Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer 309d

An ode to the 2016-17 ACC -- college basketball's glorious, unpredictable mess

The ACC is awesome. The ACC is also a hot mess.

Before you fire off that angry tweet, know that the above sentences are simultaneously complimentary and complementary: The ACC is awesome because it's a mess, and the ACC is a mess because it's so awesome.

Here's an example: After Saturday, the league's third of the conference season, most of the Atlantic Coast Conference's illustrious basketball membership have five league games to their respective names. (After Georgia Tech and NC State meet Sunday at 6:30 p.m. ET, Miami will be the lone four-fixture laggard of the bunch.) Three of those teams are tied at 2-3. Those three teams are -- wait for it -- Boston College, Virginia Tech and ... Duke.

There's something beautiful and hilarious about a world in which the overwhelming preseason national title favorite (Duke) shares the same three-week conference checkpoint as an up-and-coming, middle-of-the-pack rebuild (Virginia Tech) and a down-and-outer that has averaged 10.3 wins per season in the last half-decade -- and which finished last season 0-18 in ACC play (Boston College).

There's something even more beautiful about a 15-team league in which eight teams are in the top 30 of the KenPom.com adjusted efficiency rankings, in which just two -- less than 15 percent! -- fall outside the nation's top 64 in adjusted efficiency margin; in which 11 of the 15 boast top-50-or-better RPI numbers; in which no team is winless in league play; in which even the likes of Georgia Tech can beat North Carolina by 12 exactly three nights before losing by 53 points; in which the most efficient per-trip offense through five games belongs to the same team with a 33-point home loss to St. John's also on its CV (Syracuse, take a bow).

That kind of chaos is what happens when almost all of the teams in a league are pretty good, no team is truly abysmally bad, an 11-bid NCAA tournament showing is not merely preseason hype, the proceedings are still early enough that schedule imbalances haven't yet ironed themselves out, and the list of legit conference title contenders seems to grow by the day. It's worth appreciating now, while the topsy-turvy delight lasts, before things settle down.

Consider what follows to be that appreciation: a blind attempt to impose some sense of order and reason onto a league that thus far has, to its immense credit, frequently lacked for both. Let's sort the ACC, as it currently stands, into tiers -- and see how the shape of those tiers illustrates just how helpless we are against the might of 2016-17's ACC insanity.

The Contenders:

North Carolina Tar Heels: There's probably no such thing as a safe bet in this edition of the ACC -- we really can't emphasize that 12-point loss at Georgia Tech enough -- but if you were forced to make a regular-season title prediction moving forward, don't the Tar Heels feel at least kind of safe-ish? They're experienced, balanced, talented and have no glaring holes on either side of the floor ... but, on the other hand, six of their last eight games are against Duke (twice), Virginia (twice), Notre Dame and Louisville. Which is, um, less than ideal.

Notre Dame Fighting Irish: An honest-to-goodness favorite. Not only are the Irish 5-0 in league play and defying their recent entrenched reputation as a program that combines an elite unselfish offense with apathetic defense -- they boast the league's second-stingiest per-trip defense at this early point -- their remaining schedule feels super-duper-friendly. Mike Brey's group has two games apiece against Boston College and Georgia Tech, and just one each against UNC, Duke and Virginia -- the latter two of which are in South Bend. Hmmm.

Florida State Seminoles: The Noles could have cemented top honors with a win at UNC on Saturday. Instead, they lost by 13. But they didn't cover themselves in shame in the process, and much of the outing was a reminder of why Leonard Hamilton's team started 4-0 with wins against Duke and Virginia (at UVa, no less) -- because UNC might be the only other team in the country with this combination of two-way balance and sheer athleticism/size.

Virginia Cavaliers: Tony Bennett's team was one of the few that maintained top-10 adjusted efficiency metrics on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball last season; Austin Nichols' dismissal has made the post-Malcolm Brogdon/Anthony Gill offensive project a little trickier than expected. Saturday's win at an amped-up Littlejohn Coliseum against a Clemson team desperate for a win felt particularly huge, given the preceding 2-2 start. The Cavs will be fine.

Louisville Cardinals: The nation's best defensive team. Not remotely the nation's most fluid offensive showpiece. Still, when Donovan Mitchell has it going, as he did against Duke's shambles of a defense Saturday, the Cardinals are more than capable of holding up their end of the bargain.

The Wild Card, Part I

Duke Blue Devils: Still the nation's most talented roster ... when healthy. When not healthy -- particularly when Amile Jefferson is the notable absentee, to say nothing of some guy named Mike Krzyzewski -- the Blue Devils' defense can be downright porous. They could transform into a monster at any point. They could never quite get there. They could set a record for bizarre headlines in a season about one player. Everything is on the table.

The Bubblers

Clemson Tigers, Virginia Tech Hokies, Miami Hurricanes, Wake Forest Demon Deacons, Pittsburgh Panthers, and NC State Wolfpack, potentially

The Tigers' per-possession numbers reek of a team much better than its 1-4 record, but the well-shucks aspect of a one-bucket OT loss to UNC or a near-miss at Notre Dame or Saturday's just-shy home date with Virginia tend to fade when you lose by 12 at Georgia Tech. Virginia Tech remains intriguing (and beat Duke by 15!) but also committed the worst turnover in the history of basketball Saturday. Miami already looks like a victim of the dreaded RPI vs. efficiency gap, needs wins to close it and has the defense to do so. NC State's Dennis Smith Jr. is really good, but his team has a ton to do to get anywhere near bubble consideration at this point. Pittsburgh beat Virginia and is otherwise unremarkable in every way. (Just kidding. Michael Young is really good.)

The Wild Card, Part II

Syracuse Orange

Again: Syracuse is the most efficient offense in the ACC after five games. It also lost 93-60 -- 93-60! -- to St. John's. At the Carrier Dome. In a game of basketball. Eleven days before giving up 96 points in 73 possessions to Boston College. It's not hard to imagine Jim Boeheim shoring things up and turning this around, but on the other hand ... 93-60 to St. John's at home.

Keepin' It Interesting

Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets and Boston College Eagles

A league with 12 teams ranging anywhere from "pretty decent" to "really good" would be fascinating anyway, but it would absolutely be less fascinating on a night-to-night basis than one in which the obvious would-be bottom-feeders are a combined 4-5 as of Sunday morning.

Point is, there are no guaranteed wins in the 2016-17 ACC. There are no guarantees of any kind. Three cheers to that.

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