WHAT’S AT STAKE IN CHARLOTTESVILLE
By AL FEATHERSTON
Ever since Tony Bennett revived the Virginia basketball program in 2014, Duke has had good luck against the Cavaliers.
It started Jan. 13, 2014 when Virginia came to Cameron for the only regular season meeting with Duke that season. The Cavs led late, but with under 20 seconds left, Amile Jefferson rebounded Rodney Hood’s missed shot and got it to Rasheed Sulaimon, who hit the 3-pointer from the corner to give Duke the win.
Virginia would go on to win the ACC regular season and to beat Duke in the ACC Tournament finals – Bennett’s only win over the Devils in the last three seasons.
A year later, Duke went to Charlottesville and upset No. 2 Virginia – handing the Cavs their only homecourt loss that season. The Blue Devils finished the game on an 11-0 run, capped by Tyus Jones’ dagger-to-the-heart 3-pointer.
And last season, it was Malcolm Brogdon and Grayson Allen trading miraculous shots late – Allen’s off-balance bank shot at the buzzer proving to be the game-winner.
That’s a 3-1 edge for Duke in Virginia’s glory years (overall, Coach K is 8-2 vs. Bennett). That 2015 ACC Tournament win was a huge victory by the Cavs, but on the whole, Duke has had the very slight advantage over a team that has finished ahead of the Devils in the ACC standings in each of those years.
No. 14 Virginia (18-6, 8-4 ACC) and No. 12 Duke (20-5, 8-4 ACC) are tied in the standings heading into tonight’s game at John Paul Jones Arena. Both are part of a massive log-jam atop the ACC standings -- UNC leads with three league losses, while Duke, Virginia, FSU and Louisville are essentially tied for second with four losses each. Notre Dame is one more game back in the loss column with five league losses.
So, obviously, tonight’s game will have a huge impact on the ACC regular season race.
At this point, literally half a dozen teams still have a chance to claim at least a share of the ACC regular season standings. And, of course, each of those six teams are jockeying for position when the NCAA Selection Committee releases its bracket on March 12 – less than a month from now.
When the committee released its snapshot “top 16” teams early Saturday afternoon, Virginia had a No. 3 seed, while Duke was the last No. 4 seed. But later that day, Duke added a hard-fought victory over Clemson … while Sunday night, Virginia lost in double-overtime at Virginia Tech.
That has to change that early bracket … but tonight’s matchup will change it more.
What exact are the two teams playing for?
Well, first, is the ACC regular season race.
Let me be clear – the ACC championship is determined by the tournament, not the regular season. That is the one that matters.
But since 1990, the ACC has recognized the regular season winner as the “Regular Season Champion”, so to my mind, that’s a title worth winning – even though it is of less importance than the official ACC title … or any NCAA Tournament success.
Of course, the regular season race does impact those two more important goals.
Right now, those six teams atop the ACC standings are jockeying to win the double bye in the ACC Tournament. The way it works now (with a 15 team conference) is that the bottom six teams in the standings have to play in Tuesday’s opening round. Those six teams have to win five games in Brooklyn to win the ACC title. Five more teams have to start play on Wednesday – those five teams have to win four games to take the title. Finally, the top four teams in the final standings open tournament play in the quarterfinals on Thursday. That quartet only needs to win three times to be crowned champ.
If the tournament started yesterday, that would mean No. 12 Clemson would face No. 13 N.C. State at noon; No. 10 Miami meets No. 15 Boston College at 2:30 p.m.; No. 11 Wake Forest meets No. 14 Pittsburgh at 7 p.m.
The three winners would move on to Wednesday’s second round – which starts with No. 8 seed Virginia Tech vs. No. 9 Georgia Tech at noon; the Clemson-N.C. State winner vs. No. 5 Virginia at 2:30 p.m.; the Miami-BC winner vs. No. 7 Syracuse at 7 p.m.; the Wake-Pitt winner vs. No. 6 Notre Dame at 9:30 p.m.
Those four winners move into Thursday’s quarterfinals, where the top four seeds will be waiting – right now, No. 1 UNC, No. 2 Florida State, No. 3 Louisville and No. 4 Duke.
Obviously, tonight’s Duke-Virginia game will change that.
At the moment, the two teams are tied for fourth and fifth with 8-4 league records (Louisville and FSU are at 9-4). Since they haven’t met yet, there is no head-to-head tiebreaker, so Duke would get the No. 4 seed based on its victory over No. 1 seed UNC – a team Virginia hasn’t played yet.
Duke’s temporary edge is meaningless since after the two teams meet tonight (for the only time this year in the regular season), the winner will have a significant tiebreaker advantage.
My entire projected bracket is as ludicrous as the NCAA’s early top 16 teams released Saturday. I merely set it up to demonstrate the importance of tonight’s Duke-Virginia game when it comes to seeding.
But with so many games left, it could turn out that both the Devils and Cavs earn a double bye … or both could be playing in Wednesday’s round.
