- Is this the year Virginia finally breaks through to the Final Four—or further? Can UNC bring the same level it had at the ACC tournament to the Big Dance? And what should we really think of Duke?
BROOKLYN — Kyle Guy’s eyes were still awestruck and taking in his triumphant present when he tempered his celebration by acknowledging the future. He was standing near one of the three-point arcs on the floor of the Barclays Center, gripping the trophy he was awarded as Most Outstanding Player of the ACC tournament he and his Virginia teammates had just won with a 71–63 victory over North Carolina, the hardwood around him littered with orange and navy confetti. As his fellow Cavaliers took their turns trimming the net, Guy was approached by a small cluster of TV reporters, one of whom asked the guard the moment’s most basic question: What does it mean to win this championship?
“It means a lot,” Guy said, “but it’s not everything.”
He was referring to the goals that await over the next three-plus weeks and a standard that will now be attached to Virginia from outside its program as well. The Cavaliers, who entered the regular season unranked and tabbed to finish sixth in the ACC’s preseason poll, will enter next week’s NCAA tournament with a résumé that begets heavy expectation: the ACC’s regular season and tournament champions, the unanimous No. 1 team in the AP poll, and almost certainly the bracket’s No. 1 overall seed. They have lost just twice this season (one of which was by one point, in overtime) and currently boast the most efficient defense measured in the 17 seasons tracked by kenpom.com.
Virginia has been nearly as good previously under coach Tony Bennett, earning No. 1 seeds in both 2014 and ‘16 and a No. 2 in the year in between, and its defense has ranked in the top five nationally in six of the last seven seasons. But the Hoos have not broken through to the Final Four in the Bennett Era (nor at all since 1984), and as the wins and accolades pile up, the question will be whether this is the team to finally do so.
With its Pack-Line defense by now a reliably suffocating commodity, the question will again be whether Virginia has the offense necessary to reach the final weekend or win a national title. Though the Cavs rank 21st in offensive efficiency (tied for their second-best mark under Bennett), it’s the methodicalness of their attack—they rank dead last in the country in tempo—that can make it seem stagnant and, in case of emergency, make it particularly difficult to mount a comeback.
But in Saturday’s ACC final, the Cavaliers showed why their offense can be as effective as it needs to be. They averaged 1.22 points per possession, their third-best showing against a major-conference team this season (the best, 1.29, having come two days earlier against Louisville), thanks in large part to a fanatical level of care with the ball, which they turned over just once in the game’s first 25 minutes and four times in all. Their outside shooting was as good as it’s been all season as they made nine of 17 three-point attempts, with multiple makes from Guy, Devon Hall, Ty Jerome and Nigel Johnson. Virginia is not necessarily a three-heavy team—it takes just 34.9% of its shots from beyond the arc, 249th in the country—but it is a capable one, making 39.0% of its attempts, and Saturday’s final was an illustration of how hard it will be to beat when those shots are falling. North Carolina, a likely No. 2 seed and legitimate Final Four contender, led the game for less than a minute.
There were minor surprises over the course of Virginia’s run in Brooklyn—in Friday’s semifinal, Guy (barely) registered his first collegiate dunk—but the regular season champ’s postseason path was thus far as steady as just about everything else they’ve come to be known for. Now the question becomes whether they will achieve something truly out of the ordinary, and whether that everything will come.
With the hours counting down until the NCAA tournament kicks off with its selection show, here are three more thoughts on this past week’s ACC tournament:
North Carolina will need that same energy in the tournament
Sure, they barely registered a lead against Virginia, but Saturday’s final was not discouraging for the Tar Heels either, as they stayed within striking distance into the game’s closing minutes and managed the second-best offensive showing (1.08 points per possession) any team has had against Virginia all year.
More important might be that they were playing in the game at all, having entered the week as the ACC’s No. 6 seed and needing to win three games in three days to reach the final. North Carolina has endured a number of relative lulls over the course of this 10-loss season, notably losing at home to Wofford in December and dropping three straight to close out January. But this week in Brooklyn—which included erasing a 14–0 deficit to beat Miami by 16 and a semifinal win over Duke—the Tar Heels looked like a team capable of a deep run, playing with an energy and aggressiveness on the offensive boards that often helped make up for lackluster shooting.
