NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup Preview

While it may be overshadowed in the sports world by football season, and the approaching baseball postseason, it is an exciting time in NASCAR, as they prepare for their version of the playoffs, the Chase for the Sprint Cup.  Last year, NASCAR changed the format from the previous 10-week cumulative Chase to a four-round system among 16 drivers, with four drivers eliminated every three weeks for the first nine races, all leading up to a “final four”, one race, winner-take-all finale in Homestead.  The elimination format is known as the “Chase Grid”.  Chase participants who win a race in a round automatically advance to the next round, while remaining spots are determined on points.

Kevin Harvick won last year’s title, winning the Homestead race to do so.  This year, there are several storylines entering the Chase, including the recent dominance of Joe Gibbs Racing, the recent struggles of Hendrick Motorsports (at least, relative to their normal level of success), maiden appearances in the Chase for Jamie McMurray and Paul Menard, and Jeff Gordon trying to win a championship in his final season.

Here’s how I see the Chase playing out:

Challenger Round

Races:  Chicagoland (9/20), New Hampshire (9/27), Dover (10/4)
Advancing to next round:  Kevin Harvick (Chicagoland winner), Denny Hamlin (New Hampshire winner), Jimmie Johnson (Dover winner), Matt Kenseth, Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards, Martin Truex Jr., Ryan Newman, Clint Bowyer
Eliminated:  Kurt Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jamie McMurray, Paul Menard

Harvick is on the pole for Sunday’s race at Chicagoland, where he’s won twice before and finished in the top five over half the time.  Recent form, and his form all year, for that matter, suggest he is ready to win in the Chase, even despite having not won since March 15 at Phoenix.  Much of the same can be said about Hamlin at New Hampshire.  The driver who is racing with a torn ACL last won March 29 at Martinsville, although he did win the Sprint All-Star Race (a non-points event) in May, ranks second among Chase drivers with a 10.7 average finish in Loudon, with two wins at the track.  Johnson recent finishes don’t necessarily suggest him threatening for a record-tying seventh title, but in 27 Dover starts he has 10 wins, 15 top fives, and 20 top 10s, making him the clear favorite for that race.  The #48 team also have rough stretches like their recent one at some point most years, but always seem to practically flip a switch come Chase time.  He has, after all, won six of the 11 championships awarded in the Chase era.

Kurt Busch won the inaugural Chase in 2004, and while he does have three wins at New Hampshire, he has a poor average finish of 18.6 at Dover, and his overall recent form has been decent, but not champion-like.  My elimination of Dale Earnhardt Jr. won’t be a popular prediction, as he is the sport’s most popular driver, but the three tracks in this round are all tracks he struggles at, particularly at Kansas and Dover.  He only has 31 top 10s in 77 career races at the three tracks combined.  However, should Junior get past this round, with his record at Talladega, and last year’s win at Martinsville, he could be a threat for a deep run.  McMurray could potentially be a sleeper, but he has to get out of this round first.  His best average finish at these three tracks is 17.8 at Dover, with the other two worse than 20th.  Menard has the least career credentials of any driver in the Chase, and his numbers at these three tracks are similar to McMurray, although he is having his most consistent season this year.

Contender Round

Races:  Charlotte (10/10), Kansas (10/18), Talladega (10/25)
Advancing to next round:  Carl Edwards (Charlotte winner), Jimmie Johnson (Kansas winner), Brad Keselowski (Talladega winner), Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon, Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin
Eliminated:  Clint Bowyer, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Ryan Newman

Edwards doesn’t necessarily have the most wins at Charlotte–he only has one, and it came this May in the Coca-Cola 600–but he has been consistent there.  His 10.8 average finish there is second among Chase drivers, and after struggling during the summer, he has been steadily improving coming into the Chase, including a win at the Southern 500 two weeks ago.  Johnson has three Kansas wins, and has 15 top 10s in 18 starts at the track.  His 9.1 average finish there is the best among Chase participants, and he won at Kansas in April.  The Talladega race is as unpredictable as any in the Chase, but Keselowski won the fall race there last year, and has 3 wins in 13 starts there.  An average finish of 12.5 doesn’t necessarily scream “race winner” at other tracks, but because of the craziness that happens in restrictor plate racing, that average is very respectable.  Kenseth, Harvick, Gordon, Logano, and Hamlin all have solid enough records at the tracks to be expected to run well, resulting in their advancement on points.

Bowyer is trying to win a title in the final season for his team, Michael Waltrip Racing, and has won at two of these three tracks, but he was the last driver in the Chase, and his luck will run out here.  A writer who covers NASCAR wrote this week that if Kyle Busch can get past Kansas, he can win the championship.  I agree, but I don’t think he will get past Kansas, or Talladega either.  While his Charlotte record isn’t bad, Kansas is his worst track on the circuit, with a 21.3 average finish, and only 3 top 10s and a single top five in 15 career starts there.  His Talladega record isn’t great either, although he has won there, with a 22.4 average finish.  Truex is good at Kansas, but won’t be able to get past struggles at Charlotte and Talladega.  Newman doesn’t have an awful record at any of the three tracks, but his best average finish is 17.6, and he always seems to be part of the “Big One” at Talladega.

Eliminator Round

Races:  Martinsville (11/1), Texas (11/8), Phoenix (11/15)
Advancing to next round:  Denny Hamlin (Martinsville winner), Matt Kenseth (Texas winner), Kevin Harvick (Phoenix winner), Jimmie Johnson
Eliminated:  Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano

Hamlin, a native Virginian, is very solid in his home state at Martinsville, with five wins and 15 top 10s in 19 starts there.  Kenseth has two wins at Texas, and an average finish of 9.5, second among all drivers to Johnson.  He has finished in the top 10 in each race at a 1.5-mile track this year, despite not winning at one.  Harvick has seven wins at Phoenix, including the last four Phoenix races, and five of the last six.  Last year’s win in the Phoenix Chase race vaulted him into the Championship Round at Homestead, when he won his first career title.  Johnson advances on points after winning a race in the first two rounds.

By this point in the Chase, with the field being cut down to the final four drivers, there is no margin for error.  Carl Edwards only has one top five in 22 Martinsville starts, and although he is always a threat to win at Texas and Phoenix, he may have to win to advance if he digs himself too deep a hole at Martinsville.  Gordon’s best chance to avoid a winless season in his swan song will likely come at Martinsville, where he has eight wins and a 6.9 average finish, but it may also be his best shot to advance to the Championship Round in his final race at Homestead given that Texas is arguably his worst track with a 17.3 average finish and only one win in his lengthy career.  Keselowski’s average finish is no better than 13.9 at any of the three tracks, and 17.3 at Texas, and he has never won at any of the three.  Logano, who is a common championship pick, has similar numbers to Keselowski at these three tracks, and although he does have one Texas win, he has a 16.9 average finish there.

