Ironically enough, in the age of conference expansion and realignment, the championship game of this first-ever 5-day ACC Tournament will be between two of the conference’s remaining seven charter members, Duke and Virginia.
This should be an excellent matchup between two teams that were consistently the best all season long (Syracuse was good, but not consistent). For starters, each team has two players honored among this year’s All-ACC teams, with Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood for Duke and Joe Harris and Malcolm Brogdon for Virginia each being honored.
In addition, this is a great coaching matchup, between the legendary Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, in his 34th season at Duke, going for his 14th ACC Tournament title, and one of the nation’s best up-and-coming coaches, Virginia coach Tony Bennett, in his 5th season with the Cavaliers.
These teams met once in the regular season, on January 13 in Durham, when Duke won 69-65. Until last Sunday, the loss to the Blue Devils was Virginia’s only ACC loss. Duke led the whole game before a furious rally, which included an 11-0 run, gave Virginia a one-point lead in the final minute, and a Rasheed Sulaimon go-ahead three clinched the win for Duke in the closing seconds. That was Duke’s 26th straight win at home, a streak that has since been stretched to 33 games.
Virginia isn’t a team that will put up big numbers, but they are certainly a well-oiled machine. The saying “defense wins championships” applies to this season’s ACC regular season, because Duke’s offense, which is the best in the conference, led them to a 14-4 conference record, but Virginia’s defense, which allows fewer points than any other defense in the nation, led them to a regular season title.
However, the ACC does not officially recognize its regular season champion. The only champion recognized is the team who cuts down the nets about 3:00 on Selection Sunday. And Virginia hasn’t done that since 1976. Duke has done it 19 times, including 15 since the Cavaliers’ last title. That might be motivation enough for Virginia.
Virginia senior guard Joe Harris, who was a first team All-ACC preseason selection, has had reduced numbers from last year’s very productive season. But the team has won, and Harris has been a big part of that success, as he has made sure the team remains balanced on both ends of the floor and he helps his teammates to score, particularly Malcolm Brogdon, who was voted second team All-ACC this postseason. Even with Harris’ “down year”, he was voted third team All-ACC by the media, and second team by the coaches.
As the season progressed forward, this Virginia team had more and more of a feeling of destiny to it, and that was never felt more than it was two weeks ago when they defeated Syracuse by 21 at home to clinch the top seed in the ACC Tournament. While Duke has played better than Syracuse as of late, I still think Virginia’s team is very solid all-around and has the toughness, both physically and mentally, to win a title.
Duke may also be due; they have won 5 straight championship game appearances, dating back to a 2004 loss to Maryland, and 10 out of 11 dating back to a 1998 loss to North Carolina.
Virginia 60, Duke 56.
Image Credit to Wikimedia