Third-year conference member Louisville is looking for its first ACC tournament triumph. It heads back to its old stomping grounds (or close enough to them, anyway) to try to get it Thursday.
The Cardinals made a one-game cameo in their first ACC tournament in 2015 in Greensboro, falling to North Carolina. Last year, they sat out as part of a self-imposed postseason ban.
This time they’ll try to knock off Duke in the quarterfinals and make it to what could be a monster Friday night semifinal session.
The last two times Rick Pitino brought a team to the Big Apple for a conference tournament, the Cardinals came away with championships. Those were the 2012 and 2013 Big East titles, claimed across the Brooklyn Bridge at Madison Square Garden.
This year’s Cardinals have a veritable star in Donovan Mitchell and a commitment to defense one would expect from a Pitino team. They also draw a Duke team that, as coach Mike Krzyzewski noted after Wednesday’s 79-72 defeat of Clemson, is “still evolving” thanks to a lack of continuity throughout much of the season.
That matchup, between two coaches with a combined seven national titles to their credit, is the unquestioned highlight of Friday’s quarterfinals. But it’s not the only gem on the ACC’s last crammed day of basketball in its first foray into New York.
Three other things to keep an eye on during the middle day of the tournament …
▪ Looking for bubble talk? Look anywhere else but Brooklyn. For sheer competitiveness, the final three rounds of the ACC tournament should be fantastic. The top seven seeds are all still alive, with ninth-seeded Miami (another sure-fire NCAA tournament team) also around.
But there is no bubble intrigue remaining. All eight remaining teams should find themselves safely inside the field of 68 when it is announced Sunday night, and there’s a good chance all will wear home jerseys in their first NCAA game.
With Georgia Tech, Syracuse and finally Wake Forest gone from the field, the bracketologists’ attention turns elsewhere. Wake Forest was the only team of the three to win a game, and it has the best chance of the three to earn an NCAA bid. But that chatter has exited the stage at the ACC tournament early this season.
▪ North Carolina begins its title defense. Coach Roy Williams and the Tar Heels snipped the nets in Washington last year, and they’ll go for a double title -- regular season and conference tournament -- when they meet Miami at noon in the first quarterfinal.
North Carolina led the regular season standings by two games, and navigated a deep league as consistently as could be expected. It won all nine of its home games (well, eight plus a postponed game against Notre Dame in Greensboro) and scattered its four losses around the schedule at various times (Georgia Tech, Miami, Duke and Virginia).
Conference player of the year Justin Jackson will rightfully draw attention, but the key player for the Tar Heels both in this event and the NCAA tournament will be guard Joel Berry II. The junior was named the MVP of the ACC tournament last season, and North Carolina tends to be at its best when Berry is sharp.
That was clearly the case Jan. 28 when he had two points and shot 0 of 8 from the floor in a loss at Miami. The Tar Heels were 1-3 in league play when he scored less than 10 points and 13-1 when he reached double figures. Consider him a key figure not just in the rematch with the Hurricanes, but the rest of the weekend.
▪ Florida State’s cast of thousands debuts in a perfect event for it. Leonard Hamilton uses a dizzying number of substitutions, usually going 12 players deep. While Dwayne Bacon is the star, Jonathan Isaac the breakout freshman and Xavier Rathan-Mayes the known veteran, the truth is the second-seeded Seminoles have a lot of useful role players who accept their tasks for the greater good.
Depth matters in the NCAA tournament, but not as much as it does in a conference event that requires a team to play at least three games in three days to walk away with a trophy. As much as Florida State’s depth has helped it, it will be especially valuable this week.
The second-seeded Seminoles -- who landed their best seed in the ACC tournament since 1993 --- open against seventh-seeded Virginia Tech, which won a 99-90 track meet against Wake Forest in Wednesday’s second round. If they advance, Notre Dame or Virginia will await. And by the time Saturday arrives, Florida State could be well-equipped to put its depth to good use, assuming it gets that far.