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2014 ACC Tournament Preview: Will a newcomer crash the party in Greensboro?

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This has been a season of change for the Atlantic Coast Conference, with the addition of Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and Syracuse meaning that this year’s conference tournament will last five days. With that change teams seeded from 10 to 15 will begin play on Wednesday, now needing to win five games in as many days to earn the ACC title. And even though the regular season did yield an outright winner, with Virginia sitting atop the standings for the first time since 1981, there are multiple teams capable of winning the tournament beginning with those Cavaliers.

RELATEDRead through NBCSports.com’s latest Bracketology

Tony Bennett’s team has taken advantage of an efficient, balanced offense led by guards Malcolm Brogdon and Joe Harris, and their pack-line defense has frustrated many opponents over the course of the season. Among their 16 conference wins was an impressive beating of Syracuse on March 1, but the Orange will arrive in Greensboro healthier than they were on that afternoon as Jerami Grant is back to full strength.

Duke and North Carolina earned the other double-byes, and with Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood leading the way the Blue Devils should be considered one of the favorites to win the tournament. And in Marcus Paige the Tar Heels have a capable leader, but he’ll need consistent help from the big men. Even teams outside of the top four are capable of making a run, and this is an important weekend for Clemson and Florida State with regards to the NCAA tournament. Add in the fact that this is charter member Maryland’s final ACC tournament, and there will be no shortage of storylines in Greensboro.

MORE: Browse through all of our conference tournament previews

The Bracket

When: March 12-16

Where: Greensboro, N.C. (Greensboro, N.C.)

Final: March 16, 1:00 p.m. (ESPN)

Favorite: Syracuse

The Orange certainly had their issues offensively during the latter stages of ACC play, shooting lower than 40% from the field in five of the six games played before their their regular season finale at Florida State. Jim Boeheim’s team shot 48% in that win over the Seminoles, and one reason why was the presence of a healthy Jerami Grant. Tyler Ennis and C.J. Fair lead the way and have been very good, but the Orange need Grant as their third contributor. With Grant healthy some of the pressure is taken off of Trevor Cooney, but it should be noted that Syracuse still needs him to get going.

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Syracuse’s defense is why they were able to hang around in most of those games, and it’s been a strength all season long. Opponents are shooting 40.8% from the field against the Orange in ACC play, and they’re also second in the conference in defensive efficiency. The defense has largely been there for Syracuse, and the combination of that and an offense bolstered by the return of Grant may be enough to push the Orange to the ACC crown.

And if they lose?: Duke

The Blue Devils have been the ACC’s best offensive team from an efficiency standpoint, and in Hood and Parker they’ve got two talented options leading the way. And their solid backcourt does a good job of playing off of the two stars, which also helps make Duke a tough team to defend. Something to watch this week is the play of Quinn Cook, who struggled in the three games prior to his 11-point, six-assist night against North Carolina. He needs to be consistent when on the floor running the show for Mike Krzyzewski. Defense remains a concern, but Duke ranked fourth in the ACC in forced turnover percentage.

Other Contenders:

  • Virginia: Clearly the Cavaliers are contenders, with their balanced offense (led by guards Malcolm Brogdon, Joe Harris and London Perrantes) and stingy defense being two reasons why. But they’re going to need consistent play from Akil Mitchell and Mike Tobey inside, with both coming off of subpar performances in a regular season-ending loss to Maryland.
  • North Carolina: Marcus Paige has been outstanding all season long for the Tar Heels, who have also benefitted from an improved J.P. Tokoto. But if they’re to make a run at winning this event, James Michael McAdoo and the rest of the front court needs to be consistent in the rebounding department.

Sleeper: Pittsburgh

Even with the rough stretch he experienced in the middle of conference play, senior wing Lamar Patterson was still a second team All-ACC selection. He averaged 17.6 points and 4.5 assists per game for the Panthers, who boasted the ACC’s third-most efficient offense in conference play. With Patterson and classmate Talib Zanna leading the way, Pitt has the potential to make a run provided the underclassmen (James Robinson especially) are heard from.

