ACC Championships Coverage: Day 1

Senior forward Akil Mitchell will take the floor at John Paul Jones Arena for the final time Saturday, as the No. 12 Cavaliers host No. 4 Syracuse with a shot at clinching the ACC regular season title.

Whether you’re resting at home, engaging in service work, or drinking one of those fruity concoctions with the little umbrellas in them, check “Pulse of the Fan” all weekend for extensive ACC Tournament coverage.

12:12 AM: If you notice a white tinge on the Greensboro Coliseum court when action resumes tomorrow, don’t fret: that will just be the remnants of the chalk from today’s depressingly predictable, favorite-dominated First Round. Although Clemson engendered some intrigue in the day’s final contest thanks to a series of calamitous Florida State fouls and a few big 3-pointers, their desperate comeback bid faltered when Michael Snaer buried two late free throws to secure the Seminoles’ 73-69 win. Florida State plays North Carolina in the nightcap tomorrow.

Ultimately, the enduring memory Day 1 of the 2013 ACC Championships will involve Boston College freshman Olivier Hanlan’s sublime 41-point effort against Georgia Tech, a virtuoso performance that sets the table for a compelling matchup with ACC Defensive Player of the Year Miami guard Durand Scott tomorrow. On a day marred by errant shooting and scarce suspense, Hanlan’s performance underlined why we all keep tuning in to this crazy game of basketball: the potential to witness the spectacular.

	<p>Senior forward Akil Mitchell will take the floor at John Paul Jones Arena for the final time Saturday, as the No. 12 Cavaliers host No. 4 Syracuse with a shot at clinching the <span class=ACC regular season title.

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Meanwhile, Virginia faces N.C. State tomorrow with its NCAA Tournament hopes in the balance.

That’s all from Greensboro for tonight. Check this blog and @CavDailySports Friday for live updates!

9:23 PM: In a game with only very mild implications for Virginia, Maryland held Wake Forest to two more field goals than you or I managed in the final 10:02 to storm to a 75-62 victory. Dez Wells scored 21 points for the seventh-seeded Terrapins, who will play No. 2 seed Duke tomorrow at 7 p.m.

Since the chances that Maryland advances to the ACC Championship game, the only round in which it could conceivably face the Cavaliers, remain more remote than the chance that the Mexican and Canadian baseball teams hit the town together at the World Baseball Classic, this game should have little bearing on Virginia’s tournament fate. It does sustain the Terrapins’ faint at-large hopes, but they still will likely need to win the ACC Tournament to get to the big dance.

Clemson and Florida State square off next in the final game of the day.

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7:38 PM: When Wolfpack point guard Lorenzo Brown sprained his left ankle in N.C. State’s Jan. 29 visit to Virginia midway through the first half, the Wolfpack were winning and imposing their up-tempo style on the more rugged, half-court oriented Cavaliers. His absence, however, allowed the Virginia defense to settle in and afforded junior guards Joe Harris and Jontel Evans more room to operate on the perimeter, eventually enabling the Cavaliers to squeeze out a 58-55 victory. Brown rested the bum ankle for the next two games, both of which N.C. State lost. And as a result of that three-game swoon in the middle of the ACC season, the Wolfpack finished 11-7 in the conference—giving Virginia the No. 4 seed in the ACC Tournament and a first-round bye by virtue of its January victory.

Beating N.C. State and grabbing the fourth seed wielded a two-fold positive impact on Virginia’s postseason prospects. For one thing, it assures that the Cavaliers can clinch an NCAA tournament at-large bid with two wins and vie for one with a single victory, whereas they would have likely needed to win the conference tournament to advance had they dropped the N.C. State game. Secondly, it means a Virginia squad that has struck most observers as lead-legged in its past three games will benefit from extra rest against a Wolfpack team for which each starter logged at least 34 minutes in Thursday’s 80-63 victory against Virginia Tech.

Still, that N.C. State was missing Brown during the first contest raises grave doubts about the Cavaliers’ ability to cope Friday. The Wolfpack, after all, still present troubling matchup problems on the low-post for Virginia and play with an added panache when a healthy Brown—who averages is in as their maestro.
Virginia and head coach Tony Bennett, simply put, will be hard-pressed to attain the victory they require for a second consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance. Here are the three major storylines that will determine whether the Cavaliers can do the trick.

1. The front-lines

The N.C. State frontcourt presents the closest thing to a nightmare matchup the Cavaliers will see: big, athletic, and ruthlessly physical. All-ACC First Teamer Richard Howell qualifies as the Harry Potter of the Wolfpack’s super trio and will be brimming with confidence after torching the Hokies for 22 points and 12 rebounds on 11-of-13 shooting and providing, as he has all year, the team’s best post defense. C.J. Leslie and T.J. Warren are no slouches themselves, combining for 28 points and 12 rebounds and helping the Wolfpack amass a staggering 40 to 25 advantage on the boards against Virginia Tech. Featuring tenacious rebounding, savvy floor spacing and active defensive participation, the N.C. State frontcourt possesses the kind of talent that could spell doom against a smaller, finesse-based front-line such as Virginia’s. Sure enough, they confounded the Cavaliers in the team’s first tilt, with Leslie putting up a monster 20 points and 14 rebounds despite suffering from “Michael Jordan in Game 5”-level illness.

Virginia managed to survive the onslaught thanks to one of freshman forward Mike Tobey’s stronger performances as a Cavalier. Tobey notched 13 points and seven rebounds and supplied the needed brawn to contend with the N.C. State behemoths. As he continues to recover from a bout of mono, Virginia will need another gutsy display from him—or from sophomore forward Darion Atkins or freshman forward Justin Anderson, the team’s best close-out shot-blocking threat—to weather the storm again.

