Recapping the Performance of the ACC in the 2019 Men’s NCAA Tournament
By Bryan Bruwer
Despite the Boston College Eagles failing to qualify for the big dance in 2019, assessing the performances of their ACC competition offers useful perspective on the state of the conference in general. The ACC sent seven teams to the tournament (second most out of any conference, the Big Ten had eight). including three number one seeds, a feat that only been accomplished once before in NCAA History. One of the best tournaments in recent memory culminated with the Virginia Cavaliers being crowned National Champions, marking their first title and the 16thmen’s basketball championship brought home by an ACC squad.
Duke Blue Devils (#1 Overall Seed)
Entering the tournament, Duke was the undeniable favorite to cut down the nets in Minneapolis on April 8th. Entering the tournament fresh off an ACC Tournament Championship, many thought that nothing would stand in the way of Coach K and company winning their sixth National Championship. Despite a poor performance in the first half against North Dakota State, Duke rebounded to win by a sizeable margin, setting up a tantalizing matchup between Zion Williamson and Tacko Fall of the #9 seed UCF Knights. The result was one of the best games of the entire tournament, with Duke prevailing by a final score of 77-76 after UCF couldn’t convert on a last-second attempt at a game-winner. They moved on to the Sweet Sixteen for a date with a familiar ACC foe: the #4 seed Virginia Tech. Again, Duke prevailed in miraculous fashion after VT failed to score on a wide-open backdoor lob, sending Duke to the Elite Eight to face off against the #2 seed Michigan State Spartans. In another outstanding game, Duke’s luck finally ran out, as they fell to the Cassius Winston-led Spartans 68-67. Duke has now failed to make the Final Four for the 4thstraight season, and they’ll say goodbye to their triumvirate of stars, Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett, and Cam Reddish (not to mention Tre Jones), who will all be top ten picks in the 2019 NBA Draft in June. It will be interesting to see how Duke will perform next year with a new cast of five-star recruits including Vernon Carey and Wendell Moore.
Virginia Tech Hokies (#4 Seed)
Despite beating Duke in the regular season, not many people gave VT a chance to make a deep tournament run due to a matchup with the Blue Devils looming should the Hokies advance to the Sweet Sixteen. This turned out to be the case, despite an impressive showing from the second-best team in Virginia. The Hokies dispatched of #13 seed St. Louis with relative ease, and survived a late scare against a potential Cinderella in #12 Liberty in the Round of 32. VT proceeded to push the big bad Blue Devils to their absolute limit, coming with inches of victory and a trip to the Elite Eight. What was impressive about the Hokies run is that they did it despite sub-par performances from their stars. Both Justin Robinson and Nickell Alexander-Walker (a likely lottery pick) failed to crack 15 points in their games against Duke and Liberty. This is a testament to the depth of VT, who should not hang their heads after a very impressive display when it mattered most.
Louisville Cardinals (#7 Seed)
Louisville drew a very interesting matchup in round one in the form of the Minnesota Golden Gophers who are of course led by Richard Pitino, the son of Louisville’s former coach Rick Pitino. In what was considered a coin-flip game by many amateur bracketologists, the Cardinals fell in disappointing fashion to #10 seed Minnesota by a score of 86-76. Star forward Jordan Nwora failed to get it going, scoring just 10 points in a pretty much wire to wire win for Minnesota. On the bright side, Steven Enoch and Darius Perry combined for 26 points off the bench, and senior guard Christian Cunningham put up 22 points, shooting 13-13 from the charity stripe. Despite not having very high expectations heading into the tournament, one still would’ve liked to see the Cardinals handle their business as a favorite in their first game.
Syracuse Orange (#8 Seed)
Perhaps the most under the radar team in the ACC heading into the tournament was the Syracuse Orange, who have developed a reputation over the last decade or so as giant-killers in March regardless of their low seeding, as evidenced by their Final Four run as a #11 Seed in 2016. Syracuse ultimately fell short against the #9 Seed Baylor Bears, who were ironically lead by grad-transfer Makai Mason, the same man who torched them when playing for Yale back in 2016. Syracuse was in the game the whole way, but Tyus Battle failed to take over when it mattered most, missing some key shots down the stretch that ultimately sunk the Orange’s hopes of making another deep tournament run. Battle will head to the NBA, leaving Cuse with some big shoes to fill going forward.
Florida State Seminoles (#4 Seed)
As one of the hottest teams in the country, many had rightfully high expectations for the Seminoles, especially after their run to the Elite Eight last March as a #9 seed. They appeared well on their way to another deep run after surviving a scare against the Vermont Catamounts (who were a trendy upset pick) before closing the book on a potential Cinderella run by #12 seed Murray State, who were led by sensational point guard Ja Morant, who is a lock for being a top five pick in the upcoming NBA draft. This set up a rematch with the #1 seed Gonzaga Bulldogs, a team that last year’s Seminoles beat on their road to the Elite Eight. However, history did not repeat itself, as Gonzaga pulled away from FSU in the second half en route to a 72-58 victory. Although Florida State failed to recreate last year’s magic, the Seminoles run to the Sweet Sixteen should certainly not be considered a disappointing end to their season.
