With N.C. State’s win over Xavier on Wednesday night, the Atlantic Coast Conference has 5 teams in “the big dance”–or at least, 5 in the official final 64. As you analyze each of those five, however, you’re left to wonder if any of them will survive the first full weekend and even make it to the “Sweet Sixteen.” I suspect two will at most, and would not be shocked if none of them did. I don’t see any Final Four potential – let alone National Championship bona fides – anywhere in the league this year.
In addition to the Wolfpack, who barely squeaked into the now expanded field, Syracuse and Duke are not even close to playing their best basketball at the moment, and they were the league’s marquee teams most of the season. In fact, the Orange had been atop the national polls for quite a while. North Carolina was on a late season tear, but they’ve now lost two in a row, and looked pretty bad against NIT-bound Pitt in the ACC tournament. Meanwhile, Virginia did win the regular season and the tournament title in the conference, but the Cavs have been poor outside the league this year–and one could make a case that winning in Greensboro was their pinnacle.
Here’s a look at each, including the obstacles they’ll face in their respective regionals.
VIRGINIA, number 1 seed in the East: The Cavs should dispatch of 16th seeded Coastal Carolina, but they could run into trouble in the second round, facing the winner of Memphis and GW. Second rounds are often dicey for top seeds, as the lowest team you’ll see is a nine, and nines are often very good. The Cavs are playing their best now, the only league team who can make that claim, and I predict they’ll make it into the Sweet 16. The problem is, as well as they are playing now, they still don’t blow anyone out early, and in this format allowing lesser teams to hang around can get you an early flight home. If they win a couple, however, they’ll likely run into Michigan State, this year’s trendy pick to win the National Title, even as a fourth seed. That lack of respect could get the Cav’s riled up, but that prediction is for the second weekend.
NORTH CAROLINA is also in the East, as the number six: The Heels were on a red-hot roll late in the year, winning 12 in a row before losing at Duke 93-81 – then falling to Pitt in the ACC tourney 80-75. That score was deceptive, as Pitt lead by more than 15 most of the game. The Heels certainly take this year’s schizo award, as even during their poor early season, they managed to beat Michigan State and Kentucky, while losing to UAB among others. The problem for the Heels in this format is that it’s one and done, and while they can be very good, they can also be scary bad. Providence is not a friendly match up for them in round one, and Iowa State likely awaits them in the second round.
SYRACUSE is the third seed in the south: The Orange were the nation’s best team for a number of weeks, getting to 22-0 before losing. Once they lost, however, they made a habit of it–and they are the top team riding the biggest slump coming into the NCAA’s. A few weeks ago, a number 3 seeding would have been unthinkable. They lost a close game to N.C. State in their ACC Tournament debut, but the Pack led practically the entire game and appeared to be the better team for the second time this season in that match up. The ‘Cuse gets 14th seeded Western Michigan, no bargain at 14, in the opening round. If they can get by that one, the winner of Stanford–New Mexico–both very large teams, round two will not be a gimme either. Unless Jim Boeheim can find some of that early season magic, the Orange could exit early. At any rate, it’s hard to imagine them making a long run under any circumstances as Kansas would likely await them in the Sweet 16 and Florida is also in that region.
DUKE is an enigma, and the number 3 in the Midwest: They’ve been healthy, and their star freshman and star transfer have not disappointed in the least. As such, 24-8 and a 3 seed is extremely disappointing. This may be Coach K’s least effective job ever of putting his pieces together. Some late season line up changes simply do not make sense. However, those pieces are probably strung together well enough to beat Mercer in round one, but their second round might be deadly. There they’ll face the winner of UMass versus the winner of Wednesday’s play in game between Iowa and Tennessee. I could see Duke losing to any of those three, and no doubt UMass would be steamed after Coach K’s comments about the Atlantic Ten. Even in the best case, Louisville, Michigan or a very real Wichita State team would seem too good at this point for Duke to beat. The Final Four was dubbed the Duke Invitational in the 90s. Not this year.
N.C. STATE is the final team, as Midwest number 12: The ‘Pack, who was awful early, is actually playing very well now, and in T.J. Warren they might have the nation’s hottest player at the moment. In the ACC tournament, they had to suffer through a play in game–and the fatigue from that extra contest might have been the deciding factor in their loss to Duke. Still, they will have to defeat St. Louis, a 5, and likely Louisville, a 4, to make the Sweet 16. That double is highly unlikely. Anything past that is unspeakable.
As such, the conference that was built on basketball on Tobacco Road will likely not be a factor in the final few rounds of this year’s NCAA Tournament. This is ironic in a year when they produced a rarity for the league, the National Champion in football.