Championship Round

Race:  Homestead (11/22)
Champion:  Denny Hamlin
Eliminated:  Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson

It all comes down to one race at Homestead to determine who has had a great year, and who is the champion, and it is determined in the “Game Seven” atmosphere NASCAR had in mind when they created this format.  Any of these four drivers are more than capable of winning the title, so here’s why I picked Hamlin.  While Johnson and Kenseth have both made their careers to some extent by running well on 1.5-mile tracks, Kenseth has a 15.8 average finish, although he does have one win, and would tie a record for the most years between championships (12 since his 2003 title in the last season before the Chase).  Johnson has never won and has only four top fives at Homestead, with an average finish of 14.4.  While some will use the argument that he hasn’t had to win, but just finish, most years at Homestead while clinching the title, in other years the #48 hasn’t necessarily been a race-winning car.

Harvick and Hamlin are both good at Homestead, with Harvick winning last year’s finale to win the title, and holding a 7.6 average finish.  However, it is historically difficult to win back-to-back titles, as only nine drivers have ever done it (although four have done it more than once), and that is true in every sport.  Harvick has also finished second an astounding 10 times this year, with “only” two wins.

Hamlin has two wins at Homestead, and a 10.8 average finish, and has been poised to win a championship his entire career, since his rookie year in 2006 (he would’ve won the title that year in the current format).  One of the best stretches of his career came after he tore his left ACL in 2010, so it wouldn’t surprise me to see him win a championship after tearing his left ACL just before the last “regular season” race at Richmond.  Hamlin does have a 27.1 average start at Homestead, which is by far the worst of the four Championship Round drivers, but his qualifying numbers have steadily improved since his career low average start of 21.0 in 2013.

Two interesting notes should Hamlin win the title: it would be the first title for Joe Gibbs Racing since 2002, and it would be the ninth championship for car number 11 in NASCAR history, which would extend a record, as Hamlin would join NASCAR Hall of Famers Ned Jarrett, Cale Yarborough, and Darrell Waltrip as champions driving #11.

As the Chase unfolds, fans may think that who advances from one round to the next early in the Chase is inconsequential, as they think the drivers who end up competing for the title at Homestead will be near the top of the standings throughout.  However, as I made my projections (ranking drivers first to last at each track then giving points accordingly), Hamlin nearly didn’t get out of the Contender Round at Talladega, as he was tied with Clint Bowyer, and won the tiebreaker based on having more wins.

Now, the drivers I have picked in fantasy NASCAR competition all season have done horribly, always seeming to have an accident or mechanical failure, causing them to finish much more poorly than they would have run without issues during the race.  That being said, I want to apologize in advance to Denny Hamlin’s fans, because in picking your driver to win the title, I have probably actually doomed him into a poor Chase finish.  These rankings, obviously, are as unofficial as they come.

It should be an excellent Chase for the Sprint Cup.  The storylines I already mentioned will make it memorable, as well as those that we can’t even imagine right now which will present themselves.  For instance, who would have thought this time last year that Brad Keselowski would be involved in brawls with Matt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon after Chase races, and who would have thought Ryan Newman, one of three drivers to reach the Chase without a win, would make it all the way to Homestead, and would finish second, having a shot at the title all the way until the final lap.  Stories like these are what the Chase format intended to create, making it among the most unpredictable of “playoffs” in all of sports.

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ACC Tournament Semifinals Recap, Championship Preview

While semifinal Saturday at the 61st ACC Tournament in Greensboro didn’t produce any buzzer beaters, 30-point performances, or jaw-dropping upsets, it did produce a pair of competitive, exciting games, as well as a great championship matchup for Sunday.

Here is a look at both semifinal games:

#1 Virginia 51, #5 Pittsburgh 48
The Cavaliers advanced to their first ACC Tournament final since 1994, as they try for their first title since 1976, defeating Pittsburgh after Justin Anderson blocked James Robinson’s three-point attempt in the closing seconds.  The game was closely contested all the way through, with the largest lead being eight for the Cavaliers with 9:50 remaining, before Pitt closed to within one before Anthony Gill’s clutch free throws just before the game-clinching block.  Virginia had a very balanced attack, as Joe Harris led the team with 12 points, Malcolm Brogdon had 10, Anthony Gill had 10 off the bench, and Akil Mitchell had 8 points and a team-leading 8 rebounds.  Talib Zanna and Lamar Patterson both had 15 for Pitt, and Zanna added 9 rebounds after his 21 rebound performance on Friday.  Virginia held Pitt to just 11 points scored on field goals outside of 5 feet, with the Panthers shooting 4-for-25 on such shots.  The Cavaliers become the eighth top seeds in the last nine years to advance to the championship game.

#3 Duke 75, #7 NC State 67
The second semifinal featured a back-and-forth duel between ACC Player of the Year TJ Warren for the Wolfpack and ACC Freshman of the Year Jabari Parker for the Blue Devils.  The highest two scorers in the conference were the highest two scorers in this game, with Warren scoring 21 and Parker 20, but it was Parker’s Blue Devils who scored more overall and got the win.  Warren was just 4-for-13 after halftime, which was part of an overall trend for the Wolfpack, who shot 67% in the first half and just 36% in the second half.  After Duke led by one at half, with NC State’s shooting struggles, the Blue Devils were able to pull away, eventually leading by as many as 12.  That lead stayed between 8 and 12 points for the final 10 minutes, with State getting within 6 only once the clock was all but gone.  Parker’s scoring effort was aided by 16 points from Rasheed Sulaimon, 14 from Rodney Hood, and 12 off the bench, including a trio of threes, from Quinn Cook.  Warren was helped by Wolfpack freshmen Lennard Freeman and Anthony Barber, who added 13 and 12, respectively, off the bench.  Duke advances to their 31st ACC Tournament title game, and they are 19-11 in their previous appearances.

#1 Virginia vs. #3 Duke, 1:00 p.m.

Ironically enough, in the age of conference expansion and realignment, the championship game of this first-ever 5-day ACC Tournament will be between two of the conference’s remaining seven charter members, Duke and Virginia.

This should be an excellent matchup between two teams that were consistently the best all season long (Syracuse was good, but not consistent).  For starters, each team has two players honored among this year’s All-ACC teams, with Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood for Duke and Joe Harris and Malcolm Brogdon for Virginia each being honored.

In addition, this is a great coaching matchup, between the legendary Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, in his 34th season at Duke, going for his 14th ACC Tournament title, and one of the nation’s best up-and-coming coaches, Virginia coach Tony Bennett, in his 5th season with the Cavaliers.

These teams met once in the regular season, on January 13 in Durham, when Duke won 69-65.  Until last Sunday, the loss to the Blue Devils was Virginia’s only ACC loss.   Duke led the whole game before a furious rally, which included an 11-0 run, gave Virginia a one-point lead in the final minute, and a Rasheed Sulaimon go-ahead three clinched the win for Duke in the closing seconds.  That was Duke’s 26th straight win at home, a streak that has since been stretched to 33 games.

