Championship week has arrived for college basketball! Conference tournaments abound across the country from coast to coast featuring all the power conferences, mid-majors, and small conferences that make up Division I in the NCAA. There will be great performances by teams, individuals, and coaches while the games themselves are bound to feature some come-from-behind efforts that pluck victory from the jaws of defeat with some buzzer beaters. This is what makes the month of March so special. It is the madness before the madness of the NCAA Tournament. It will feature bubble teams that solidify their spot in the NCAA field and bubble teams who see their bubble burst. Seedings for the NCAA Tourney are on the line and will be impacted by what happens over the next seven days. Quite simply it is couch potato heaven for college basketball junkies across the land.
While this years’ heavyweights such as Kansas, Gonzaga, Villanova, and North Carolina look to show why they are the cream of the crop for likely NCAA #1 seeds, there are plenty of other national title worthy contenders like Kentucky, Arizona, UCLA, Duke, Louisville, Notre Dame, and Oregon. Other schools like Big East competitors Butler, Creighton, Seton Hall, Providence, and Marquette all won at least 10 conference games this season and could make some noise in March. Smaller schools from less worthy conferences like Vermont (27-5, 16-0) of the America East and Middle Tennessee (27-4, 17-1) of Conference USA could make a run. Both schools are riding winning streaks with Vermont having won 19 straight and Middle Tennessee seven. Both Vermont and Middle Tennessee have produced significant upsets in NCAA history. In 2005, 13th-seeded Vermont upset a fourth-seeded Syracuse team that was fresh off a Big East Tournament Championship. Middle Tennessee, a 15th seed, upset second-seeded Michigan State in last year’s tournament. Results like these explain why March is so thrilling and dramatic. It captivates audiences across the country based on upsets by the little schools like these. They get on a run and gain the support of their schools so much that it can carry them on a fairy tale ride.
Before we get that far, the conference tournament championships are to be decided this week. In the process, the NCAA field will be determined with some teams sneaking in, others being left out, and others altering their seed and positioning for better or worse. Here is a look at one of the power conferences, the Atlantic Coast Conference, and how its’ conference tournament shapes up this week. The ACC Tournament Championship game will be played Saturday night March 11 at 9 pm EST and it can be seen live on ESPN.
North Carolina (26-6, 14-4), #1 seed
The ACC Tournament is being held at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, NY for the first time ever. North Carolina enters the tournament as the outright ACC regular season champion and is the defending tournament champion. The Tarheels (26-6, 14-4) ended the regular season with a 90-83 win over arch rival Duke on Mar. 4 to split the annual season series. North Carolina has played in the ACC Tournament Championship game each of the last two years, falling to Notre Dame 90-82 in the 2015 title game before beating Virginia 61-57 in last year’s finale.
Head coach Roy Williams has his team playing at a high level yet again after coming within a whisker of winning an NCAA title last
year. Despite losing four-year starting guard Marcus Paige and Associated Press All-American forward Brice Johnson, North Carolina has enjoyed another stellar season. Both took key production with them as Johnson averaged 17.0 points-per-game and 10.4 rebounds a game while Paige scored 12.6 points-per-game and dished out 128 assists on the season. Yet the heels have retooled this season and may be a better all-around team. Junior forward Justin Jackson was just named the ACC Player-of-the-Year and leads the team with 18.3 ppg. He also dishes out 2.6 assists and hauls in 4.7 rebounds-per-game. Junior guard Joel Berry II adds 15.1 ppg and dishes out a team best 3.7 apg while senior post player Kennedy Meeks scores 12.5 ppg and leads the team with 9.1 rpg. Berry is the team’s best 3-point shooter at 42.4 percent (75-for-177) while Jackson has made a team-high 85 trifectas on the season.
North Carolina’s victories over Florida State, Louisville, and Notre Dame this season allowed them to create a two-game cushion
and ultimately win the ACC regular season title. They will likely have to face one of these teams in the ACC tournament again and this can always be interesting a second time around. Carolina will have to bring the same intensity and high production on offense that saw them score 85.2 ppg in the regular season if they are to beat these same teams again in postseason play.
