The Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), with its traditional Tobacco Road powers (NC State, UNC, Duke, and Wake Forest) will forever be associated with big time college basketball. In recent years, the ACC has been re-engineered and now covers expansive territory, between Syracuse, Boston, Miami, Kentucky, and Indiana, while at the same time, Maryland departed for the Big 10. This season has emerged as an exciting mix of old versus new atop the ACC, and The 5 NCAA Tournament locks from the conference are all poised to make deep runs toward the Final Four.
1. North Carolina
Head coach Roy Williams has somehow managed to keep the Tar Heels together, despite the fallout from a wide-ranging academic scandal that rocked Carolina Nation, prior to the death of Dean Smith. North Carolina came into the month of March ranked 19th in the AP Poll. UNC, earlier this season, put together impressive wins against UCLA, Florida, Ohio State, and Louisville, in racing to a 17-4 record. The Heels, however, struggled through a tough backstretch, where they dropped 5 of 7 games.
On February 18, the Tar Heels lost an overtime heartbreaker to rival Duke, a game that saw Carolina give up a 10-point lead in four minutes after a maddening series of ill-advised shots, erratic half court sets, and poor clock management. The two conference powers are set for a rematch in the final game of the regular season.
Louisville officially joined the ACC prior to this 2014-2015 season. The Cardinals, of course, immediately put their mark on the league, and were ranked as high as No. 5 in the AP poll earlier this year. With two games left in the regular season, Louisville has rolled to a 23-6 overall record. To date, Louisville has taken care of business, only losing to NC State, Syracuse, and highly ranked ballclubs in Kentucky, Duke, and Virginia. With the exemption of Syracuse, all Louisville losses may have come at the hands of NCAA Tournament-bound teams, as NC State is now on the bubble.
From here, Louisville is likely to take a four seed. A battle tested Louisville may find itself in the Elite 8 if it were to draw a highly seeded mid-major, such as Gonzaga, Wichita State, or Northern Iowa within its regional bracket. If not, Louisville may lose to a power conference team in the Sweet 16.
3. Notre Dame
At 24-5, Notre Dame is all but locked in to a 3-seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Fighting Irish, although good, are one step outside the likes of Duke, Virginia, Kentucky, Villanova, Wisconsin, and Arizona, in the final battles for the number one and two seeds. Earlier this season, Notre Dame took a curious loss to Providence, before being blown out by Duke at Cameron Indoor.
Notre Dame averages a torrid 79 points per game, but is relatively porous on the defensive end, where it is 144th overall, in giving up 65.4 points per game. Although the Irish are 40% from behind the arc as a squad, the team has been prone to stretches of positively ice cold shooting. In the Tournament, Notre Dame may be the victims of an upset within the earlier rounds, if a scrappy ball club can control the tempo, close out well on threes, and force the Irish to grind out the game.
In recent weeks, Duke has surged to third in the AP Poll, largely upon the strength of a nine-game winning streak. After a close loss in South Bend, Duke went on to dispatch UVA, Notre Dame at home in Durham, and UNC. Going forward, Duke can take a number one seed, if it were to close out the regular season with wins against Wake Forest and North Carolina, before winning the ACC Tournament. For now, the stars are very much aligned for a Duke vs. Virginia ACC Championship showdown, which would determine a one-seed in the NCAA Tournament.
At worst, Duke will slide down to a two-seed. Duke, UVA, Arizona, Villanova, and Wisconsin have all separated themselves from the pack, as challengers to an undefeated Kentucky. For Duke, anything less than a trip to the Final Four would be a disappointment.
At 27-1, the Virginia Cavaliers have quietly emerged as the premier program within the new ACC. As part of this overall record, the Cavaliers have cruised to 16-1 in the ACC, with their only loss coming against Duke in Charlottesville. UVA will take the ACC regular season title. For his part, head coach Tony Bennett has resurrected the Virginia program by emphasizing defense, grit, team play, and efficient execution in half-court sets.
This season, the Wahoos are giving up a mere 50 points per game as the best defense in all of college basketball. UVA will be locked into a one-seed if it can shut down high-flying Duke in the ACC Tournament. From there, a Final Four appearance would represent another major step for this program. Last year, UVA fell in the Sweet Sixteen as a one-seed to Tom Izzo and Michigan State.