Five days from Selection Sunday fires up the first of the Power Five Conference Tournaments, and it’s the granddaddy of them all.
The Atlantic Coast Conference wasn’t the first league to hold a conference tournament (the Southern in its many versions has been held since 1922, and at one point had many of the schools who are in today’s ACC), but it’s the standard by which all others are measured. Its most recent expansion to 15 schools gives us a supersized bracket that means five days of hoops and a first round featuring the bottom six schools.
With tournaments like this that feature the “vaunted double-bye” (the top four schools don’t play until the third day of games), I refer to the first day as the “dreaded first round” (patent pending, much like “lowly DePaul” or nowadays “woeful Wake Forest”). Nobody wants to be stuck in this bread course of a round, and fewer neutral observers want to watch it. At least in what is now the second round (and previously involved fifth place through 12th place teams playing), you’re likely seeing schools fighting for their NCAA Tournament lives (Maryland in the Big Ten) or angling for seeding (Clemson in the ACC).
The first day is the residence of the Wake Forests (all eight first rounds in the ACC), Nebraskas (six of seven in the Big Ten), and Fordhams (four straight last place finishes and six of eight in the A-10). Last year, North Carolina breathed that less-than-fresh air for the first time, and Duke’s 10th place finish this year condemns the Blue Devils to the first afternoon. Hold your nose, keep calm and enjoy the Bojangles commercials.
Bids Awarded: Two more spots in the field of 68 were claimed Monday with Appalachian State disposing of two-time defending champion Georgia State, 80-73. It’s the Mountaineers’ first trip to the NCAA Tournament since 2000. In the Southern Conference championship game, UNC-Greensboro gets past Mercer 69-61 for the Spartans’ second trip to the NCAA’s in four years.
Colonial Athletic Association: Eighth-seeded Elon followed up its upset of regular season co-champ JMU by beating defending champion Hofstra, 76-58. While Elon has never made the Division I Tournament, Drexel is shooting for its first trip since 1996 when the Dragons were a member of the North Atlantic Conference (now the America East).
Northeast Conference: Mount St. Mary’s meets Bryant-fittingly, as the two schools had multiple regular season games postponed and then canceled due to COVID-19 concerns. The Mountaineers last made the NCAA’s in 2017, while the Bulldogs haven’t made the field since moving up from Division II in 2008.
Horizon League: Regular season champ Cleveland State plays sub-500 Oakland. Many who follow the game remember Cleveland State as the school that beat Indiana at the end of John Feinstein’s book “A Season on the Brink” in 1986. Current Oakland coach Greg Kampe was only in his second season at the helm of the then-Division II school that March.
Summit Conference: Oral Roberts plays North Dakota State — sadly, the South Dakota State Jackrabbits were bounced in the semifinals on nickname value alone.
West Coast Conference: Stop me if you’ve heard this before. No. 1 Gonzaga battles BYU after the Cougars needed overtime to hold off Pepperdine. Not only are the Bulldogs dominant this winter (they’ve won 22 straight games by double digits) they’ve turned this tournament into their own invitational: The Zags haven’t just won 17 of the last 22 championships, they’re making their 24th straight finals appearance this evening.
The ACC Tournament is back in Greensboro for a 27th year (the tournament has been held in North Carolina at one site or another 53 times in the conference’s 67 years) with the league needing a finishing kick to wrap up the season on a positive note. Underwhelming winters by bluebloods Duke and North Carolina result in nary a top 10 team with just three in the AP Top 25. Barring a run by Virginia or Florida State, the ACC will be without a team in the top 10 of the final Associated Press poll for the first time since 1960. Georgia Tech and Louisville are both in need of wins to stay on the safe side of the bubble, while Syracuse is once again on the wrong side of the velvet rope according to ESPN and CBS’s projections.
Looking at the locals:
Virginia (17-6, 13-4): The Cavaliers are a projected No. 4 seed on ESPN and a No. 5 on CBS and FOX. While they’ve bounced back from their three-game losing streak to claim first place, they don’t have the feel of previous top seeds coached by Tony Bennett. Their best player is a senior, but Sam Hauser isn’t a traditional fourth-year player developed in Charlottesville. The Marquette transfer who was voted First Team All-ACC is a player who can shoot them past Syracuse’s zone in the quarterfinals if the Orange advance, and he scored 39 points in two games against N.C. State (the Cavaliers’ other potential quarterfinal foe). Just as important has been the emergence of big man Jay Huff. U.Va. has won five of their last six quarterfinal games, with the lone loss coming after playing the day before.
Virginia Tech (15-5, 9-4): The Hokies are a No. 6 seed on CBS and a No. 9 on ESPN and FOX. They’re also dealing with inactivity. When they play on Thursday night, they will have been idle almost two weeks. Of their potential foes, ACC Coach of the Year Mike Young’s team has been led by All-ACC Second Team selection Keve Aluma (the 6-foot-9 transfer from Wofford paces Tech in scoring, rebounding and blocks), while the Hokies are sneaky-good on the perimeter (they’re the only school to rank in the top five in both shooting and defending the three-pointer). Their potential foes are Wake Forest (a team they swept), Notre Dame (they beat the Irish by double figures in January) and North Carolina (their game was postponed and then canceled).