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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. 3 Gonzaga improves to 20-0 with win over Portland

SPOKANE, WA - DECEMBER 07:  Nigel Williams-Goss #5 of the Gonzaga Bulldogs drives against the Washington Huskies in the first half at McCarthey Athletic Center on December 7, 2016 in Spokane, Washington.  Gonzaga defeated Washington 98-71.  (Photo by William Mancebo/Getty Images)
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PORTLAND, Ore. — Zach Collins had 13 points and No. 3 Gonzaga remained the nation’s only undefeated Division I team with an 83-64 victory over Portland in a game Monday night that was rescheduled because of a winter storm earlier this month.

The Bulldogs have won 20 straight games, their longest streak since winning that many in the 2005-06 and 2003-04 seasons. Gonzaga is now 8-0 in West Coast Conference play.

Silas Melson and Jordan Mathews each added 12 points for the Zags, who led by as many as 33 points and had four players in double-digits.

Rashad Jackson and D’Marques Tyson had 15 points apiece for Portland, which won its first two games in conference but has lost six straight since then. The Pilots (9-11, 2-6 WCC) are playing their first season under former NBA player and coach Terry Porter.

The game was originally scheduled for Jan. 7, but a winter storm in Portland forced it to be postponed. Portland opened up extra seats and Gonzaga’s fans outnumbered the home team’s crowd.

The two teams had met just two days ago in Spokane, with Gonzaga leading from the start to win 73-52. But Portland, playing without top scorer Alec Wintering, out-rebounded the Zags 41-33 and held them to 45 percent shooting.

The Zags fared better on Monday, out-rebounding Portland 41-36 and shooting 42 percent.

Gonzaga guard Nigel Williams-Goss, who left the game against Portland because of a left hip injury with about five minutes left, was questionable against Portland but started.

But freshman forward Killian Tillie appeared to injure his right leg under Portland’s basket with 9:38 to go in the game, and teammates helped him from the floor. The 6-foot-10 Tillie, who is from France, is averaging 4.8 points this season.

Wintering, a senior, was hurt in last Thursday’s game against San Francisco and the Pilots announced this weekend that his college career was over because of a torn left ACL.

Wintering averaged 19.5 points and 5.6 assists a game this season. He was on Portland’s bench in street clothes, but during warmups before the game and at the break he was on the court, offering his teammates advice and encouragement.

Gonzaga jumped out to a 9-0 run but the Pilots closed within 9-8 following Philipp Hartwich’s dunk. Portland was competitive, answering Melson’s 3-pointer for Gonzaga with Jackson’s 3 that got the Pilots within 22-19.

But the Bulldogs responded with an 8-0 run to go up 30-19 and went into halftime with on a 16-4 run for a 38-23 lead. Melson and Jonathan Williams led Gonzaga at the break with eight points apiece. Jackson’s 13 first-half points for Portland were a new career high for a game.

Gonzaga extended the lead to 50-26 on Przemek Karnowski’s layup with just under 16 minutes to go, the Bulldogs were on the way to their 20th straight win.

THE BIG PICTURE:

Gonzaga: The Zags have won eight straight against Portland. … The Bulldogs’ longest winning streak was 22 games, set in the

Portland: Portland Trail Blazers President Neil Olshey was at the game. … The game, originally scheduled to be played over winter break, was sold out. So despite school being back in session, the usual student section wasn’t as large for the televised game.

POLL IMPLICATIONS: Gonzaga rose a spot from No. 4 and only trails No. 1 Villanova (19-1) and No. 2 Kansas (18-1) in the AP rankings released earlier in the day. The Bulldogs were also ranked No. 3 in the Feb. 23, 2015 poll.

VIDEO: Andrew Jones nails deep three to give Texas win over Oklahoma

AUSTIN, TX - DECEMBER 27: James Banks #4 and Andrew Jones #1 of the Texas Longhorns react during the game between the Texas Longhorns and the Kent State Golden Flashesat the Frank Erwin Center on December 27, 2016 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Chris Covatta/Getty Images)
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Texas freshman Andrew Jones nailed one of the most heroic game-winners of conference play with a dagger against Oklahoma on Monday night.

The Longhorns put together an 84-83 win over the Sooners as Jones took the final possession off of a missed free throw to dribble across the floor and fire an NBA-range bomb over a defender.

This win isn’t going to save a struggling Texas season, but it’s a nice win and a confidence-boosting shot for a McDonald’s All-American who has the potential to be a big-time player with some more seasoning. Jones finished with 16 points in the win as the Longhorns are now 8-12 and 2-6 in the Big 12.

(H/t: Mike Leslie)

VIDEO: Dennis Smith Jr. caps N.C. State win with thunder dunk

DURHAM, NC - JANUARY 23:  Dennis Smith Jr. #4 of the North Carolina State Wolfpack drives in for a dunk as time expires during their win against the Duke Blue Devils at Cameron Indoor Stadium on January 23, 2017 in Durham, North Carolina. North Carolina State won 84-82.  (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
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Dennis Smith Jr. showed why he is a potential top three pick in this year’s draft and why he was the reason many thought that the Wolfpack could be an Elite 8 team coming into the season on Monday, popping off for 32 points and six assists as N.C. State won at No. 17 Duke, 84-82.

