ACC Tournament Roundtable: Why Duke is the favorite, sleepers and more
The ACC Tournament begins Tuesday in Tournament Town, Greensboro, North Carolina. Our writers broke down the biggest issues in the tournament and offered a few predictions.
Who is the favorite to cut down the nets?
Neil W. Blackmon: I picked Duke in the ACC Tournament preview I wrote, so I’ll stick with the Blue Devils. There are two main reasons. First, they are defending at an elite level right now: 16th in the country in defensive efficiency in their last 10 games, per Bart Torvik. Second, Dariq Whitehead is starting to give them an option for when teams double Kyle Filipowski. Whitehead didn’t play great last week, but he was rattling off double-figure point totals before that and he’s shooting 41% from deep, which is a great wrinkle when you are already NBA-ready as a slasher and finisher. Teams with multiple offensive options stick around longer at these events, and Whitehead might not win the MVP, but he’s a luxurious X-factor for Jon Scheyer and Duke.
Brett Friedlander: Great minds think alike. The Blue Devils and their rookie coach have both grown up over the course of the season and are trending in the right direction at just the right time. They’ve built an identity based on a grit and defensive tenacity that belies their blue-blood pedigree and with the emergence of Tyrese Proctor as a perimeter threat and Whitehead attacking the rim, they continue to improve on offense as well. But they’re still young and this will still be their 1st experience at postseason play. As Scheyer said after Saturday’s win in Chapel Hill, tournament time is a “different animal” and it will be interesting to see how well his team adjusts. Their biggest obstacle is likely to come in the semifinals, when they’ll have to get by a talented, well-coached veteran Miami team. Other than that 2nd-half meltdown against Florida State, the Hurricanes have been even hotter, even longer than the Blue Devils. And they clobbered Duke in Coral Gables the last time they met. But Duke won’t be coming off the emotional high of a win against North Carolina this time. That should make a difference.
Best bet to be Most Outstanding Player?
Blackmon: It will be Filipowski. He’s been the best player at Duke all season and the ACC’s most efficient player during the 2022-23 season, per KenPom. He also helped Duke put UNC’s bubble on life support Saturday night in Chapel Hill with a performance worthy of college basketball’s greatest rivalry: 22 points, 13 rebounds, a block, a steal, and a host of crucial free throws down the stretch. If you had told me before the season I’d pick a Duke freshman to be MVP of the ACC Tournament, Filipowski would have been my third or fourth choice. Now if it is another Duke freshman, I’d be stunned. That’s how good Filipowski is, or proof I’m an idiot, one or the other.
Friedlander: Again, we’re on the same page. But for the sake of argument, I’m going to go with a different Dukie. Jeremy Roach is the only Blue Devil remaining from last year’s Final Four run and he’s the unquestioned leader of this young team. He’s been at his best during his team’s late-season surge, averaging 16 points and 4 assists while shooting nearly 50% from the floor (33 of 67) over the past 5 games. He’s also a tenacious perimeter defender who sets the tone while he’s on the court. Even though he didn’t have a particularly strong offensive game Saturday against the Tar Heels, he’s the guy who took charge when Duke needed it by splitting 4 defenders down the lane for the tough layup that put the Blue Devils ahead for good in the final minute.
What player most folks don’t know about has the biggest tournament, becoming a known commodity in the process?
Blackmon: Because there’s this perception that they are still a football school (they aren’t), I’m not sure how many people outside of basketball circles know just how good Jordan Miller is for Miami. A stat sheet stuffer, Miller averages 15 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists and 1.6 steals per game. He does everything, which is how you end up being compared to Corey Brewer, a 2-time national champion and former NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player at another Florida school. The Hurricanes are 1 of 2 ACC teams I think could make the Final Four, and the biggest reasons aren’t star guard Isaiah Wong or NIL megadeal guy Nijel Pack. They are Norchad Omier, the big who gives them balance, and Miller, who guards the other team’s best guy and gives the Canes a glue guy they need when games get tough.
Friedlander: Pick anyone you like on the Pitt Panthers. They’ve all flown under the radar, other than the 15 minutes of fame they got when Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim accused coach Jeff Capel of “buying” his team. While it’s true that a majority of their lineup was acquired through the transfer portal, none of the additions were high sought-after prospects. That’s especially true of wing Blake Hinson. A 6-7 junior who previously spent time at Ole Miss and Iowa State, Hinson hadn’t played in 2 seasons because of illness and injury before coming to Pitt. Out of sight, out of mind. But he’s averaged 16 points and 6 rebounds for the Panthers this season and could set himself up to be a preseason All-ACC pick next year with a big performance in Greensboro.
