March 18, 2019
Cover photo: Jason E. Miczek, the ACC
The 2019 ACC Tournament affirmed the strength of the conference and showcased several legitimate final four contenders. Familiar to such lofty expectations, UNC and Duke clashed for a third time this year and used their platform to undoubtedly establish themselves as top seeds in the upcoming NCAA Tournament. Additionally, Florida State exhibited exceptional depth and defense, while Syracuse also boosted their postseason resume. Worth mentioning, Virginia was highly-touted and exited early. In the final, the Duke Blue Devils captured a very impressive 21st ACC tournament championship.
Actually, let’s just go with, Zion. He has officially reached one-name freak celebrity athlete level status. The Salisbury, NC-born ultra star somehow managed to overperform the mountain of hype.
His first game back from injury came against Syracuse and all the pregame focus was on the stability of his custom Nike Kyrie 4s. Once the game tipped off, Williamson made sure the focus was solely on his abilities. Zion dunked and dunked and dunked…finishing with 29 points. Most notably, he made all 13 of his shots. He nonchalantly added 14 rebounds and five steals. It was very clear, Williamson is the catalyst to Duke’s success.
His second game back came against bitter rival, North Carolina. Earlier this season, the Heels won the first two meetings against a Zion-less Blue Devils team. Now, just like the movies, Zion and the Duke empire were going to strike back. The game itself was a classic back-and-forth battle. Duke needed every one of Williamson’s 31 points and 11 rebounds. In fact, Zion’s last bucket was a game-winning put-back rebound, over the outstretched arms of three Tar Heel defenders.
Just like all the great trilogies, Zion’s third game in the ACC Tournament was for the championship. Coming into the matchup, Williamson was averaging an impressive 30 points per game. Against Florida State, Zion offered his usual assortment of monster rebounds and jaw-dropping dunks, but his next level playmaking ability was also on display. While leading a fast break, the left-handed Zion threaded a slider-like bounce pass, arriving to his teammate who was striding for a layup. Zion really showcased his full arsenal of talents while ultimately leading his team to a title.
A few other players that stood out were Coby White and Luke Maye of UNC. White’s speed at the point guard position was noticeable and it was a distinct advantage for the Tar Heels. Add in Maye, who seemed to be in the right spot just about the entire tournament, and it’s easy to forecast North Carolina making a deep run in the NCAA tournament.
Not to be left out, last year’s ACC Tournament MVP, UVA’s Kyle Guy again flashed impressive scoring and playmaking abilities. His shoe game was also on display during Guy’s 29-point (10-13 FG) performance in a win over NC State. The third team All-American rocked two different color sneakers, paying homage to the Nike Lebron 16 Equality, while fashionably going 7-9 from beyond the three-point arc.
The third meeting of Duke vs. North Carolina was certainly a classic and the fact it was on a neutral court was even more entertaining. Sure, the NCAA Tournament is beyond unpredictable, but allow yourself to wonder what UNC vs. Duke IIII would be like.
Also standing out, the Florida State program and Head Coach Leonard Hamilton should be very pleased with their ACC Tournament outcome. Last season, to the surprise of many, the Seminoles reached the Elite Eight. This season, despite an unbelievable amount of depth, the squad has had its hardships. In typical fashion, FSU’s leading scorer against UVA was an unheralded player. Graduate transfer, David Nichols led the upset with his 14 points. Beating one seed Virginia and advancing to the finals against Duke validated this year for the Seminoles.
Additional praise to the underdogs and hard workers, conference tournaments are a great time to acknowledge the players that epitomize the everyday student athlete. (Cue the one shining moment montage.)
It’s always a pleasure to see a role player stuff the stat sheet. Virginia Cavalier, Jack Salt, comes to mind. Despite favorite UVA getting bounced earlier than anticipated, the ‘Hoos fifth-year senior scored a career high 18 points in UVA’s win over NC State. Normally that wouldn’t merit much attention, however, Salt hadn’t scored a single point in his previous six games. You could tell the Spectrum Center was rooting for him.
I’ve mentioned Zion Williamson a lot, so I’ll try to avoid oversaturation, but every one of his dunks were pretty much must-see moments, too.
NCAA Tournament Implications:
There’s been a lot of talk about the ACC getting several number one seeds in the upcoming NCAA Tournament. After watching the talent level in the ACC, you can understand why three teams from the conference landed number one spots. UNC and Duke are no-brainer selections. More so, with Zion, it’s clear Duke should be the number one overall seed. Meanwhile, factoring in last year’s historic loss and this year’s ACC exit, it feels like Virginia might have the most to prove of any NCAA tournament team. Also, keep an eye on FSU, Syracuse, and Virginia Tech. Those programs improved their stock and are postseason ready.
With the most entertaining and unpredictable weekend in sports approaching, and thanks to the strength of its competition, it’s clear the ACC is in a strong position to have several programs advance deep in the NCAA Tournament.