Friedlander: 10 things to watch this week at the ACC Tournament
Throwbacks are all the rage these days. In keeping with that theme, this year’s ACC Tournament will have a distinctly vintage feel when it tips off with opening round games on Tuesday.
First there’s the location.
After trips to Brooklyn and Washington D.C., the tournament returns to its roots in Greensboro for the 29th and possibly final time now that the league offices are moving to Charlotte.
Then there are the stakes.
With only 3 teams – top seeded Miami, No. 2 Virginia and No. 4 Duke – feeling safe about their spots in the upcoming NCAA Tournament, a majority of the team will have some old-school work to do in order to secure their bids.
That includes defending national runner-up North Carolina, which might have to go all the way back to the pre-NCAA expansion days win and the whole thing to get into the field of 68. There are plenty of other subplots to go around beyond which team will cut down the nets Saturday night.
ACC Tourney bracket ➡️ Got a quarterfinal matchup on Thursday at 2:30 ET pic.twitter.com/Aotb6mXJBb
— Duke Men’s Basketball (@DukeMBB) March 6, 2023
Here’s a lot at 10 things to watch as the ACC gathers for the event Roy Williams liked to refer to as league’s annual cocktail party:
10. Who’s hot
No one comes to Greensboro with more momentum than Duke. The surging Blue Devils won 6 straight to close out the regular season, punctuated by Saturday’s emotional win at rival North Carolina. Their streak would have been even longer had it not been for a controversial no-call at Virginia.
Miami also is playing well. The Hurricanes bounced back from their monumental collapse against Florida State to beat Pittsburgh on Saturday and secure the tournament’s top seed. They’re trending in the right direction with 8 wins in their past 9 games.
But as rookie Duke coach Jon Scheyer warns, a strong finish to the regular season is no guarantee of success in the postseason.
“Now we need to refocus, understanding that postseason is a different animal,” he said. “It’s 1-and-done time and there’s a lot to learn from that.”
Beyond the Blue Devils and Hurricanes, the other hottest team isn’t one you’d expect.
Georgia Tech is the 13th seed, but the Yellow Jackets have won 4 straight and 6 of their past 8 and could cause trouble for a higher seed.
9. Who’s not
Don’t get me started about Louisville. The Cardinals are 4-27 and have succeeded at little this season, other than dragging down the NET rating of the entire league.
Of the higher seeds, Pittsburgh and NC State are limping into Greensboro and could use the reset that comes with the start of the postseason.
The Panthers entered the final week of the regular season in sole possession of 1st place in the ACC. But a road loss to bottom-feeder Notre Dame, followed by Saturday’s 2-point setback at Miami dropped Jeff Capel’s team from the top line of the tournament bracket out of the top 4. Without the double bye, Pitt will have to win 4 games in 4 days to take home the title.
State also saw its chances at a double bye evaporate with 2 straight losses to close out the regular season. The Wolfpack did bounce back from a Senior Day blowout at the hands of Clemson to show some fight in a close loss to Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
But it was still a loss, marking the first time all season that Kevin Keatts’ team dropped 2 games in a row.
8. Bye bye Brey
Mike Brey will bow out as Notre Dame’s coach at some point this week after 23 seasons and a school-record 483 victories with the Irish. Among his accomplishments are 13 NCAA Tournament appearances, including a Sweet 16 appearance last year, and the 2015 ACC Tournament championship – the 1st league title in Notre Dame history.
How long of a goodbye it will be depends on how long Brey’s 14th-seeded Irish can keep winning in Greensboro. Considering their 11-20 (3-17 ACC) record, it doesn’t figure to be a lengthy stay. Should they beat 11th-seeded Virginia Tech in Tuesday’s late game, they’ll earn a 2nd-round date with 6th-seeded NC State on Wednesday.
It might also be worth keeping an eye on Jim Boeheim, whose 8th-seeded Syracuse Orange open against No. 9 Wake Forest on Wednesday in a rematch of their regular-season finale. Although the Hall of Fame coach insists he’ll be back next season, the decision might be out of his hands after a 9th straight season of finishing 6th or lower in the ACC standings.
7. Coaching counts
Brey is 1 of 6 active ACC coaches to have led a team to at least 1 tournament title. The others are Virginia’s Tony Bennett, Florida State’s Leonard Hamilton, Miami’s Jim Larrañaga, Georgia Tech’s Josh Pastner and Virginia Tech’s Mike Young.
Because the teams coached by 4 of those 6 are double-digit seeds in this year’s event, there’s a strong possibility that someone will be cutting down the nets for the first time in his career.
Clemson’s Brad Brownell, now in his 13th season with the Tigers, has gone the longest without winning a championship. Syracuse’s Boeheim – who has been with the Orange for 47 years, but only 9 as a member of the ACC – is next. Duke’s Scheyer and Louisville’s Kenny Payne will be trying to win it in their 1st crack at the tournament.
6. State’s Rocky Road
UNC’s loss to Duke on Saturday gave NC State the No. 6 seed in this year’s tournament. But the Wolfpack might have been better off had the Tar Heels won and dropped them to No. 7.
