The ACC tournament’s top contenders roll into town Thursday. So will a sharp contrast in styles during the two quarterfinal sessions at the Verizon Center.
A fan of efficient offenses? The afternoon doubleheader will provide the three best teams the conference has to offer, with Notre Dame, Duke and North Carolina owning three of the nation’s seven most-effective scoring machines, according to KenPom.com.
For those who believe defense wins championships, two of this tournament’s four most effective defenses in league play (Virginia and Miami) finally will play their first games in the event Thursday night.
Fifth-seeded Duke (23-9) and fourth-seeded Notre Dame (21-10) routinely run offense as crisply as anyone in the country. Sure enough, they’re the third- and fourth-most efficient teams nationally and combined for an immensely entertaining game in Durham during the regular season.
The Fighting Irish earned a 95-91 victory as Bonzie Colson (31 points), Demetrius Jackson (24) and Steve Vasturia (22) outdueled the Blue Devils’ Luke Kennard (30), Brandon Ingram (25) and Grayson Allen (18). Notre Dame also is rested and could attempt to push the pace on a Duke team coming off a wild tournament debut.
The Blue Devils outlasted N.C. State 92-89, ripping the Wolfpack for 1.35 points per possession Wednesday. Still, the tight score demonstrates Duke possesses its own defensive deficiencies that could result in another high-scoring game.
Not be overlooked will be Thursday’s opener between top-seeded North Carolina (25-6) and eighth-seeded Pittsburgh. While the Panthers (21-10) had a mid-pack offense during conference play, the Tar Heels combined scoring ability with the league’s fastest pace. They will attempt to use both effectively against a Pittsburgh bunch that didn’t put Syracuse away until the final buzzer.
While there should be plenty of points early, the defenses potentially could take over during the evening session. Second-seeded Virginia (24-6) isn’t as miserly as last season, but it still possesses the best defense in the conference outside of ineligible Louisville.
The Cavaliers will open their tournament against 10th-seeded Georgia Tech, which erased an 18-point deficit in the final 10 minutes of regulation against Clemson before prevailing in overtime. The Yellow Jackets (19-13) can’t expect to have such a rally in them against Virginia, which held Louisville to 48 points in its regular-season finale.
While not as vaunted as Virginia, third-seeded Miami (24-6) boasts a capable defense. The Hurricanes struggled Saturday at Virginia Tech and now will get another look at the Hokies as they begin their chase of their second conference tournament title in four years.
Some of the week’s important questions already are answered. Pittsburgh took a step toward solidifying an NCAA tournament berth with Wednesday’s 72-71 defeat of Syracuse. The Panthers find themselves on more stable ground and a potential loss to North Carolina in the quarterfinals shouldn’t prove too severe a hit.
The Orange, which dropped five of its final six, will have an anxious few days leading into Selection Sunday.
Elsewhere in the field, Georgia Tech maintained its slim at-large chances with its rally against Clemson, but will need to keep winning for at least another two days to have any realistic shot at hearing its name called Sunday. And Florida State effectively is toast after falling to Virginia Tech in Wednesday’s nightcap.
The assessment of NCAA prospects could fully give way to talk of who will snip the nets in Washington by the end of Thursday. For the teams playing in the afternoon, remaining in that conversation has everything to do with offensive excellence. And for those still alive in the lower half of the bracket, defensive superiority figures to make the difference in the quarterfinals.