Virginia isn’t a team that will put up big numbers, but they are certainly a well-oiled machine.  The saying “defense wins championships” applies to this season’s ACC regular season, because Duke’s offense, which is the best in the conference, led them to a 14-4 conference record, but Virginia’s defense, which allows fewer points than any other defense in the nation, led them to a regular season title.

However, the ACC does not officially recognize its regular season champion.  The only champion recognized is the team who cuts down the nets about 3:00 on Selection Sunday.  And Virginia hasn’t done that since 1976.  Duke has done it 19 times, including 15 since the Cavaliers’ last title.  That might be motivation enough for Virginia.

Virginia senior guard Joe Harris, who was a first team All-ACC preseason selection, has had reduced numbers from last year’s very productive season.  But the team has won, and Harris has been a big part of that success, as he has made sure the team remains balanced on both ends of the floor and he helps his teammates to score, particularly Malcolm Brogdon, who was voted second team All-ACC this postseason.  Even with Harris’ “down year”, he was voted third team All-ACC by the media, and second team by the coaches.

As the season progressed forward, this Virginia team had more and more of a feeling of destiny to it, and that was never felt more than it was two weeks ago when they defeated Syracuse by 21 at home to clinch the top seed in the ACC Tournament.  While Duke has played better than Syracuse as of late, I still think Virginia’s team is very solid all-around and has the toughness, both physically and mentally, to win a title.

Duke may also be due; they have won 5 straight championship game appearances, dating back to a 2004 loss to Maryland, and 10 out of 11 dating back to a 1998 loss to North Carolina.

Virginia 60, Duke 56.

 

For what it’s worth…
My first round record:  2-1
My second round record:  3-1
My quarterfinal record:  4-0
My semifinal record:  2-0
Tournament Total:  11-2

ACC Tournament Quarterfinals Recap, Semifinals Preview

The third day of the ACC Tournament may have been the best day yet in the 61st edition, including a pair of upsets.  Here is a look back at the action from quarterfinal Friday.

#1 Virginia 64, #9 Florida State 51
Cavaliers senior leader Joe Harris had 20 points and Anthony Gill added 16 off the bench as top-seeded and 6th-ranked Virginia pulled away from Florida State.  With the win, the Cavaliers earned their first trip to the ACC semifinals since 1995.  The 13-point win was after the Cavaliers had beaten the Seminoles by 12 points in each of their two regular season meetings.  After leading 32-27 at the half, Virginia led by 10 by the 13:57 mark and by 15 at the 9:51 mark, and never looked back.  Okaro White led the Seminoles with 17, as their fate now rests in the hands of the NCAA Selection Committee, with ESPN projecting the Seminoles as one of the “First Four Out” of the NCAA Tournament.  Virginia will play Pittsburgh on Saturday after their first ACC Tournament win since 2010.

#5 Pittsburgh 80, #4 North Carolina 75
North Carolina nearly came back from a 20-point deficit midway through the second half to beat Pitt, but the 19 points and 21 rebounds for Talib Zanna of the Panthers proved to be too much for the 15th-ranked Heels to handle.  Zanna’s 21 boards were the third most in a single game in ACC Tournament history. Pitt guard James Robinson added a career high 19 points, as the Panthers erased any doubts whether or not they were worthy of competing in the NCAA Tournament, after a late-season slide had them on some projected bubbles.  As mentioned, the Tar Heels trailed 61-41 with 7:22 remaining, and 70-54 with 4:31 left, but made a furious rally to get to within 3 within the closing seconds, before running out of time.  20 of Marcus Paige’s 27 points were in the second half, as the Heels will now await their NCAA tournament seeding and opponent, to be announced Sunday night.  Pitt will continue in the ACC Tournament, taking on Virginia on Saturday.

#7 NC State 66, #2 Syracuse 63
NC State blew a 10-point lead in the second half before a Ralston Turner 3 with 2:28 remaining gave the Wolfpack a lead they would not relinquish.  While they kept the lead and got the win, it didn’t happen without drama, as 11th-ranked Syracuse missed six shots on their final possession, over the final 24.6 seconds, including 4 three-pointers.  ACC Player of the Year TJ Warren of the Wolfpack played all 40 minutes, scoring 28 points and 8 rebounds, while no other NC State player scored more than 10, the amount scored by center Jordan Vandenberg, who was 5-for-5 from the floor.  Tyler Ennis had 21 for Syracuse, and teammate Jerami Grant added 19 points and 10 rebounds, while Orange leading scorer CJ Fair struggled to 9 points, hitting just 3 of 16 field goal attempts.  Syracuse is now 2-5 since starting the season 25-0, and will likely be a 3 or 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament after spending much of the season in the top 5, and three weeks in February at #1.  NC State may have put themselves in the conversation for an NCAA at-large bid, and will get a chance to strengthen their résumé in the semifinals Saturday against Duke.

#3 Duke 63, #6 Clemson 62
Duke’s Rodney Hood had 17 points, including a pair of free throws with 3.8 seconds left, to help lift the Blue Devils to a one-point win over Clemson in Friday’s nightcap, as ACC Freshman of the Year Jabari Parker led Duke with 18 points.  Rasheed Sulaimon added 14 points off the bench, and Amile Jefferson led the team with 13 rebounds.  The 7th-ranked Blue Devils led by 13 with 12 minutes left, before a late 15-5 Clemson run which ended with a Rod Hall runner with 7.4 seconds left gave Clemson their only second half lead.  Hall led the balanced Tigers with 13 points, as KJ McDaniels had 12, Jordan Roper had 11, and Landry Nnoko had 10.  Hall drove the length of the floor just before the buzzer, and lost the ball before he could get up a shot after being defended by Tyler Thornton.  Clemson and their fans wanted a foul call, although replays showed no foul was committed.  Duke was able to avoid their third consecutive postseason loss in the Greensboro Coliseum, and advances to play NC State in the semifinals, while Clemson will likely play in the NIT.

After an exceptional set of quarterfinals on Friday, it will be difficult for the semifinals to produce as good of a set of games.  That being said, here is a look at an intriguing set semifinal matchups, both of which match up a top 10 team against an unranked opponent.

#1 Virginia vs. #5 Pittsburgh, 1:00 p.m.
Virginia and Pittsburgh play in the first semifinal, as Virginia plays their first semifinal in 19 years, and Pitt plays their first ever as an ACC member.  This is a rematch of one of the best ACC games from the regular season, which Virginia won, 48-45, on a three at the buzzer by second team All-ACC honoree Malcolm Brogdon.  Many don’t remember the game, because it was played on Super Bowl Sunday, but the rematch will be played on a much bigger stage, in the ACC Tournament in Greensboro.  Virginia is playing in their first ACC semifinal since 1995, and will attempt to reach their first championship game since 1994.  Pittsburgh is in their first ACC Tournament, but hasn’t been to any conference final or semifinal since winning the 2008 Big East Tournament.  While Virginia was able to coast on Friday, Pittsburgh was not after nearly blowing a 20-point lead against North Carolina.  While I don’t know that physical fatigue will be an issue, as the teams are at the same disadvantage of playing on less than 24 hours rest, mental fatigue might, after Pitt had to hold on in their game Friday.  If the game comes down to which team is more mentally tough, I’ll take Tony Bennett’s Cavaliers all the way.
Virginia 54, Pittsburgh 47.

