Myron Medcalf, ESPN Staff Writer 689d

Saturday Madness: Tough road ahead for ACC's elite

Even before Georgia Tech freshman Josh Okogie raced down the floor in Atlanta to win Saturday’s game against Notre Dame, the levee between the ACC's elite teams and the middle of the pack had already begun to break.

Okogie's layup sealed the Yellow Jackets' second consecutive victory over a top-15 team, a scenario that seemed incredibly unlikely just a month ago.

Meanwhile, in upstate New York, Florida State was searching for a player to place in the middle of the Syracuse zone and seeking a cure for its foul trouble as three players (Jonathan Isaac, Xavier Rathan-Mayes and Jarquez Smith) picked up four in an eventual 10-point loss.

North Carolina was in Florida facing Miami, which was 0-10 in school history against Tar Heel teams that were ranked in the AP Top 10. By halftime, however, the Hurricanes had ransacked North Carolina and amassed a 17-point edge.

All this happened before you likely finished your lunch -- three games that illustrated the drama attached to life on the road in the ACC.

Miami, Syracuse and Georgia Tech all won and made the dream of a 10-bid ACC (or more) on Selection Sunday seem tangible. The Hurricanes (14-6, 4-4 ACC) are among ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi’s "Last Four In," and Georgia Tech (13-8, 5-4) -- which hasn't had a winning record in ACC play in 13 years -- found an improbable spot in the “Next Four Out” category after a promising week for first-year coach Josh Pastner.

We now have tournament scenarios that include nearly a dozen dancing ACC teams.

Meanwhile, North Carolina, Florida State and Notre Dame -- each top-five seeds in the latest Bracketology -- lost on the road.

Why? Because that's what the ACC has become.

Every conference’s supporters will swear their league poses the same no-easy-road-games threat, and they’re right on some level. It’s not easy to win on the road. You don’t need an analytics expert to explain why thousands of people screaming at you and talking about your girlfriend has an impact on the odds of victory.

But the trio of early ACC games on Saturday offered another showing of the conference’s strength.

Yes, you’ve heard that before, too.

The ACC is strong. But what if Saturday’s early results suggest the ACC is getting stronger?

Florida State weathered a six-game stretch against ranked teams. Coach Leonard Hamilton’s team secured a 5-1 record during that gauntlet. But his team suffered double-digit losses to unranked Georgia Tech and Syracuse teams on the road this week.

Miami had its lopsided history against North Carolina. And Notre Dame’s offense, ranked seventh nationally in efficiency, had dismissed more challenging opponents than Georgia Tech.

But there they all were Saturday. In trouble.

Notre Dame lost 62-60 to a Georgia Tech team that Duke beat by 53 points in Durham on Jan. 4. But the Yellow Jackets are showing you can't judge a team with a new coach and evolving young players too early.

Throughout the early struggles, Pastner’s team continued to grind. The Yellow Jackets beat VCU in overtime last month. Then the Yellow Jackets knocked off North Carolina at home. Huh? Probably a fluke, right?

Not at all. The Georgia Tech team that lost to the Ohio Bobcats in November is gone. This is a team that’s had some time with Pastner, led by a freshman -- Okogie -- who looks to be feeling more comfortable at the college level. The young guard had struggled all afternoon (2-for-5), but he came through at the end.

At Syracuse (13-9, 5-4), one of Jim Boeheim’s worst teams defeated one of the ACC’s best 82-72. Miami embarrassed a UNC squad (77-62) that has looked Final Four-good at times this season.

If Miami, Georgia Tech and Syracuse compose the ACC’s middle-of-the-pack roadblocks, then the league’s elite squads are in trouble on the road.

Is the ACC the country's best league? We can table that conversation for now.

Saturday’s early outcomes, however, showed that the ACC continues to get better. And that should scare the league’s contenders.

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