Florida State (24-7, 12-6) is the second seed followed by Notre Dame (23-8, 12-6) and Louisville (24-7, 12-6) as the third and fourth seeds respectively. These three schools along with North Carolina all received a double bye and won’t play until the quarterfinal round beginning on Thursday March 9. You can easily make a case for any of these top four seeds to win the tournament championship as they were very competitive against each other during the season. While North Carolina beat each of the other three to create separation from them in winning the regular season crown, all four teams were very competitive against each other.
Florida State beat both Louisville and Notre Dame at home and lost at Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish split home and home wins with both Florida State and Louisville while Louisville lost to Florida State and split home and home wins with Notre Dame. Basically, the top four seeds in this year’s ACC Tourney beat up on each other in the regular season. Even though North Carolina beat the other three teams, the games between the four teams were very competitive and could of gone either way. What each team learned from the other one in those games should be a factor in preparation for potential matchups among the quartet this week.
Florida State (24-7, 12-6), #2 seed
Coach Leonard Hamilton has the Seminoles playing well as they earned the second seed in the tournament. Florida State opened conference play 4-0 with three of those wins coming over Virginia, Virginia Tech, and Duke. Back-to-back home wins over Notre Dame and Florida State in mid January put Florida State at 6-1 in the ACC. The Seminoles then cooled off with losses in four of their next seven games to come back to the pack a little while still being in the upper echelon of the conference at 9-5 in the ACC. Florida State finished the regular season strong by winning three of their last four games including a 66-57 win over Miami on March 4.
Sophomore guard Dwayne Bacon scores a team best 16.9 ppg while sophomore forward Jonathan Isaac adds 12.2 ppg to go with a team best 7.2 rpg. Junior guard Xavier Rathan-Mayes scores 10.4 ppg and has dished out a team-high 149 assists on the year against only 54 turnovers. The Seminoles also get 5.0 ppg and 3.4 rpg from 7-foot-1 graduate center Michael Ojo who has totaled 27 blocks on the season.
Notre Dame (23-8, 12-6), #3 seed
Notre Dame opened conference play 5-0 with two of the wins coming over Louisville and Virginia Tech. After beating Syracuse at home 84-66 on Jan. 21 to stand at 6-1 in the ACC, the Fighting Irish lost four straight. Included in the slump were losses to Virginia, Duke, and North Carolina. Notre Dame then won six in a row before ending the regular season with a 71-64 loss at Louisville on Mar. 4. I his 17th year at Notre Dame, head coach Mike Brey has brought stability and national credibility to the program in South Bend, Indiana. It was just two years ago that Brey guided the Fighting Irish to a 32-6 mark, the ACC Tournament Championship, and a trip to the Elite Eight in the NCAA Tournament where they lost a classic game to undefeated Kentucky. Junior forward Bonzie Colson leads Notre Dame with 17.0 ppg and 10.4 rpg while senior forward VJ Beachum adds 15.4 ppg. Junior guard Matt Farrell scores 14.2 ppg and along with Beachum are the team’s key 3-point shooters. Farrell shoots 42.5 percent (71-for-167) from the 3-point line while Beachum connects at a rate of 38.7 (82-for-212) from beyond the arc. Senior guard Steve Vasturia adds 13.5 ppg. It is not out of the question for Notre Dame to advance to the ACC Tournament Championship game again this season. Keep an eye on the Fighting Irish.
Louisville (24-7, 12-6), #4 seed
Head coach Rick Pitino has Louisville aimed at another postseason run with Final Four aspirations. After opening conference play 0-2 with losses to Virginia and Notre Dame, the Cardinals won four straight and seven of eight to position themselves as a prime contender in the ACC. Included in the 7-1 surge were wins over Duke, Florida State, and Georgia Tech. The Cardinals ended the regular season 2-1 including a 71-64 home win over Notre Dame on Mar. 4.
Leading the way for Louisville this year has been the backcourt tandem of sophomore Donovan Mitchell and junior Quentin Snider. The duo are one-two in scoring on the team with Mitchell scoring 15.9 ppg and Snider adding 12.6 ppg. Sophomore forward Deng Adel adds 11.6 ppg and 4.5 rpg. Junior forward Jaylen Johnson adds 8.2 ppg and 5.9 rpg while redshirt senior Mangok Mathiang adds 7.3 ppg and 6.2 rpg. Louisville’s defense is always one of the toughest in the country as they play such an aggressive style that extends to have effective coverage both inside and outside. Pitino lead Louisville to the NCAA title in 2013, his second national championship as a head coach. He has his squad primed for another high seed in the NCAA field and to make a run both this week in the ACC tourney and in the upcoming NCAA tournament. Watch out for the Cardinals.
