Sports Reporter

ACC basketball

Louisville is the early leader as the ACC's Surprise Team.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- A six-way tie for first place in the Atlantic Coast Conference was transformed into a leader, a lagger and four teams squeezed into second place Monday.

Those four were surrounded by North Carolina (the new leader) and Virginia Tech (sixth place) after the Tar Heels dusted the Hokies Monday night. Stay tuned for additional programming.

Please understand the new leader is the same North Carolina team Louisville dominated by 21 points in Chapel Hill 10 days ago.

The same North Carolina team that has won an impressive three ACC road games.

The same North Carolina team that plays just one ACC game before visiting the KFC Yum! Center for the rematch with the Cardinals Feb. 2.

That's a 100-word introduction to a simple observation, with the necessary follow-up question.

As the teams have passed the quarter pole, the ACC race is more fascinating than it appeared in October when coaches and players from all 15 teams gathered in Charlotte for the ACC's Operation Basketball.

Duke and Virginia received 99 of the 121 first-place votes less than three months ago.

The follow-up question?

Which team has the early advantage for the regular-season title and top seed for the ACC Tournament?

This is also a perfect time to note there is no debate about the ACC's Surprise Team.

That team is Louisville.

The Cardinals were picked to finish 11th. They are currently locked in a four-way tie for second with Duke, Virginia and Syracuse. Those three along with UNC and Virginia Tech were projected to be positioned where they are on Tuesday -- the top six.

Part of Louisville's 4-1 ACC start can fairly be attributed to the arc of the schedule. Three of the Cardinals' victories were achieved against Boston College, Miami and Georgia Tech, teams with a combined ACC record of 4-11.

But, the computer formulas consider Louisville's victory at the Smith Center to be the second most substantial road win, topped only by the upset Syracuse delivered at Duke.

Although Duke played without freshman point guard Tre Jones while defeating Virginia Saturday in Durham, N.C., it is the Cavaliers, not the Blue Devils, who remain the ACC favorite in two computer formulas that project the final standings.

Ken Pomeroy and Bart Torvik reached the same results with different formulas. They've got Virginia (15-3) one game ahead of Duke (14-4) and two ahead of North Carolina (13-5) in March.

Then it's two games back to Louisville and Virginia Tech (11-7) and another to Syracuse and North Carolina State (10-8).

Unlike Duke and North Carolina, Tony Bennett's Virginia team has not lost a home game. There's the one-game advantage over Duke.

The Cavaliers remain routinely solid on both ends of the floor. They have more offensive weapons than last season.

Duke has the three greatest recruits in the history of college basketball but there are always questions about how freshmen will hold up over the longer college season.

North Carolina got 50 points from its top two freshmen (Coby White and Nassir Little) Monday night, but after watching the Tar Heels against Kentucky and Louisville it is reasonable to question their grit.

Syracuse had a wonderful win over Duke but those losses to Connecticut, Old Dominion and Georgia Tech have to alarm Jim Boeheim.

Virginia Tech looked a cut below Virginia and UNC while losing by 20-plus to both teams.

Then there is Louisville, which has methodically moved from 63rd in Pomeroy's pre-season rankings to No. 17 this week.

For Louisville to finish in the top four and earn a first-round bye in the ACC Tournament, wins in the next three games are essential.

Pomeroy puts the Cards' win probability at greater than 70 percent against North Carolina State (Thursday at home), Pittsburgh (Saturday at home) and Wake Forest (Jan. 30 in Winston Salem).

Torvik's formula is more bullish on Louisville, bumping Louisville's win probability in those games to 76 percent or better.

Disclaimer: There's little more reason to trust the projections and predictions today than there was when Louisville was forecast to finish 11th in the ACC in October. 

Agree?

But with more than a quarter of the conference schedule played, Louisville remains the ACC's Surprise Team.

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