clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

ACC Tournament Preview: No. 1 seed NC State Wolfpack seek third-straight title

The ACC Tournament begins on Wednesday, with the No. 1 seed NC State Wolfpack aiming to capture a third-straight conference tourney crown.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: FEB 20 Women’s - Syracuse at NC State
Will Kayla Jones, Sophie Hart, Elissa Cunane and the rest of the NC State Wolfpack soon be celebrating a third-straight ACC tournament title?
Photo by Nicholas Faulkner/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The 2022 ACC Tournament kicks off on Wednesday at 1 p.m. ET with the first of three first-round games. The first-round, second-round and quarterfinal contests will be broadcast on local Bally Sports affiliates, the Saturday semifinals will be shown on the ACC Network and ESPN will feature the final at 12 p.m. ET on Sunday.

The NC State Wolfpack (26-3, 17-1 in the ACC), the ACC regular-season champions and the No. 3 team in the nation, enter the tournament as the top seed and favorites to capture a third-consecutive tourney crown. However, the No. 2 seed Louisville Cardinals (25-3, 16-2 ACC), ranked No. 4 in the nation, have a strong chance to disrupt the Wolfpack’s reign.

Or could another squad, such as the No. 3 seed Notre Dame Fighting Irish (21-7, 13-5 ACC), No. 4 seed North Carolina Tar Heels (23-5, 13-5 ACC) or No. 5 seed Virginia Tech Hokies (21-8, 13-5 ACC) catch fire and find themselves tourney champs?

The two top dogs

Over the course of the regular season, NC State and Louisville established themselves as the class of the conference.

The No. 1 seed Wolfpack suffered only a single blemish, failing to finish off a double-digit comeback and instead falling to the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame on Feb. 1. NC State did execute a successful comeback to defeat Louisville in the only matchup between the teams. A scintillating fourth quarter, which the Wolfpack won 31-8 as they shot nearly 80 percent from the field, gave them the critical victory over their toughest conference competition.

The Pack’s ability to persevere to victories has been fueled by their continuity. Not only is star center Elissa Cunane in her senior season, but key contributors from last season’s squad in junior wing Jakia Brown-Turner, graduate forward Kayla Jones, graduate guard Raina Perez, junior forward Jada Boyd and graduate guard Kai Crutchfield endow NC State with reliability, depth and experience. However, this season’s Wolfpack might have a higher ceiling because of new addition Diamond Johnson. The sophomore guard, who spent her freshman season at Rutgers, has served as a scoring spark off the bench.

The Wolfpack flashed their clutch calm on Sunday. Unable to put away Virginia Tech early, Cunane hit the crucial late jumper — two of her 22 points — to help NC State escape Blacksburg with a two-point win.

Yet, if top-seeded NC State meets second-seeded Louisville in the championship final, expect the Cardinals to be motivated, as they likely have been stewing about, and will be motivated to avenge, their fourth-quarter collapse against the Wolfpack. Otherwise, Louisville only dropped a mid-February contest to North Carolina, missing a few key shots down the stretch to leave Chapel Hill with the one-point loss.

With graduation of offensive engine Dana Evans, the way this Louisville squad takes care of business differs from last season’s group. Senior forward Emily Engstler, who transferred from Syracuse, and graduate guard Chelsie Hall, a Vanderbilt transfer, helped to inject the Cardinals with a grittier, more defensive-oriented identity. The fearlessness of sophomore guard Hailey Van Lith, the steadiness of redshirt senior guard Kianna Smith, the intensity of senior guard Mykasa Robinson and the size of sophomore forward Olivia Cochran and senior forward Liz Dixon give Louisville the versatility needed to contend with any and all comers.

On Sunday, the Cardinals used this recipe to crush Notre Dame in South Bend, winning in a game that was not even as close as the final score of 86-64 might indicate.

Three dark horses

Three squads finished the regular season with records of 13-5: third-seeded Notre Dame, fourth-seeded UNC and fifth-seeded Virginia Tech. All have shown the potential needed to play spoiler in the conference tournament. As mentioned above, Notre Dame took down NC State while UNC squeaked out a win over Louisville.

Although the Irish’s regular season ended with an uncompetitive home loss to the Cardinals, they did show that signature “fighting” spirit, suggesting that they will not be deterred from any designs they have about a deep tourney run. If both teams advance to the semifinals, Notre Dame and Louisville will meet for a third time this season. Considering how difficult it can be beat a team twice, much less three times, the Irish could be well-positioned for an upset in a contest that promises to be a bit spicy.

The Tar Heels enter the tournament on a four-game winning streak and as winners of eight of their last 10 games. Those two losses? They came to Virginia Tech and NC State, the two teams they would have to defeat if they were to make a run to the championship final. As both losses were close, the Heels should take the court in those possible matchups with confidence.

