The best conference in America is set to tip off in Brooklyn on Tuesday. Which team will emerge as ACC champion?
The ACC is by far the best conference in the country this season. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi currently has 10 ACC teams in his field of 68 – the most of any conference – and he has two more sitting just on the outside of the bubble looking in. Several potential national champions are among the ACC elite and all of those elite teams have fallen during the regular season to unranked opponents.
All of that adds up to what will be one hell of conference tournament in Brooklyn this week. Don’t be surprised to see the blue bloods at the top fall at a moments notice to one of the many talented teams near the middle or bottom of the pool. It’s going to be a fun few days in New York City.
Overview (Matchups, bubble teams involved, title contenders)
First Round – No. 10 Wake Forest vs. No. 15 Boston College: This is the only game in the entire tournament whose outcome is essentially known beforehand. Boston College was able to steal two conference wins early in the season – that’s two more than it had all of last season – and competed a couple other times against good competition, but the Eagles have lost 14 games in a row and are the only team in the ACC that isn’t that good. Boston College is the only ACC team outside of Ken Pomeroy’s top 100 and its RPI of 210 is by far the worst in the league.
Wake Forest, on the other hand, has the ninth-best offense in the country according to KenPom.com and has one of the nation’s most underrated players in John Collins. The sophomore forward is averaging 19.1 points and 9.8 rebounds per game and is absolutely lethal inside the paint. The Demon Deacons average 82.1 points per game as a unit, tied for 21st nationally, and that should be more than enough to handle Boston College.
First Round – No. 11 Georgia Tech vs. No. 14 Pittsburgh: Georgia Tech is desperate for victories. ACC Coach of the Year Josh Pastner arrived in Atlanta and inherited what was thought to be one of the youngest and weakest rosters among the major conferences. The Yellow Jackets were picked to finish in the ACC basement and instead Pastner led his team to a respectable 17-14 record overall and 8-10 record in conference. That is a phenomenal start for the Pastner era in Atlanta but it is unfortunately more than likely just not enough to make the NCAA tournament. That is, of course, unless Georgia Tech were to win a couple of games in Brooklyn.
Pittsburgh is having a very different season. The Panthers also welcomed in a new head coach this offseason in former Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings. They were expected to contend for a spot in the NCAA tournament and boast two of the more talented scorers in the ACC, but the Panthers are nowhere near a tournament bid. As Pittsburgh plays for pride, Georgia Tech plays for its NCAA tournament life. Georgia Tech are the favorites in this game, but even if the Yellow Jackets were to fall early, this season should be considered a resounding success.
First Round – No. 12 Clemson vs. No. 13 N.C. State: You have to feel for Clemson a little bit. Although they finished the regular season 6-12 in the ACC, the Tigers only lost three games by more than six points. They lost six games by three points or fewer. If the ball bounces a different way a few times in the final seconds of those close losses, Clemson would enter the ACC tournament either squarely in the NCAA tournament or would at least have a chance to play its way in. Instead, Clemson will need to make an incredibly deep run to even think about an at-large berth, or else win the tournament outright. It’s a shame because senior forward Jaron Blossomgame, a future NBA player, is a great player and he will never see the NCAA tournament.
N.C. State is one of the more disappointing stories in the country this year. The Wolfpack brought in one of the best freshmen in the Class of 2016, Dennis Smith Jr., a versatile point guard who can score in a variety of ways and will more than likely go in the top-five of this year’s NBA draft. They brought back multiple contributors from their 2015-16 squad and looked poised to make another push into the Sweet Sixteen if they played their cards right. Unfortunately, that is not at all what has happened and N.C. State is one of three teams in this tournament with a zero percent chance of receiving an at-large bid to the Big Dance. This game has minimal tournament impact, but it will be fun to watch Smith go up against Blossomgame in a battle of future professionals.
Second Round – No. 8 Syracuse vs. No. 9 Miami: The only set matchup outside of the first round, Syracuse versus Miami is a rematch of an early January game which the Orange won. But this is a very different Miami team from the one that stepped into the Carrier Dome two months ago. Although the Hurricanes are on a two-game slide, head coach Jim Larranaga has his team playing much better than it was back in January. Freshman Bruce Brown has emerged as a important scoring option alongside veterans Davon Reed and Ja’Quan Newton and the defense – ranked 19th in efficiency by KenPom.com – has been smothering teams of late.
