Column | Previewing the ACC’s NCAA Tournament teams


AP Photo/John Minchillo

Duke University sophomore center Mark Williams (15) and his teammates walk off the court after losing to Virginia Tech at the Atlantic Coast Conference men’s tournament on Saturday in New York.

By Zack Gibney, Senior Staff Writer

The Atlantic Coast Conference has historically been one of the premier leagues in all of college basketball. But in a season full of parity and an inconsistent power structure, the conference with the most wins in the history of the NCAA Tournament has a mere five teams represented in the field of 68.

Here are some of the biggest questions surrounding ACC teams as they get set for March Madness.

Is Duke good enough to win it all?

Right now? No.

Despite the buzz surrounding Coach Mike ​​Krzyzewski heading into the final NCAA Tournament of his 47-year career, there are questions surrounding whether this year’s Duke squad is a true title contender.

The Blue Devils enter the tournament as a No. 2 seed after falling to Virginia Tech in the finals of the ACC Tournament. While Duke has held a single-digit ranking for nearly the entire season, they haven’t been able to gain the traction that many had expected of a Krzyzewski-coached team in March.

Entering this month, Duke circled two games on its calendar — the final regular season game against UNC, and the final round of the ACC Tournament. Not only did Duke lose both of these games, but it was thoroughly outplayed both on its home court against rival UNC and in Brooklyn against Virginia Tech.

Their four losses prior had all come by less than six points, but as the season progressed, teams seemed to figure out the Blue Devils. They are always a contender given their abundance of talent, highlighted by projected lottery pick Paolo Banchero, but they need to clean their act up quickly.

Not only is Duke going to struggle to make it back to the Final Four, but if you’re looking for the holy grail that is a 15 seed vs. 2 seed upset in your bracket, taking a look at Duke’s first-round matchup against Cal State Fullerton may be worth your time.

Can Virginia Tech build on their Cinderella ACC Championship run?

Riding high after defeating aforementioned Duke to capture its first ACC Championship in program history, Virginia Tech is set to face Texas in the round of 64. The Hokies enter the tournament as an 11-seed — an unusually high number to be placed next to a major conference champion.

Despite their storybook ending in Brooklyn, the Hokies are going to have an uphill battle if they want to do damage in the national tournament, starting with a battle-tested Big 12 squad in the Longhorns.

But if you overlook a 68-63 loss to bottomfeeder NC State on its home court earlier in the season, the Hokies have a pretty clean resumé. All other losses came at the hands of other teams in the tournament field or others that just missed the cut. And the Hokies have certainly made amends for those missteps lately, going 13-2 in their final 15 contests entering the tournament.

The X-factor for the maroon and orange has been fifth-year senior forward Keve Aluma — a stretch big who can score at all three levels and has been playing some of his best basketball as of late.

Aluma, a Wofford transfer on a team with an abnormal amount of former Terriers, has averaged more than 15 points per game in both of his seasons with the Hokies and dropped 18 points or more in all four of Tech’s ACC Tournament games.

If an 11-seeded conference champion sounds familiar, that’s because it is. After winning the PAC-12 Conference Tournament last season, Oregon State went from the tournament bubble team to the Elite Eight in a matter of weeks thanks to a cliché that has become synonymous with this time of year — getting hot at the right time.

The Hokies are the embodiment of that phrase right now. Their first-round matchup against Texas will be a battle, but if they can survive, look out.

What kind of damage can Miami, North Carolina and Notre Dame do?

Despite coming up short in the ACC Tournament, Miami and North Carolina have the same feeling that they can both make some noise in the tournament if the dominoes fall accordingly.

University of Miami redshirt senior guard Charlie Moore (3), center, Boston College first-year guard Jaeden Zackery (3), left, and Boston College graduate student guard Makai Ashton-Langford (11), right, battle for the ball during quarterfinals of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament on Thursday in New York. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

North Carolina was the ACC’s hot commodity entering the conference tournament after spoiling Coach K’s final game at Cameron Indoor with a thoroughly dominant second half. Four of the Tar Heels’ five starters put up 20 or more points, and it seemed as though the UNC of old was gradually returning.

That all went out the window after getting obliterated by Virginia Tech in the semifinals of the conference tournament.

North Carolina is still a good team, but it gets very little from its bench. If one or more of their starters are off, the Tar Heels could be headed home early. Still, their ceiling is as high as anyone in the ACC.

Miami has shown many of the same signs — flashes of brilliance contrasted by moments where it was surprising that the ‘Canes even had a winning record. Miami won on the road at Cameron Indoor, but also gave up 70 or more points in both losses to UVA, a poor offensive team.

Miami continues to struggle defensively at times, but they’ve also shown their ceiling to be high relative to their label as a 10-seed.

Notre Dame has been relatively consistent throughout the regular season, but it’s still flown under the radar compared to Miami and UNC. After taking advantage of a relatively weak ACC, it’s tough to see the Fighting Irish doing much damage, even if they can defeat Rutgers in their First Four matchup on Tuesday night. Generally, they win the games they’re supposed to win and lose the games they’re supposed to lose.

North Carolina will be the first ACC team to take the floor in the Tournament when it faces Marquette on Thursday at 4:30 p.m. in Fort Worth, Texas. The game will air on TBS.