Irish Well-Positioned For Top 3 Finish

Our weekly Monday review of what lies ahead in the Athletic Coast Conference takes a detour to examine the contenders (five) and hopefuls (four more) as the regular season hits the home stretch.

Notre Dame was able to rest, Duke continued to roll, and though challenged, Virginia remained comfortably out in front as the ACC race crystallized heading into the season's final three weeks.

Below is our weekly Monday breakdown of conference action including the week ahead, a stretch in which the Irish will be heavily favored in a pair of matchups including one rematch outside South Bend.

But first, a few predictions of relevance at the top:

LIKELY ORDER OF FINISH
Five teams remain in contention for a top four conference finish and the resulting, coveted two-game bye as a reward prior to March's forthcoming ACC Tournament. Returning champion Virginia kept its stranglehold on first place, though not without a scare, slipping by Wake Forest 61-60 as the conference kings continue to forge an offensive identity without the services of all-league forward Justin Anderson (broken finger/shooting hand).

With a two game cushion at 11-1, Virginia is unlikely to lose the league title outright to anyone other than Duke -- the Blue Devils handed the Wahoos their only conference defeat. That leaves Notre Dame (10-3) and likely Duke (9-3), plus Louisville (8-4) and North Carolina (8-4) battling for three spots and welcomed early week respite for the conference tournament.

Each of the five conference contenders have a few traps to navigate along the way:

Virginia (11-1): Hosts a hot Pittsburgh team tonight (though the Panthers heat index dissipates considerably on the road) and welcomes improved Florida State on Sunday, a game that might not see a combined 120 points. The Cavaliers finish with three of four on the road including a trip to Louisville to conclude the conference slate.

-- Predicted Finish: 15-3, 1st Place

Notre Dame (10-3): The Irish host Wake Forest Tuesday night in South Bend, then travel east for a Saturday afternoon tip-off against Boston College. With both Syracuse (Feb. 24) and a game at Louisville (March 4) on tap, Notre Dame cannot afford a road slip vs. a lesser foes in the Eagles. The Irish finish with a Senior Night outing against Clemson -- look for a one-sided affair in this rematch, the first of which Notre Dame escaped with a 60-58 win at LittleJohn Coliseum.

-- Predicted Finish: 14-4, *3rd Place as result of tiebreaker vs. Duke

Duke (9-3): Hosts North Carolina Wednesday then welcomes Clemson to Cameron Indoor Stadium on Saturday. At present and as currently constructed, the Blue Devils are the most impressive team in the conference (considering Anderson's absence in Charlottesville), but Duke still has a home-and-home with North Carolina and a home date with Syracuse (plus Wake Forest) with which to contend.

-- Predicted Finish: 14-4, *2nd Place tiebreaker over the Irish

Louisville (8-4): Took a step back with last week's home loss to North Carolina State and should face four tough tests among its remaining six outings including a trip to Syracuse this Wednesday. The Cardinals host Miami thereafter, then play a pair of road games vs. defensive-minded squads Georgia Tech and Florida State. Home tilts vs. heavyweights Notre Dame and Virginia conclude the season. A 4-2 finish seems logical.

-- Predicted Finish: 12-6, *5th Place as result of tiebreaker against UNC

North Carolina (8-4): Three home, three road, and there's only one "gimme" in the bunch. The Tar Heels have home-and-homes with Duke and Georgia Tech, the first leg of both being played this week -- in Durham against the Blue Devils Wednesday, then in Chapel Hill Saturday afternoon against the Yellow Jackets. Mix in a home matchup with rival North Carolina State and a trip to Miami and it's clear the Tar Heels will have to put forth their best ball of the season to earn a top four finish.

-- Predicted Finish: 12-6, 4th Place as result of tiebreaker vs. Louisville

Of Note: *Notre Dame and Duke split their two matchups this season. The next tiebreaker according to ACC rules is to compare the teams' records against the team occupying the highest position in the standings -- that team is, and will be Virginia, thus giving Duke the tiebreaker (in my forecast above).

The Tar Heels and Cardinals split their season series. Louisville would win a tiebreaker over North Carolina should the Cardinals win over Virginia to conclude the season, but the Tar Heels would hold the edge if they're able to beat Duke once (in two attempts) and the Cardinals fail to take down the Cavaliers. (Louisville lost to Duke in late January.)

