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March Madness 2017: ACC Tournament Preview, Bracket and Conference Postseason Awards

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ACC Player of the Year: Justin Jackson, North Carolina

This is the hardest league Player of the Year pick to make. There are three legitimate candidates for the award, and one of them — Luke Kennard of Duke — made the NBC Sports all-american first team over Jackson. But to me, Jackson was the best player during ACC play, the most consistent player during league play on the best team in the league, the one that won the ACC regular season title by multiple games.

ACC Coach of the Year: Mike Brey, Notre Dame

The Fighting Irish lost Demetrius Jackson and Zach Auguste after last season. That came a year after they lost Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton. That is a lot of talent to lose for a program that doesn’t traffic in one-and-dones to overcome, and yet, in a year where the ACC is as tough at the top as it has ever been, Mike Brey steered a team led by Matt Farrell, a 6-foot-nothing point guard from the Jersey Shore, and Bonzie Colson, a 6-foot-5 power forward, to a second-place finish in the league. Give the man his due.

First-Team All-ACC:

  • Justin Jackson, North Carolina (POY)
  • Luke Kennard, Duke: Kennard has been phenomenal all season long, and his second half performance against Wake Forest, when he scored 30 points and went 10-for-10 from the floor, was the best half of basketball any individual played this season.
  • Donovan Mitchell, Louisville: Mitchell’s ascent to dominant scorer early in ACC play turned Louisville from a really good team into a national title contender.
  • John Collins, Wake Forest: You may not know the name, but you should. At one point in league play, he scored at least 20 points in 12 straight games.
  • Bonzie Colson, Notre Dame: Colson averaged a double-double and was the leading scorer for Notre Dame as a 6-foot-5 power forward.

Second Team All-ACC:

  • Dennis Smith Jr., N.C. State
  • Matt Farrell, Notre Dame
  • Joel Berry II, North Carolina
  • Dwayne Bacon, Florida State
  • Ben Lammers, Georgia Tech

RELATED: Player of the Year | Coach of the Year | NBC Sports All-Americans

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The Bracket 

When: March 7-11

Where: Barclays Center, Brooklyn, NY

Final: March 11th, 9:00 p.m.

Favorite: North Carolina

The Tar Heels are not only the best team in the ACC, they may be the best team in the country. Justin Jackson and Joel Berry II make up one of the best 1-2 punches in all of college basketball, and when Isaiah Hicks is healthy — and out of foul trouble — they pound the glass better than anyone in college hoops. As long as their defense is good enough, which it has been of late, they are a dangerous team.

And if they lose?: Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Notre Dame got a bit lucky with the way that the ACC tournament bracket shook out. They won’t have to play North Carolina, Duke or Louisville — for my money, the three best teams in the league — until the finals. When their threes are going down, they are as tough to beat as anyone in the conference.

DURHAM, NC - DECEMBER 19: Luke Kennard #5 of the Duke Blue Devils reacts after a play against the Tennessee State Tigers during their game at Cameron Indoor Stadium on December 19, 2016 in Durham, North Carolina. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Luke Kennard (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Other Contenders:

  • Florida State: The Seminoles have to love how the ACC bracket shook out. They’re on the other side of the field from the top three teams in the league and will likely get Virginia Tech in the quarterfinals.
  • Louisville: The Cardinals got a tough draw with the way the bracket shook out, likely getting Duke and North Carolina in their first two games in the ACC tournament, but they are elite defensively and have one of the league’s best in Donovan Mitchell.
  • Duke: The Blue Devils, in just about every game they play, are going to have three of the four best players on the floor with Jayson Tatum, Luke Kennard and Grayson Allen. But they’re going to have to win three games — and beat Louisville and North Carolina — just to get to the finals.

Sleeper: Virginia Cavaliers

UVA is the best defensive team in the country once again. Their issue has been their ability to score, and it looks like the reintroduction of Kyle Guy into their rotation has solved those problems for the time being. They shook off a rough February to win their final three games, including a win over North Carolina last week.

The Bubble Dwellers:

  • Syracuse: The Orange are probably on the right side of the bubble as of today, but given the number of losses they have on their résumé and just how many games they’ve won at home this season, I’d recommend beating Miami in the opener to feel comfortable.
  • Wake Forest: The Demon Deacons are right there on the cut-line. They get Boston College in the first round and would square off with Virginia Tech in the second round should they win. I think they need to get to the quarters.
  • Georgia Tech: Josh Pastner’s done a terrific job with this team, but I think they need to beat both Pitt and Virginia to have a real chance at getting an at-large bid.
  • Clemson: Clemson is still in the mix, but they need to win at least two, and maybe three, games to really have a chance. If they get to the semifinals, they will have beaten N.C. State, Duke and Louisville. That might be enough.

Defining moment of the season: Duke. Everything about them. They’ve been the most intriguing team in the country for so many reasons, whether it’s the drama surrounding Grayson Allen and his tripping habit to the all-world freshmen that can’t crack the rotation to Coach K’s back surgery, there’s a reason this team has dominated the headlines all year long.

CBT Prediction: Duke over Notre Dame in the finals.

Bluiett back to Xavier for senior season

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Xavier lost one significant piece to the professional ranks this spring, but will return another.

Trevon Bluiett, the team’s leading scorer last year, announced via social media that he will be back to play his senior season with the Musketeers.

