Welcome back to ACC tournament relevance, Wake Forest.
Regardless of anything that happens this week, Danny Manning has the Demon Deacons playing a meaningful game for the first time in seven years. And it’ll be at least two games if No. 10 seed Wake Forest (18-12) can navigate last-place Boston College on Tuesday afternoon at the Barclays Center.
Consider for a moment the Demon Deacons have played on the opening day of the league tournament in 11 of the last 12 years, a feat that has become increasingly difficult with conference expansion. They’ve made a habit of cameo appearances for much of that stretch, exiting without advancing in eight of the last nine years.
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About the most memorable impression Wake made during tournament week in those years was something the program wanted no part of: The fan-sponsored #BuzzOut newspaper ads expressing frustration with former coach Jeff Bzdelik.
In his first two years after taking over for Bzdelik, coach Danny Manning didn’t win a conference tournament game. But he did plenty to restock the Demon Deacons’ talent level, and this year’s team is built around sophomores Bryant Crawford and John Collins.
Crawford is a fearless lead guard who learned on the job last year and put the lessons to use this season. He ranks fourth in the conference in assists and ninth in steals, and his streak of 21 consecutive games in double figures is the longest active run in the league.
Meanwhile, Collins blossomed into an ACC player of the year contender, more than doubling his scoring average (from 7.3 to 19.1) and developing into arguably the best post presence in the league.
Wake Forest was long on promise and competitiveness and short on useful results. But then it picked off Louisville, won at Virginia Tech and suddenly finds itself as a credible NCAA tournament contender less than a week before Selection Sunday.
Hence the return to relevance. The Demon Deacons are merely trying to avoid a crushing loss Tuesday. But if they do collect a rare ACC tournament triumph (their first since ousting Notre Dame on the first day of the 2014 event), things will get truly interesting against Virginia Tech a night later.
Three other things to look for as the tournament begins a scheduled two-year stay in Brooklyn. …
Will Mark Gottfried’s swansong last more than a day?
The most compelling off-court story during the first session of the tournament is the impending departure of N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried. The sixth-year coach was fired last month and will almost certainly coach his final game with the Wolfpack this week.
N.C. State (15-16) hasn’t played since Wednesday’s 78-74 loss at Clemson, so it should theoretically have the benefit of being rested. Then again, since the ACC expanded to 15, the team saddled with the open date on the final weekend of the season has exited the tournament in the opening round (2014 Notre Dame, 2015 Georgia Tech and 2016 Wake Forest).
The Wolfpack will try to reverse that trend -- and keep Gottfried around for at least one more day -- when it faces Clemson again in the tournament’s opening game at noon.
Can Boston College play spoiler?
With Wake Forest the only team playing Tuesday with plausible NCAA at-large hopes (sorry, Georgia Tech), Boston College can draw some attention if it can pull off a surprise.
A slight problem: The Eagles (9-22) come in on a 14-game losing streak, having last won Jan. 11 against N.C. State. Another problem: A lack of interior play to offset Collins, who predictably romped to a 26-point, 16-rebound showing when the teams met Jan. 31.
Boston College does enjoy the presence of two high-end scorers it can build around next year (Ky Bowman and Jerome Robinson), which is one more than it had when it wrapped up a winless conference season last March. That duo ensures the Eagles can keep things interesting, but an opening-day upset doesn’t seem especially likely.
Does Pitt have a pulse?
What an unflattering way for Pittsburgh to close out the regular season. It scored just 52 points in a loss to Georgia Tech on Feb. 28, freshman guard Justice Kithcart was booted from the team, and seniors Jamel Artis and Michael Young were late to breakfast and were benched for 10 minutes to start a 67-42 blowout loss to Virginia on March 4 to close out the regular season.
Needless to say, Kevin Stallings’ first season in the Steel City is not coming to a smooth conclusion.
The 14th-seeded Panthers (15-16) meet 11th-seeded Georgia Tech (17-14) in Tuesday’s nightcap, and a loss clinches the program’s first losing season since 1999-2000. It would also leave Pitt with a five-game skid to close out the year, one of many signs this is a season that probably can’t end fast enough for this particular team.