This is how it sets up for the ACC contenders down the stretch:
-- No. 1 seed (at the moment) North Carolina – the Tar Heels have been blessed with the easiest ACC schedule imaginable. Of the top teams in the league, UNC gets every one of them at home – FSU, Louisville, Virginia, Duke, Notre Dame, Syracuse, Virginia Tech.
[Time out for a rant about how the unbalanced schedule invalidates the ACC regular season “championship.” This is not a minor difference in the schedule. Of the six teams competing for the title, UNC gets all five of its rivals at home and just two on the road. Duke, by contrast, has to play all five other contenders on the road and just two at home. And that doesn’t count the fact that UNC gets Syracuse – a terrible road team – at home, while Duke gets Syracuse – a tough home team – at the Carrier Dome. Or that Duke had to play Clemson 39 hours after the big game with UNC, while UNC got six days off after that draining affair.]
North Carolina does have a tough stretch run to claim the top seed. But it’s not as tough as it looks since the Heels get Virginia, Louisville and Duke at home. They have to travel to Raleigh tonight, but the Pack is in collapse.
UNC does have two tough road games at Virginia and at dangerous Pitt.
-- No. 2 Florida State has five games left – three on the road.
They have to visit Pitt and Clemson – two dangerous teams with bad records – and Duke, which will be looking for revenge for a Jan. 10 loss when Duke was without Amile Jefferson or Coach K.
They get Boston College at home, no lock but as close to a gimmie as the ACC offers this season, and finish up with a home game against rival Miami (the Noles did beat the ‘Canes at Miami on Feb. 1).
Nothing is easy in the ACC this year, but that’s a fairly reasonable closing stretch among the contenders. FSU will only be an underdog at Duke.
-- No. 3 Louisville has dodged bullets in its last two games, but that’s how championship teams usually perform.
The Cards have road games at UNC and dangerous Wake Forest remaining. The Heels are obviously the greater threat, but Wake Forest is tough in Winston-Salem … and the Deacs may be playing that one to secure an NCAA bid. Good chance they qualify – in Coach K’s words – as a desperate team.
The Cardinals do have three home games down the stretch – Virginia Tech and Syracuse have been formidable at home, but not so much on the road. Notre Dame, which closes the regular season in Louisville on Mar.4, is a different story – the Irish will be a tough opponent, even in the Yum Yum Center.
It’s dangerous, but except for the road trip to UNC, the Cards will be favored in every game down the stretch.
-- No. 4 Duke has the toughest closing stretch – four road games and just two home games remaining.
Tonight’s game at Virginia and the regular season finale are killers. The back-to-back trips to Syracuse – a desperate team that is tough at home – and Miami – another desperate team that gave Duke fits for a half in Cameron – will not be easy.
Neither of the two home games will be easy – Wake Forest and Florida State.
Duke is a significant underdog in two games (at Virginia and at UNC) and a very slight favorite in three others (at Miami, at Syracuse and FSU at home).
-- No. 5 Virginia has almost as tough a finishing drive as Duke – starting with the game against Duke tonight in Charlottesville and the home-and-home with North Carolina.
The Cavs only other road trip is to Raleigh, where N.C. State is in shambles. They get dangerous, but beatable Miami and Pitt at home.
If Virginia can get a split with UNC and hold homecourt against Duke, the Cavs could finish strong.
-- No. 6 Notre Dame had four games left – two at home and two on the road. One of those remaining games is against Boston College and that helps. One is against N.C. State and even in Raleigh, that as soft as it gets. The Irish also get Georgia Tech at home and a chance to get revenge for their worst loss of the season.
So it all comes down to the regular season finale at Louisville. Pull that upset and the Irish could be in the mix for the ACC title even though they are two games back in the loss column at the moment.
Personally, I think every one of those six teams will lose at least one more regular season game. Most will lose two or more.
I think the winner of tonight’s Duke-Virginia game is in the driver’s seat to secure a top four ACC finish – and a double bye. The winner also becomes a strong contender for the regular season title (especially Virginia, which has a slightly easier finishing kick).
But whatever happens, it’s just a prelude to the postseason.
How many people are disappointed with the 2015 team, which failed to win the regular season title, then was upset by Notre Dame in the ACC Tournament semifinals? That team kind of erased its disappointments by winning the NCAA title.
That’s going to be the ultimate test for this Duke team – how far can it go in the NCAA Tournament?
So far, Duke has only shown flashes of the kind of play that can result in a Final Four run – certainly the sustained excellence against UNC last week was that kind of performance.
Tonight offers another chance to demonstrate that level of play. It is worth nothing that the 2015 team didn’t get much out of its victory in Charlottesville – the Cavs still won the regular season title.
But that win was almost a blueprint of Duke’s performance of the national title game. Going into John Paul Jones Arena in 2015 and dominating the Cavs down the stretch was a tangible sign that the ’15 team had the potential for greatness.
I’m still looking for those signs from this Duke team.