For first time since 2008, ACC's top 4 seeds fill out semifinals

Notre Dame’s Rex Pflueger (0) shoots over North Carolina’s Marcus Paige (5) during the first half of Notre Dame’s 80-76 win Feb. 6, 2016, in South Bend, Ind.
Notre Dame’s Rex Pflueger (0) shoots over North Carolina’s Marcus Paige (5) during the first half of Notre Dame’s 80-76 win Feb. 6, 2016, in South Bend, Ind. The Associated Press

For a change, the double bye has made a massive difference at the ACC tournament.

Friday’s semifinals will feature top-seeded North Carolina (26-6) and fourth-seeded Notre Dame (21-10) opening the doubleheader, with second-seeded Virginia (25-6) and third-seeded Miami (25-6) meeting in the nightcap.

It’s the first time since 2008 the conference’s top four seeds made it out of the quarterfinals, and only second time it has happened since the ACC began its decade-long expansion in time for the 2005 tournament. And while there is no surprise team remaining, it sets up for a stellar final two days.

It also attests to the value of rest this season. One after another, coaches and players marched up to the postgame interview podium Thursday and recounted how much a few days off to recover from the regular season helped their teams.

Notre Dame’s Mike Brey credited it for playing a role in the Irish’s comeback against Duke. Virginia guard Malcolm Brogdon thought the rest made it possible for the Cavaliers to emphatically finish off Georgia Tech in a way it might otherwise not have. And Miami coach Jim Larranaga noted his team might have been tired Saturday against Virginia Tech. That wasn’t a problem for the Hurricanes in the rematch.

The benefit of time off is a luxury none of the teams will enjoy the next two days, but there will be no serious disadvantages, either. Everyone playing Friday will play their second game in two days. The survivors will get to play a third in three days come Saturday night.

But beyond equitability, it figures to make an impact on the quality of the remaining games at the Verizon Center, particularly the Friday doubleheader.

It’s a pair of games with compelling subplots. This is about as good a situation as the conference could have hoped for in bringing its tournament north of Greensboro for the first time in more than a decade.

The conference’s past three champions still are standing. The ACC’s three teams that entered March harboring realistic hopes of landing a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament have made it to Friday. The lower seed in both semifinals defeated the higher seed during the regular season.

Miami and Virginia represent the conference’s recently empowered, programs that claimed regular-season and tournament title sweeps in 2013 and 2014, respectively. Both programs made outstanding hires and then had the patience to allow new coaches to construct lasting contenders.

Virginia’s foundation was laid more deliberately, and the steadiness of Tony Bennett’s program is reflected by this semifinal appearance. The Cavaliers are making their third consecutive trip to the ACC semifinals, the first time they’ve done so since 1989-91.

Miami’s rise under Larranaga wasn’t entirely smooth, but the former George Mason coach made the most of the veteran core he inherited to win the ACC in his second season in the league. When that group cleared out, he reloaded through recruiting and transfers, and fifth-year seniors Sheldon McClellan and Angel Rodriguez are the centerpieces of the Hurricanes’ roster.

Both played well in the quarterfinals, as did Virginia senior guard Brogdon. Expect excellent backcourt play Friday, with all three in prominent roles.

While Miami and Virginia have taken similar paths in recent seasons to arrive in this year’s semifinals, the postseason histories of North Carolina and Notre Dame are more clearly intertwined. Brey acknowledged the Fighting Irish gained some credibility with their ACC tournament title last year, going through Duke and North Carolina to claim the championship in Greensboro.

The Irish have dispensed with Duke again, and now will get another shot at the Tar Heels, who fell in last year’s final 90-82. That North Carolina team didn’t enjoy the benefit of the double bye and was playing its fourth game in as many days.

Depth plus a far less stressful quarterfinal triumph than the Irish enjoyed might prove an excellent combination for the Tar Heels. Last year, it was Pat Connaughton’s outside shooting and Jerian Grant’s steady work at the foul line that paved the way for the Irish to snip the nets.

This time, North Carolina enjoys a surplus of seniors, thanks to the presence of Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige. In a tournament almost completely devoid of surprises so far, it would seem to be appropriate that two of the most known commodities in the conference help the Tar Heels to keep the predictability rolling to open one of the highest-level semifinal doubleheaders in the league’s recent history.