Still, the Cavaliers’ post-defense begins and ends with junior forward Akil Mitchell. Leading the ACC in points allowed per 100 defensive possessions, Mitchell also ranks 11th in the league with 1.2 steals per game—an amazing feat for a big man who spends most of his time guarding the opposition’s biggest player. Additionally, he delivers Virginia’s most consistent offensive production by using his full-throttle, speed-based game to wear down opponents and put up an almost automatic 13-to-18 points per game. Mitchell’s invaluable contributions will matters even more Friday, since N.C. State’s starters could fatigue later in the game and depend heaviliy Thursday on Brown’s rail-line passes to wide-open teammates in the post—passes the vigilant, quick-handed Mitchell will be quick to disrupt.

2. Will the real Joe Harris please stand up?

After Harris eviscerated Duke for 36 points on national television Feb. 28, he was riding such a high and playing so well you would have thought the All-ACC First Team choice had an outside shot at election to the papacy. But while his mystique remains as powerful as ever among Virginia fans, his form has dipped quite dramatically in the three games following that breakout showing against the Blue Devils. Ultra-efficient for most of the season, Harris has shot an abysmal 13-of-44 and averaged just 14.0 points per game in his last three outings. His jump-shot has suffered worst of all, with his 25.0 3-point percentage since Feb. 19 feeding fears that the relentlessly competitive Harris is starting to buckle physically.

Whether Harris’ recent swoon results from tired legs or a mere random slump, Virginia’s most valuable player needs to improve offensively for he and his teammates to outlast a team as dangerous as N.C. State. Too often in the last three games, Virginia’s offense has stalled as players watch Harris miss a long perimeter shot, a tactic which Virginia Tech relied on this year to dreadful results. Although Harris has managed to compensate for some of his shooting woes with aggressive lane penetration, he’ll need to rediscover his tidy 17.0 point per game scoring form in order to counteract the production from Brown and Scott Wood.

3. Road blues

For those hoping Virginia will fare better on a neutral court than it has on the road, consider: in the Cavaliers’ lone neutral-court game thus far, they suffered a loss to lowly Old Dominion that remains the most glaring red flag on their NCAA Tournament at-large resume. Overall, Virginia is 3-9 away from John Paul Jones Arena and will play before a heavily-partisan N.C. State crowd at the Greensboro Coliseum Friday.

Pundits have pointed to sundry explanations for Virginia’s road maladies: an inexperienced roster, a general trend toward home dominance in college basketball, sheer bad luck. Whatever the cause, the cure boils down to the Cavaliers simple need to shoot the ball better. Unless they find the basket at a more efficient clip than the 39.7 field goal shooting percentage they’ve registered in their last three home losses, Bennett’s boys will return to Charlottesville next weekend to host an NIT game. As discussed above, offensive improvement necessitates the return of a potent Harris and continued complementary scoring from Mitchell. Other Cavaliers, however, including sharpshooters freshman Evan Nolte and sophomore Paul Jesperson, will need to throw it in the ocean against an N.C. State defense that yielded open perimeter shots aplenty against Virginia Tech Thursday.

4:49 PM: Raise your hand if you’re surprised.

Me, neither.

For the second consecutive year, N.C. State will meet Virginia in the quarterfinals of the ACC Tournament after the Wolfpack walloped a hapless Virginia Tech 80-63, mercifully ending a humiliating Hokies’ season. And for the second consecutive year, one team’s NCAA Tournament hopes will hang in the balance when N.C. State and Virginia clash—only this time, the Cavaliers are the ones in desperate need of a resume-boosting victory.

Richard Howell led the Wolfpack with 22 points and 11 rebounds, converting several of Lorenzo Brown’s game-high 12 assists into easy lay-ups, dunks and wide-open midrange jumpers. In addition to finishing 11-of-13 from the floor, the All-ACC First Team selection also cemented his triumph over teammate C.J. Leslie as “Best N.C. State Player with a chinstrap beard.” Leslie, Scott Wood and T.J. Warren joined Howell in double figures for a Wolfpack team that outrebounded Virginia Tech 40-25 and outassisted the Hokies 18-10.

Meanwhile, Erick Green—the constructor of virtually all of Virginia Tech’s 13 victories singlehandedly—looked more like a bricklayer in his final collegiate game. The ACC Player of the Year finished 5-of-19 for 15 points, his lowest output since scoring 12 Dec. 29 against BYU. And although Jarell Eddie posted a valiant 21-point effort, Virginia Tech’s dubious shot selection doomed the squad to a woeful 12-of-34 shooting effort in the second half.

Ultimately, discipline proved the distinguishing factor between the two teams; while Brown and Wood orchestrated a crisp if occasionally sloppy offense, most Hokies split their time between watching Eddie and Green operate and running around like Turkeys with their heads cut off on offense and constantly lost focus on defense. As a result, the Cavaliers will have to contend with a disciplined, athletic N.C. State team Friday, one that will have Brown after missing him in a 58-55 Virginia victory in January.

More to come on the Virginia-N.C. State matchup with the next post.

1:58 PM: Greetings from Greensboro! We’ve just arrived at the Coliseum to catch the end of Boston College and Olivier Hanlan’s masterful dismantling of Georgia Tech in the battle of the ACC Tournament’s 8th and 9th seeds, also known as the “Clash Between mediocre ACC squads that both managed to beat Virginia.” Next on the docket is the 5-12 matchup between N.C. State and Virginia Tech, which will of course determine the Cavaliers’ opponent in tomorrow’s quarterfinal bout at 2 p.m. ET. Follow @CavDailySports and this blog for in-depth analysis on today’s games, what Virginia needs to do, and whether the free media food here at the Coliseum meets your Cavalier Daily’s correspondent’s lofty standards.**

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