1. North Carolina
Realistic Chance to Win? Absolutely. Once again, the Holes are the most talented and best-coached team in the ACC. Like most championship teams, they also have a fantastic “glue guy” in Danny Green, who scores, passes, rebounds, and defends well. In a year when the league is even stronger than usual, UNC finished 13-3 after an inauspicious 0-2 start. The team best-suited to beat them (Wake Forest) is in the other half of the bracket.
Toughest Obstacle(s): Six teams are capable of beating UNC (Wake, Florida State, Boston College, Maryland, Virginia Tech, and Miami). Why? Because they have a dominant scoring point/combo guard – something that has killed them all season. Despite the media ludicrously voting him “honorable mention” for all-defensive honors, Ty Lawson plays absolutely no defense. Wayne Ellington is no better. With Marcus Ginyard, this is an invincible team. Still, I doubt UNC will lose on Friday to an opponent on short rest, and it’s not likely that Wake Forest makes it to the finals. So, it’s probably up to Florida State in the semis to keep Roy and company from cutting down the nets once again.
2. Wake Forest
Realistic Chance to Win? Yes and No. Yes, because they are clearly the second most-talented team in the league, with great depth to boot. They actually have fewer matchup troubles within the top tier than anyone. The Deacs also have two legitimate “take over the game/tournament” star players in James Johnson and Jeff Teague. What’s not to like?
Toughest Obstacle(s): Themselves. Although extremely talented, the Deacons struggled against the middle and lower tier ACC teams all year. Their focus tends to wander, and they make lots of really stupid mistakes (I’m especially looking at you, Jeff Teague). That kind of inconsistency makes it hard to win 3 games in 3 days, no matter what the matchups are. One also has to wonder how relatively untested head coach Dino Gaudio will fare – he went out on Thursday last year (causing his team to surprisingly tumble off the NIT bubble), and he faces real expectations for the first time in the ACC’s ultimate pressure cooker. Even making it to Saturday is no sure thing, against a desperate team that has had success against Wake this year (either Maryland or NC State).
Realistic Chance to Win? Yes. Duke is more athletic than in recent years, with Gerald Henderson taking charge of the team and Greg Paulus back in a bench role. If Kyle Singler and John Scheyer are shooting well, this is an extremely difficult team to beat. Duke should be favored to beat any ACC team other than UNC or Clemson (the Devils still have nightmares about this year’s beatdown in Littlejohn) – and both of those teams are in the other half of the bracket. Duke also caught a break when they slipped down to the #3 seed, as their Friday game against Boston College or Virginia should not be a problem. Coach K seemed to catch his second wind down the stretch, and will be highly motivated to bring a title back to Durham.
Toughest Obstacle(s): Size, inability to beat UNC. Only the Terrapins are smaller than the Blue Devils, and that means rebounding can be a challenge (though Duke is better in that department this year), especially when legs start getting tired. That also means outside shooting is crucial for Duke, and it’s hard to stay hot for 3 games in 3 days. I also think UNC would beat them 9 times out of 10 on a neutral floor, since the Devils lack a dominant slasher at the point and struggle to defend the Heels in the lowpost.
4. Florida State
Realistic Chance to Win? Surprisingly, Yes. The Seminoles have the league’s best player (offensively and defensively) in Toney Douglas, along with size, athleticism, and depth – all great elements for a tourney run. Defense and rebounding tend not to slump, and both are team strengths. They are playing with great confidence, and recently came within a hair of beating Duke in Cameron. Their regular season performance against likely Friday opponent Clemson was second only to UNC. I think Florida State is perfectly positioned to upset North Carolina on Saturday – not that they will be favored. They would be underdogs in the final against Duke, but playing with nothing to lose.
Toughest Obstacle(s): The weight of expectations. It has been ages since Florida State came into the ACC tournament with an NCAA bid well in hand, and a realistic shot to cut down the nets. Leonard Hamilton scuffled on the periphery of breaking through for many years, and I’m not convinced that he’s ready to complete the leap just yet. One also worries about the lack of a real secondary scorer. Still, the Noles feel like last year’s Clemson to me.
Realistic Chance to Win? Extreme Longshot. Clemson has talented upperclassmen in Trevor Booker and K.C. Rivers, the depth to make a solid run, and confidence from getting to last year’s final and breaking a really long streak of futility. I can’t say enough great things about their coach, Oliver Purnell – a class act who has Clemson on track for long-term success in the ACC. He will likely surpass Rick Barnes’ record of success in Tiger Town.
Toughest Obstacle(s): A perfect storm nightmare draw. On Thursday, Clemson faces the hometown Yellow Jackets – a physical team with nothing to lose. Clemson will likely survive, but perhaps with some bruises as they head into Friday play against a Seminole team that beat them twice. If they somehow get over the hump against FSU, they run smack into UNC – a team that destroyed Clemson in their only meeting of the season. Because Clemson’s defense has tailed off a bit this year, they can no longer put enough pressure on the Tar Heels to force them out of their comfort zone. Maybe next year, Oliver – or maybe the NCAAT will provide more opportunity for redemption.
6. Boston College
Realistic Chance to Win? No. Tyrese Rice is a great player (but slumped in the second half), and Al Skinner is a great coach. BC is one of only two teams (Wake being the other) to beat both Duke and UNC this year. They managed a first round win last year despite losing 12 of their last 13 regular season games – so it would be unwise to dismiss them completely. Rakim Sanders is improving, but is he really ready to lead this team to ACC glory?
