For all the pre-tourney talk about how balanced the league was and how wide open the field, the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament stayed very much true to form.
The No. 1 seed, North Carolina, beat the No. 2 seed, Virginia, in Saturday’s championship game, after those two, respectively, had knocked off No. 4 Notre Dame and No. 3 Miami in the semifinals.
It goes much deep than that, though.
In 13 games over the five days, only one lower-seeded team managed to beat a higher seed. No. 10 Georgia Tech rallied to get by No. 7 Clemson in overtime. Other than that, all favorites (by seeds) advanced.
The two finalists also demonstrated their dominance.
The Tar Heels won their first game by 17 over Pitt and then set an ACC semifinals record with a 31-point whipping of Notre Dame. Virginia handled Georgia Tech by 20 but did get more of a fight in the semifinals before notching a 73-68 victory over Miami.
Still, even in that one, the Cavaliers got off to a hot start and never trailed. They had a double-digit lead going into the final two minutes.
Then in their matchup, the Tar Heels and Cavaliers also showed they have the best opportunity among ACC teams at making a deep run into March.
In improving to 28-6 on the season, the Heels shot a blistering 51.1 percent against one of the nation’s top defensive clubs in the title game and got a super defensive effort out of guard Marcus Paige, whose primary assignment against Virginia was to take on the ACC Player of the Year, guard Malcolm Brogdon.
Brogdon managed only six field goals on a career-high 22 attempts and settled for 15 points after scoring 24 on 6-of-15 shooting against Miami and 26 on 10-of-15 shooting in the quarterfinals against Georgia Tech.
Paige has had a difficult season that includes a hand injury that kept him out of six games, but he was in control throughout the tournament. He missed all seven of his attempts from three-point range against Virginia but made five of six shots from inside the arc on his way to 13 points and had only one turnover.
The Heels have freshman Joel Berry II for long-range responsibilities. He is hitting 39.1 percent from behind the arc after making all three of his attempts against Virginia. And they have muscle inside with the double-double machine that is forward Brice Johnson (16.6 points, 10.1 rebonds a game) and forward Kennedy Meeks (9.4 ppg, 5.9 rpg).
As for Virginia, don’t count the Cavaliers out on the basis of their loss to North Carolina, when they went through an 0-for-12 stretch in the second half that turned their 44-40 lead into 55-46 deficit with 1:45 to go.
Brogdon isn’t likely to struggle again like he did against North Carolina, and neither is guard London Perrantes. Even considering Paige’s defensive effort, Brogon also simply just missed some shots he usually takes. Perrantes, the ACC’s top three-pointer shooter (49.6 percent), had an uncharacteristic shooting night also, making only two of his eight long-range attempts.
Together, Perrantes and Brogdon were only nine of 36 from the field for 23 points. For the season, they have combined for an average of 29 points a game in going 10 of 21 from the field overall and four of nine on treys.
As for the remaining teams, only Miami looks capable of getting very far in the postseason. The Hurricanes did push the Cavaliers in the ACC semis, but never could get quite recover from the early 10-point deficit.
Not having to play in a grinding final against North Carolina could play in the Hurricanes’ benefit. Even after the quarterfinal win over Virginia Tech, coach Jim Larranaga said his team might have been a “little tired” coming into the tourney after finishing the regular season with games against North Carolina, Virginia, Louisville, Notre Dame and Virginia Tech — the first one and last two on the road — to finish the regular season.
So they could use the rest.
Notre Dame probably is not as bad as the thrashing the Heels gave the Irish, but the Irish still have been struggling offensively over the last few games of the regular season.
Well, the Blue Devils are another team that could benefit from the extra rest the loss in the ACC quarterfinals gave them. But that’s still not going to make up for their lack of depth. If their recent pattern of win-lose, win-lose, win-lose, win-lose is going to be interrupted, it very well could occur in a manner they would prefer not to experience with a quick exit from the NCAAs.