There are no longer any hot teams in the ACC, as Virginia, which won its first outright regular-season title since 1981, had its 13-game winning streak snapped by Maryland in overtime on Sunday and Duke took care of North Carolina’s 12-game winning streak on Saturday, which means no team enters the tournament having won more than two straight games.
The ACC plays its first season with a 15-team tournament format that includes double byes for Virginia, Syracuse, Duke and North Carolina. There's also a play-in round for teams situated from 10-15. A team from the bottom third would have to win five games in five days to earn the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
Unfortunately, watching an underdog rise in Greensboro, N.C., isn't likely to happen based on what happened in the regular season. This tournament could be one of the most predictable in some time. There seems to be a noticeable separation between the top four seeds and the rest of the league. The top four had a combined 56-8 record against the remaining 11 teams in the league.
What’s at stake?
When the ACC sought to expand, it purposely targeted schools with basketball imprints like Syracuse and Louisville (the Cardinals don't join until next season). During the league’s media day, coach after coach talked about how it could be the best basketball conference ever assembled. But that dominance never manifested itself. Instead, the ACC was again a league that’s top heavy and incredibly average after the top four teams.
Sensing the way Selection Sunday may develop, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski made a preemptive strike on the ACC’s teleconference last week. Speaking as a de facto ambassador, Krzyzewski said the league deserved more than five bids to the NCAA tournament. “I have a hard team thinking that our 15-team league would only get five bids,” Krzyzewski said. “I find that hard to believe.”
However, there’s really no reason that this league should be guaranteed more than four bids. Pittsburgh, which finished fifth, went 0-for-5 against the league’s top four teams and its best nonconference win was over Stanford. That’s why Florida State, Clemson, NC State and conceivably the Panthers are fighting to make an 11th-hour impression on the NCAA tournament selection committee.
“[On Selection Sunday] hopefully we’re congratulating seven or eight teams that get into the NCAA tournament from the ACC,” Krzyzewski said.
Should the ACC get only five teams in, it would mark the third time in the past four seasons that only a third of the conference received bids.
Teams with the most to gain
Syracuse needs to halt its slide and rebuild its confidence heading into the NCAA tournament. After a 25-0 start, the Orange have stumbled down the stretch, including losses to cellar-dwellers Boston College and Georgia Tech. Injuries to an already-thin rotation haven’t helped, but they are hopeful sophomore forward Jerami Grant can return to form after battling back issues since the loss to Duke on Feb. 22. The Orange need to find a way to bring their offense back to life as they've scored more than 62 points just once since beating Duke 91-89 in overtime on Feb. 1.
Virginia may be the least celebrated regular-season champion in conference history. Because of the unbalanced schedule, it played the remaining top three teams only once each and only the Duke game, a 69-65 loss, came on the road.
Add that to the fact that technically, the ACC doesn’t recognize its regular-season winner as the league’s champion. That honor is reserved for the winner of the tournament, which is a holdover from the times when the league tournament determined the lone NCAA tournament representative. And it means the Cavaliers are coming to Greensboro with a collective chip on their shoulders. Once again the Cavs will look to make history. Since the ACC tournament began in 1954, the Cavs have won it only once -- in 1976.
For Maryland, a charter member of the ACC, it’s one last, awkward trip to Tobacco Road. The Terrapins didn’t always feel welcomed in those parts. They felt the conference leaned too heavily toward the state of North Carolina, where it has held 49 of its 60 league tournaments. That unresolved tension that was decades in the making played a small role in the Terps' break from the conference. The acrimonious split caused a curious omission from Maryland’s home schedule this season. The Terps did not get to host Duke or North Carolina, which have typically been the most anticipated and best-attended games throughout the years. With all of that as a backdrop, the Terps would sure like to go out on top before heading to the Big Ten next season.