UNC, Duke and Clemson are NCAA locks. The ACC Tournament is a chance for others to get in

WASHINGTON (AP) — Jim Larrañaga grew up watching the Atlantic Coast Conference in the 1960s and marveled at the league having some of the nation’s best teams. He doesn’t think that has changed.

“This has been the best league in the country,” said Larrañaga, who now coaches in the ACC at Miami. “In my estimation, it’s very underrated now. People disparage the league like we’re not that good anymore. That’s ridiculous.”

Top-heavy, at least, with No. 4 North Carolina and No. 11 Duke leading the way and Clemson also a lock to make the NCAA Tournament. The ACC Tournament comes to the nation’s capital this week with Virginia, Wake Forest, Pitt and others on the bubble looking to prove they should also be part of March Madness.

“The tournament is completely wide open,” N.C. State coach Kevin Keatts said, acknowledging just a few ACC teams are playing beyond Saturday. “It’s going to be pressure for at least 10 teams going into that tournament because if you don’t win, you ain’t playing in the NCAA Tournament.”

Larrañaga, whose 14th-seeded Hurricanes have been ravaged by injuries and need to win the ACC Tournament to get in, pointed out that this is quite the opportunity for several teams.

“It’s a new season,” he said. “Everybody comes into this tournament 0-0. What did you did during the regular season is behind you. The tournament is what’s ahead of you and you’ve got to take it one game at a time, just like the NCAAs.”


UNC’s 84-79 win at Duke last weekend made the Tar Heels ACC regular-season champions. Winning the conference tournament could put them in line for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, especially if one of the other top teams falters this week.

On Saturday night, Cormac Ryan’s 31 points made the difference. The previous game, RJ Davis was the leading scorer and in previous games it was Harrison Ingram or Armanda Bacot.

“It’s March — we’re going to need everyone,” Davis said. “This team is dynamic. We have a lot of hitters that’s able to contribute in so many ways, not just scoring but stuff that don’t even show up on the stat sheet. … That just shows how much of a team we really are, and everyone steps up in those big moments.”

UNC’s first game is Thursday at noon.


Duke has dropped two of its past five games dating to the loss at Wake Forest on Feb. 24 that led to a court-storming and starting center Kyle Filipowski’s scary collision with a fan.

In the process, the Blue Devils have fallen out of the top 10. But coach Jon Scheyer expects the best from his team moving forward, starting with the ACC Tournament, where it’s the No. 2 seed and opens play Thursday night against either Syracuse, N.C. State or Louisville.

“This group has always responded,” Scheyer said. “I think it’s going to be nothing different now.”


Virginia was on track to make the NCAAs before losing four of seven down the stretch. Tony Bennett’s Cavaliers failed to score 50 points in a game four times in that span.

Despite finishing third in the ACC, they’re squarely on the fence now, either as one of the last few teams in or the first few out. Thursday night’s game against Clemson, Miami or Boston College could very well determine whether Virginia makes it.

“As crappy as I feel right now, we’re still playing meaningful games,” Bennett said recently. “This team still has what they’ve done. So I look at that and say, ‘OK, try to build on it.’ I will, and they better keep swinging until the last tick on the clock, because I think we have to.”

Pitt almost certainly has to beat Wake Forest or Georgia Tech on Thursday to give itself a chance. Virginia Tech opens against Florida State on Wednesday and is out barring a win — and probably more.


Larrañaga returns to the arena of his greatest coaching triumph, when in 2006 he and upstart George Mason upset top-ranked UConn to reach the Final Four. He coached the Patriots for 14 seasons in nearby Fairfax, Virginia, before going to Miami.

“They have that noise meter in here, and they said it was higher than any time in the history of the arena, so that’ll tell you the fans that were cheering for George Mason, not for UConn,” Larrañaga said. “I have such great memories not just of the run to the Final Four but what my life and my family’s life was like for 14 years. We were treated like family by the whole community: the George Mason community, the Fairfax community, the D.C. community.”

Same for Georgia Tech assistant Karl Hobbs, who spent a decade in the city as George Washington’s coach from 2001-11.

“This is awesome for me because this particular building brings back a lot of great memories,” Hobbs said. “We had just some incredible victories in this building beating Maryland and beating Michigan State. So, for me, any time coming back to this area is always exciting and fun.”


AP Basketball Writer Aaron Beard contributed to this report.


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