Who is the darkest horse?
Blackmon: Uhh. .. Virginia Tech? Mike Young’s team was one of the most disappointing outfits in the country during the regular season. They are too talented to be 8-12 in any conference and were expected to be comfortably in the NCAA Tournament field in most preseason prognostications. They have a First-Team All-ACC guy in Justyn Mutts, who averages 13 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 4.8 assists. They can get hot from the arc, as we saw last year in Brooklyn, and Young runs great offense and does an excellent job getting shooters open. They also know they can win the tournament because the bulk of this team did it last season. And they’ve beaten 2 of the teams that have a double-bye (Duke, Virginia). I wouldn’t be stunned if they did it again.
Friedlander: I know that some of soured on NC State because of their 2 straight losses to end the regular season. But with a full week to reset and with a nice blend of inside-outside balance, a veteran roster and the urgency of trying to stay off the Selection Sunday bubble, the Wolfpack have all the elements to make a deep tournament run as long as star sharpshooter Terquavion Smith can find the shooting touch he’s lost over the past couple of games. The biggest obstacle for coach Kevin Keatts’ team is the bracket. Not only will they face a tricky opener against either Virginia Tech or Notre Dame, but its quarterfinal foe would be Clemson, a team that has already beaten it twice this season by a combined 35 points.
Blackmon: I like the NC State pick. I think they are really good, too. Jarkel Joiner is one of the best players in the Power 6 most haven’t heard much about. He’d be on my “all-underrated” team. Maybe NC State gets Clemson on a third try? If they did, a semifinal against either UNC or UVA seems like a winnable game. And anything can happen on tired legs in a championship.
Besides Mike Brey, is anyone else coaching their final games in the ACC at this tournament?
Blackmon: Jim Boeheim should be, but he doesn’t appear interested in stepping down and doing the right thing for the institution. That’s a shame because every season the Orange are mediocre hurts the program Jim built with his bare hands. Leonard Hamilton told me he wants to be back and see if FSU can stay healthy for the first time since COVID wiped away his best team’s shot at a national title. He’s earned that right. That leaves Josh Pastner, I think, and I can’t see why Georgia Tech would retain a coach that has taken a program with strong tradition in one of the richest recruiting bases in America to just one NCAA Tournament. A change is needed and this should be the end.
Friedlander: Whiny Jim can talk all he likes about it being his decision on whether to return or not. But after yet another meh regular season that will end without an NCAA Tournament bid, his administration might have other ideas. Somehow it would be fitting if his final game with the Orange is played in Greensboro. Maybe he can go to Denny’s for his retirement dinner. As for Pastner, it will be interesting to see how things play out. His team is playing its best basketball of the season with 6 wins in its last 8 games. But most of those victories have come against fellow bottom feeders. Tech has a new athletic director, which doesn’t bode well for coaches on the hot seat. But if the Yellow Jackets can win a game or 2 this week, it could buy Pastner another year.
Blackmon: The Yellow Jackets’ close 2 seasons ago bought Pastner more time. For me, you are a top 10 public university, you aren’t winning in football as long as Kirby Smart roams the sidelines in Athens, and you are in the heart of the most fertile recruiting region in the southeast for hoops, with all due respect to Charlotte and Memphis. It’s time for Georgia Tech to take hoops seriously. Pastner had plenty of chances. Time to move on.
Friedlander: You’re absolutely right about Tech. I know the academic standards are tough, but given the wealth of talent in the Atlanta area, there is absolutely no reason why Tech shouldn’t be better than it’s been lately.
Which of the top 4 seeds is the most likely to get upset in its opening game?
Blackmon: Clemson. They have the hardest matchups. The Tigers will either play NC State, which undoubtedly remembers what happened the last time they met just 2 weeks ago and won’t be embarrassed again, or Virginia Tech. The Hokies and Clemson played a tight game, won by Clemson, at Cassell Coliseum in mid-January. That was Hunter Cattoor’s first game back from an injury and he was ineffective. He’s healthy again and it’s hard to see the Hokies shooting 27% from deep like they did in that 3 point loss. PJ Hall and Hunter Tyson are matchup issues for the Hokies, but Clemson has been vulnerable all season against teams with good perimeter play and the task of beating a good Virginia Tech team twice might be too much.
