The Ultimate ACC Tournament Preview: Can anybody stop Coach K, Duke?
The nation’s most storied basketball conference descends on Gotham this week, with play beginning at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn on Tuesday afternoon. For the first time in over a decade, the defending ACC Tournament champion plays on opening day. That should give you an idea of how wide open this tournament is, even if oddsmakers have labeled Mike Krzyzewski and Duke prohibitive favorites to capture the crown.
If Duke does hoist the trophy Saturday night, it would be the Blue Devils’ conference-leading 22nd ACC Tournament championship. The league hasn’t had a repeat champion since Duke’s run of 3 consecutive ACC Tournament championships from 2009-2011, and barring a miracle run by Georgia Tech, a new champion will reign again in 2022.
One fun fact: North Carolina is back in the Top 25 this week after spoiling Coach K’s Cameron farewell. That marks the first time since Feast Week that the ACC has had 2 teams in the Top 25. No better time than March, I guess?
Here’s your ultimate ACC Tournament preview, in seeding order, with predictions.
15. NC State (11-20, 4-16)
The Metrics Say: They can’t defend! 66th in KenPom Adjusted Offensive Efficiency; 257th (yuck!) in KenPOm Adjusted Defensive Efficiency
Best Player: Freshman guard Terquavion Smith (16.5 points per game, 4.1 rebounds, 2 assists)
The Skinny: Wolfpack fans were surprised last week when it was announced Kevin Keatts will return to coach NC State in the 2022-23 season. Keatts has been to the NCAA Tournament just once in 5 seasons in Raleigh, though it would be twice but for the COVID cancellation. He went to 2 tournaments in 3 seasons at UNC Wilmington, and was widely labeled a “can’t-miss” hire when NC State brought him in ahead of the 2017-18 campaign. Keatts may be right that NC State would be a tournament team this year with Manny Bates, who was injured just a minute into the season in November. But if wishes were horses, or however the old saying goes …
Prediction: A first-round loss to Clemson on Tuesday and a merciful end to a miserable season.
14. Georgia Tech (12-19, 5-15)
The Metrics Say: They can’t score! 249th in KenPom Offensive Efficiency (yikes!); 91st in Defensive Efficiency
Best Player: Senior guard Michael Devoe (2021 ACC Tournament MVP; 18 points per game, 5.0 rebounds, 3.2 assists)
The Skinny: Josh Pastner’s team really struggles to score in the halfcourt, especially on evenings when Michael Devoe can’t hit shots against consistent hedging and double teams. Georgia Tech lost 4 of its final 5 to slip to the 14 seed, but 3 of those losses were decided by 5 or fewer points, a testament to the way the Yellow Jackets can stay in games on defense. This tournament was Devoe’s showcase last year, but that team was a ruthlessly efficiency offense led by Moses Wright. This team should have been better, but Pastner will get at least another year to right the ship.
Prediction: Devoe gets hot and carries the Yellow Jackets past Louisville on Tuesday, but a desperate Virginia will be too tall an order on Wednesday night.
13. Boston College (11-19, 6-14)
The Metrics Say: They are better than they were last year! 164th in KenPom Offensive Efficiency; 151st in Defensive Efficiency
Best Player: Sophomore guard DeMarr Langford Jr. (11.1 points per game, 4.8 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.1 steals)
The Skinny: Earl Grant’s team started 4-6 in ACC play, winning more games by the end of January than last season’s team did all season. Unfortunately, they closed 2-8 in the conference, mostly due to the ACC’s 13th-ranked offense in league play. The Langfords make the team go, but it is a highly ranked 2022 recruiting class that has Chestnut Hill excited about basketball again for the first time in several years.
Prediction: The Eagles split their regular-season meetings with Pitt, but the Panthers played better down the stretch and will end Boston College’s season Tuesday.
12. Pittsburgh (11-20, 6-14)
The Metrics Say: They can’t shoot. 257th in KenPom Offensive Efficiency; 153rd in KenPom Defensive Efficiency.
Best Player: Sophomore forward John Hugley (14.7 points per game, 7.9 rebounds, 1.2 assists)
The Skinny: Jeff Capel III has a reported buyout of $15 million, which is truly the definition of insanity, and probably why no decision has been made about Capel’s future at Pitt. It looked like the Panthers were righting the ship a bit after they upset North Carolina in Chapel Hill in mid-February. Pitt proceeded to lose their final 4 games, including a home tilt with woeful Georgia Tech. This team can be a problem inside when they feed John Hugley, but they don’t have the jump shooters to assure Hugley can avoid help defense and have consistent room to operate.
