Bob Holliday

Handicapping the final furlongs of a six-horse race in the ACC

Posted February 15

Maybe it’s the years I spent growing up in Kentucky as a child, but I have come to see this Atlantic Coast Conference basketball season as a great horse race. Yes, even more important competition waits in New York and Phoenix. But late February brings the first leg of the “Triple Crown,” where the jockeys will maneuver, maybe going for the whip a time or two, as the final furlongs unfold in what may be the league’s greatest stretch run ever.

In 1985, three teams tied for first at 9-5; a decade later, four teams tied for first in at 12-4. Then, 2007 saw UNC and Virginia tie for first at 11-5 with three more teams tied at 10-6. These are the only ACC races I can find that compare with the present.

The 2017 stretch-run could be epic. Unless you take the point of view that league leader North Carolina will either run the table or lose just once against a very difficult schedule; unless you’re convinced Florida State, Virginia, Duke, or Louisville will win out, you have to consider the possibility that five-loss Notre Dame still has a chance.

In horse racing, as in basketball, certain things matter. What’s the background? The track record? Who’s the jockey? What kind of environment is preferred? What are the odds? Be sure, I’m no oddsmaker. I am simply trying to help fans get the full perspective on what I think could be some of the most exciting weeks in the storied years of the Atlantic Coast Conference. So here’s how I would handicap the final weeks, the final furlongs if you will, of this ACC horse race. I am guided here by the late Dan Fogelberg:

“Run for the Roses”
It’s breeding and it’s training and it’s something unknown
That guides you and carries you home
-- Dan Fogelberg 1982

North Carolina

Breeding: The school has produced five NCAA champions and 18 ACC champs. The Tar Heels have won or tied for the ACC regular season title 29 times.

Training: 9-3 ACC; 21-5 overall

Something Unknown: Can the Tar Heels defend aggressively in slower paced games and run their half court offense effectively? Virginia, Louisville, and Duke will try to keep UNC from running.

Injury History: Theo Pinson has been injured twice this season. Joel Berry missed time, ankle injury. Tony Bradley missed games after suffering a concussion. Isaiah Hicks did not play vs. Duke-hamstring. Now Kenny Williams has a lower extremity injury.

Big Numbers:

  • No. 1 in Scoring Offense 84.8
  • No. 1 in Assist/TO Ratio 1.5
  • No. 4 in Steals 7.1 per game
  • No. 1 in Off Reb Pctg 42.3 percent

Bad Numbers:

  • No. 11 FT Pctg 68.7 percent
  • No. 8 in FG Defense 45.6 percent
  • No. 10 Blkd Shots 3.7

Jockey: Roy Williams This Hall of Famer has 804 wins; multiple ACC and NCAA titles

Track Preference/Pace: This team much prefers a fast track. Slower pace in Atlanta and Miami led to defeat. UNC has not won an ACC game without scoring at least 80 points..

Trifecta: 38.6 percent Ranks 9th in ACC

Final Furlongs: at NC State, Virginia, Louisville, at Pitt, at Virginia, Duke

Odds: 5 to 2. As the current leader, North Carolina has the best odds to win the ACC race. But be sure, these Heels are no odds-on favorite. Very tough remaining schedule.

Florida State

Breeding: Florida State has one Final Four in 1972. Has one ACC title in 2012.

Training: 9-4 ACC; 21-5 overall

Something Unknown: Can Florida State run strong in unfriendly venues like Duke, even Pitt and Clemson, during the ACC stretch run? Can Leonard Hamilton match moves with Mike Krzyzewski and keep pace with the Hall of Fame coaches also in contention these final weeks? This is just FSU’s second stretch run in ACC regular season. Seminoles won ACC Tournament in 2012 under Hamilton but have never won regular season. Also: Can this group make clutch free throws?

Injury History: Healthy group. Very deep bench.

Big Numbers:

  • No. 3 Scoring Offense 80.5
  • No. 3 FG Defense 43.5 percent
  • No. 1 Blocks 5.5 per game
  • No. 2 Steals 7.6 per game
  • No. 1 Turnovers Force 14.8 per game
  • No. 1 Turnover Margin 3.0

Bad Numbers:

  • No. 14 FT Pctg 64.6 percent
  • No. 12 Def Reb Pctg 67.4 percent

Jockey: Leonard Hamilton 477 Wins; 2012 ACC Title

Track Preference/Pace: Fast or slow. Very adaptable group. Seminoles have won and lost while going up tempo. Have also won when opponents “muddied it up.” ‘But Noles have lost going slower as well. Pace doesn’t seem to be a huge factor for FSU.

