It’s finally March, and it’s crunch time for college teams fighting to keep their NCAA tournament hopes alive.
A conference tournament title ensures a spot in the big dance, and 15 teams from the Atlantic Coast Conference are heading to Brooklyn, New York, to battle to keep their seasons alive beginning on Tuesday.
Virginia is hoping to win its first conference tournament championship since 2014; Duke is hoping to repeat as champs; UNC is looking to prove that they’re still among the nation’s elite; bubble teams (Louisville, Notre Dame, Syracuse) are hoping to improve their stock to earn at-large bids in the NCAA tournament; and Pittsburgh is hoping to not look like a middle school basketball team.
Only time will tell how these teams will ultimately perform, but taking a closer look at their seasons to date is as good a crystal ball as any.
(All advanced statistics/rankings are from the 2018 Pomeroy College Basketball Rankings, and are representative of games played up until Monday morning.)
#1 Virginia (28-2, 17-1 ACC)
Virginia head coach Tony Bennett has established a model of consistency that all teams aspire to reach, yet so few actually grasp. Emphasizing a plodding pace and ferocious defense, Bennett has led the Cavaliers to a 140-32 record over the past five seasons (including three ACC Coach of the Year honors), finishing bottom-10 in adjusted tempo and top-7 in adjusted defense (AdjDE) each season. This stylistic approach to the game is calculated and efficient: by slowing the game down on both ends of the floor, Virginia is able to dictate the pace of play in order to minimize opposing scoring chances. (Imagine a python strangling its prey for 40-straight minutes, allowing it to live and suffer instead of simply killing it right away. Yeah, that’s Virginia’s game plan. It’s not quick and flashy, but it gets the job done, and it’s not fun for the opposing team.)
This team’s performance shouldn’t go unnoticed nor undervalued: it’s been historic. With an adjusted defensive efficiency of 83.9, Virginia has the best defense in the entire KenPom era (2002 to present day), and currently stands as the best team in the nation according to overall adjusted efficiency (+31.41).
The offense, however, is a real issue. Despite not falling behind that often this season, playing at such a slow pace can make it difficult to recover from large deficits (they came back from being down 13 against Louisville last week, but it took some to happen, which isn’t something to rely on). A low free throw rate (25.1 percent, 339th in the nation) and a lack of a true go-to scorer also make it difficult for the Cavaliers to get timely buckets when needed, and is certainly something to keep an eye on if they’re ever caught in a close game.
#2 Duke (25-6, 13-5 ACC)
Picture this: Duke secures four top-25 recruits, and heads into the season with plenty of hype; their prized first-year bigman, the top recruit in the nation, is arguably the best bigman in the nation, and earns ACC Player of the Year honors; the defense is poor for most of the season, prompting Coach Mike Krzyzewski to shift to playing 2-3 zone full-time; the defense improves exponentially, combining with an already-electric offense to form a dangerous team to face in March; the Blue Devils reach the championship game and are victorious, thanks to the help of four talented freshmen and a score-first senior leader.
No, that’s not a prediction for this season. That’s what happened back in 2015. Those four freshmen were Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones, Justise Winslow and Grayson Allen; the No. 1 recruit and ACC POY was Okafor; the senior leader was Quinn Cook; they shifted to zone in February, finishing the season with a top-15 defense.
This year? The freshmen are Marvin Bagley III, Wendell Carter Jr., Trevon Duval and Gary Trent Jr.; the No. 1 recruit and ACC POY is Bagley III; the senior leader is Grayson Allen; they shifted to zone in late February, and currently have a top-15 defense.
It’s all eerily similar.
But, this team deserves to be analyzed by present terms, not the past.
