Following four losses in five games against ACC competition in mid-January, the men’s basketball team and Coach Tony Bennett have constructed a comeback for the ages, winning 11 of their last 12 games to finish second in the ACC. However, before the Cavaliers learn who they’ll be playing in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, they will have to navigate the gauntlet that is the ACC Tournament.
Given the immense parity in the ACC this season, this year’s tournament is anyone’s to win. A strong showing by Virginia could convince the NCAA Tournament committee to grant the Cavaliers a top-four seed while a run by a middle-of-the-road team like NC State could push it off the bubble and into the tournament.
After falling to Pittsburgh to start the season, it looked like Florida State would struggle to recover from the loss of five seniors along with a first-round draft pick in forward Mfiondu Kabengele. However, since then, Coach Leonard Hamilton’s squad has won 26 games en route to the Seminoles’ first ACC regular season title. Led by senior guard Trent Forrest and sophomore guard Devin Vassell, Florida State has found a way to win close games on numerous occasions, winning seven contests decided by five points or less.
In fact, the sheer size and athleticism of the Seminoles’ trio of guards in Forrest, Vassell and junior M.J. Walker has been the keystone of their success. All three stand at 6-foot-4 or taller and can beat opponents from behind the arc or on the glass. On the other side of the floor, their length makes it difficult for opponents to effectively move the ball, forcing numerous turnovers. Combine this with a 2020 Naismith National Coach of the Year semifinalist in Hamilton and Florida State is a strong candidate to cut the nets in Greensboro, N.C.
After being all but left for dead following three-straight ACC losses in January, the Cavaliers have rattled off eight-straight ACC victories to finish second in the conference with a 15-5 record and are arguably the hottest team in the country. Rather than change its identity, Bennett’s team has relied on its trademark suffocating defense, holding its opponents to just 54.1 points per game during the win streak. On the offensive side, junior guard Tomas Woldetensae has used his shooting prowess to draw defenders and allow forwards senior Mamadi Diakite and junior Jay Huff to work inside. Furthermore, a true floor general in sophomore guard Kihei Clark has been an adept distributor of the ball, posting 5.9 assists per game — good for third in the ACC.
Despite the loss of its primary scorers — guards Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome and forward De’Andre Hunter — to the NBA Draft, the defending national champions are a force to be reckoned with in the ACC Tournament. Virginia is a disciplined, team-first group and are able to win tight games, outscoring teams during its eight-game win streak by a total margin of just 29 points. Tying everything together, Bennett has won two ACC tournaments in his 11 seasons with the Cavaliers and could very well be knocking on the door for a third come the championship Saturday.
Following an adjustment year during Coach Chris Mack’s first season with the Cardinals last year, Louisville has ridden their veteran squad to a strong 15-5 conference record, boasting three seniors and two juniors in its top five scorers. Although junior forward Jordan Nwora hasn’t lived up to his preseason AP All-American title at times this season — scoring in single digits on four occasions — his game can take off at any moment, such as when he scored 37 points against Boston College and 32 against Florida State.
Although Nwora is by far the leading scorer for Louisville, the Cardinals have surrounded him with a bevy of key players. Senior guard Ryan McMahon has been a sharpshooter from deep, shooting 43.6 percent from behind the three-point line and silencing crowds with big shots during crunch time. In the paint, the Cardinals’ duo of senior center Steven Enoch and junior forward Malik Williams often bully opponents and enable Louisville to take down its opposition in the post and from the arc.
After winning two of the last three ACC tournaments, Duke finds themselves in possession of No. 4 seed heading into this year’s tournament. Although the Blue Devils don’t possess the same electric star power it had last year, another stellar recruiting class under Coach Mike Krzyzewski has made Duke an ACC and national title contender yet again.
Freshman center Vernon Carey Jr. is a force inside, averaging 17.8 points and just under nine rebounds per game, and when he is rolling, the Blue Devils are often unstoppable. However, Carey Jr. has found himself in foul trouble at times, like when he fouled out in Duke’s losses to Virginia and Wake Forest. For Duke to make a run at their record 22nd ACC title, Carey Jr. will have to stay off the bench and on the court. Beyond Carey Jr., the Blue Devils boast this year’s ACC Player of the Year in sophomore guard Tre Jones and a bonafide scorer in freshman guard Cassius Stanley. If the Blue Devils can overcome their youth — which got the best of them at times during regular season ACC play — they’ll keep the trophy for another year in Durham, N.C.
For a second year, NC State and Coach Kevin Keatts sit firmly on the bubble for the NCAA Tournament and will likely need a statement win in the ACC Tournament to have any sense of security coming into Selection Sunday. Fortunately for Wolfpack fans, Keatts’ squad has a deadly combination of outside shooting and veteran leadership that could knock off one or even two top-four seeds during a tournament run.
Despite struggling at times this season, senior guard Markell Johnson is a dynamic scorer for NC State. The Cleveland native posted 28 points in a rout of Duke in February, knocking down five three-pointers and using crafty drives to have his way in the paint. Additionally, junior guard Braxton Beverly has shown an uncanny ability to break games open with his three-point prowess, converting 37.5 percent of his shots from behind the arc. On the defensive side, freshman forward Manny Bates has been a revelation for the Wolfpack, leading the ACC with 2.9 blocks per game and forming a fearsome pair in the paint with junior forward DJ Funderburk.
Although the Tar Heels enter the tournament as the bottom seed, it is safe to say that no teams should overlook a North Carolina squad that won a national championship just three years ago. The loss of five key players to either graduation or the NBA draft and the midseason injuries of freshmen guard Cole Anthony and forward Armando Bacot have made life difficult for the Tar Heel faithful.
Although their 6-14 ACC record may suggest otherwise, North Carolina is an immensely talented team, boasting two five-star recruits in Anthony and Bacot and veteran experience in sophomore guard Leaky Black and junior forward Garrison Brooks. Furthermore, after a disappointing season from a team that was ranked No. 9 in the AP Preseason Top 25, the Tar Heels will be hungry in front of the Greensboro crowd that is sure to be a sea of Carolina blue. Even if it is a long shot for the Tar Heels to run the table and secure an NCAA Tournament bid through winning the ACC tournament, don’t be surprised if they send a top-seed packing early.
The 2020 ACC Tournament kicks off in Greensboro, N.C. Tuesday with first-round matchups between the bottom four seeds. Virginia’s quarterfinal contest against either No. 7 Notre Dame or No. 10 Boston College is slated for Thursday at 7 p.m.