The race for the ACC’s regular-season title looked all but wrapped up at the midway point in the conference schedule.

North Carolina was cruising along at 10-1 with a 2-game lead over the rival it had just manhandled in impressive fashion. But then the Tar Heels proceeded to lose 2 of their next 3 to make things interesting again.

Duke actually caught UNC for a brief 1st place tie before losing at Wake Forest on Saturday. Even with that setback, the Blue Devils are only 1 game behind with a head-to-head showdown still to come.

That isn’t the only ACC competition that has tightened up considerably as the league races toward the ACC Tournament.

While the Tar Heels’ RJ Davis and Hubert Davis remain the frontrunners for the conference’s Player and Coach of the Year awards, neither is the sure thing they appeared to be just a couple of weeks earlier.

RJ Davis, who continues to lead the league in scoring at 21.3 points per game, is still the player to beat. But the chances of a Davis sweep are now to a 50-50 proposition that probably won’t be decided until the ballots are due after the final game is played.

Even with the midseason lull, Hubert Davis still makes a strong case.

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He was thrust into an on-the-job training situation when he was elevated to his first head coaching job 3 years ago. Replacing a Hall of Famer, no less. But he has grown in his role as Roy Williams’ successor and is putting the valuable lessons learned from the highs and lows of his first 2 seasons to good use.

He’s doing a better job of using his bench and adjusting on the fly. Even more impressively, he’s done a better job of building and maintaining chemistry both on the court and in the locker room by retooling his roster by bringing in pieces that fit together off the transfer portal.

After missing out on the NCAA Tournament a year ago, Davis has UNC on the cusp of a regular-season ACC championship and in the mix for a possible No. 1 seed this March.

That, in itself, is the strongest argument in Davis’ favor. But even after Saturday’s impressive defensive performance and win at Virginia, after a week in which he put a priority on improving defense in practice, he’s no longer the only viable candidate.

With Wake Forest’s upset of Duke on Saturday, the Deacons’ Steve Forbes upgraded himself from the periphery of the Coach of the Year conversation smack into the middle of the race.

The “Portal Whisperer” has worked his magic again with the addition of free agents Hunter Sallis and Efton Reid. He hasn’t just led his team to the cusp of its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2017, he’s done it by essentially coaching 3 different teams in this 1 single season.

Wake was just 4-3 in its first 7 games before rim-protector Reid was granted his NCAA waiver to play immediately as a 2-time transfer. It’s 14-6 since he became available. In the meantime, their arsenal gained another weapon in late January when 3-point marksman Damari Monsanto returned from offseason surgery.

Beyond the results, Forbes has energized a program that spent a solid decade in purgatory before his arrival. Saturday’s court-storming crowd of 14,744 was the largest in Joel Coliseum history.

Even Wake’s rivals are impressed with the job Forbes is doing.

“Steve is a helluva coach,” Duke’s Jon Scheyer said Saturday. “I respect the heck out of him and his team.”

Scheyer, himself, remains in the Coach of the Year mix despite Saturday’s loss.

Although he was much more prepared to follow Mike Krzyzewski than Davis was with Williams at UNC because of the year of grooming he got as a coach-in-waiting. Scheyer has still been faced with many of the same growing pains.

In addition to the added burden of being among the nation’s youngest coaches at one of the nation’s highest-profile programs. That, along with the Blue Devils’ surprising 2nd-round NCAA Tournament exit in his rookie season last year might explain why the former All-ACC point guard isn’t getting the positive recognition he deserves.

Sure, a lot was expected of his team that returned 4 starters and began the season ranked No. 2. And it fell off the radar by losing a couple of road games it shouldn’t have lost early in the season.

It’s not how you start that matters most, though. It’s how you finish. And in case you haven’t noticed, Duke is well on its way to putting together a similar stretch run to the one that carried it to the 2023 ACC Tournament championship.

Saturday’s loss was only the Blue Devils’ 2nd in 11 games since that previously mentioned loss in Chapel Hill and 3rd of their past 20 dating to early December.

They’ve persevered despite a rash of injuries that sidelined Mark Mitchell, Jeremy Roach and Tyrese Proctor at various times and grown as freshmen Jared McCain and Caleb Foster have become more comfortable in their roles.

McCain, in particular, has raised his game to become the favorite to win ACC Rookie of the Year honors. His rebounding, despite being only 6-3, has helped Scheyer address Duke’s most noticeable shortcoming and transform it into a more complete team.

Those are the kinds of things that happen because of good coaching.

Good enough to win the ACC’s Coach of the Year award?

Depending on what happens over the next 2 weeks, the competition could come down to the outcome of the traditional season-ending showdown between Scheyer’s Blue Devils and Davis’ Tar Heels.

As if there won’t already be enough on the line.