The ACC Tournament tips off on Tuesday in Greensboro, but something was missing: Elite teams.
Of course, the top teams are never in attendance on Tuesday, but even when the four double-bye programs arrive on Thursday to start play, eliteness will be in absentia.
Florida State was the top-rated team in the league last week, at No. 11 in the AP poll. The Seminoles then lost to Notre Dame, assuring that there will not be a top-10 team in the ACC Tournament this year.
By way of comparison, there have been a total of 18 top-10 teams in the last six tourneys, an average of three a year, and this will be the first time the tournament didn’t have a top-10 team since 1996.
In the void left by what’s missing this year, however, the ACC Tournament is ready to welcome a new guest — hope. In the void left by the absence of any “haves,” the have-nots are ready to vie for a league title.
“It’ll be wide open,” said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski.
His Blue Devils have been responsible for many of those top-10 rankings of the past. This year, however, Duke entered the tournament with its lowest seed in the history of the event. The 10th-seeded Blue Devils play Boston College on Tuesday and are in a position they haven’t seen since 1995 — of possibly needing to win the event to get an NCAA Tournament bid. That would mean five wins in five days for Duke, who, just four years ago, became the first team ever to win four in four days to claim the ACC crown.
“You tend to overdo it sometimes and say the thing you’re doing right now is the most ever because you’re doing it now, but this could be the most open tournament I’ve been a part of in my four decades as an ACC head coach,” Krzyzewski said.
Coach K’s team is representative of the wide-open, ultra-competitive league this year. In 18 league games, Duke had two overtime contests, two games decided by one point, and a total of seven decided by five or fewer — that’s as many five-point games as the Blue Devils had in the two previous seasons combined.
“The differential from top to bottom is not that great,” Krzyzewski said. “There’s so many close games. No one has dominated the conference. There are teams that have played better than others and deserve to be where they’re at, don’t get me wrong. It’s reflected in the national rankings. Our conference usually has a few teams in the top 10, 15 all year long and two or three others that are vying for that or flip-flopping.”
Duke’s situation may not be quite as dire as needing to win the tournament to get into the NCAAs. According to the analytics site TeamRankings.com, Duke had a 2.7% chance of getting a bid with three ACC Tournament wins and a 54% chance of getting in if the Blue Devils make the championship game.
Duke, at 11-11, 9-9 in the league, is joined in the Tuesday games by No. 14 Wake Forest, who entered with a 6-15 mark, 3-15 in the ACC. The Demon Deacons play No. 11 Notre Dame in the late game. Wake needs to win the ACC Tournament to get into the dance.
For the first time in more than a quarter-century, NC State is seeded higher in the ACC Tournament than Duke. The Wolfpack enters at 13-9, 9-8 in the league, which is good for a No. 9 seed, one spot above the Blue Devils.
The last time the Pack did that was the 1995 ACC Tournament, when they were also one spot above Duke, at No. 8 and 9, respectively. State opens its tournament play on Wednesday at noon against No. 8 Syracuse.
State was swept by the Orange in both regular season games, losing by three at the Carrier Dome and nine at home. The Wolfpack, however, has won five straight to close the regular season, four of them on the road, including a win at Virginia.
The Wolfpack have slim hopes of an at-large bid. TeamRankings has the Pack at a 3.6% probability of making the NCAAs if they make the ACC championship game.
Syracuse won its last two and five of seven and is likely in regardless of how it does in the ACC Tournament. A win over State would certainly tip them over the top, however. TeamRankings has the Orange as a 56.9% probability of getting a bid with an opening loss in the ACC Tournament. That goes up to 87.9% if Syracuse beats the Pack.
For the first time since the ACC Tournament went to its current schedule after expanding in 2013, the state of North Carolina did not have a team earn the double-bye to Thursday. UNC is the top-seeded in-state program, earning a No. 6 seed. The Heels finished 16-9, 10-6 in the ACC, and open on Wednesday night against the Wake Forest/Notre Dame winner.
The win over Duke appears to have clinched a bid to the show for the Tar Heels. Carolina will be playing this week to try to improve its NCAA seeding, currently projected at No. 11.
All of this assumes perfect attendance for the ACC Tournament. As of Tuesday morning, no teams had withdrawn due to COVID testing or tracing, and, despite speculation in the media, no one had opted out in order to avoid any possible virus exposure that could jeopardize an NCAA appearance. Obviously, if teams start dropping out, it would further serve to open up the wide-open field.
It promises to be a wild week in Greensboro. How wild? Coach K had to go back almost 30 years to find a comparison.
“I think Jimmy’s (Valvano) run (at NC State),” he said. “He had pretty good backcourt with Thurl Bailey. He didn’t have (Ralph) Sampson or (Michael) Jordan. Somebody can be a surprise. His team had to win in order to make it. It could be a year like that.”