With one week to go and somewhere around 10 legitimate All-ACC First Team candidates — not to mention at least one or two more teams that could sneak into the NCAA Tournament — this is a big week for the ACC. There are likely four teams that will get top-four NCAA Tournament seeds right now (North Carolina, Virginia, Syracuse and Duke, in no particular order), and each have a chance to either improve their stock or take a nose-dive.
The way the rest of the ACC has played certainly isn’t doing anyone any favors, and there’s a real chance that only five teams out of the 15 in the league right now in the first year post-expansion will even make the NCAA Tournament at all. As good as the top of this league has been, that’s not a good look.
T.J. Warren, N.C. State: Hopefully, a nation got a taste of what T.J. Warren is capable of with his career-high 36 points in the overtime loss to North Carolina. But if not, he’ll just be sitting here with his 28 points per game last week on 21-of-43 shooting to go with averages of five rebounds and 1.5 steals. He single-handedly kept his team in both the UNC and Miami games last week. Unfortunately for both he and his teammates, his efforts weren’t quite enough against a Miami team that continued getting to the basket with ease, and the Wolfpack remain 0-2 in close games against top-50 opponents — and 0-2 in the letdown games to follow.
Marcus Paige, North Carolina: In a scoring battle for the ages against Warren last Wednesday, Paige scored a career-high 35 points and cemented his place on this week’s team regardless of what he did in his next game. And it wasn’t much (nine points), but it was enough — he averaged 22 points on 50 percent shooting to go with 3.5 rebounds, three assists and 1.5 steals, turning it over just once in 71 minutes. His head coach said he needs to remember to be a bit more selfish, and he’s clearly still learning how to do that, but he’s the best player on a surging UNC team and has put his name in the conversation for ACC Player of the Year.
Rodney Hood, Duke: Living in the shadow of Jabari Parker can be difficult, but Hood, who Mike Krzyzewski has called Duke’s most consistent player, lived up to that in an ugly win over Virginia Tech, leading the team with 21 points on 9-of-17 shooting. Once again, he dissected an opponent’s zone defense by getting into the high post and reading the defense as effectively as anyone in the country in that same spot, adding two rebounds, four assists and a steal against the Hokies. The quality of opponent wasn’t impressive, but his overall floor game was.
Malcolm Brogdon, Virginia: Any other year, Brogdon — the best player on the regular-season ACC champs — would be a lock for All-ACC First Team honors. There are just so many outstanding candidates this year. But it doesn’t mean Brogdon doesn’t deserve serious consideration. In two games last week for the surging ‘Hoos, Brogdon averaged 17 points, 4.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists and a steal in 32.5 minutes. Like Hood, his consistency sometimes isn’t as eye-catching as other players’ flashiness, but he deserves more recognition for that consistency than he’s getting.
Talib Zanna/Lamar Patterson, Pittsburgh: It wasn’t pretty for Pitt, but the Panthers went 2-0 and got two much-needed wins on the back of their two best players. Patterson seems to be shaking off the effects of a thumb injury and averaged 18 points last week to go with six rebounds, six assists and two steals. Zanna, meanwhile, overcame an awful game last week against FSU to average 19 points on 13-of-20 shooting in two games this week to go with 10 rebounds. If Pitt is going to ensure it makes the NCAA Tournament, that means no bad losses, which also means both players must stay at this level, or near it.
Odd to say that about the No. 12 team in the country (with that ranking sure to rise this week), but here we are. Virginia clinched the regular season title this weekend in the ACC with its 13th straight win, and yet there were still many crediting the unbalanced ACC schedule more than the Cavaliers themselves. Did Virginia get each of the other top-five teams in the ACC just once each? Sure, but it did (or will) get Nos. 6, 7 and 8 twice (Clemson, Florida State and Maryland). None of the other top-five teams can say that except Pittsburgh. And Pittsburgh only got Syracuse twice out of the other top-five ACC teams.
Point being: stop with this already. Virginia didn’t lose to Notre Dame or Clemson (like Duke) or to Boston College at home (like Syracuse), or even to Miami at home (like North Carolina). The Cavaliers won the games they were supposed to, and often in convincing fashion. In a league that’s been otherwise characterized by teams who couldn’t manage to do that consistently enough, that’s worth quite a bit in my book.
No. 12 Virginia over No. 4 Syracuse, 75-56: This wasn’t just a win. It was a shellacking. If you still had any questions about Virginia, I hope the Cavaliers answered them emphatically enough for your liking. Syracuse led 28-27 at halftime in an entertaining, back-and-forth contest. And then Virginia outscored the Orange 48-28 in the second half, shooting 57.7 percent to 30 percent for Syracuse. The Cavaliers were smothering on defense and managed to get second-chance points against a Syracuse team that is normally excellent on the backboards. Virginia finished with four players in double figures and six with six points or more, which pretty much sums up how they won the ACC’s regular season this year — contributions from everyone on the roster.
Sigh, Clemson. You had one job. And that job was to beat a Wake Forest team that had seemingly quit on the season. Clemson has now won three of its last four games, and the only loss was at a Wake Forest team that now has just one win in its last nine tries. The Tigers were sitting on that proverbial NCAA Tournament bubble with just two questionable losses (Auburn, Notre Dame). That Wake Forest loss probably killed any at-large potential the Tigers had left, although a big opportunity against Pittsburgh in the regular-season finale remains. And even though Clemson knocked off Maryland at home on Sunday in double overtime, it was a truly hideous game that you had to see to believe. Although the box score speaks for itself.
This is really too bad, since Layman still has perhaps the best hair in the ACC, even after his head coach made him cut off his longer locks. But last week, the sophomore must have had some hair in his eyes while shooting or something, as he made just 2-of-20 shots (one in each game, both losses) and was 2-of-13 from 3-point range. He did average 6.0 rebounds and 1.5 assists, but for him to play 70 minutes and make two shots is just brutal. Maryland needs more out of him.