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Special to theACC.com by ACCDN Guest Reporter Jacob Dennis
Things have gone as expected in Greensboro so far, as four of the top five seeds have advanced to semifinal Friday. The lack of upsets has left us with four of the nation’s best teams, Virginia, Duke, Notre Dame and North Carolina, who will compete to determine the ACC Champion over the next two days. Virginia held off a late surge from Florida State on Thursday, while North Carolina outscored Louisville 38-23 in the second half to win by double digits. In the late games, Duke blasted NC State, while Notre Dame put a dent in Miami’s NCAA tournament hopes by staving off a huge second half Canes run. The tournament started with 14 teams, but just four remain. Here is the breakdown of each matchup on semifinal Friday:
(1) Virginia vs. (5) North Carolina
The ‘Hoos and Heels have faced just once this season, a 75-64 Virginia win in Chapel Hill on February 2. In that game, UNC held a one-point halftime lead, but the Cavaliers’ stout defense cooled off Carolina’s hot start, as the Heels managed to shoot just 38% in the second half.
Stat to Watch: Virginia’s defense limited UNC to just one transition basket in the teams’ only meeting, a layup coming with less than two minutes remaining. The Tar Heels ability to push the ball in transition will be a main determining factor in Friday’s semifinal. Even at the risk of a higher turnover count, Marcus Paige and company must push the envelope in an attempt to create easy baskets. If the Heels play at UVA’s pace, a more talented Cavalier squad will again use its suffocating defense to advance to Saturday night’s final.
Players to Watch: Two North Carolina players must perform well in order for the Heels to upset UVA. First, Carolina needs Brice Johnson to stay hot. The Heels’ most talented frontcourt player, Johnson scored 18 points in the second half against Louisville to help his team upset the fourth seed by double digits. Johnson was assertive and he played mad, something UNC will need to carry over to Friday. Second, there are undoubtedly more talented players, but a good performance from J.P. Tokoto might be what Carolina needs to upset a higher-seeded team for the second consecutive day. The Heels are 10-4 when Tokoto reaches double figures, and a solid offensive output from the junior forward would improve Carolina’s chances to win immensely. Tokoto struggled, however, in Carolina’s only matchup with UVA, and he had another lackluster performance Thursday against Louisville.
Keys to the Game: In addition to pushing the ball in transition, Carolina must protect the paint. The Heels allowed a whopping 40 paint points in their lone matchup with Virginia, as four Cavaliers scored 13 points or more. For UVA, limiting UNC’s second chance opportunities will decrease the Heels’ effectiveness. North Carolina ranks T-10 in the NCAA with 14.3 offensive rebounds per game, and second in the nation in overall rebounds per game at 41.8. Keeping Carolina off the glass usually keeps them out of the win column as well.
Prediction: I just don’t think UNC has to ability to generate enough easy baskets to play with Virginia for 40 minutes. A slightly more rested Cavaliers squad will clinch a spot in Saturday night’s final. Virginia 67, North Carolina 59
(2) Duke vs. (3) Notre Dame
Duke and Notre Dame have met twice this season, but only one of the games was closely-contested. The Fighting Irish bested Duke 77-73 on January 28 in South Bend, but the Blue Devils responded with a resounding 90-60 drubbing of Notre Dame on February 7 at Cameron Indoor.
Stat to Watch: The Fighting Irish’s assist totals reveal the tale of the tape in Duke and Notre Dame’s two regular season bouts. Mike Brey’s squad had 17 assists on 29 made baskets (59%) in their win over Duke, but just 12 assists on 23 made shots (52%) in the team’s blowout loss. Additionally, Irish star Jerian Grant had 12 assists in the win over Duke, but just four in the loss. Grant’s ability to get his teammates involved early and often offensively will be a necessity if Notre Dame is to knock off a Duke team playing really good basketball late in the season.
Players to Watch: Jerian Grant had two very different performances in the regular season versus Duke. His 23 point, 12 assist performance on January 28 was just enough to squeak the Irish past the Devils, but he only scored seven in the 90-60 loss. Duke is currently on a 12-game winning streak, playing arguably the best basketball in the country. Notre Dame is a great team, but it would take something truly special from Jerian Grant, in my opinion, for the Irish to beat Duke again.
For Duke, who else would we watch? Jahlil Okafor, the ACC’s Player of the Year, had a quiet night against NC State on Thursday, largely due to the fact that the Devils didn’t need him to blow State off the court. But against a more talented opponent in Notre Dame, expect Okafor’s performance to rise to the occasion.
Keys to the Game: For Duke, duplicating its last defensive performance against Notre Dame would be more than good enough to propel the Devils to Saturday night’s final. In the team’s thirty point win, Duke held Notre Dame to 39.7% shooting. The Irish made just six free throws that night and turned the ball over 10 times. Nothing went right for Notre Dame. But one particular area of focus for Mike Brey and company will be rebounding; the Devils held a 40-26 advantage in that department on February 7 in Durham. Zach Auguste and Austin Torres combined for just three boards.
Prediction: This should be a terrific game between two Final Four-caliber teams. Duke is firing on all cylinders right now and, obviously, anything can happen in March. But I think the Devils are the better basketball team. They’ll win and force a 2014 #ACCTourney Finals rematch with Virginia.
Duke 81, Notre Dame 74