The ACC has been the most dominant conference in college basketball since they expanded to 15 teams in 2014. Over that time we’ve consistently seen 8 or 9 teams make the NCAA Tournament, a concept that would’ve been unheard of 15 years ago. However this year’s iteration may feature the weakest ACC field yet. The middle of the pack teams have been below average at best (pun intended NC State), and even the top teams aren’t showing their typical dominance. I hate to call any March hoops boring, but don’t expect to see your typical classic tournament in Greensboro.
You can’t say enough about how impressive Leonard Hamilton has been at Florida St. Taking over in 2002, he turned a perennial ACC bottom feeder into a consistent tournament team. What’s even more astounding is that he’s kicked that up another notch by taking teams to the Elite 8 and Sweet 16 the last two years. Once again the Noles have surpassed expectations by winning the ACC Regular Season title. And Hamilton’s done all of this while being a 71 year old man trapped in a 40 year old’s body.
Jokes aside, this year’s Florida St. team is absolutely deserving of their number 1 seed. As usual they’re led by their tenacious defense, currently 3rd in the nation in blocks per possession and 9th in turnovers forced per possession. On the offensive side, they’ve improved immensely. Their size and length make them one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the country, but what really makes this team special is their guard play. Veterans Trent Forrest and MJ Walker have been consistent scorers throughout the season. Add in Devin Vassell’s shooting, and I don’t see why the Noles can’t add to the trophy cabinet in Greensboro.
The Cardinals have been struggling of late, but this is still one of the most talented and dangerous teams in the nation. Early on in the year they looked like a top 5 team in the country, dominating a fully healthy Michigan at home, and beating Duke in Cameron. I’ll even give them some credit for the OT loss at Kentucky, as they came back from a 12 point second half deficit to force #FreeBasketball.
At the same time, this team has had some puzzling losses down the stretch. The loss at Georgia Tech wasn’t great, however even the best teams can have one off night. What’s really troubling is that they followed that up with a pathetic effort in a 15 point loss at Clemson. For a team of this quality to have a stretch like that is really inexcusable.
Since then the Cards have gone 3-2, winning three easy home games and losing to FSU and UVA on the road, two losses you can’t really fault them for on paper. They definitely have some work to do, but I believe in Chris Mack’s ability to get his squad back on the right track. In a weak ACC field they have as good of a shot as anyone to take home the title.
This Duke team definitely has some talent. Vernon Carey is a force, and Tre Jones deservingly won ACC POY (although not sure there was too much competition). They’ve shown they can beat anyone in the country with early wins against Kansas and Michigan St, but they’ve also had some very soft performances. Their losses to Stephen F. Austin (at home) and Clemson were concerning to say the least. Duke needed an incredible offensive rebound off of a free throw to force OT against UNC, got blown out by NC State, and followed that up a week later with an uncharacteristic loss at Wake Forest.
But the most troubling game for me may be that Virginia loss. On the surface losing in Charlottesville isn’t a big deal. But at the time Duke had lost two of their last three (NC ST and Wake), and were desperate for a win. The Blue Devils were in control for most of the second half, and then completely fell apart down the stretch. Virginia has a great D, but not being able get a bucket off of two offensive rebounds in a must-score possession is not the best look. Given how weak the ACC is Duke may not get “upset”, but I don’t think they will be playing on Saturday night.
Speaking of Charlottesville, let’s talk about the Cavaliers. They may have the #1 defense in the country (per KenPom), but this squad is a far cry from last year’s title team. Without the likes of Hunter, Jerome, and Guy, the ‘Hoos are really struggling to score the ball (235th in KenPom Adj-O). They’ve won their last 8 games, but this team is not playing great basketball. If they face a team that can make their 3s, Virginia may be headed home early.
NC State & Notre Dame
I touched on this above, but given the gap between the top 4 teams and the rest of the league, we may not be in for too many upsets in this tourney. That said, if anyone can pull off some magic it’s going to be NC State and/or Notre Dame.
The Pack will be motivated knowing they’re on the bubble. Assuming they get past the Wake/Pitt winner (which is no sure thing given NCST’s inconsistencies this year), they should give Duke everything they can handle. The Wolfpack are obviously capable of beating Duke, and I love Keats as a coach long term, but they may be a better pick against the spread than straight up.
Notre Dame actually may pose the bigger threat to pull off an upset over the top seed. They should have no trouble with Boston College (Au Revior Jimmy C), and are a perfect matchup for Virginia’s pack-line D. Mike Brey is a phenomenal gameplanner, so hopefully he’ll have the Irish bombing 3s early and often. If they get hot, they could pull off the shocker.
UNC has not lived up to their early season hype, mostly due to injuries, so it’ll be interesting to see what they can do in Greensboro. I could see them upsetting a weak Syracuse team and giving Louisville some early trouble, but I also wouldn’t be shocked if they lost to Virginia Tech in the first round… Wake Forest and Pitt face off in a battle of teams who wish it was 2005, I’ll give a slight edge to the Deacons, but I can’t see either making it to Thursday…. Miami and Clemson have started playing better ball over the last month, give me the Canes in a tight one. BC doesn’t deserve any more words than I’ve already given them.
Picks: Don’t love the odds here, but I’ll take FSU (+275) and Louisville (+275). If all works out we can kick our feet up in the final and enjoy the profit