Notre Dame has reached the one-third point of its ACC season at a surprising 5-1 and ranked among the nation's Top 10. It's lone blemish since a mid-November "find-yourself-hiccup" against Providence? A hard-fought defeat at the hands of the second-best team in the nation.
Accepting each team featured below has miles to go before they'll sleep, we offer our first weekly Monday morning look at the ACC landscape as the second-place Irish hit the road for a two-game set outside of South Bend.
A CUT ABOVE?
Top five nationally in offensive efficiency -- top two on the defensive end. Experienced. Quick, rugged and powerful, mentally tough. Well-equipped to fire from long range or work for points closer to the paint. A vexing defensive scheme coached by one of the nation's best. There's nothing not to like about defending ACC Champion Virginia, nor is there an early indication that the Cavaliers won't finish atop the standings again this March.
CONTENDERS TO THE END?
Notre Dame has the league's trio of expected royalty -- Duke, Louisville, and North Carolina -- the Irish already with a win over the Tar Heels in Chapel Hill and a pair of dates with Duke pending between now and Feb. 7. (Louisville isn't on tap until March.)
None from the quartet seems likely to fall from the league's top six by season's end -- few from the group seem ready to rumble with the likes of Virginia, either. Louisville has a chance with a home-and-home set up against the Wahoos but that's likely to their detriment. The Cardinals host both North Carolina and Notre Dame this winter, giving them the edge among peers. (Duke has both ND and UNC in home-and-home situations after handling Louisville in Kentucky, 63-52, this weekend.)
At 4-2, North Carolina State has already banked a win over Duke while taking North Carolina to the wire at the Dean Dome on Jan. 14. The Wolfpack travel to face our second sleeper team from this section, Miami, on Thursday. Miami has multiple offensive options, athletes, and a 7-footer that can at least deter opponents in the post, defensively.
Syracuse (4-1) struggled mightily in non-conference play (9-4) before getting healthy on likely ACC cellar dwellers Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, and Florida State. Boston College is next in line as is a home rematch with Virginia Tech in early February. If Syracuse can pull off one win in between (Miami or at UNC), the then 7-2 Orange will be sitting pretty at the mid-point.
Then it could get ugly -- Syracuse will likely be underdogs in seven of its final nine games this season.
(For a spoiler role, keep an eye on Wake Forest. Six-foot-nine power forward Devin Thomas has all-conference ability and the Demon Deacons haven't been an easy out of late.)
TEAM OF THE WEEK (Jan. 12-18)
Notre Dame (2-0) -- Had a "Play-in game" of sorts for this mythical trophy against Miami Saturday in South Bend after the Hurricanes dispatched of Duke in Durham three days previous. The Irish won on the road without their starting center, then fought back against the potent 'Canes offense to record a win without using a big man over the final 15:32.
TOOK IT ON THE CHIN
Syracuse (1-1) -- After winning in overtime at home vs. Wake Forest, the Orange suffered their first conference loss of the season Saturday at middling Clemson, losing on the road 66-53 after falling behind 39-18 at the half.
THE WEEK AHEAD
-- Toughest Stretch: Duke hosts Pittsburgh tonight, just two days after winning at Louisville, then plays out-of-conference at St. John's in Madison Square Garden.
-- Toughest Week Ahead, Part II: North Carolina State (at Miami; three days later host Notre Dame)
-- Another 2-0 week on tap: Virginia. My goodness, Virginia…
-- On upset alert: North Carolina at Wake Forest.
-- Prediction for the Irish: 1-1 -- If not, Notre Dame's 4-0 road start in conference will be a first in program history (Big East or ACC).
STANDINGS and SCHEDULE (Rankings as of Sunday)
#2 Virginia (17-0; 5-0) -- Home vs. Ga. Tech Thursday; at Va. Tech Sunday
#12 Notre Dame (17-2; 5-1) -- At Va. Tech on Thursday; NC State on Sunday
#15 North Carolina (14-4; 4-1) -- At Wake Forest Wednesday; host FSU Saturday
Syracuse (13-5; 4-1) -- Host BC Tuesday; Miami Saturday
Miami, FL (12-5; 4-2) -- Host NC State Thursday; at Syracuse Saturday
NC State (13-6; 4-2) -- At Miami Thursday; host ND Sunday
#4 Duke (15-2; 3-2) -- Host Pittsburgh Monday; out of conference at St. John's Sunday
#6 Louisville (15-3; 3-2) -- At Pittsburgh on Sunday
Pittsburgh (13-5; 3-2) -- At Duke Monday; host Louisville Sunday
Clemson (10-7; 2-3) -- Host FSU Monday; Wake Forest Saturday
Florida State (9-9; 1-4) -- At Clemson Monday; at UNC Saturday
Wake Forest (9-9; 1-4) -- Host UNC Wednesday; at Clemson Saturday
Boston College (8-8; 0-4) -- At Syracuse Tuesday; at Ga. Tech Sunday
Virginia Tech (8-9; 0-4) -- Host ND Thursday; host UVA Sunday
Georgia Tech (9-8; 0-5) -- At UVA Thursday; host BC Sunday