Prediction: A win over Boston College on Tuesday afternoon will extend Pitt’s season one day, but hard decisions will loom for the program after they are eliminated by Wake Forest on Wednesday afternoon.
11. Louisville (12-18, 6-14)
The Metrics Say: The worst offensive Louisville team this century! 193rd in KenPom Offensive Efficiency; 116th in KenPom Defensive Efficiency.
Best Player: Senior forward Malik Williams (9.3 points per game, 7.7 rebounds, 1.2 steals)
The Skinny: Chris Mack was dismissed in the middle of the season, with the administration stating it was “too toxic” for Mack, once considered a rising star in the profession, to continue. The Cardinals won just 1 game thereafter, though they may have finally found something offensively in Sydney Curry, who has responded to a starting role by scoring 23.4 points per game over the season’s final 3 contests. Still, Louisville fans have both eyes on the coaching search and will be relieved when this season ends quietly this week.
Prediction: A loss to Georgia Tech on Tuesday ends the worst Louisville season in recent memory.
10. Clemson (16-15, 8-12)
The Metrics Say: A good offense, but not enough D. 53rd in KenPom Offensive Efficiency; 119th in KenPom Defensive Efficiency
Best Player: Sophomore forward PJ Hall (15.4 points per game, 5.7 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 1.1 blocks)
The Skinny: PJ Hall is a bona fide star in the making, and his production actually increased in league play, where he averaged 17 points and 7 rebounds a night. Clemson was without Hall during the bulk of their 4-game winning streak, however– and found answers offensively anyway, thanks to the sterling play of redshirt sophomore Chase Hunter, who poured in 21 and 23 in wins over Wake Forest and Boston College. The Tigers closed the regular season with an impressive win over a bubble-icious Virginia Tech team, and could play their way into an NIT bid with a couple of wins in Brooklyn. Whether that will be enough for the Brad Brownell era to continue in 2022-23 is a fascinating question, but Brownell’s huge buyout suggests no change is forthcoming.
Prediction: A comfortable win over NC State on Tuesday afternoon will set up a rematch with Virginia Tech, which needs a big run in Brooklyn to play in March Madness. Clemson will upend the Hokies for the second time in a week but will run out of luck in the quarterfinals against Notre Dame.
9. Syracuse (15-16, 9-11)
The Metrics Say: The worst 2-3 zone in Jim Boeheim’s 46 years at Syracuse. 21st in KenPom Adjusted Offensive Efficiency; 215th in KenPom Adjusted Defensive Efficiency
Best Player: Senior guard Buddy Boeheim (19.3 points per game, 3.1 assists, 34.1% 3P FG)
The Skinny: Syracuse has plenty of offensive firepower, as evidenced by the program’s lofty offensive efficiency ratings. This was the 2nd-most productive offense in the ACC in league play, and the Orange have 5 players averaging in double figures and 3 players ranked in the top 100 nationally in offensive rating. Only Iowa and Purdue can claim that much offensive firepower.
Unfortunately, the lack of athleticism and a truly dominant post presence has meant that this Syracuse team isn’t well-equipped to play Boeheim’s 2-3 zone. Making matters worse, Syracuse can’t rebound: They rank 309th nationally in rebounding, the worst number in the ACC. That compounds problems in the zone.
Prediction: A season-ending loss to Florida State on Wednesday afternoon.
8. Florida State (17-13, 10-10)
The Metrics Say: The worst defensive team Leonard Hamilton has had in a decade. 124th in KenPom Adjusted Offensive Efficiency; 95th in Defensive Efficiency
Best Player: Senior forward Malik Osborne, but he’s out for the season. That leaves sophomore guard Caleb Mills. (13.4 points per game, 2.4 assists, 1.6 steals)
The Skinny: For the first time in a decade, NBA departures and injury attrition caught up to Leonard Hamilton’s Seminoles. The ACC’s most consistent program over the past decade, the Seminoles will miss the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 6 seasons barring a miracle run in Brooklyn. On the bright side, the Seminoles have played better down the stretch, receiving a jolt of energy from the return of senior wing and ace defender Anthony Polite, who was out a month with a bad ankle injury. FSU is also the only team in the field with wins over Duke and Notre Dame, the tournament’s top 2 seeds. But unlike Seminoles teams of recent championship vintage, this FSU team can’t lock you down defensively, and they don’t score enough to win four games in a row.
