In its usual home at the heart of Tobacco Road, the ACC tournament’s ideal title game is a North Carolina-Duke or North Carolina-N.C. State.
The former rivalry speaks for itself on a national scale. The latter does the same at a local level. Either way, a packed Greensboro Coliseum is assured.
In its northern sojourn, things are a little different. North Carolina fans still arrive in droves and make their presence heard, gradually gobbling up more and more tickets as the week unfolds.
But the nation’s capital is not Greensboro, and the Duke or N.C. State presence would not be nearly so large even if those teams advanced to Saturday’s title game. Instead, this is Virginia territory, and there is little doubt Cavalier supporters have staked out plenty of territory in D.C.
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That figures to become even more pronounced now that the second-seeded Cavaliers (26-6) have advanced to the conference title game for the second time in three years. In those three seasons, Virginia already owns one league title (2014) and finished first in the regular season twice.
It’s galvanized a fanbase stuck in the doldrums for nearly two decades and made Charlottesville a far less welcoming place for visiting teams. But it has also emboldened Virginia fans to become a much more rowdy group, particularly now that the ACC tournament has come to Washington for the first time since 2005.
“You definitely notice it,” Virginia guard Malcolm Brogdon said. “I don’t know about (it being like) home games because our home games are pretty crazy. We’ve had an awesome fan base that’s given us great support. … If any team has a home base here, it’s us or North Carolina.”
And both groups of fans have reason to be ecstatic. Virginia has won six ACC tournament games in the last three years, which is one shy of the program’s total in the 20 conference tournaments (1994 to 2013) prior to this emergence.
Now, the Cavaliers find themselves in what has become a rare No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup in the conference tournament final. It’s only the second time in 15 years that’s happened, with the other a North Carolina-Duke showdown in Greensboro in 2011.
It’s appropriate it would happen at this especially chalky tournament, where Georgia Tech over Clemson in the second round is the only upset so far based on the regular-season standings. And really, that wasn’t exactly a stunner given how both teams had played in the last month.
North Carolina and Virginia offer an obvious contrast, and the manner in which both advanced to the championship reflects it. The Tar Heels used a breathtaking run spanning halftime, scoring 24 consecutive points en route to a 78-47 rout of fourth-seeded Notre Dame.
It was No. 1 seed North Carolina at or close to its peak, an athletic offensive buzzsaw that few can contain when it is rolling. And if the Tar Heels are reasonably engaged at the defensive end, watch out.
The Cavaliers’ 73-68 victory over third-seeded Miami offered an alternate script for success. Virginia’s defense was alert from the start, and the 16 turnovers Miami committed in the face of the Cavaliers’ pack-line scheme was one shy of its season-high. But Virginia raced out quickly thanks to a balanced offense that was at its best early before settling in for a solid second half.
Both teams will play their third game in as many days Saturday, though North Carolina (27-6) cruised at the end of back-to-back contests after swamping Pittsburgh in the middle of the second half and Notre Dame much earlier than that. It places North Carolina and its throng of supporters within a victory of its first ACC title since 2008.
Yet Virginia has also done things its way in D.C., demoralizing opponents both with its defensive steadiness and its offensive opportunism, and turned Verizon Center into something of a northern version of John Paul Jones Arena. That won’t be as easy with North Carolina fans remaining in the building from start to finish Saturday.
That’s life in a league tournament, though the last two days have made one thing perfectly clear: A Tar Heels-Cavaliers showdown is the fitting finale for this edition of the ACC’s showcase week.
No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 2 Virginia
What: ACC Tournament finals
When: 9 p.m. Saturday
TV: ESPN, WRAL