He capped off the performance with the perfect exclamation point, a dunk contest-worthy throwdown:

Let’s get another angle of that dunk, shall we?:

Three Takeaways from N.C. State’s win over No. 17 Duke

DURHAM, NC - JANUARY 23:  Head coach Mark Gottfried talks to Dennis Smith Jr. #4 of the North Carolina State Wolfpack during their win against the Duke Blue Devils at Cameron Indoor Stadium on January 23, 2017 in Durham, North Carolina. North Carolina State won 84-82.  (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
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Freshman Dennis Smith Jr. had a monster performance as he scored 32 points and had six assists to lead the Wolfpack past No. 17 Duke for an ACC road win.

Here are three takeaways for an important win for N.C. State.

1. This is the Dennis Smith Jr. (and N.C. State) that we envisioned 

Before this season N.C. State received a lot of hype with some pundits — including NBCSports.com — because people knew that freshman Dennis Smith Jr. was a lottery pick talent and there were other pieces around him that could be productive. Smith has mostly lived up to his top-five hype this season but Monday night’s game saw the North Carolina native go to another level.

Smith comes from a family of N.C. State fans. It is part of the reason he selected the Wolfpack even though they aren’t a one-and-done factory like some other schools. The Wolfpack hadn’t won in Cameron Indoor Stadium since 1995 and this year’s N.C. State had lost four of five ACC games entering Monday.

And Smith went completely bonkers. He finished with 32 points and six assists as he was 4-for-6 from three-point range.

At the end of the first half when it looked like Duke might take a double-digit lead into the break, Smith converted a three-point play and followed it up with a tough, contested three to make it a six-point game. The second half saw more of the same from Smith as he nailed pull-up threes, got to the rim and finished through traffic. It was the type of mesmerizing performance that gets casual basketball fans excited about a player before March Madness begins.

Smith wasn’t the only good player for N.C. State on Monday. Freshman big man Ted Kapita gave crucial minutes inside as he registered his first career double-double with 14 points and 10 rebounds. Abdul Malik-Abu was a great secondary option for Smith as he contributed 19 points and nine rebounds. Maverick Rowan (nine points) hit a key late three and some important free throws.

When this team has all of its pieces going you can see why so many people believed N.C. State was capable of the Sweet 16. It feels like this team could be in for a run and the road game at Louisville on Sunday is another major test.

2. Duke is still figuring out its ideal rotation (while getting some answers)

Interim coach Jeff Capel went to some interesting lineup choices on Monday night. Capel started the game by using the lineup that jumpstarted Duke’s second half against Miami. That meant increased minutes for freshman center Marques Bolden as he was paired with Jayson Tatum (16 points) and Frank Jackson.

Seniors Matt Jones and Amile Jefferson were the interchangeable parts who played the most minutes in the first half for the Blue Devils and the second unit included Grayson Allen (13 points), Luke Kennard (20 points) and Harry Giles.

The Blue Devils still have some disjointed sets and scorers are still struggling to play with Tatum at times but there were some promising signs. Giles (eight points, seven rebounds) continues to improve his natural timing and he knocked down a face-up jumper from 17 feet with ease that could help keep defenders honest on him.

There was some good but there was also some bad. Bolden regressed to being a non-factor once again and Allen struggled to find a consistent scoring touch with a 4-for-13 performance.

We still have yet to see the (mostly) full strength Blue Devils that make us believe they are a national title contender. It’ll be interesting to see which lineup ultimately plays the best for Duke but they’re struggling to figure out a consistent rotation.

3. Can N.C. State sustain this kind of effort on a nightly basis?

Monday night was N.C. State’s first road win of the season. So for as big as this win is, the Wolfpack still have a long way to go to becoming a consistent factor in a ridiculously deep ACC. Smith is going to get tested quite a bit by Louisville’s length and athleticism on Sunday and playing in front of that Cardinal crowd is one of the hardest things to do in college basketball.

It doesn’t get any easier for N.C. State and they can’t have a major letdown after the high of a road win like this. That losing stretch of four out of five games included some really bad losses. Boston College, Georgia Tech and Wake Forest are the kind of losses that tournament teams can’t sustain on a regular basis so the Wolfpack have to take care of  business against teams like that for the rest of the season.

Success on the road will also help N.C. State’s tournament cause. This Duke win is nice but now the Wolfpack get two more cracks at top-15 teams away from home with Louisville and Florida State in the next two weeks. If N.C. State can somehow split those road games and stay strong at home they’ll be in good shape the rest of the way.

PHOTO: Nevada wearing pink jerseys to honor Coaches vs. Cancer this week

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Nevada announced that they’ll be wearing special pink uniforms for the next two games to promote cancer awareness.

The Wolf Pack will wear the jerseys on Wednesday (Jan. 25) on the road against Boise State and at home on Saturday (Jan. 28) against New Mexico.

“We are extremely excited and honored to release our new Pink “Cancer-Awareness” Jerseys. It was apparent very early in our time here, that many members of our Nevada Wolf Pack Basketball Program and in our Pack community have been affected or are currently being affected by cancer,” Nevada head coach Eric Musselman said in the release. “We could not be more proud to help support the cause and unite to fight this horrible and devastating disease.”