It's the most underrated week of the sports calendar. Conference championship week. Always plenty of fun, drama, upsets, and great performances with a lot on the line, both for conference pride and NCAA Tournament resumes. And no conference tournament is better than the ACC Tournament.
The Notre Dame Fighting Irish will be looking to defend their ACC title in Washington, D.C. as the four-seed with easily the toughest draw of any of the double-bye, top four seeds. In fact, if you look around at all the national coverage of the ACC Tournament, you'd hardly know the Irish were even in it, with no one (again) expecting them to do much damage.
So what do we expect? Can Notre Dame make noise yet again as the defending champs? Which teams should we watch out for as favorites and potential underdog sleepers? All that and more as JoeSchu and I predict the ACC Tournament.
What's your title game pick?
alstein: Virginia over UNC
Virginia is so good. Their only two losses recently have been by one possession on the road at Duke and Miami, and they were a missed travel call away from winning one of those. With their balance of offensive efficiency and defensive toughness, I can't figure out why more people aren't on the Cavaliers' bandwagon.
JoeSchu: Virginia over Syracuse
Virginia in a laugher over Syracuse. I know the Orange are coming in off of 2 straight losses on the road, but Irish fans can attest to the FSU road trip being harder than it looked. They only lost by 5 in the Dean Dome. If Syracuse beats Pitt, I like their chances against a UNC team that's been hearing how great they are for nearly a week. UNC doesn't have the shooting to hurt the zone. On a neutralf floor, they get the Heels in a big upset and then take out ND in the semi-final in a game that harks back to MSG frustrations. Virginia decimates their side of the draw and does the same to Syracuse in the final to lock up a spot on the 1 line for Tony Bennett.
Who is going to win Tournament MVP?
alstein: Malcolm Brogdon
The country's most underrated player. Tremendously efficient shooter, doesn't turn the ball over, and probably the best perimeter defender in the nation. Brogdon is the biggest reason I will probably be predicting Virginia to win not just the ACC Tournament but the NCAA Tournament as well. Should also mention Sheldon McClellan is Miami is able to knock off Virginia, as I think the winner of that match-up will win the final.
JoeSchu: Malcolm Brogdon
It is hard for me to put anyone other than Brogdon here. It Syracuse does something nuts, it will be because both Gbinije and Cooney go off, so you can't really give it to just one of them. Precedent is that the MOP is the best player on the winning team (cut to Jerian Grant nodding from a NYK bench). If that's the case, it is Brogdon easily.
Who will pull off the biggest upset?
alstein: Syracuse over UNC
The zone against a team that can't shoot, plus the desperation of a team that really needs to make noise to feel comfortable for Selection Sunday. I don't love this pick (I don't even love Syracuse to get past Pitt today), as I think the Tar Heels would abuse Syracuse inside, but I can certainly see UNC falling behind early and struggling to find ways to score to get back in it.
JoeSchu: Syracuse over UNC
I'm on the Syracuse over UNC bandwagon as well. They need the wins, they'll be prepared, and they like tournament tempo. I don't see anyone from the bottom 4 jumping up and biting anyone, but a 9 over a 1 is a pretty big upset.
Who is a sleeper to make it far in the tournament?
alstein: Virginia Tech
Buzz has the Hokies on quite a roll lately, somehow leading a young, injured team to 10 conference wins. They'll be lined up against Florida State and Miami, both of whom they've beaten in the last month. They also have an outside shot at an NCAA berth all of a sudden, so that urgency may help carry them further than expected. I'll just say this; I'm glad Virginia Tech is on the side of the bracket opposite Notre Dame.
JoeSchu: Georgia Tech
What if GT has figured it out? What if all those close losses and boneheaded things are starting to end? They've won 6 of their last 8 and one of those losses was by 3 in the Yum! Center. They split the season home/home with Clemson. If they get that win, they're playing with a lot of house money and a chance to play their way in to tournament discussiong.
What's the key for Notre Dame's chances to repeat?
alstein: Matt Ryan and V.J. Beachem cannot both be cold in any game
The spacing is just so important to Notre Dame's offense that when the three-point shooters aren't making (or aren't even shooting) threes, the defense is easily able to pack the lane and make life tough on Jackson and Vasturia, whose abilities to drive really make the Irish engine go. Beachem and Ryan (or Pflueger, Burgett, Farrell or whoever else Brey decides to throw out there) need to keep the defense honest by knocking down some early threes every time out.
JoeSchu: Make shots
DJ and Steve have to be DJ and Steve while Auguste needs to be the high-energy, high-urgency Zach that seems to be emerging these last few weeks. All of that gives us a chance. If we're going to win it all, there will need to be some X-factors. It doesn't have to be one guy, but at least once per game, someone from the trio of Beachem, Colson and Ryan needs to go off for at least 20. Whoever presents that night's biggest match-up problem needs to knock down shots, space the floor, and/or be a hoss. Against Duke, I think it is Bonzie punishing Ingram inside. If we get Carolina, it could be Ryan spacing the floor at the 4 spot. If we're going to finally get over the UVa hump, it is going to need to be VJ becoming unguardable. If the big 3 struggle to knock down shots, we're dead. If they're on, we have a chance, but actually winning it will require someone outside those 3 to really step up 3 times in a row.
How will the Irish do this week?
alstein: Loss vs. Duke
One-and-done. I think Duke will struggle with NC State and then come back in a rhythm against Notre Dame (or pretty much exactly what Notre Dame did to Duke in last year's tournament). A deadly three-point shooting team against one of the country's worst in defending it will be trouble, and with Bonzie Colson in a rut, I don't see a 31-point effort from him to bail them out this time.
JoeSchu: Runner-up (Win vs. Duke, Win vs. UNC, Loss vs. Virginia)
Oddly enough, should the Orange beat Pitt Wed, I'll be cheering for the Heels in the game before us. We match up with UNC much better than Syracuse. I think we'll beat Duke. Last year, we beat Duke after they housed State. Why not repeat history? If we sweep the blue bloods (again) to make the final, the sad thing is that we haven't shown any ability to play with the top guys from the other side of the bracket. Virginia or Miami, take your pick. I think we could be a finalist, but I don't think we'll be sporting another round of #ShirtsAndHats.