Duke currently stands as the only team top-10 in both offense (123.5 adjusted offensive efficiency, 2nd-best) and defense (94.3 AdjDE, 10th-best) in the nation, utilizing elite size and length to crowd the pain and jump passing lanes. The combination of Bagley III (6-foot-11) and Carter Jr. (6-foot-10) offers a massive rebounding edge on the offensive glass (39.4 OREB percent, best in the nation), providing second scoring opportunities for themselves and for kickouts to Allen (15.5 PPG) and Trent Jr. (14.3 PPG) on the perimeter. Bagley III (20.7 PPG, 11.2 RPG) is practically unguardable in the paint, scoring by either carving out space in the post or catching lobs from Duval and Allen. The recent shift to a 2-3 zone has consequently held opponents to 58 PPG over the last seven games, a stark contrast from their early-season defensive woes.
Nevertheless, there are still concerns for this team. In the past seven games featuring an improved defense, the offense has surprisingly slipped to 71.3 PPG, down from 93 PPG over the first 23 games. The Blue Devils struggle from the charity stripe (70.5 FT percent, 211th), which is concerning considering leading-scorer Bagley III shoots only 62.7 percent on over six attempts a game. And, while it’s likely that Coach K sticks with the zone to finish the season, a 7-game sample of strong defense still isn’t enough to solidify Duke’s status as a great defensive team — not yet, anyway.
#3 Miami (22-8, 11-7 ACC)
Miami is OK. They’re fine. They’re average.
That’s really all there is to say about a team that’s 36th overall on KenPom, featuring an underwhelming offense (114.2 AdjOE, 46th) and defense (98.0 AdjDE, 41st).
Miami does nothing exceptionally well, which is just fine. But it’s likely not good enough to win the ACC.
The Hurricanes are quietly on an alarming downturn over their past seven games. After losing three straight games in mid-February, they’ve gone on to win four straight games by an average of two points each (77-74, 79-78, 91-88, 69-68), indicating that Miami easily could be 18-12 instead of 22-8 right now. Although winning close games may seem impressive, it’s just not something a team should rely on in the long run.
The emergence of Lonnie Walker IV is a welcome sight for Hurricane fans. After scoring a mere 9.67 PPG over the first 18 games of the season, the freshman guard has improved to 15.75 PPG over his last 12 games. The loss of sophomore guard Bruce Brown (11.4 PPG, 7.1 RPG, 4.0 APG), however, along with poor free throw shooting from the team (66.6 FT percent, 317th), might prove to be too difficult to overcome.
#4 Clemson (22-8, 11-7 ACC)
Brad Brownell’s Clemson squad follows a similar philosophy as Virginia: slow the game down and play stingy defense. The Tigers boast the 7th-best defense and play at a pace (312th nationally) that would make Tony Bennett giddy. They play a lot like Virginia — but they’re not them, not even close.
It’s one thing to have a historically dominant defense; it’s another to just have a good one, and “good” isn’t enough to cover for their extensive offensive shortcomings. Clemson only has a mediocre offense (56th in the nation), which is noticeably struggling without senior forward Donte Grantham (14.2 PPG). Without the senior, the Tigers are 6-4, winning only two of their last six games.
The defense is good — great, even — and it’s enough to keep them in games, but the offense is bad enough to keep them out of games, too.
#5 NC State (21-10, 11-7 ACC)
The Pack found their coach.
Under the tutelage of new head coach Kevin Keatts, NC State boasts a feisty offense (116.4 AdjOE, 25th nationally) that’s proven capable of beating nearly anyone (Arizona, Penn State, Duke, UNC, Clemson) when playing at its full potential. The trio of Allerik Freeman, Markell Johnson and Omer Yurtseven combine for 42.7 PPG, with freshman cult-hero Braxton Beverly chipping in an additional 10 PPG.
While Keatts quickly integrated an explosive offense in his first year in Raleigh, it may take him another year to get the defense on a similar level. NC State is currently 89th in the nation (101.0 AdjDE) in adjusted defense, thus putting pressure on the offense to keep them in games. The offense, while good, has its own flaws. The team is shooting 70.3 percent from the free throw line, placing them 219th in the country. Albeit dynamic, the offense relies heavily on the contribution of several short guards (6-foot Beverly, 6-foot-1 Johnson, 6-foot-3 Freeman, 6-foot-5 Torin Dorn), resulting in many shots (10.1 percent, 238th) being blocked by opposing defenses. The only rotation player that’s taller than 6-feet-8-inches on the roster is 7-footer Omer Yurtseven, and his constant foul trouble (5.1 fouls per 40 minutes) may be problematic when playing against large, physical teams.
