ACC At The Tourney: UNC saves league from complete first-weekend meltdown
Before Sunday’s games tipped off, the final burst of the NCAA tournament’s annual initial sprint, six of Atlantic Coast Conference’s nation-high nine tourney participants had been eliminated — from First Four barnburners to inexplicable high-seed flops. The average margin of defeat in the league’s six early elimination losses was 17 points. Three teams seeded eighth or better lost by 20-plus points.
The single-game elimination format opens the door for countless scenarios (and is far from a foolproof plan for determining the nation’s best team), but in college basketball's signature event its marquee conference of 2017 fell flat.
Then Sunday arrived.
The final Round of 32 games followed a similar script. Third-seeded Louisville coughed up a nine-point lead in the second half before packing its bags. Arkansas took its largest lead over No. 1 seed North Carolina under the four-minute mark. South Carolina kept No. 2 seed Duke at arm’s length for most of the second half.
The final result: One of the worst weekends for the league in tournament history.
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Big Man On Campus: Kennedy Meeks, North Carolina
Roy Williams’ offense was in shambles.
For just the second time in the 2016-17 season, the Tar Heels shot under 38 percent from the field and committed 16-plus turnovers against the full-court Arkansas pressure. (The only other occasion: a 12-point road loss to Georgia Tech.) It was the worst tournament shooting performance from North Carolina, in terms of field-goal percentage, since 1967. Williams’ team committed careless turnovers and forced up contested shots. The team missed 12 of its 17 3-point attempts and failed to resemble the nation’s sixth-most efficient offense averaging 85.4 points per game.
Enter Kennedy Meeks, the senior big man who kept the Tar Heels (and the ACC) dancing.
The fact that North Carolina, the best offensive rebounding team in the country, punished Arkansas on the glass should come as no surprise. But it needed Meeks — the team’s top threat on the glass — more than ever as shots continued to draw iron. Meeks finished with seven offensive boards during his 16-point, 11-rebound night, including arguably the biggest basket of the night.
So, about that key Meeks basket. It was only made possible by an officiating blunder: UNC point guard Joel Berry was either fouled, committed an offensive foul or traveled on the play — baseline-angle replay shows Arkansas forward Adria Bailey swipes Berry in the face on the play before drawing what looks to be a charge followed by a missed travel call — but it was Meeks who cleaned up Berry's desperation heave, putting the Tar Heels up three points en route to a 12-0 run over the final three minutes.
“I just so happened to be in the right position,” Meeks said. And Coach always tells us, when the shot goes up to try to get in front of the defender and you have an easier rebound. So that's what I did. And the ball just fell in my hands.”
Without Meeks' efforts, the entire Atlantic Coast Conference would likely be watching the Sweet 16 from campus.
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Biggest Disappointment: Florida State
There is no shortage of options here.
North Carolina was far from dominant. Duke is going home early. Virginia followed up on another solid season by imploding offensively against 4-seed Florida, scoring just 39 points in a rout. Michigan State wiped Miami off the floor. Louisville could not find an answer for Moritz Wagner and Michigan.
However, the third-seeded Florida State Seminoles were the only ACC team in the 64-team field to lose to a double-digit seed. And Leonard Hamilton’s group did so with a no-show performance against Xavier, losing 91-66 to the Big East challengers.
The Seminoles shot just 40 percent from the floor, including 19 percent from 3-point range, as Xavier packed the lane, completely stalling on the offensive end despite multiple NBA hopefuls in the likes of lottery pick Jonathan Isaac and guards Dwayne Bacon and Xavier Rathan-Mayes.
“This team has always been able to find a way to win in spite of maybe some of our shortcomings, and today it kind of caught up with us. I thought they did a very good job of minimizing their turnovers, being very patient executing on the offensive end. Obviously, they shot the ball extremely well from the perimeter.”
Sure, the second-seeded Blue Devils bowed out before the Sweet 16 for the third time in six years, but at least Mike Krzyzewski's group competed against a top-five defensive team nationally, a group featuring SEC Player of the Year Sindarius Thornwell. (It should be noted here that Xavier was likely underseeded as a top-30 KenPom team.)
Duke had a chance to win down the stretch. Louisville can say the same. The Seminoles did not even give themselves a chance with their off night.