Coming into the ACC tournament, the common thought was that arch-rivals Duke and North Carolina would be headed straight for a showdown in the championship game.
The one-seeded Tar Heels and the two-seeded Blue Devils both had byes on Thursday and are on opposite sides of the bracket, so a Sunday showdown is theoretically possible.
But is it probable?
The two teams were the only real contenders for the regular-season title, and their game in Chapel Hill last weekend gave the Tar Heels the regular season title. However, come tournament time, records and standings come to mean a lot less.
The young Tar Heel team learned about postseason play the hard way on Friday, almost losing to a Miami Hurricanes team that managed to come back against the Virginia Cavaliers on Thursday.
The Tar Heels were down by as many as 19 in the second half before a combination of hot shooting and intensified defense put North Carolina in position to win on a buzzer-beating lay-in by center Tyler Zeller.
This close win brings into question whether the Tar Heels will be able to make it to Sunday's championship round. With such an exasperating comeback, it will be difficult for UNC to match their intensity on Saturday, much less win the game.
The Blue Devils had a close call of their own on Thursday as they eventually pulled out a victory over the pesky Maryland Terrapins. This was largely in part due to the best individual performance of the tournament so far by Senior All-ACC Kyle Singler.
Singler had 29 points and nine rebounds while shooting 10-15 from the field and converting all nine of his free throws.
However, it wasn't all sunshine and daisies for the Blue Devils. ACC Player of the Year Nolan Smith injured some part of his foot in the second half and did not return to the game. Smith, who was 2-11 from the field and had only seven points with five turnovers, was barely a factor at all in the game, despite playing 31 minutes.
Coach K was unclear about the nature of Smith's injury, saying "I'm not sure about Nolan's status for tomorrow. We won't know about that probably until tomorrow morning. He wasn't able to come back into the ballgame, so we're concerned about that."
This is sure to be a blow for Duke, who are already lacking in the back court.
Freshman Kyrie Irving went down after eight games this season. Irving was seen shooting around with the Blue Devils prior to game time, but head coach Mike Krzyzewski insists it is just a part of his recovery process.
"There's no timetable on him. He's not going to magically appear tomorrow or anything like that because he hasn't done anything with the team."
Coach K did say that Irving has progressed well in his rehab; they are just taking advantage of being in a gym and practicing.
If Duke is going to progress to Sunday, they will surely need a good performance out of sophomore Seth Curry, who added 11 points, three assists, three rebounds and three steals of his own. Curry also stepped in at point guard after Smith left with an injury.
Curry showed an adept ability at running the offense from the point.
As long as the Blue Devils receive production from Singler and their big men (Mason and Miles Plumlee had a combined 20 rebounds tonight) they should be able to advance, with or without Nolan Smith.
While the prospect of the potential matchup seems to be the elephant in the room, the players aren't acknowledging any significance of a tie-breaking game.
When asked about the potential matchup, ACC Freshman of the Year and North Carolina's leading scorer Friday Harrison Barnes insisted that Saturday's game came first. "If you look past the game you have next, which might have been what happened today, you end up having a situation like we had, so I’m just focusing on tomorrow’s game.”
UNC forward John Henson was a little more revealing, saying "if we get to the finals and if it's Duke then we're going to have a tough game because they're a good team. But we'll be ready for it."
It seems that after a season filled with so much parity, the only fitting end to ACC play would be for a good ol' fashioned Tobacco Road fight to decide the true champion of the ACC. The only question now lies with the teams. Will they be refreshed enough to make it through to the finals?
They'll surely face challenges on Saturday, but if they play like they did down the stretch on Friday, we may be in for quite a doozy on Selection Sunday.
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