The Atlantic Coast Conference didn’t exactly follow the preseason script this year.
It was supposed to be North Carolina State unseating perennial heavyweights Duke and North Carolina atop the league. Instead, it was Miami winning its first regular-season title and earning the top seed at this week’s tournament.
Still, lower-seeded teams like Maryland, Georgia Tech and Wake Forest managed to pull off big upsets during the season and could set the stage for a competitive tournament in Greensboro, N.C.
Below are six players who could have a big impact on which team raises the championship trophy on Sunday afternoon.
Kenny Kadji, Miami — The 6-foot-11, 242-pound fifth-year senior is averaging 13.6 points, 6.9 rebounds and 1.4 blocks. He’s also shooting 49 percent from the floor and nearly 39 percent from behind the arc. That makes Kadji a versatile and valuable presence in the lineup for the Hurricanes, who are the No. 1 seed for the first time in program history. While things typically focus on first-team all-ACC performer Shane Larkin, this second-teamer could be a matchup headache for opponents heading through the weekend with his ability to post up smaller defenders or lure bigger guys away from the rim.
Ryan Kelly, Duke — Look past the senior’s 36-point outburst against Miami in his first game back from a two-month absence due to a foot injury. The 6-11 forward’s contributions to the second-seeded Blue Devils are about far more than scoring. Kelly has the shooting range to stretch defenses away from Mason Plumlee inside or to open driving lanes for Quinn Cook while also giving Seth Curry some help on the perimeter. It’s no coincidence Duke is 18-0 with Kelly in the lineup and 9-4 when he was out with the unspecified right foot injury. Coach Mike Krzyzewski has said the Blue Devils will use their final games before the NCAA tournament to adjust to Kelly’s presence in the lineup again, so the ACC tournament will be critical as Duke tries to make up for lost time. As Krzyzewski said after the Miami win, “We’re just running a little bit different race than anybody else right now.”
Marcus Paige, North Carolina — Much of the attention has focused on the spark that came when P.J. Hairston helped form the Tar Heels’ four-guard starting lineup. But Paige’s improvement as a freshman point guard was an overlooked reason for the Tar Heels’ February surge, too. Paige averaged 10.7 points and 5.3 assists while playing with more confidence during UNC’s six-game winning streak, an uptick from his season averages. Paige regressed and struggled during the loss to Duke in the regular-season finale, so he’ll have to show that was just a one-game blip if the third-seeded Tar Heels are going to win their first tournament title since 2008.
Joe Harris, Virginia — Harris has been terrific for the Cavaliers all season and helped them earn the No. 4 seed and a first-round bye. In his first year as a go-to guy, the 6-6 junior upped his scoring average from 11.3 points last year to 17 points this year. He’s also scored in double figures in 12 straight games, including a 36-point performance in an upset of Duke and a 27-point outing in a loss at North Carolina. He’s shooting 48 percent from the field and 44 percent from the 3-point arc, and earned first-team all-ACC honors Monday. Harris will have to come up big considering his defensive-minded team averages just 64 points per game and has only one other scorer averaging in double figures, but he’s met that challenge all year against defenses that know the ball is coming to him. “When Joe gets that look in his eye that he’s not going to be denied, he’s hard to stop because of his strength and size,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said after the Duke win.
Lorenzo Brown, North Carolina State — When the 6-5 junior point guard is at his best, preseason ACC favorite N.C. State is a dangerous transition team. Brown can take defenders off the dribble and finish at the rim, but he has also proven he can knock down the outside shot. He’s also shown the ability to frustrate opposing point guards with his size. But Brown still isn’t fully healed from a sprained left ankle that sidelined him for nearly three games and coach Mark Gottfried has said Brown hasn’t fully recovered his burst. But Brown guided this team to an appearance in the NCAA round of 16 last year and can still be a game-changer for the No. 5 seed Wolfpack.
Michael Snaer, Florida State — While the Seminoles have struggled after winning their first ACC tournament title last year, Snaer has accounted for nearly half of the team’s wins with his knack for knocking down last-second shots. Snaer has hit four winners in the final 5 seconds of games this year, including last week against Virginia. He led Florida State to home wins against the Cavaliers and N.C. State to close the regular season. While Florida State (and N.C. State on this list) would have to win an unprecedented four games in four days at the ACC tournament, Snaer’s ability to hit clutch shots and practically carry the Seminoles through the league schedule makes him a tough matchup for any higher seed. N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried said recently he’d rather double team Snaer at the end of a close game and leave someone else completely open than let the senior shoot a potential winner.
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