Predicting how far each ACC team will go in the NCAA Tournament
Five ACC programs heard their names called on Selection Sunday, a repeat of the 2021-22 campaign. That was a disappointing number considering the preseason hype around the conference. Some preseason brackets had 8 ACC teams invited, led by preseason No. 1 North Carolina, which, of course, missed the NCAA Tournament entirely.
While the ACC would rather have seen more invites, there’s no question the league would settle for a repeat of last season’s NCAA Tournament performance, where it finished 14-5 and sent Duke and North Carolina to the Final Four in New Orleans.
The 5 teams in the field include at least 2 with legitimate Final Four capability in Duke, the ACC Champion, and Miami, which shared the ACC’s regular-season crown. Virginia is also poised to make a run, having earned a 4 seed in the South Region. The other 2 invitees are NC State and Pittsburgh, which was 1 of the last 4 teams in and will play in the First Four in Dayton on Tuesday night.
Here’s an in-depth breakdown of each of the ACC’s invitees, along with a prediction of how far they’ll go in this year’s Big Dance.
Pittsburgh, 11 seed, Midwest Region
Overall: 22-11, 5th place in ACC, At-Large Bid
First Round Opponent: Mississippi State, First Four (Tuesday Night, 9:10 PM ET).
KenPom Efficiency Rankings: 77th overall; Offense is 24th in Adjusted Efficiency; Defense is 142nd.
Top Player: Blake Hinson, Wing
Hinson, a transfer from Ole Miss whose career in the SEC was derailed by injuries, stayed healthy and played beautifully all season for Jeff Capel III. Hinson does a bit of everything, and he’s one of the only quality on-ball defenders on a poor defensive team, grading out as “good” defensively, per Synergy Sports. Hinson had 24 in Pitt’s bid for a regular-season ACC title at Miami to close the regular season, and though the Panthers lost by 2, there’s almost certainly no NCAA Tournament bid without him on the floor this season.
What Pitt does best: Score
The Panthers can score in numerous ways. They space the floor beautifully, as you’d expect from a Mike Krzyzewski disciple, and while they take half their shots from 3 point range, they have drivers in Hinson and guard Jamarius Burton who can get to the bucket, finish, or get fouled and go to the line. Burton is a terrific isolation player and he enters the tournament averaging 15.6 points per game, along with 4.4 assists. When he draws help, he’s a capable passer. Pitt hits 36% of their 3-pointers, making them lethal if you help too much on their drivers. The Panthers’ top-25 offensive efficiency ranking is elite and gives them a chance to win more than 1 game at the NCAA Tournament.
Biggest Weakness: Defense
Pitt’s KenPom Adjusted Defensive Efficiency ranking of 142nd is among the worst in the field. Among tournament teams, only Miami and Iowa have a larger disparity between their offensive efficiency and defensive efficiency3s. They struggle to guard on the ball and they do not turn teams over (.3 turnover margin). If they don’t make threes, they do not defend well enough to win.
Best Win: Virginia, Jan. 3
The Panthers toppled the Hoos at the Oakland Zoo in January, an early indicator that the apparent turnaround under Capel was legitimate. Pitt won 7 games against Quad 1 and Quad 2, but this was the best of their victories, which also include a win over Miami at home as well as a win in Chapel Hill which North Carolina would have loved to get back yesterday night.
Prediction: Win in the First Four, Lose to Iowa State in the first round.
NC State, 11 seed, South Region
Overall: 23-10, 6th Place in ACC, At-Large Bid
First Round Opponent: Creighton Blue Jays (4 PM, Friday, TNT)
KenPom Efficiency Rankings: 55th overall, Offense is 37th, Defense is 85th.
Top Player: Jarkel Joiner, Guard
Most publications will pick Terquavion Smith, an All-ACC selection. Saturday Road has actually watched NC State this season, and so we are going with Joiner. He scored 25 points in 3 of the season’s final 4 games, including a 6 3-pointer performance at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Feb. 28. Joiner does not turn the ball over (top 100 in the country in turnover rate) despite playing huge minutes (28th nationally in minutes played). He is smart, a physical defender who can defend without fouling (top 100 in foul rate), and he is playing his best basketball in March. If Creighton keys on Smith, Joiner could go off.
What NC State does best: Guard play
Guards win games in March, and NC State has excellent guards with Joiner, Casey Morsell and Smith. The Wolfpack’s guards can guard, create their own shot, and shoot from deep. They rank 2nd nationally in turnover rate (13%), which means they won’t beat themselves. That also means they get a lot of shots up, which helps you win in March where each possession is valuable. Smith can be erratic, which is the biggest concern for this strength, but Joiner is steady and the Wolfpack certainly can play with anyone in their sub-regional thanks to their guards.
Biggest weakness: Rim protection and interior defense
NC State has a tremendous scoring big in Winthrop transfer DJ Burns Jr., but the big fellow isn’t a good defender. He’s too big and bulky to guard away from the basket, and there’s not much behind him due to the injury suffered early in the season by Dusan Mahorcic. NC State guards the perimeter fine, but they can be had inside, and teams with good 4s and 5s have been a problem for the Pack this season.
