Predicting how far each ACC team goes in the NCAA Tournament
Five ACC teams, headlined by No. 2 seed Duke, will head to the NCAA Tournament, which begins Tuesday night with First Four action in Dayton, Ohio. The Blue Devils, the ACC’s regular-season champions, were handsomely rewarded with a 2 seed in first- and second-round games that will be played in Greenville, SC, just a hop and a skip from Duke alumni rich Charlotte. Duke is the lone ACC team among the field’s top 16 teams, and only Duke and North Carolina enter their opening contests as the better-seeded team.
Nonetheless, 5 ACC teams are in — a victory for a league that spent most of the season with only 1 ranked team and just 3 or 4 teams in Joe Lunardi’s bracketology projections.
Here is a primer on each of the ACC’s 5 NCAA Tournament teams, along with a prediction of just how far those teams will advance.
Notre Dame, 11 seed in West (First Four)
First Four opponent: 11 seed Rutgers (Wednesday, 9:10 PM, truTV)
The Metrics Say: A great offense but a team that can struggle to get stops. 29th in KenPom Adjusted Offensive Efficiency, 84th in KenPom Adjusted Defensive Efficiency
Best Player: Blake Wesley, freshman wing (14.6 ppg, takes a whopping 30.6% of all Notre Dame’s shots when he is on the floor)
The Skinny: The Fighting Irish return to the NCAA Tournament under Mike Brey for the first time since 2017. That’s the longest drought in the Brey era and one that had Irish fans wondering if Brey, who would never be fired absent a scandal, might resign and retire at the end of this season. A very balanced offense, led by senior Prentiss Hubb, former Ivy League Player of the Year Paul Atkinson Jr., and freshman star Blake Wesley, silenced the retirement chatter with a 22-10 record and a 2nd-place finish in the ACC during the regular season.
When Notre Dame is on, they can beat anyone, as evidenced by their 66-62 win over Final Four contender Kentucky in early December. The Fighting Irish move the ball well and shoot 38% as a team from deep, the 19th-best mark in the country, led by Dane Goodwin, who shot 44.8% on the season. That’s a solid matchup against a Rutgers team that struggles to defend the arc (202nd in 3 point FG defense).
Prediction: Loss to Alabama in the Round of 64. The Fighting Irish will shoot their way past a Rutgers team that won 6 Quad 1 games before losing 4 of 6 down the stretch to almost play their way out of the field. But Notre Dame won’t have the athleticism or the defense to slow the Crimson Tide in Friday’s first-round action.
Virginia Tech, 11 seed in East
First-round Opponent: 6 seed Texas (Friday, 4:30 PM, CBS)
The Metrics Say: Underseeded and dangerous. 23rd overall in KenPom Adjusted Efficiency, including 18th in offensive efficiency
Best Player: Keve Aluma, senior forward (15.8 ppg, 6.5 rebounds, 1.9 assists)
The Skinny: One of the hottest teams in the country, Virginia Tech has won 13 of its past 15 games, including last week’s fantastic run to the ACC Tournament title. Given the Hokies’ seeding, it is a good thing they won the automatic bid in Brooklyn, as the committee almost certainly did not have them in the field when conference tournament week began and does not appear to have placed much value on conference tournaments this season (see also, Texas A&M).
Virginia Tech runs fantastic offense, the product of Mike Young’s brilliant and modern basketball mind. They are also absolutely lethal from distance, ranking 3rd in college basketball in 3-point field goal percentage as a team (39.3%). If they have a weakness, it is the lack of girth inside. Aluma plays away from the basket more on offense, relying on a solid jump shot and guile to score more than playing in the post. Justyn Mutts is the team’s glue guy and best rebounder, but he gives up size at only 6-7. None of Young’s guards are “small” outside of Wofford transfer Storm Murphy, but only Darius Maddox would qualify as “athletic.” When Virginia Tech has lost this year, it has almost universally been to teams with a great post presence or superior athleticism.
Prediction: A surprise run to the Sweet 16. The Hokies enter the tournament as 1 of the nation’s top 16 teams during their 13-2 run, per BartTorvik.com, and they’ll stay hot by ending a disappointing first season for Chris Beard at Texas. The Hokies are also one of the few teams in the field that can score with Purdue, and they’ll edge out the Boilermakers in a classic Round of 32 tilt. The fun will end in the Sweet 16, where Kentucky will simply overwhelm the Hokies in the post.
However, if Virginia Tech (or another ACC team) reaches the Sweet 16, it will extend the league’s run of having at least 1 team go that far in every NCAA Tournament since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985. The ACC has, by far, the longest active streak of producing at least 1 Sweet 16 team. The Big 12 has the next longest active streak (1999-present).
Miami, 10 seed in Midwest
First-round Opponent: 7 seed USC (Friday, 3:10 PM, truTV)
The Metrics Say: A sensational offense, but they can’t get stops. The Canes rank 17th in Adjusted KenPom Offensive Efficiency but are one of the worst defenses in the field, ranking 157th.