Such compensation will be essential to North Carolina’s postseason success; the Tar Heels have the nation’s fourth most efficient offense despite ranking 111th in effective field goal percentage in large part because they are the country’s second-best offensive rebounding team (38.4%). North Carolina will also need a better showing from Theo Pinson than what it got Saturday, as the playmaking senior forward shot just 1 for 10 from the field (though he did finish with eight rebounds and six assists). A win on Saturday could have moved the Tar Heels into the conversation for the last No. 1 seed. That’s unlikely now, but they made a case for themselves just the same.
How do we like Duke now?
After the Blue Devils’ loss to North Carolina in this tournament’s semifinals, which is the worse example of recency bias: buying into Duke’s recent stretch of strong defensive play after spending two thirds of the season struggling on that end, or becoming concerned anew about its D after it allowed the Tar Heels to score 1.03 points per possession, the first time a team had done so against Duke since North Carolina also did so on Feb. 8?
The answer is probably that both are fair readings. Duke’s defense has substantially improved over the past month, with its commitment to a full-time 2–3 zone helping compensate for some of its man-to-man deficiencies. The Tar Heels’ offensive performance was actually its worst in six and a half weeks... except for when they played the Blue Devils six days ago and had their third-worst offensive showing of the season. But along the way North Carolina did exploit several flaws with Duke’s zone, owning the offensive glass (they grabbed 39.1% of available boards on that end) and enjoying stretches where Luke Maye and Theo Pinson were able to navigate soft spots in the zone’s underbelly, or work the ball around the blocks while attacking the five. Not every tourney opponent will have the personnel and talent to take advantage, but after a month of elite defense, it could be a portentous correction.
For his part, Mike Krzyzewski was not concerned. “Holding them to 74 points was good,” he said after the game, adding later: “Overall that should have been good enough to win if we don't turn it over like we did.” Which is true: Duke’s 18 turnovers were costly, and half of them came from Trevon Duval (five) and Grayson Allen (four), the duo sharing responsibilities at the point, which has been another weakness for this team. There’s still a lot to like about Duke entering the tournament, beginning with the country’s best collection of talent, and, to be clear, they should be on the short-shortlist of national title contenders. But if this tournament ends with another earlier-than-expected exit, the reason(s) likely won’t be a total mystery.
The bubble teams probably didn’t move themselves anywhere
Whether you considered Louisville, Syracuse and Notre Dame in or out of the tournament’s at-large pool, it’s unlikely you came out of this week thinking of any of them much differently. None of the three teams pulled off a résumé-changing win, nor were they sunk by a résumé-changing loss. Louisville, the tournament’s No. 9 seed, beat No. 8 seed Florida State and lost to top-seeded Virginia. Syracuse, the No. 11, beat No. 14 Wake Forest and lost to No. 6 North Carolina State. And Notre Dame, the No. 10, beat No. 15 Pittsburgh and No. 7 Virginia Tech before losing to No. 2 Duke. Everyone took care of business. No one exceeded expectations.
The strength of their cases for an invite vary. Syracuse is 44th in RPI but went a pedestrian 4–8 in Quadrant 1 games and 3–3 in Quadrant 2. Louisville coach David Padgett’s summed up his Cardinals’ candidacy as: “We haven’t done anything wrong... And people will say, well, maybe you guys haven't done as much right as other people and all that, but not having done something wrong is doing something right.” Your mileage may vary, but it’s an accurate summation: while Louisville may lack premier victories, it also avoided any bad losses.
But the most interesting case, of course, is Notre Dame, which played half its season without star forward Bonzie Colson (and four more games without its secondary star, guard Matt Farrell). While the Irish are a not-particularly-impressive 20–14, they are now at full strength and, subjectively, clearly among the 25 or so best teams in the country. During an interview on CBS on Saturday, NCAA Senior VP Dan Gavitt described Notre Dame’s resume as a “unique situation.” But for a team whose case is based so much on the eye test, its two wins this week—a too-close win over a team that went 0–18 in the ACC and a late and furious comeback against a likely mid-range NCAA tournament team—might not help them move the needle.
The worst news for all three probably came from the Mountain West tournament, where Nevada’s presumed automatic bid went to San Diego State, leaving the Wolf Pack to likely take a coveted at-large invite. Worse still would be Davidson winning the Atlantic 10’s bid on Sunday over tourney shoo-in Rhode Island. For the ACC’s bubble bunch, those could be the most impactful results of all.