While that analysis just focuses on the top four seeds in North Carolina, Florida State, Notre Dame, and Louisville, don’t count out the middle of the pack teams in the ACC. This is where it could get interesting as teams seeded five through nine are capable of winning and springing an upset or two.
Duke (23-8, 11-7), #5 seed
Fifth-seeded Duke (23-8, 11-7) awaits the winner of a first round game between Clemson, the 12th seed, and NC State, the 13th seed. Should the Blue Devils meet NC State, they won’t be looking past the Wolfpack who beat them 84-82 at home back on Jan. 23. Duke is hungry for another tournament title having not won one since 2011 when they were the second seed and beat top- seeded North Carolina 75-58. Duke has not advanced to the title game since 2014 when they were the third seed and lost to top-seeded Virginia 72-63. This year’s Blue Devils have been steadily productive and spectacular at times. While they have had to deal with the distractions of preseason injuries, the suspension of Grayson Allen, and the month-long absence of head coach Mike Krzyzewski due to back surgery, Duke has navigated through these obstacles to claim a national ranking of 14 in the most recent rankings in both the Associated Press and USA Today Coaches Polls.
Allen, a junior guard, has teamed with sophomore guard Luke Kennard, senior guard Matt Jones, and graduate forward Amile
Jefferson to provide Duke with experience and leadership. Kennard leads Duke with 20.1 ppg while Allen and Jefferson are scoring 14.5 and 11.2 ppg respectively. Jones is adding 7.4 ppg. Jefferson is the teams’s top rebounder with 8.5 per game while Allen dishes out a team best 3.6 assists a game. Then there are the Duke freshman in Jayson Tatum, Harry Giles, and Marques Bolden. Tatum, who stands 6-foot-8, is the best of the trio and is averaging 16.0 ppg and 7.3 rpg. Tatum has a solid all-around game and is a capable shooter from the 3-point line where he shoots 35.8 percent from. Giles and Bolden have made less of an impact but both have played in at least 20 games on the season and contributed. Look for Duke to be a factor in the tournament as Coach K has been here so many times before. Allen, Jones, and Jefferson were all part of Duke’s 2015 national championship team which gives the team veteran knowledge and ability to draw on.
Virginia (21-9, 11-7), #6 seed
Virginia (21-9, 11-7) and Virginia Tech (21-9, 10-8) are the sixth and seventh seeds respectively and join Duke as teams who await a winner from the three opening round games of the tournament. The Cavaliers ended the regular season on a three-game winning streak and have had another strong season under eighth-year head coach Tony Bennett who is also a two-time
Virginia has played in two of the last three ACC Tournament Championship games, winning it in 2014 over Duke and losing it to North Carolina last year.
The Cavaliers are lead by by senior guard London Perrantes, redshirt junior guard Devon Hall, junior forward Isaiah Wilkins, and redshirt sophomore center Jack Salt. Perrantes leads the team with 12.8 ppg while Wilkins adds 7.1 ppg and Hall scores 8.7 ppg. Wilkins pulls down a team-best 6.2 rpg while Perrantes is among the ACC’s top 3-point shooters at 38.6 percent (61-for-158). Key wins for Virginia this season included a two-game sweep of Louisville and a 71-54 win at Notre Dame on Jan. 24.
Virginia also split with regular season ACC champion North Carolina, beating the Tarheels 53-43 at home on Feb. 27. The Cavaliers also had defending national champion Villanova on the ropes before losing 61-59 on Jan. 29 in Philadelphia. Virginia, ranked 21st in both national polls this week, has one of the toughest defenses in the country, a credit to Bennett who has become known for it in his time at Virginia.