Toughest Obstacle(s): Athleticism, lack of a secondary scorer or lowpost threat. The alarm bells rang out at full volume over the last week of conference play. NC State shut down Rice in the second half, and the Eagles promptly fell apart. Then, BC needed a last-second shot to beat last-place Georgia Tech at home on Senior Day – even with an NCAA bid on the line. Realistically, this is an Eagle team that played way over its head all year, and should go home no later than Friday night. A Thursday upset is not out of the question, either.
Realistic Chance to Win? No. As I noted earlier this season, Gary Williams is harder to kill than an army of cockroaches. The instant you count his Terps out, they storm back with a vengeance. But in the past several years, Maryland has not been able to break out of the middle of the pack. Greivis Vasquez is the kind of player who can dominate an ACC tournament, and he is no doubt licking his chops to square off against NC State – a team he absolutely torched a few weeks ago in Raleigh.
Toughest Obstacle(s): Size, no secondary scorer. Playing four guards, you would expect a team to have multiple plus scorers on the floor. But you’d be wrong. Gary Williams relies on Vasquez to produce the lion’s share of offense, while hoping that a host of role players make a decent percentage of their three-point attempts. It’s not the formula needed for 4 wins in 4 days, but don’t rule out a trip to the semifinals – which Maryland needs to go dancing.
8. Virginia Tech
Realistic Chance to Win? Extremely Extreme Longshot. It’s been a season of torture for the always animated Seth Greenberg. Multiple losses in the closing seconds, including a 60-foot prayer to lose to Xavier. The Hokies have three star-caliber offensive players in Malcolm Delaney, A.D. Vasallo, and Jeff Allen – but they never seem to put it together at the same time. Maybe it happens this weekend – but there’s a tough road ahead.
Toughest Obstacle(s): Consistency, ability to finish, tough draw. At this point, the Hokies’ failure to close out games has to be in their heads. They also play an equally desperate Miami team on Thursday, only to turn around to play a dominant UNC team on short rest. The Holes led wire to wire in a hard-fought game in Blacksburg last week, so it’s hard to predict a Friday upset. The NIT awaits.
Realistic Chance to Win? See Virginia Tech above. This team has a dominant player in Jack McClinton, plus good size in the lowpost. They certainly are capable of beating UNC, but on short rest? Don’t bet on it. Once again, the Canes are dangerous if their complementary players are hot from behind the arc. Last week’s loss in Atlanta probably burst their NCAAT bubble (absent a run to the semis).
Toughest Obstacle(s): No secondary scorer, inside scoring, tough draw. To the list of challenges facing Virginia Tech, add one more – health questions surrounding McClinton’s knee. Without him playing at close to 100%, Miami is an extremely ordinary team.
10. NC State
Realistic Chance to Win? No. NC State certainly played better in the second half, closing out at 4-4. But without a return to the form Costner showed as a freshman in the ACC tourney, there’s no realistic chance for a miracle in Atlanta. The firepower and consistency just aren’t there. Hopefully, the Pack can build some optimism with at least an opening round victory. State should match up well with Maryland (dominant frontcourt advantage), but played awfully in a home loss earlier this season. A run to the semifinals isn’t out of the question, but this team has no shot against UNC or Duke. Fortunately, the Holes are in the other half of the bracket, preventing many Wolfpack heart attacks.
Toughest Obstacle(s): Ballhandling, defense, lack of a “go to” guy. Javi Gonzalez has rocketed from unplayable to adequate, but the Pack still turns the ball over quite a bit. It’s also hard to make a deep tourney run playing matador defense, which the Pack almost always does (save for adequate defenders in Courtney Fells and Ben McCauley). And if the Pack is in a nailbiter down the stretch, who does it turn to for the big shot? You know the drill by now, we’ve talked about this shit all season.
Realistic Chance to Win? No Chance in Hell. Dave Leitao is the only coach in the ACC with a legitimate chance to get fired after the season. Fortunately, his contract probably saves him in such a crappy economy. Forgotten senior Mamadu (sp?) Diane has played more and better of late, taking some pressure off freshman Sylvan Landesberg – but it’s hard to see where enough offense will come from.
Toughest Obstacle(s): Talent and coaching. Other than that, everything looks great in Wahooland! The Cavs are capable of the occasional upset, and #6 seed Boston College offers an inviting target. Still, no reason to pack for a long weekend – Duke would absolutely throttle Virginia on Friday.
12. Georgia Tech
Realistic Chance to Win? No Chance in Hell. Yes, they are the home team – but a team doesn’t win 2 games in a 16-game regular season, then turn around and win 4 games in 4 days. You couldn’t sell that script in Hollywood, let alone see it happen in reality. But the Jackets could use their physical style of play and loose attitude to knock off Clemson on Thursday. Stranger things have certainly happened.
Toughest Obstacle(s): Ballhandling, shooting, stupidity, coaching. Georgia Tech has athletes, but most of them are fundamentally unsound and not getting any better. An early N&O “Rim Shots” column noted that their best offensive play is a missed shot (so that Gani Lawal can get an offensive rebound and a putback). That’s pretty sad. In Iman Shumpert, you get to see what it would be like to take a linebacker off the football team and start him at point guard. They do rebound well, so you can’t say I didn’t say anything nice.