thumb that will sideline him for most of the conference season.
Florida State has been one of the biggest disappointments, sitting at 8-5 with a blowout loss to Florida and setbacks against non-powers Mercer and Auburn. But, the Seminoles were in a similar place last year and rolled all the way to the ACC Tournament championship.
The best of the rest. That is probably Virgina, which is 10-3 (with a win at Wisconsin and its only bad loss to Old Dominion). The Cavaliers have won with defense, holding teams to an average of 50.7 points.
At one time Virginia Tech sat as the surprise of the league after winning its first seven games. But, the Hokies are 2-4 since, the last two losses to Colorado State and BYU. They do have the conference’s leading scorer in Erick Green, who is averaging  24.4 points, but have just seven scholarship player.
The jury is waiting to see if Georgia Tech (10-2), Clemson (8-4), Boston College (8-5) and Wake Forest (7-5) can prove they can do any better than finish in the bottom third of the league.
Georgia Tech has won six in a row, with its biggest win coming over Georgia and the losses at the hands of California and Illinois.
Clemson, led by seniors Devin Booker and Milton Jennings, beat struggling South Carolina and was embarrassed by Coastal Carolina. Boston College has won five in a row since going to a guard-oriented lineup. Wake scored possibly its biggest win of the Jeff Bzdelik era when it defeated Xavier on Wednesday. The Demon Deacons’ freshmen are maturing. But, there aren’t any Furmans and UNC Greensboros left on the schedule.
All the guessing will end starting Saturday.