ACC Season Wrap-Up and Tournament Preview

Posted by mpatton on March 8th, 2012

First, here’s a quick preview of the ACC Tournament. You can find the rest of the power rankings after the jump.
The two Thursday games you should keep a close eye on are Clemson – Virginia Tech, and Wake Forest – Maryland. I trust Miami and NC State will have no trouble putting away their opponents, though Georgia Tech has played a couple of very good games this year.
While North Carolina is the prohibitive favorite, I think Florida State probably has the second best chance. Hear me out: Duke is playing without Ryan Kelly, which means the Plumlees and Hairston are it inside; factor in a history of ignoring the conference tournament for North Carolina combined with Kendall Marshall feeling “tired,” and I think you’ve got a recipe for a team not from North Carolina to win the ACC Tournament for the first time since Maryland in 2004.
I also expect strong runs from bubble teamers NC State and Miami, as both try to secure their at-large hopes with another marquee win.
  1. North Carolina (27-4, 14-2) – It’s funny how the difference between a successful season can come down to one game. Had North Carolina lost to Duke at Cameron, people would’ve pointed to the Tar Heels’ lofty preseason expectations and how they came up short. Instead, Roy Williams’ squad finally showed the world just why it was ranked so high early in the season. Kendall Marshall hit shots, the defense clicked and the game felt over by the first media timeout. Now the Tar Heels have the inside track for a one-seed, owning the head-to-head victory with Michigan State that will definitely come in handy. There are still legitimate questions about North Carolina’s intensity, but if that intensity is in the ballpark of Saturday night opponents should be scared. Don’t pencil the Tar Heels into the Final Four before seeing the ACC Tournament. This team’s worst enemy until the final weekend will be itself. One person in particular to keep you eye on is Marshall. He was snubbed from first-team All-ACC (he missed by two votes), so I expect him to come out aggressively Friday. He’s also shows recent offensive improvement, coming up with two of his best performances of the year in rivalry games against NC State and Duke. When he’s taking and hitting open looks, the Tar Heels are impossible to guard.
  2. Duke (26-5, 13-3) – Duke’s season is hard to judge. The team finished where everyone expected, but from the get-go, it’s been very clear this team isn’t as good as years past. Even in 2009-10, when many complained Duke wasn’t a worthy one-seed, Duke finished the season atop of Ken Pomeroy’s rankings. The difference this year is defense. The team’s best two defenders are Tyler Thornton and Austin Rivers. That’s a pretty big drop from one to two (and Thornton is a nonfactor on offense). But regardless of their flaws, the Blue Devils won 26 games including wins over Kansas, Michigan State, North Carolina and Florida State (all of which coincidentally came away from Cameron Indoor). That’s a great season by any standards. The season also included two blowout losses against the Tar Heels and at Ohio State. Both times Duke ran into a buzz saw. Combine questionable perimeter defense with two incredibly good teams knocking down shots, and that’s the recipe for a beatdown. And although there’s no such thing as a “moral victory” for a team trying to earn a one-seed, give Duke credit for not quitting in the second half against North Carolina Saturday. After being down 24 at the half, it would’ve been very easy to throw in the towel. But Duke came back to cut the lead to 11 with two opportunities to make it single digits with about five minutes left: Seth Curry’s three didn’t fall and Rivers’ foul shots missed their mark, but give Duke credit. Also give North Carolina credit for closing out the game the way top teams should. It’s very clear that while Duke could lose in the round of 32, the team could also make a run to the Final Four if threes are falling.