#6 North Carolina (22-9, 11-7 ACC)
The Tar Heels are tough to figure out.
Offensively, they’re elite. Running an up-tempo 4-out scheme around the playmaking of senior Theo Pinson (4.8 APG), UNC has shot their way to the nation’s 4th best offense (122.2 AdjOE). The starting lineup has no shortage of scoring: Joel Berry II (18.2 PPG), Kenny Williams (11.2 PPG), Pinson (9.9 PPG), Cameron Johnson (13.1 PPG) and Luke Maye (17.9 PPG) all contribute, with the former four all capable of knocking down shots consistently from deep. And, despite utilizing a relatively short starting lineup where the tallest man is 6-feet-8-inches, UNC is still dominant on the glass, ranking first in rebounds per game (42.7) and second in offensive rebounding percentage (38.7 percent). They also boast an impressive two-point defense (holding teams to 45.8 percent shooting, 32nd) and block percentage (11.9 percent, 51st), another sign of multiple players fighting despite their height disadvantages.
The defensive scheme is flawed: UNC relies on over-activity in the paint to make up for the lack of a steady rim protector, which is shown by constant attempts to trap penetrators and post players. By over-helping, though, perimeter players are left with wide-open shots time and time again. Throughout the season, the Heels have been horrendous at defending the 3-pointer, and they’ve gotten even worse: opponents are getting 40.7 percent of their points (2nd-most) from downtown, shoot at a devastating 38.6 percent clip (3.5 percent higher than the Division I average). Overall, the team ranks 49th nationally on defense (98.5 AdjDE), and they’re by far the worst defensive team Roy Williams has ever coached at UNC.
The lack of size is evident on offense, too. UNC gets blocked quite often (11 percent), which makes many players hesitant to attack the basket in order to draw contact. Thus, UNC also sports a low free throw rate (28 percent, 313th), and players often settle for outside jumpers.
To put it in simpler terms: UNC is living and dying by the three, which is highly unsustainable and unreliable.
The Tar Heels can beat anybody: they have the most (11) in the country, and have beaten five top-18 teams (per KenPom) in Duke, Michigan, Tennessee, Ohio State and Clemson. They’re tough, resilient, and experienced, and are still the 7th best team (+23.69) in the nation according to KenPom. Despite this, history just isn’t on their side: in the past 10 ACC tournaments, only one sub-three seed has gone on to win (No. 5 Duke in 2017).
UNC has an offense that can keep up with anybody, and they definitely have a shot at winning the conference tournament; but unless they make some serious changes, their defense will ultimately hold them back.
#7 Virginia Tech (21-10, 10-8 ACC)
Virginia Tech enters the conference tournament with a mixed résumé. The 33rd-ranked offense displays one of the most well-balanced scoring efforts in the country, with the Hokies shooting 57.3 percent from inside the arc and 39 percent beyond it. Big wins against Virginia and Duke prove that they’re capable of making tough shots against the strongest of opponents, which could be useful in the tournament.
Their defense has heavily regressed in ACC play, though, especially on the perimeter. Opposing teams are scoring 42.1 percent of their points from three-pointers, by far the most during conference play. (UNC isn’t that bad — they’re second worst.) While they’re capable of pulling off late-game heroics against the nation’s best, they may not get the chance to show this again unless they drastically improve their porous defense.
#8 Florida State (20-10, 9-9 ACC)
Florida State plays with a rather team-friendly offensive approach: play fast, attack the basket, and share the ball. The Seminoles rank 30th offensively, 26th in adjusted tempo, 37th in 2-point percentage (54.8 percent), and feature eight players averaging at least seven points per game. Their offense also generates plenty of looks from the foul line, an area where they fail to capitalize on more often than not (68.8 percent, 276th).
