ACC: Charting a path

Credit: UVa Media Relations
Credit: UVa Media Relations

Jim Sumner, ACC Columnist

It’s interesting how quickly we can move from conference tournaments to the NCAA Tournament. Barely three hours after Florida State cut down the ACC nets for the first time, the ACC Tournament ceded primacy to March Madness and the Office Pool.

But let’s not leave the ACC Tournament without a glance back.  Florida State edged Duke and North Carolina to capture the title, their first ACC Tournament championship.

The ACC has long needed someone to challenge the Duke-North Carolina hegemony. Leonard Hamilton’s team appears to be poised to do just that, although he’s going to have to sustain that success next season despite losing at least six rotation players.

Getting to the top is tough. Staying there is tougher.

But that’s for another day.  The Big Dance is on everyone’s mind.  The ACC ended with five teams, better than last year’s four but nothing that upsets the status quo. 

Miami was the ACC’s only near miss. The Hurricanes boasted wins over Duke and Florida State. But they lost twice to North Carolina State and dropped their ACC Tournament semifinal match to the Seminoles.  Star guard Durand Scott sat out that game after becoming the latest player ensnared in Miami’s seemingly endless benefits scandal.

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Upsets are the engine that drives the March Madness machine.  But no upset specials jump out in the ACC’s opening weekend brackets.

Virginia and North Carolina State are returning to the NCAAs after absences and neither is seeded to last very long.

The Wolfpack missed the tournament in all five of Sidney Lowe’s five seasons in Raleigh, so Mark Gottfried may be playing with house money.  He’s helped uber-athletic sophomore forward C.J. Leslie (left, courtesy Mark McIntyre) play with poise and focus and Lorenzo Brown has turned into the ACC’s second-best point guard.

State is seeded 11th in the Midwest and opens against San Diego State in Columbus, with Georgetown and Belmont in the other half of the bracket.

State needs something big from enigmatic bomber Scott Wood to have a chance.  If he has one of those five-for-seven games from downtown, anything can happen.  But Wood can just as easily disappear.

Virginia is back for the first time since 2007.  They’re seeded 10th in the West.

Virginia has lost six-of-its last 10. Wing Joe Harris broke his left hand and is playing with a soft cast.  Center Assane Sene was hurt and then suspended for the season, while guard Malcolm Brogdon is out for the season with a foot injury.

That leaves Tony Bennett with a thin, under-sized team with no NCAA experience.  Fifth-year senior forward Mike Scott is having an All-America-caliber season.  Virginia plays team defense as well as anyone and Bennett knows his way around a chalkboard.  No one outworks Virginia or out-toughs them.

But the Cavaliers open with a Florida team that outmatches them in almost every tangible area. So, Virginia must win the intangibles to have a chance. 

Missouri likely awaits the winner.  This pod is in Omaha, not exactly hostile territory for Missouri.

Florida State is Virginia with more talent.  The Seminoles bumped themselves into a three seed-in the East-with their ACC Tournament win.  This is their fourth consecutive NCAA appearance and they advanced to the Sweet Sixteen last season before losing a heartbreaker to Virginia Commonwealth. 

Florida State is 4-1 this season over North Carolina and Duke.  They’re in Nashville, opening with St. Bonaventure, the surprise winner of the Atlantic-10.  Florida State needs to make sure they put last weekend in their memory bank and move on.  But they seem too experienced to fall prey to the swelled-head syndrome.  Unless Bob Lanier has some eligibility remaining to team with Andrew Nicholson, the Bonnies shouldn’t pose much of a problem.

Cincinnati should handle Texas, to set up an intriguing ACC-Big East match.  The Bearcats stunned Syracuse in the Big East Tournament and they have the size to go toe-to-toe with Florida State.  A Bernard James-Yancy Gates matchup in the middle might be worth the price of admission itself.

But Cincinnati doesn’t shoot all that well and I see FSU’s defense, depth and momentum carrying them into the next weekend.

Florida State’s 4th consecutive NCAA appearance sets a school record. By contrast, Duke is dancing for the 17th consecutive season, 28 of the last 29. 

Duke played in Atlanta without forward Ryan Kelly, sidelined with a foot injury.  The second-seeded Blue Devils should be able to get by Lehigh in their South Region opener without Kelly but his range and smarts would come in handy in the second round.  Cautious optimism seems to be the mindset for Kelly’s return.

Speaking of coming in handy, a return to form for long-range specialist Andre Dawkins qualifies.  Dawkins has missed 13 of his last 14 shots in a five-game nightmare.  

Duke only scored 60 and 59 points in their two games in Greensboro. That won’t get them to New Orleans. But they’ve began to buckle down on D and big men Miles and Mason Plumlee are a load inside. Can Austin Rivers and Seth Curry carry this team?  Do they need to?

Assuming Lehigh doesn’t pull the shocker of the century, Duke would meet the Notre Dame-Xavier winner. The Irish are coached by former Duke assistant Mike Brey.

That doesn’t begin to exhaust the South subplots.  Duke could play UNLV in the Sweet Sixteen.  They haven’t played since those 1990 and 1991 Final Four matches.

Ready for a Kentucky-Indiana rematch?  Coming up.  Maybe.

And if everyone plays to seed, Duke and Kentucky reprise their epic Elite Eight match of 20 years ago. 

Duke relies a tad too much on the 3-pointer for comfort sake and either Notre Dame or Xavier could take them out if they struggle from downtown. But this pod is in Greensboro and Duke loves Greensboro.  So, don’t count on an upset.

North Carolina shares Greensboro with Duke.  The Tar Heels are the top seed in the Midwest.

Like Duke, North Carolina played short-handed in Atlanta.  John Henson hurt a wrist early in the win over Maryland and went into spectator mode. But he should be go to go, although it would surprise no one if Roy Williams held Henson out of their opener against the Lamar-Vermont winner. 

Creighton or Alabama await.  Creighton is led by former Harrison Barnes teammate Doug McDermott, a recruiting afterthought who many feel has surpassed his former teammate at the collegiate level.  A North Carolina-Creighton match could be a track meet but the more defensive-oriented Alabama team might have a better chance of springing the shocker.

But it would be a shocker, especially in Greensboro. The Tar Heels had four of the top six vote-getters for the All-ACC team and are a one-seed on merit.  

Speaking of sub-plots,  Kansas is the second seed in North Carolina’s region and we all know about those Dean Smith, Roy Williams associations.

But that’s down the road, if it happens at all. Right now, it’s time to crank up the popcorn popper and make sure you have some pens that work. It’s that time of year again.

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Coach K photo courtesy Duke Sports Information

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