Plenty at stake at ACC Tourney

Duke, UNC, Wake and State all have something to play for

Cameron Hildreth (2) drives to the basket as fans storm the court at the end of Wake Forest’s upset win over Duke in February. The Deacs were thought to have wrapped up an NCAA bid with that win but now have more work to do this week. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton, File) ‌

The ACC Tournament returns to Washington, D.C. for the first time since 2016. North Carolina cut down the nets that year, on its way to the national championship game. The Tar Heels hope to get another running start to their postseason in the nation’s capital this time around.

The Heels won the ACC regular season, and a top seed in the tournament, outright with a win over Duke in the regular season finale. UNC swept the Blue Devils in the regular season, and, with Duke taking the No. 2 seed, there’s a strong possibility the rivalry could go back for a third helping in D.C.

That sets up the possibility for a rarity in Duke-Carolina series—a three-game sweep. It hasn’t happened since 2002, when Duke did the trick in Chapel Hill, Durham and Charlotte. The Heels haven’t pulled it off since 1967. Overall, Duke has pulled off the trifecta five times in the history of the rivalry, Carolina just the once.

Three times, Duke has won in the tournament after losing both regular season matchups, the last time in 1984. The Blue Devils will be trying to repeat that feat in Washington.

Planting the seeds

Outside of bragging rights, which are not insignificant in this rivalry, UNC and Duke will be playing for seeding and location in the upcoming NCAA tournament.

Most bracketology predictions have the Tar Heels slotted as a 2-seed, opening play in nearby Charlotte, then going to Boston for the second weekend. That’s about as favorable as venue options get this year.

An ACC Tournament title would give the Heels a reason to argue for a top seed, although it would likely also require early upsets in conference tournaments by some of the teams ahead of them. An early upset loss by UNC could have the Tar Heels traveling farther in the tournament’s second weekend.

NCAA positioning is more crucial for Duke, who has the two losses to UNC on its ledger. Right now, the Blue Devils are expected to be a 3-seed, playing in either Brooklyn or Pittsburgh. They’d also likely be headed to Detroit or Dallas for the regionals. There’s also an outside chance that a poor showing in D.C. could have Duke in the West bracket, which in recent years has been a death knell for Blue Devil tournament runs. If Duke can cut down the nets and avenge a loss to the Heels, they might also get sent to Charlotte in the NCAA’s hard-to-figure pod system.

Urgency increases down the bracket

While Duke and Carolina are worried about NCAA travel plans, other teams in the ACC will be playing just to make it to the dance. The ACC has had a down year, in the eyes of national observers, so the league has a large number of teams on the bubble.

According to ESPN, Virginia and Pitt both need at least one win in the tourney to secure an at-large bid. Syracuse and Virginia Tech need two. The Cavaliers finished third in the league and the Panthers fourth, showing just how low in esteem the ACC is currently being held.

And then there’s Wake Forest

The Demon Deacons should put a sign up at the entrance to Lawrence Joel Coliseum with an arrow 48 inches off the ground. “You must be this tall to watch Wake Forest basketball,” because this season has been a roller coaster.

The Deacs missed the tournament in 2022, coach Steve Forbes’ first year, because, despite 25 wins, their schedule wasn’t tough enough. By all accounts, they scheduled tougher last year, and missed the tourney again, because they only had 19 wins.

This year, Wake enters the ACC Tournament with 19 wins, and likely plenty of ulcers after a stressful run through the ACC.

The Deacs looked on their way to being in after opening 11-3 and winning their first three ACC games. They then lost four of the next six, followed by a three-game winning streak.

After upsetting Duke at home, the consensus was that Wake had played itself into the field. All the Deacs had to do was …

…exactly what they ended up doing. Wake lost at Notre Dame, then 10-17, 5-11 in conference, in their next game. They followed that with a loss at Virginia Tech (15-13, 7-10 at the time) and at home to Georgia Tech (13-16, 6-12). Their tournament hopes appeared dead, but a season-ending win over Clemson puts the Deacs back on the bubble. According to ESPN, they need to win their first tournament game to clinch a bid.

What does the future hold?

The last team from the state playing in D.C. is the NC State Wolfpack. They were relegated to opening day Tuesday after ending the regular season with four straight losses, and only five straight wins appear able to get them into the NCAA Tournament. The Pack may be playing for coach Kevin Keatts’ job, as murmurings of dissatisfaction in the fanbase have gotten louder and louder. They got win one, as a short-handed Wolfpack came back from a 12-point deficit to down Louisville on Tuesday.