#3 Duke vs. #7 NC State, appr. 3:30 p.m.
In-state rivals Duke and NC State meet in the second semifinal, as the Blue Devils, in their 43rd semifinals appearance and sixth in seven years, will try to reach the finals for the first time since winning three straight titles from 2009-11, and the Wolfpack try to advance to the championship game for the first time under coach Mark Gottfried, who has guided State to three straight semifinal appearances.  The Wolfpack are trying to reach the final for the first time since 2007, and haven’t won the ACC since Jim Valvano was coach in 1987.  These teams met once in the regular season, back on January 18 in Durham, and Duke won 95-60, scoring 33 points off 21 Wolfpack turnovers.  But these two teams, and particularly NC State, are much different now.   The Pack were 1-4 in the ACC after that loss, but have gone 10-5 since, with a current four-game winning streak including Friday’s win over Syracuse.  Duke survived Clemson, and has now won eight out of 10 since losing to Syracuse on February 1, and 13 out of 16 since losing to Clemson on January 11.  NC State needs the win to make a strong case for an NCAA Tournament at-large bid (although a win would leave them a win on Sunday away from an automatic bid), but the Duke juggernaut may be too much to handle.  This game will surely be closer than that drubbing in Cameron in January.
Duke 78, NC State 72.

For what it’s worth…
My first round record:  2-1
My second round record:  3-1
My quarterfinal record:  4-0
Tournament Total:  9-2

ACC Tournament Second Round Recap; Quarterfinals Preview

The second day of the ACC Tournament has concluded, and while the top four teams in the conference have yet to play, the intensity certainly picked up with Thursday’s set of games.

#9 Florida State 67, #8 Maryland 65
Seminoles center Boris Bojanovsky had 12 points and 12 rebounds, for his first career double-double, and slammed home the game winning dunk in the final second to give Florida State the win.  6 of his 12 boards were on the offensive end of the floor, as he helped lead the Seminoles to a 39-26 rebounding margin.  Ian Miller of Florida State led all scorers with 17 points, with Aaron Thomas adding 14.  Maryland had led at halftime, but had trailed by 11 midway through the second half before battling back to tie the score in the closing minutes.  Guards Seth Allen and Dez Wells both had 18 for Maryland, as Allen hit four three-pointers.  The Seminoles shot 54% in the second half, while the Terrapins shot just 35%.  While the Seminoles now advance to play top-seeded Virginia, Maryland’s 61-year run in the ACC comes to an end, as they depart for the Big Ten next year.

#5 Pittsburgh 84, #12 Wake Forest 55
Pittsburgh entered their first ACC Tournament in a big way, victimizing Wake Forest in the biggest Tournament blowout since Clemson’s 82-48 win over Boston College in 2008.  Senior forward Lamar Patterson had 24 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 steals, and a block in a stellar performance that included four made threes.  Deacons senior Coron Williams had 16 points in likely his final collegiate game, a step down from Wednesday’s 25-point performance against Notre Dame.  The Pitt lead had hit double figures just five and a half minutes into the game, and the Panthers never looked back, coasting into a quarterfinal matchup with North Carolina.

#7 NC State 68, #10 Miami 57
ACC Player of the Year TJ Warren had 24 points for the Wolfpack, and teammate Ralston Turner added 22 points, including five threes, in a win over Miami that was in a game much closer than the score indicates.  Hurricanes senior Rion Brown finished his ACC career with a 22 point performance, and at times it seemed like Warren, Turner, and Brown were the only three players on the floor.  Miami led 53-51 with four minutes left, before a 12-0 run gave them a ten-point lead with too little time remaining for the Canes to come back.  16 of Turner’s 22 points came in the second half, as the Pack advance to play 11th-ranked and 2nd-seeded Syracuse in the quarterfinals.

#6 Clemson 69, #11 Georgia Tech 65, overtime
Georgia Tech senior Daniel Miller hit the shot that got the game into overtime, a 15-footer in the final second of regulation, before a missed dunk and a turnover late in overtime were partially responsible for the outcome of the extra session.  Miller, a third team All-ACC honoree, had just 4 points in his final collegiate game (although he did have 9 rebounds), trailing behind Clemson counterpart and first team All-ACC player KJ McDaniels, who had 18 points despite going just 4-for-15 from the floor.  Demarcus Harrison added 12 for the Tigers, including 6 in the final minute of overtime, and Rod Hall added 10.  Trae Golden was superb in the losing effort for the Yellow Jackets, scoring 23 points, including 3 three-pointers, and teammate Robert Carter Jr. also had 13 points and 9 rebounds.  Like Tech’s first round game, they had a lengthy scoring drought late in the game, going 7 minutes without a field goal late in the game, as part of a 13-2 Clemson run, but this time they weren’t able to get away with it.  Clemson advances to play Duke on Friday.

Here are the previews and predictions for Friday’s quarterfinal round.  The tournament’s intensity will increase as the top four teams in the conference each make their first appearance of the tournament, including Syracuse’s first appearance ever.

#1 Virginia vs. #9 Florida State, 12:00 p.m.
Virginia enters the tournament as the top seed for the first time in 33 years, so their fans have waited for this moment for a long time.  Florida State’s fans have too, if all season counts as a long time, because, while the Seminoles are on the NCAA bubble, they lack a résumé win, but certainly have the chance for one in playing the 6th-ranked Cavaliers.  Expect this to be a low-scoring game, as Florida State’s teams under Leonard Hamilton have always been hard-nosed, strongly defensive-based teams, and Virginia sports a defense allowing the least points per game in the nation.  Florida State’s game with Maryland came right down to the wire, but they played well in the contest, showing they may bring some momentum to the Greensboro Coliseum on Friday as well.  While some will say Florida State’s fatigue may be a factor after playing yesterday, Virginia’s rust could be equally as much of a factor, as this is just their second game since March 1, and they lost the first.  In the end, while Florida State probably needs the win more, it seems more feasible for Virginia to find a way to win.  By the way, this is the third meeting of the season, with Virginia winning by 12 in both, although the most recent was on January 18.
Virginia 55, Florida State 50.

#4 North Carolina vs. #5 Pittsburgh, appr. 2:30 p.m.
For anyone who doubted whether Pitt could still be dominant, the Panthers silenced the critics yesterday with a 29-point win over a Wake Forest team that had won 2 out of 3 coming in.  While many will point to Tar Heel guard Marcus Paige as the “x-factor” in this game, I’ll point to Pitt forward Lamar Patterson.  Patterson played extremely well early in the season, to the point that he might would have been the ACC Player of the Year if the award had been given at the end of February, but struggled in February, before getting back on track with a 30 point performance in an overtime win at Clemson.  He followed that up against Wake, scoring 24 points in just 29 minutes of action.  When Patterson plays well, Pitt can play with anyone, as evidenced by their losses to Syracuse and Virginia at the buzzer.  The Heels won the last time these two teams met, 75-71, on February 15 in Chapel Hill.  Carolina lost their last game, Saturday night at Duke, so you know they will be ready to go for this game.  But if the Panthers can play the way they are capable of playing, and can continue their momentum from Thursday, it will be tough for the Tar Heels to avoid the mild upset.
Pittsburgh 75, North Carolina 69.