Deeper Sleeper: N.C. State

There’s one reason why the Wolfpack are the pick here: T.J. Warren. This is a group that has struggled with consistency in conference play, but Warren has been the notable exception. Having scored at least 40 points in each of his last two games, Warren’s got the talent and scoring ability to get hot and carry Mark Gottfried’s team on his back for four straight days.

Studs you haven’t heard about:

  • K.J. McDaniels, Clemson: McDaniels was a first team All-ACC selection and rightfully so, but the national pub is lacking for this athletic wing who gets it done on both ends of the floor.
  • Aaron Thomas, Florida State: One of the most improved players in the ACC, Thomas averaged 14.5 points and 4.1 rebounds per game for a team looking to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.
  • Daniel Miller, Georgia Tech: A third team All-ACC selection, Miller blocked a league-best 2.8 shots per game for the Yellow Jackets.
  • Olivier Hanlan, Boston College: Hanlan (18.6 ppg) was a bright spot in an otherwise dismal season for the Eagles, and he dropped 41 on Georgia Tech in last year’s ACC tournament.

CBT Prediction: With Grant back and healthy, look for Syracuse to withstand challenges from Duke and Virginia to win the ACC in its Greensboro debut.

Best ACC Tournament Memory:

No. 15 Purdue uses 3-pointers to beat Morehead State 90-56

WEST LAFAYETTE, IN - NOVEMBER 14: Caleb Swanigan #50 of the Purdue Boilermakers celebrates during the game against the Villanova Wildcats at Mackey Arena on November 14, 2016 in West Lafayette, Indiana.  (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. (AP) Freshman guard Carsen Edwards scored 16 points, and No. 15 Purdue made 11 3-pointers in the first half Saturday on the way to a 90-56 victory over Morehead State.

The Boilermakers (6-2), coming off a Wednesday loss at No. 14 Louisville in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, used a 15-0 first-half run to stretch a 10-9 lead to 25-9, and Purdue continued to pull away.

Dakota Mathias added 14 points, and Caleb Swanigan and P.J. Thompson had 13 each for Purdue.

Miguel Dicent had 11 points for Morehead State (2-5), which played without coach Sean Woods, who has been suspended with pay since Nov. 22, when the university launched an official investigation into Woods’ treatment of players.

Purdue made 11 of 20 from 3-point range during the first half when it built a 47-25 lead. Carsen Edwards, who made his first start in place of slumping Vince Edwards, and Mathias made four 3-pointers each in the first half.

The Boilermakers played without fifth-year graduate student transfer point guard Spike Albrecht, who suffered a back injury this week.

BIG PICTURE

Morehead State: With Woods suspended indefinitely, the Eagles are a distracted basketball team, and it shows as their losing streak reached five on Saturday, including 0-3 for acting coach Preston Spradlin.

Purdue: It’s a byproduct of opposing defenses centering their attention on Boilermaker big men Swanigan and Isaac Haas, but Purdue entered this game leading the Big Ten in 3-point field goal shooting percentage at 41.8 and made 55 percent from beyond the arc during the opening half on Saturday.

UP NEXT

Morehead State: The Eagles do not play until going to Lipscomb on Dec. 10.

Purdue: The Boilermakers travel to New York City for a Tuesday night game against Arizona State in the Jimmy V. Classic.

 

SATURDAY’S SNACKS: Big road wins for UCLA, West Virginia

MADISON, WI - DECEMBER 03:  Nigel Hayes #10 of the Wisconsin Badgers is defended by Kristian Doolittle #11 of the Oklahoma Sooners during the first half of a game at the Kohl Center on December 3, 2016 in Madison, Wisconsin.  (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
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GAME OF THE NIGHT: No. 11 UCLA 97, No. 1 Kentucky 92

This one was a ton of fun to watch as UCLA shook off a sluggish start to run past Kentucky at Rupp Arena. CBT’s Rob Dauster has the story on this one and why it was important for both teams.

IMPORTANT OUTCOMES

No. 25 West Virginia 66, No. 6 Virginia 57: Bob Huggins’ group has a potential signature victory as West Virginia won a big one on the road. I have more about why this one is particularly important for West Virginia here.