On the defensive end, the Seminoles are simply mediocre (71st overall), often struggling to keep opposing teams off of the offensive glass and from scoring from beyond the arc. The team is simply lackluster, but could quietly advance in the tournament if they manage to avoid strong offenses on their side of the bracket.
#9 Louisville (19-12, 9-9 ACC)
One of the many bubble teams in the conference, Louisville is desperately working to secure a bid into the NCAA Tournament after a poor end to their regular season. Losing at the buzzer to Virginia last week robbed them of a signature win, and now they Cardinals must shift their focus to advancing past Florida State on Wednesday and putting up a better fight against Virginia on Thursday.
Their defense is strong enough to at least help them advance. Ranked 17th overall, Louisville’s defense features great 3-point coverage, great 2-point coverage (13th best in the nation), a high block percentage (15.3 percent, 12th-best) and a solid steal percentage (9.9 percent, 70th).
Yet, their offense (61st overall) isn’t helping them at all, and the struggles of three key players — VJ King, Deng Adel, Quentin Snider — are having damaging effects on the team’s recent performance. Louisville has lost seven of their last 10 games: over that stretch, King is shooting 15.8 percent from beyond the arc, Adel is shooting 36 percent from the field and Snider is shooting only 34.1 percent from the field. Without consistent contributions from these three players, the Cardinals are in jeopardy — not only of exiting the conference tournament early, but of missing the NCAA Tournament, too.
#10 Notre Dame (18-13, 8-10 ACC)
ACC Preseason Player of the Year Bonzie Colson is back in the lineup after missing a two-month stretch where the FIghting Irish went a lowly 6-9 without him. Now, with the star senior back, Notre Dame hopes to return to early-season form, where they started 11-3 before Colson went down with a broken foot. The trio of Colson (20.9 PPG, 10.6 RPG), Matt Farrell (16.8 PPG, 5.3 APG) and TJ Gibbs (15.6 PPG, 3.0 APG) will look to ignite the 19th-ranked offense to a successful week in an attempt to secure a bid in the NCAA Tournament.
The Irish offense features potent three-point shooting, disciplined ball control, and consistent scoring, and Mike Brey’s squad will be a tough team to beat throughout the week. Don’t be surprised if they sneak their way into the conference semifinals — they’re a dangerous team, and they're fighting to keep their season alive.
#11 Syracuse (19-12, 8-10 ACC)
Syracuse’s defense is legit, which is no surprise considering Jim Boeheim’s system. The 11th-ranked defense boasts the 2nd-best block percentage (18 percent), 17th-best steal percentage (11.2 percent), and holds opponents to a lowly 46.9 effective field goal percentage. The Orange are adept at disturbing opposing offenses and creating extra possessions from steals and offensive rebounds (15th in offensive rebounding rate).
They are, however, absolutely awful at capitalizing on offensive possessions. Although they exhibit a healthy free throw rate (40.1 percent, 34th) and free throw percentage (73.7 percent, 85th), when they’re not getting to the line they’re tossing up brick after brick. The Orange offense ranks 122nd overall and ranks only 320th in effective field goal percentage (47.2 percent). Syracuse relies on its starters more than any other team in the country, effectively running Tyus Battle (38.9 MPG), Frank Howard (38.4 MPG) and Oshae Brissett (37.9 MPG) into the ground. Of the aforementioned trio, Battle (20 PPG on 41 percent shooting) is the lone player shooting better than 39 percent from the field.
Boeheim is coaching to keep the Orange’s season alive, with a lackluster résumé currently keeping them on the edge of the bubble. A strong week would definitely improve their odds of receiving a bid into the NCAA Tournament.
