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:

Pro golfer, Wisconsin fan Steve Stricker does not like J.P. Macura

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Wisconsin resident, Badger fan and pro golfer Steve Stricker was not happy after UW lost to Xavier on Thursday night.

For starters, his team lost.

That sucks.

Then J.P. Macura went and rubbed it in everyone’s face, doing the Gator Chomp at the student section after he threw down an alley-oop with less than a minute left:

Stricker was not having any of it:

Me?

I loved it.

And maybe, just maybe, the fact that Wisconsin’s entire student section spent the game telling Macura that he’s an a****** had something to do with his reaction.

Also … how many middle fingers do you see in this picture?

Thank you Badger fans. What a hostile environment.. I appreciate the love

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Lonnie Walker hurt as No. 11 Hurricanes beat A&M 90-59

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CORAL GABLES, Fla. (AP) — Highly touted freshman Lonnie Walker IV twisted his left ankle Thursday night, and coach Jim Larranaga was sore himself after the latest lopsided win by the 11th-ranked Miami Hurricanes.

Larranaga said Walker wasn’t seriously hurt, and the coach seemed more concerned about his team’s effort and focus in a 90-59 victory over Florida A&M.

“I didn’t think we were very good from start to finish,” Larranaga said. “We need to play a whole lot harder, and better defensively. We looked sluggish. I told the team I was extremely disappointed in our effort.”

Walker was assisted to the locker room in the first half after stepping on another player. The Hurricanes are scheduled to play La Salle next Wednesday in Walker’s hometown of Reading, Pennsylvania.

“We won’t know for a couple of days, but I think he’s fine,” Larranaga said.

Is he likely to play in the next game?

“Oh, he’s going to play in Reading,” Larranaga said.

Trump urges 3 UCLA players to thank China leader for release

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WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump urged three suspended UCLA basketball players on Thursday to thank China’s president for their freedom after they shoplifted in China.

The president’s suggestion came a day after he tweeted: “Do you think the three UCLA basketball players will say thank you President Trump. They were headed for 10 years in jail.”

The trio apologized that day and publicly thanked Trump, who was in Asia last week, for his help. On Thursday morning, the president sent another tweet: “You’re welcome. go out and give a big Thank You to President Xi Jinping of China who made your release possible.”

In the same tweet, Trump said, “HAVE A GREAT LIFE! Be careful, there are many pitfalls on the long and winding road of life!”

Later in the day, as he rallied House Republicans before a crucial vote on a tax overhaul, Trump talked about his efforts to release the players

Rep. Steve Womack of Arkansas said Trump “personally engaged the Chinese president and it turned out the way it did,” with the players released. He said China is known for being “extremely punitive” with criminal suspects, adding: “This could have been a disaster for those families.”

Freshmen LiAngelo Ball, Jalen Hill and Cody Riley were detained in Hangzhou for questioning last week before the Bruins beat Georgia Tech in their season-opening game in Shanghai. The rest of the team returned home Saturday.

Athletic director Dan Guerrero said the shoplifting occurred when the team had 90 minutes of free time on Nov. 6 in Hangzhou. He said the three took items from three stores.

The players are suspended indefinitely, and coach Steve Alford says they will have to earn their way back onto the team.

Weekend Preview: We’ve reached the oversaturation point of early-season exempt events

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Typically, I use these Weekend Previews to discuss the best games of the weekend, but this weekend, there just aren’t any games that are actually worth talking about.

So I’m going to go on a rant instead.

We’ve officially reached the point of over-saturation when it comes to the early-season exempt events.

This is the second weekend of the college basketball season and we’re right in the middle of what should be one of the better weeks of college hoops. The Gavitt Games are happening, the Champions Classic more or less lived up to the hype and, starting on Thursday, we dove head first into tropical locale tournament season.

Except … these events all suck.

The Charleston Classic started on Thursday. Auburn beat Indiana State to advance and take on Temple, who dispatched Old Dominion. The winner of that game will take on the winner of Clemson and Hofstra, because Hofstra upset Dayton in the first round. There are four mid-major teams in the Charleston Classic, and none of the high-major teams look like they will be tournament-bound.

The Puerto Rico tip-off is even worse. It features teams from the Missouri Valley, Conference USA, the Sun Belt and the SoCon. The best team in the event is either an Iowa State team that lost to Milwaukee at home by double-digits, a Tulsa team that lost to Lamar at home, a South Carolina team that got picked off in the first round of the event or Boise State, who wasn’t picked to be in the top two of the Mountain West.

It won’t get any better when the Paradise Jam starts today. The three best teams in that event are Houston, Colorado and Wake Forest and features an opening round game between Mercer and Liberty.

There are also a number of events in the Northeast this weekend and next week. I live an hour from New York City and I won’t be making the trek up to any of the games at the Garden or the Barclays Center until next Saturday, and these are what are supposed to be big games being held there for the next eight days. I cover this sport for a living, but I’d rather watch on TV and spend time with my son than go see Pitt play Penn State or Texas Tech square off with Boston College.