Chris Mack will return the bulk of a roster that struggled February only to make a run to the Elite Eight, but getting Bluiett for a final season makes the Musketeers especially dangerous. The 6-foot-6 Bluiett scored a team-high 18.5 points per game last year while also putting up 5.7 rebounds and 2.1 assists per night. He shot 37.1 percent from 3-point range, the second-best mark on the team. His return, even with point guard Edmond Sumner going pro amid his ACL tear recovery, makes Xavier one of the top teams in the Big East heading into the 2017-18 season.

Bluiett himself is enough to keep Xavier relevant in the league, but when he’s coupled with the likes of returners JP Macura, Sean O’Mara and Quentin Goodwin, plus a recruiting class featuring two four-star prospects, it’s not difficult to see a path for Mack’s group to a place where they can compete with the likes of Villanova and Seton Hall atop the league.

Welsh and Holiday returning to UCLA

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UCLA sustained some major, though expected, attrition from its roster this spring. On Tuesday, the Bruins announced a pair of significant contributors that will be back.

Thomas Welsh and Aaron Holiday will both return next season to the UCLA program, according to the school.

Welsh, a 7-foot center, averaged 10.8 points and 8.7 rebounds as a senior last year for the Bruins. He shot 58.5 percent from the floor and blocked 1.2 shots per game, and decided to declare for the NBA Draft without an agent before ultimately deciding to return to Westwood.

“Thomas has worked hard all spring,” UCLA coach Steve Alford said in a statement. “We supported him testing the NBA waters and are excited to have him returning for his senior year. He simply continues to develop each and every season.

“Thomas will be one of the top centers in college basketball next year and, undoubtedly, has a great chance to be a first-round pick in next season’s draft.”

The 6-foot-1 Holiday averaged 12.3 points and 4.4 assists last season while sharing a backcourt with Lonzo Ball, whose departure, along with those of TJ Leaf, Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton will leave UCLA with a very different look next season. The positive results, however, may not fluctuate too significantly with Welsh and Holiday coming back to play alongside two five-star recruits, Kris Wilkes and Jaylen Hands, as well as Lonzo’s younger brother LiAngelo.

West Virginia’s Macon forgoing final year

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West Virginia’s attempt to dethrone Kansas atop the Big 12 took a bit of a hit Tuesday.

Elijah Macon, a 6-foot-9 forward, announced his decision to forego a fifth year in Morgantown in order to pursue a professional career.

“First things first I would like to say thank you Bob Huggins and Erik Martin for believing in a young 15-year-old boy growing up from the Southside of Columbus, OH losing my mother and still having you guys push me to be the man I have become,” Macon said according to the school. “I can do nothing but thank you for all you and Mountaineer Nation (have) done for me. Unfortunately, I will not be returning for my senior season at WVU and instead sign with a(n) agent and play professional basketball. Thank you guys for all the love and support!”

Macon wasn’t a major contributor for the Mountaineers last season, averaging 6.3 points and 4.2 rebounds in 16 minutes per game, but he was an experienced and tough player who was well-versed in Huggins’ style and demands. Given the pace that the newly-fashioned Press Virginia plays at, depth is also paramount for them as a program.

Macon’s departure, though, may have been expected or at least partly anticipated by West Virginia. The Mountaineers signed five players in its most recent recruiting class, putting them one over their allotment of 13, so something had to give. West VIrginia will stay have interior depth, anchored by junior Esa Ahmad, so the loss of Macon is one they likely can weather, even if it may take some time to acclimate the newcomers.

“Elijah is in the process of completing classes during this summer school period that ends June 2 and will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in August,” Huggins said in a statement released by the school. “I respect his decision to become a professional basketball player and to go make money to support his family. He had a great four years with us, and we wish him nothing but the best.”

Key returning to Alabama for sophomore season

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Alabama’s top scorer is returning to school.

Braxton Key has withdrawn his name from the NBA draft and will be back with the Tide for his sophomore season, the school announced Tuesday.

“I spoke to coach Avery (Johnson) just over a week ago and informed him of my decision to withdraw my name from the NBA Draft and return to the University of Alabama for my sophomore season,” Key said in a statement. “I made that official when I sent my paperwork to the NBA league office Monday morning. I want to express my appreciation to my teammates, Coach Johnson and the entire coaching staff for giving me their full support while I went through this process.

“I am excited for the future of the Alabama basketball program and looking forward to getting to work as we prepare for next season. Roll Tide and Buckle Up!”

The 6-foot-8 forward averaged 12 points and 5.7 rebounds per game while shooting 43.3 percent from the field as a freshman. He gives Alabama four returning starts to pair with one of the country’s highest-regarded recruiting classes, headlined by five-star guard Collin Sexton. The Tide will also have an eligible Daniel Giddens, who previously transferred in from Ohio State.

Key didn’t seem likely to stay in the NBA draft, especially after he wasn’t invited to the combine, but his ultimate decision is a huge one for Avery Johnson as he looks to break through in his third season in Tuscaloosa with his first NCAA tournament appearance. 

Report: Justin Jackson to return to Maryland

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Maryland forward Justin Jackson is expected to return to school for his sophomore season, according to a report from FanRag Sports.

Jackson is an intriguing talent, a 6-foot-7 combo-forward with a 7-foot-3 wingspan that shoots 44 percent from three. But he’s also still developing his offensive game and consistency on the defensive end of the floor, which is why he was projected as a second round pick in this year’s draft.

With Jackson back in the fold, Maryland is a borderline top 25 team. They lost Melo Trimble to the professional ranks, but that’s something that Mark Turgeon has prepared for. With a sophomore class that also includes highly-regarded point guard Anthony Cowan and sharp-shooter Kevin Huerter, the Terps have a promising season ahead of them.