Best Win: Miami, Jan. 14
NC State’s guards outshined Miami’s brilliant guards in a terrific game in Raleigh in January. That was the game where we saw the value in NC State’s ability to avoid beating themselves: the Pack won the turnover battle by 13, attempted 24 more shots than the Hurricanes, and ultimately won by 2. NC State has also impressed in losses, including a 6-point loss to Kansas during Feast Week that came down to the wire. Kevin Keatts said last week that playing with Kansas “gave his team the confidence they were good and could win games,” and that they “have carried that with them” throughout the season. They won’t be intimidated by Creighton’s talent.
Prediction: A first-round loss to Creighton.
Duke, 5 Seed, East Region
Overall: 26-8, ACC Champions.
First Round Opponent: Oral Roberts (7:10 PM, Thursday).
KenPom Rankings: 21st overall; Offense is 42nd, Defense is 24th.
Top Player: Kyle Filipowski, Forward
The ACC Freshman of the Year, Filipowski has posted double doubles in 4 of his previous 5 games, eliminating any concerns about freshman fatigue that may have lingered after Duke dropped 2 straight games last month to Miami and Virginia. The big man was the ACC Tournament MVP and his 15.4 points and 9 rebounds give the Blue Devils their best stretch big in a long time. Couple his length with the emerging Dereck Lively II, and you get one of the best frontcourts in the field.
What Duke does best: Defend and disrupt
The Blue Devils are one of the biggest, most versatile teams in the field. With Filipowski, they have an inside-out big. With Lively II, they have one of the most gifted shot blockers in the tournament. Ryan Young is a terrific post defender positionally and a good passer. This front court is designed to eliminate good looks at the bucket and control the glass and in Duke’s 9-game winning streak, it has done just that. The Blue Devils can also hedge with Filipowski if they want or with wings Mark Mitchell and Dariq Whitehead, who both have great length. Duke blocks shots, gets into gaps defensively, and while they don’t force many turnovers, they do get stops at a high rate, which is why they enter the NCAA Tournament with an elite 24th KenPom Adjusted Defensive Efficiency ranking.
Biggest Weakness: Turnovers
The emergence of Whitehead has eliminated the lingering worry that Duke doesn’t shoot well enough to win 6 games in a row. Whitehead shoots over 40% from beyond the arc, and Mark Mitchell’s 37% is a fine complement to that ace shooting. As Whitehead has emerged, weaker 3-point shooters like Filipowski and point guard Tyrese Proctor have cut down on their shots, resulting in a better, more efficient offense. The one thing Duke doesn’t do well, and it reared its head often against Miami in the ACC Tournament semifinal, is take care of the basketball. Duke is -1.1 in turnover margin and ranks in the bottom half of the country in turnover percentage.
That can create issues, especially away from home, if the Blue Devils allow the turnovers to lead to fast break points, as they did in road losses to Miami and Virginia Tech or neutral floor defeats to Kansas and Purdue this season. That’s the biggest issue for Duke and it is one Tennessee, which may loom in Round 2, could exploit.
Best Win: Miami, twice
The Blue Devils played 2 classics with the Hurricanes, defeating them 68-66 at home and then beating them by 7 in a spectacular ACC semifinal. In both games, Filipowski’s ability to dictate play inside won the day. However, the emergence of Dariq Whitehad, who scored 16 off the bench in the ACC Tournament win, was the hint that this Duke team is becoming a well-rounded, complete unit just in time for the Big Dance.
Prediction: The Final Four
The Blue Devils are playing the best basketball of any team in their region and if they survive a tough sub-region in Orlando, they will get to play in the Duke-friendly confines of Manhattan and Madison Square Garden. Those crowds will be prohibitively for the Blue Devils, who have the talent to slow the likes of Tyler Kolek and Marquette or overwhelm Purdue and Zach Edey with waves of big men and better balance. Eventually, Duke’s youth and inability to protect the basketball will catch up to them, but that won’t happen until the national semifinals.
Miami, 5 seed, Midwest Region
Overall: 25-7, ACC Regular Season Co-Champion, At-Large Bid.
First Round Opponent: Drake (7:25 PM, Friday)
KenPom: 40th overall; Offense is 12th; Defense is 132nd.
Top Player: Jordan Miller, Wing
Miller doesn’t get the pub that ACC Coaches Player of the Year Isaiah Wong or even NIL transfer darling Nijel Pack do, but he’s Miami’s best player because he does everything. He can score, rebound, pass and defend at a high level. Miller was the ACC’s most efficient player in conference games, per Bart Torvik, averaging 15 points, 6 rebounds and 3 assists in league contests.
What Miami does best: Offensive versatility
Jim Larrañaga is one of the game’s best offensive minds, and his 4-out offense is spectacular at identifying and attacking mismatches. Miami has multiple individual shot-makers, starting with Wong and Pack, who can create their own shot at will. Wong is the best in the country at difficult shot making as well, a huge reason the Canes never panic late in the shot clock.
