College Sports

ACC men’s basketball tournament capsules

North Carolinas Marcus Paige reacts after sinking a three-point basket in the second half against Duke on Saturday at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill.
North Carolinas Marcus Paige reacts after sinking a three-point basket in the second half against Duke on Saturday at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill. rwillett@newsobserver.com

The ACC tournament will starts Tuesday in Greensboro. Here is a capsule look at the teams:

No. 1 Virginia

Record: 28-2 overall, 16-2 ACC

Coach: Tony Bennett (4-4 ACC tournament)

Key player: Sophomore guard London Perrantes (6.3 ppg, 4.7 apg)

Key question: Can the Cavaliers repeat without their best player?

Plus: The Cavaliers have been there, done that. Unlike last season’s group, which hadn’t tasted postseason success – Bennett had been just 1-4 in the ACC tournament and the school hadn’t won the ACC title since 1976 – this group has last year’s championship experience to draw on.

Plus, the way Virginia wants to win, with a grinding defense, the Cavaliers are suited perfectly for the half-court nature of the postseason.

Minus: Junior wing Justin Anderson was tearing up anything in his path before he broke a finger on his shooting hand Feb. 7. He was expected back for Saturday’s game at Louisville but had an appendectomy, so his status is unclear.

Anderson already was the perfect fit for Bennett’s system with his athleticism and tenacity on defense. With his shooting improvement this season, 48.4 percent from 3-point range up almost 20 percentage points, he had become one of the best players in college basketball.

The Cavaliers went 7-1 without him, against mostly subpar competition, but the postseason is a different animal.

Bottom line: Like Duke without Kyrie Irving or UNC without Kendall Marshall before them, it almost seems cruel to ask Virginia to win without Anderson. Still, with the way the Cavaliers play defense, they have a puncher’s chance to go back-to-back.

No. 2 Duke

Record: 28-3 overall, 15-3 ACC

Coach: Mike Krzyzewski (55-20 ACC tournament)

Key player: Freshman guard Tyus Jones (11.8 ppg, 5.7 apg)

Key question: Will Duke play enough defense to win three games?

Plus: Freshman forward Jahlil Okafor, the ACC Player of the Year, probably will be the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft, but he might not be the best freshman on the roster. Point guard Jones has been utterly preposterous in Duke’s biggest games this season. He averaged 17.8 points and shot 49 percent in five games against Notre Dame, UNC and Virginia.

Guard Quinn Cook has shown tremendous growth and maturity as a senior and has been Duke’s most reliable shooter.

Okafor has been as dominant an any ACC big man since Tim Duncan.

Minus: Duke’s plethora of offensive skill does not translate on the defensive end. Krzyzewksi has even gone to a zone to hide some flaws. Okafor (22 blocks in 17 ACC games) has not been the rim protector Krzyzewski had hoped. Jones is superb with the ball, and clutch in late-game situations, but his size (listed at 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds, generous on both fronts) can be exploited on the defensive end.

Bottom line: This is Duke’s tournament to lose. Because of Okafor this team can win without the 3-pointer. Other Duke teams, certainly of the recent vintage, would be sunk without a strong shooting game. A potential matchup with N.C. State on Thursday could be Duke’s most difficult hurdle to a 20th ACC title.

No. 3 Notre Dame

Record: 26-5 overall, 14-4 ACC

Coach: Mike Brey (0-1 ACC tournament)

Key player: Sophomore guard Demetrius Jackson (12.5 ppg, 2.8 apg)

Key question: Will Notre Dame play enough defense to win three games?

Plus: Senior guard Jerian Grant has come back from an academic suspension and lifted Notre Dame from the bottom of the ACC to an unexpected third-place finish. Grant has been nothing short of spectacular with a roster that had to replace two key veterans (Eric Atkins and Garrick Sherman).

Few teams are better on offense than the Irish, who rank second in the country in field-goal percentage (51)

Minus: As good as Brey’s teams are on offense, Notre Dame’s just not wired to play defense. The Irish have been good enough on offense to work around flaws on defense to this point, but again, the intensity of the postseason is not the same as a Tuesday night in South Bend.

