ACC Tournament 2020: Preview and Predictions for Every Team

Theo SalaunContributor IIIMarch 9, 2020

ACC Tournament 2020: Preview and Predictions for Every Team

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    While the dap shared by Roy Williams and Mike Krzyzewski ahead of the ACC's regular-season finale was impressively sanitary, their conference's tournament is sure to get sloppy. A bracket filled with scorching scorers and daunting defenses is destined for muddying under the tires of a streaky bottom seed with lofty aspirations.

    In what's almost a zen-like balance, the ACC boasts Virginia, which allow the fewest points per game in college basketball, and Duke, which average the second-most points per game. In what's, conversely, an obnoxious disruption of the natural order, North Carolina is a No. 14 seed with California redwood potential (and it would have been the No. 15 seed had Georgia Tech not casually stepped away for an NCAA postseason ban).

    It's the first time Florida State has won the ACC's regular-season title. It's the first time Louisville has placed as high as No. 3. And it may be the third time in four years that Duke wins the conference's tournament.

    In order of their official seeding, here are predictions for the ACC's 14 remaining teams in an unpredictable conference.

14. North Carolina Tar Heels

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    First matchup: No. 11 Virginia Tech (Tuesday, 7 p.m. ET)

    Prediction: Wins first three games, loses to No. 2 Virginia in semifinals

    If a healthy Cole Anthony can steal the (big) show, UNC may be this season's bid thief.

    Anthony, who averages 19.6 points, 5.7 rebounds and 4.1 assists, forms a potent scoring trident alongside Garrison Brooks (16.7 points, 8.8 rebounds) and senior Brandon Robinson (11.9 points). Their big, Armando Bacot, pitches in 9.6 points, 8.2 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game.

    The Tar Heels should first be able to defeat Virginia Tech, which beat them in a double-overtime thriller in January without Robinson or Anthony (despite Brooks putting up 28 points, 13 rebounds and six assists). Then they can beat Syracuse, which may not have its leading scorer, Elijah Hughes (dealing with a head injury), after already losing by 13 to UNC in a healthy February meeting.

    Then comes Louisville, which beat the Tar Heels by 17 in February thanks to 17 points from Malik Williams and an inactive Brooks. In a turn of the tables, Brooks is now healthy while Williams is working back from an ankle injury, so UNC can flip this bracket into chaos.

    Finally, UNC should meet its maker in a semifinal matchup with Virginia, which has beaten the relatively healthy Tar Heels in two meetings this season. Virginia's defense is absurd (it even held Brooks to six points in the first matchup, his second-lowest output on the season) and has won eight straight.

    Unless Anthony goes full hero mode, UNC's Cinderella story should end against a worthy, smothering adversary.

13. Pittsburgh Panthers

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    First matchup: No. 12 Wake Forest (Tuesday, 4:30 p.m. ET)

    Prediction: Loses first game                

    It's true that Pitt has some guys who can score the ball, and the Panthers only lost to Wake Forest by four in their January meeting. It's also true that Pitt is winless in its past seven games and that its bench was outscored 32-5 in the previous matchup with Wake Forest.

    Justin Champagnie, Xavier Johnson and Trey McGowens are having quality scoring seasons, but the team is just not deep enough to get past the Demon Deacons.

12. Wake Forest Demon Deacons

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    First matchup: No. 13 Pittsburgh Panthers (Tuesday, 4:30 p.m. ET)

    Prediction: Wins first game, loses to No. 5 NC State             

    There's no nepotism here; the coach's son just gets buckets. Brandon Childress, son of Wake Forest assistant coach and former ACC standout Randolph Childress, is averaging 15.5 points and 4.6 assists this season.

    French big Olivier Sarr has tacked on a complementary 13.5 points, 8.9 rebounds and 1.1 blocks per game.

    They're too good to lose to Pitt but won't have fun meeting NC State in the next round. The Wolfpack beat the Deacons by nine back in December despite Childress scoring 30, and they beat them again, this time holding Childress to 19 points, by 20 on Friday.

11. Virginia Tech Hokies

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    First matchup: No. 14 North Carolina (Tuesday, 7 p.m. ET)

    Prediction: Loses first game             

    Sure, Virginia Tech outlasted North Carolina 79-77 in a January double-overtime thriller behind a combined 40 points and 14 rebounds from guards Landers Nolley II and Jalen Cone.

    But UNC didn't have its two highest-scoring guards, Cole Anthony and Brandon Robinson. In their stead, Garrison Brooks put up 28 points, 13 rebounds and six assists.

    This time around, Anthony and Robinson should help turn what was already a narrow tide in UNC's favor.