#2 Syracuse vs. #7 NC State, 7:00 p.m.
The last time these two teams met, back on February 15, the game turned on a continuation no-call, and ended with a game-winning goaltend.  If Friday’s quarterfinal game has half the drama of the first meeting, we’ll all be in for an excellent basketball game.  Syracuse won that meeting, 56-55, at home in New York, and comes into their first ACC Tournament as the second seed, and as the 11th-ranked team in the nation.  While most programs would easily accept the 11th-place ranking in mid-March, it must be a disappointment for the Orange, who spent most of the season among the top 2 or 3, including a three-week stint at #1.  Before Sunday’s win over Florida State, the Orange had lost four out of five, including head-scratchers against Boston College and Georgia Tech, both at home.  NC State comes into this game on a three-game winning streak, including their win over Miami in the second round on Thursday.  Coach Mark Gottfried has led the Wolfpack to the semifinals in both of his seasons at NC State, although it is an uphill climb to return there this season.  Then again, with Syracuse’s struggles, and with the Wolfpack seeming to peak at the right time, and considering the fact it is March (the “madness” has begun), and the fact this is about as close to a home game as a team can get in the conference tournament, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Wolfpack raise some eyebrows with a win.  To do it, ACC Player of the Year TJ Warren will have to play well, but considering the way he’s played in his last ten games, that’s almost a given.
NC State 61, Syracuse 58.

#3 Duke vs. #6 Clemson, appr. 9:30 p.m.
The winningest program in ACC Tournament play, the Duke Blue Devils, will be the last of the 15 teams to make their inaugural appearance in the 2014 edition of the Tournament.  They will meet Clemson, who defeated Georgia Tech in overtime, 69-65, to reach Friday’s quarterfinal round, and defeated the Blue Devils, 72-59, in the only previous meeting of the teams, on January 11 at Littlejohn Coliseum.  The matchup will see the ACC Freshman of the Year, Duke’s Jabari Parker, matchup with the ACC’s Defensive Player of the Year, Clems0n’s KJ McDaniels.  Both players, as part of their first team All-ACC seasons, lead their teams in scoring, rebounds, and blocks.  As mentioned, Clemson has already beat Duke this year, although that game was in Duke’s worst stretch of the season in which they lost two out of three to unranked opponents, with the other loss to a Notre Dame team that would go on to finish 13th in the conference, and nearly fell out of the rankings for the first time in seven years.  This team is much different now, and if you take out one outlier game against an emotionally-charged Wake Forest team on their senior night, Duke has gone 12-2 since the Clemson loss, with the only losses at Syracuse and North Carolina (even including the Wake loss, they’re still on quite a run).  Clemson has been streaky all year, with the season including a two-game and a three-game losing streak, as well as a five-game and three-game winning streak.  They’ve won three out of four now, with the only loss in overtime to Pittsburgh, so perhaps their on a good run now, but they had to use a lot of physical and emotional energy just to get over 11th-seeded Georgia Tech in a second round overtime game.  It’s the ACC Tournament; I’m too smart not to pick Duke.
Duke 65, Clemson 54.

For what it’s worth…
My first round record: 2-1
My second round record: 3-1
Tournament Total: 5-2

ACC Tournament First Round Recap, Second Round Preview

Day one of the 61st annual ACC Men’s Basketball Tournament is in the books.  Here is a look back at Wednesday’s action:

#12 Wake Forest 81, #13 Notre Dame 69
Wake Forest senior Coron Williams scored a season-high 25 points, hitting 3 three-pointers, and sophomore Devin Thomas added 19 points and 10 rebounds as the Deacons grabbed their first ACC Tournament win since 2007, back when Skip Prosser was the coach in Winston-Salem.  The Deacons led wire-to-wire, leading by double digits for a large portion of the contest.  The loss ends a disappointing, under-achieving season for Notre Dame, who had one at least one game in each of their last five conference tournaments in the Big East before losing their inaugural tournament game in the ACC.  Junior Pat Connaughton led the Irish with 19, and senior Eric Atkins had 13 points and 7 assists in his final collegiate game.

#10 Miami 57, #15 Virginia Tech 53
The defending ACC champions, Miami, beat Virginia Tech for the first time in three tries this season to advance to the second round.  While Hokies senior Jarell Eddie led all scorers with 16, and senior Rion Brown led the Hurricanes with 15, the spotlight shined on Miami senior Erik Swoope, who scored 14, including the go-ahead basket with 2:42 remaining and a pair of game-clinching free throws, as well as a pair of monster dunks in the first half.  Swoope scored nearly ten points better than his season average, making sure the game would not be his last in a Miami uniform.  Freshman Davon Reed added 14 off the bench for the Canes.  The Hokies shot just 26% in the second half, leading to a season-ending loss with a 9-22 record.

#11 Georgia Tech 73, #14 Boston College 70, overtime
Robert Carter Jr.’s double-double of 20 points and 13 rebounds led Georgia Tech to their third win over Boston College this season.  The win came, in a bizarre game, without the benefit of a field goal in the final 5:28 of regulation and with only one in overtime, as the Yellow Jackets scored most of their late points from the free throw line.  Tech blew a 13-point advantage over the final eight minutes of regulation, as the Eagles stormed back, led by Patrick Heckmann’s strong perimeter play, as he led all scorers with 21 points.  The game was delayed briefly in the first half due to a power outage in the Greensboro Coliseum, before Georgia Tech picked up their first ACC Tournament win since the semifinal round in 2010.

With that, here is a preview, and prediction, for each of the matchups in the second round:

#8 Maryland vs. #9 Florida State, 12:00 p.m.
This will be the third meeting of the season between the Terrapins and Seminoles, after the Seminoles won 85-61 on January 12, and the Terrapins won 83-71 on February 8.  Both teams will be playing their first game of the tournament, and both teams want a shot at top-seeded Virginia, who the winner will play Friday.  Florida State wants the shot because they currently sit on the NCAA Tournament bubble, and could use a so-called résumé win.  Maryland wants another shot at a team they just upset on Sunday, as they want to prove it was no fluke and they need the win to join the Noles on the bubble.  These are two very even teams, and both are playing very well right now, so this matchup should come down to the wire.  Considering Maryland beat Virginia in their last game, and Florida State lost by 16 to Syracuse in theirs, I think Maryland ekes one out to extend their final ACC season by at least one more day.
Maryland 60, Florida State 58.