#12 Boston College (17-14, 7-11 ACC)
Boston College is fueled by arguably the most dynamic backcourt duo in the nation, with sophomore Ky Bowman (16.9 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 4.8 APG) and junior Jerome Robinson (20.7 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 3.4 APG) leading the Eagles to their best record since 2011. The duo is capable of winning games on their own, seen in the impressive victories against Duke, Florida State, Miami and Syracuse.
It’s becoming evidently clearer that fatigue is slowing the team down, though, as the starters are playing the second-most minutes in the entire NCAA. Losers of four of their last five, Boston College is stumbling into the tournament and will need stellar performances from Bowman and Robinson to overcome a pedestrian offense (113.2 AdjOE, 57th) and defense (103.0 AdjDE, 123rd).
#13 Georgia Tech (13-18, 6-12 ACC)
Josh Okogie has been the lone bright spot on a lowly Georgia Tech team this year. The guard is averaging 18.4 points, 6.3 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.7 steals per game in his sophomore campaign. Beyond Okogie’s contributions, the Yellow Jackets struggle to score from inside the arc (46.7 percent, 294th) and beyond it (32.1 percent, 315th), struggle to hold onto the basketball (19.4 turnover percentage, 251st) and struggle to defend the 3-pointer (allowing teams to shoot 38.5 percent, 326th). Georgia Tech hasn’t reached the conference semi-finals since 2010, and will likely have to wait at least another year to reach them again.
#14 Wake Forest (11-19, 4-14 ACC)
Danny Manning’s squad shoots it well from beyond the arc (38.2 percent, 44th overall), buoyed by hot shooting from Keyshawn Woods (39.4 3PT%), Brandon Childress (39.4 3PT percent) and Mitchell WIlbekin (43.5 3PT percent).
Beyond the perimeter scoring, the Demon Deacons are poor in just about everything else. The team struggles to score inside, shooting a lackluster 47.3 percent (277th overall) on 2-pointers. On defense, the Deacons fail to defend the 3-ball, allowing opponents to shoot 38.1 percent from downtown (317th). Overall, a poor offense (111.5 AdjOE, 73rd) and defense (103.3 AdjDE, 129th) will likely lead the Deacons to yet another early tournament exit.
#15 Pittsburgh (8-23, 0-18 ACC)
Five (Bold-ish) Predictions:
- Bonzie Colson will lead the Fighting Irish past Pittsburgh and Virginia Tech in order to face off against Duke in the quarterfinals. This is an entirely different team now that Colson is back, a team that likely would’ve finished with a top-6 seed had he played all year.
- Duke will struggle against Notre Dame in the quarterfinals, narrowly avoiding an upset. Zone defenses are prone to leaving opponents open from two spots on the floor: the high post and the corners. Notre Dame is equipped with an elite post-scorer in Colson, and the shooting of Matt Farrell and TJ Gibbs will spread the Duke defense thin. It’ll take everything the Blue Devils have to hold of the feisty Irish offense.
- The 1-2 punch of Jerome Robinson and Ky Bowman will overpower several teams, leading the No. 12 Eagles to upsets over No. 5 NC State and No. 4 Clemson. Despite losing to both teams earlier this season, electric performances from the backcourt duo could be enough to pull off a back-to-back upsets: after all, the Pack’s defense is unimpressive, and the Eagles nearly beat the Tigers in January. Although a double-digit seed has failed to reach the ACC semifinals since 2010, anything can happen in March.
- UNC will lose to Duke — again. While the Tar Heels have enough firepower to advance past Syracuse/Wake Forest and Miami, the defense just isn’t strong enough to consistently get stops against Duke. Sadly, there will be no happy students rushing Franklin Street Friday night.
- Duke will avenge their early-season loss to Virginia, winning the ACC Tournament championship in the process. After losing by two points in January, the Blue Devils will be determined to defeat the Cavaliers. With a sizable rebounding advantage, the dominant play of Marvin Bagley III, and the newly-improved defense, Duke will be too much for Tony Bennett’s disciplined squad to handle.
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