Syracuse has improved as well, though. The Orange looked dead in the water when it came to tournament eligibility after losses to Connecticut, Georgetown, St. John’s, and Boston College in less than a month, but they have rebounded. Since then, Syracuse has added three wins against top-10 teams to its resume to counterbalance the awful December losses and Andrew White, Tyler Lydon, and John Gillon have stepped up to lead this team offensively when it looked lost throughout much of 2016. Miami is a lock to reach the Big Dance so a win isn’t necessary here for the Canes, but that doesn’t mean they don’t want to make a deep run in Brooklyn. Syracuse, on the other hand, could really use one more win to feel safe on Selection Sunday. This game will be a great way to open up Wednesday’s festivities.
Potential Matchups to Look Out For:
Second Round – No. 5 Duke vs. No. 12 Clemson/No. 13 N.C. State: The Blue Devils lost by two points at home to N.C. State back in January and held on to beat Clemson by two in Cameron Indoor Stadium less than a month ago. They are guaranteed to play one of those teams Wednesday afternoon in Brooklyn. Duke has not emerged as the juggernaut many thought it would be coming into the season, but it still has an enormous amount of talent on its roster and will be looking to reset after falling to North Carolina in Chapel Hill last Saturday night. Both of these underdogs, though, know they can compete with the Blue Devils and won’t be intimidated. Duke should win handily, but this will be the first chance of the week for a legitimate upset in the tournament.
Second Round – No. 7 Virginia Tech vs. No. 10 Wake Forest: Three days ago, the Demon Deacons went to Blacksburg, Virginia and took down the Hokies on their home floor. The rematch could take place tomorrow so long as Wake Forest doesn’t collapse against Boston College today. The Demon Deacons could really use another quality win to boost their resume and ensure their place in the Big Dance, but Virginia Tech wants revenge and a chance to right the ship before heading to the NCAA tournament. And even if this game won’t impact whether or not the Hokies make the tournament, it will impact their seeding and that could prove vital moving forward.
Quarterfinal – No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 9 Miami: Remember when Miami beat North Carolina by 15 points and completed dominated the game throughout? No? Well, it happened. The Tar Heels had won seven games in a row and underestimated a Miami team that was 3-4 in ACC play at that point. The Hurricanes held North Carolina to 35.0 percent from the field and 29.2 percent from deep while Brown dropped 30 points to go along with five assists and four rebounds. Miami poses a unique threat to the Heels because of how well they defend, particularly at the guard position. Reed is one of the best on-ball defenders in the conference and if he locks down Joel Berry like he did in the first game, North Carolina’s only real scoring options become front court players. The Tar Heels are the better team, but it wouldn’t be surprising at all for Miami to replicate its previous success against North Carolina.
Semifinal – No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 5 Duke: Duke versus Carolina is always a great matchup, but it’s even better when it happens in the postseason after the two split the season series. Welcome (hopefully) to the rubber match! This game would provide both teams with an opportunity to assert their dominance ahead of the NCAA tournament while simultaneously crushing the hopes of their most hated rival. Duke would have to get past Louisville first to get here and North Carolina would need to avoid any upsets but it’s certainly not impossible to see this semifinal taking place Friday.
The Favorite: North Carolina
The Tar Heels are the favorite entering the tournament. They are currently projected as a one-seed in the NCAA tournament, won the ACC regular season title outright, boast the ACC Player of the Year, and have one of the most talented rosters in the country. North Carolina is fourth in adjusted efficiency margin, fourth in adjusted offensive efficiency, tied for 11th in points per game, and first in total rebounds and offensive rebounds per game. North Carolina is a great team and has to be considered the favorite.
What is so fun about the ACC this year, though, and this tournament in particular is that that doesn’t mean much. Sure, North Carolina could very well go and win this tournament, but it could just as easily not win a game. Florida State, Notre Dame, Louisville, Duke, and Virginia are all ranked in the AP top-25 and are all in Ken Pomeroy’s top 26. Miami and Virginia Tech have been ranked during the season, too. All of those teams have wins against top competition in the ACC and even teams like Syracuse, Wake Forest, and Georgia Tech have beaten the top teams in the league.
In this conference, just about any team (sorry, Boston College) can beat any other team on any given night. Throw them all on a neutral court and things are bound to get even crazier. So, yes, North Carolina is the favorite. But take that with a grain of salt.
The Dark Horse: Miami
Jim Larranaga’s Hurricanes are an interesting team. They don’t boast an overt amount of talent like North Carolina, Duke, or Florida State, but they utilize what they do have well and they play terrific defense.
Miami ranks 19th in adjusted defensive efficiency (points allowed per 100 possessions), 22nd in points allowed per game, tied for 42nd field goal percentage against, and tied for 67th in three point field goal percentage against. Teams that play defense as well as Miami does can always keep themselves in games simply by turning it up on that end of the floor. When it comes to postseason tournaments that becomes particularly useful and a deep run simply hinges on whether or not they can get enough offense.
