Well, my predicting gut brought good mojo last year. Similarly, the Pack gets a very favorable draw (relative to seed) in 2008. Without further ado, here’s how I see it:
1. North Carolina
Realistic Chance to Win? Absolutely. I will repeat what I said last year – they are clearly the most talented team, and their depth will help them survive the rigors of tournament play. In addition, this UNC squad is much more consistent. Unless Lawson turns his ankle again (and maybe even if he does), expect the Holes to cut down the nets.
Toughest Obstacle(s): Clemson. Although UNC swept the series, they had to play flawlessly to win in Littlejohn, and catch a whole lot of breaks to come from behind in Chapel Hill. Clemson got angry instead of dispirited, and took it out on the rest of the league. I don’t think UNC would win a third matchup. Fortunately for Roy’s crew, the Tigers are on the opposite half of the bracket. Maryland beat UNC in Chapel Hill, but Carolina played terribly in that game, and the Terps are a shell of their formal selves.
Realistic Chance to Win? Yes. Duke is easily the most dangerous team from beyond the arc, and if they are hot on Saturday and Sunday, they will be hard to beat. The Devils also match up fairly well with Clemson and Maryland (possible Friday opponents), and should have no trouble on Friday.
Toughest Obstacle(s): Generally, physical teams that rebound and defend. But with ACC refs, that weakness will be neutralized. Greg Paulus has difficulty containing quick, athletic guards. Team with multiple such guards (like UNC) can really cause the Devils trouble. And nobody looks poised to knock UNC out before Sunday.
Realistic Chance to Win? Yes. The Tigers are hungry, and playing with great confidence and determination. They are very well-coached. They have a deadly 3-point threat in Oglesby, and multiple low-post options. KC Rivers can take over a game on the offensive end. SFN will be rooting for Clemson once NC State is eliminated.
Toughest Obstacle(s): Free throw shooting, ACC refs. It’s hard to protect a lead late when you suck from the free throw line. And do the Tigers ever suck there. Cliff Hammonds is well below the 50% mark, and Clemson needs to have him in the game at crunch time for defense and ball-handling. Clemson is also very physical, which will be of more use in the NCAAT, without ACC refs.
4. Virginia Tech
Realistic Chance to Win? No. Seth Greenberg has absolutely maxed out with this team. They are tough and gritty, but will not win 3 straight against good opponents. Their best wins came against Maryland (sweep), but the Terps are on the opposite side of the bracket. VT did give Clemson a very tough fight in the season finale, so that should give them some hope. Still, it’s hard to predict a deep run without the benefit of upsets elsewhere.
Toughest Obstacle(s): Skilled offensive teams that can prevent VT from slowing the game down, teams with experienced, quick guards. UNC is a nightmare matchup, and almost certainly would await on Saturday.
Realistic Chance to Win? No. Miami has had a good ride under Frank Haith, and has already punched its dance ticket. Their win over Duke showed that the Canes can beat top teams. Unfortunately for them (and for fans of compelling basketball), they are on UNC’s side of the bracket, not Duke’s. Miami also lacks a second real scoring threat after Jack McClinton.
Toughest Obstacle(s): The burden of expectations, scoring balance. Miami is used to being the hunter, not the hunted. Also, if you shut down McClinton (as NC State showed in the first half in Raleigh), you shut down the Canes. If they don’t get bounced sooner, Marcus Ginyard probably does that on Saturday.
Realistic Chance to Win? Very slim. Maryland is seemingly at its most dangerous when counted out. The Terps have two legitimate stars in Vazquez and Gist. Bambale Osby has great hair. Gary Williams will certainly go down fighting, screaming, and sweating.
Toughest Obstacle(s): Lack of depth and confidence. The Terps stumbled badly down the stretch, blowing significant late leads at home against both Virginia Tech and Clemson. In particular, Maryland really seemed to hang its collective head after the Clemson debacle. And can you really blame them? They lost a 20-point lead well into the second half. An easy opening round game against BC should get Maryland back on the winning track, before facing their demons on Friday against Clemson.