Good game for Isaiah Wong last night vs Virginia Tech with 18-2-2 and 5 steals (great use of high hands and reading passes)
One of his makes that really stood out was this stepback 3 over the double team/tough closeout. Wong specializes in hitting difficult shots pic.twitter.com/HmVBYIgxE0
— Mavs/Magic Draft (@MavsDraft) February 1, 2023
Wong leads the Hurricanes in scoring, but Miami has 4 players who average over 13 points a game. The Hurricanes also get fouled at a good clip and hit free throws when they go to the line, meaning if you get behind good luck.
Biggest Weakness: Norchad Omier’s ankle
It is not an understatement to say that Miami is Final Four good if Norchad Omier’s ankle is OK, but the Canes also could lose in the first round if it isn’t. Miami competed with Duke after a sprain put the All-ACC big man out of the ACC Tournament semifinal against Duke in the first minute, but Duke won the rebounding battle by 13; Miami had no answer for Duke’s interior. With Omier healthy, the Hurricanes had outclassed Duke in Coral Gables, with Omier scoring 17 points and grabbing 11 rebounds in the win. Omier (14 points per game, 10 rebounds) gives the Hurricanes the versatility and balance last year’s Elite 8 team lacked. If he is okay, the Canes can go deep again. If not, it could all end on Friday night in Albany against Drake.
Best Win: Duke
Back on Feb. 6, the Hurricanes clobbered Duke 81-59 in a game that wasn’t even that close. Omier ate inside, Jordan Miller had 16 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists, and the Hurricanes needed little from Wong and Pack (16 points combined!) to outclass the Blue Devils. That was Miami firing on all cylinders, and it was fun to watch.
Prediction: Round of 32
The Hurricanes will be pushed by Drake in the opening round, but they’ll survive thanks to Wong and Miller. A 2nd-round matchup against Indiana or gritty Kent State will require a healthier Omier, however, and if he is even a little bit compromised, then this season ends sooner than it should. Miami’s training room may decide this team’s fate more than play on the court.
Virginia, 4 seed, South Region
Overall: 25-7, ACC Regular Season Co-Champion, At-Large Bid
First Round Opponent: Furman Paladins (12:40 PM, Thursday)
KenPom: 34th Overall, Offense is 74th, Defense is 25th.
Top Player: Kihei Clark, Guard
One of the few players in the field who has won the national championship, Clark is a tremendous player who controls tempo, defends like a mythical banshee, and can penetrate and pass. He makes the Cavaliers run and when he has an off-night, as he did in the ACC Championship against Duke, it is hard for Virginia to win. Playing his final college games, expect the savvy graduate student to be sensational, beginning on Thursday.
What Virginia does best: Control flow with their methodical tempo and defense
The Cavaliers play as slow as almost anyone in the country (360th in tempo), but the method to that madness is they don’t turn the ball over and they are stout on defense. Every possession is critical and if Virginia gets ahead, they are a boa constrictor who ratchets up the pressure and suffocates you, possession by possession. Their guards, led by Clark and ACC Defensive Player of the Year Rece Beekman, are tremendous at pressuring the ball and making it difficult to initiate offense. Beekman is long and gets hands on passes and steals and helps Virginia score in transition as well, which makes playing against him extremely difficult.
Biggest Weakness: Shooting!
Virginia runs good offense. It is a myth that Tony Bennett teams are “not good offensively.” They run great stuff, whether in blocker-mover concepts or off-ball fake screens and pindowns to generate good looks. They are a joy to watch play, even at their methodical tempo.
Virginia doing more than playing beautiful defense.
Look at this fake double screen action to free up Reece Beekman to get to the bucket and line. – N pic.twitter.com/aB4f5QOS70
— Florida Basketball Hour (@FloridaBBHour) November 20, 2022
Virginia is flawed, however, because they lack the outstanding shooters of their past elite teams. Armaan Franklin is the team’s best shooter, but he’s just 6-for-20 from deep in March to date. Freshman Isaac McKneely is going to be special and hit two big shots against Duke in the ACC Championship, but is it too soon to expect much from him in March? Beekman has worked relentlessly on his offensive game, but he’s still just a 35% 3-point shooter and with an effective field goal percentage of just 45.8%, he’s driving to pass for the most part. The Cavaliers can go cold and if they do, they aren’t so good defensively that it saves them all the time.
Best Win: Baylor, Feast Week
When Virginia beat No. 5 Baylor in the Continental Tire Classic in Las Vegas, it showed the universe that last season’s NIT trip was a one-off for this program. It also demonstrated the tenacity of Virginia’s guards defensively. If you can slow Baylor’s guards, you can stop most anyone.
Prediction: Loss in first round.
It’s hard to pick against Clark playing his final games as a Cavalier, but the matchup with Furman, an explosive offensive team that can hit shots, create shots and rebound, is Wahoo kryptonite. Virginia will fight because they always do, but they’ll go home after one game against a veteran, upset-minded Furman team playing its first NCAA Tournament game since 1980.