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Bracket Breakdown: How the ACC Will Fare

March 16, 2010 Columns No Comments

The ACC has had a down year. It’s hard to argue that point when only two teams receive seeds better than No. 7 in the NCAA Tournament. And Maryland’s No. 4 seed is probably a little generous. The skeptics think Duke isn’t worthy of a No. 1 seed.

With all that negativity, the ACC enters the NCAA Tournament looking to re-establish its position as one of the top power conferences. Duke has an excellent shot at making that happen as one of the best teams in the country that nobody wants to love. Maryland has an outstanding squad that seemed destined to make some noise in the NCAA Tournament — until the committee placed the Terrapins in Kansas’ region.

The rest of the ACC teams in the tournament play great defense but have suspect offenses. A couple of them have favorable match ups, while a couple others look destined to start the off-season before this weekend. Here’s a complete preview of the ACC’s representatives in the NCAA Tournament.

Duke Blue Devils (Overall: 29-5, ACC: 13-3)

No. 1 seed, South Region

The Blue Devils enter the tournament facing criticism because they received a No. 1 seed instead of West Virginia. The naysayers are further enraged that the selection committee awarded Duke a better No. 1 seed, placing the Blue Devils in the South Region, on the S-curve than Syracuse, which would play its regional semifinal and final games in Salt Lake City. With all this talk about the Blue Devils not being worthy, they have plenty to prove.

But let’s be the Devils’ advocate for a moment. Duke has played like one of the two best teams in the country all season, according to Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency statistics. In fact, based on offensive and defensive efficiency, Duke should be the favorite to win the national championship, not Kansas. Swallow that, critics!

Of course, a team’s performance on the court often contradicts their profile on paper. For Duke to reach the Final Four, the Blue Devils will need to remain ruthlessly efficient on offense. Duke is one of the best three-point shooting teams in the country, anchored by sharp-shooting Jon Scheyer, Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith. Each of those three shoots better than 38 percent from behind the arc and has made at least 49 three-pointers so far. Duke’s offense runs like a well-oiled machine because the team makes the most of its possessions. Duke is one of the best teams at avoiding turnovers and grabbing offensive rebounds.

Defensively, Duke simply makes it hard to score. The Blue Devils force turnovers during more than 20 percent of opponents’ possessions. Teams that don’t turn it over still struggle to score against a defense that allows opponents to only shoot 44.3 percent from inside the arc and 28.2 percent behind it. Duke’s ability to shut down opponents’ long-range shooters is critical to making a deep run in March. Three-pointers can be the great equalizer for seemingly overmatched underdogs. But Duke won’t let someone win that way.

Based on Duke’s draw, the Blue Devils should reach the Final Four. But they will encounter resistance as early as the Sweet 16. No. 5-seed Texas A&M and No. 12-seed Utah State could challenge Duke’s Final Four aspirations in that round. In the Elite Eight, Duke could face No. 3-seed Baylor in Houston in front of a hostile crowd. But the Blue Devils are accustomed to hostile crows at every road game. Look for Duke to reach the championship game before running into the unstoppable force out of Lawrence, Kan. The Jayhawks simply have too many weapons for a shallow Duke team that otherwise matches up favorably against Kansas.

Maryland Terrapins (Overall 23-8, ACC: 13-3)

No. 4 seed, Midwest Region

If Maryland were seeded as a No. 5 or 6 seed in any region outside of Kansas’, the Terrapins would be a trendy pick to wreck some brackets and knock off better seeds. But alas, the Terrapins are a No. 4 seed and would likely face top-seeded in the Sweet 16 of the Midwest Region. Maryland possesses the firepower to hang with Kansas, but the Terrapins don’t have enough defense to pull off what would be one of the biggest upsets of the tournament.

Maryland enters the NCAA Tournament with the No. 6 most efficient offense. Senior superstar Greivis Vasquez is the catalyst for the offense, which puts up nearly 80 points per game. Vasquez contributes almost one-quarter of that scoring, averaging 19.5 points, 4.6 rebounds and 6.3 assists per game. He’s not the best shooter in the tournament, making about 43 percent of his attempts, but he is one of the most fiery leaders. Fueled by Vasquez’s leadership, a trio of experienced players will be ready to contribute. Landon Milbourne, Eric Hayes and Sean Mosley will need to continue to score in double figures to help the Terrapins advance past No. 13 Houston in the first round and then No. 5 Michigan State or No. 12 New Mexico State.

Against Houston, the Terrapins will face the nation’s leading scorer in Aubrey Coleman. Look for Maryland to give up plenty of points to Coleman but limit the production of any other Cougar. The Terrapins would likely obliterate the defensively challenged Aggies. Coach Tom Izzo’s Spartans would provide a more formidable match up, but the Terrapins will win that one on the strength of clutch performances by Vasquez and Hayes. But Kansas will end Maryland’s hopes. In all, the ACC co-champions should be happy with a run to the Sweet 16. It would mark their best season in nearly a decade.

Clemson Tigers (Overall: 21-10, ACC: 9-7)

No. 7 seed, East Region

As the No. 7 seed in the East Region, Clemson has a tough draw. The Achilles’ heel for the Tigers has been a downright ugly turnover rate. More than 20 percent of the team’s possessions end in a turnover. That’s a problem when facing No. 10-seed Missouri, which is one of the three best teams in the country at forcing turnovers. The Tigers desperately need guards Demontez Stitt and Andre Young to take care of the ball. The two combine to average 4.4 turnovers per game and only 5.6 assists per game. That’s not a great ratio for the team’s primary ball-handlers.

