March is a time of basketball related rejoicing. The NCAA Tournament starts midway through the month, but in the early weeks we get a flurry of fantastic college basketball with the various conference tournaments which will help decide the field for the Big Dance. I’m going to take a look at each conference, try (almost certainly unsuccessfully) to pick the winner, and determine whether anyone from that conference can make some noise, come Tourney Time. So with that, onward and upwards amigos!
It’s no surprise but the ACC is easily the second best conference in college basketball this season. The ACC is littered with college basketball royalty with the North Carolina schools and the old Tobacco Road schools (now excluding Maryland), but while the top of the conference are among the best college basketball has to offer, its not all glitz and glory. Let’s take a look into why.
Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, Boston College, and Wake Forest need no commentary. They suck. They suck in the ACC and they would suck in any other conference in America. Clemson has put together a solid-ish season, but they’re no good either, and Florida State certainly has some good players (Xavier Rathan-Mayes) but they definitely haven’t put things together yet. Syracuse doesn’t count because sanctions will keep them out of the NCAA Tournament and while Pittsburgh have pulled off some excellent upsets with wins over #8 Notre Dame and then #12 UNC they haven’t been consistent in the least, and likely have no shot at the NCAA Tournament short of an ACC Tournament Championship that likely isn’t coming. So… who does that leave us with?
Well, first are the bubble teams, and the bubbliest of these is Miami. They seemed to start off their season very well with a win over then #8 Florida (when we thought they were good) and a win over #24 Illinois (when we thought they were good). They opened up the season 8-0 and pushed themselves all the way up to the #15 ranking. Since that stellar start, however, they’ve gone 12-11 to close out the season. Part of that can get chalked up to the ACC strength of schedule difficulties, but losses to Wake Forest and Georgia Tech prove to me that this Miami team is far more pretender than contender. They did score a shocking 16 point upset over #4 Duke at Cameron, but they never followed that win up with anything. Miami might be able to get hot and win the ACC Tournament, but short of that I can’t see them in the NCAA Tournament.
NC State has a more reasonable argument for an NCAA Tournament berth with wins over Duke, UNC, and Louisville this season. A lot of their losses were tough, gritty affairs and with Alabama transfer Trevor Lacey front-lining affairs for the Wolfpack, they definitely have the talent to compete with the best. However, things get really sketchy after their starting 5 so if they ever lose a starter to injury, fouls, or fatigue things will get real rough for them real fast. They’re really on the fence for me. I wouldn’t mind at all if they got a Tournament nod, but I’m not going to fight for them if they miss out either. They probably don’t have much of a shelf life even if they make it to the Tournament and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them go one and out, but they probably still deserve to be there.
Surprisingly enough the University of North Carolina is next on the list. Not surprising that they’ll make the Tournament, but surprising to see them ranked this low among their compatriots. They are definitely not a bubble team and very much deserve to make the NCAAs, but this year has been up and down all year long for the Tar Heals. This is not the UNC team Tyler Hansbrough left behind, but is a very much changed program.
Marcus Paige is elite, and one of the best Point Guards in the country. Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks are both very good big men (and Kennedy Meeks isn’t fat anymore!) and JP Tokoto provides athleticism which is always helpful in the Tournament. So the talent is there on the roster. But somehow it hasn’t all gone as planned this year. UNC has 10 losses to go with the never clearing miasma of their recent academic scandal following them everywhere. That being said, however, the really don’t have a single bad loss on their record. They lost to Pittsburgh who probably won’t make the Tournament, but they’re not bad per se. And they lost to NC State, but I think NC State will probably make it in. Other than that they only lost to some of the best teams in the country (Kentucky, Duke, Virginia) or some guaranteed Tournament teams (Butler, Louisville, Notre Dame). This isn’t the dominant UNC from 10 years ago, and Roy Williams may very well have overstayed his welcome, but this UNC team is still very good, and I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see them in the Sweet 16 or even the Elite 8.
Another team I wouldn’t be surprised to see in the Sweet 16 are Rick Pitino’s Louisville Cardinals. Montrez Harrell is one of the best players in the country, Terry Rozier and Wayne Blackshear are really good when they want to be or aren’t busy being violently accosted by their head coach, and while Louisville’s cavalcade of 7 footers all suck, they certainly have a lot of them to throw fouls around. However, there’s been turmoil around this team since the dismissal of PG Chris Jones last month. Louisville is still very good without him, and have been very good all season with their only two borderline bad losses coming against Syracuse and NC State in back to back games, but they rallied back with an upset win over #2 Virginia this weekend, so it appears as if they’ve recovered from the Chris Jones hangover. If Louisville doesn’t make the Sweet 16 it will be an enormous shock. I’m not sure I’m willing to say how far they’ll go beyond that, however, because when this team decides to look bad they can look really bad.
