No one can argue that the Big East conference wasn’t the strongest in the NCAA this year. Louisville, Connecticut, and Pittsburgh all nabbed #1 seeds in the Big Dance. #3 seeds Villanova and Syracuse have also shown that they have the talent and toughness (eg: Syracuse 127, UConn 117, 6 OT) needed to make it to the Final Four.
However, one conference sent more teams to the tournament than the Big East. The ACC filled an amazing 7 bids, to the Big East’s 6. #1 seed North Carolina is still probably the favorite to win the tournament. Duke won the ACC tournament, getting a #2 seed thanks to their deadly accurate shooting and solid defense. Wake Forest was the number one team in the country at one point this season and, despite their shaky conference record, was picked by Sports Illustrated to make the Final Four. The other four ACC teams in the tournament (Clemson, Boston College, Florida St. and Maryland) all beat Duke or North Carolina during the season. So would these seven teams from a fiercely competitive conference give the Big East a run for their money? Not in the least. By the time the first round ended, only three teams were left, and the ACC’s status as a basketball power conference was looking very fragile indeed.
Of all the ACC teams in the tournament, Boston College played the lousiest. BC let USC shoot over 50% from the field, including Trojans forward Taj Gibson, who was 10-for-10. Up by four at halftime, the Golden Eagles were outscored 42-21 in the second half. All-ACC Second Team point Guard Tyrese Rice will graduate this spring, and will be sorely missed. But the Golden Eagles have some very talented young players in Joe Trapani, Rakim Sanders and Corey Raji. Expect BC to be back in the NCAA tournament next year if those three players don’t leave for the NBA.
I really thought that Florida State was a special team. Led by Toney Douglas (averaging 21.5 points per game), the Seminoles made it to their first ACC tournament final in their history. They were quick, could pass well, and Douglas could make just about any shot you could ask for. But on Friday night, FSU was pretty much a one-man team. Douglas dropped 26 points on Wisconsin, but the Badgers only let one other player get over ten points, and won the game in overtime. Wisconsin’s Trevon Hughes made a crazy lay-up with 2 seconds left, and the 12th seeded Badgers beat #5 seed FSU in a big upset. Douglas will be going pro after this year, and without him, Florida St. should sink back into mediocrity.
Clemson was one of the ACC’s most baffling teams. Superbly athletic, the Tigers beat Duke by 27 this season, but had losses against conference cellar-dwellers like Virginia, Virginia Tech, and Georgia Tech. Against Michigan, their offensive attack was stifled until the last six minutes. Clemson went on an 14-0 run to bring the game within one point in the final minute, but an and-one by Manny Harris and a Zack Novak free throw one the game for the Wolverines, 62-59. Two of Clemson’s top scorers, Terrence Oglesby and Trevor Booker, can return next year. But the Tigers will have to grow and develop as a team if they want to have success in next year’s tournament.
If Cleveland State is this year’s Cinderella team, then Wake Forest couldn’t do anything to stop their pumpkin carriage from blowing by them in the first round. The Cleveland St. Vikings had the lead for the entire game and their defense kept the Deacons from ever getting close. The Vikings took 65 shots on Friday night, and an impressive performance by Cedric Jackson (19 points, 8 assists) got the whole team involved on offense. Cleveland State won 84-69, a stunning margin for a #13 seed over a #4 seed. Lucky for the Deacons, Wake Forest’s top three scorers (including the incredible sophmore guard Jeff Teague) can return next year. But after that heartbreaking loss, will they jump ship for the NBA? If they stick around, they could have a good shot at winning a championship next year.
Three ACC teams made it out of the first round: Duke, Carolina, and Maryland. Maryland had a surprise victory over California, but was stomped on by Memphis on Saturday. Carolina had some trouble against LSU in the second round, but ACC Player of the Year Ty Lawson’s 21 second-half points led them to a 14-point win. Duke needed all of their talent and a little luck to beat Texas, 74-69. Meanwhile, five out of the six Big East teams advanced to the second round (West Virginia was the only loser after being upset by Dayton). UConn and Villanova punched their ticket to the Sweet 16 yesterday, and we’ll soon find out whether Pitt, Louisville and Syracuse will follow.
On Thursday, we’ll have the first Big East vs. ACC game of the Tournament as Villanova faces off against Duke. Duke is a good team, but Villanova is so balanced, so cool under pressure, that I can’t see the Blue Devils winning that matchup. It seems like North Carolina can go as far as Ty Lawson can take them. But very soon, Lawson could be carrying not only his team, but the reputation of an entire conference, on his shoulders.