Notre Dame might win its second ACC tournament in three years. And Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski might break a tie with Dean Smith by winning his 14th iteration of this event.
Those sorts of things will be what is remembered about the ACC’s first trip into New York for its league tournament. But in the here and now, there’s one overarching question tied to this year’s event: Has Duke finally figured it out?
That’s not to dismiss Notre Dame, which once again looks like it will be a difficult out in March, whether it’s this week or in the NCAA tournament. Yet let’s face it: The Fighting Irish (25-8) are anything but a wild card. In fact, they’re arguably the most reliable team in the conference outside of North Carolina.
Duke, on the other hand, is finally enjoying a degree of continuity that injuries, a suspension and Krzyzewski’s back surgery denied them all season. The Blue Devils (26-8) have had all their pieces for a little more than a month. That might mean their evolution is at about the mid-January or early February stage of a normal year. Remember, though, mid-January Duke was going to be plenty scary for opponents.
Friday’s 93-83 comeback victory over North Carolina offered a glimmer of what could be that didn’t last a couple minutes, but rather almost the entire second half. There were things everyone counted on and weren’t there all the time (Grayson Allen playing well). There were things everyone hoped and wished for (Harry Giles’ best game of the year).
And there was Luke Kennard, whose steadiness from November onward provided, in its own way, one of the most valuable seasons in Krzyzewski’s tenure. He and Jayson Tatum both hit the 20-point plateau for the third consecutive day. It’s a winning combination.
Duke’s probably bumped itself up to the No. 3 seed line for the NCAA tournament, and a No. 2 seed isn’t out of the question with a victory Saturday night. That would put the Blue Devils just about where they were expected to be in the first place, and well-positioned to make a run at the championship so many thought they would claim in the first place.
Three other noteworthy tidbits entering Saturday’s league title game …
▪ Mike Brey is aiming to join select company. The Notre Dame coach is going for his second ACC tournament title in his first four years in the league. Only N.C. State’s Everett Case and Duke’s Vic Bubas have accomplished that.
(Near-misses in this category include Wake Forest’s Bones McKinney and North Carolina’s Roy Williams, who won back-to-back ACC tournaments in their fourth and fifth seasons at their respective schools).
There is a little statistical gerrymandering in play here. Brey, like Case, was already at his school for more than a decade when it joined the ACC. Still, considering the rough ride Notre Dame had its first time through the conference -- Jerian Grant’s second semester ineligibility effectively wrecked the Irish in 2013-14 -- the work Brey has done since stands out even more.
Brey frequently says his formula is to get old and stay old. And when the title game tips tonight, he’ll have two seniors (V.J. Beachem and Steve Vasturia) and two juniors (Bonzie Colson and Matt Farrell) on the floor. Developing that continuity has allowed the Irish to emerge as the most consistent and arguably most productive of the league’s latest round of Big East imports.
▪ It’s time for Round Four of 3 vs. 5. Saturday marks the fourth time in tournament history a No. 3 seed will face a No. 5 seed. Each of the three previous installments --- all won by the No. 3 seed --- has a quirky place in the event’s lore.
Georgia Tech’s 70-61 defeat of Virginia in 1990 remains the only ACC title game not to feature a team from the state of North Carolina. In fact, since 1984 it is one of only two ACC championship contests not to feature Duke or North Carolina (Wake Forest’s 1996 victory over Georgia Tech is the other).
Duke knocked off Georgia Tech 69-64 in the 2005 final to cap the first significantly expanded ACC tournament. It was already clear in that 11-team iteration (Boston College wouldn’t join the league until the following season) that the event would lose some of the tradition it built when it was as an eight- or nine-team field. Well, not from a “Duke or North Carolina winning” perspective.
Then there was the 2015 game in Greensboro, perhaps the last time in a long while the tournament is played at its spiritual home (the 2020 tournament is scheduled for Greensboro, but that could be removed this spring in response to House Bill 2, or HB2). Notre Dame beat North Carolina 90-82 as the latest round of Big East additions claimed its first ACC title.
* Duke aims for four in four. Duke is just the fifth ACC team to win three games in three days to reach the conference final. N.C. State made a longshot run in 1997 as a No. 8 seed, a feat more impressive considering there were nine teams in the conference at the time.
Since then, 2007 N.C. State (as a No. 10 seed), 2010 Georgia Tech (as a No. 7 seed) and 2015 North Carolina (as a No. 5 seed) have aimed to collect four wins in four days to earn an ACC title. None succeeded.
How could Duke be different? It’s probably the most talented of those five teams, with only 2015 North Carolina providing much competition there (that 2010 Georgia Tech team did have Derrick Favors and Iman Shumpert). And considering Duke’s place as a preseason favorite nationally, it is hardly an out-of-nowhere team. If someone is going to win four times in four days, the Blue Devils are a great candidate.
ACC tournament championship
Duke vs. Notre Dame
When: 9 p.m. Saturday
Where: Barclays Center, Brooklyn
TV: WRAL, ESPN