STARRED

Nigel Hayes, Wisconsin: After just missing a triple-double in a big win over Syracuse in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge earlier this week, Hayes dominated in a 90-70 win over Oklahoma with 28 points on 10-for-13 shooting. Hayes made both of his three-point attempts and also added six assists and two rebounds. Hayes is playing like an All-American lately.

Josh Hart, Villanova: Speaking of All-American caliber play, the senior guard put up a triple-double in the Wildcats’ 88-57 win over Saint Joseph’s as he finished with 16 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists. Hart was 6-for-10 from the field and 3-for-6 from three-point territory as he had a tremendous outing.

Sebastian Saez, Ole Miss: Underrated nationally, the senior forward had his fourth double-double of the year with 20 points and 16 rebounds in a win over Memphis. Saez also added three blocks as he now has 12 or more rebounds in five games this season.

Anthony Livingston, Texas Tech: The Red Raiders needed three free throws from Livingston with under three seconds left for a one-point win over Rice as Livingston finished with 33 points and seven rebounds.

Collin Smith, George Washington: Also knocking in a huge go-ahead bucket was Smith as his three-pointer with three seconds left gave the Colonials a win over USF. Smith ended up with 22 points and eight rebounds.

TOP 25

  • Using a balanced scoring effort, No. 15 Purdue picked up an easy home win over Morehead State. Freshman guard Carsen Edwards knocked down four triples to finish with a team-high 16 points while Caleb Swanigan and P.J. Thompson both finished with 13 points and six assists.

NOTABLE

  • Solid win for Wake Forest on the road at Richmond as John Collins had 16 points, 13 rebounds.

Nigel Hayes’ 28 points, six assists paces No. 17 Wisconsin past Oklahoma

MADISON, WI - DECEMBER 03:  Nigel Hayes #10 of the Wisconsin Badgers is defended by Kristian Doolittle #11 of the Oklahoma Sooners during the first half of a game at the Kohl Center on December 3, 2016 in Madison, Wisconsin.  (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
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MADISON, Wis. (AP) Wisconsin coach Greg Gard says what makes Nigel Hayes and the Badgers play at their best is one in the same – how far the 6-foot-8 forward is from the basket.

And with Hayes working largely from 18 feet and in, he scored a season-high 28 points Saturday as No. 17 Wisconsin shook off a slow start and blew past Oklahoma 90-70.

“The further he gets from the basket, the more the hard match-up scenarios level off or dissipate,” Gard said.

Gard said what impressed him most about Hayes was he shot 13 free throws, hitting 10, and didn’t turn the ball over once while dishing out six assists. Most of those assists were at the rim as the defense collapsed, opening up outside shots.

Hayes said he’s just taking what the defense gives him.

“It’s just a matter of me staying consistent, staying confident in myself with the work I put in, whether it’s inside or outside, just going with that mindset that no one can guard me,” said Hayes, who took only two 3-point attempts and made both.

The Badgers (7-2) trailed Oklahoma (5-2) the entire first half as they struggled to guard dribble handoffs that gave the Sooners momentum while attacking the rim. But once the Badgers cleaned that up and found their shooting touch, they pulled away.

Wisconsin was 4 of 13 from behind the arc in the first half, and Rashard Odomes put Oklahoma up 58-57 with a 12-footer 8 minutes into the second half. But Bronson Koenig of the Badgers answered with a 3 that started a 20-3 run to put the game away.

The Badgers connected on 8 of 14 3-point attempts in the second half, including three in their decisive run.

Koenig, Ethan Happ and D’Mitrik Trice all scored 16 points for Wisconsin.

Oklahoma committed 16 turnovers, eight in each half. But the Sooners were able to overcome that in the first half by hitting 5 of 8 from behind the 3-point line. Those shots stopped falling in the second half as they went 1 of 6, and coach Lon Kruger said the Sooners didn’t find a way to answer as Wisconsin’s confidence shot up in their final run.

Odomes led Oklahoma with 17 points.

“Some of it was certainly our doing. Some of it was Wisconsin making a good play,” Kruger said of the 20-3 run. “Those opportunities are what we have to learn from and certainly do a better job.”