As it showed on Sunday, Virginia Tech can hang with the conference’s best, refusing to relent as NC State seemed poised to establish a comfortable lead and instead requiring the Wolfpack to fight until the final buzzer. It was the Hokies’ second time forcing the Pack into a close contest. The potential of a Virginia Tech-UNC semifinal matchup is intriguing, as the the teams split their two regular-season meetings.

First and second round matchups

The tournament slate starts Wednesday with the No. 12-No. 13 contest between the Syracuse Orange (11-17, 4-14 ACC) and Clemson Tigers (9-20, 3-15 ACC) at 1 p.m. ET. Both squads are coming off less-than-inspiring performances, suffering blowout losses on the final Sunday of the regular season. It was Syracuse’s fifth-straight loss and Clemson’s fourth loss in a row. Although one tournament win will not erase overall underwhelming seasons, both the Orange and Tigers should be motivated to end their years on more positive notes. The two teams have not played since their first game of ACC play, when the Orange thumped the Tigers in upstate New York in mid-December.

Next up, the No. 10 Duke Blue Devils (16-12, 7-11 ACC) meet the No. 15 Pittsburgh Panthers (11-18, 2-16 ACC) at 3:30 p.m. ET. While the second season of the Kara Era fostered much early-season optimism in Durham, the Blue Devils stumbled through their ACC slate, suffering several disappointing defeats. Although they did score a victory over Pitt in early February, the Panthers might be a more stubborn opponent than their No. 15 seed suggests, as they are coming off promising performances, albeit in losses, to Louisville and Florida State.

The first day of tournament action ends with the No. 11 Wake Forest Demon Deacons (14-15, 4-14 ACC) facing the No. 14 Virginia Cavaliers (5-21, 2-16 ACC) at 6:30 p.m. ET. Both teams mostly struggled through their conference schedules. When they met in mid-January, the Demon Deacons cruised to a comfortable victory. However, the Cavs will have the energy advantage, as they did not play on Sunday while the Deacs lost at home to Georgia Tech.

The second day and second round of the tournament begins with No. 5 Virginia Tech hosting the winner of Syracuse vs. Clemson at 11 a.m. ET. In the regular season, the Hokies blitzed both the Orange and Tigers, suggesting they should advance to the semifinals without a problem.

The No. 8 Boston College Eagles (19-10, 10-8 ACC) and No. 9 Florida State Seminoles (16-12, 10-8 ACC) then take the court at 2 p.m. ET for the day’s second game. The teams met for the only time this season in Tallahassee in mid-February, with the home team using a second-half surge to get the win. Since then, the Eagles have won three-straight games, capped by rout of Syracuse on the road on Sunday. The Noles closed out their regular season with pair of tight wins over Georgia Tech and Pittsburgh.

The third game, which tips at 6 p.m. ET, will feature the No. 7 Miami Hurricanes (17-11, 10-8 ACC) and the winner of the contest between Duke and Pitt. Since the beginning of February, the Canes only have dropped games to teams that were ranked at the time, with their four losses coming to Louisville, UNC, Notre Dame and Virginia Tech. Otherwise, they have earned convincing wins, including a victory over then-ranked Georgia Tech. While Miami did lose to a then-ranked Duke in mid-January, their resume since then indicates they should advance past either opponent.

To finish off the second round, the No. 6 Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (20-9, 11-7 ACC) will face Wake Forest or Virginia at 8 p.m. ET. It has been an uneven season for Nell Fortner’s squad, as it has been unable to establish the consistency expected of a veteran team. Tech has twice defeated Wake Forest this season, including on Sunday. This could make the Jackets vulnerable to an upset by the Demon Deacons.


ACC Tournament schedule

All games at Greensboro Coliseum in Greensboro, NC

First Round — Wednesday, March 2

Game 1: No. 12 Syracuse vs. No. 13 Clemson, 1 p.m. ET

Game 2: No. 10 Duke vs. No. 15 Pittsburgh, 3:30 p.m. ET

Game 3: No. 11 Wake Forest vs. No. 14 Virginia, 6:30 p.m. ET

Second Round — Thursday, March 3

Game 4: No. 5 Virginia Tech vs. Game 1 winner, 11 a.m. ET

Game 5: No. 8 Boston College vs. No. 9 Florida State, 2 p.m. ET

Game 6: No. 7 Miami vs. Game 2 winner, 6 p.m. ET

Game 7: No. 6 Georgia Tech vs. Game 3 winner, 8 p.m. ET

Quarterfinals — Friday, March 4

Game 8: No. 4 North Carolina vs. Game 4 winner, 11 a.m. ET

Game 9: No. 1 NC State vs. Game 5 winner, 2 p.m. ET

Game 10: No. 2 Louisville vs. Game 6 winner, 6 p.m. ET

Game 11: No. 3 Notre Dame vs. Game 7 winner, 8 p.m. ET

Semifinals — Saturday, March 5

Game 12: Semifinal 1, 12 p.m. ET (ACCN)

Game 13: Semifinal 2, 2:30 p.m. ET (ACCN)

Championship — Sunday, March 6

Game 14: Winners of semifinal contests, 12 p.m. ET (ESPN)