For most of the second half of the season, the Hurricanes have been able to find just enough offense. Senior Davon Reed leads the way with 15.3 points per game. Although he can penetrate on the dribble, he is most dangerous from the perimeter, shooting 40.3 percent from three-point range. Point guard Ja’Quan Newton averages 13.9 points per game of his own, and he serves as the Hurricanes’ most dangerous penetrator.
But it’s freshman Bruce Brown who has been the star of the second half for Miami. Brown is averaging 11.8 points per game, which does not seem like much, but he is liable to ruin an opponent’s game plan. He dropped 30 on North Carolina, 25 on Duke, and he hit the only field goal in overtime against Virginia, a three-pointer from the wing with 26 seconds remaining to seal the victory.
Miami’s only real issue is turnovers, particularly from Newton. The junior averages 3.5 turnovers per game against just 3.4 assists and occasionally is hesitant to kick out on drives, instead electing to take a contested lay up. Miami is also the only team in the ACC with an assist to turnover ratio less than 1.0.
The Hurricanes are far from perfect, but they play great defense, have multiple scoring options, have a player that can shine under the bright lights in Brown, and they have a coach familiar with unlikely tournament runs. If they takes care of the ball, Miami could make a deep run in Brooklyn.
Best Player in the Tournament: John Collins, F, Wake Forest
With all due respect to ACC Player of the Year Justin Jackson, who is a phenomenal basketball player, he is not the best player in the ACC. That honor belongs to Wake Forest sophomore John Collins.
Collins averages 19.1 points, 9.8 rebounds, and 1.6 blocks per game, is shooting 62.3 percent from the floor, and does all of that while averaging 25.8 minutes per game. Collins is the reason that Wake Forest has a shot to return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2010 so long as it doesn’t bottom out against Boston College, he’s the reason the Demon Deacons have wins against Louisville, Virginia Tech, and Miami, and he’s the reason Wake Forest has a shot to make a deep run in this tournament.
Collins is at his best with his back to the basket where he can make turnaround jumpers, hook shots, swim moves, and dunks, but he can also face up, hit mid-range jumpers, and run in transition. He is a multifaceted big man who is a threat to score any time he touches the ball and who plays above average defense in the interior as well.
Although he only placed second in ACC Player of the Year, Collins did win Most Improved Player and was named to the All-ACC first team, both of which are well deserved. But he isn’t just one of the five best players in the conference, he is the best player in the conference, and if Wake Forest makes a deep ACC tournament or NCAA tournament run it will be on his shoulders.
Player Who Can Win The Tourney By Himself: Luke Kennard, G, Duke
Speaking of the best players in the ACC, meet Luke Kennard. On the verge of becoming the first Duke player to average 20.0 or more points and shoot 50.0 percent or better from the field in a season since Christian Laettner, Kennard is the player in this tournament could channel his inner Kemba Walker and lead Duke to a tournament victory all on his own.
Here is Kennard’s full line: 20.1 points, 5.3 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 50.4 percent from the floor, 45.0 percent from three, 84.7 percent from the stripe. He singlehandedly brought Duke back from the brink against Wake Forest back in January by putting up 30 points in the second half all by himself and drilling a game-winning three-pointer with 6.6 seconds remaining.
Duke has plenty of other offensive options. Grayson Allen has dealt with injuries and other issues all year, but he is still averaging 14.5 points per game. Freshman Jayson Tatum, a likely lottery pick in the upcoming NBA draft, is averaging 16.0 points per game of his own. Sixth-year senior Amile Jefferson and freshman Frank Jackson are both averaging double-digit points.
But Kennard has been the one player all year for Duke that can go off and put this team on his back when it needs him most. Duke could still win this tournament even if Kennard is just his usual self offensively and Tatum or Allen take the lead. But if Kennard walks into the Barclay’s Center and rattles off four straight dominating performances like he has at various points this season, the rest of the teams in this tournament will have their work cut out for them.
No. 10 Wake Forest over No. 15 Boston College
No. 11. Georgia Tech over No. 14 Pittsburgh
No. 12 Clemson over No. 13 N.C. State
No. 9 Miami over No. 8 Syracuse
No. 5 Duke over No. 12 Clemson
No. 10 Wake Forest over No. 7 Virginia Tech
No. 6 Virginia over No. 11 Georgia Tech
No. 1 North Carolina over No. 9 Miami
No. 5 Duke over No. 4 Louisville
No. 2 Florida State over No. 10 Wake Forest
No. 3 Notre Dame over No. 6 Virginia
No. 5 Duke over No. 1 North Carolina
No. 3 Notre Dame over No. 2 Florida State
No. 5 Duke over No. 3 Notre Dame
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- North Carolina
- Notre Dame