By Matthew L. Lofton
With three teams tied at 9-7 and four flanking the rear of the conference at 4-12, this is quite the mixed bag of a conference tournament. Luckily for the short-benched Wahoos of Virginia, it held all the tie-breakers and finished as the fourth seed, the last one to receive a bye. Florida State wrapped up the third seed pretty early and Duke and North Carolina played the final regular season game for the sixth time for the regular season conference “title” (ACC does not separate the regular season and tournament titles. The one who wins the tournament is the official ACC Champion).
The top seed and the prohibitive favorite is North Carolina. It boasts the ACC Player of the Year in Tyler Zeller. Also making the first team all-conference along with Zeller is John Henson and Harrison Barnes. North Carolina should role to the ACC tournament title. The Tar Heels are able to dominate teams on the boards and are riding high after an 18-point win at Duke. However, Carolina and head coach Roy Williams tend to look at the ACC tournament (at least publicly) as the cherry on top, as a cocktail party. That is all fine and good, but can a team who has played like it does not care at many points in the season act like the tournament is a glorified party? A number one seed on the line and the defense of this team is still in question. In its dominating win at Duke, was it the UNC defense? Me thinks no. Duke could not hit wide-open shots if its life depended on it. Despite facing a 24-point lead, the Blue Devils still had a chance to get the game to single-digits with six minutes left. But, UNC will have a weaker-than-usual quarterfinal game with Wake-Maryland winner and then should beat Virginia in the semifinals. Last year as the one seed, UNC decided to play a total of about 20 minutes in the tournament, at most, of solid basketball to reach the finals. In fact, both of Williams’ national championships saw Duke win the ACC with UNC not even making the finals. But with the general consensus that the ACC winner is a number one seed in the NCAA tournament, I think UNC will care.
Duke would have a good chance if it had the services of Ryan Kelly. Kelly suffered a high ankle sprain Tuesday at practice and is out for the ACC tournament. Kelly plays a lot on the perimeter as a big and assisted in drawing people free from the lane. Someone has to give solid minutes (and fouls). Duke fans better hope Josh Hairston and Mike Gbinje provide that spark. Mason and Miles Plumlee needs to play big without fouling. And always, unanimous ACC Rookie of the Year Austin Rivers needs to be his usual self.
Florida State and Virginia, the third and fourth seed respectively, seem to be living on borrowed time . FSU finished 12-4 in conference and needed last second miracles to beat Duke, Virginia and Virginia Tech. Virginia has ACC First-Teamer Mike Scott, but Scott cannot do it all.
North Carolina State and Miami are fighting for possible NCAA tournaments, and I think they need to make the finals. Miami could if it faces an under-manned and banged-up Duke team. NC State has a crop of good players like CJ Leslie, but the team has no depth and cannot get in foul trouble. Against Duke, they kept the Blue Devils in the game until they started to commit silly intentional fouls.
Winner: Florida State. The Seminoles, with wins already against Duke and UNC this season, will not get scared against the traditional powers of Duke and UNC.
Dark-horse first day participant. Miami. The Hurricanes just beat Florida State and beat Duke. This team could also make a run to the semifinals.