Virginia Cavaliers (#1 Seed)
In the wake of the embarrassing debacle against UMBC and their general reputation for not being able to get it done in March, this year’s iteration of the Cavaliers had a fair share of doubters entering the tournament despite being a #1 Seed for the fourth time in the last six tournaments. It looked like lightning would strike twice for a moment, as UVA trailed Gardner-Webb at half, before pulling away in the second half for an easy victory. The Hoo’s then dispatched of #10 seed Oklahoma and #12 seed Oregon (despite a valiant fight from the Ducks) to set up a date with Carson Edwards and #3 seed Purdue. Edwards continued his postseason tear, pouring in 42 points on ten three-pointers, but it wasn’t enough. It looked as if Virginia was done, down 70-68 with seconds remaining before a crazy sequence ending with a Mamadi Diakite jumper to send the game to overtime. A Deandre Hunter bucket gave UVA a one-point edge with just under 30 seconds remaining, and following a Purdue miss and two Kyle Guy free throws, the Hoo’s led by three. Carson Edwards, who had been outstanding all night, turned the ball over on the potential game-tying possession, allowing Virginia to advance to their first Final Four since the first Apple Macintosh hit the market.
Waiting for them in the Final Four was the #5 seed from the South region, the Auburn Tigers. Auburn had knocked off blue-bloods Kansas, UNC, and Kentucky en route to Minneapolis, with their win over Kentucky coming after Chuma Okeke, the team’s leading rebounder, tore his ACL. In another incredible contest, UVA prevailed by the skin of their teeth after weathering the storm following a 12-0 Auburn run in the last few minutes. After seemingly putting the game away, UVA suddenly trailed by four points with ten seconds left. What ensued was possibly the craziest ten seconds of basketball all season. Kyle Guy hit a crazy contested three from the corner to cut the deficit to 1 with five seconds remaining. Auburn guard Jared Harper (an 83% free throw shooter), missed one of his free throws, giving UVA a chance to tie or take the lead. Ty Jerome proceeded to nearly turn the ball over (the refs missed a double-dribble that was admittedly hard to see in the moment), and off an inbound pass with 1.5 seconds left Kyle Guy was fouled on a corner three by Samir Doughty. Guy, with absolute ice water in his veins, hit all three free throws to give UVA a shocking win over Auburn and a matchup against another defensive-minded team in the #3 seed from the West region, the Texas Tech Red Raiders.
Again, Virginia partook in an instant classic in the National Championship Game. After leading for much of the game, Tech battled back in the second half to take a three-point lead with less than 30 seconds left before Deandre Hunter hit a massive corner three to tie the game with 12 seconds remaining. Tech would fail to convert on the ensuing possession, sending the National Championship to overtime. The Hoo’s ran away with it in overtime, giving them their first ever National Championship victory, one year removed from suffering the most embarrassing loss in the history of the tournament. Kyle Guy was deservingly named MVP the tournament, as he was the biggest part of a tournament run that UVA fans will never forget.
North Carolina Tar Heels (#1 Seed)
Despite falling short in the ACC tournament to their nemesis, the Duke Blue Devils, many (including myself) pegged the Tar Heels as Final Four and beyond material. All appeared well early on, as UNC won their first round game easily and put up 81 points on Washington’s vaunted defense, setting up a matchup with the #5 seed Auburn Tigers. Few gave the Tigers a chance in this one, but they got red-hot from the field and outscored the Tar Heels 56-41 in the second half, winning comfortably by a score of 97-80. Wow. Although the Tar Heels aren’t known for their defense, a team as good as UNC losing by such a margin and giving up that many points boggles the mind, but it’s what makes March Madness so special. Auburn went on to knock off Kentucky in the Elite Eight, punching their first ever ticket to the Final Four. Despite making it to the Sweet 16, it’s pretty concerning that this marks UNC’s second straight (relatively) exit from the tournament. To make matters worse, the UNC will lose their top five scorers to either graduation or early departure to the NBA, including seniors Luke Maye, Cam Johnson, and Kenny Williams, in addition to freshman standouts Coby White and Nassir Little, both of whom project as lottery picks in June’s NBA Draft. Who knows what the future holds for a Tar Heels team who’s highest returning point scorer averaged less than 8 PPG (Garrison Brooks) and who’s recruiting class ranked a meager 48thin the nation according to 247sports behind storied powerhouse programs like UMass and in-state rival Wake Forest.