Friedlander: Pitt, NC State, UNC can not afford an opening loss in ACC Tournament
The championship of this year’s ACC Tournament, with its automatic NCAA bid to the winner, will be decided Saturday night at Greensboro Coliseum.
That, however, won’t be the most important game of the league’s annual cocktail party.
Not even close.
The games with the greatest postseason implications are more likely to be played in the second round on Wednesday, before the top 4 seeds ever take the court.
Pittsburgh and NC State might not be playing for their NCAA Tournament lives when they open play against lower seeded opponents.
Then again, maybe they are.
After finishing the regular season with 2 losses each, the last thing either team needs is to put its fate into the hands of a selection committee whose members have spent the past 4 months listening to anyone and everyone bash the ACC as subpar.
The 5th-seeded Panthers, who came within a missed 3-pointer at the buzzer of earning a share of the regular-season league title, will play the winner of a 1st-round matchup between No. 12 Florida State and No. 13 Georgia Tech at 2:30 p.m.
The 6th-seeded Wolfpack will be matched against No. 11 Virginia Tech or No. 14 Notre Dame in the late game at approximately 9:30 p.m.
In the old days, at the pre-NET days of a couple years ago, their resumes would be more than enough to have them safely in the NCAA’s field of 68. But because the flawed metric has State (22-9, 12-8 ACC) at No. 41 in the current rankings and Pitt (23-10, 13-7) even lower at No. 55 because of 2 damaging losses to Quad 3 and 4 opponents, both could find themselves in peril if they make a quick exit from Greensboro.
It’s a possibility that already has Wolfpack coach Kevin Keatts on the defensive.
LET'S HOOP. 🏀
— ACC Men's Basketball (@accmbb) March 5, 2023
“I don’t think we’re on the bubble,” he said defiantly after Tuesday’s regular season-ending loss at Duke. “Everybody I’ve talked to has us being an 8/9 (NCAA) and you lose by 4 at Duke and you go on the bubble?
“I think we’ll be fine. I mean, I don’t know where everybody’s got us listed. But if you have to apologize for losing a Quad 1 game on the road and you’ve dropped to where everyone has us predicted to be on the bubble, then we’ve got no chance.”
Keatts might not want to think about the possibility of missing out on the Tournament.
But then, neither did Wake Forest’s Steve Forbes a year ago at this time.
His Deacons finished the 2021-22 regular season with a more-than-respectable 23-8 record and the confidence of knowing that every previous ACC team with as many as 13 league wins had earned an NCAA invitation.
But after suffering an overtime loss to Boston College in their opening game in Brooklyn, they still found themselves on the outside looking in on Selection Sunday.
As precarious as the situation might become for the Wolfpack and Panthers, the collar is even tighter around the necks of the defending national runner-up Tar Heels.
At 19-12 overall (11-9 ACC) with only a single Quad 1 victory to its credit, coach Hubert Davis’ underachieving 7th-seeded team won’t just need to beat either No. 10 Boston College or No. 15 Louisville in its opener on Wednesday. It will also need to take down 2nd-seeded Virginia in the quarterfinals on Thursday.
And even at that, the job might only be half done.
“The ACC Tournament is definitely huge for us,” a dejected UNC senior Armando Bacot said Saturday, moments after his team’s 62-57 loss to arch-rival Duke. “We’re just going in there with the mindset that we’ve just got to go win.”
It can be done.
Just last year, Virginia Tech caught fire at just the right time and earned the league’s automatic bid by winning the tournament as a No. 7 seed, upsetting the top 3 seeds along the way.
“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.”
Davis isn’t as ready to buy into the “cut down the nets or go home scenario.” And at No. 49 in the NET prior to Saturday’s loss, he might have a point.
Simply getting to Saturday’s final, or perhaps even Friday’s semifinal depending on what else is happening around the country, might be enough to sneak into the bracket.
Unlike his players, UNC’s second-year coach isn’t looking that far into the future.
“I’m not adopting the narrative that we have to win 4 games, so my focus is on Wednesday,” he said. “I think it’s important to focus on what’s real. And what is ahead of us is a game at 7 o’clock on (Wednesday). That’s where my focus is.”
Hubert Davis on the importance of Greensboro next week: “I’m not adopting the narrative that we’ve got to win four games. I’m focused on Wednesday.” pic.twitter.com/Ux8PDzYTog
— Josh Graham (@JoshGrahamRadio) March 5, 2023
UNC, Pitt and State aren’t the only 3 ACC teams needing to do work in Greensboro.
Although Clemson earned the No. 3 seed and a double bye into the quarterfinals by routing Notre Dame on Saturday, coach Brad Brownell’s Tigers may be in an even more precarious position than even the Tar Heels.
Their 21-9 record (4-3 against Quad 1 opponents) and school-record 14 conference wins apparently aren’t as important to the NCAA’s metric as its 4 Quad 3-4 losses, 2 of which came before Christmas.
Only top-seeded Miami, Virginia and No. 4 Duke can head to Greensboro feeling truly safe about their NCAA prospects.
It might not make sense. And it might not be right. But it’s a reality that should make for one of the most competitive and intense ACC Tournaments in recent memory.