Because their road to Saturday’s final would have been much more favorable had they been 1 line lower.
As the 7 seed, State would have started the tournament against the winner of Boston College and Louisville, 2 teams they beat handily during the regular season. Then had they won, they’d have advanced into a quarterfinal matchup with No. 2 Virginia.
That would have been a difficult game. But it still would have been better than the potential quarterfinal task it faces at No. 6. The Wolfpack has already lost to Clemson twice this year by a combined 39 points. And just to get there, they’ll first have to beat a Notre Dame team fighting to extend its coach’s tenure or a dangerous Virginia Tech team.
5. UNC’s Final 4
At 19-12, with only 1 Quad 1 victory to its credit, UNC is in serious danger of becoming the first preseason No. 1 to fail to qualify for the NCAA Tournament.
According to star center Armando Bacot, the Tar Heels are in a position of having to win the championship and the ACC’s automatic bid to make the 68-team field.
“That was our goal anyway, even if we weren’t in this position, to win the ACC Tournament,” Bacot said. “So it’s just something we’ve got to do. We don’t have any choice.”
It’s a daunting task, but it can be done. Two teams, including 7th-seeded Virginia Tech last year, have previously cut down the nets by winning 4 games in 4 days to cut down the nets. But the odds are definitely against the inconsistent Tar Heels.
While they’ve shown an ability to play up to their potential, especially of late, they’ve also had a difficult time sustaining that high level of play. Coach Hubert Davis’ team has only strung together as many as 4 straight wins twice this season. And not since January 14-24.
4. Tigers’ time?
Clemson is a charter member of the ACC and is the only school to have participated in all 69 previous league tournaments without having won a title.
But armed with a veteran roster led by the high-end trio of Hunter Tyson, PJ Hall and Chase Hunter, and a double-bye as the No. 3 seed, Brownell’s Tigers might have their best chance ever to end the drought.
But they also have pressure beyond their chase for history.
Even though with 22 wins overall and a school-record 14 league victories on its resume, Clemson heads into the postseason squarely on the wrong side of the NCAA bubble because of bad losses to South Carolina, Loyola of Chicago, Boston College and Notre Dame.
At No. 61 in the NET, it will probably have to win multiple games in Greensboro, if not the 1st title in program history, to punch an NCAA Tournament ticket.
3. Upset watch
What would tournament time be without upsets?
Considering how volatile the ACC was during the regular season, there’s little to no chance this one will go chalk from start to finish. The chaos has the potential to start early, especially if the two Techs win their opening round games.
Virginia Tech would present a serious challenge to an NC State team that needs a win to avoid putting its NCAA fate into the hands of the selection committee after 3 straight losses. The Wolfpack only beat the Hokies by 4 in Blacksburg on Jan. 7.
UNC could also be in trouble against an improved Boston College should the Eagles get past what promises to be an easy opener against Louisville. BC has been playing well of late, with 3 wins in its past 4 games including an upset of Virginia.
Should the Tar Heels survive that game, however, they would stand a great chance of advancing to the semifinals with an upset of UVA, a team they just beat by 8 in Chapel Hill a little more than a week ago.
2. The ‘Case’ for a potential MVP
The Most Valuable Player of the ACC Tournament is presented with the Everett Case Award, named for the former NC State coaching legend who helped popularize the event during the early years of the conference.
It’s been won by some of the biggest names in ACC history, a list that includes the likes of Tim Duncan, Christian Laettner, Tyler Hansbrough, Len Bias and Zion Williamson. But there have also been plenty of surprise winners, most recently Virginia Tech’s Hunter Cattoor in 2022.
Who will take the prize this year?
The favorite coming into the tournament is Duke forward Kyle Filipowski. The 7-foot freshman is a shoo-in to be named the ACC’s Rookie of the Year after averaging 15.0 points and 9.2 rebounds while recording 15 double-doubles.
Filipowski has been at his best during the Blue Devils’ current 6-game winning streak, highlighted by a gritty 22-point, 13-rebound effort in Saturday’s win at UNC.
1. And the winner is ____________.
The Blue Devils went through some growing pains early and endured a series of injuries that kept them from playing with their full roster for a large portion of the season. But they’ve grown as the season has progressed, learned from their mistakes and appear to be peaking at just the right time.
They’re long and physical and have the best trio of bigs in the conference in Filipowski, rim protector Dereck Lively II and physical veteran Ryan Young. They have a clutch veteran leader in Jeremy Roach and a pair of emerging young talents in point guard Tyrese Proctor and Dariq Whitehead, who are just now starting to come into their own.
Duke would have been a threat to win the tournament even had it not earned the double bye as the No. 3 seed on the final day or the regular season. With it, Scheyer’s team has become an even greater threat to win the title.
Their greatest threat figures to be a semifinal matchup against top-seeded Miami. It will be a tough game, but the Blue Devils’ ability to defend the rim and rebound their own misses will be enough to get them through to Saturday’s final and a record 22nd tournament title.