Wake Forest proves there are no freebies in the ACC

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- Maybe the ACC is as deep as originally advertised.

It may not have the kind of depth that's going to set a record for bids to the NCAA tournament, but it is looking more like a league whose eventual regular-season champion will have to take a few losses along the way.

"No matter if you're at the top of the league or the bottom of the league, every team in this conference has a lot of pride and they're going to fight you," Duke guard Rasheed Sulaimon said. "They have nothing to lose. Wake pushed us to the edge."

Wake Forest led Duke with less than six minutes left in the game -- something not even No. 4 Wisconsin could manage -- and is the only team this season to come within single digits of the Blue Devils in their 73-65 loss.

This is the same Wake Forest squad that didn't put up much of a fight when it lost by 30 to Arkansas in November. But Duke was warned before playing in the ACC's oldest series, which dates back to 1906: The Demon Deacons pushed No. 5 Louisville on Sunday before falling 85-76.

"Doesn't matter what record a team has. There's no night off, especially on the road," Duke senior guard Quinn Cook said. "Our upperclassmen obviously know it from suffering a loss here last year."

Look around the league and there were similar results. Clemson had a halftime lead on Louisville -- on the road -- before eventually losing 58-52. NC State led in the second half on the road at No. 3 Virginia before the Cavaliers pulled out a 61-51 win.

The new look, 15-team ACC and its four Hall of Fame coaches may not be the mega-conference juggernaut it was billed to be in the preseason. The top of the league is as heavy as expected with Duke, Virginia and Louisville all ranked in the top five. They've all given reason to be considered Final Four contenders.

The teams in the middle and lower tier didn't win the marquee nonconference games that would have bolstered the league's argument as the nation's best. In fact, most of them suffered bad losses. But those teams are now confirming they have a lot more fight than they've previously shown.

That was the message Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski tried to get across to his team, especially his three starting freshmen, before playing Wake.

"Playing at this level of intensity in a conference game on the road is something that they had not experienced," Krzyzewski said. "We won a huge game at Wisconsin, and that's not the same. I'm not saying Wisconsin is a bad team; they're pretty good. There's a sense of urgency with every ACC game that you can't manufacture. You have to experience it."

Take Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets lost to USC Upstate in December but nearly came out of South Bend, Indiana, with a win on Saturday. No. 14 Notre Dame needed double overtime to survive. The Jackets lost another heartbreaker Wednesday to Syracuse on a go-ahead free throw with 12 seconds left.

Duke junior forward Amile Jefferson doesn't believe it's not an exception. He said we're seeing the rule of life in the ACC.

"Our league has a lot of pride, a lot of history. When teams come in -- no matter what their record was before our conference -- it means a lot more," Jefferson said. "Especially when you're going into other people's houses. They're playing for their family, their friends and they're playing with a spark. If you don't come out with that same edge and that same fire, then they get confidence. In the ACC, it's tough no matter what the team's record."