If you look at the 2016 NCAA tournament as a delicious feast of college basketball, then the conference tournaments that kick off the madness that is March make for some pretty satisfying appetizers.
Few, if any, of the myriad conference tournaments are more tantalizing than the upcoming ACC slugfest, which takes place over the course of five days at the Verizon Center in Washington D.C.
Virginia, North Carolina and Miami are all Top 10 teams and have secured byes straight into the quarterfinals. No. 17 Duke is in the rare position of dark-horse contender. The Blue Devils are up for the fourth and final double-bye seed, hoping to beat out Notre Dame.
Other teams capable of shaking things up are 20-win Pittsburgh and a solid 19-win outfit in the form of Syracuse. And, hey, what do you know, Virginia Tech has won four straight and could be very confident come tournament time.
The tournament could actually have been even more of a feverish gauntlet this year, but No. 11 Louisville won't be participating due to a self-imposed ban on postseason play this year.
Here's the schedule for the tournament and conference standings as of Friday, March 4.
|Date||Game No.||Matchup||Time (ET)||TV|
|March 8||1||No. 12 NC State vs. No. 14 Wake Forest||12 p.m.||ESPN2|
|March 8||2||No. 14 Boston College vs. No. 11 seed||2 p.m.||ESPN2|
|March 9||3||No. 9 seed vs. No. 8 seed||12 p.m.||ESPN|
|March 9||4||Game 1 winner vs. No. 5 seed||2 p.m.||ESPN|
|March 9||5||No. 10 seed vs. No. 7 seed||7 p.m.||ESPN2|
|March 9||6||Game 2 winner vs. No. 6 seed||9 p.m.||ESPN2|
|March 10||7||Game 3 winner vs. No. 1 seed||12 p.m.||ESPN|
|March 10||8||Game 4 winner vs. No. 4 seed||2 p.m.||ESPN|
|March 10||9||Game 5 winner vs. No. 2 seed||7 p.m.||ESPN|
|March 10||10||Game 6 winner vs. No. 3 seed||9 p.m.||ESPN|
|March 11||11||Game 7 winner vs. Game 8 winner||7 p.m.||ESPN/ESPN2|
|March 11||12||Game 9 winner vs. Game 10 winner||9 p.m.||ESPN/ESPN2|
|March 12||13||Championship Game||9 p.m.||ESPN|
|Standings||Conference W-L||Conference %||Overall W-L||Overall %|
|No. 8 North Carolina||13-4||.765||24-6||.800|
|No. 7 Miami||13-4||.765||24-5||.828|
|No. 4 Virginia||12-5||.706||23-6||.793|
|No. 11 Louisville*||12-5||.706||23-7||.767|
|No. 17 Duke||11-6||.647||22-8||.733|
|ESPN.com, *ineligible for 2016 ACC Tournament play|
Top Contender: North Carolina
The Tar Heels are up for at least a share of the regular-season title if they win at Duke on Saturday. Like their last matchup, a 74-73 Duke win on Feb. 17, it should make for great television.
Even if UNC can't pull off the big win on Saturday and nab the top seed in the tournament, they should still be seen as one of the two teams to beat in Washington D.C.—the other being Virginia.
Led by talented senior forward Brice Johnson and senior guard Marcus Paige, UNC has the scoring ability and experience to come through when the pressure inevitably ratchets up in this tournament.
KenPom.com ranks UNC third nationally in offensive efficiency, just ahead of Duke and Notre Dame. Five of the team's top six scorers shoot better than 40 percent from the floor, and the team ranks 23rd nationally in field-goal percentage (48.1).
Johnson, a ferocious, hard-working presence in the paint, is liable to go supernova on any given night. He scored 29 points and pulled down 19 boards against Duke, then racked up 22 and 11 against North Carolina State on Feb. 24.
He's cooled off a bit in the team's last two games, but he brings an energy and competitiveness that the team can certainly feed off of in the big moments.
North Carolina does tend to relax against inferior competition and make games tougher than they need to be, much like it did on Monday in a 75-70 win against Syracuse.
Paige is averaging 12.1 points per game, but his scoring dipped as February came to a close. However, if he can provide the kind of inspiration he did with his speech on senior night against Syracuse and whip passes like the one seen in the following clip from ESPN College BBall, the team should be alright:
There is no way the Tar Heels don't at least pick up one win. A trip to the finals depends on how the seeding works out, but that too is a very likely outcome for this talented squad.
Quick Exit: Notre Dame
Notre Dame could still yet earn a trip straight to the quarterfinals if Duke blows it against UNC. But even if they do get that double-bye honor, the Fighting Irish are a good bet to crash out of the tourney not long after their first tip-off.
While they rank fifth in offensive efficiency per KenPom, the defense isn't nearly what it should be, all the way down at 193rd. This is concerning, especially since the Fighting Irish's offense has sputtered as they've lost three of their last four games.
Notre Dame's 68-50 loss to Miami at home was disheartening, and per the Associated Press' Tim Reynolds, it produced a rare scoreline:
But hey, Miami is a great team with an athletic defense. The 77-56 loss to Florida State should be more concerning to Notre Dame fans. The Seminoles jumped out to a 46-30 halftime lead in snapping a five-game losing streak.
The team's two leading scorers in Demetrius Jackson and Zach Auguste fared well in combining for 25 points, but the rest of the team shot just 11-of-35 from the floor.
On a team that has five players averaging in double figures, it doesn't bode well that only Auguste and Jackson are consistently getting buckets as of late.
Impressive wins over North Carolina and Louisville offer glimmers of hope that Notre Dame can make a run in this tournament, but both of those games came at home. Far from the friendly surroundings of South Bend, Indiana, a Notre Dame team limping to the finish line could get cut down quickly in the tournament.
It's the safe pick, but it feels like the right one. Virginia boasts a late-arriving player of the year candidate in senior guard Malcolm Brogdon, a stellar defense and the ability to drive other teams insane with their slow pace of play. According to TeamRankings.com, Virginia is averaging 62.7 possessions per game this year, ranking 351st out of 351 teams tracked.
The Cavaliers can afford to play at such a slow pace and still win regularly thanks to the exploits of Brogdon, who is averaging 18.5 points, 4.3 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game. He's been on quite the scoring binge in the stretch run, putting up at least 18 points in 10 of his last 12 games, including 28 points in a loss to Miami on Feb. 22 and 26 against UNC on Saturday.
Even though he's been having his way on offense as of late, Brogdon hasn't forgotten what really makes this team tick.
"I enjoy not having my opponent score and making it a terrible night for them more than I (enjoy) scoring points," Brogdon said after the 79-74 win over the Tar Heels on Saturday, per Bleacher Report's Kerry Miller.
He's not the only Cavalier who's made great strides this season. NCAA.com's Joe Boozell noted junior point guard London Perrantes' emergence as a reliable scoring threat has helped his team become the dangerous national-title contender it is: "Perrantes always had a (warranted) reputation as a clutch shot-maker, but he had a tendency to disappear early on in games. While the scrappy point guard is still as clutch as ever, he’s also now become a consistent third option in a good Virginia offense."
Perrantes is averaging 11.3 points per game and shooting 50.9 percent on three-pointers this season, up from 6.4 and 31.6 percent shooting from three last year.
Virginia has won 10 of its last 12 games, and those two losses came to Duke and Miami by a combined four points. In fact, all six of its losses this season have come by seven points or fewer. There is simply no putting one over on this team.
With Brogdon playing at the peak of his capabilities, Virginia has the talent and discipline to grind out three wins against tough competition and win the conference tournament.