Bottom line: Notre Dame’s a mentally tough team with two strong guards (Grant and Jackson) and plenty of scoring skill to go around. It will take a big punch to knock it out, especially with Grant’s resilience, but teams that are this big of a liability on the defensive end usually don’t climb to the top of the medal podium.

No. 4 Louisville

Record: 24-7 overall, 12-6 ACC

Coach: Rick Pitino (0-0 ACC tournament)

Key player: Senior forward Wayne Blackshear (10.7 ppg, 4.3 rpg)

Key question: Can Louisville score enough to stick around until Friday?

Plus: Louisville’s almost like Diet Virginia. Plenty of grit and determination on defense but deficiencies on offense. Louisville’s perimeter options aren’t as good as Virginia’s, either.

Wait, this is supposed to be the “plus” section. Junior forward Montrezl Harrell understands the postseason and has tasted the ultimate success with the Cardinals (he was a key reserve on their 2013 NCAA title team).

Minus: Some of those offensive-minded old Providence or New York Knicks teams of Pitino lore must look at this version of Louisville and wonder what happened to run-and-gun Ricky P. Even with guard Chris Jones, the Cards labored to find points. Without him, they’re a sandwich short of an ACC tournament picnic.

Bottom line: The win against Virginia in the regular-season finale Saturday gave the Cards an extra day off and put them on the right side of the draw, but Russ Smith and Peyton Siva aren’t walking through that door. Short of such an offensive transfusion, the Cards are not long for this March.

No. 5 North Carolina

Record: 21-10 overall, 11-7 ACC

Coach: Roy Williams (15-9 ACC tournament)

Key player: Junior guard Marcus Paige (13.5 ppg, 4.4 apg)

Key question: Where’s the 2013-14 version of Paige?

Plus: In big men Kennedy Meeks and Brice Johnson, UNC has an inside punch few teams outside of Kentucky can match.

The Heels are second in the country in rebounding (41.8 per game) and second in the country in assists (17.7per game).

Minus: Paige has dealt with an assortment of nagging injuries and still turned in a solid season. But the will to take over, the “get on my back” mentality that was the trademark of his sophomore season has been mostly missing.

That doesn’t mean he can’t find it in March – he showed signs during Saturday’s loss to Duke of rekindling it.

Bottom line: No one could have predicted UNC would miss James Michael McAdoo this much. McAdoo, who left early for the NBA last year, never really played to his potential at UNC, but maybe his real value was as some sort of Paige whisperer. Either way, the lack of a second reliable outside scorer has left UNC a half-step short of the elite teams in the conference. It would take a Paige renaissance and Justin Jackson channeling his inner Donald Williams for the Heels to become the first team to win four games in four days at the ACC tournament.

No. 6 Miami

Record: 20-11 overall, 10-8 ACC

Coach: Jim Larranaga (5-2 ACC tournament)

Key player: Junior guard Angel Rodriguez (12.3 ppg, 4.2 apg)

Key question: Will Rodriguez play?

Plus: The Canes are another one of those well-coached, tough, defensive-minded teams. Texas transfer Sheldon McClellan has delivered in his first ACC season and junior forward Tonye Jekiri, who has raw NBA potential, led the league in rebounding.

Minus: Rodriguez, another Big 12 transfer for Larranaga, has missed the past two games and played only three minutes in a home loss to UNC on Feb. 28 because of a wrist injury. The Canes beat Pitt and Virginia Tech without their point guard, but it will be a completely different task in Greensboro.

Bottom line: The Canes still can play their way into the NCAA tournament. If they win Wednesday, against either Wake Forest or Virginia Tech, they’ll get a crack at Notre Dame. With a win against Duke already in their back pocket, two wins in Greensboro might be enough to get them to Dayton, Ohio, for the First Four.

No. 7 N.C. State

Record: 19-12 overall, 10-8 ACC

Coach: Mark Gottfried (6-3 ACC tournament)

Key player: Senior guard Ralston Turner (13.4 ppg, 3.3 rpg)

Key question: Can N.C. State be consistent enough to win four straight games?

Plus: N.C. State’s trio of guards – Cat Barber, Trevor Lacey and Turner – are as good as any in the ACC. Barber really has come on the past nine games. He has found his shooting stroke and also been more aggressive with the ball, attacking the rim.

Few college players, if any, take or make as many contested shots as Lacey.

Minus: N.C. State is capable of beating any team in the field. The Wolfpack also is capable of losing to any team in the field. A rematch with Duke on Thursday looks juicy (N.C. State beat Duke 87-75 in Raleigh on Jan. 11), but it would be typical of N.C. State to stumble against Pitt on Wednesday.

Bottom line: The Wolfpack seems to have found its way, winning five of six and securing a spot in the NCAA tournament. There’s no question N.C. State has the ability to win this tournament and Gottfried has shown an aptitude in this format.

But, since a 6-0 start to the season, N.C. State hasn’t won four straight games. The final four of that opening stretch was Jacksonville, South Florida, Richmond and Boise State. The potential draw in Greensboro is Pitt, Duke, Notre Dame and Virginia. That’s not exactly apples to apples. Six of the Wolfpack’s ACC titles and the past two (1983, 1987) have been in odd-numbered years, and the Pack also made the title game in 1997 and 2007 – so this being an odd-numbered year can only be good.

No. 8 Clemson

Record: 16-14 overall, 8-10 ACC

Coach: Brad Brownell (2-4 ACC tournament)

Key player: Senior guard Rod Hall (8.6 ppg, 3.4 rpg)

Key question: Does anybody really want to play Clemson?

Plus: Man, the Tigers are a bear. They play hard, they’re tough and you better be ready for 40 minutes of hand-to-hand combat when they show up in your bracket. Brownell’s an incredible 18-18 in the ACC the past two seasons on pure elbow grease.

Minus: Man, the Tigers are short on skill. Brownell can coach ’em up, and make them play hard, but you can’t teach innate scoring ability and the Tigers are woefully short in that category. They are 294th in the country in scoring (62.4 points per game) and cracked the 70-point barrier twice in regulation in ACC play, while going less than 60 nine times.

Bottom line: Brownell has a little Gary Williams in him – he can beat your team with his players and then turn around and beat his team with your players. He’s a true coach’s coach. But at some point he needs to upgrade his talent because you can only tilt at windmills for so long.

No. 9 Florida State

Record: 16-15 overall, 8-10 ACC

Coach: Leonard Hamilton (8-11 ACC tournament)

Key player: Freshman guard Xavier Rathan-Mayes (14.4 ppg, 4.4 apg)

Key question: How in the world do you score 30 points in less than five minutes?

Plus: Rathan-Mayes once was best known as Andrew Wiggins’ AAU teammate. The guard now will forever be “The Guy Who Scored 30 points in 4 Minutes and 38 Seconds.” Rathan-Mayes somehow pulled that off in an 81-77 loss to Miami on Feb. 25. He also had a 35-point outburst at UNC on Jan. 24.

Minus: FSU’s season went south before it really got started when star guard Aaron Thomas was ruled ineligible by the school in early December. Outside of Rathan-Mayes, the Noles are another ACC team that plays hard on defense but is short of talent on offense, particularly inside.

Bottom line: Someone from 1966 or ’76 or ’86 wouldn’t recognize the physical brand of basketball that the sub-bracket of Florida State, Clemson and Virginia almost assuredly will produce in Greensboro. On the bright side for FSU, football season will start in 25 weeks.

No. 10 Pittsburgh

Record: 19-13 overall, 8-10 ACC

Coach: Jamie Dixon (2-1 ACC tournament)

Key player: Senior guard Cameron Wright (8.8 ppg, 3.0 rpg)

Key question: Hello, is anyone home, Pitt?

Plus: Sophomore forward Jamel Artis has developed into a consistent scorer and has the potential to be a star in this league.

Sophomore forward Michael Young is not flashy but steady. Junior guard James Robinson averaged 5.1 assists despite not having many reliable scoring options to feed.

Minus: This team overcame the academic suspension of Durand Johnson and an early injury to Wright, and fought its way to an 8-7 ACC mark and a spot on the NCAA bubble after a 71-65 win against Boston College on Feb. 24.

Since then, the Panthers have lost at Wake Forest, lost to Miami (without Rodriguez) and lost at FSU.

