CHARLOTTE — After a three-year trip through the deserts of D.C. and Brooklyn, the ACC Tournament is back in North Carolina, and the host schools have plenty of intrigue at stake this week in Charlotte.
Wake Forest opened things Tuesday afternoon with a 79-71 loss in what could be Danny Manning’s last game as coach of the Deacs. The other three North Carolina schools will have postseason positioning at stake when they take the court at Charlotte’s Spectrum Center.
Here’s a look at the path through the tournament for each of the local schools, as well as the implications for the rest of the month.
NC State (21-10, 9-9), 8th seed
Faces No. 9 Clemson, noon Wednesday
Things have gotten complicated in Raleigh. After losing at Florida State in a game that would have gone a long way toward clinching an at large NCAA bid for NC State, the Pack made a bad situation far worse by shooting itself in the foot, losing to Georgia Tech at home. The Pack closed the season with a blowout of Boston College that, while it may not have helped State’s case much, at least didn’t damage it further.
State is No. 32 in the NET, the statistical rating tool the selection committee is using for the first time this year. That’s the good news. That puts the Wolfpack ahead of just about every bubble team.
And yet, the Pack has gone 2-8 in Quadrant I games (against teams ranked roughly in the top quarter of the nation), with a seven-game losing streak. State also couldn’t have played a weaker schedule without a prescription. The Wolfpack’s nonconference schedule ranks 353rd in the country, dead last among Division I teams. The Pack fattened their record with a 10-0 mark against the weakest teams in the nation.
State has a chance to make a case for itself in Charlotte. It opens with Clemson, a fellow bubble team ranked just three slots below the Pack in NET.
Is it a winner-gets-the-bid game? No one knows what the committee’s thinking will be, but it would behoove the Pack to win that game. That would give them the Quadrant I win that has eluded them since December.
If the Pack isn’t secure, that win would likely help lock down a bid. If they’re already in, the win would keep them out of the play-in games in Dayton.
It would also give them another Quadrant I game, against top-seed Virginia. Beat the Cavs, and the Pack is halfway to taking the automatic bid that comes from winning the tournament, with FSU or Virginia Tech likely standing between State and the championship game.
Stranger things have happened.
Duke (26-5, 14-4), 3rd seed
Faces No. 6 Syracuse, No. 11 Boston College or No. 14 Pitt, 9 p.m. Thursday
It seems almost certain that Duke will get ACC Player of the Year and Rookie of the Year Zion Williamson back for Thursday’s game. Then the Blue Devils can get started on repairing the damage his absence did to their season. Duke suffered a pair of losses to UNC and one to Virginia Tech in their final six games, all without Williamson. The Blue Devils also very nearly lost at home to lowly Wake Forest, had the Deacs’ last-second shot not rolled off the rim.
Duke will need to make a run in Charlotte to get back into consideration for a No. 1 seed. Right now, most bracket projections have them as a two, which runs the risk of facing Kentucky, in Louisville, for a shot at the Final Four.
A long run would also help Williamson play his way back into shape and help the Blue Devils get some more time integrating him back into the lineup.
Duke will be missing junior center Marques Bolden, who injured his MCL in Saturday’s game and is out for the tournament.
The bracket gives Duke a chance to make a statement to the committee by avenging most of its losses suffered while short-handed. The Blue Devils will likely start with Syracuse, who won in Cameron in a game that Tre Jones was injured early. A win there would set up an ACC Tournament showdown with UNC for the third straight year, along with a chance to erase some of the stain from the two losses in the rivalry games this year.
The winner of that game might end up taking the league’s second one seed, with Virginia likely already wrapping up the first.
North Carolina (26-5, 16-2), 2nd seed
Faces No. 7 Louisville, No. 10 Georgia Tech or No. 15 Notre Dame, 7 p.m. Thursday
The Tar Heels swept the regular season series with Duke, clinching a share of the ACC regular season title in the process.
More relevant to UNC’s immediate needs, the Heels likely leapfrogged the Blue Devils for one of the No. 1 seeds, as well as a chance to go to nearby Columbia, S.C., for the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament.
For a team that has spent much of the season flying below the radar, while Duke’s freshmen and Virginia’s dominance have taken the lion’s share of the attention, UNC now finds itself in a new position — as one of the favorites.
That, of course, means the Heels now have something to lose. An early exit from Charlotte could cost the Heels their top seed, and Louisville, who is one of the two teams in the league to take out Carolina this season, stands a good chance of being their first opponent.
UNC’s next game could be a Friday night rematch with Duke, with Williamson this time. Win that and a rematch of last year’s championship game, won by Virginia — the other ACC team to beat the Heels this season — awaits.
On the bright side, North Carolina has the chance to erase all question marks from this season by beating both teams to top them in the ACC regular season, plus beat a Duke team with their top player, erasing the asterisk many have placed on Carolina’s two wins.