With all due respect to Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton, who probably invented the term “the new ACC” given his constant use of it during the late 2000s, what will begin this week in Greensboro really is the new ACC tournament.
New dates, with the festivities starting Tuesday, and a Saturday prime-time championship game. A new format, with the league’s bottom four teams needing to win five games in five days to take the title. A new team, with Louisville playing in it for the first time.
There are plenty of questions surrounding the tournament – like how many spectators will be in attendance for that 1 p.m. game Tuesday between Boston College and Georgia Tech? Here, though, are the most intriguing of those questions.
1. Can anyone beat Virginia?
Well Louisville just did Saturday and Duke did in Charlottesville, Va., on Jan. 31. But those are the Cavaliers’ only losses, and if junior guard Justin Anderson returns this week from an appendectomy, they’re the clear favorites to win their second consecutive tournament.
Virginia doesn’t have the star power Duke does, but no team in the league better runs its system – love it or hate it – than the Cavaliers. The matchups favor Virginia, too.
It will face Clemson or Florida State in its first game Thursday, and assuming it advances, likely then will play Louisville or North Carolina. Can Louisville beat Virginia twice in less than a week? Not likely. And the Tar Heels, who prefer a much faster pace, match up poorly with Virginia.
So that leaves Duke, which faces a more challenging path to Saturday night. The most important factor for Virginia probably is whether Anderson comes back.
2. Who needs to play well, and why?
You have to think Virginia has locked up a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, and Duke now is projected as a top seed, too. If the Blue Devils lose early, though – say Thursday in a game that could be against N.C. State – that would hurt Duke’s case for a top seed.
Looking further down the standings, Miami needs to make a run to find itself on the right side of the NCAA tournament bubble. If the Hurricanes make the semifinals – they’d need to win their first game against Wake Forest or Virginia Tech and then beat Notre Dame on Thursday – that’d go a long way toward bolstering their case.
Outside of Miami, the ACC doesn’t really have another bubble team. Among teams that already are locks for the NCAA tournament, UNC could use a couple of wins to improve its seeding.
The Tar Heels were projected as a No. 4 seed by most analysts as recently as a couple of weeks ago, but they’d probably need to make it to the semifinals to be seeded that highly now.
3. Who else has a real shot?
N.C. State hasn’t won the ACC tournament since 1987, and the Wolfpack is hardly among the favorites this week. But if you’re looking for a team that’s playing Wednesday that could end up playing Saturday night, N.C. State might be the best choice.
Sure, this is the same team that didn’t show up in a recent loss at Boston College. But the Wolfpack has beaten Duke, Louisville and UNC this season, and it lost by four at home against Virginia.
If N.C. State, which has won five of its past six games, beats Pitt on Wednesday, there would be a compelling rematch against Duke on Thursday. Outside of the Wolfpack, UNC is a team that’s certainly capable of making a run if it plays to its potential. That has been a challenge all season, though.
4. The 1995 tournament isremembered as The Randolph Childress Show. Anybody capable of replicating that 20 years later?
Duke center Jahlil Okafor became the first freshman to win ACC Player of the Year honors, but it’s unlikely we’ll see him hoisting 3-pointers, and making them, the way Childress did.
Childress, by the way, finished the tournament that year with 107 points in three games, and he carried Wake Forest to its first tournament championship since 1962. It’s a performance that’s unlikely to be replicated.
Even so, there are some players who feasibly could get hot for a few days and put on a show. UNC’s Marcus Paige finished with 23 points and rediscovered his shooting stroke Saturday night in the loss against Duke.
N.C. State’s Trevor Lacey is one of the best shooters in the conference and has made at least two 3-pointers in each of the past 12 games. Notre Dame’s Jerian Grant can, and has, taken over games.
Virginia’s Anderson, if he plays, might be best suited to imitate Childress. Anderson has made 48.4 percent of his 95 3-point attempts this season.