However, if Clemson can cut down the turnovers, senior Trevor Booker will have a huge day. He leads the team with 15.3 points and 8.3 rebounds per game, with about one-third of those rebounds coming at the offensive end. Missouri is one of the worst teams in the country at keeping opponents off the glass.

On defense, the Tigers from Missouri might play right into the strength of the Tigers from Clemson. Missouri likes to jack up lots of three-pointers. But Clemson allow only 29.4 percent three-point shooting this season, ranked tenth-best.

Clemson will win a wild one against Missouri that should see plenty of turnover-induced scoring runs. But the Tigers will run into trouble against West Virginia. That game could start as a blowout for West Virginia and end with Clemson making it interesting before falling short at the end.

Florida State Seminoles (Overall: 22-9, ACC: 10-6)

No. 9 seed, West Region

Based on their offensive inefficiency, the Seminoles have no business beating anyone in the tournament. But Florida State’s defense manages to make games ugly enough to give the Seminoles a chance. As the No. 9 seed in the West Region, Florida State will face a stiff challenge from No. 8 Gonzaga. In the end, Gonzaga’s balance will undo another strong defensive performance by Florida State.

The Seminoles are among the 15 worst teams in the country at protecting the ball. All those turnovers will lead to defeat against Gonzaga. And if they fall behind, the Seminoles will struggle to rally because they shoot only 33.5 percent from three-point range. Center Solomon Alabi will deliver another strong performance in the paint, but he could easily finish with more blocks than the team has three-pointers. Barring an epic defensive performance, that’s not a good recipe for success in the NCAA Tournament.

Florida State’s best chance at victory is to keep the score under 60 points and maintain at least a two-possession throughout the second half. The Seminoles are a bad free throw shooting team and will need as large of a cushion as possible in the closing moments to stop a late rally. Gonzaga probably won’t even need that, though.

Wake Forest Demon Deacons (Overall: 19-10, ACC: 9-7)

No. 9 seed, East Region

Wake Forest, the No. 9 seed in the East Region, has a veteran lineup with three senior starters and a future NBA Draft pick in sophomore Al-Farouq Aminu. But for the second consecutive season, the Demon Deacons are sliding at the end of the season as losers of five of their last six games. To avoid a second straight one-and-done NCAA Tournament performance, the Demon Deacons need to find a way past equally underwhelming No. 8 Texas.

With six wins against the RPI top 50, Wake Forest has the talent needed to beat the Longhorns and maybe even challenge top-seeded Kentucky. But it won’t happen. The team’s offense is floundering, primarily because of the two-headed monster of turnovers and bad shooting. Wake Forest ranks among the bottom half of Division I teams in protecting the ball, and the Demon Deacons shoot a dismal 31.3 percent from three-point range and 47.6 percent inside the arc. Even if Wake Forest has a lead, the team’s 66.0 percent free throw shooting could jeopardize the win.

Aminu will struggle against Texas’ superstar, Damion James. He might approach his average of 15.7 points per game, but if Aminu needs to guard James on the perimeter throughout the game, he won’t be able to grab as many rebounds as usual (10.7 per game). Likewise, James and Dexter Pittman have the size needed to box out Wake Forest’s big men and cut off one of the Demon Deacons’ strengths: their ability to grab offensive rebounds.

Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (Overall: 22-12, ACC: 7-9)

No. 10 seed, Midwest Region

Like Wake Forest and Florida State, the Yellow Jackets are far better at stopping opponents than scoring. But in comparison to those two ACC peers, the No. 10 seed in the Midwest Region is much better offensively. Georgia Tech will face an offensively oriented team in No. 7-seed Oklahoma State. Both teams have played inconsistently this season, and the Cowboys might rely too much on scoring sensation James Anderson. That would behoove the Yellow Jackets.

Georgia Tech doesn’t let opponents shoot well from anywhere, and Anderson will struggle to find clean looks against the much taller Yellow Jackets. Forwards Gani Lawal and Derrick Favors will need to the difference makers for Georgia Tech. The two big men combine to average 25.6 points, 17.2 rebounds and 3.5 blocks per game. Collectively, they grab more than six offensive rebounds per game. In a game that likely will figure plenty of missed shots, rebounding will be critical, and Georgia Tech has an advantage.

Interestingly, Georgia Tech’s likely second-round opponent, No. 2-seed Ohio State, has a similar profile to Oklahoma State, with Evan Turner dominating the offense and the rest of the team coming along for the ride. But the rest of the Buckeyes are much better than the rest of the Cowboys. Ohio State will take advantage of Georgia Tech’s proclivity to commit critical turnovers to win a closer than expected game.

In summary, the ACC figures to have mostly expected results. As a No. 1 seed, Duke is supposed to reach at least the Elite Eight. The Blue Devils will deliver on that promise en route to a championship game appearance — and loss — to Kansas. Besides Kansas, only Maryland will reach the Sweet 16. Wake Forest and Florida State will fail to win a game, while Georgia Tech and Clemson will advance one round before losing to No. 2 seeds.

However, the ACC will likely surprise critics with Duke’s success and close losses to presumably far superior teams.

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