Friedlander: UVA. The Cavaliers won a share of the ACC regular-season title, but they’ve been anything but a juggernaut down the stretch. Not only did they lose back-to-back games to Boston College and North Carolina, but they struggled in way-too-close wins against Notre Dame and Louisville — the bottom 2 seeds this week. Tony Bennett’s team stopped the bleeding with a nice home win against a desperate Clemson team on Feb. 28 and a routine rout in a rematch with the lowly Cardinals. But while the Cavaliers’ defense is as solid as always, they continue to have problems putting the ball in the basket. And that could be their downfall in the postseason.
Blackmon: I don’t think Kihei Clark will let this team go one weekend and done in March Madness, but they sure have limped down the stretch. At one point this year, UVA was in the top 20 nationally in KenPom offensive efficiency and defensive efficiency. Now? They are 71st in offense (yuck!) and out of the top 30 in defense. Tony Bennett has even played freshmen a bunch searching for answers. That’s how bad it’s been. I may be rethinking my Clemson pick …
Speaking of top 4 seeds: what does Clemson have to do in Greensboro to feel good about Selection Sunday?
Blackmon: They need to win 2 games, I think. I get the sentiment that this is unfair, especially since one of their 3 albatross losses (South Carolina, Loyola-Chicago, Louisville) came without PJ Hall, and the Selection Committee should consider that factor. They are also 7-5 in Quad 1 and 2 games, which is very good comparable to other bubble teams. I don’t think they are as far out as other bracket projections, which tend to slot them in the next 4 out range. A win over NC State in the quarterfinals would help, but beating Virginia in the semifinals would make them a lock. If they lose the first game, they’ll be in the NIT.
Friedlander: It’s incredibly sad that we’re even having to have this discussion. An ACC team with 22 wins overall, 14 in the conference and 3 in Quad 1, with a tournament double bye, should already be safely into the NCAA Tournament field. Not on the wrong side of the bubble. But because of the NCAA’s flawed metric, which places far too much weight on punishing teams for bad losses than rewarding them for good wins, here we are. It’s doubtful that a win against NC State, should they play in the quarterfinals, would be enough to push them into the bracket. Getting to the finals might be enough, but winning the whole thing would take the decision out of the hands of the committee. As you said, losing that first game, regardless of who it’s against, would not be advisable.
Blackmon: Here’s a wild thought: What happens if Wake Forest wins 3 games? Do they become this year’s Texas A&M? The team that should be in but lost too many close games to actually be in? The latest team that shows conference tournaments can’t earn you a bid, but they can cost you one?
Friedlander: I’d love the Wake Forest pick if Damari Monsanto hadn’t suffered a season-ending injury a couple of weeks ago. The Deacs haven’t been the same team offensively without his production from beyond the 3-point arc. Davien Williamson has tried to pick up the slack, but he’s nowhere near as explosive. Wake will go as far as Tyree Appleby will take it. But carrying a team for 4 straight games in 4 days is a big ask.
With the ACC offices moving to Charlotte, will this be the last conference tournament played in Greensboro?
Blackmon: I hope not, but the allure of the Queen City, with more hotel rooms, an NBA arena, and world-class dining for fans making the trek may be too much for the ACC offices to turn down. Greensboro has a real family feel to it though, and for a tournament that still determines the actual ACC champion, it would be a shame to see that tradition go by the wayside.
Friedlander: I would hate it, too. The first tournament I attended, as a college student in 1980, was in Greensboro. And the event has been played there more than any other venue. And no other venue in the league’s traditional rotation embraces the tournament the way they do in Greensboro. Case in point: A colleague took an Uber to Barclays Center for the tournament championship game last year and as he was getting dropped off, the driver asked him who the Nets were playing. People there just didn’t know or care that their city was hosting the tournament. Sadly, though, new commissioner Jim Phillips and the former Big East schools are intent on pushing the league away from its traditional roots. Greensboro is just not big or glamorous enough for today’s more competitive college sports environment. No sites have been chosen beyond next year in Washington DC. My guess is it’s going to be a long time, if ever, before the league comes back to “Tournament Town.”
Blackmon: Even Washington DC is going to feel weird. I get the appeal of having the tournament in the District but if they thought the early-round Brooklyn crowds were sparse …
Friedlander: The ACC will always be second fiddle in New York as long as the Big East is at the Garden. We’ve seen that it really doesn’t work in Atlanta or Tampa. If Greensboro isn’t in the rotation, Charlotte is the next best thing.