After its heartbreaking overtime loss to Pittsburgh in its home and regular season finale, Clemson (19-11, 10-8 ACC) will travel to Greensboro, North Carolina for the 2014 ACC Tournament. The Tigers, who will be the #6 seed this weekend, will need a very strong showing in the tournament to have any chance whatsoever to receive an at large bid to the NCAA Tournament. With the expansion of the conference this season, the tournament will now begin on Wednesday (all match ups shown above) with the 10th through 15th seeds facing off. Clemson will face the winner of Georgia Tech and Boston College, the 11 vs. 14 pairing, on Thursday at 9 PM.
Clemson has collectively faced these teams three times, Georgia Tech twice and Boston College once, and has won all three encounters, though none by particularly convincing margins. Boston College (8-23, 4-14 ACC), a team Clemson has not seen since their conference opener in early January, is a team that has had a very disappointing season. The Eagles were predicted to have a break out season and be a true ACC contender, but those hopes were dashed by a very poor non conference performance that did not improve once conference play began. Despite the disappointment, Boston College still has very talented players, including Olivier Hanlan, Joe Rahon, and Dennis Clifford. Hanlan, last year’s ACC Freshman of the Year, is still one of the best players in the league and could be incredibly dangerous come tournament time. Rahon and several other Eagles’ guards can be very effective from beyond the arc, and if Boston College shoots well from three they are capable of beating anyone. This was evident when they went to the Carrier Dome and defeated Syracuse in overtime.
Georgia Tech is another team with a lot of potential that never fully materialized over the course of the season. The Yellow Jackets (15-16, 6-12 ACC) have relied heavily on their star center, Daniel Miller, who has been very consistent in every category all year. They have also received a boost from the return of their talented forward, Robert Carter, Jr., who has averaged 11 and 8 this season. Like Boston College, Georgia Tech has also recently upset Syracuse on the road, an impressive feat against a team that has had the type of season the Orange have had. The Jackets have offensive talent but not in a consistent enough form to compete against the conference’s better teams. However, if they get points from unexpected sources they could be a difficult out for any team in Greensboro.
Clemson’s inconsistent performance down the stretch has left them as a long shot to receive an automatic bid for the Big Dance. It is possible that their only remaining path to the tournament would be to win the ACC Tournament this weekend and receive the automatic bid. However, if Clemson were able to win three games this weekend, which would put them in the championship game, the Tigers could be up for discussion for an at large bid once again. If Clemson wins its game on Thursday they will play the #3 seed, Duke, a team the Tigers have already defeated this season at Littlejohn. A win against the 7th ranked Blue Devils would be even more impressive this time as it would be on a neutral court that will be decidedly pro-Duke considering the tournament’s location. However, another win over Duke, though impressive, would not be nearly enough to get them into tournament talks. If seeding prevails, the Tigers’ next opponent would be Syracuse, a team Clemson played well against but lost to earlier this season. Clemson could also play NC State, Miami or Virginia Tech, but Syracuse is the most likely and preferred opponent for Clemson. Though these other opponents would be an easier route to the final, another victory over any of these teams would do nothing to improve Clemson’s resume. It would be hard for the selection committee to ignore back to back wins over Duke and Syracuse, two of the nation’s best teams all season. Though two victories of this caliber would probably not put Clemson in the field as it currently stands, it would put them in position to take advantage of any mistakes made by other bubble teams.
What to Expect Overall:
The new ACC Tournament format gives the top four teams all the advantages, as they are given an extra days rest over all other teams and two more days rest than some. Though the tournament is always wide open, this year’s champion will likely emerge from these top four teams.
#1 Virginia- The Virginia Cavaliers have had a season for the history books, as they claimed their first outright ACC regular season title since the 1980-81 season. Since an embarrassing, 35 point loss at Tennessee, Virginia has only lost two games, on the road at Duke and in overtime to rival Maryland. Though their conference schedule was the easiest of the top four teams, it is hard to argue against the Cavaliers being the best team in the league. A potential quick turn around to face Maryland less than a week after their defeat at Maryland could go a long way in telling us if Virginia is a legitimate contender. Assuming they survive their first game, the Cavaliers will then likely face North Carolina or Pittsburgh, both teams that Virginia has already beaten. The Cavaliers have proven themselves in tough games this year and there is no reason for them not to be the favorites in Greensboro.
#2 Syracuse- Syracuse, who started the season on an incredible unbeaten streak and looked to be undoubtedly the nation’s best team, has faltered of late, losing 4 of their last 6 including a 19 point loss at Virginia. Syracuse also lost to two teams in the bottom third of the conference and both at home. As usual, the Orange have one of the strongest defensive units in the country, but their offense has struggle to produce at times. When they can score effectively, Syracuse might as well be unbeatable, but their offense has been too inconsistent of late to make them this weekend’s favorite. However, look for Jim Boeheim to take the time off before the tournament to work out any problems. The Orange are definitely still contenders.
#3 Duke- The Blue Devils have had a bit of uncharacteristically rocky season, but have returned to peak form as the season closes. Freshman sensations Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood both looked deserving of every bit of preseason hype they received as they have led Duke on a charge back to the top of the rankings. On an individual skill basis, Duke is undeniably the most talented team in Greensboro this weekend. However, Duke lacks two critical components that have hurt them all season: defense and size. Though their offense is nearly impossible to stop, the Blue Devils are neither aggressive nor hard working enough on the defensive side of the ball. They can usually outscore their opponents, but when they face a tough defense such as Virginia’s or Syracuse’s, it may be enough to cost them the ACC title. Duke also lacks any significant size inside. The latest Plumlee to wear Blue Devil Blue, Marshall, has been able to fill some of that gap but is not ready to play starting minutes in the low post. The better teams in the conference will be able to exploit these weaknesses and could cost Duke a chance at yet another ACC Championship.
#4 North Carolina- The Tar Heels had a very rough start to their season which included losses to teams such as Belmont and UAB. They also started conference play 1-3 and became a team that seemed destined to miss the tournament. They then won 13 straight games before finally losing at Duke in their regular season finale to finish in fourth in the conference and ranked 14th in the nation. North Carolina is a very legitimate threat to win it all this weekend, but, like Duke has defensive and size problems. The Tar Heels are also an incredibly talented team individually but lack the group mentality to play 40 minutes of hard, defensive basketball. The closest thing they have to a low post presence on both sides of the ball is James Michael McAdoo, the 6’9″ forward. However, he typically plays more of a perimeter position instead of working the low post. If faced with any low post offensive threat, the Tar Heels may not have an answer.
Over the course of the year, these top four teams have been the only consistent, conference squads. Though the ACC Tournament is anyone’s to win, it would be surprising if the winner played any games before Friday.