BIG PICTURE

Oklahoma: It was the first true road game and first against a ranked opponent for a squad that has 11 underclassmen on the roster. But the Sooners didn’t come out intimidated and built an eight-point lead in the first half. Still, they contributed to that decisive Wisconsin run with six turnovers over the 5-minute run. They haven’t beaten a ranked non-conference team in a true road game since 1989.

Wisconsin: When the Badgers have an inside and outside game working together, they can put on a display. Struggling from outside in the first half, they were outscored 40-37. Hitting from the 3-point line, they outscored Oklahoma 53-30 in the second half.

FALSE ALARM

Midway through the first half, the Kohl Center’s firm alarm went off, triggering a recorded message there was an “abnormal condition” in the building and urging everyone to exit. The game continued with the alarm still going off, including as Hayes went to the free throw line and hit 1 of 2. The alarm eventually stopped, and the public address announcer said there was no emergency in the building.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

That’s consecutive wins for Wisconsin over teams from Power Five conferences, which should provide a boost to the Badgers, who dropped a spot in the poll last week after losing to North Carolina 71-56 in Hawaii.

UP NEXT

Oklahoma: On Wednesday, the Sooners host Oral Roberts, who they have beaten 14 straight times.

Wisconsin: The Badgers host Idaho State on Wednesday.

Josh Hart’s triple-double leads No. 2 Villanova past Saint Joseph’s

VILLANOVA, PA - DECEMBER 03: Josh Hart #3 of the Villanova Wildcats drives to the basket against Chris Clover #15 of the Saint Joseph's Hawks in the second half at The Pavilion on December 3, 2016 in Villanova, Pennsylvania. The Villanova Wildcats defeated the Saint Joseph's Hawks 88-57. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
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VILLANOVA, Pa. — Josh Hart had 16 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists for his first career triple-double, leading No. 2 Villanova to an 88-57 victory over Saint Joseph’s on Saturday.

Hart, the preseason Big East player of the year, continued to show why he is among the best players in the nation. Hart hit three 3s and made 6 of 10 shots from the field overall.

He may soon be the best player on the No. 1 team in the country.

Top-ranked Kentucky’s loss to UCLA on Saturday means the defending national champion Wildcats should slide into the top spot in the next AP Top 25 poll.

Villanova (8-0) fans chanted “No. 1! No. 1!” in the final minutes of another rout for the Wildcats. Villanova won its 16th straight Big 5 game against Philly-based teams La Salle, Penn, Drexel, Temple and the Hawks.

Kris Jenkins scored 20 points for the Wildcats.

Lamarr Kimble led the Hawks (3-4) with 15 points and Markell Lodge had 10 rebounds.

BIG PICTURE

SAINT JOSEPH’S: The Hawks have followed a 3-0 start with a four-game losing streak. They lost only eight games last season. The Hawks haven’t beat Villanova since Dec. 17, 2011, and they fell to 3-10 against AP Top 25 teams over the last three seasons.

VILLANOVA: The Wildcats played without guard Phil Booth for the fifth straight game. Booth has tendinitis in his left knee and the Wildcats will not rush him back. Booth watched the Wildcats win their 42nd straight game at the Pavilion. The Wildcats sold out their 172nd straight game at their on-campus arena.

UP NEXT

Saint Joseph’s plays Dec. 11 at Drexel to cap a stretch of three straight Big 5 games.

The Wildcats play Tuesday against La Salle at the Palestra.

Five things we learned from No. 11 UCLA’s win at No. 1 Kentucky

LEXINGTON, KY - DECEMBER 03: Malik Monk #5 of the Kentucky Wildcats reacts in the second half of the game against the UCLA Bruins at Rupp Arena on December 3, 2016 in Lexington, Kentucky. UCLA defeated Kentucky 97-92. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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No. 11 UCLA went into Rupp Arena on Saturday afternoon and knocked off No. 1 Kentucky, 97-92

The game was just as entertaining as we all thought it was going to be, only the outcome turned out just a bit different. 

Here are five things we learned from the game.

