This ACC tournament looks a little more interesting than it did just a few days ago.
What seemed a bit like a Duke coronation — and a last chance for it to snag a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament — got a little spicier when North Carolina stunned the Blue Devils at Cameron Indoor Stadium Saturday night to spoil coach Mike Krzyzewski’s going-away party. Just like that, the Tar Heels moved off the bubble into solid tournament footing, and Duke looks, well, at least somewhat beatable.
The Blue Devils remain massive favorites (-130 at both FanDuel and DraftKings) to win the tournament, which tips off Tuesday afternoon at Barclays Center, but other teams might have greater motivation, with their NCAA Tournament lives on the line.
Wake Forest (the +900 second choice at DraftKings and FanDuel) and Notre Dame (+1000 at DraftKings) would love to improve their projected No. 10 seeds in March Madness. Same goes for Miami (+1300 at DraftKings), also picked as a 10 seed by Joe Lunardi at ESPN. North Carolina (+1000 at FanDuel) would like to improve its status as a projected No. 8 seed.
Then there is a second tier of teams that probably need a good showing this week in Brooklyn to get into the NCAA Tournament. Virginia, Virginia Tech, Florida State, and Syracuse make up that tier. Everybody else is looking for a Hail Mary ticket to the dance via the ACC tournament winner’s automatic bid.
The prohibitive favorite
Prior to Saturday, Duke had lost just three conference games in 19 tries, and those three losses were by a combined four points. In winning by 13 Saturday, UNC finally made its arch rival look vulnerable.
Duke, quite obviously, still has a lot going for it, starting with 6-foot-10 freshman Paolo Banchero, who will quite possibly be the first player selected in the next NBA Draft. It also has a solid center in Mark Williams and a veteran point guard in Wendell Moore Jr. AJ Griffin, Jeremy Roach, and Trevor Keels give Duke more talented depth than any team in this field.
We’ll leave aside the Do-it-for-Coach-K narrative, because who knows what kind of impact those kinds of emotions will have.
There’s no obvious weakness on this team, in that Duke ranks Top 25 in both offensive and defensive efficiency and Saturday’s loss was its first in nearly a month. Notably, Duke beat UNC by 20 when the teams played in Chapel Hill on Feb. 5.
The problem with jumping on the favorite here is the unfavorable price on what amounts to a three-team parlay. In order to win this tournament, Duke has to win three straight games, on consecutive days, starting with Thursday’s contest against the winner between Florida State-Syracuse. While it’s certainly doable, that’s a lot of sweating to do when holding a -130 ticket.
A value pick
There’s no reason to stray far looking for somebody capable of upsetting the Blue Devils. Let’s just go with the obvious choice.
Some people thought Hubert Davis’ job was on the line when the Tar Heels started off sluggishly in conference play. That kind of talk has died down. This UNC team isn’t just the hottest team in the ACC, it’s among the hottest teams in the nation. Saturday’s win gave it 11 victories in its final 13 games, including five in a row.
Junior center Armando Bacot, who has 23 double-doubles this season, has been playing his best basketball since mid-February, and Brady Manek gives the Tar Heels a bona fide long-range threat, having hit on 40% of his 3-point attempts this season. If North Carolina can avoid turnovers, a season-long bugaboo, it could make a deep run in Brooklyn. Being able to get 10/1 odds on a team playing this well and coming off a win over the massive chalk is awfully tempting.
Two more sleepers
The beauty of the online sportsbooks’ odds for this tourney is, if you’re not picking Duke, you’re — by default — picking a longshot able to provide a big payoff. The problem with picking any seed lower than 4th, however, is that team needs to win an extra game (the first four seeds get a bye into the third round). There may be little reason to reach for a solid team that has to play Wednesday, such as Wake Forest.
Notre Dame is in a good spot, waiting to play on Thursday against Virginia Tech, NC State, or Clemson. The Irish won eight of their last 10 games, with impressive wins over Miami and Syracuse.
This Irish team appears to be playing as well as it has since joining the ACC. It is is a senior-led team that has been through adversity and could be ready to do some damage, while available at +1100 (FanDuel).
What about Miami? There’s something to be said for a team that broke through Lunardi’s bubble by overcoming an eight-point deficit at Syracuse to win 75-72 on Saturday. Miami can all but punch its ticket to March Madness with one more win on Thursday against Wake Forest, Pitt, or Boston College. Having won six of its last eight games, Miami (+1300) is another solid longshot in a field full of them.
Photo: Rob Kinnan/USA Today