This year's ACC Tournament is shaping up to be one of the most exciting in quite some time with 6 schools having a legitimate shot of making it to Sunday and claiming the crown. With 5 teams in the top 20 in the polls and RPI, the conference is as strong as it has been in quite some time. The conference RPI is the highest of any conference since the RPI measure was created.
With the draw that gave Wake Forest the #3 seed, the tourney has set up so that no North Carolina school has to face another NC school until Saturday. Greensboro has been an inviting place for NC schools as only two non-NC schools have won the Tournament there in 20 previous events (Maryland 1984, South Carolina 1972).
Interestingly enough, 4 of the first 5 games will match a team that has swept its opponent, with only Georgia Tech and North Carolina having split their season series.
I will give a little preview of each first round game with most important and most dangerous players as well as quick thoughts on weekend potential for each team.
8/9 Thursday night
Clemson has had quite some time off since losing to GT, that could serve either as a detriment if they are rusty or a positive if they come out ready to win. On the flip side, Virginia is coming off of a tough loss at Maryland, where they lead by 11 in the second half, which likely cost them an NCAA berth unless they make it to the Conference Finals. Virginia swept the season series with a 61-50 home win and a 58-55 win at Clemson for their only road win in the ACC.
Quite simply, if UVA comes to play Clemson does not have the offensive weapons to stay with them. Clemson is an excellent defensive team, but struggles to score. UVA can score but sometimes fails to defend. This one to me is all about where UVA's heads are. If they are still hung over from the Maryland defeat they could lose to Clemson, but if they come ready to play they should walk out with a win.
Clemson – Most Important Player – Sharrod Ford. He anchors the defense for Clemson and is its leading scorer, shot blocker (3rd in ACC) and rebounder.
Most Dangerous Player – Shawan Robinson. Shawan is capable of putting up big numbers when he gets hot but a little undersized for a shooting guard.
X-factor – Vernon Hamilton. Hamilton has shown some flashes of being a solid ACC PG, but he has had the typical up and down freshmen year. Clemson needs a solid floor game from him to win.
Virginia – Most Important Player – Elton Brown – Brown is one of the best post scorers in the conference and can put up big numbers, but he tends to struggle on defense and rebounding.
Most Dangerous Player – Todd Billet. Billet hit three game winning shots in a span of 11 days. While short and not that quick, he has handled the ball very well and you don't want to give him a chance to shoot at the end of a tight game.
X-factor – JR Reynolds. All-Rookie member has really come on late after early season injuries. JR is a true combo guard who can shoot from outside and take some of the ball handling responsibilities off of Billet.
Neither of these teams have much of a chance over the weekend. Both have lost 2 lopsided contests to Duke and are likely fodder to Duke on Friday.
1 vs 8/9 winner Friday afternoon
Duke (25-4, 13-3, RPI #1, AP #5, ESPN #4)
Duke will be coming off 5 days rest vs. a team that played less than 24 hours before. Duke has lopsided victories over both potential opponents and looks to have an easy bye into the semis on Saturday. Duke is simply too good on offense and defense for with play-in seed to stay with them for 40 minutes.
Duke – Most Important Player – Chris Duhon. Duhon may not have the most impressive stats, but he always seems to be involved in the one or two key plays that allow Duke to win and makes good decisions on offense where he leads the ACC in assists in conference games. He also is second in conference games in steals. He sets the tone for the team.
Most Dangerous Player – JJ Redick. When Redick gets hot he is one of the shooting guards in the league that can simply shoot an opponent right out of a game. And you can't foul him because of his FT shooting abilities.
X-factor – Luol Deng and Sheldon Williams. These two are basically Duke's post play and they complement each other nicely. Williams is the powerful inside player who leads the ACC in blocks while Deng is the precocious freshmen who can really hurt you when he is on. Duke needs for these two to play well if they want to win their 6th straight ACC tournament.
4/5 Friday Afternoon
Georgia Tech (22-8, 9-7, RPI #17, AP #14, ESPN #18) vs. North Carolina (18-9, 8-8, RPI #16, AP #16, ESPN #19)
This is probably the premier matchup on Friday with two top 20 teams who split their regular season games (103-88 UNC win at home, 88-77 GT win at home). Both teams love to play uptempo so this promises to be an entertaining game. GT is arguably the best defensive squad in the conference finishing first in FG% and 3FG% defense, 2nd in blocks and 3rd in steals. UNC is one of the top 2 offensive clubs in the league and has shown a greater commitment to defense down the stretch. This game will likely turn on who takes care of the ball and rebounds better. UNC has a stronger starting five, but GT has a deeper bench.
UNC – Most Important Player – Ray Felton. Nobody is as quick with the ball in the ACC as Ray is. He is capable of making his teammates so much better. Not a great shooter but has the tendency to hit the big shots. The status of his hip could be crucial to this game.
Most Dangerous Player – Rashad McCants. Rashad is arguably the most dangerous offensive player in the ACC with the ability to put up points in a hurry from many spots on the floor. His defense has improved late in the season. He is still prone to going through stretches of disappearing.
X-factor – Sean May. It's tempting to put Felton's hip here but we will go with May. May is one of the most talented big men in the conference but has been up and down. He averages nearly a double-double but is shooting only 46% FG. He had a big game in Chapel Hill, but was not a factor in Atlanta. Whichever big man has a better game in Greensboro will have a huge impact on the outcome.
GT – Most Important Player – Jarrett Jack. Jack has really broken out as a sophomore and become the floor leader GT needed. His size and strength makes him difficult to keep out of the lane and his shot has improved. When he plays well GT usually wins.
Most Dangerous Player – BJ Elder. Like McCants, Elder is capable of going off and carrying his team. Tough to guard when he is focused due to being able to score all over the floor. Introverted personality has kept him from being one of the truly great players in the conference.
X-factor – It's tempting to put the GT bench, but we will go with Luke Schenscher. Luke has developed nicely as a junior and has averaged 9.1 ppg and 6.9 rpg in ACC play. He is second in blocked shots and his height changes how teams have to approach the game at both ends of the floor. When he has a good game, it creates opportunities for all of his teammates.
Both of these teams have capability of winning this tournament but were unlucky to draw the harder bracket. The winner likely has a date with a Duke squad that likely won't have to exert itself on Friday. GT has the depth to better manage the weekend, but UNC has the talent to win 3 games in 3 days. The health of Felton for UNC and Bynum for GT could have big impacts on their ability to win three in three days.
3/6 Friday Night
Wake Forest (19-8, 9-7, RPI #15, AP #15, ESPN #14) vs. Maryland (16-11, 7-9, RPI #29)
Maryland likely secured its NCAA bid with a win over UVA this past weekend, but another win would never hurt as 16 wins is the fewest number of wins a team has ever made the Tournament with. Wake was on a huge roll winning six in a row before losing its last two games. Wake swept the season series with a 93-85 win at Maryland and a 91-83 win at Wake.
Wake has won two high scoring affairs with Maryland by using its superior guard play to its advantage. Wake can play good defense but is more inclined to simply try to outscore opponents, as it is the highest scoring team in the ACC. Maryland is a young team that has the talent to play well and the lack of experience to cause letdowns. So much of this game will be determined by whether Gilchrist, McCray and Strawberry can handle Gray, Paul, and Downey. If it comes down to FT's, MD shot just 62% in ACC games, edging out only Clemson.
Wake Forest – Most Important Player – Chris Paul. This outstanding freshman has had some ups and downs, but when he is up Wake is almost unbeatable. Great hands and quickness and an understanding that is advanced for his years. Excellent shooter.
Most Dangerous Player – Justin Gray. After a mid-season slump, Gray has stepped up to be the go to guy Wake needed. Can score from very deep as well as off the dribble. When he gets hot, he gets really hot.
X-factor – Vytas Danelius. After being injured for most of the season Vytas has shown some glimpses of returning to form. When he is on he gives Wake another player inside to complement Eric Williams. Hard to leave off Levy here, but Danelius may be more important to post season success for Wake.
Maryland – Most Important Player – Chris McCray. Late in the season McCray has started to come on and give MD the threat from its SG spot that it is used to. When he plays well offensively MD has a chance to compete with the best teams in the conference. When he doesn't, MD struggles to keep up.
Most Dangerous Player - John Gilchrist. John is more of a shoot first PG than MD is used to having and that has been both good and bad. He is capable of measuring up to the ACC's best, but he is also capable of shooting his team right out of a game. MD needs Gilchrist to run the offense and get the ball to emerging SG Chris McCray.
X-factor – Jamar Smith. Smith started out the season strong but has really struggled in ACC play averging 10.3 ppg and 7.7 rpg, but shooting a miserable 39% FG and 42% FT. When he struggles MD simply does not have enough talent in the post to hang with the best teams in the conference.
Both these teams have the capability of winning the tournament and have the easier draw to get there. Wake is the more dangerous of the two with its deep and talented guards. When they are shooting like they have at times this year there is little you can do to stop them. Of course when Wake's guards go cold they are very beatable. MD could certainly win this game and could potentially make it to the Finals, but I do not see this inconsistent squad winning the whole Tournament.
2/7 Friday Night
If there is ever a definition of a bubble team Florida State is it. It has some great wins at home, but has been unable to get that crucial road win. It likely needs to make the Tournament finals in order to get a bid to the NCAA. NC State has been one of the surprise teams of the ACC, where Herb Sendek took a team that did not look all that strong going into January but bonded well and finished second in the ACC. Both teams come into this game with serious injury concerns. NC ST does not know if Scooter Sherrill will be able to go this weekend while FSU does not know if Tim Pickett will be able to go. Both would be far below 100%. NC State swept the season series winning 58-53 in Tallahassee and 75-59 in Raleigh.
This will probably be the most excruciating game to watch, with the possible exception of Clemson-Virginia, as both these teams are very strong defensively with inconsistent offenses. If Pickett cannot go it is unlikely FSU can stay close as he is the heart and soul and only proven scorer on the FSU squad. This has the making of a low scoring slugfest. NC State is a great FT shooting club so if they get a lead they are hard to beat late. FSU does not match up that well with NC ST defensively.
NC State – Most Important Player – Julius Hodge. Likely Player of the Year, Hodge is one of the most versatile players in the conference. Not a great outside shooter, but does everything else well and comes with a real attitude that helps carry the team.
Most Dangerous Player – Marcus Melvin. Melvin has had an outstanding senior year. He has gone from being a 6'8 SG to a player who is making valuable contributions both inside and out. When he gets going from three-point range he is a very difficult player for opposing forwards to guard.
X-factor – Engin Atsur. Turkey native has enjoyed an excellent freshmen year and has really played well as of late. He has handled the ball adequately for NC ST and has become another dangerous outside shooter for the team. Good feel for the game.
FSU – Most Important Player – Tim Pickett. If he played on a better team Pickett might be player of the year. He plays hard at both ends where he is a very dangerous shooter on offense, 42% threes, and quick on defense – leading the ACC with 2.3 steals per game. How healthy he is Friday will completely determine how far FSU can go.
Most Dangerous Player – Tim Pickett. Hate to be redundant, but Tim is really the one guy who can carry FSU. He has at times simply willed them to wins at both ends.
X-factor – Alexander Johnson. There are a number of possibilities here including Pickett's ankle, but we'll go with the freshman big man who is just starting to scratch the surface of his capabilities. Very powerful, athletic insider who is really the only player who gives FSU an inside presence. FSU needs a big game from him to force NC ST to guard the interior as NCST is hard to score against outside.
So much of these two teams outlook depends upon injuries; it is frankly hard to pick either going far. FSU can go only as far as Pickett can carry them and with him not 100% it is hard seeing them winning this game much less going any further. NCSU has the capability to win but I consider that unlikely. They will miss Scooter's shooting and defense as they go deeper into the Tournament with a shallow bench. NC ST should beat FSU, but may have problems facing their opponent on Saturday as they go against deeper clubs, still NC ST has found ways to win all year and Sendek almost never loses his first round tourney game.
This should be a great tournament and I am looking forward to catching as much action as I can. Good luck to all participants, especially GT, and let's hope no one gets injured before heading to the NCAA or NIT Tournaments.