Prediction: FSU will handle Syracuse on Wednesday, but Duke will prove too much in a tightly contested quarterfinal on Thursday. An NIT berth awaits FSU in the aftermath, though it is unclear if a banged-up Seminoles team will accept a bid.
7. Virginia Tech (19-12, 11-9)
The Metrics Say: This team is better than its record. 28th in KenPom Adjusted Offensive Efficiency; 53rd in Defensive Efficiency
Best Player: Senior forward Keve Aluma (15.4 points per game, 6.5 rebounds, 1.8 assists)
The Skinny: Mike Young runs some of the best offense in America and this team can really score: The Hokies closed the season 9-2 and averaged 1.14 points per possession in the process, per Hoops Lens. Aluma led the Hokies in scoring in 7 of the final 11 games, but he has a nice sidekick in do everything frontcourt mate Justyn Mutts, who averages 10.5 points per contest and 7.5 rebounds a night. Tournament play is about matchups, though, and Clemson, with the athletic and silky PJ Hall, can bang with the Hokies down low and force the Hokies guards to make shots.
Nahiem Alleyne (37.8% from 3) and Hunter Cattoor (40.4% from 3) are capable, but Virginia Tech lost to Clemson last week despite shooting 40% from deep and will need to win the frontcourt battle to play basketball on Thursday and keep their NCAA Tournament hopes alive.
Prediction: A second loss in a week to Clemson, and a trip to the NIT to cap a disappointing season in Blacksburg.
6. Virginia (18-12, 12-8)
The Metrics Say: The worst defensive team in the Tony Bennett era: 70th KenPom Offensive Efficiency; 80th KenPom Defensive Efficiency
Best Player: Senior guard Kihei Clark (10.2 points per game, 4.3 assists, 3 rebounds)
The Skinny: For the most part, Virginia played like an NCAA Tournament team down the stretch. They beat Duke in February, bested Miami twice, and won 6 of their final 9 to play their way squarely onto the bubble. The problem with Bennett’s team is they don’t score enough to survive having the most vulnerable packline defense in the Bennett era. The Hoos are outside the top 50 in KenPom Defensive Efficiency for the first time in 7 years and, in late-season losses to FSU and Duke, couldn’t get the types of key stops in low possession games we’ve all grown accustomed to from Virginia teams under Bennett. Virginia needs 2 wins in Brooklyn to feel comfortable about an NCAA Tournament bid.
Prediction: A victory over Georgia Tech, which simply can’t score, will give the Hoos a quarterfinal date with North Carolina on Thursday. The Tar Heels have played their way off the bubble, meaning Virginia will be the more desperate team. But that’s as bad a matchup as there is in the ACC for Virginia, and North Carolina will send the Cavs to the NIT on Thursday night.
5. Wake Forest (23-8, 13-7)
The Metrics Say: They are elite offensively, but have overachieved! 29th in KenPom Offensive Efficiency; 54th in Defensive Efficiency
Best Player: Saturday Road’s 2021-22 ACC Player of the Year, Senior Alondes Williams (19.3 points per game, 6.6 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 1.2 steals)
The Skinny: Steve Forbes is the transfer portal champion of the world for bringing in Williams from Oklahoma and helping him become Saturday Road’s choice for ACC Player of the Year. Williams will become 1 of just 5 ACC players this century to average 19 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists per game, a testament to just how special he’s been. The Demon Deacons also have one of the nation’s most underrated players in Jake LaRavia, a pick-and-roll monster who stuffs the stat sheet almost as much as Williams, to the tune of 15 points per game, 6.6 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 1.6 steals per contest. Steve Forbes is a well-deserved ACC Coach of the Year and Wake Forest will be dancing for the first time since 2017 come Selection Sunday.
Prediction: A comfortable win over Pittsburgh on Wednesday will set up the tournament’s most intriguing quarterfinal game in Wake Forest-Miami. The Hurricanes have beaten Wake Forest twice but won’t a third time, as the Demon Deacons will finally slow the Miami guards enough to advance to the ACC semifinals, where they will fall to Duke.
4. Miami (22-9, 14-6)
The Metrics Say: Maybe Jim Larrañaga’s best coaching job? 16th in Adjusted KenPom Offensive Efficiency; 148th in Defensive Efficiency
Best Player: Senior guard Kam McGusty (17.5 points per game, 4.8 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.8 steals)
The Skinny: Miami has one of the nation’s most electric backcourts and thanks to a win at Cameron Indoor, 2 wins over Wake Forest, and a win over North Carolina, the Canes should be safe come Selection Sunday. A 3rd win over Wake Forest would seal the deal. To get it, the Hurricanes would love to get a little more from their frontcourt, Jordan Miller is undersized and plays the 3 or 4, but it is center Sam Waardenburg who must play his best basketball for this team to make noise. The Hurricanes are 9-1 in games when Waardenburg has 5 rebounds or more but only 12-8 when he doesn’t collect that many.
