With so much quality depth this season, the 2016 ACC tournament is a wide-open affair that looks as unpredictable on paper as it has in years.
North Carolina looks like the best team on paper, boasting an incredible roster of talent, led by double-double machine Brice Johnson. Miami had the best overall record in the conference, and Virginia is the highest-ranked team in the current Associated Press Top 25.
While North Carolina and Duke have owned this tournament historically, neither team has cut down the nets since 2011 when they met in the championship game. Florida State, Miami, Virginia and Notre Dame have won the last four years, showing how deep this conference runs.
|Game||Date||First Round||Start Time (ET)||Network|
|1||Tuesday, Mar. 8||No. 12 North Carolina State vs. No. 13 Wake Forest||12 p.m.||ESPN2/ACC Network|
|2||Tuesday, Mar. 8||No. 11 Florida State vs. No. 14 Boston College||2 p.m.||ESPN2/ACC Network|
|Game||Date||Second Round||Start Time (ET)||Network|
|3||Wednesday, Mar. 9||No. 8 Pittsburgh vs. No. 9 Syracuse||12 p.m.||ESPN/ACC Network|
|4||Wednesday, Mar. 9||No. 5 Duke vs. Game 1 Winner||2 p.m.||ESPN/ACC Network|
|5||Wednesday, Mar. 9||No. 7 Clemson vs. No. 10 Georgia Tech||7 p.m.||ESPN2/ACC Network|
|6||Wednesday, Mar. 9||No. 6 Virginia Tech vs. Game 2 Winner||9 p.m.||ESPN2/ACC Network|
|Game||Date||Quarterfinals||Start Time (ET)||Network|
|7||Thursday, Mar. 10||No. 1 North Carolina vs. Game 3 Winner||12 p.m.||ESPN/ACC Network|
|8||Thursday, Mar. 10||No. 4 Notre Dame vs. Game 4 Winner||2 p.m.||ESPN/ACC Network|
|9||Thursday, Mar. 10||No. 2 Virginia vs. Game 5 Winner||7 p.m.||ESPN/ACC Network|
|10||Thursday, Mar. 10||No. 3 Miamivs. Game 6 Winner||9 p.m.||ESPN/ACC Network|
|Game||Date||Semifinals||Start Time (ET)||Network|
|11||Friday, Mar. 11||Game 7 Winner vs. Game 8 Winner||7 p.m.||ESPN/ACC Network|
|12||Friday, Mar. 11||Game 9 Winner vs. Game 10 Winner||9 p.m.||ESPN/ACC Network|
|Game||Date||Championship||Start Time (ET)||Network|
|13||Saturday, Mar. 12||Game 11 Winner vs. Game 12 Winner||9 p.m.||ESPN/ACC Network|
Tournament Favorite: North Carolina Tar Heels
The Tar Heels haven't been as consistently great as they were expected to be when the season started and they were ranked first or second in the major preseason polls.
Yet even with some hiccups against lesser competition like Northern Iowa and Notre Dame, North Carolina has never buckled in the face of adversity. The Tar Heels' roughest stretch was three losses in a five-game span, highlighted by a 74-73 defeat against Duke in Chapel Hill.
Just when it seemed like North Carolina's quest for an ACC regular-season title was going up in smoke, the team played its best game of the year in a 96-71 win over Miami. The Tar Heels ended the season on a high note, getting revenge against Duke in a 76-72 win at Cameron to lock up the ACC title.
After the Miami game, Jon Rothstein of CBS Sports made an astute observation about the Tar Heels:
North Carolina pounds Miami into submission in Chapel Hill. The Tar Heels' ceiling still looks greater than anyone else's ceiling right now.— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) February 20, 2016
This has been such a wild, unpredictable season in college basketball. Being ranked No. 1, or even in the Top 10, seems to be a curse, but North Carolina has stretches of brilliance that make it capable of winning three straight games in a tournament setting against top competition.
Overrated Contender: Duke Blue Devils
Since it's impossible to mention North Carolina without Duke, let's talk about the Blue Devils for a moment. The defending champions have turned things around after going 1-4 from Jan. 13 through Jan. 25, though their season ended on a down note against North Carolina.
There was a time when it seemed like Duke would struggle just to make the NCAA tournament. The Blue Devils are comfortably in the Big Dance, which is a testament to the job head coach Mike Krzyzewski has done with the team.
An early-season win over Indiana looks stronger now, but the Hoosiers are a completely different team than the one that took the court on Dec. 3. The Blue Devils did come out of a brutal stretch against Louisville (twice), North Carolina and Virginia 3-1.
But team has had major lapses, most recently laying an egg in a 76-62 loss at Pittsburgh.
Even with their wins over the ACC's Big Four—it's worth noting, Louisville isn't eligible for the ACC tournament due to self-imposed sanctions—Duke still has seven conference losses, including to borderline contenders like Notre Dame, Clemson and Syracuse.
Laura Keeley of the Raleigh News & Observer added an interesting nugget from Coach K about the Blue Devils after their loss against Pittsburgh:
K knew his team was tired, running on empty. Saw it in 2nd half vs FSU. Not surprised by today's result, especially when Pitt played so well— Laura Keeley (@laurakeeley) February 28, 2016
While it's not uncommon for a team to start feeling some fatigue near the end of a long season, it's problematic for Duke because this team doesn't have depth. Amile Jefferson's absence has left a huge void, as the senior forward averaged a double-double in nine games this year.
Being fatigued going into March, when games are bunched so close together, suggests Duke will likely be better equipped for the NCAA tournament by losing early in the conference tournament.
The Blue Devils certainly won't tank in an effort to lose, but wobbly legs will catch up to them before the ACC tournament is over.
Prediction: Virginia Wins ACC Title
Virginia is a fascinating basketball power because there's nothing about its style that fits in with the high-scoring offensive attacks employed by Duke and North Carolina.
Louisville isn't exactly an offensive juggernaut, yet its average of 76.6 points per game looks like Loyola Marymount circa 1990 compared to the Cavaliers. Head coach Tony Bennett's team is tied for 235th in points and 329th in rebounds per game this season.
Yet the Cavaliers never look overmatched because their defense is off-the-charts good. They are third in the nation in scoring defense, holding teams like West Virginia, Miami and Louisville under 60 points.
The Cavaliers also make their pace work, sitting 13th in offensive efficiency. They aren't incapable of scoring points in bunches, dropping 86 points on Villanova and 79 against North Carolina, giving them multiple ways to win games.
Making Virginia's rise this season more impressive is how it responded to adversity, highlighted by the rise of Devon Hall, as noted by Matthew Giles of the Washington Post on Feb. 29:
Since he became a starter, Hall has handed out 26 assists and committed just nine turnovers. The majority of his assists — nearly 40 percent, according to Hoop-Math.com — have resulted in a made three-pointer. It is difficult to stay in front of Hall, and adding a third ballhandler who can exploit seams in opposing defenses has made Virginia’s offense that much more explosive.
Malcolm Brogdon and London Perrantes are fantastic in the backcourt, combining to average nearly 30 points and 7.2 assists per game. Anthony Gill is terrific inside, shooting 56 percent from the field to go along with 6.1 rebounds per game.
Last year, Virginia was undone by a broken hand to Justin Anderson that left the star guard rusty heading into tournament play. Anderson is in the NBA this year, but the Cavaliers are a healthy and complete team right now.
The presence of North Carolina, Miami and Duke makes it easy to overlook Virginia, but the Cavaliers are the ACC's most complete team and will secure their second conference tournament title in three years.