Sixth-ranked Virginia is hoping to pair its first outright regular-season title in 33 years with its first ACC tournament title since winning its only other one in 1976.
The Cavaliers (25-6, 16-2) finished two games ahead of No. 11 Syracuse. Yet coach Tony Bennett said the top seed, only the second for the program, doesn’t mean much.
“There’s such a small amount of separation and most of these teams will have a chance at it,” Bennett said Tuesday. “Who’s playing well, and executes, and is the hungriest is going to have the best chance.”
The tournament starts today with the lowest-seeded teams, while the Cavaliers and the rest of the top four seeds — the Orange, No. 7 Duke and No. 15 North Carolina — don’t play until Friday’s quarterfinals.
Virginia hasn’t reached the semifinals since 1995 and has lost four straight games dating to 2010.
“It seems like the teams that always do well in the postseason, the Dukes and Carolinas, those guys always seem to take a step up when they get into the ACC tournament, the NCAA tournament, whatever it might be,” Virginia guard Joe Harris said. “I think that’s a step that this program has to take and hopefully we can try to make that stride this year.”
This is the first year for the league with 15 teams with the arrivals of Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame from the Big East. That meant adding a fifth day of competition for the first time in the event’s 61-year history, with today’s first-round games at the Greensboro Coliseum featuring teams seeded 10th and lower.
Teams seeded fifth through ninth earned a bye into Thursday’s second round.
It also marks the final tournament run for Maryland, which is headed for the Big Ten this summer. The Terrapins, who won their last title a decade ago, play Florida State in Thursday’s second round.
Here are five things to watch at this week’s ACC tournament:
WARREN’S TEAR: North Carolina State’s T.J. Warren was named the ACC player of the year on Tuesday after leading the league in scoring (24.8) and shooting percentage (53 percent).
He’s scored 41 and 42 points in his last two games — the first ACC player to go for 40 in consecutive games in more than 23 years — and has scored at least 36 in three of the past four. He could be a headache for a higher-seeded team like Syracuse or Duke in bracket’s bottom half.
SYRACUSE’S SLUMP?: The Orange stood at 25-0 and No. 1 in the country in mid-February, and then lost four of six to close the regular season. Plus, sophomore forward Jerami Grant was battling back problems.
Still, coach Jim Boeheim said he didn’t think his team was slumping.
“Every team in the country loses games ... and sometimes your schedule gets really hard, and that’s what happened with us,” Boeheim said. “But overall I think we’ve played consistently well all year.”
THE OTHER NEW KIDS: Notre Dame has the No. 13 seed and faces No. 12 seed Wake Forest in today’s opener, with the winner facing fifth-seeded Pitt.
Fighting Irish coach Mike Brey said the three new arrivals won’t have any problems with the reconfigured tournament format since it’s similar to their previous Big East home.
“As far as the format,” he said after practice on Tuesday, “maybe the teams coming from the Big East are more comfortable because we lived with a crazy schedule.”
SECOND-HALF PAIGE: Can Marcus Paige keep up his second-half run for UNC? The sophomore has repeatedly come up big after halftime, going from averaging 5.9 points and shooting 37 percent in the first half to 11.3 points and 50-percent shooting afterward, according to STATS LLC.
“By nature he’s trying to run the team more,” coach Roy Williams said. “And then all of a sudden he realizes, ‘Hey, my part to help this team today might just be scoring again.’”
UNCERTAIN FUTURES: The ACC tournament will be the last chance for bubble teams like Clemson, N.C. State, