You know March Madness has arrived when families start to gather around the TV to watch Joe Lunardi's ESPN appearances, when Rider-Siena is the primetime college basketball matchup of the day, and when the difference between success and failure for a team is based solely on Jeff Sagarin, the RPI, and a bunch of "experts" locked in a room for hours.
To the casual observer, none of this makes sense. A single piece of paper has never caused as much chaos as the all-powerful NCAA Tournament Bracket. People rearrange their living rooms in order to cram as many TVs, computers, and radios in them as possible, so as not to miss any of the mayhem.
This is the time of year when logic is replaced by pure emotion, when people call in sick to work with "March Fever," when guys drag their dates to romantic evenings at a sports bar or Wild Wing Cafe. It's completely, utterly, amazingly crazy.
And I love it.
It all starts with the conference tournaments this weekend and no tourney provides more competition, excitement, and drama than the ACC Tournament. Depending on what happens over the weekend, this conference, which is ranked No.1 in the nation in RPI, could get anywhere from four to six teams into the Big Dance.
Each game has major implications; that's what makes it fun to watch and a nightmare to predict.
In this three-part series, you'll get to see how it will go down—before it happens. Let's start with all of Thursday's action...
No. 9 Florida State (18-13, 7-9) vs. No. 8 Wake Forest (17-12, 7-9) 12:00 ET
Both of these teams bring guard-oriented attacks into this game. But these aren't run-and-gun units, as both teams rely on length and defense to force turnovers and create easy baskets.
Florida State has fought through injuries all season long, and once again, Leonard Hamilton finds himself squarely on the hot seat. Still, Toney Douglas is a great leader at point guard and is atop the ACC in steals. Jason Rich and Isaiah Swann have the ability to score at any time. And Uche Echefu is a presence inside as one of the league's shot blockers; he also shoots 82.8% from the free throw line.
Wake has a ton of young talent and—partially due to a super recruiting class—should be near the top of the conference next season. Ishmael Smith is underrated as a point guard; his passing is top notch and his speed in the open court remind many of Ty Lawson at North Carolina. Fabulous freshman James Johnson is beginning to come into his own as a scorer, but Wake's biggest problem has been its perimeter shooting, as the Demon Deacons are dead last in the league from three-point range.
With the way these two teams play, this game should be fairly sloppy. If it comes down to foul shots, Florida State has an edge as the ACC's leader from the charity stripe. But Ishmael Smith is due for a monster game and FSU has underachieved all year.
PREDICTION: WAKE 64-58
No. 12 NC State (15-15, 4-12) vs. No. 5 Miami (21-9, 8-8) 2:30 ET
NC State made a Cinderella run a season ago to the tournament finals. Not gonna happen again this year.
The Wolfpack returned much of that team, but the one player they're missing, former point guard Engin Atsu, has turned out to be the piece that had held them together. All year long, they have struggled to find a point guard, and an adequate one has yet to surface. With all the talent inside—Brandon Costner, Ben McCauley, and all-ACC freshman JJ Hickson—this team is an enormous disappointment.
Miami, on the other hand, has been superb after being picked dead last in the preseason. Jack McClinton is a great shooter and scorer, and the combo of Dwayne Collins and Anthony King down low has proven to be a huge asset in a conference that is mostly devoid of depth on the interior. Frank Haith's coaching job with this squad cannot be understated. This is also a team that knows how to win big games, having beaten both Duke and Clemson earlier this season.
No amount of red in Sidney Lowe's sport coat could milk a Wolfpack victory out of this one. With an NCAA Tourney bid on the line, I like the Canes. Big.
PREDICTION: MIAMI 82-66
No. 10 Virginia (15-14, 5-11) vs. No. 7 Georgia Tech (14-16, 7-9) 7:00 ET
This is a showdown between two teams that played in a thriller at the "Thriller Dome" (how fitting) in Atlanta just a week ago.
The Cavaliers won that game by two on the back of Sean Singletary; this guy is the real deal. He had his jersey retired on Sunday at his Senior Night ceremony, and who can argue with that decision? He has over 2000 career points and is constantly making plays with the shot and the pass.
Tech is as explosive as any team in the conference; the problem is that its defense makes other teams nearly as explosive. If Tech can play defense, it can be a very dangerous team in this tournament. With Gani Lawal and Jeremis Smith, the Yellow Jackets have a physical front line. Anthony Morrow is a great spot-up shooter, and Matt Causey is the ultimate energy player off the bench.
As much as I love Singletary, the role players haven't been consistent enough this season. Tech will win in a close one, then strike fear into Duke in the quarterfinals.
PREDICTION: GT 74-71
No. 11 Boston College (13-16, 4-12) vs. No. 6 Maryland (18-13, 8-8) 9:30 ET
Maryland is reeling; Boston College isn't very good. This matchup is loathsome for a nightcap.
The Terps desperately need a win to even be in the picture for a tournament bid after ending the season by blowing a 20-point lead in embarrassing fashion at home against Clemson and losing at Virginia in an uninspired performance. This team has some pieces that make it formidable; Greivis Vasquez is a playmaker at the point, and James Gist scares opposing coaches with his length and athleticism.
Boston College has Tyrese Rice. After that, it's an assortment of random freshmen that aren't ready to take on large roles yet. Rice is still a huge problem for defenses because of his ability to create off the dribble or rise up and shoot from the perimeter. The other guys will have to take on some of the scoring load, because one guy isn't going to do the trick. Remember, Rice dropped 46 on North Carolina a couple of weeks ago and the Eagles lost.
The Terps will have plenty of motivation to play well in this game, and I think they will. Look for Rice to score a ton and for BC to show its lack of weapons.
PREDICTION: UMD 80-69
In Part Two we'll take a look at Friday's action, when the field is trimmed to eight.