Virginia Tech (21-9, 10-8), #7 seed
Virginia Tech has been competitive all season and was one of nine teams to win at least 10 conference games in the ACC this season which speaks to the strength, depth, and overall quality of the conference. The Hokies quality conference wins this season came over Duke, Syracuse, and Virginia. Virginia Teach beat Duke 89-75 on Dec. 31 in their conference opener. Junior guard Justin Bibbs paced six Hokies in double figures scoring with 18 points to lead the way for Virginia Tech. The Hokie’s win over Virginia came on Feb. 12 and was in double overtime by a count of 80-78. Seth Allen and Bibbs lead the way with 20 and 16 points respectively. Head coach Buzz Williams is always one of the most animated coaches in all of college basketball. The Hokies should not be taken lightly and are capable of pulling off a win or two in Brooklyn. They await the winner of the opening round game between 10th-seeded Wake Forest and Boston College, the 15th and final seed.
Syracuse (18-13, 10-8), #8 seed
The eight-nine game features Syracuse (18-13, 10-8) against Miami (20-10, 10-8). The Orange received the edge in seeding with the eight spot due to their 70-55 home victory over Miami on Jan. 4. Syracuse took a while to find itself this season as they struggled in the early part of the season with a poor showing in non-conference play against teams from power conferences. Losses to South Carolina, Wisconsin, Connecticut, and Georgetown put Syracuse behind the eight ball early. Following a 78-71 home loss to arch rival Georgetown on Dec. 17, the Orange was just 6-4 10 games into the season. Four days later, they suffered a 93-60 home loss to St. Johns after which they stood at 7-5 and looking for answers. An 80-56 home win over in-state rival Cornell was their final tune up before conference play.
In their ACC-opener they lost 96-81 at Boston College to fall to 8-6 and 0-1 in the ACC. Syracuse went back-and-forth over the first
third and change of conference play as they stood at 3-4 seven games into ACC play. Then they found their chemistry and went on to win five straight games. Two of the five wins came at home over nationally ranked opponents in Florida State and Virginia. The Orange beat the #6/8 Seminoles 82-72 on Jan. 28 and would also beat #9/11 Virginia a week later on Feb. 4, 66-62. Three days later on Feb. 7, Syracuse pulled out an 82-81 win at Clemson behind a buzzer-beating 3-pointer by freshman Tyus Battle. That gave the Orange a season-high five-game winning streak and boosted their record to 16-9, 8-4. Syracuse had worked itself back into the NCAA Tournament conversation but likely still had more work to do. Losses in their next three games to Pittsburgh, Louisville, and Georgia Tech made them unstable and the Orange was still in search of another marquee win. Duke came to town on Feb. 22 and this one would come down to the wire. Duke lead by as many as 10 in the first half and took an eight-point lead into halftime at 33-25. Trailing most of the second half, Syracuse battled back and forced a 75-75 tie on a driving layup by John Gillon with 37 seconds left to play. Duke’s ensuing possession resulted in a missed jumper by Luke Kennard. The Orange got the rebound with eight seconds left and got the ball to Gillon. Wasting no time. Gillon dribbled the ball up the court and launched a 3-point shot with three Blue Devil defenders around him. The ball was in the air as the buzzer sounded and it continued to the backboard where it banked in. Final. Syracuse 78, Duke 75. A landmark victory for the Orange and one that firmly punched its’ ticket for an NCAA bid.
Although Syracuse followed their win over Duke with an 88-68 loss at Louisville, they would return home to beat Georgia Tech
90-61 on March 4 in their regular season finale behind Andrew White III’s 40-point performance. White has been one of the best scorers in the ACC this season and enters the ACC Tournament eighth in the conference at 17.9 ppg. White leads the ACC in 3-point field goals made on the season with 101 which is 16 more than ACC Player-of-the-year Justin Jackson who is second with 85. While the Orange have leaned heavily on White III all season, Syracuse has garnered more support over the last month from the emergence of Battle and the steady play of Gillon. Over the last four games, Battle has shot 48.9 percent (23-for-47) from the field including 10-for-24 from behind the arc while scoring 71 points for an average of 17.7 ppg. That point production has helped to open up passing lanes for others and free up White more on the perimeter for good open looks making Syracuse a more difficult team to defend. The play of freshman forward Taurean Thompson has also been felt in the Orange arsenal. Thompson has made 18 starts this season while playing in all 31 of the team’s games. Thompson is fifth on the team with 8.9 ppg and also brings in 3.5 rpg. He has developed more as the season has gone on and has an ability to score more. Gillon has been steady at the point guard spot since taking over the starting role there in early January. He recently established a new school record for consecutive free throws made with 48 which ended in the regular season finale against Georgia Tech. In that game, Gillon posted his third double-double of the season with 10 points and 10 assists. Sophomore forward Tyler Lydon brings size, rebounding, and shooting range to the table for Syracuse. A starter in all 31 games for the Orange this season, Lydon is second on the team with 13.4 ppg and leads the team with 8.3 rpg. A key player for Syracuse both on offense and defense, Lydon can find the open man or shoot behind the arc. On the season, Lydon shoots 48.8 percent from the field (141-for-289) and is a 41.6 percent (47-for-113) shooter from beyond the arc. The Orange and head coach Jim Boeheim will be looking for their first ever victory in ACC Tournament play as they have lost in their first game in their only two appearances. In 2014 Syracuse was the second seed and lost to North Carolina State 66-63 in the quarterfinals and in 2016 they lost to Pittsburgh 72-71 in the second round. They did not play in the 2015 tournament due to a self-imposed ban on postseason play stemming from NCAA sanctions.
Miami (20-10, 10-8), #9 seed
Miami posted some big wins this season including a late season home win over Duke on Feb. 25, 55-50. That helped their postseason resume but they likely could improve their NCAA seed with a win or two in the ACC Tourney. The Hurricanes also won 54-48 in overtime at Virginia on Feb. 20 which helps their cause. Wins over Virginia Tech and North Carolina are also big for the Hurricanes and show that they are no slouch.
There matchup with Syracuse will be interesting and it could be a nip and tuck game from start to finish. Senior guard Davon Reed, junior guard Ja’Quan Newton, and redshirt senior forward Kamari Murphy from the nucleus of Miami. Reed and Newton are the team’s top two scorers at 15.3 and 13.9 ppg. respectively. Murphy leads the team with 7.5 rpg. and adds 7.1 ppg. Sophomore guard Anthony Lawrence has appeared in 30 games this season and scores 7.1 ppg. Heach coach Jim Larranaga is no stranger to the competition in March. In this his sixth season at Miami he has lead the Hurricanes to much success with a pair of trips to the NCAA Sweet Sixteen to go along with the regular season and ACC Tournament championships in 2013. Back in 2006, Larranaga guided George Mason to The Final Four by defeating the likes of Michigan State, North Carolina, Wichita State and UConn along the way.
Wake Forest (19-12, 9-9), #10 seed
Third-year head coach Danny Manning has Wake Forest (19-12, 9-9) pointed in the right direction after finishing .500 in conference play this season. The Demon Deacons, who play 15th-seed Boston College in one of three opening round games, have quality wins over Miami, Georgia Tech, Louisville, and Virginia Tech this season. Wake Forest is lead by sophomore forward John Collins who garnered All-ACC first-team honors and was named the ACC’s most improved player. Collins leads the ACC in field goal percentage (.623) and is third in the conference in scoring with 19.1 ppg.
Collins is also second in the ACC in rebounding with 9.8 rpg. The Demon Deacons also get production from sophomore guard Bryant Crawford who scores 15.9 ppg and redshirt sophomore guard Keyshawn Woods who adds 12.9 ppg. It has been over 20 years since Wake Forest last appeared in an ACC Tournament Championship game in 1996 when they beat top-seeded Georgia Tech 75-74 to win their second straight tournament title.
Georgia Tech (17-14, 8-10), #11 seed
Eleventh-seeded Georgia Tech (17-14, 8-10) and 14th-seeded Pittsburgh (15-16, 4-14) is the final opening round game with the winner advancing to play Virginia on Wednesday Mar. 8. Although they finished a game below .500 in conference play, the Yellowjackets were a surprise team in the ACC this year. In his first year at Georgia Tech, head coach Josh Pastner was named the ACC Coach-of-the-Year. The former Memphis head coach who lead the Tigers to five postseason berths in seven seasons as the Tigers coach has brought Georgia Tech back into a competitive stance. The Yellowjackets made an early statement in their conference opener with a 75-63 home win over NCAA runner-up and eventual ACC regular season champion North Carolina on Dec. 31. They also beat Florida State 78-56 and Notre Dame 62-60 in consecutive home games in late January. Freshman guard Josh Okogie leads three players in double figures scoring with 15.5 ppg. Junior center Ben Lammers adds 14.6 ppg while junior guard Tadric Jackson scores 11.7 ppg. Lammers is the focal point of Georgia Tech as he lead the ACC with 3.32 blocked shots per game, good for third best in the country. A second-team All-ACC selection, Lammers leads the team with 9.2 rpg, good for third in the conference. The Yellowjackets last played in an ACC Tournament Championship game in 2010 when they were the seventh seed and lost to top-seeded Duke, 65-61.