#5 Pittsburgh vs. #12 Wake Forest, appr. 2:30 p.m.
Wake Forest enters the second round after beating Notre Dame on Wednesday, and will play an opponent playing their first ever ACC Tournament game for the second consecutive day.  This time the opponent is Pittsburgh, who beat the Deacons in Pittsburgh, 80-65, in the season’s only meeting on January 11.  Wake seemed to play with more purpose and effort on Wednesday than they had for most of the season, with their win over Duke being an exception.  However, they will be playing on consecutive days for the first time since Thanksgiving weekend, and will be playing a team that hasn’t played since Saturday (Miami and Georgia Tech face the same dilemma).  While Pitt’s purpose and effort has also sagged at times in the second half of the season, they have still been a very competitive team, and still have basketball left when they leave Greensboro, with an almost certain NCAA bid on the way.  The moderate level of discrepancy between the teams in player talent and coaching will also show itself here.  Wake will shine early, but fade late, and Pittsburgh will advance to play North Carolina on Friday.
Pittsburgh 74, Wake Forest 65.

#7 NC State vs. #10 Miami, 7:00 p.m.
Both Mark Gottfried of NC State and Jim Larranaga of Miami are known as coaches who get the most out of their players, particularly when it comes to tournament time.  Both of Gottfried’s previous NC State teams have made appearances in the ACC semifinals, with the 2012 edition also running to the Sweet Sixteen, while Larranaga won the ACC Tournament with Miami a year ago, and took 11th-seeded George Mason to the Final Four back in 2006.  So, we know this rematch from last year’s semifinals should be well-coached and well-played.  This is the third meeting between the teams this year, with the road team winning both previous matchups.  The Wolfpack won in Coral Gables on February 8, 56-55, while the Hurricanes won in Raleigh on March 1, 85-70, although that game was much closer than it sounds.  One thing a team needs to do to win games in several consecutive days to win the tournament is conserve energy.  However, while NC State watched from their hotel on Wednesday, Miami had to use a lot of physical and emotional energy to get past a bad Virginia Tech team in the first round.  While they won’t necessarily be “out of gas” in this game, State will have “fresher tires”, both mentally and physically, which will allow them to survive and advance to play Syracuse in the quarterfinals.
NC State 63, Miami 56.

#6 Clemson vs. #11 Georgia Tech, appr. 9:30 p.m.
The nightcap of Thursday’s action features the I-85 rivalry between Clemson and Georgia Tech, after Clemson won both regular season meetings.  On February 4, the Tigers won one of the most defensive ACC games of the shot clock era, 45-41, at home in Littlejohn Coliseum.  February 22 in Atlanta, there was a little more offense, with the Tigers winning 63-55.  While I’ve mentioned fatigue as a factor for the teams that won on Wednesday and have to play on Thursday, that will be even more of a factor for Georgia Tech, who needed overtime to dispatch Boston College.  I’ve often heard the theory that, in the situation when one team has played a game in the arena (like Georgia Tech) and the other has had a bye (like Clemson), the team that has already played has gotten familiar with the surroundings and “gotten the butterflies out”, and often jumps out to a good start.  However, considering the Yellow Jackets only made one field goal for the last 10:28 of their win over the Eagles, relying on free throws for the victory, they don’t have much momentum to work with, and may still have those shooting woes on their mind while playing the nation’s third best scoring defense.  Clemson is also coming off an overtime game, although theirs was a loss back on Saturday to Pittsburgh, so they will be ready to get that behind them, and will also be ready for a rematch with Duke, who they beat back in January.
Clemson 58, Georgia Tech 51.

For what it’s worth…
My first round record: 2-1
Tournament Total: 2-1

ACC Tournament First Round Preview

The new ACC Tournament format means there will be games on Wednesday for the first time in history.  Here is a look at the first round’s matchups:

#12 Wake Forest vs. #13 Notre Dame, 1:00 p.m.
This is a matchup of a pair of teams disappointed to even be playing on Wednesday in the first place.  Wake Forest started the year 4-3 in the ACC, before a midseason 7-game losing streak ruined their chances for an NCAA or NIT bid and their chances for an ACC Tournament bye.  Notre Dame defeated Duke on the opening weekend of conference play, but has struggled mightily since, going 5-12 in the ACC after the win, with only one win over a team not in the conference’s bottom third.  The Deacons won the only regular season meeting between the two teams back on January 25, although that was at home, where they play much better.  The Deacs have not won an ACC Tournament game under coach Jeff Bzdelik (they haven’t even been close), while his counterpart Mike Brey has a nice postseason résumé.  And I think Notre Dame has a better shot at pulling some upsets and making a deep run than Wake Forest does.  I also think this game will be close, and the Irish have done better in close games than the Deacons have.  The winner of this game will play Pittsburgh in the second round on Thursday.
Notre Dame 66, Wake Forest 64.

#10 Miami vs. #15 Virginia Tech, appr. 3:30 p.m.
This matchup has some intrigue because, although Virginia Tech was clearly the worst team in the ACC this season, struggling to a 2-16 record in conference play, they won both of their meetings against Miami.  In December, in Coral Gables, the Hokies won 61-60, in overtime.  In February, in Blacksburg, the Hokies won 52-45.  However, Miami is playing better now than they were at the time of either of those meetings, and coach Jim Larranaga tends to have his teams peak at the right time.  In addition, its hard for any team to beat another team three times in a season; it will only be that much tougher for Virginia Tech to beat a team three times.  Judging by the pattern of the two previous meetings, this should be a close, low-scoring game, with the winner advancing to play NC State on Thursday.
Miami 52, Virginia Tech 46.

#11 Georgia Tech vs. #14 Boston College, 7:00 p.m.
Georgia Tech enters this game coming off of their first back-to-back conference wins of the season, over Syracuse and Virginia Tech.  Boston College, since their upset over Syracuse, has lost four out of five.  Like Miami and Virginia Tech, these two teams have already met twice this season.  Georgia Tech won both meetings, by scores of 68-60 and 74-71.  While I don’t see Georgia Tech firing coach Brian Gregory, Boston College’s Steve Donahue could be coaching for his job in this game after a very disappointing season.  The Eagles are also trying to avoid a horrific piece of history; unless they win a game in the ACC Tournament, the Eagles will match the 2010-11 Wake Forest team for the worst overall record by an ACC team in the last 25 seasons, at 8-24.  Should they beat Georgia Tech and then lose in the second round, they would be 9-24 and avoid the dubious distinction.  However, although the Eagles have some motivation for this game, and although it will be hard for Georgia Tech to beat Boston College a third time, the Yellow Jackets are peaking at the right time, and while that may not mean they will win the tournament, they should get out of the first round and advance to play Clemson on Thursday.
Georgia Tech 64, Boston College 60.

ACC Basketball Power Rankings, Week of 3/10

It was a wild week in the ACC, with three of the top four teams being upset by middle- or bottom-tier opponents.  Other games among those middle- and bottom-tier teams went right down to the wire, with potential postseason bids and coaches’ futures in the balance.  And, of course, there was North Carolina and Duke.  And all this was in just the first week of March… the best is yet to come, with the ACC Tournament this week and the NCAA Tournament starting next Tuesday.