-- 7-5 Syracuse has removed itself from ACC and NCAA contention in 2015, self-assessing penalties during a pending investigation of academic improprieties.

A LOOK BACK, A GLIMPSE AHEAD
With five contenders locked for the tournament, and with Syracuse playing only the role of spoiler, the ACC's best Selection Sunday efforts likely point to seven teams qualifying for the Field of 68.

Solid but unspectacular Clemson (7-6), dangerous NC State (6-7), and surging Pittsburgh (6-6) look to fill the remaining spots, with enigmatic Miami (5-6) -- wins at Duke, Syracuse; against NC State, but losses vs. Georgia Tech, Florida State, and Wake Forest -- in need of a winning streak.

Team of the Week (Feb. 9-15): Duke finished 2-0 on the road, averting disaster in the season's most obvious trap game -- at Florida State just 48 hours after the Blue Devils murdered Notre Dame in Durham. Duke won at Syracuse as well, putting them in position for a two-game home set with the Tar Heels and Tigers over the next six days. Another 2-0 week by the Blue Devils would place them firmly in position for a No. 1 seed on Selection Sunday.

Took it on the chin: Louisville. An unforeseen home loss to North Carolina State on Valentine's Day allows for Notre Dame to still potentially lose at the KFC YUM! Center on March 4 but likely finish a game ahead of the Cardinals in the overall season standings.

-- Tough Sledding This Week: Pittsburgh travels to Charlottesville for a matchup with Virginia tonight, then to Syracuse (and down memory lane) for a matchup with the Orange at the Carrier Dome. Mired at 6-6, if the Panthers can gain a difficult split this week, the schedule shapes up well thereafter (BC, at Wake, Miami, at FSU).

-- Clemson faces a pair of road tests as well, first at Georgia Tech tonight, then at Duke Saturday. The Tigers must win at the Thriller Dome on Monday and sweep remaining home games vs. the Yellow Jackets and Wolfpack to remain viable on Selection Sunday. (Losing at Duke and at Notre Dame would be acceptable defeats.)

-- Because of a weather postponement at Boston College Sunday, Miami is forced to play three games in six days: at BC, home against Virginia Tech, at Louisville on Saturday. The Hurricanes likely need to go 3-0 with North Carolina and Pittsburgh on their remaining slate.

-- Easy Street: Notre Dame. If you can't hold off Wake Forest at home after a seven-day break, and recover to win against the league's worst team four days later on the road, you don't deserve to be in contention for the crown.

-- Mid-tier contender NC State has a one-game week, hosting Virginia Tech on Saturday. The Wolfpack should be 7-7 as they brace for three straight on the road: North Carolina, BC, and Clemson over a nine-day span.

STANDINGS AND SCHEDULE
Virginia (23-1; 11-1) -- Host Pittsburgh tonight; Florida State Sunday
Notre Dame (22-4; 10-3) -- Host Wake Forest Tuesday; at Boston College Saturday
Duke (22-3; 9-3) -- Host North Carolina Wednesday and Clemson Saturday
Louisville (20-5; 8-4) -- At Syracuse Wednesday; host Miami Saturday
North Carolina (18-7; 8-4) -- At Duke Wednesday; Host Ga. Tech Saturday

Syracuse (16-9; 7-5) -- Host Louisville Wednesday and welcome Pittsburgh Saturday
Clemson (15-10; 7-6) -- At Ga. Tech tonight; at Duke Saturday
Pittsburgh (17-9; 6-6) -- At Virginia tonight and at Syracuse Saturday
NC State (15-11; 6-7) -- Host Virginia Tech Saturday
Florida State (14-12; 6-7) -- Host Boston College Wednesday; at Virginia Saturday
Miami, FL (15-9; 5-6) -- At Boston College today (postponed Sunday); home vs. Va. Tech Wednesday; at Louisville Saturday.

Wake Forest (12-14; 4-9) -- At Notre Dame Tuesday
Georgia Tech (11-14; 2-10) -- Host Clemson tonight; at North Carolina Saturday
Virginia Tech (10-15; 2-10) -- At Miami tonight; at NC State Saturday
Boston College (9-14; 1-10) -- Host Miami today and Notre Dame on Saturday


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