Thursday, March 12, 2009

ACC Tournament Preview

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The Atlantic Coast Conference quickly stole the Big East’s thunder by getting anointed as the best conference in college basketball with four top-10 teams at one point in the season. In the end, North Carolina ended up at the top of the standings, as expected. The Tar Heels clinched the regular-season title on the final day of the season with a win over Duke, which tied for second with Wake Forest at 11-5, two games back of North Carolina. Florida State finished at 10-6, while Clemson and Boston College were 9-7. Miami (Fl.), Virginia Tech and Maryland all finished 7-9 – and all are on the wrong side of the bubble right now.

Favorite: North Carolina came into the season as the heavy favorite to win the national championship. However, injuries to Marcus Ginyard and Tyler Zeller put a halt to those talks (Zeller is now back, but Ginyard is not). The Tar Heels have the most offensive talent in the country, led by point guard Ty Lawson and forward Tyler Hansbrough. They are two of the top players in the country. Wayne Ellington can shoot the ball very well from deep and Danny Green does a little of everything. Deon Thompson is solid down low. UNC does struggle defensively at times, though.

Contenders: Duke made a switch late in the season, putting freshman Elliot Williams in and taking Nolan Smith/Greg Paulus out, and replacing Brian Zoubek with Lance Thomas. The Blue Devils won five in a row with that lineup before falling to North Carolina in the season finale. Gerald Henderson has developed into an All-American in conference play, while Kyle Singler is a very tough match-up. Jon Scheyer can handle the ball and shoot the three. However, Duke is still poor at defending perimeter penetration. Wake Forest might have the second-most talent in the league next to North Carolina. The Demon Deacons lost five of nine in the middle of the ACC season, but they have won four in a row to end the season. Jeff Teague is one of the best guards in the country, though he has slowed down recently. James Johnson and freshman Al-Farouq Aminu are two very talented forwards who create match-up problems. Chas McFarland adds to the big Wake frontline. Florida State is not the most explosive offensive team in the world, but the Seminoles play outstanding defense and they have Toney Douglas. Douglas was one of the best players in the ACC season long, at both ends of the floor. Uche Echefu and Chris Singleton are solid up front, and Solomon Alabi can defend and rebound. Derwin Kitchen adds athleticism on the perimeter. Clemson is in the midst of its typical late-season swoon, having lost three of its final four to end the season and going jut 7-7 since starting ACC play 2-0. The Tigers still have plenty of weapons, though, and are only a month removed from obliterating Duke by 27. Trevor Booker has developed into one of the best big men in the country this season, and K.C. Rivers is the go-to-guy on the perimeter with his scoring ability. Terrence Oglesby is an excellent albeit streaky three-point shooter, while Demontez Stitt is quick and has solid playmaking ability.

Sleeper: The three bubble teams will get most of the attention on quarterfinal Thursday, but don’t overlook North Carolina State (Maryland, especially, had better not). The Wolfpack have defeated Wake Forest, Boston College and Miami (Fl.) in conference play, and are solid. Brandon Costner is difficult to defend and Ben McCauley has bounced back after a down year. Courtney Fells is the most potent scorer in the backcourt. NC State can shoot the ball, both inside and outside the arc, and it also offensive rebounds at a high rate. They also slow the pace of the game down and force teams into tough shots.

Prediction: The ACC Tournament is always one of the most entertaining ones to watch in the country, mainly because of the intensity every team plays with – everyone wants that ACC title. Before that, though, there is also some bubble business to take care of. Each of the three bubble teams – Maryland, Miami and Virginia Tech – needs to win two games to have a chance, meaning that the Miami/VT quarterfinal game is an elimination game. Furthermore, the winner of that and Maryland also need to pull off upsets of North Carolina and Wake Forest, respectively – it’s not happening. UNC will have its hands full with Florida State in the semifinals, while the Duke-Wake Forest semifinal could be for a No. 2 seed on Selection Sunday. In the end, North Carolina will win the ACC title, defeating Wake Forest in the title game.

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