10. Boston College Eagles

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    First matchup: No. 7 Notre Dame (Wednesday, 7 p.m. ET)

    Prediction: Loses first game

    The Eagles beat Notre Dame by one in December before losing by one in February. Both times, their top scorers, guards Jay Heath and Derryck Thornton, combined for 24-plus points.

    BC, dealing with a slew of injuries (including to brothers Jared and Jairus Hamilton), has lost its last five games. It would need a full roster to have a chance against Notre Dame, which ranks a full 118 spots higher on KenPom.com's adjusted efficiency margin and comes into the game having won four of its past six.

9. Miami Hurricanes

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    First matchup: No. 8 Clemson (Wednesday, 12 p.m. ET)

    Prediction: Loses first game

    Star guard Chris Lykes, who is averaging 15.2 points for the Hurricanes on the season, is out indefinitely with face injuries. The 27 points from him they needed to outmatch Clemson by five points in their lone meeting, an overtime contest back in January, will be sorely missed.

    Guards Dejan Vasiljevic and Kameron McGusty can score in bunches, as can scoring spark Isaiah Wong (who chipped in 18 points, nine rebounds and four assists in an overtime win against Syracuse on Saturday). But Lykes' production is too much to replace against an otherwise evenly matched and healthy Clemson team.

8. Clemson Tigers

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    First matchup: No. 9 Miami (Wednesday, 12 p.m. ET)

    Prediction: Wins first game, loses to No. 1 Florida State in quarterfinals

    Either forward Aamir Simms (13.0 points, 7.1 rebounds) or guard Tevin Mack (12.3 points, 5.2 rebounds) will need to step it up in order to beat Miami in the second round of the ACC tournament. That's reasonable. 

    But against Florida State in the quarterfinals, both should need to do so, or else some others will have to carry the load. That's less reasonable.

    The Tigers lost to Florida State by 19 in December before beating the Seminoles by one in February. In the win, they got 18 points apiece from guards Al-Amir Dawes and John Newman III. They'll require major surprises to beat Florida State again—an unlikely expectation with the Seminoles heating up and winners in six of their past seven.

7. Notre Dame Fighting Irish

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    First matchup: No. 10 Boston College (Wednesday, 7 p.m. ET)

    Prediction: Wins first game, loses to No. 2 Virginia in quarterfinals          

    With balanced scoring and a robust presence on the glass, the Fighting Irish boast four players averaging double-digit points this season. Their top scorer, John Mooney, complements his 16.5 points with 12.7 rebounds per game. 

    They lost to Boston College by one in December and then won by one in February on the back of 22 points and 12 rebounds from Mooney. The Eagles had no answer for him during that latter matchup, and they shouldn't on Wednesday, either.

    But Virginia is a different challenge, and the nation's strongest defensive team should suffocate Notre Dame in the quarterfinals.

6. Syracuse Orange

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    First matchup: No. 14 North Carolina (projected, Wednesday, 9 p.m. ET)

    Prediction: Loses first game                  

    One of the teams unfortunate enough to succumb to a relatively healthy UNC squad, the Orange lost to the Tar Heels by 13 in late February thanks to a combined 51 points from Garrison Brooks and Cole Anthony.

    Now, Syracuse's star forward, Elijah Hughes, who is averaging 18.8 points, 4.9 rebounds and 3.5 assists this season, is recovering from a head injury that forced him out of the team's overtime loss to Miami on Saturday.

    Marek Dolezaj is a steady, physical presence, but guards Buddy Boeheim and Joseph Girard III are streaky as can be. In the loss to Miami, the latter two went a combined 9-of-32 from the field. Syracuse can't defend Anthony or Brooks and, without Hughes, is too inconsistent to beat a UNC squad with newfound health.

5. North Carolina State Wolfpack

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    First matchup: No. 12 Wake Forest (projected, Wednesday, 2 p.m. ET)

    Prediction: Wins first game, loses to No. 4 Duke in quarterfinals               

    Balanced by four players averaging double-digit points this season, the Wolfpack are a much stronger team than anticipated heading into the ACC tournament.

    KenPom has them as the 51st-best team in the nation, and the NET rankings have them at No. 54. Wake Forest should be a comfortable win, having succumbed to NC State by nine in December and then by 20 on Friday. 

    But after losing by a shocking 22 to the Wolfpack in mid-February, Duke dominated them by 19 in March.

    Duke's March rotations and improved cohesion saw six players hit double digits while the team totaled 14 assists (only six in the first meeting) and an 18-rebound advantage (lost the rebounding battle by two in February). This run should end against an improved Duke squad that is arguably the favorite to win the conference tournament.

4. Duke Blue Devils

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    First matchup: No. 5 NC State (projected, Thursday, 2:30 p.m. ET)

    Prediction: Wins ACC tournament

    The ACC's No. 4 seed has won two of the last three conference tournaments and is averaging the second-most points in college basketball. On defense, it's holding opponents to the fourth-fewest three-pointers while earning the third-most blocks in the nation. 

