Despite all the craziness of COVID-interrupted college basketball this year, it looks like we will have an actual NCAA Tournament in which we will crown a champion. The pandemic stripped away this opportunity last year, dashing the dreams of so many potential surprises and celebrations (still thinking of Dayton). But in 2021, there will be a tournament, and one deserving team will capture the national title.
Maybe it’ll be Gonzaga, who has completely dominated this season on their way to the NCAA’s only perfect record. Or maybe it’ll be Baylor, who has been just a step behind the Zags since Day One. Or maybe it’ll be a team from the Big Televenteen, since any of Michigan, Ohio State, Iowa, or Illinois have the talent and depth to go all the way.
But what about the ACC? With these heavy hitters in the field, does the ACC even have a chance at relevance here? Is there a title contender from the conference that provided six of the last 11 national champions? Let’s take a closer look:
The defending national champs (from 2019) are still the conference’s best shot at bringing home the title. The frontcourt combo of Sam Hauser and Jay Huff is as good as any in the country, and there are few teams that have been successful against Tony Bennett’s defense. The problem is, once a team finds a way to shut down Hauser and Huff, the Wahoos are susceptible to any number of defenses that can disrupt passing lanes and closeout perimeter shooters. Kihei Clark is a capable point guard, but he won’t blow anyone away off the dribble, and there isn’t a wing on the roster that can shoot daggers like Kyle Guy or Ty Jerome did back in 2019.
At times, Leonard Hamilton’s team looks as if it can beat anyone in the country. At others, it looks like it just wants to give the ball away on every possession. So, which one will show up this month? The one constant has been super freshman Scottie Barnes, who can play any position on the floor and is more than capable of putting the team on his back when necessary. What they need is for M.J. Walker to step and take control. He’s shown he can do it on occasion, but he’s got to demand more attention from opposing defenses. Well, that and the Seminoles need to limit turnovers and make free throws.
The Hokies have been a bright spot for the conference, with Mike Young making an outstanding case for coach of the year and forward Keve Aluma coming out of nowhere (much like Landers Nolley last year) to become an all-conference performer. Their biggest problem is that they’ve missed so much time due to COVID-19 issues (played only two games from Feb. 6 to March 9), and that can be devastating to the chemistry of their young backcourt of Nahiem Alleyne, Jalen Cone and Tyrece Radford.
The Yellow Jackets took a while to find their footing but entered the ACC Tournament on a six-game win streak and ACC Player of the Year Moses Wright healthy and looking better than ever. However, just like most teams here, they’ve struggled on the defensive side and really haven’t faced a team that can put up points the way Baylor or Gonzaga can. They also don’t have much depth behind their dynamic backcourt trio of Jose Alvarado, Michael Devoe and Jordan Usher, and that could be troublesome in tight games.
The Heels certainly have the talent to challenge for a Sweet 16 berth, and their frontcourt rotation looks like an NBA combine roster, but they’ve struggled all season to establish any kind of defensive identity or perimeter consistency. For them to have a shot, they need Caleb Love to dominate the floor (as he has done on a few select occasions) and for one or both of R.J. Davis and Kerwin Walton to get red-hot from the perimeter. But that’s a lot to ask of a group of freshmen.
Brad Brownell has done an admirable job with the Tigers this season, but they’re still just not quite at the level of a Top 25 program. Plus, they’ve been completely manhandled in losses to a bad Duke team and an even worse Syracuse team. Just not feeling it here.
Like Georgia Tech, the Cardinals have lost a lot of time to COVID-19 issues, and without their main man in the middle, Malik Williams, they just don’t have much of a shot—no matter what Carlik Jones does.
This leads us to believe that it’s just not in the cards for the ACC this year. Sure, anything can happen in the NCAA Tournament, and has happened several times, but the odds of anyone from the conference even making it to the Final Four are worse than analyst Bill Walton not referring to the Pac-12 as the “Conference of Champions” in the first five minutes of any broadcast.
Maybe it’s just better to see what it takes to knock out Gonzaga. Which could be reminiscent of the UNLV takedown 30 years ago, but that was when the ACC was a better conference.