Last week, I divided the conference into a top four, middle five, and bottom six, as the teams had basically divided themselves into these groups.  The new ACC Tournament double-bye format also divides the teams into these same groups.  While these rankings are not reflective of each team’s seeding in the ACC Tournament, I will their seeding, as well as potential tourney matchups, in each team’s weekly summary.

The Top Four (Receive a double bye in the tournament)

1.  Virginia (25-6 overall, 16-2 ACC, Last Week: 1st)
The Cavaliers lost their only game of the week, 75-69 in overtime at Maryland, in the last meeting of old rivals.  But with the Cavaliers still riding the high of their first outright regular season ACC title since the Ralph Sampson era in 1981, and with them dropping just a spot from 5th to 6th in the AP Poll, they remain first in these rankings.  Virginia’s only ACC Tournament title was in 1976, although they have a good shot to this year as the tournament’s top seed.  ACC Coach of the Year Tony Bennett will lead his troops into battle Friday against the winner of Thursday’s Florida State-Maryland game.  A rematch with Maryland would certainly be interesting.

2.  Duke (24-7, 13-5, 2nd)
Wake Forest shocked the Blue Devils back on Wednesday, beating them 82-72, before Duke defeated arch rival North Carolina over the weekend, 93-81, before a crowd at Cameron Indoor Stadium even louder than usual.  The loss to Wake would be enough to drop Duke in these rankings, and was enough to drop them from 4th to 7th in the AP Poll, but with the win over the Tar Heels and Syracuse’s equally bad loss to Georgia Tech, the Devils were able to retain position.  As the 3 seed, Duke has to wait until the 11th game of the ACC Tournament to make their first appearance, when they will likely play Clemson but could also play Georgia Tech or Boston College in the event of an early-round upset.  Remember, Clemson beat Duke back on January 11, although Duke won both meetings with Georgia Tech and their lone meeting with Boston College. People are already buzzing about the possibility of a Duke-Syracuse semifinal, but the teams have to take care of business on Friday first.

3.  North Carolina (23-8, 13-5, 4th)
The Tar Heels survived an upset bid from Notre Dame, winning 63-61 on senior night to extend their winning streak to 12 games, before the streak ended in Durham with a 93-81 loss to Duke.  Carolina drops from 14th to 15th in the AP Poll, but moves up a spot here due to the win over the Irish and Syracuse’s well-documented struggles.  Like Duke, North Carolina has three possibilities to prepare for for their first tournament contest as the 4 seed, as Pittsburgh, Wake Forest, and Notre Dame each could win their way to a quarterfinal matchup with the Heels, who were a combined 3-1 on the year against those teams, with the loss coming in their ACC opener against Wake Forest on January 5.

4.  Syracuse (27-4, 13-4, 3rd)
The Orange’s recent struggles continued this week, with a 67-62 home loss to Georgia Tech, before righting the ship, at least for now, with a 74-58 road win against Florida State.  The loss to the Yellow Jackets was certainly unexpected, and at the time was their fourth loss in five games.  Off the loss, the Orange dropped out of the top 10 for the first time all season, falling to 11th.  Syracuse earned the 2 seed in the ACC Tournament, which means they will not play until the evening session on Friday.  The most likely scenario has the Orange playing a rematch against NC State, who they beat 56-55 in a thriller back on February 15, although Miami and Virginia Tech could play their way into the quarterfinals.  The Orange were a combined 3-0 against the Hurricanes and Hokies this season.

The Middle Five (Receive a single bye in the tournament)

5.  Maryland (17-14, 9-9, 8th)
After coming into the week having lost four out of five, the Terrapins finished off their final ACC regular season with a 64-47 win over Virginia Tech and a 75-69 overtime upset of regular season champion Virginia.  Both wins were at home, capping off the Comcast Center’s reputation as a tough venue for visiting ACC teams (although it will still be a tough venue for Big Ten teams).  With the pair of wins, and particularly the upset of Virginia, the Terps move from 8th to 5th in these rankings.  Maryland’s tournament road, as the 8 seed, begins Thursday with Florida State, and if they defeat the Seminoles they will get another crack at Virginia in the quarterfinals.  Maryland and Florida State split two previous matchups, with the home team winning each game.

6.  Florida State (18-12, 9-9, 6th)
Florida State remains steady at 6th in these rankings after a 74-70 win at Boston College and a 74-58 home loss to Syracuse.  The Syracuse game was an opportunity for a résumé win the Seminoles could use right now, as they are right on the bubble for the NCAA Tournament.  Florida State will be the 9 seed in the ACC Tournament, and if they can defeat Maryland in their first tournament game on Thursday, they would get another opportunity for a big win, as they would play Virginia in the quarterfinals.  In two previous meetings with the Cavaliers, the Seminoles lost by 12 both times.  If they can find a way to beat Virginia, they would be a lot more comfortable heading into Selection Sunday.

7.  NC State (19-12, 9-9, 9th)
ACC Player of the Year TJ Warren led the Wolfpack, almost singlehandedly, to a pair of wins over the last week, beating Pittsburgh on the road, 74-67, and Boston College at home, 78-68.  Warren scored a career high of 41 against the Panthers, then outdid himself and scored 42 against the Eagles, to finish the season averaging 24.8 points per game, which leads the ACC by over five points.  NC State has played well in the postseason under third year coach Mark Gottfried, and they hope to continue that trend when they begin their ACC Tournament as the 7 seed against the winner of Miami and Virginia Tech.  State beat the Hokies in their only meeting, while the road team won both contests between the Wolfpack and Hurricanes.  Should the Wolfpack survive and advance, they would play Syracuse in a rematch of a game they felt they should have won back on February 15.

8.  Pittsburgh (23-8, 11-7, 5th)
Pittsburgh drops three spots in these rankings, showing just how close these middle five teams are.  They drop below NC State because they lost to the Wolfpack, 74-67, but they stay ahead of Clemson after beating the Tigers in overtime, 83-78.  Pitt will be in the NCAA Tournament, although they are projected in the 8-9 seeding range instead of being a top 4-5 seed, as had been projected earlier in the season when they were playing so well.  The Panthers are a 5 seed in the ACC Tournament, and will play the winner of Wake Forest and Notre Dame in their first game on Thursday.  The Panthers won their only meeting against both teams in the regular season, although they went to overtime against the Irish.  Should Pitt win their first game, they would advance to play North Carolina in the quarterfinals, who they lost to on February 15.

9.  Clemson (19-11, 10-8, 7th)
Like Pittsburgh, it’s tough to drop Clemson.  They did beat Miami, 58-54, but then lost to Pittsburgh, 83-78, in overtime, and therefore fall behind the Panthers in these rankings.  What Clemson needs to make the NCAA Tournament is one or two résumé wins.  As the ACC Tournament’s 6 seed, their first game will be against either Georgia Tech or Boston College.  But if they win that matchup, they will get a chance to beat Duke for the second time, and should they upset the Blue Devils, they might would have the chance to play Syracuse.  Then again, the easiest way to get to the NCAA Tournament is to win the ACC Tournament, something Clemson has never done.

