Duke Blue Devils and North Carolina Tar Heels the ACC's Only Chance Yet Again

Justin McTeerCorrespondent IFebruary 14, 2011

DURHAM, NC - FEBRUARY 09:  Seth Curry #30 and Nolan Smith of the Duke Blue Devils watch on against the North Carolina Tar Heels during their game at Cameron Indoor Stadium on February 9, 2011 in Durham, North Carolina.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

If you've ever been to that party where a bunch of people RSVP'd, but only a few actually showed up, you know exactly what the ACC has felt like for the last few seasons.

Heading into the final stretch of conference play, the Duke Blue Devils and North Carolina Tar Heels are once again the only two teams in the conference with much of a chance to make any noise in the NCAA tournament.

It's not exactly news to see Duke and North Carolina at the top of the ACC—the arch-rivals are the powerhouses of the conference, for sure.  They combine for seven of the last eight NCAA titles that belong to the ACC (the other being Maryland in 2002) and 13 of the last 14 ACC tournament titles.

Still, the inability of the rest of the ACC schools to complement the Blue Devils and Tar Heels on the national stage is a concerning trend that doesn't appear to be changing anytime soon, and it's starting to hurt the ACC's reputation as one of the most dominant conferences in college basketball.

Other than Duke and North Carolina, no ACC team has made it to the Sweet 16 since 2006 when Boston College lost to Villanova by one point in overtime—that's a pretty sad stat.

There have been several teams in that stretch, such as Wake Forest in 2009, who were expected to be legitimate tournament threats, but no one has delivered save for the rivals of Tobacco Road.

This season was supposed to be different.

While everyone expected Duke to be the team to beat and North Carolina to be back as a conference contender (they took the scenic route but they're headed in the right direction), there were several ACC squads who looked poised to make some noise in the conference and beyond at the outset of the season.

Virginia Tech had a chance to be a real force this season and a staple in the top 25 polls.  Seth Greensberg returned all five of last season's starters including 2010 All-ACC members Malcolm Delaney (first team) and Derenzo Hudson (third team).  Unfortunately, Hudson and returning starter JT Thompson suffered season-ending injuries early in the season and the Hokies have suffered as a result.

North Carolina State was a team full of promise at the beginning of the season with Tracy Smith back and a trio of touted freshmen giving Sidney Lowe the most talented group in his tenure.  An injured knee took Smith out for most of the non-conference season, however, and the talented freshmen struggled to carry the team in his absence.  Smith is back now, but the Wolfpack haven't been able to build much momentum in conference play.

Florida State was starting to look like a very dangerous team just a few weeks ago when they took down then No. 1 Duke.  They have been inconsistent, however, and the loss of their star junior, Chris Singleton, could spell disaster for the remainder of their season.

The rest of the ACC doesn't have much to show for the season so far, and it's seemingly once again up to Duke and North Carolina to represent the conference.

There are certainly some legitimate reasons why the conference has seen such a big letdown this year.

Three schools have new coaches.  There is always going to be an adjustment period when that happens.

The conference has been absolutely devastated by the injury bug.  Kyrie Irving (Duke), Hudson (VT), Singleton (FSU), Thompson (VT) and Mike Scott (Virginia) could easily be a top 25 starting lineup.

No matter the reasons, though, the ACC is at its lowest point in years.

What's most concerning for fans is that the conference is severely trending downwards in terms of quality teams.

From the beginning to the middle part of last decade, there were several ACC teams on the rise. 

Maryland won the title in 2001.  Georgia Tech made the championship game in 2004.  Wake Forest was building a solid reputation behind players like Josh Howard and Chris Paul.  North Carolina State made five straight NCAA tournament appearances under Herb Sendek.

Those days seem like a distant era when compared to the mediocrity that fills the conference today.

Just a few years ago, Duke and North Carolina were the highlights of a talented ACC.  Now, they are all that's keeping the ACC from becoming the Pac-10.

Until the rest of the conference can get its act together, it's up to Duke and North Carolina to carry the burden of representing the ACC on the national stage—no one else is coming to the party.