Four ACC challengers to Duke

Can anyone in the ACC drop these guys? Getty Images

The casual fan could be forgiven for wondering if there's an ACC bylaw stipulating that there can be only one great team per year in this league.

The conference has produced the last two national champions: the Duke Blue Devils last year and the North Carolina Tar Heels in 2009. But why does it seem like lately those two legendary programs have taken turns succeeding in March? It's been seven years since the ACC put two teams in the Elite Eight -- and beyond the league's big two, NCAA tournament success has been notably elusive the last few years. Over the past four tournaments, no ACC team besides Duke or North Carolina has reached the Sweet 16. In other words, while the league always has a serious national title contender, the ACC has struggled to give that contender some company in March.

Coming into this year, it looked like that was going to change. Duke was ranked No. 1 in the preseason, and the Blue Devils were joined in the top 10 by a resurgent North Carolina. Also ranked in the preseason top 25 was Virginia Tech, while the likes of Florida State, North Carolina State and Maryland all lurked in the "Also receiving votes" small print.

What a difference nine weeks make. Duke is still ranked No. 1, of course, but as my colleague Drew Cannon pointed out the other day at Basketball Prospectus, the Blue Devils, incredibly, don't have a single ranked opponent remaining on their schedule. Talk about a crowded middle. Throw a stick at the ACC and you'll hit no fewer than eight teams with four losses.

Is there a team somewhere in that crowded middle that can make Duke break a sweat? One that could even live to see the second weekend in this year's NCAA tournament? Let's review the top four candidates.