The Bottom Six (Will play in the first round of the tournament)

10.  Georgia Tech (15-16, 6-12, 14th)
After a few weeks of playing well but not getting the results they wanted, Georgia Tech got a pair of wins this week, upsetting Syracuse, 67-62, before beating Virginia Tech, 62-51.  The two wins came after losing four in a row, and six out of seven, although the Yellow Jackets were playing better than that would indicate.  They enter the ACC Tournament as an 11 seed, and will play Boston College in the opening round, a team they beat twice in the regular season.  If they can beat the Eagles a third time, they would play Clemson, who they lost to in a pair of close regular season games.

11.  Miami (16-15, 7-11, 10th)
Miami falls a spot, only dropping behind Georgia Tech due to the Yellow Jackets win over Syracuse, after losing to Clemson, 58-54, and beating Wake Forest, 69-56.  The win over the Deacons earned Miami the 10 seed in the ACC Tournament, as they try to defend last year’s title, although that title came as the 1 seed.  They will begin their title defense against Virginia Tech on Wednesday, which is a bit problematic as Virginia Tech has already beaten Miami twice in the regular season.  Should Miami win on Wednesday, they would play NC State on Thursday, after splitting their regular season series with the Pack.

12.  Wake Forest (16-15, 6-12, 13th)
The Demon Deacons continued their up-and-down year with an 82-72 upset win over Duke, followed by a 69-52 road loss to Miami to drop to 2-32 in road conference games under coach Jeff Bzdelik.  Whether or not Bzdelik will return next year is certainly in doubt, even with the win over Duke fresh on everyone’s mind, but first the Deacons will begin the ACC Tournament on Wednesday against Notre Dame.  Wake defeated Notre Dame at home, 65-58, back on January 25, in the only meeting of the two teams this season.  Should Wake advance, they would play Pittsburgh in the second round after suffering an 80-65 road loss to the Panthers back on January 11.

13.  Notre Dame (15-16, 6-12, 12th)
In their only game of the week, Notre Dame lost a tight game against North Carolina, 63-61, after the game-tying shot attempt by Eric Atkins was blocked by the Heels’ Marcus Paige.  Playing such a close game against a top 15 opponent on the road wouldn’t have dropped the Irish in these rankings if it weren’t for a pair of upsets by Wake Forest and Georgia Tech, which led them to jump the Irish.  Notre Dame will be the 13 seed in their first ACC Tournament, and will take on Wake Forest in the first round.  As mentioned, Wake won the only meeting of the two teams back in January.  Should Notre Dame win over Wake, they would play Pittsburgh, after an overtime loss to the Panthers in their penultimate regular season game.

14.  Boston College (8-23, 4-14, 11th)
The Eagles fall three spots in these rankings after a pair of losses in the past week.  First they lost a close home game to bubble team Florida State, 74-70, then they lost on the road at NC State, 78-68.  Since their stunner over Syracuse, the Eagles have lost four out of five, including a pair of double-digit defeats, although they did win in a relatively hostile environment at Wake Forest.  The Eagles ACC Tournament will start as the 14 seed against Georgia Tech on Wednesday night.  The Eagles have already lost twice to the Yellow Jackets, although the second meeting came down to the closing seconds.  Should the Eagles, win, they would face Clemson, who beat them, 62-60, in their ACC opener in January.

15.  Virginia Tech (9-21, 2-16, 15th)
The Hokies extended their losing streak to six with a 64-47 loss to Maryland and a 62-51 loss to Georgia Tech.  Prior to their current six-game losing streak, they had been on a ten-game losing streak earlier in the season.  So, it’s safe to say, the Hokies are ready to get this season over with.  The good news is, although they are the 15 seed in the ACC Tournament, they will be playing a Miami team in the first round that they have already beaten twice this year.  In fact, Miami is the only ACC team the Hokies have beaten.  Should they defeat the Hurricanes a third time, they would move on to play NC State in the second round, after losing to the Pack by 7 in their previous meeting.

I don’t have a ballot for the ACC postseason awards, but if I did, here’s how I would vote:

Player of the Year: TJ Warren (NC State)

All-ACC First Team: TJ Warren (NC State), Jabari Parker (Duke), CJ Fair (Syracuse), Tyler Ennis (Syracuse), KJ McDaniels (Clemson)

All-ACC Second Team: Marcus Paige (North Carolina), Rodney Hood (Duke), Malcolm Brogdon (Virginia), Joe Harris (Virginia), Lamar Patterson (Pittsburgh)

Coach of the Year: Tony Bennett (Virginia)

Defensive Player of the Year: KJ McDaniels (Clemson)

Freshman of the Year: Jabari Parker (Duke)

All-ACC Freshman Team: Jabari Parker (Duke), Tyler Ennis (Syracuse), Landon Perrantes (Virginia), Devin Wilson (Virginia Tech), Michael Young (Pittsburgh)

ACC Tournament Schedule (Greensboro Coliseum, Greensboro, NC):
First Round (Wednesday)
Game 1: #12 Wake Forest vs. #13 Notre Dame, 1 p.m.
Game 2: #10 Miami vs. #15 Virginia Tech, appr. 3:30 p.m.
Game 3: #11 Georgia Tech vs. #14 Boston College, 7:00 p.m.

Second Round (Thursday)
Game 4: #8 Maryland vs. #9 Florida State, 12:00 p.m.
Game 5: #5 Pittsburgh vs. Game 1 Winner, appr. 2:30 p.m.
Game 6: #7 NC State vs. Game 2 Winner, 7:00 p.m.
Game 7: #6 Clemson vs. Game 3 Winner, appr. 9:30 p.m.

Quarterfinals (Friday)
Game 8: #1 Virginia vs. Game 4 Winner, 12:00 p.m.
Game 9: #4 North Carolina vs. Game 5 Winner, appr. 2:30 p.m.
Game 10: #2 Syracuse vs. Game 6 Winner, 7:00 p.m.
Game 11: #3 Duke vs. Game 7 Winner, appr. 9:30 p.m.

Semifinals (Saturday)
Game 12: Game 8 Winner vs. Game 9 Winner, 1:00 p.m.
Game 13: Game 10 Winner vs. Game 11 Winner, appr. 3:30 p.m.

Championship (Sunday)
Game 14: Game 12 Winner vs. Game 13 Winner, 1:00 p.m.

Tournament Picks
First Round Winners:
Notre Dame, Miami, Georgia Tech
Second Round Winners: Maryland, Pittsburgh, NC State, Clemson
Quarterfinal Winners: Virginia, North Carolina, NC State, Duke
Semifinal Winners: Virginia, Duke
ACC Tournament Winner: Virginia