  3. Florida State (21-9, 12-4) – The Seminoles are a group with a very wide range of performance. They notched their most dominant and impressive win of the year against North Carolina early in conference play, winning by a stunning 33 points. They also knocked off Duke in Cameron, matching the Blue Devils shot for shot down the stretch. For the first half of conference play, they actually owned one of the league’s most offenses thanks to a strong post tandem of Okaru White and Bernard James and blistering three-point shooting from Deividas Dulkys, Michael Snaer and Ian Miller. Miller in particular gave a real spark to the team’s offense after gaining eligibility this semester. His defense has also improved dramatically over the course of conference play. But there’s a second side to the Florida State coin. In nonconference play and their season opener (a 20-point drubbing at Clemson) the Seminoles looked horrendous. They went 0-2 against the Ivy League. Even after the hot start put the Seminoles in control of their own destiny, they coughed up a game against Boston College. That inconsistency is what worries me about this team. They may have peaked too early. That said, this is a very experienced team. It’s been to a Sweet 16. This is the senior class’ fourth straight NCAA tournament. I would give Florida State the second best odds of winning the conference tournament, especially given Ryan Kelly’s sprained foot. I’m excited to see how well they play in Atlanta this weekend. They should have more fan support than ever between the team’s recent success and the tournament’s location.
  4. Virginia (22-8, 9-7) – The Cavaliers never got into that next gear in conference play. After a very, very strong nonconference season (they were one bad loss to TCU at the very beginning of the season from starting 14-0 heading into ACC play). The biggest issue was roster continuity. KT Harrell and James Johnson transferred early in the year, shrinking Tony Bennett’s rotation. Then Assane Sene broke his foot, leaving the team without a true five. Sene wasn’t a big factor on offense, but he was a very good shot-blocker and the team’s second leading rebounder. Impressively, even without Sene, Virginia is still one of the top defensive teams in the conference. Luckily, Mike Scott surpassed all expectations. Scott played one of the top-ten offensive seasons in the country. He was the team’s first and second option on offense, running the pick and roll to perfection thanks to a decent handle and automatic mid-range jumper. He had a couple of poor games, most notably in losses to North Carolina, but was a rock for this team all season. For the life of me I don’t understand how he didn’t touch the ball in their penultimate possession in the loss to Florida State. Virginia’s best win of the season by a country mile is against Michigan in the ACC-Big 10 Challenge. Tony Bennett’s team should be a virtual lock for the Big Dance at this point, but another decent win certainly wouldn’t hurt (especially seed-wise). Unfortunately, they drew NC State in their first ACC Tournament game, and NC State desperately needs the win for its own at-large hopes. All in all, Virginia should feel good about the season they put together considering the circumstances.
  5. NC State (20-11, 9-7)  – NC State desperately needs three wins in the conference tournament to guarantee an NCAA tournament bid (Miami winning a couple to get back into the RPI top 50 wouldn’t hurt either). This NC State team can hang with almost any team in the country going six men deep. The problem lies in the talent drop-off from its starters to its second team. The depth issue is magnified by the team’s quick pace that requires regular substitutions to keep players fresh and Richard Howell’s proneness to picking up quick fouls. The guy who’s been a no-show for significant portions of conference play has been Scott Wood. He’s critical to the team’s offense because his range opens up room for Howell and CJ Leslie to operate inside. That said, this team will go as far as Leslie and Lorenzo Brown can carry it. Leslie really picked up his play towards the end of conference play finally putting together a string of games that point to his virtually limitless potential. The tandem makes for a ruthless transition attack. But right now NC State’s resume has NIT written all over it (really its sweep of Miami is keeping both teams on the bubble). A win over Virginia would be nice, but I think the Wolfpack need to knock off the Tar Heels to feel safe on Selection Sunday.
  6. Miami (18-11, 9-7) – Miami would be in very good shape if they could’ve just beat NC State once. Between two good wins and Reggie Johnson’s injury (which kept him out of nonconference play), they’d look very good for an at-large. I still think the Hurricanes are in much better shape than NC State. The wins at Duke and against Florida State should hold a lot of sway with the committee. They’re definitely still on the bubble, but I think beating Florida State in the quarters would be enough to sleep easier. Maybe I’m a sucker for Florida schools (or it’s just my Reggie Johnson man-crush), but Miami is my first-day sleeper to win the ACC Tournament. Durand Scott and Malcolm Grant make up a strong backcourt, and Kenny Kadji compliments Johnson very well.