1. UCLA is much better defensively than they were a season ago: That was the biggest question mark with this team entering the season. Will they be good enough defensively to win games? The answer is yes. I wrote a full column on UCLA’s defense already, so I won’t waste anymore words on it here.

2. T.J. Leaf is a problem: The UCLA freshman that we had all heard so much about was Lonzo Ball, and rightfully so. Ball is a likely lottery pick, a kid that has the potential to one day be Jason Kidd, and he’s one of the most entertaining players in all of college basketball. It’s easy to fall in love with everything about the kid’s game, from his passing ability to his unselfishness to the way he takes over games with his vision.

But the infatuation with Ball made a lot of people overlook Leaf, a skilled, 6-foot-10 forward who entered Saturday averaged 17.3 points, 9.0 boards and 2.5 assists. Not anymore, not after he went for 17 points, 13 boards and five assists against Kentucky. The offensive side of things wasn’t all that surprising. We knew that Leaf could score and we knew that his versatility and athleticism made him a matchup problem for opposing bigs, although maybe not to the degree that we saw on Saturday.

Where Leaf really seemed to impress was defensively. He grabbed some big rebounds and he made an impact in the paint on the road against Bam Adebayo and the No. 1 team in the country. His motor and his physical toughness stood out as much as anything, and when combined with his athleticism, length and offensive skill, he makes for an impact player and an intriguing long-term prospect. Expect to hear a lot more about him.

3. Kentucky’s issues in the half court were on display: The Wildcats are a terrific defensive team and they are terrific when their defense allows them to get out and run in transition. That’s what they’ve been able to do all season long, due in large part to the fact that they’ve been able to physically overpower everyone that they’ve played, particularly in the back court.

LEXINGTON, KY - DECEMBER 03: Thomas Welsh #40 and TJ Leaf #22 of the UCLA Bruins defend against De'Aaron Fox #0 of the Kentucky Wildcats in the second half of the game at Rupp Arena on December 3, 2016 in Lexington, Kentucky. UCLA defeated Kentucky 97-92. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
(Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Where Kentucky has some issues is when teams force them into a half court battle. They lack shooters. De’Aaron Fox and Isaiah Briscoe combined to shoot 1-for-9 from three. Derek Willis hit a couple of triples and seems to be finally finding some footing in the rotation, but he’s also a step-down on the defensive side of the ball. What happens, then, is that teams can clog the middle, limiting what the Wildcats can do on that end of the floor. It takes away driving lanes for Fox and Briscoe and it makes it that much more difficult to get Bam Adebayo quality touches in the post.

That said …

4. … the way this game says more about UCLA than the Wildcats: The way to force Kentucky into a half court game is to score on them, and that’s a lot more difficult than in sounds. UCLA is very, very good offensively. They not only can score in transition as well as anyone, which let them get the ball through the net before Kentucky set their defense, they have a difference-maker on their roster in Ball who, quite simply, makes everyone on the team better. There are very few teams in the country that can say that they have one of those things, let alone both of them.

The bottom line?

The list of elite teams, the number of teams that can legitimately be called title contenders, just grew by one.

And that list still includes the Wildcats.

5. This may go down as the single-best win of the college basketball season: Kentucky is still awesome. They are still going to be the favorite to win the SEC. They’re still going to be a top five team all season long, and they’re still going to enter the NCAA tournament as a national title contender. None of that is going to change.

And that’s great news for UCLA.

Because they just picked up a win on the road against a team that is going to be a top five team on Selection Sunday. That’s huge, because those are the kind of wins that make a difference in seed lines. Assuming the Bruins win their league this season, having this win on their résumé is what will put them into the conversation for a No. 1 seed. With the Pac-12 looking like it may not be quite as strong as we thought – both Oregon and Arizona are in a bad way right now – it becomes even more valuable.

LEXINGTON, KY - DECEMBER 03: Lonzo Ball #2 of the UCLA Bruins reacts after making a three-point basket against the Kentucky Wildcats in the second half of the game at Rupp Arena on December 3, 2016 in Lexington, Kentucky. UCLA defeated Kentucky 97-92. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Lonzo Ball (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)