Commentary

ACC poised for Duke-UNC Round 3?

Originally Published: March 7, 2012
By Robbi Pickeral | ESPN.com

Duke-North CarolinaStreeter Lecka/Getty ImagesDuke and UNC have looked vulnerable at times during ACC play, but current form suggests a rematch.

A quick recap of the ACC season:

• Duke, which seemingly never loses at home, fell three times at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

• Boston College, despite featuring a bevy of freshmen, actually won four league games.

• Florida State beat all four North Carolina schools for the first time.

• UNC, despite some hiccups, finished on top of the league standings.

• Virginia Tech struggled to finish, losing nine league games by five or fewer points.

Now the question is: Will the league tournament, which begins Thursday at Atlanta's Philips Arena, follow the odd twists and turns of the last two months?

Four first-year head coaches will be making their debut with their new teams at the four-day event, and a couple of others might be facing calls for their farewell, depending on how their teams perform. A top seed in the NCAA tournament could still be up for grabs; bubbles could be blown (or burst); and, oh yeah -- there's still that automatic bid.

Here are some things to watch:

Top three storylines

Does UNC care enough to win it all?

Even before beating Duke on Saturday to win the ACC regular season, Tar Heels coach Roy Williams reiterated that he believes what happens over the 16-game league schedule should hold more weight than the half-week league tourney. (Remember the "cocktail party" reference from almost a decade ago?) That said, he also emphasized that if they're going to play in it, they're going to try to win it.

If they do so, the Tar Heels have a good shot at a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. But they also know from experience that an ACC tournament title doesn't necessarily lead to an NCAA crown. Williams' two national title teams actually stumbled in the ACC tourney before winning it all. (Superstitions, anyone?)

Can Florida State (or anyone else) crash the Tobacco Road party?

Over the past 15 years, the ACC tournament has been won by a team not named "Duke" or "North Carolina" only once. And that was a while ago (Maryland in 2004). The Seminoles, who posted a convincing home win over the Tar Heels and beat the Blue Devils at Cameron on a last-second shot, have shown this season that they can be blue-beaters.

The question is: Can they generate the offense to do it again?

[+] EnlargeMarshall
Lance King/Getty ImagesKendall Marshall has been pulling the strings during North Carolina's seven-game winning streak.

Who gets in the NCAA tournament?

UNC, Duke, FSU and Virginia are locks. That leaves NC State and Miami balancing the slippery slope of the bubble, and they've got some proving to do to make the 68-team field.

Both enter the tournament at 9-7 in ACC play, but since 1985, five teams with that record or better have failed to make the field (Virginia Tech in 2008 and '10, FSU in '06, Wake Forest in '02 and Virginia in '00).

The bad news: Both may have to make it to the championship game on Sunday to make their case. The good news: At least they're on opposite sides of the bracket, so they won't take each other out.

Five players to watch

C.J. Leslie, NC State: The sophomore forward has turned up his game just when his team needs it the most. He's averaged 20.3 points and 10.5 rebounds over his last four outings, and State will need him to continue that production, focus and aggression if it wants to prove its worth to the NCAA selection committee.

Kendall Marshall, UNC: The point guard needs only five assists to set a new single-season ACC record. And he's scored 20 or more points in two of his past four games. And he missed out on being first-team All-ACC by two points. Think the sophomore will be a little bit motivated?

Mason Plumlee, Duke: Seth Curry and Austin Rivers have been fairly consistent for the Blue Devils on the perimeter. When the middle Plumlee brother provides points and rebounds in the lane, he also provides a balance that makes Duke even tougher to beat. He'll be especially key, what with fellow forward Ryan Kelly (11.8 ppg, 5.4 rpg) out for the tournament because of a sprained right foot.

Mike Scott, Virginia: The fifth-year senior ended the regular season with a career-high 35 points against Maryland, adding to so many fans' belief that he should have been named ACC Player of the Year (UNC's Tyler Zeller won it, instead). Scott has been the MVP of his defensive-minded team, usually carrying the scoring burden, and he'll probably have to be the MOP of this tournament for his team to win it.

Michael Snaer, FSU: If there's going to be a game-winning shot during this tournament, I'd bet on it coming from the 6-foot-5 junior. Duke freshman Austin Rivers' buzzer-beating 3 at UNC got more replays, but Snaer's game winners at Duke and versus Virginia Tech had just as much impact, pushing the Seminoles back into the ACC race, then keeping them in it, after a slow start.

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Phil Sears/US PresswireMichael Snaer has turned in more than one game-winning shot for Florida State this season.

Hottest team: Don't make them angry. You won't like the Tar Heels when they are angry. Just ask Duke. UNC takes a seven-game winning streak into Atlanta after shellacking the Blue Devils -- the last team to beat the Tar Heels, on a game-winning 3 on Feb. 8 -- by 18 points in the regular-season finale. It's unclear whether UNC will summon the same sort of angst for say, Maryland or Wake Forest, its first opponent. But it would be interesting to see if a final game against FSU (that team that embarrassed the Heels by 33) would turn them Hulk green.

Coldest team: The Hokies have lost four straight, and in typically frustrating fashion. Virginia and Clemson beat them by two. They took Duke to overtime, only to lose by five. And NC State beat them by double figures. Brrrr.

Sleeper pick: Quick, name the only current ACC coach besides UNC's Williams or Duke's Mike Krzyzewski to take a team to a Final Four. That would be first-year Miami coach Jim Larranaga, who led George Mason to the national semifinals in 2006. Which means he knows a little bit about winning in the postseason.

The Hurricanes, who lost two of their last four games, need to make a statement loud enough this week for the selection committee to hear. If they get past Georgia Tech on Thursday, their side of the bracket features FSU and Duke -- both ranked foes, but both teams they have beaten already. Repeat performances would carry some weight.

Potential upset victim: It could really go either way for FSU. The Seminoles have lacked consistency (particularly on offense), have taken a bunch of games down to the wire, and have shown a talent for being both invigorating and frustrating in the same season. If their offensive struggles surface in Atlanta, they could be ripe for an early exit.

Best first-round matchup: Can I close my eyes, twirl three times and point? If not, I'll go with seventh-seeded Clemson versus 10th-seeded Virginia Tech, because the Tigers did win five of their last seven games, finishing the regular season in quietly strong fashion. And the Hokies were supposed to be better than 4-12 in the league. The winner gets Duke in the quarterfinals on Friday.

Best potential quarterfinal: FSU and Miami split their series this season, and both have something to prove: for the Hurricanes, that they're a team worthy of the NCAA tournament; for the Seminoles, that they have the balance necessary to make a deep postseason run.

Pick: Having Kelly sidelined will be a hindrance, but the Blue Devils love winning this tournament. They are 33-3 in the ACC tourney since 1999 and have won three straight tournament titles. Duke might be able to make a case for a No. 1 seed in the NCAAs with a fourth consecutive crown. History makes it hard to pick against this year's No. 2 seed.

Robbi Pickeral can be reached at bylinerp@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter at @bylinerp.