Prediction: It’s tough to beat a good team 3 times and Miami will fall short Thursday against a good Wake Forest team. Still, expect Miami to return to March Madness and avoid the First Four thanks to a solid resume.
3. North Carolina (23-8, 15-5)
The Metrics Say: A dominant team on the glass. 19th in KenPom Offensive Efficiency; 81st in KenPom Defensive Efficiency; 2nd nationally in rebounding)
Best Player: Junior center Armando Bacot (16.6 points per game, 12.5 rebounds per game, 1.7 blocks per game)
The Skinny: Hubert Davis has the Tar Heels humming down the stretch. North Carolina has won 5 consecutive games, dispelling all fears that they would miss the NCAA Tournament after an embarrassing home loss to Pitt in mid-February. Two veterans, Bacot and super senior transfer Brady Manek, who looks and plays a bit like Larry Bird, have led the charge, averaging over 20 points each per contest during the winning streak and helping North Carolina dominate the glass.
As good as those 2 pieces are, the Tar Heels go as Caleb Love goes, which means they’ll need the best version of him to win in Brooklyn. Love struggled against Louisville (7 turnovers), but has otherwise limited turnovers in the winning streak and was magnificent despite not hitting shots (4-of-17 FG) against Duke Saturday, dropping 22 points and dishing out 5 assists against just 2 turnovers. The Tar Heels are plenty talented, and they are now playing for seeding, with a 5 seed possible if they play well this week.
Prediction: The Tar Heels defeat Virginia on Thursday and win a rock fight with Notre Dame on Friday night, but will fall short a rubber match ACC Championship against Coach K and Duke.
2. Notre Dame (22-9, 15-5)
The Metrics Say: A team with terrific balance. 34th KenPom Adjusted Offensive Efficiency; 69th KenPom Defensive Efficiency
Best Player: Freshman guard Blake Wesley (14.8 points per game, 3.8 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 1.2 steals)
The Skinny: Mike Brey will take Notre Dame back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2016-17, a 5-year run that was easily the longest drought of the Brey era in South Bend. With the bid, Brey staves off rumors that he’d gracefully retire at season’s end.
The big reason the Fighting Irish will dance again is Wesley, the sensational freshman who has scored 20 points or more in 6 ACC games and stuffs the stat sheet with quality passing, help on the glass, and great lateral quickness that helps him accumulate steals. Notre Dame is also very balanced: Yale transfer Paul Atkinson was the Ivy League Player of the Year in the COVID-shortened season and he and Nate Laszewski pair to give Notre Dame a highly-skilled frontcourt that can score and pass. Notre Dame isn’t a great defensive team, but they do defend the 3-point line well (66th in the country in 3P FG% against) and that trait, coupled with a commitment to defensive rebounding (44th nationally) has been enough to build an NCAA Tournament resume.
Prediction: Notre Dame will hold off an upset-minded Clemson on Thursday before losing a hard-fought semifinal to North Carolina on Friday night.
1. Duke (26-5, 16-4)
The Metrics Say: A Final Four contender with one of the nation’s most prolific offenses: 5th in KenPom Adjusted Offensive Efficiency; 27th in KenPom Defensive Efficiency
Best Player: ACC Freshman of the Year Freshman forward Paolo Banchero (17.1 points per game, 7.7 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1 steal)
The Skinny: All the pieces are there to make Coach K’s final March run a special one. The Blue Devils have the electric high lottery pick in Banchero, who might only be guilty of being too unselfish at times but otherwise does a little of everything. Trevor Keels is Banchero’s sidekick, the guy who can heat up like a microwave and score from anywhere. AJ Griffin is the “other” freshman lottery pick, and other than a miserable night against UNC, he’s played his best basketball down the stretch, pairing insane athleticism with lethal accuracy (48.3%) from deep. And then there’s the veteran pieces: junior Wendell Moore Jr. has had an All-ACC caliber year, sophomore big Mark Williams has played tenacious underneath all season, and senior Joey Baker is instant offense off the bench. The mesh of youth and experience is the type of team Coach K has won so many March basketball games with, and this year should be no different. A legitimate Final Four contender.
Prediction: ACC Tournament champion and at worst, a 2 seed come Selection Sunday.