Even the Maui Invitational isn’t all that intriguing. Cal is down. VCU is down. Michigan and Marquette have struggled early. LSU is intriguing but only in the sense that they appear to not be a train-wreck this year. If Notre Dame doesn’t play Wichita State in the final, that tournament will not feature a single must-see game.

Now granted, much of this is due to the fact that Nike pulled 14 power programs out of the exempt event rotation for the PK80, and I’ll admit, that event should be fun. But man, it was such a buzzkill when I realized that the 16-team event was really just two eight-team tournaments.

It makes sense – you can’t have conference rivals facing off in the same tournament – but it just never clicked for me.

Which brings me back around to the larger point that I wanted to make: Can we start doing away with some of these events and play marquee non-conference games on campus again? On Thursday night, we got a chance to see No. 15 Xavier pay a visit to Wisconsin for the Gavitt Games, and it was everything that we love about college basketball. Two elite programs featuring an all-american facing off in front of a raucous crowd that spent the entire second half letting J.P. Macura know that they think he is an a******. Ethan Happ, the best post player in the country, according to Chris Mack, got pissed about not getting a couple of foul calls and proceeded to will Wisconsin back into the game only to see Trevon Bluiett bury two dagger threes in a minute stretch to put the game away.

After hitting those threes, Bluiett proceeded to shush the crowd. A minute later, after throwing down an alley-ooo to put Xavier up 12 with just seconds left on the clock, Macura proceeded to do the Gator Chomp over and over and over at the Wisconsin student section to remind them of who knocked the Badgers out of last year’s NCAA tournament.

That was awesome!

Yes, Macura was a little over the top, and yes, the Wisconsin fans probably earned Macura’s trolling, but everything about that game was what makes college basketball great.

And it was a game between the No. 15 team in America and an unranked Wisconsin program. It wasn’t even a marquee matchup. The environment at the Champions Classic rivaled that – there really is nothing better than having an arena packed with fan bases from both teams playing – but when those neutral site games don’t feature blue blood programs or teams with large alumni bases in the city or fans that are willing to spend the money to travel, it’s boring. Virginia Tech got upset by Saint Louis at Madison Square Garden last night and I’m pretty sure I could have put my son to sleep while sitting behind the basket.

So this is my plea to the NCAA tournament Selection Committee: Make it obvious just how much you value quality road wins in non-conference play. Make them so valuable that programs simply cannot afford not to play them. Make Xavier’s win at Wisconsin on Thursday night worth at least a seed line even if Wisconsin ends up being a bubble team.

That’s the only way we’re going to get teams to play great games on campus in the fall.

No. 15 Xavier’s win over Wisconsin should, and will, be rewarded by Selection Committee

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This Wisconsin team is probably not going to end up being quite as good as past Wisconsin teams.

That’s inevitable when you lose the players that they lost to graduation, but it also doesn’t change the fact that No. 15 Xavier went into the Kohl Center and snagged a win that is going to look quite good on Selection Sunday.

The Musketeers took care of the Badgers, 80-70, thanks to 25 points and nine boards from Trevon Bluiett and 20 points from J.P. Macura. Bluiett struggled to find a rhythm for much of the game, but he hit a pair of critical jumpers midway through the second half to stem a Wisconsin run and, with the game tied and just over a minute left on the clock, buried three-pointers on back-to-back possessions to lock up the win.

For a stretch midway through the second half, it looked like Wisconsin was getting ready to run away with this game. Ethan Happ – who finished with 21 points and eight assists and who Xavier head coach Chris Mack referred to as “one of the best post players in the entire country” – was in the midst of taking the game over and Wisconsin’s sold out Kohl Center was in full voice. That’s when Bluiett went into takeover mode, quieting the crowd and getting Xavier out of Madison with a win.

That shouldn’t be overlooked, and if there is any justice in the world, it will be the kind of thing that the Musketeers get rewarded for come Selection Sunday.

I enjoy the neutral site tournaments that pop up every year. They create some drama every November, and there are always some fun matchups over the weekend and afternoon basketball during the week. That’s great. But the best part of college hoops is the environment of playing a big game on campus. The crowd, the student section, players like Macura doing the Gator Chomp at the Wisconsin fans – the Badgers lost to Florida in the NCAA tournament last year – after they spent the entire second half bombarding him with ‘a******’ chants every time he touched the ball.

It was great.

And it will be better if that kind of a win, even against a Wisconsin team that is probably closer to being top 40-good than top 25-good, is something that the Selection Committee values. Those changes are supposedly coming, and it will be a good thing for the sport. Give top 15 teams an incentive to play road games in November.

Because Thursday night’s clash in the Kohl Center was everything that is great about college hoops.