Trifecta: 37.3 percent Ranks 8th in ACC

Final Furlongs: At Pitt, Boston College, at Clemson, at Duke, Miami

Odds: 3 to 1. Currently in second place, Florida State is very much in position to find some daylight in the crowded ACC race and bolt to the front. But FSU has been in this position all season and continues to suffer unexpected setbacks. Schedule works in Seminoles’ favor; or does it?


Breeding: UVA has two Final Fours, 1981 and 1984; Two ACC Titles (1976 and 2014). Virginia has won or tied for the regular season championship seven times.

Training: 8-4 ACC; 18-6 overall

Something Unknown: Can the Cavaliers find some inside scoring punch to complement their strong shooters on the perimeter?

Injury History: Healthy this year.

Big Numbers:

  • No. 1 Scoring Defense 61.8
  • No. 1 FG Pctg 48.5 percent
  • No. 4 FG Defense 43.7 percent
  • No. 3 3 Pt Defense 32.4 percent
  • No. 1 Def Reb Pctg 77.7 percent

Bad Numbers:

  • No. 11 Off Reb Pctg 26.8 percent

Jockey: Tony Bennett 252 wins; 2014 ACC Title;  2 ACC Regular Season Titles

Track Preference/Pace: Slow. Hard to go against the Cavaliers, especially if you like it fast. Only Pitt (88) and Clemson (73 in a loss to UVA) have scored more than 70 against Virginia in ACC games. UVA will dictate pace.

Trifecta: 41.1 percent No. 1 in ACC

Final Furlongs: Duke, at UNC, Miami, at NC State, UNC, Pitt

Odds: 3 to 1. Virginia is tied with Florida State in the loss column for second place. UVA might be favorite had Cavs not lost Sunday at Virginia Tech. If UVA beats Duke and then wins at UNC Saturday, Cavs become the favorite. Most remaining games are at home where Virginia rarely loses.


Breeding: Like North Carolina, Duke is a basketball thoroughbred. The program has won five NCAA Championships and 19 ACC titles. The Blue Devils have won or tied for the ACC Regular Season Title 19 times.

Training: 8-4 ACC; 20-5 overall

Something Unknown: Whether this group can continue to get stops and defensive rebounds in critical moments, as it did against UNC, in the final weeks against a very difficult schedule.

Injury History: Three of the four freshmen missed significant time with injuries. Amile Jefferson missed several games with an injury. Grayson Allen missed one game due to suspension. Allen rolled his ankle against Clemson and headed to the locker room for taping/treatment. Did not play at his usual level upon return.

Big Numbers:

  • No. 4 Scoring Offense 80.2 percent
  • No. 4 FT Shooting Pctg 75.4 percent
  • No. 2 FG Pctg 48 percent

Bad Numbers:

  • No. 10 FG Defense 47.1 percent
  • No. 9 Blkd Shots 3.9
  • No. 11 Steals 5.1
  • No. 10 Turnover Margin -1

Jockey: Mike Krzyzewski. A Hall of Famer who has 1,063 college basketball wins, 990 of them at Duke. Coach K also has multiple NCAA and ACC Championships.

Track Preference/Pace: Adaptable. This team has won games in the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, 90’s. Broke the century mark against Georgia Tech. Duke has also lost playing fast tempo and moderate tempo.

Trifecta: 39.7 percent No. 2 in ACC

Final Furlongs: Grueling. At Virginia, Wake Forest, at Syracuse, at Miami, Florida State, at UNC

Odds: 5 to 1. Where Virginia has four at home and two away, Duke has two at home and four away. Remaining Duke opponents have best combined record versus any other schedule. Coach K has proven track record at winning down the stretch, but program has not won regular season since 2010.


Breeding: A school located in horse country must be considered a thoroughbred. Plus U of L has won 3 NCAA Championships. Competed in 10 Final Fours, only UNC and Duke in ACC have more. Cardinals have not finished better than fourth since joining ACC.

Training: 9-4 ACC; 21-5 overall

Something Unknown: Can the Cardinals shoot well enough to win against the league’s best? UL shot 50 percent plus for three games against lower echelon teams but in last three games, the Cards have shot 42 percent, 39 percent, and 37 percent. Defense, rebounding, and transition by themselves are not enough. Must make shots out of half court offense.

Injury History: Quentin Snider missed multiple games but has returned. Tony Hicks remains out indefinitely.

