The Syracuse Orange (18-8, 8-5) are the hottest team in the ACC of late, winning five straight games, and eight of their last nine. Relegated to "Bubble Watch" status less than a week ago, SU continues to handle its business against any and all foes, and now appears to be firmly "in" the tournament field (as of right now) with five games to play.
The Orange's work is far from done, however. Luckily, the ACC is a pretty parity-filled league this season.
Take a look at the current conference standings. Right now, 11 teams are still mathematical contenders for first place in the league. Of those, eight are within 2.5 games of first (a spot currently inhabited by North Carolina at 10-2). One of those contending squads? Syracuse, which also owns wins over two of the teams (Duke, Notre Dame) above them already.
A quick look at what's left for each of those eight:
North Carolina Tar Heels (10-2)
Opponents remaining: vs. Duke, vs. Miami, at NC State, at Virginia, vs. Syracuse, at Duke
While UNC has a built-in advantage as the current leader, they also have to face the toughest slate of the contending teams. As many as five of these upcoming contests could potentially end up being losses. And even if they split the remaining six, that still leaves them in a precarious spot at 13-5. Going 4-2 or better against this group isn't impossible -- and in fact, should be probable if this Heels team is truly a title contender. But no one should consider their place here sealed.
Miami Hurricanes (9-3)
Opponents remaining: vs. Virginia Tech, at North Carolina, vs. Virginia, vs. Louisville, at Notre Dame at Virginia Tech
Miami, with a game against North Carolina, would seem to be the team best situated to dethrone the Tar Heels, but then you look at that slate above. Carolina's road to a top seed in the ACC Tournament is still a bit tougher, but not by too much over the Hurricanes. Miami also has to leave their home state three separate times while UNC does so only once (to nearby Virginia). Like UNC, Miami can conceivably go 4-2 here if they're truly a contender. But 2-4 is easily on the table as well, even if they're up to the task come Tournament time.
Virginia Cavaliers (9-4)
Opponents remaining: vs. NC State, at Miami, vs. North Carolina, at Clemson, vs. Louisville
Virginia also gets a shot at North Carolina, bolstering their chances to overtake first place, plus they can beat their primary competitor (Miami) too in the process. The Hoos' odds may really hinge on what type of shape Louisville is in, however. If the Cards wind up lifeless to end the season, given their NCAA Tournament ban, then this could much more easily turn into a 4-1 stretch. If not -- like we've said for the others -- you're looking at a potential three or maybe even four losses, which is devastating for UVA's hopes.
Opponents remaining: at Georgia Tech, at Wake Forest, at Florida State, vs. Miami, vs. NC State
Road games are never easy, but the Irish may have gotten the best possible streak of them late in the season. The defending ACC champions have the most winnable stretch of the conference's top four teams right now, and with an upset of Miami, could even find themselves at 14-4 to end the year. Given North Carolina's tougher slate, and the fact that Notre Dame holds the tiebreaker between the two teams, a healthy ND team could be the sleeper candidate to take first without much effort at all.
Duke Blue Devils (8-4)
Opponents remaining: at North Carolina, at Louisville, vs. Florida State, at Pittsburgh, vs. Wake Forest, vs. North Carolina
Duke is going to need a whole lot of help to pull back into the race. Not because of the current numbers of course, but look at the schedule above. And without a timetable on Amile Jefferson's return... the Blue Devils find themselves on very shaky ground both with regard to first place and potentially even an NCAA Tournament bid. This weekend's upset over Virginia helped matters, for sure. But you're still looking at a Duke squad that could quite easily go 11-7 or worse in ACC play with just one resume-able win (UVA).
Louisville Cardinals (8-4)
Opponents remaining: vs. Syracuse, vs. Duke, at Pittsburgh, at Miami, vs. Georgia Tech, at Virginia
If the tougher schedule above wasn't enough, the fact that this team's just playing for pride could be enough to derail any chance of (pointlessly) finishing in first. Louisville's first two games of the home stretch vs. Syracuse and Duke could dictate where this thing goes. Win them and a 2-2 finish still nets you a pretty respectable 12-6 league record and maybe third place. If they happen to lose both, the Cards' ship could sink like a rock.
Clemson Tigers (8-5)
Opponents remaining: vs. Boston College, at NC State, at Georgia Tech, vs. Virginia, at Boston College
Hello, 4-1 finish. Despite playing poorly of late and losing four of seven, the pay-off for Clemson is the very manageable collection of lesser teams to close the year. Four of those games are pretty likely victories, and an upset over Virginia would be all it took to potentially even give them first place if the dominoes fell right above them. The Tigers don't have the tiebreaker vs. UNC or Notre Dame, but do against Louisville, Duke, Miami and Syracuse. They could earn a split with UVA as well.
Syracuse Orange (8-5)
Opponents remaining: at Louisville, vs. Pittsburgh, vs. NC State, at North Carolina, at Florida State
Defeating three of the five teams above is no easy feat, but remember the aforementioned momentum this Orange squad is playing with. It doesn't guarantee victories, but it certainly helps make them a little more likely. The key, however, is North Carolina. Even if Syracuse goes 4-0 against the other opponents (an accomplishment at that), a second loss to UNC nearly guarantees the Orange will not be able to finish in first, since they'd need UNC to lose five of six to do so. Finishing second or third is still nothing to scoff at, of course. It's just not the ultimate regular season prize.
Some of these roads are tougher than others, clearly. But all of these teams still have a reasonable chance, and that makes for an exciting final few weeks before the ACC Tournament. Hopefully Syracuse can close strong -- that, on its own, would already be a pretty nice win after a rough mid-season stretch under Mike Hopkins.