With the bracket now set in stone, ACC fans are undoubtedly peeking at the schedule with foolish optimism thinking their team has enough in the tank to either make a shocking, magical run through the field, or has the talent to just show up and dominate whichever school is unlucky enough to be on the line across from yours. Okay maybe not Boston College fans, but everyone else has a least a hint of that “maybe we can” feeling about being crowned as the ACC Champion.
But in this season when there’s really no one to fully trust in the ACC, breaks are going to need to fall your way, whether you’re a heavy favorite or a capable underdog.
To the victors go the spoils, and the league’s top seed gets the benefit of facing the winner of Pitt and Syracuse on Thursday morning. Pitt beat Syracuse twice during the regular season, and for the Tar Heels, that’s a good thing because the last thing I’d want to see if my backcourt is Marcus Paige, Joel Berry, and Nate Britt is a 2-3 zone that forces a bunch of shots from the perimeter in my opening game when I’m getting used to the surroundings. Pitt has nothing to keep pace with UNC, but Syracuse would concern me, even though the Heels were 2-0 against the Orange during the season. UNC was 9-41 from three point range in those two games, and that’s gross. Go Pitt.
What I also don’t like, if I’m North Carolina, is having the winner of Notre Dame and (likely) Duke in the next round. The Tar Heels will love facing whichever defense advances out of that game, but UNC should be concerned about facing any team with a better backcourt in March, and guess what, both Notre Dame and Duke have better backcourts than North Carolina. The Heels were 1-2 against these two teams during the year, and both have the capability of simply outscoring North Carolina if either team hits their season average from three point range. Based on depth alone, it’s probably best to hope for a Duke team who would have already played two games in two days.
In the finals, anyone but Virginia please. Literally any team in the bottom half of the bracket would do, other than Virginia. If Pitt wins on Wednesday, if Notre Dame or Duke don’t make shots on Friday, and Virginia loses in the bottom half, the Heels should cruise through to a championship.
Duke can beat either Wake Forest or NC State, but Cat Barber is one of the best players in the league and it’s always best to avoid a player like that in a single-elimination tournament. A Wake Forest win over the Wolfpack would be extremely unlikely, but helpful to Duke nonetheless.
For Duke to beat Notre Dame, or UNC for that matter, they’ll need to stay out of foul trouble and get to the free throw line. That means they’ll need to get calls on both ends of the court, and counting on referees in the ACC to be consistent is not typically a winning formula. The only good news for Duke against Notre Dame is that they’re not terribly physical, so they could have some legs left against the Tar Heels if they make it through to Friday. Obviously the biggest break that could go Duke’s way is for North Carolina to flame out on Thursday. Both Pitt and Syracuse beat Duke in the regular season, but Duke would take either of those two teams 100 times out of 100 if it means they don’t face North Carolina.
If the breaks go Duke’s way and if they’re hitting shots, they have a shot at making it through to the ACC Championship. Four games in four days will be a tough task for a team with 6 and a half players, so there’s really not a matchup that favors Duke from the bottom half of the bracket. Definitely not Virginia, and definitely not Miami. Miami is probably the worst matchup in the field for Duke, so really the only thing to hope for if Duke makes it to Saturday is to play a team making their own improbable run from the night sessions. Even then, it’s going to have to be a team like Clemson or Virginia Tech playing for their NCAA tournament lives, and that’s not an ideal situation to be in. Duke can get to Saturday with a little help, but a championship would require almost everything breaking Duke’s way.
The Wolfpack can beat Wake without any help, but would need Duke to turn in a Pitt-like performance to get through to face Notre Dame. The Wolfpack would need to make shots, and at this point in the season, maybe you could classify that as “getting breaks” because Maverick Rowan and the Martin twins have not been great shooting the basketball. Then they’d need to hit everything against Notre Dame the next night while the Irish miss shots. As we saw yesterday, Notre Dame can forget to play defense at times, but they don’t typically forget to score. That’s a problem for State, but it could happen.
Should the Pack get through Duke and Notre Dame, the only way they’re seeing Saturday is if they’re playing Pitt on Friday. I’m not even sure who I’d pick for State to play in the championship, even though they destroyed Miami during the regular season. It’s a tall order for the Wolfpack, for sure. They’ll need their opponents to be bad, which might happen once or twice, but for it to happen four times? Yikes.
As with all four teams playing on Tuesday, it’s going to take A LOT to have a chance at a deep run. They can beat NC State with a little help from the Wolfpack in the form of missed shots and careless turnovers, and they might be able to beat Duke if the Blue Devils can’t hit as well. Even with everything going their way, I don’t see them getting beyond those two games. They just don’t have the horses to take advantage of the breaks if they do fall in Wake’s favor.