In that same mold is Notre Dame. They started the season on an absolute tear going 13-1 in the non-conference and won their first two ACC games including a win over UNC. They did pick up 4 more losses in conference play but these were to Duke and UVA (easily forgivable) and Pitt and Syracuse (less excusable, but hey… the ACC is tough…). There’s honestly not much I can say after a 26-5 season. These guys are really really good. If they played in almost any other conference in the country they’d almost undoubtedly be a 1 seed, but because they play the same high level competition week in and week out that you have to face in the ACC they’ll likely slide all the way down to a 3 seed.
What they do best is score, and score efficiently. Seniors Jerian Grant and Pt Connaughton lead the way for the nation’s 13th highest scoring offense and Ken Pomeroy’s #3 team in terms of offensive efficiency. However, this Notre Dame team isn’t in the same as our next two teams, and whiel they are certainly good, they probably have no shot at a national title.
Coach K and the Duke Blue Devils. Not much else needs to be said. Everyone knows about this team. Tyus Jones and Jahlil Okafor lead the way for what is perhaps the nation’s best offensive team. Add in Quinn Cook, Justise Winslow, Amile Jefferson, and Matt Jones and this team is a complete nightmare matchup for anyone, even without Rasheed Sulaimon. However, while Duke are certainly prolific offensively (81.3 points per game… #3 in the nation, and that’s against the superior competition in the ACC). They’ve only lost 3 games all year. 2 of those were to bubble teams (NC State and Miami) and 1 was to Notre Dame so all 3 are more or less excusable. However, they do help reveal Duke’s one major flaw this year. Namely… they can’t play defense. When it comes down to crunch time and they really need to come up with a big defensive play, they don’t really have the guy on their roster or the system in place to generate that stop. Okafor can score on anyone… ANYONE. No matter what he’s gonna get his. But he can get really turned around on defense and give up some absolutely backbreaking points. Duke is still a 1 seed. They still deserve a 1 seed. And they should make the Final Four. However, they’re going to need to avoid that 1 disaster game where they give up a mountain of threes to an inferior opponent if they want this team to reach its ceiling and make it as far as they should.
But if offense isn’t your thing and you’d rather have a team that can lock down anyway don’t worry. The ACC has you covered there too. UVA has been SPECTACULAR all season long defensively. In fact if it weren’t for Kentucky we’d be talking a lot more and the historical position of the Virginia defense. They allow only 50.3 points per game (1st in the country and again against the superior competition in the ACC) and their only losses all year were to Duke, and Louisville yesterday. There’s been a lot of talk from sports pundits about how Virginia is bad for college basketball, that they make the game boring and uninteresting and are killing the sport, and that is all absolutely absurd. Any real college basketball fan should want to see guys working together, playing hard, playing unselfishly, and committing to defense the way these guys do. As a unit Tony Bennett has built this Cavaliers roster into an absolute juggernaut defensively, and while they do struggle offensively it hasn’t mattered all season long, and I doubt it will matter in the Tournament. This is not always the case. Time and time again we see elite defensive teams fall in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament to some Mid Major Cinderella and a flurry of 3s, but none of those defenses were even close to this Virginia squad. They are spectacular and if they don’t make the Elite 8 I’ll be floored. Once they get there I worry that the level of competition will be so high that someone might prevent them from reaching the Final Four (although they undoubtedly deserve to get that far) but we won’t know that until Tournament time. All that matters for now is that Virginia is spectacular and should be making a deep run this year.
The bottom of the ACC is bad. That much is true. But this isn’t even close to the same issue that is plaguing the Big 10 this season. When your conference grows to be this large, and when the teams at the top are so dominant you’re just going to have some bad teams at the bottom. Thats the way this new conference system is going to work. So while the Big 10 teams benefitted from having an entire league of mediocre teams, save for 1, the ACC has a small handful of bad teams, but the depth at the top is so extreme and so far and away superior to anyone but Wisconsin in the Big 10 that no comparison is valid. The real difference between the ACC and Big 10 this year is that the ACC has 5 undeniable Tournament caliber teams atop their conference while the Big 10 has two. Moreover 2 teams in the ACC are easily capable of winning it a title this season compared to the Big 10’s 1. This is what a truly elite conference looks like, and the scariest part is that we haven’t even gotten to the best conference in college basketball yet.