Bottom line: The Panthers are better than the team that lost by 18 at N.C. State on Jan. 3, but their head doesn’t quite seem to be in the right place to do much damage in Greensboro.

No. 11 Wake Forest

Record: 13-18 overall, 5-13 ACC

Coach: Danny Manning (0-0 ACC tournament)

Key player: Junior forward Devin Thomas (11.7 ppg, 8.8 rpg)

Key question: When will Wake Forest basketball matter again?

Plus: The Deacons are dangerous at home, beating N.C. State, Miami and Pittsburgh at Joel Coliseum this season. Junior guard Codi Miller-McIntyre is capable of putting up big numbers against anyone.

Minus: The ACC tournament isn’t in Winston-Salem. First-year coach Manning won one fewer ACC game than Jeff Bzdelik did in his final season.

Bottom line: Manning has the chops to make this work, but this season won’t go down as one of his better ones. Miller-McIntyre and Thomas are better than anyone on Clemson’s roster, but Manning wasn’t able to coax significant improvement out of either player. The Deacs should take care of Virginia Tech in the opening round, and they already have a win against Miami, but Manning probably is ready to get some of his own players in the fold and move forward with the rebuilding process.

No. 12 Boston College

Record: 12-18 overall, 4-14 ACC

Coach: Jim Christian (0-0 ACC tournament)

Key player: Senior guard Patrick Heckmann (8.1 ppg, 4.4 rpg)

Key question: Can the suddenly streaking Eagles ruin someone’s week?

Plus: The Eagles have won three straight, since a 1-14 ACC start. Junior guard Olivier Hanlan has become more than just a scorer and transfers Aaron Brown and Dimitri Batten add an element of toughness.

Minus: The Eagles don’t have much by way of scoring talent, outside of Hanlan, and their interior defense is limited by the health of oft-injured forward Dennis Clifford.

Bottom line: Christian probably could have used Joe Rahon (transfer to St. Mary’s) or Ryan Anderson (transfer to Arizona), but he scratched out a competitive lineup with what he could. The Eagles spread the floor and let Hanlan go. Hanlan also has a history of playing well in this tournament (41 points vs. Georgia Tech in 2013 at the Greensboro Coliseum), but Christian’s a few years away from having a team that can make some real noise here.

No. 13 Georgia Tech

Record: 12-18 overall, 3-15 ACC

Coach: Brian Gregory (1-3 ACC tournament)

Key player: Senior forward Demarco Cox (8.8 ppg, 6.0 rpg)

Key question: What’s next for Georgia Tech?

Plus: This team, despite so many close losses, has not given up. That would be the easy thing to do after going 3-15 in the ACC with 10 losses by five points or less or in overtime.

Minus: This team just can’t shoot – 39.3 percent from the floor and 29.6 from the 3-point range.

Bottom line: Gregory, a fine Xs-and-Os coach, and the program are at a crossroads. Does Gregory, 19-51 in four ACC seasons, get another year from an AD (Mike Bobinski) who didn’t hire him? Or will Bobinksi tap his old connections to the Miller family and pursue Dayton’s Archie Miller, a rising coaching star?

The ACC is always better when Georgia Tech is relevant.

No. 14 Virginia Tech

Record: 10-21 overall, 2-16 ACC

Coach: Buzz Williams (0-0 ACC tournament)

Key player: Freshman guard Justin Bibbs (11.8 ppg, 3.1 rpg)

Key question: What if? What if? What if?

Plus: The way the Hokies run a half-court set, especially after a timeout, is poetry in motion.

Williams’ argyle orange and maroon sweater gives legendary St. John’s coach Lou Carnesseca’s old “ugly” lucky sweater a run for its money.

Minus: There might not be a player with ACC-level talent on the roster. Harsh, but it’s what happens when you have the type of awkward coaching transition the program has undergone in the past three years.

Bottom line: Let’s indulge Virginia Tech fans and let them look back for a second.

Without the personality clashes between former coach Seth Greenberg and former AD Jim Weaver, this roster legitimately could have included Louisville forward Harrell, Florida forward Dorian Finney-Smith and Alabama-Birmingham guard Robert Brown. That’s not a last-place ACC lineup.

Oh, well, Greenberg seems happy at ESPN and with Williams the program has a brighter future.

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