Mapping out the ACC Tournament with Cavalier Daily Sports

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Center Mike Tobey scored 15 points and grabbed a career-high 20 rebounds on Senior Night against Louisville. Virginia's fortunes in the ACC Tournament may hinge on the inconsistent senior from Monroe, N.Y.

Lauren Hornsby | Cavalier Daily

The ACC Tournament began on Tuesday. The Cavalier Daily Sports staff gives you their favorites to win it all and poses the biggest questions of the tournament.

Matt Wurzburger

Sports Editor

Semifinalists: North Carolina, Notre Dame, Virginia, Virginia Tech

My pick: Virginia over North Carolina

The Verizon Center is going to be the place to be Saturday night, as the ACC’s two best teams will square off for the conference crown, and those two teams are — without a doubt — Virginia and North Carolina.

The Tar Heels boast one of the nation’s most potent frontcourts, led by All-American Brice Johnson. The Orangeburg, S.C. native is the heart and soul of Roy Williams’ team, and some of Carolina’s best offensive play comes from Johnson put backs.

As a team, North Carolina excels on the offensive glass. Consider this — in Saturday’s finale at Cameron Indoor Stadium, Duke had 29 total rebounds and the Tar Heels had 27 offensive boards.

Where would the ones clad in argyle be without this prolific offensive rebounding? Dead in the water. The Tar Heels’ perimeter play has been horrendous at times, and that may be an understatement. North Carolina enters the tournament No. 307 in Division I with a 31 percent field goal percentage from the three point land.

However, Virginia fans should still be wary, because in recent memory North Carolina has found success behind the arc when they play the Cavaliers. Remember Justin Jackson? He almost singlehandedly eliminated Virginia in the semifinals of last year’s ACC Tournament. That game, Jackson made four of his five threes and led Carolina to a 50 percent night from behind the line in a 71-67 victory.

The Tar Heels fared almost as well back on Feb. 27. That Saturday night, Carolina knocked down nine of their 19 long range attempts.

Virginia has demonstrated they are capable of containing North Carolina’s front court and making it a half-court game — taking away two of the Tar Heels’ greatest assets. If the Cavaliers avoid a downpour of threes they should cut down the nets in Washington, D.C.

Biggest question: Can the Hokies play spoiler?

Virginia’s 70-68 loss to Virginia Tech way back on Jan. 4 no longer seems like something to be embarrassed about. That victory propelled the Hokies to a 2-0 mark in conference, but they lost eight of their next 11 contests before concluding the season with five straight wins.

Buzz Williams — who was flat-out robbed in ACC Coach of the Year voting — extracted the maximum production out of his group and has them rolling into the tournament. Sometimes postseason success comes down to being hotter than one’s opponent, and the Hokies are hot.

I think Virginia Tech beats Miami for the second time in less than a week to set up a date with Virginia in the semifinals. Can Williams’ plucky squad win the rubber match of the Commonwealth Clash and reach the championship round? I don’t think so, but the Hokies have spent all season defying expectations.

Robert Elder

Sports Editor

Semifinalists: Miami, North Carolina, Notre Dame, Virginia

My pick: Virginia over North Carolina

Let’s make this clear: one of the four teams with the double-bye will be crowned ACC Tournament champions Saturday night. No team can win four or five games in as many days against better rested opponents. Sorry, Duke.

So that leaves Virginia, Miami, Notre Dame and top-seeded North Carolina. Other than the Irish — which stopped a two-game skid with a season-ending win against lowly North Carolina State — any of the remaining three teams seems to have a legitimate shot at the title.

Still, I question just how good Miami actually is. Don’t get me wrong — coach Jim Larrañaga deserves all the credit in the world for turning last-season’s NIT runner up into a three-seed in Joe Lunardi’s most recent bracket. But even at 24-6, the Hurricanes have some bad losses, including a 25-point defeat against UNC and 77-62 drubbing in Blacksburg last Saturday. I’m not sold on Miami just yet.

As for the Tar Heels, I question their mental resolve. Their big wins are few and far between, and Roy Williams doesn’t exactly inspire confidence as a coach. Timeout, anyone? Despite boasting arguably the nation’s best roster, I just can’t help but think back to Brice Johnson watching helplessly as the ball rolled out of bounds in the final minute at John Paul Jones Arena. Any faith I had left in the team vanished watching Johnson lying face down on the court, palm in his face.