Big Numbers:

  • No. 2 Scoring Defense 65.4
  • No. 1 Scoring Margin 11.1
  • No. 2 Field Goal Defense 41.8 percent
  • No. 1 3pt Defense 30.2 percent
  • No. 4 Blkd Shots 4.7
  • No. 5 Steals 6.5
  • No. 2 Turnover Margin 2.75
  • No. 3 Off Reb Pctg 33.9 percent

Bad Numbers:

  • No. 6 FG Pctg 46.3 percent (very inconsistent-see above)
  • No. 14 Assists 12.8 per game    
  • No. 10 FT Pctg 69.4 percent

Jockey: Rick Pitino. Another Hall of Famer. 766 wins; more than 400 of them at Louisville. Has won an NCAA Championship at Louisville (also won one at Kentucky) plus multiple SEC and Big East Titles. Still looking for ACC breakthrough.

Track Preference/Pace: Fast, slow, even muddy. Louisville has scored as few as 53 points and as many as 106 this ACC season. Like Duke, U of L has won games scoring in 60’s, 70’s 80’s, 90’s, and 100’s. Don’t bet against Louisville in a close game in the 50’s (see Monday night’s game that UL won in OT after it was tied in regulation at 58; a win which likely eliminated Syracuse and its Hall of Famer Jim Boeheim from this ACC horse race).

Trifecta: 38.1 percent No. 6 in ACC

Final Furlongs: Virginia Tech, at North Carolina, Syracuse, at Wake Forest, Notre Dame

Odds: 5 to 1. Cardinals should win their home games, though Notre Dame could be interesting. Trip to Chapel Hill could play a large part in deciding the ACC race. Cards have ground to make up, one game back of UNC and losing tie breakers to both Florida State and Virginia. They could make up that ground.

Notre Dame

Breeding: Notre Dame is still looking for that first National Championship. Irish have made numerous trips to NIT without winning. ND reached NCAA Final Four in 1978. However, unlike other ACC newcomers, Notre Dame does have an ACC Championship.

Training: 9-5 ACC; 20-7 overall

Something Unknown: Irish have the most distance to make up. Can they get help from others? Can they get enough traction to make this race a photo finish?

Injury History: No issues.

Big Numbers:

  • No. 2 FT Pcgt 77.7 percent
  • No. 5 FG Defense 44.9 percent
  • No. 5 Blkd Shots 4.2
  • No. 2 Fewest Turnovers 10.5
  • No. 2 Assist/Turnover Ratio 1.4

Bad Numbers:

  • No. 11 FG Pctg 45.2 percent
  • No. 13 Off Reb Pctg 25.7 percent
  • No. 14 Def Reb Pctg 65.7 percent

Jockey: Mike Brey is an up and comer on the circuit. He has 474 wins, 375 of them at Notre Dame. He has twice guided the Irish to the Elite Eight in the NCAA; won a Big East regular season title in 2001, as well as ACC Tournament in 2015.

Track Preference/Pace: Notre Dame has won on some slow tracks. Recently has won at faster pace. Strategy seems to vary, trying to speed things up against slower opponents, and slow down the faster ones. Medium probably best describes this team’s pace.

Trifecta: 39.4 percent No. 3 in ACC

Final Furlongs: At NC State, Georgia Tech, Boston College, at Louisville.

Odds: 10 to 1. Can Notre Dame, back in the pack, find an opening along the rail and break through? The Irish have a favorable schedule these final furlongs, the easiest among the contenders. But as we have seen all season, this is a league where any team can beat another one time. And Notre Dame can’t afford even one loss-plus the Irish need a great deal of help. For ND to claim a share of the regular season title, FSU, Virginia, Duke, and Louisville must all lose at least once. UNC would have to lose twice.

And Down the Stretch they Come!               

So what now? Will we see several of the front runners break away and give us a three or four team photo finish? Ties are not uncommon over the years in these ACC races, especially two team ties. Will some in the group of six simply run out of gas in the final furlongs? Or, will one of the Hall of Famers orchestrate a dramatic stretch run that leaves the rest of the contenders fighting it out for second? Who lunges at the wire? Does one jockey misjudge the finish and stand up too soon? It’s going to be amazing.

“Run for the Roses”
It’s the chance of a lifetime,
In a lifetime of chance.
And it’s high time we joined in the dance.
It’s high time, we joined in the dance.
-- Dan Fogelberg 1982

And so it is. Riders up!


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