ACC Conversation: Sweet Sixteen Preview

Posted by The ACC Team on March 27th, 2019

Rush the Court ACC microsite writers Brad Jenkins, Matt Auerbach and Mick McDonald got together this week to take a look back at the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament while also looking ahead to this week’s regional action.

Tony Bennett hope that Kyle Guy regains his shooting touch and leads Virginia to its first Final Four since 1984. (Amber Searls/USA TODAY Sports)

Brad Jenkins: Here we go. The ACC proved its strength at the top by putting five teams in the Sweet Sixteen. But before we discuss the outlook for those schools, any thoughts on the league’s two early exit squads — Louisville and Syracuse?

Mick McDonald: I was surprised Louisville lost the way it did, but who could have counted on Minnesota shooting the ball like that? I’m not sure the Gophers will EVER have another shooting night like that.

Matt Auerbach: Let me just reiterate for the eleven hundredth time how disappointing Syracuse’s season was. The Orange were never the team I expected them to be, and maybe that’s just on me. Certainly the absence of Frank Howard was an issue against Baylor, but this year was just wildly uneven for them from start to finish. As for Louisville, despite the tough finish to the year, I would call Chris Mack’s first year a success. With a strong recruiting class coming and the development of his young players — particularly Jordan Nwora — I expect a big year two for the Cardinals under Mack.

Mick McDonald: And yes, the future is very bright for the Cardinals. Chris Mack will have them in the top 10 in the next two years.

Brad Jenkins: Agreed. The Orange and Clemson must be the biggest disappointments in the league this year after returning their cores from a pair of Sweet Sixteen clubs a year ago. And Louisville is certainly headed for great things soon. Now on to the survivors. Let’s take a look at the ACC teams in action on Thursday this week, starting with Virginia in the South Region in Louisville. Thoughts on the Cavaliers’ chances there?

Mick McDonald: Look, Oregon wasn’t very good this year. Once Bol Bol got hurt, the Ducks didn’t really have an identity. But give Dana Altman credit. He figured out that they just needed to become a super-athletic, defensive freak type of team, with a great point guard in Payton Pritchard. They are the type of big, athletic club that can give Virginia’s offense trouble. Can Oregon score on Virginia? Not very likely. First to 50 wins?

Matt Auerbach: I still think Virginia is the favorite to win the Tournament, but I’m really a little worried about the Oregon match-up. The Ducks had a really poor overall season, but there is no denying they are currently playing some of the best basketball out there, particularly on the defensive end of the court. This game is tricky for me, because if both teams play their best, Virginia definitely wins — if not, Oregon may get them. I think if the Cavaliers win convincingly, they will rout the winner of Tennessee and Purdue on their way to the Final Four.

Mick McDonald: I’d like to see a statement game from De’Andre Hunter. He looked a little tentative in the Oklahoma game, and this is the type of game that will lend itself to taking over the offense at points. Also, Mamadi Diakite apparently finally putting all the tools together could not have happened at a better time. He looked fantastic in Virginia’s first two games and has given it that interior scoring option they have so badly needed.

Brad Jenkins: I admit that I was really worried when Virginia got down 14 points in the first half to Gardner-Webb. All I could think about was dreading having to go to the postgame presser and seeing those kids crushed again. Thankfully they pulled it together. And like Tony Bennett said, they defended like Virginia for 40 minutes against Oklahoma. I see them doing the same in Louisville and coming out OK. Any concerns about Kyle Guy’s sudden shooting slump?

Mick McDonald: Not really. He got some good looks against Oklahoma — they just didn’t go down. I worry a bit about him getting bullied and not being able to get open against Oregon, but if he gets enough open looks, he will knock some down. Shooters shoot, as the saying goes.

Matt Auerbach: I wouldn’t be concerned about Guy, but with the way Kenny Wooten is throwing shots back, Guy will need to make some perimeter shots — something he did better than just about anyone all year.

Brad Jenkins: Now on to the West Region semifinal rematch between Florida State and Gonzaga. Can the Seminoles pull off the upset again?

Mick McDonald: Florida State is good enough to beat any team in the country and I actually think they match up as well as a team can against Gonzaga. They have sufficient athletes to throw at Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke that should be able to rattle them. The key for me: Can Josh Perkins handle physical athletes like Trent Forrest, Terrance Mann and David Nichols that Leonard Hamilton? If he turns the ball over more than a normal rate, I like Florida State’s chances.

Matt Auerbach: Why not? They’ve been about as impressive as anyone else after the first weekend. Eleven deep, with that length and experience. I can certainly see it happening again, but not easily. People will focus on Killian Tillie playing this year, but the X-factor is Brandon Clarke — he’s almost a Seminole prototype on the other side, and I think he presents a lot of issues for Leonard Hamilton’s team on both ends.

