WASHINGTON, D.C. — It hasn’t exactly been your father’s ACC tournament, what with two former Big East schools reaching the semifinals of an event being held in nation’s capital instead of the ACC’s capital, but it’s hard to say that the event has been anything other than a success.
We haven’t had a moment like this (or this, or this, or this … and this might be the best, for that matter) but what we do have is a Saturday night date between the two best teams in the league who just so happen to have the two-most present fan bases in D.C. this week. I’ve lived in Washington D.C. for nine years. The loudest I’ve ever heard the Verizon Center was during UVA’s win over Miami in the second semifinal on Friday night, and that’s because it was slightly louder than when UNC was pulling away from Notre Dame in the first game of the evening.
And the best still hasn’t gotten arrived yet. When top-seeded North Carolina squares off with No. 2-seed Virginia on Saturday night, a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament could very well be on the line.
The Cavaliers may be the best team in college basketball this season. They’re ranked No. 1 in KenPom’s efficiency ratings, largely due to a defense that is now playing up to the level that we expect out of a Tony Bennett-coached team. And that’s before you consider how efficient they are on the offensive end of the floor. The pace at which Virginia plays does not allow them to put up impressive scoring totals the way that, say, Iowa State or Oklahoma can, but in terms of points-per-possession, they’re seventh nationally.
The leader of that pack is Malcolm Brogdon, who may be the most ruthlessly efficient — and the most underrated — player in the country. He doesn’t get the same number of chances that players on teams that play a faster pace get, but he’s still averaging 18.8 points on the season with shooting splits of 51.5/41.9/88.3. He’s scored at least 20 points in 10 of his last 15 games and hit for more than 26 points in half of those.
He’s also a terrific individual defender, which is part of what will make Saturday night’s duel so enticing.
Because Brogdon, if the basketball Gods are looking down kindly on us, will be matched up with North Carolina’s Marcus Paige.
Paige, as you should know by now, is UNC’s star perimeter player. Only he hadn’t been playing like it for the last half of the season. In the 16 games prior to Friday’s win over Notre Dame, Paige was averaging 9.1 points and shooting 32.2 percent from the floor and 26.3 percent from three. He seemingly busted out of that slump on Friday, finishing with 16 points and seven assists while hitting 4-for-7 from three in the blowout win. Paige is now shooting 50 percent from beyond the arc here in Washington D.C.
“As long as we keep winning, I’m gonna like DC,” Paige said with a smile late on Friday night.
But Paige isn’t the only Tar Heel playing some of his best basketball of the season in D.C.
Because the Tar Heels’ defense stifled one of the nation’s most potent offensive attacks on Friday night, hold Notre Dame to a ludicrously-low 0.681 PPP. This is not a North Carolina team known for their ability to lock up on that end of the floor. Quite the opposite, in fact. The narrative of this group this season is that they are soft an fragile, that they cannot handle the big moment or the big game. They’re fantastic when they can get into a rhythm and play as a front-runner, but get them into a dogfight and they’ll crumble.
A major part of that is because they can’t get big stops when they need them, and as impressive as the wins over Pitt and Notre Dame have been in this event, the bottom-line is this: UNC ran away from them. There were no big possessions down the stretch. The pressure during late-first half and early-second half runs that put the games away is different than trying to score against Duke when you’re down by one with 10 seconds left.
The Tar Heels will not be running away from Virginia.
One just does not run away from Virginia, not with the way that the Wahoos can defend.
And it’s worth noting here that Virginia’s defense more-or-less matches up perfectly with what North Carolina does offensively. The Tar Heels pound the ball inside and attack the offensive glass, and two of the Pack-Line’s main principles are immediate double-teams on post touches and a complete denial of second-chance points. UVA dares you to beat them with jump shots, and while they are shooting 12-for-29 from beyond the arc in D.C., they’ve been one of the worst three-point shooting teams in the country.
So there’s a lot to like about this matchup.
And when you consider what’s on the line — an ACC tournament title, a No. 1 seed, a favorable draw for the NCAA tournament — and how well the these two teams are playing, there may not be anywhere in the country I’d rather be tonight than courtside at the Verizon Center.