North Carolina opened the season ranked #1 in the country when they met Michigan State on an aircraft carrier just off the San Diego shore back in November. There have been some valleys since then–most notably a 33-point loss to Florida State and then a late-game meltdown at home against Duke. But Carolina righted the ship, hammered Duke this past weekend and won a second straight ACC title for head coach Roy Williams. The Heels are smelling a third national title in eight years as we get set for the NCAA Tournamen,t and today TheSportsNotebook takes a look at the ACC and picks some individual award winners as the league tournament gets set to tip off this afternoon in Atlanta.
Duke had another strong year, going 13-3 in the conference behind stellar backcourt play from Austin Rivers and Seth Curry, and while they couldn’t match up with UNC’s frontline of Harrison Barnes, John Henson and Tyler Zeller, Blue Devil center Mason Plumlee can match up with a lot of other post men. Florida State is very tough down low with Bernard James manning the blocks, and the Seminoles took third place behind James and guards Michael Snaer and Ian Miller. Virginia is the fourth team that’s locked up an NCAA bid going into the conference tourney, with power forward Mike Scott delivering a big-time performance all year long in carrying the Cavs to 22 wins.
It’s N.C. State and Miami that are the subject of debate. The Wolfpack went 20-11 (9-7) behind one of the most balanced lineups in the conference, and the Pack is also athletic on the wings. Miami has been a disappointment, unable to translate a talented backcourt of Durand Scott and Malcolm Grant and a potent frontcourt of Kenny Kadji and Reggie Johnson into more than an 18-11 record. Right now ESPN.bracketologist has N.C. State just missing the field, with Miami not even on the radar. I’m a little more optimistic about State, but Miami clearly has a lot of work to do in the days ahead to get back in the NCAA conversation.
HEADING INTO ATLANTA
N.C. State needs to take care of Boston College today and that would set up a game with Virginia in Friday’s quarterfinals. At that point I think the Pack is in, but Lunardi would probably think they need to beat Virginia. Either way, it’s anybody’s guess if N.C. State can’t make the semis.
As for Miami, you have to think they need to make the semis just to be on the bubble. That would entail beating Georgia Tech and Florida State. If the Hurricanes could beat Duke, then they’re in. If they lost that game, you could at least give them a shot. But at this point, it’s not worth much more thought unless we see them playing basketball on Saturday afternoon.
The spoilers would be Clemson, Maryland and Virginia Tech, none of whom are going to the NCAA unless they win the tournament, but all playing for NIT position, and good enough to beat the top teams. Maryland and Virginia Tech go head-to-head for a crack at Carolina, while Clemson hopes to upend Duke.
I like North Carolina a lot and am giving them serious consideration as my pick to win the national championship when the time comes next week, but I don’t know that they’ll be hungry to win this event. I don’t know that Duke is good enough. Florida State on the other hand? The Seminoles won two of three against the Big Two and have all the pieces necessary for March success. I’m picking them to cut down the nets on Sunday.
Virginia’s Scott deserves to be a runaway choice for Player of the Year. While Barnes has breathtaking talent and Henson can dominate the boards, North Carolina isn’t reliant on any one player. I dread to think how bad Virginia might be without Scott, who averaged 18 points/8 rebounds a game. He deserves the honor. I’d like to give his coach, Tony Bennett, the Coach of the Year award, but the way Florida State came on and played as well as they did in league play makes Leonard Hamilton the call.