Mick McDonald: Great point on Clarke, Matt. He is such a force on the inside, most teams have to be very worried about getting their bigs in foul trouble against him. The Seminoles have less of a worry because they are so deep.

Brad Jenkins: Hamilton’s guys shouldn’t be overwhelmed by the moment at all. They have only lost to North Carolina and Duke in the last two months, plus they beat the Zags last year. Although I think if Phil Cofer can’t go it hurts their chances — he’s one less mobile big to run at Clarke and Hachimura. I think they will take the game down to the wire but come up just short. Let’s move on to the Friday/Sunday brackets, starting with North Carolina facing a red-hot Auburn team in Kansas City.

Freshman star Coby White has North Carolina humming on all cylinders heading into this week’s Midwest Regional. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Mick McDonald: This might be the most entertaining game of the weekend, but I think it is a horrible match-up for Auburn. Good luck to any team that thinks it can run with the Tar Heels, and I am willing to guess that Bruce Pearl isn’t planning on switching up his style. Barring the Tigers making 15 three-pointers or something, I think North Carolina wins pretty handily here.

Matt Auerbach: That one may as well be played on roller blades — anyone still use those? The winner of this game will probably be in the 90s, and if it’s going to be Auburn, they’re going to need to hit between 12-15 threes. I think they will be able to score on North Carolina, but I know they won’t be able to slow down the Tar Heels either.

Brad Jenkins: I think as long as the Tar Heels take care of the ball, they will be fine. Auburn leads the country at forcing turnovers but is horrible on the defensive boards. The Tigers’ three-point shooting will keep things interesting, but I see the Heels with about a +10 edge on the offensive glass — enough for a comfortable win. Assuming they handle their business, what about the potential heavyweight bout with Kentucky if the Wildcats get there too?

Mick McDonald: I think Kentucky, without PJ Washington, is in trouble against Houston on Friday night.

Matt Auerbach: Unless Washington cuts that cast off of his foot, I don’t see Kentucky making it that far. And I do think Houston, with the way it defends on the perimeter, could present some challenges for North Carolina if that match-up materializes.

Mick McDonald: I agree. Houston hasn’t gotten enough credit this year for how good their guards are. Corey Davis is great, but Galen Robinson, Armoni Brooks and Dejon Jarreau are as solid a backcourt group as there is in the country.

Brad Jenkins: It would be sweet revenge for Roy Williams if the Tar Heels get Kentucky. Any chance of a letdown if it’s the Cougars on Sunday instead?

Mick McDonald: I think the Tar Heels will get the job done, but Houston giving them a game on Sunday would not surprise me at all.

Matt Auerbach: I actually think North Carolina would win easier against Kentucky, and that’s not taking anything away from the Wildcats or ignoring the first match-up, but Coby White is a completely different player than he was in December.

Brad Jenkins: I just think North Carolina is probably the most consistent team in the Tourney right now, so I would be shocked if they didn’t play well again this weekend. Give me the Tar Heels to advance, too. Finally, we have the two other remaining ACC teams facing off Friday night in Washington, DC. A lot of people are starting to doubt Duke after that close (lucky?) win over UCF. Virginia Tech has a decent chance here, doesn’t it?

Zion Williamson and Duke barely squeaked by UCF to stay alive and advance to the East Regional in Washington, D.C. (Gavin McIntyre/

Mick McDonald: Look, anyone who watched Duke this year knew how you could potentially beat the Blue Devils in the Tournament. Pack the lane; don’t let RJ Barrett and Zion Williamson get easy baskets; don’t turn the ball over; and force them into jump shots. Then have one of your players play the game of his life on offense. All of that happened for UCF and Duke still somehow found a way to win.

Matt Auerbach: I actually don’t think that they do. I LOVE Buzz Williams, but I think Central Florida, while exposing the fatal flaw of Duke, also may have awoken the Blue Devils a bit — like, this is for real here, we can go home after one bad game. The Hokies will go under every screen and dare Duke to beat them from deep, but I expect a big game from Cam Reddish, and a lockdown defensive performance from Duke. I think it’s a romp.

Mick McDonald: Virginia Tech can definitely give them a game. This Hokies team is talented and will not be afraid given their success in recent seasons against Duke. Also expect a good Hokies contingent since the game will be in DC as well. (Not to mention all the LSU and Michigan State fans that will hang around to root against Duke too.) The key for the Hokies will be keeping Kerry Blackshear out of foul trouble. They aren’t deep and don’t have a ton of size. With the way Barrett and Williamson attack the lane, it is going to be very important for Blackshear to not commit fouls helping on those drives. If he picks up two early, it could get out of hand.

