While it may seem watered down from glory days of the ‘90s and before, the ACC Tournament is still one of the great features of the college basketball season. The conference’s growth to a 15-team league makes for a longer event with an extra day of play-in games, but the majority of the tournament still presents high-level action and drama worth tuning in to. Let’s take a look at what this year’s ACC Tournament has to offer.
The Cavaliers have become a machine under Tony Bennett and didn’t lose a single game all season to a team not named Duke. And while the Blue Devils swept the season series against Virginia, Zion Williamson’s health concerns (despite a supposed ACC tourney return) could potentially make Duke less of a thorn in the Cavaliers’ side should the teams meet. Given that literally no other team has beaten Virginia, and the fact that Duke and North Carolina will theoretically have to meet in a semifinal, the Wahoos seem like the safest pick as the No. 1 seed.
This season may be one of the rare times that Roy Williams could actually stake a claim as an ACC coach of the year candidate. The Heels were expected to be very good, as usual, but a season sweep of Duke (albeit the Zion-less version), a seven-game winning streak to finish the regular season, and an ascension to No. 3 in the country have put this team in legitimate contention for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Not sure anyone would have predicted that level of accomplishment. This is a confident team that is certainly a threat to make a run through this tournament.
The Blue Devils, unsurprisingly, were a different team with Zion Williamson out with injury. They incurred three of their five losses of the season in their final six games while playing without the ACC (and arguably national) player of the year. His impending return obviously makes this team a much more serious contender for an ACC Tournament title, but re-injecting a player doesn’t always mean things jell as perfectly as they did before. We’ll see how things shake out, but Duke appears to have Virginia’s number this year and could prove it if they meet in the championship game.
Is NC State vs. Clemson an NCAA Tournament play-in game?
The NCAA Tournament situation in the ACC seems to be as follows: Seven teams solidly in the field, six teams definitively out of the field, and two teams teetering on the cut line as much as you could possibly teeter. The latter two teams are the Wolfpack and Tigers, who will meet in the 8 vs. 9 game with each desperately seeking at least one more quality win for resumes that are as bubbly as you will find on the NCAA Tournament bubble. It will be a Quadrant 1 victory for the winner, a lack of which is the major knock against both teams’ resumes. That fact alone makes us think the winner of this game will be in good shape for a bid, with the loser sweating it out until Selection Sunday with anything but a warm and fuzzy feeling. The bubble can change for better or worse at a moment’s notice, however, so there is probably a scenario wherein either both teams make the tournament or both miss it. But save for significant changes, this feels like a game each team needs to win to feel any degree of comfort when the NCAA field is announced. All of this to say: It’s very possible the noon game on Wednesday ends up being the most impactful game of the tournament.
Could we see a dark horse emerge?
It’s probably smartest to look opposite Virginia’s half of the bracket to answer this question, as there doesn’t seem to be a team likely to keep the Cavaliers from reaching the title game. While North Carolina and Duke will be decided favorites in their opening games, both teams interestingly enough could be facing teams that beat them at home during the regular season. The Blue Devils could face No. 6 seed Syracuse, while the Tar Heels could see No. 7 seed Louisville; and while we wouldn’t predict an upset in either case, there’s evidence the higher seeds could get a run for their money.
Zion Williamson’s health
It’s no secret that Duke looked like the best team in the ACC (if not the country) before Williamson went down in the Blue Devils’ first matchup against North Carolina. How fully recovered he is, coupled with how seamlessly Duke can reintegrate him, will be a huge determinant of who takes home the ACC Tournament crown. If they see Virginia a third time, Duke could certainly prove once and for all to be the Wahoos’ kryptonite.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
DeAndre Hunter, Virginia
Coby White, North Carolina
Zion Williamson, Duke
Mfiondu Kabengele, Florida State
Kerry Blackshear, Virginia Tech
Tyus Battle, Syracuse
Jordan Nwora, Louisville
Torin Dorn, NC State
Marcquise Reed, Clemson