Ryan Mayer

The Atlantic Coast Conference is on paper, the best conference in the country. It features three Top 10 teams and five Top 25 teams overall. In addition, 10 teams have compiled 18 or more wins already this season. Want advanced statistics? The ACC is good there too, ranking three teams inside the Top 10 of Ken Pomeroy’s rankings, including the #1 (Virginia) and #3 (Duke) teams. Another six appear in the Top 40 of the rankings.

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Last year, the conference placed a record nine teams in the tournament field. But, they didn’t perform as expected when the Madness began. The conference placed just one team (North Carolina) in the Sweet 16, who of course went on to win the whole thing. With the conference tournament just under two weeks away, we caught up with CBS Sports Network analyst Brendan Haywood to see how he feels about the strength of the conference this year, how they’ll fare in the Big Dance, and what to expect from the battle in Brooklyn.

CBS Local Sports: Last season, the ACC got nine teams in the tournament. This year, it seems there are four teams definitely in, with others that have some work to do. Ultimately, how many teams do you think can make it this year?

Brendan Haywood: I honestly think the ACC has a chance to get up to 10 teams in there because, we all know about the Carolinas and the Dukes, but there are so many other teams playing well or teams that have a legitimate claim to the NCAA Tournament. Teams like Miami or an N.C. State which has beaten Duke, Carolina and Arizona this year. There’s so many different teams that are worthy, that I think the ACC deserves nine to possibly ten teams getting in.

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CBS Local Sports: You talked about some of the teams outside the big names there, I’m curious which one of those teams could make the most noise come tournament time?

Brendan Haywood: Miami. They have an NBA level guard on their team. So, I think they’re a team that you need to worry about as far as getting to the tournament. Because, whenever you have the talent, if you get put in the right type of bracket or the right type of match-up, a team like that could really get hot and make a run.

Virginia is once again one of the strongest teams in the country, but they’ve struggled come tournament time, failing to advance to the Final Four. Is this the year they finally break through?

Brendan Haywood: Virginia can definitely make a Final Four push as long as the game is played at their style, which is at that slower pace. Virginia averages about 68 points per game and they want to keep the game in the 60s and 50s and make it a defensive contest. It’s going to be very hard to beat Virginia when they’re playing like that.

But, if they ever get down 10-15 points in a game in the second half that’s where I would be scared or have some questions about can they come back? Because, you can’t play that same slow-down pace when you’ve got to make up points and there are limited possessions left in the game. It seems like every tournament team gets tested at some point where they’re down and have to fight through that type of adversity and that would be my only concern with Virginia. As far as talent-wise goes, this is a different type of year. You don’t have to have four NBA players to win the title in this year’s NCAA Tournament.

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CBS Local Sports: Speaking of talent, Duke’s clearly got the most talent on their roster in the conference, but they’re unproven come tournament time with the freshmen. What do you expect from them as we head into March?

Brendan Haywood: We have to see where this team is when Marvin Bagley comes back, because he hasn’t played but this team has continued to win games. Grayson Allen has thrived when Bagley hasn’t been there. If you think back to Allen’s best game this season, it was a 37-point outburst against Michigan State where Marvin Bagley left in the early stages of the game with an eye injury.

I’m not really sure where Duke is right now. They have to find a way to get this same, aggressive Grayson Allen when Marvin Bagley is on the court. Grayson Allen has to continue play this way when Bagley comes back and that is probably the best that Duke will look if they can get that to happen.

More importantly, they have to compete defensively. There’s too many nights when you look out there with Duke and there’s all these NBA athletes and you just don’t see the defensive energy they need to have. That’s part of the reason why Coach K has been going zone more frequently. I think they’re going to use a lot more zone in the second half of the season and I think that’s why they’re getting better as a team. The zone is hiding a lot of their weaknesses.

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CBS Local Sports: Your alma mater, North Carolina, is the defending champ, and looks to be rounding into form lately, going 6-0 in the month of February. What’s the ceiling for Roy Williams’ team?

Brendan Haywood: Right now, they’re playing well having won six in a row. They play a smaller line-up. You’re used to seeing Carolina play with two dominant bigs and that’s not the way that this team is built. They’re built now around shooting with guys like Joel Berry, Luke Maye, Cam Johnson and Kenny Williams. They’re based around the three point shot and playing up-tempo. If they can get the game played at their tempo, get up-and-down the court and make threes, they’re good enough to make a Final Four run.

The reason I say that is when you look at the standings right now at the very top, no one has really separated themselves as far as we have way more talent than you. Duke has more talent than most teams, but their defense allows other teams to stay in the game with them. So, when you look at some of these teams at the top, Carolina is good enough to stay with anybody. As long as they’re hitting their three point shots, they have a chance.

CBS Local Sports: We’ve spoken about how many different teams can make some noise come March which leads me to wonder, with all of these teams bunched closely together in the conference, which one do you think makes it out of Brooklyn as the winner of the ACC Tournament?

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Brendan Haywood: In a tournament like that where you’re playing back-to-back nights it’s always good to be a good defensive team. That’s why I think Virginia has a serious advantage. There might be nights where you don’t have your legs and you can’t hit shots, but you can always compete defensively and play the right type of scheme. That’s the beauty of UVA. They don’t need guys to hit seven or eight threes in a game because they can beat you if the game is in the 40s. I think UVA is really built for the ACC tournament.