PEMBROKE PARK, Fla. - As the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament tips off Tuesday at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, here are 10 things to look for heading into Saturday's championship game and whether Miami is a legitimate contender to take home the trophy.
1) Virginia is the ACC regular-season champion, but it still feels like Duke is the team to beat. The Cavaliers are the nation's top-ranked team and went 17-1 in conference play with the No. 1 defense in all of Division I hoops. Despite that, though, Duke is well-positioned to cut down the nets for the 15th time under longtime head coach Mike Krzyzewski. No other team has had such a successful run in the ACC Tournament since Krzyzewski took over during the 1980-81 season. Even though Duke has seemed more susceptible to the upset in recent years, the Blue Devils always seem to play their best come tournament time. Duke finished second behind Virginia to earn the No. 2 seed, which means the Blue Devils will have a double-bye before playing their first game. Plus, they've got the ACC player of the year in freshman Marvin Bagley III.
2) Defense wins ballgames … or does it? Virginia may take the cake in that category, but Duke has a legitimate case. The Blue Devils have risen from 108th nationally in defensive efficiency in early January to 10th overall. Oh, and Duke is No. 3 in offensive efficiency. In other words, the defense keeps getting better and the offense is equally as good or better than it has been.
3) Look out for Miami. The Hurricanes carry a four-game winning streak headed into the tournament, highlighted by a buzzer-beater against then-No. 9 North Carolina. Suddenly, the 'Canes are looking like the team many figured they would be at the start of the season. Miami got off to a good start, going 11-1 in non-conference play, but the 'Canes struggled against conference opponents for much of the season and were .500 in ACC play before winning their last four games. The result was good enough to earn them the No. 3 seed and a double-bye in the tournament. Not bad for a team that experienced ACC fatigue most of the season.
4) Don't discount Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish will get a big boost with the return of Bonzie Colson, who missed 15 games with an injury. Colson returned last week, averaging 18 points and eight rebounds. Notre Dame is 12-4 when Colson is in the lineup, meaning the Irish have a good chance to dispose of Pittsburgh and Virginia Tech headed into a Thursday night meeting with Duke. Remember when Notre Dame knocked off Duke in the 2015 ACC Tournament semifinals and went on to win the title?
5) Is North Carolina a contender? Usually, the Tar Heels are never a team to overlook in the ACC Tournament. But this just doesn't feel like that's the case this year. Yes, UNC has had the most success outside of Duke, winning 18 championships to Duke's 20 since the tournament began in 1954. But the Heels are as streaky as they come. UNC has struggled on the road, losing back-to-back games at Florida State and Virginia in January. After winning their next four, the Heels lost three straight at Virginia Tech, at home against North Carolina State and at Clemson. The Heels won six in a row thereafter, but they fell out of one of the coveted top-four seeds with consecutive losses to Miami and Duke. UNC still has one of the ACC's top scorers in Joel Berry II, but when he's off, so is his team. Only once has UNC notched a "W" when Berry failed to score 10 or more points in a game.
6) The ACC could send as many as 11 teams to the NCAA tournament. That, of course, depends on how this week plays out. A good rule of thumb for ACC teams looking to punch a ticket to the big dance is to win 20 games and finish at least .500 in conference play. That means Virginia, Duke, Miami, Clemson, NC State, UNC, Virginia Tech and Florida State are a lock. Louisville is 9-9 in the ACC and needs a win in the tournament to get to 20 on the season. Syracuse and Notre Dame will likely need to win at least one game to get in. If all goes well, that would leave just Boston College, Georgia Tech, Wake Forest and Pittsburgh on the outside. Overall losing records eliminate the latter three. The Eagles are likely bound for the also-ran National Invitational Tournament.
7) Florida State needs another win to feel better about its NCAA tournament chances. The Seminoles are probably going to make the tournament, but they haven't looked very good in their last three games. They lost miserably at NC State and Clemson and fought their way to a win against BC in their home finale, trailing most of the game. How FSU fares in the ACC Tournament will determine what seed the Seminoles are slotted in the NCAA tournament.
8) Why bother, Pittsburgh? The Panthers, once a perennial favorite to make the NCAA tournament, went 0-18 in the ACC this season. That's historically bad. To make matters worse, Pitt scored 7 points in the first half of a lopsided 66-37 loss to Virginia. Pitt got more than half of its points (4) from the foul line. The Panthers trailed 30-7 at halftime. That game was less than two weeks ago. Yikes! The only way they win the ACC is if they win the tournament. For the ACC's sake, that can't happen. But who really thinks it will happen?
9) Does winning the ACC Tournament really matter? This is a matter of perspective. Some argue it's better to be ousted early and get healthy in time for the NCAA tournament. Others believe conference tournament structures are a better reflection of how a team will perform in the tournament that follows. It mattered to FSU, which won its first and only ACC championship in basketball in 2012. It mattered to Miami the next year, when the Hurricanes won their first ACC title. Both teams had to beat a "blue blood" program like UNC in the championship game to do it. Remember, regular-season titles aren't officially recognized in the ACC record books. Chances are teams like Duke and UNC would gladly trade away an ACC trophy for the one that's awarded in April. But it's a matter of pride and a sense of accomplishment that would motive a team like fourth-seeded Clemson (0 championships in school history) to get the job done.
10) What does the ACC Tournament's future hold? This is the second of a two-year run at the home of the Brooklyn Nets. It's coveted exposure for a conference that was eager to shred its Southern image and expand its footprint into the Empire State. When the ACC expanded to add Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame, it was as much about geography as it was about improving the brand. For fans, going to New York is more of a destination than, say, Greensboro, North Carolina, but it's also a costly one. The tournament will return to its traditional stomping grounds of North Carolina in 2019 (Spectrum Center in Charlotte) and 2020 (Greensboro Coliseum), but beyond that has yet to be decided. Don't be surprised if the ACC returns to the Big Apple (Madison Square Garden, anyone?) again soon.
Copyright 2018 by WPLG Local10.com - All rights reserved.