When and Where: Thursday – Sunday, Greensboro Coliseum, Greensboro, NC
Last year: Florida State advanced through the tourney by beating Miami, Duke and North Carolina. They got no favors from the bracket as they won their first ever ACC Title. The ACC is unique in that they do not honor an official regular season champion, having ended that practice in 1961. Fans still get jazzed (and rightfully so) and schools hang banners, but to win the ACC you have win the ACCT.
This year: The media pegged NC State as the preseason favorite, but they finished with the No. 5 seed. Instead, Miami got on an early roll and won their first 13 ACC games. They stumbled a bit down the stretch (2-3) but still finished a game ahead of Duke.
The favorite: With Ryan Kelly Duke is 18-0. Without Kelly they're 9-4. Unfortunately for the rest of the ACC, Kelly is back and helped Duke to a home win over Miami and then curb stomps of Wake Forest and North Carolina. In those games he made 9-14 3s (64%).
Duke's one weakness is their defense, which is "only" the 24th best nationally. But from 2007-2011 they were top 10, and that's where Coach K expects to be. Last year they were awful on defense, and this year they've struggled at times, especially when Kelly was out. The primary problem is that they are giving opponents too many possessions. They're pedestrian at forcing turnovers (122nd) and aren't a very good defensive rebounding team (229th).
Duke has won 10 of the past 14 ACC Tournaments.
The contender: When Jim Larranaga arrived at Miami, they had never had a winning conference record in the ACC. Two years later, they're the No. 1 seed and he's gone 24-10 in conference. He also has the 9th most experienced team in the country, so if they're going to win it, they better get it done this year.
At one point their defense was top 5 nationally. In the first 25 games only three opponents managed to score more than 1.1 points per possession against them. But in their final five games Wake Forest, Duke and Georgia Tech all scored at least 1.15. It's no surprise that Duke would score that much, but allowing that kind of scoring vs the other two is cause for alarm.
Offensively they've been steady and are No. 30 nationally. PG Shane Larkin has made one of the biggest freshman-to-sophomore leaps in the nation. He's tiny (5-11, 175) but is surrounded by long, athletic talent. 6-5 senior Durand Scott is awesome defensively, and has a stereotypical New York city offensive game. But the key might be 6-11 senior Kenny Kadji (a Florida transfer) who can play inside or out. He sets up Miami's high ball screen game by being able to pick or pop.
The dark horse: If NC State had any depth they probably could have squeezed a few more wins out of the season. But they have no shortage of talent. Senior Richard Howell was arguably the conference Player of the Year, and he's the best offensive rebounder in the conference and the 3rd best defensive rebounder (only ACC player in the top 5 of both categories). PG Lorenzo Brown is inconsistent, but at times looks like an NBA starter. Freshmen Rodney Purvis and TJ Warren have both had huge games. Scott Wood is capable of going off from deep on just about any night. And then there's CJ Leslie, who, three years later, is still CJ Leslie. If he's changed since his freshman season it's that he's somewhat more consistent with his effort. He alternately looks bored or annoyed, but then he'll drop some awe inspiring post move to remind everyone how talented he is.
Five (other) players to watch:
1. Erick Green, 6-3 senior, Virginia Tech
Somehow five jacknapes from the media left Green off of their 1st Team All Conference vote, which, in a sane society, would mean they immediately lose their voting privileges. But hey, if you pay $20 to the ACSMA then you too can cast ridiculously biased votes. Not only did Green lead the conference in scoring, he led the country in scoring, and did it while being one of the most efficient scorers in the past decade, while facing constant double teams because he isn't surrounded by the same talent that other ACC players have the luxury of playing with. There is a good chance the Hokies will only play one game, so tune in Thursday at 2pm and judge for yourself.
2. Michael Snaer, 6-5 senior, Florida State
In another voting coup (welcome to the ACC) Michael Snaer – the player Leonard Hamilton describes as the best defender he's ever coach at any level, ever – was left off the All ACC Defensive team. Snaer's offense has cooled a bit from last season when he had the benefit of playing with six seniors last season, including seasoned point guards who knew where to get him the ball. Now, playing with freshmen point guards and with Ian Miller not practicing most of the season, he's had a frustrating year. But you may have heard that he has a knack for the big shot. He's worth watching.
3. PJ Hairston, 6-5 sophomore, North Carolina
Since being inserted into the starting lineup, the Tar Heels are 6-2, with both losses coming against Duke. He's averaged over 17 points per game since becoming a starter, and the new small lineup for UNC has actually been looking somewhat like a UNC team. Their only problem is that they are in the same bracket as Duke, and if they meet in the semis it will be the first time since 2003 that they met before the finals.
4. Seth Curry, 6-2 senior, Duke
Sure, Curry is cheered on by the ACC's favorite
MILF mother, but there are more reasons to watch him as well. He's made 44% of his 3s, and enters the ACCT having made 19 of his last 38. But don't label him as being just a 3-pt specialist. Curry takes 48% of his shots inside the arc, and is surprisingly efficient. He's also gotten to the line at least 10 times in three different games this year. He's points waiting to happen.
5. Olivier Hanlan, 6-4 freshman, Boston College
Hanlan is part of the deep Canadian talent pool currently invading the US. He was a unanimous selection for the ACC All-Freshman Team and has the Eagles playing their best basketball of the season. They enter Thursday's opener with three straight wins, and have won four of six. In that stretch he's averaged 16.8 points by making 54% of his 2s and 50% of his 3s.