So that leaves us with your 2016 ACC Tournament champion — Virginia. The Cavaliers have big game experience — they’re 6-1 against Top-25 opponents — and the team seems to be clicking. As Virginia fans know, peaking at the right time matters.

Biggest question: Can Virginia find a fourth scorer?

Virginia’s “big three” of Malcolm Brogdon, Anthony Gill and London Perrantes must deliver in each game to pull Virginia through Saturday. No more four point outings for Gill, as was the case against Pittsburgh, or games without a three-point attempt from Perrantes, like against Duke.

But those three are likely to show up. The real question becomes whether anyone else will join them.

In Virginia’s best wins this season, it has found additional scorers. Most recently against Louisville, it was Mike Tobey. Often it has been Isaiah Wilkins or Devon Hall.

It doesn’t really matter who that fourth scorer is, as long as there is one. For as good as Brogdon is, his best games usually correlate with losses, such as against George Washington and Miami.

Coach Tony Bennett’s offense functions best when everyone on the court is a threat to score. If the Cavaliers want to keep pace with a team like North Carolina, that better be the case.

Matt Comey

Columnist

Semifinalists: Duke, North Carolina, Virginia, Virginia Tech

My pick: Virginia over North Carolina

Yeah, we get it. A University student newspaper columnist thinks the Cavaliers will win the ACC Tournament, stop the presses. But here are some facts that I like. Of the top four seeds, Virginia is the only one to have beaten each of the other three. They’re the highest ranked ACC team in the AP Poll, the Coaches Poll, KenPom, RPI and Sagarin ratings (though UNC does edge out the Cavaliers in ESPN’s BPI). And the last time Virginia won the ACC tournament, Tony Bennett’s squad came in with six losses — the same number they have now. I’m not saying that means anything, but I’m not not saying that either.

There are only two teams with a legitimate shot to win it all — Virginia and North Carolina. Both teams are led by senior all-Americans, spent the majority of their seasons in the AP Top 10, and have intimidatingly deep lineups.

I give the edge to Virginia for two reasons. First, the Cavaliers are 7-2 against the RPI Top 25, while UNC is only 3-4. Second, despite not being the one seed, I think Virginia’s likely path to the final, through Clemson and Miami, is much more preferable to UNC’s, against Pitt and most likely Duke (Duke is better than Notre Dame on almost every metric and will certainly be favored against the Irish).

Be prepared for upsets. I think there’s a good chance we see third seeded Miami and fourth seeded Notre Dame fall Thursday. But at the end of the day, expect the cream to rise to the top, and expect Bennett’s Cavaliers to leave Washington, D.C. with their second league championship in three years.

Biggest Question: Can Virginia find a home court advantage?

The top four seeds in the tournament have a combined 28 losses, but only five of those were home losses. All six of Virginia’s losses came on the road, four of the six losses each for UNC and Miami came on the road, and eight of the Irish’s 10 losses came either on the road or at a neutral site. At the same time, UNC, Miami and Virginia combined for an 11-0 record at neutral site games this season. Notre Dame went 1-3, on the other hand. Can we read anything into that? I think that all depends on how many Virginia fans make it out to the Verizon Center. Charlottesville is geographically the closest ACC town to D.C., and on top of that, the nation’s capital has a huge University alumni base. If the Wahoo faithful make it out as expected, games featuring Virginia certainly won’t feel like they’re being played on a neutral court.

Matthew Morris

Columnist

Semifinalists: Duke, Miami, North Carolina, Virginia

My pick: Virginia over North Carolina

Maybe you’ll accuse me of bias, and if you do, I can’t say you’re wrong. But for me, this ACC tourney runs through Virginia — and, I’ll admit, Carolina.

Right now, the Cavaliers are playing arguably the best basketball in the conference. While Miami fell Saturday in Blacksburg by 15, Virginia held Louisville to a single point through the first nine minutes of a 22-point thrashing. Coach Tony Bennett’s team is now 11-2 since Jan. 19, with both losses — at Duke and at Miami — coming on the road by three points or fewer.