    With a poised veteran point guard in Tre Jones and upsurging freshmen Vernon Carey Jr., Cassius Stanley and Matthew Hurt, Duke is an easy favorite to win its third ACC championship in four years. 

    It's no surprise the Blue Devils enjoy KenPom's highest probability to win the conference tournament, and their 40.6 percent chance is far higher than the 23.7 percent of Louisville and 17.9 percent of Florida State.

    First, they'll comfortably beat the Wolfpack in the quarterfinals, then the Seminoles in the semifinals. After that, by the might of Carey's unrelenting physicality, they'll take down Virginia in the ACC championship.

    They might not even need double-digit scoring from walk-on Justin Robinson if Hurt can drill some threes off the bench.

3. Louisville Cardinals

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    First matchup: No. 14 North Carolina (projected, Thursday, 9 p.m. ET)

    Prediction: Loses first game                             

    Jordan Nwora is a problem.

    At 6'7", the wing is averaging 18.0 points and 7.7 rebounds in his third college season, bolstered by a blistering 40.2 percent rate on three-point attempts (of which he has 6.1 per game). He is the reason Louisville is enjoying the highest seed it's ever had in the ACC tournament.

    His guards...are not. At least not on the offensive end.

    Nwora and center Malik Williams combined for 35 during the team's February domination of UNC, in which the Tar Heels were held to just 55 points. That's not shocking considering the Cardinals allow the 13th-lowest field-goal percentage in men's college basketball (38.9), the 39th-fewest assists per game and the 34th-fewest points per game (63.7). It's especially unsurprising as UNC was without Garrison Brooks.

    Dealing with an ankle injury, Williams played just seven minutes in the team's regular-season finale, which it lost to Virginia. In that same defeat, the team's four players under 6'6" who played 20-plus minutes struggled and combined for a paltry 17 points.

    If Williams is still hindered and the guards can't get it going on offense, then Nwora's heroics and the team's defense won't be enough to push past a healthy UNC team and into the semifinals.

2. Virginia Cavaliers

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    First matchup: No. 7 Notre Dame (projected, Thursday, 7 p.m. ET)

    Prediction: Wins first two games, loses to No. 4 Duke in ACC final

    Mamadi Diakite, Kihei Clark and Braxton Key are returning stalwarts from Virginia's 2019 NCAA championship run. But all three of last year's top scorers are now in the NBA, and while the team has leaned into its nation-best defense, the offense has dropped from 71.4 points per game in 2018-19 to 57.0 this season.

    Still, Diakite (13.7 points, 6.8 rebounds), Clark (10.8 points, 4.2 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.2 steals) and Key (9.9 points, 7.4 rebounds, 1.2 steals) man a ship that gives virtually no ground to opposing offenses.

    Aside from conceding the nation's fewest points per game, Virginia allows the second-fewest assists, seventh-fewest rebounds, fewest free-throw attempts and second-lowest field-goal percentage. "Smothering" is an understatement, and conversely, the impact of the team's experience in tournament play cannot be overstated.

    The Cavaliers held Mooney to just 11 points in their February win over Notre Dame. If they can nullify the Fighting Irish's best player again, they'll dismantle the team's lone fighting chance.

    Virginia has beaten UNC in both meetings this season by an average of 5.5 points despite facing a mostly healthy Tar Heels roster in both contests. It should earn another narrow win in the semifinals before suffering a close loss to Duke in the finals.

    Virginia did beat Duke by two in late February, but the Blue Devils have since moved Matthew Hurt to the bench, which has improved their rotations and scoring consistency. Star power and depth should lead to enough buckets to steal the tournament from the Cavaliers.

1. Florida State Seminoles

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    First matchup: No. 8 Clemson (projected, Thursday, 12:30 p.m. ET)

    Prediction: Wins first game, loses to No. 4 Duke in semifinals

    Another ACC team, another stout defense.

    The Seminoles have recorded the second-most blocks and the most steals in the nation. As a testament to their balance, they're also complementing the 73rd-fewest points per game allowed by averaging the 68th-most points per game.

    Devin Vassell, Trent Forrest and M.J. Walker form an outstanding core that has helped lead head coach Leonard Hamilton's squad to nine wins in its last 11 games and an outstanding No. 10 NET ranking on the season.

    The Seminoles should easily dispatch of Clemson (which has lost three of its last four) before meeting an unfortunate end at the hands of Duke in the semifinals. In their lone meeting this season, Duke beat Florida State by five in February thanks to an eight-point bench-scoring advantage.

    This team is balanced and dangerous, but the Blue Devils have a savvy, veteran guard in Tre Jones, plenty of young star power and a 6'9", floor-spacing bench spark in Matthew Hurt.

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