When the 60th installment of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament tips off on Thursday, fans across the traditional ACC footprint from Coral Gables to Chestnut Hill will shed a bittersweet tear knowing the end of an era is upon us. For those of us in ACC country, First Round Thursday was like a second Christmas morning to us. Dozens of fans from Atlanta, College Park, and Winston-Salem would congregate in Greensboro, sharing First Round Thursday memories from a simpler time when a gallon of gas cost $2.90, The Departed won Best Picture at the Oscars, and if fans wanted to keep in touch during the off-season, they'd have to "friend" each other on something called "Facebook." After this weekend, those days are over when Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame join the league in the 2013-14 season, and the institution of First Round Thursday will be a distant memory.
Teams To Watch
The Cavaliers have one of the strangest NCAA tournament resumes in recent history. Twenty-one wins typically gets a Power 6 team into the field of 68, especially when the list of victims includes Duke, North Carolina, N.C. State and Wisconsin. The issue with Virginia isn't a lack of quality wins, it's an abundance of bad losses, such as a neutral court loss to Old Dominion and a 3-4 mark over the last seven games while playing for their tournament lives. Virginia needs N.C. State to beat Virginia Tech in the first round so the Hoos have another shot at a quality win in Greensboro. Getting to the finals, especially if it means beating N.C. State and Miami, puts Virginia squarely in the NCAA tournament field. Anything less, it gets dicey.
Speaking of Miami, after nearly reaching No. 1 in the polls, the Hurricanes are really limping into the post-season. Jim Larranaga's squad was rolling through the ACC until a close, controversial win at Clemson seemingly changed everything, leading to another escape against Virginia, and then a somewhat surprising loss at Wake Forest. Miami had Duke dormie in the ACC regular season race with three games to play, but Ryan Kelly's historic return to action and another disappointing effort against Georgia Tech in a shocking home loss brought the Hurricanes back to the field. The key to making a run in the ACC Tournament has traditionally revolved around avoiding the one seed, but no one is scared of Miami right now.
Brian Gregory's Yellow Jackets started the ACC season with five straight losses, but have quietly bounced back to sneak into the ninth seed in the ACC tournament. Tech has a first round game against Boston College, a team that edged them by just two points on the road in their season finale, and should they move on, they'll face a Miami team that the Jackets have already beaten once this season. If any team is going to be a semi-final surprise in Greensboro, there's no reason it can't be Georgia Tech based on their somewhat favorable draw.
Players To Watch
Reggie Johnson, Miami
Big Reggie started the year scoring in double figures in four of his first seven games and grabbing double-digit rebounds in five games during the same stretch. In his last seven, he's averaging 3.1 points per game and 4.7 rebounds per game. Shane Larkin and Durand Scott make Miami go, and Kenny Kadji may be the best player on the roster, but there's no way Miami wins three games if there is a 6'10'' 292 pound void on the court.
Quinn Cook, Duke
Duke has already run through a three-games-in-three-days tournament once this season at the Battle for Atlantis, and let's just say things went pretty well for Quinn Cook. Cook took home tournament MVP honors by averaging 13.7 points and 6.3 assists, and oh by the way, he dropped 15 points on Peyton Siva and had a 3-to-1 assist to turnover ratio against Shaka Smart's Havoc defense. Duke is pretty good when they're not turning the ball over, and while the ACC Tournament won't impact Duke's seeding very much, their chances in the NCAA tournament will hinge on the form of their point guard.
P.J. Hairston, North Carolina
In a league full of guys who pose match-up problems, P.J Hairston might be the biggest mismatch of all. He's quicker than the players who are tall enough to guard him, he's stronger than the players who are quick enough to stay in front of him, and he can jump higher than the players who slide over to help out on defense. The great equalizer with Hairston is that his offense doesn't put him in enough positions to exploit his physical advantages, and when he does get the ball in a favorable position, he likes to shoot a lot of bad shots. Before the Duke game on Saturday, UNC was a trendy pick to make a run in the NCAA tournament, and rightfully so. Hairston will have a lot to say about his team's mood after this weekend.
Points of Interest
End of Game Situations
In the ACC this season, 40 of 108 conference games were decided by fewer than five points, and we are all aware of what kind of weird stuff happens each March. The ACC has a mixture of coaches who can draw up a great play on either side of the ball and players (I'm looking at you, Michael Snaer) who have a knack for making a huge play on their own in the final seconds of close games. End of game execution says a lot about a team's chances in the NCAA tournament (I'm looking at you, Big Ten), so for fringe teams like Virginia and N.C. State who have been on both sides of a passing grade in final possession management, a clutch play in Greensboro can right the ship heading into the big tournament next weekend.