Clemson (16-14, 6-12), #12 seed
Clemson features one of the better players in the ACC in redshirt senior forward Jaron Blossomgame. The 6-7 forward leads the team with 17.3 ppg. while redshirt graduate guard Avry Holmes adds 11.0 ppg. While the Tigers (16-14, 6-12) won only six conference games, they were competitive in a lot of them. They took North Carolina to overtime before losing 89-86 in overtime at home on Jan. 3. That would be one of eight conference games that the Tigers lost by five points or less on the season. There best win on the season was probably a 74-62 home victory over Georgia Tech on Feb. 1. Holmes scored 18 points to lead the Tigers in that one. Clemson will face NC State in the opening game of the tournament.
North Carolina State (15-16, 4-14), #13 seed
Kicking off the ACC Tournament will be a game today between 13th-seeded North Carolina State and 12th-seeded Clemson (16-14,
6-12). The winner advances to play Duke on Wednesday Mar. 8. While the news came a few weeks ago that Wolfpack (15-16, 4-14) head coach Mark Gottfried had been fired, he is finishing out the season. The Wolfpack features a dynamic player in freshman guard Dennis Smith Jr. who was just named the ACC Freshman-of-the-Year. Smith Jr. was also named to the All-ACC freshman team and was an All-ACC Second Team selection.
The standout freshman made an impact for NC State this season and was the overwhelming choice by the league’s media members last October for Preseason ACC Freshman-of-the-Year. A starter in all of the team’s 31 games, Smith Jr. lead the Wolfpack with 18.5 ppg. He also topped the team with 194 assists and 60 steals while averaging 34.8 minutes per game. North Carolina State also got steady production from redshirt senior guard Terry Henderson (13.9 ppg.), sophomore guard/forward Maverick Rowan (11.9 ppg.), and junior forward Malik Abdul-Abu (11.7 ppg, 7.0 rpg). The Wolfpack’s highlight on the season was beating Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Jan. 23, 84-82. It was the first win for NC State at Cameron Indoor Stadium since Jan. 18, 1995 when the Wolfpack defeated Duke, 77-60. It was also Gottfried’s 400th career victory.
Pittsburgh (15-16, 4-14), #14 seed
Pittsburgh (15-16, 4-14) fell on hard times this season. After a 78-77 home loss to Notre Dame in their conference opener, the Panthers rebounded to beat 11th-ranked Virginia 88-76 in overtime at home on Jan. 4. Pittsburgh then went into a swoon losing their next eight games. The Panthers last win came on Feb. 18 with an 80-66 home win over Florida State. Pittsburgh is lead by senior guard Jamel Artis and senior forward Michael Young which are two of the more physical and productive players in the ACC. Young leads the team with 19.9 ppg and is second with 6.8 rpg while Artis is second on the team with 18.4 ppg and has dished out a team-high 101 assists on the season. Redshirt sophomore guard Cameron Johnson scores 11.8 ppg and shoots 41.3 percent (74-for-179) from beyond the arc while senior forward Sheldon Jeter adds 8.0 ppg and leads the Panthers with 7.3 rpg. Pittsburgh, in only its’ fourth season as an ACC member after joining the league from the Big East in 2013, has never reached an ACC Tournament championship game. They face Georgia Tech in an opening round game.
Boston College (9-23, 2-16), #15 seed
Boston College (9-23, 2-16) counters with a young team that is short on experience. The Eagles opened conference play 2-2 before losing their last 14 games. One of their conference victories came against Syracuse on Jan. 1, a 96-81 home win in the ACC opener for both. Head coach Jim Christian in his third season at the helm of Boston College. Sophomore guard Jerome Robinson leads the team with 18.7 ppg and 3.3 assists per game while freshman guard Ky Bowman adds 14.5 ppg. The Eagles face Wake Forest in an opening round game.