The games might be that close, too.
The tournament begins today in Greensboro, N.C., and it’s shaping up as a much tighter event than it seemed just a few weeks ago.
A top-seeded Duke team that once looked capable of cruising through Greensboro unchecked on its way to a top seed in the NCAA tournament suddenly appears beatable following the loss of perhaps its most irreplaceable player.
The season-ending knee injury to point guard Chelsea Gray — the league leader in both assists and steals — can’t help but pull the Blue Devils back closer to the pack and make a four-day tournament with four Top 25 teams a more even affair.
“I’ve always felt like (at) the ACC tournament,” Clemson coach Itoro Coleman said, “anything can happen.”
That was certainly true last year, when the two top seeds were knocked out in the quarterfinals, but it hasn’t always been the case.
Not since 1999 has a team other than Duke, Maryland or North Carolina won the tournament, and at least one of them has reached the title game every year since 1992.
Those three are once again the top three seeds — but for a change, other teams during the regular season showed they can beat them, too.
Fourth-seeded Florida State defeated both the Terrapins and Tar Heels, and fifth-seeded Miami last week beat the Blue Devils for the first time in program history.
Now it’s up to those schools to prove they can challenge the league’s standard-bearers in tournament time. The 23rd-ranked Seminoles have reached the semifinals just twice while the Hurricanes have never advanced past the quarterfinals.
“The reality is it’s a brand new season, and seeds don’t matter,” Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie said. “That’s just how you figure out who plays who.”
The sixth-ranked Blue Devils (27-2) won a league-record 17 ACC games — this was the first season with an 18-game conference schedule — and are 3-1 without Gray. Talented freshman Alexis Jones, who scored a season-best 22 points in the season-ending win over North Carolina, makes the Duke team go and shot-blocking sophomore Elizabeth Williams still patrols the paint.
Yet they find themselves in an uncomfortably familiar situation, because if the opening-round seeds hold, they’ll face eighth-seeded North Carolina State in a rematch of last year’s quarterfinal won by a Wolfpack team that has pulled at least one upset in each of coach Kellie Harper’s previous three seasons.
“I think our players do understand that the tournament is special,” Harper said. “I feel like they’re starting to get into business mode.”
No. 10 Maryland (23-6) and No. 15 North Carolina (26-5) tied for second place and split their regular-season meetings. Because both teams lost twice to Duke and once to Florida State, the tiebreaker for the No. 2 seed came down to a coin flip won by the Terrapins, who await the Wake Forest-Georgia Tech winner in one of their final ACC tournaments before they for the Big Ten.
And coach Brenda Frese, a two-time champion here, says this is no time for sentimentality.
“We’re excited to play against the best competition,” she said. “Greensboro does it the best, in my opinion, the way they put their tournament together. ... We just want to come in there and give it our best shot.”
The Tar Heels have won the tournament nine times but have reached the title game just once since reeling off four consecutive titles from 2005-08.
Coach Sylvia Hatchell praised her team’s balance because North Carolina made it through the season without having anyone win the league’s weekly player of the week award — though Xylina McDaniel, the daughter of former NBA player Xavier McDaniel, did win the ACC’s rookie of the year award after leading all freshmen with a 12.4-point scoring average.
“These kids have just competed hard throughout the season, and that’s why I think when you look at our team, again, you think, ‘Well, how have they won all these games?’” Hatchell said. “But this is one of my favorite teams I’ve ever had.”