Best Player: Kam McGusty, senior guard (17.6 ppg, 4.8 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 37.3% from 3-point range)
The Skinny: Jim Larrañaga won an ACC Tournament in 2013 and an ACC regular-season title the following season, but this may have been his best coaching job. The Hurricanes used a legion of veteran guards to overcome the lack of any genuine frontcourt presence on their way to a 4th-place ACC finish, wins over Duke and North Carolina, and the program’s first NCAA bid since the 2017-2018 season. As noted, Miami has more guards than Everglades Correctional, and the best of them are McGusty and the diminutive super senior Charlie Moore, whose prior stops included Kansas.
Moore is one of the best steal artists in the sport, ranking 91st in the country in steal percentage and giving the Canes their lone difference-maker defensively. The Hurricanes were achingly close to a much better seed but dropped 6 games by 5 points or less to ACC opponents. They simply don’t get blown out and Friday’s game will be a tight one.
Prediction: Round of 32. The Canes and Trojans will be a contrast in styles. Isaiah Mobley (14.3 ppg, 8.5 rebounds, and Evan’s brother) gives USC a huge advantage inside in the first-round game, but the Trojans are one of the worst teams in the field defending the arc (Pac 12 opponents shot 39% from 3 and the Trojans ranked 180th nationally on the season in 3-point defense). In the NCAA Tournament, give me senior guards who hit shots. Auburn, however, with Walker Kessler and Jabari Smith, will be too much and the Hurricanes will go home after the second round.
North Carolina, 8 seed in East
First-round Opponent: 9 seed Marquette (Thursday, 4:30 PM, TBS)
The Metrics Say: An efficient offense and an improved defense. The Tar Heels finished 27th in Adjusted KenPom Offensive Efficiency, and improved from the 100s defensively before conference play to 64th in defensive efficiency by season’s end, an improvement that coincided with the team’s late-season surge.
Best Player: Armando Bacot, junior forward/center (16.5 ppg, 12.5 rebounds, 1.4 blocks)
The Skinny: The Tar Heels surged from a tenuous bubble team to lock with a 6-game February winning streak that ended with a signature win over Duke in Mike Krzyzewski’s final game at Cameron Indoor. The Tar Heels have a legion of perimeter shooters and shoot a quality 36.2% from deep, but they win with offensive rebounding (2nd in the country in offensive rebounding rate) and steady play from sophomore Caleb Love, one of the ACC’s most improved players in 2021-22.
When Love struggles, as he did in the Tar Heels’ ACC Tournament semifinal loss to Virginia Tech (3-for-17 from the field, 2-for-10 from 3-point range, 4 assists), North Carolina struggles. How Love plays will determine whether North Carolina reaches their second-weekend potential.
Prediction: Round of 32. North Carolina will breeze past Marquette on Thursday, as the Tar Heels are more talented and will annihilate a Marquette team that is one of the worst in America on the glass. But North Carolina doesn’t match up well with Baylor, the best No. 2 seed in the field and one of the NCAA Tournament’s most physical teams on the glass and in the paint.
Duke, 2 seed in West
First-round Opponent: 15 seed Cal State Fullerton (Friday, 7:10 PM, CBS)
The Metrics Say: One of Coach K’s best offensive teams. The Blue Devils rank 7th nationally in KenPom Adjusted Offensive Efficiency, but this has been a tremendous year for offense in basketball. In any of the past 5 seasons, Duke’s offense would have ranked no lower than 5th in the country.
Best Player: Paolo Banchero, freshman forward (17.8 ppg, 7.8 rebounds, 10th ranked player in country, per KenPom)
The Skinny: One last run for Mike Krzyzewski, who will coach his final basketball game at some point during this NCAA Tournament. Duke has not advanced to the Final Four since winning it all in 2015, and will actually be playing its first NCAA Tournament game in 3 years come Friday night, thanks to missing the field a season ago and the COVID cancellation in 2020.
The Blue Devils have a perfect mix of freshman star power in future lottery picks Banchero and AJ Griffin and veterans, led by junior captain Wendell Moore Jr (13.5 ppg, 5.6 rebounds, 4.6 assists) and big man Mark Williams (10.9 ppg, 7.8 rebounds, 2.8 blocks). It’s the balance that makes this team a legitimate Final Four threat, even if the Blue Devils showed warts down the stretch in close wins over Miami and Syracuse and losses to UNC and Virginia Tech.
The Blue Devils have wins over 7 teams in the field, including a No. 1 seed in Gonzaga and a No. 2 seed in Kentucky. They can beat anyone, are one of the nation’s most talented teams, and have the best coach to roam a college sideline since John Wooden.
Is there a storybook ending in store for Coach K? Only if Duke’s guard play, which can be enigmatic at times thanks to the up and down freshman Trevor Keels and the steady but not spectacular Jeremy Roach, play beautifully for a month. That could happen, but it’s a big ask.
Prediction: Elite 8. Duke has a favorable path to the Elite 8 and will steamroll Fullerton before a tricky second-round matchup against Davidson or Michigan State. The Sweet 16 will likely see the Blue Devils play a Texas Tech team that really struggles to score, and while the Red Raiders are no pushover, you have to like Duke’s talent in that game.
An Elite 8 rematch with Gonzaga would follow — and the Zags are on a mission after falling just short of the program’s first national championship a season ago. Coach K’s legendary career ends with a loss to another program builder in Mark Few, which seems fitting, even if it isn’t a storybook ending.