Yes, Virginia is most dangerous at John Paul Jones Arena, where the Cavaliers posted 15 wins and no losses this year. But Malcolm Brogdon and company shut down West Virginia at the Jimmy V Classic in December and hasn’t lost on a neutral court in four tries.

The top-seeded Tar Heels can throw the ball inside to Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks, and Isaiah Hicks is very good off the bench, but Virginia defends big guys capably. When Carolina came to Charlottesville, Johnson finished with 12 points and seven rebounds — pedestrian for him — while committing five turnovers. I remember the Cavaliers post-trapping one possession and Johnson rifling a baseball pass into the stands.

For me, Carolina is toughest when Marcus Paige is on his game. Can he make defenses pay for losing him along the three-point line?

I can’t say as much about Miami — I just haven’t watched them much — but coach Jim Larrañaga’s team is both deep and experienced. Still, Virginia seems a touch hotter right now, D.C. isn’t too far from Charlottesville and I’ll take my chances with Malcolm Brogdon on leading scorer Sheldon McClellan.

Biggest question: Who will step up?

What I’m most curious about is whether Mike Tobey and Paige will come to play in their final ACC tourney. These guys are potential difference makers, but this season they’ve been up and down — mostly down. A big tournament from either could tip the scales in his team’s favor.

While fellow seniors Malcolm Brogdon and Anthony Gill have starred for Virginia alongside floor general London Perrantes, Tobey is once again coming off the bench — this after earning Bennett’s praise in the preseason. We know what Tobey can do when charged up after his 15-point, 20-rebound finale at John Paul Jones Arena. Now the question is, can he play with the same authority up in D.C.?

Paige’s ball-handling and shooting skills made him one of the most watchable players in college basketball in recent years. Who doesn’t wish they could shoot like Marcus? But this season, the slight lefty from Marion, Iowa has fallen into a funk. With eight long-distance makes out of a whopping 32 tries in his last five games, Paige is clearly trying to shoot himself out of his slump. Can he find his stroke before the curtain falls?

Grant Gossage

Senior Associate Editor

Semifinalists: North Carolina, Duke, Virginia, Virginia Tech

My pick: North Carolina over Virginia

As much as it pains me to say it — given I’m from North Carolina, was raised a Blue Devil and converted to a Wahoo — the No. 7 Tar Heels are my pick to win the 2016 ACC Tournament.

That’s right, the baby-blue bunch that No. 4 Virginia took down 79-74 on GameDay at John Paul Jones Arena. What happens should these two giants square off again on a neutral court? I give the edge to North Carolina, a proven tournament team with big-moment guys like Paige and Jackson — whose perimeter jumpers seem to fall far more often in March — to go along with dominant post players.

I don’t see Miami, Duke or whoever else not named the Cavaliers or Tar Heels having either the experience or toughness to pull through.

Biggest question: Can Duke’s shooters cover for its lack of interior depth?

Could the Blue Devils, relying on perimeter weapons and that head coach of theirs, make a run at a twentieth ACC Tournament title in the nation’s capital? Duke could neither defend Cameron Indoor Stadium nor complete the sweep of North Carolina in game two of the Tobacco Road Rivalry, falling 72-76 Saturday to the Tar Heels.

ACC Freshman of the Year Brandon Ingram shot just 3-12 from the field — including 1-5 from three-point range — where he averages 40 percent for the season. Meanwhile, Matt Jones made only one of seven attempts from behind the arc. Grayson Allen and Luke Kennard carried the load offensively, combining for 49 points on 17-41 shooting.

The Blue Devils’ loss of Amile Jefferson has really hurt them on the glass, as the Tar Heels snatched 64 rebounds to Duke’s 29. But had the shorthanded Blue Devils shot the basketball like they’re capable of doing — 46 percent overall and 39 from three on the season — they would have won, period.

Everybody wants to point out Duke’s seven losses over the course of ACC regular season play, granted several shaky performances, and assumes its lack of interior depth will mean an early exit in D.C. However, just ask favorites Virginia and North Carolina about the Blue Devils.

They’ll tell you if that offense spreads out its shooters — Ingram, Allen, Kennard, Jones and even Thornton — and knocks down three pointers, Duke is as gritty, dangerous and well-coached as anybody.

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