  7. Clemson (16-14, 8-8) – Brad Brownell needs to get to work on the recruiting trail. His success last year showed that he’s a more than capable coach when he has the right pieces. Unfortunately, this year the pieces weren’t all there. Sure Andre Young had a very good season, and Tanner Smith actually stepped up far more than I expected. But Milton Jennings showed flashes of greatness, but never fully clicked. Clemson got good conference wins, beating Florida State, Virginia and NC State at home. But they lost at Boston College and at Virginia Tech, two of the worst teams in the league. In the end, this team just never found that go-to guy. Jennings ended up stepping up and taking the shots, but he turned the ball over too much and didn’t shoot particularly well. The Tigers have a shot to avenge their loss to the Hokies this evening.
  8. Maryland (16-14, 6-10) – Maryland needs more bodies and a point guard. Mark Turgeon is in a tough spot because he doesn’t want to give Terrell Stoglin a permanent green light to shoot. But there’s no other choice. After Pe’Shon Howard’s season-ending injury, the Terrapins ran out of ball-handlers. The fact is Maryland needs Stoglin to put up 20-25 a game to have a chance. Alex Len proved to be at least a year away from being much more than an effective shot-blocker who is dangerous when he runs the floor. Maryland won exactly one game over a league team with a record better than .500 in conference play (of the ten games played against such opponents).
  9. Wake Forest (13-17, 4-12) – The Demon Deacons were significantly better this year than last year. They won three more conference games, including a season sweep of Boston College. A lot of that improvement should be credited to CJ Harris, who improved to become one of the top offensive players in the conference. Thanks to him and Travis McKie, Jeff Bzdelik has a very legitimate pair of scorers as a foundation for next year’s team. Maryland is definitely a team Wake Forest can beat (for their first ACC Tournament win since 2007). They only lost by six on the road early in the year, and Maryland doesn’t have Howard.
  10. Virginia Tech (15-16, 4-12) – The Hokies had an awful year. No one expected this team to be at the bottom of the conference. Sure, I think people got a little over-enthusiastic (myself included) in the preseason when Seth Greenberg’s team was projected on the bubble. It only got worse after the Hokies finished their nonconference slate 11-3 with no bad losses. Yes, Greenberg brought in a top-25 recruiting class. But he lost Malcolm Delaney and Jeff Allen from a team that finished on the bubble last year. There was no way anyone should’ve thought that Allen’s post presence would be replaced that easily, or that Erick Green would suddnely morph into a first-team All-ACC player. Green had a great year. Dorian Finney-Smith turned out to be an ouststanding rebounder from day one. But the pieces just weren’t there. The crazies thing is things could’ve spiraled even more out of control. Can you imagine if Virginia Tech hadn’t upset Virginia early in ACC play? Yikes. Their game against Clemson looks to be a good one, as the two regular season match-ups were decided by a total of four points (each team won on its home court by two).
  11. Georgia Tech (11-19, 4-12) – It’s beginning to sound like a broken record talking about the schools at the bottom of the ACC, but Georgia Tech needs more talent. I picked the Yellow Jackets last in the preseason. After losing Iman Shumpert from last year’s five-win group, I knew they were in for a long year. I didn’t expect them to have to win two of their last three to get four conference wins though. Even more surprising is those wins came without the help of Glen Rice Jr., who was Georgia Tech’s best player by far early in the season. This team has two good wins, against VCU and at NC State, but I don’t see them winning tonight against Miami.
  12. Boston College (9-21, 4-12) – Boston College got gutted last year. In addition to several seniors graduating, Reggie Jackson left for the NBA. That means this year Steve Donahue starts one junior and four freshmen. There are seven freshmen on the roster. Having watched the Eagles play, I think Donahue did a very good job given the cards he was dealt. Under-talented teams need experience to win games, but he managed to steal four wins during conference play including a jaw-dropper at home against then-top-dog Florida State. At this point I don’t think there’s any question that Donahue can coach. He does need to prove he can attract ACC-caliber talent on a consistent basis though. The bright spot for the Eagles during conference play was Ryan Anderson. Anderson was the only other clear choice for the All-Freshman team along with Austin Rivers. He’s still got a lot of work to do, but I think Anderson and Patrick Heckmann–who’s been sidelined with mono for most of ACC play–are two good building blocks going forward.
mpatton (576 Posts)

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