7. Georgia Tech
Realistic Chance to Win? No. The Jackets lack stars and offensive skill. Paul Hewitt hasn’t shown much tournament coaching acumen since GT’s Cinderella run to the national final. Seems like a million years ago, doesn’t it?
Toughest Obstacle(s): Their draw. UVA is playing much better of late, and the Cavs just beat the Jackets in Atlanta 10 days ago. If they do slip by Virginia, the Jackets’ reward is a date with Duke on short rest. Lucky them.
8. Wake Forest
Realistic Chance to Win? No. Wake has shown flashes, but is at least a year away. They have beaten Thursday opponent Florida State twice (and fairly easily each time), but never really threatened UNC in their one and only matchup. Wake would have a better shot against Duke – but once again, the upstart is on the wrong side of the bracket.
Toughest Obstacle(s): Inexperience. This applies to both the Deacon players and their head coach. Wake’s two best players are freshmen. Dino Gaudio did a good job getting the Deacons to feed off the emotional, untimely loss of Skip Prosser – but that wore off down the stretch as Wake lost winnable games and fell of the NCAAT bubble. Gaudio’s late mentor didn’t find much success in the ACCT, even with superior teams and more favorable draws.
9. Florida State
Realistic Chance to Win? No. Florida State did play UNC tough in the regular season, taking the Holes to OT in Tallahassee. The Seminoles can really get physical, and perhaps would be able to get under Hansbrough’s skin (paging Ryan Reid). Toney Douglas is the kind of player who could leave his mark on the tournament, so the Noles might at least make things interesting.
Toughest Obstacle(s): Lack of scoring depth. You might remember me saying the same thing last year. It’s still true. Florida State also showed no ability to handle Wake Forest – and they can’t make Friday interesting if they don’t have a game scheduled.
Realistic Chance to Win? No. But if you want to impress your office mates by picking an underdog to make a run, the Cavs could do it. Sean Singletary is very, very good – and this is his last stand. UVA played much better in the second half of ACC play (4-4), and three of their early losses came in OT. Virginia is playing better than Maryland, Georgia Tech, and Wake Forest right now.
Toughest Obstacle(s): Lack of scoring depth and inside presence. Virginia’s big men are mediocre at best, and you don’t really need to commit to stopping anyone other than Singletary. Virginia also gave UNC a much better fight than it did Duke. Once again, wrong side of the draw – sensing a pattern yet?
11. Boston College
Realistic Chance to Win? No chance in hell. Tyrese Rice is phenomenal, but you can’t even charitably call his supporting cast mediocre. Maybe they can play spoiler to Maryland, and set up an easy road to the semis for Clemson.
Toughest Obstacle(s): Momentum, every position other than PG. The Eagles lost 12 of their last 13 ACC games, with their only win a home blowout of last-place NC State. Enough said.
12. NC State
Realistic Chance to Win? No chance in hell. The Pack has a great draw for the first 2 rounds, improbably facing teams that it didn’t lose to this season, including the only ACC team State comfortably beat this season (Virginia Tech). On the 5% chance that the Pack shows up motivated and ready to play, it could conceivably get to Saturday before being crushed by UNC. Those 2 wins would be enough for an NIT or CBI bid, however. Yay. The Pack played 55 good minutes of basketball against Duke this season – but again, wrong side of the bracket.
Toughest Obstacle(s): Apathy, lack of quickness, turnovers, defensive ineptitude, poor coaching. We have chronicled these problems all year, and there’s no reason to expect a magical turnaround this late in the game. It’s 95% likely that Miami plays Dr. Kevorkian to the 2007-08 season, in runaway fashion. Did you know that Dr. Death is out of prison and planning to run for Congress? You learned something today, didn’t you?