Brad Jenkins: Buzz Williams will certainly plan on packing the paint to keep Duke out of the lane, albeit without a 7’6″ guy to protect the rim. It will be interesting to see if Coach K uses this week to design an offense to handle that strategy — one that doesn’t allow the Hokies to play 5-on-4 with Tre Jones unguarded in the corner. I also think this Virginia Tech squad has unique togetherness that will enable them to battle for 40 minutes and potentially have a great shooting night. I think it will be close, but Zion seems to always make a play to decide things so I think Duke may squeak by. If they do, who would be a better match-up for the Blue Devils — LSU or Michigan State?

Mick McDonald: LSU has an insane amount of talent, but I can’t imagine Coach K losing to a backup coach in the Elite Eight. Did you see how much LSU struggled when tactical genius (insert eye roll emoji) Mark Turgeon threw out a basic 2-3 zone over the weekend? They almost choked the game away because they looked like they had never seen a zone before.

Matt Auerbach: LSU has the athletes to match up with Duke, but can I see them actually winning what will undeniably be a close game? No. Michigan State is a classic sum is greater than the individual parts situation, and Tom Izzo is Tom Izzo, but I’m just not clear on how Matt McQuaid and Xavier Tilllman are checking Zion and Barrett. I think Duke rolls through DC.

Brad Jenkins: I think a big advantage for Duke would be that both LSU and Michigan State rely so much on their point guards to initiate offense, and we know what Tre Jones’ ball pressure does to those kinds of teams. Let’s look at the flip side. If the Hokies pull off the upset Friday, would they have enough left in the tank to win on Sunday?

Matt Auerbach: Agreed on Jones — I think if the Hokies can somehow beat Duke, I think they’d ride that momentum to beat either opponent. But I just can’t see it happening.

Mick McDonald: I would give Virginia Tech a solid chance on Sunday if they can pull off the Duke upset… they are a GREAT team with Justin Robinson healthy.

Brad Jenkins: Lastly, I’m curious what you guys think about this year’s Tourney overall. Yes, it’s been very chalky and mostly lacking in drama — other than what I witnessed in Columbia’s first game Sunday night — but the Tournament always delivers eventually. Are we set up for a lot of great games this weekend?

Mick McDonald: The Tournament has lacked buzzer-beaters and huge upsets so far, but it still has had some of each (Auburn vs. New Mexico State, Belmont vs. Maryland, Murray State and UC Irvine come to mind) and left us with what should be an excellent slate of games in both the Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight. I find it hard to believe — given the group of teams remaining — that we won’t have four excellent regional finals set for this weekend.

Matt Auerbach: I think the first weekend was just a microcosm of the entire year to this point. There was an obvious line of demarcation separating the elite teams from the average, and that played itself out with each region’s top three seeds advancing. That mild start to the tournament should set us up for a really dynamite upcoming slate and a tremendous Final Four.

Brad Jenkins: Agreed. There’s potential for a lot of rare Tourney outcomes; we could get four #1 vs. #2 seeds in the Elite Eight for the first time ever; we could see four #1 seeds make it to Minneapolis for the second time ever; and the ACC could be the second conference to place three teams at the Final Four. Which of those scenarios do we see as most likely?

Mick McDonald: I’d be pretty surprised if we got all four #1 vs. #2 match-ups in the Elite 8. It seems like at least one of those eight teams will go down. I think the four #1 seeds or three (or ALL FOUR?!!) ACC teams in the Final Four is a reasonable possibility.

Matt Auerbach: I would go with the three ACC schools making the Final Four as the most likely of the three — probably because I love Texas Tech’s chances coming out of the West, but also, because from the beginning of the season I thought the top three ACC squads were the three best teams in the nation.

Mick McDonald: We have some pretty interesting potential match-ups left too. K vs. Izzo in the East Final. Roy vs. Calipari in the Midwest Final. Tony Bennett vs. Matt Painter in the South — a battle between two of the best coaches in the country without a Final Four. A Florida State vs. Michigan rematch from last year, or how about a Mark Few vs. Chris Beard most underrated coach in the country match-up? Yeah, this weekend is going to rule. (Unless Virginia loses to Oregon. Then I quit.)

Matt Auerbach: Ha-ha — hang in there, Mick! Brad can lend you his defibrillator!

Brad Jenkins: Ha Ha! I can’t tell you how many friends/family were texting me about my health status during the Virginia/Gardner-Webb first half and the second half of Duke-UCF. That probably says more about me than I’m proud of, but it’s what I am. This has been an awesome conversation in advance of the Sweet Sixteen. Let’s make a point to chat again next week when hopefully, we have multiple ACC teams alive and still fighting to cut down the nets in Minneapolis!

Mick McDonald: Sounds good and enjoy the games, guys!

Matt Auerbach: Sounds good — and I sure think that we will — enjoy!

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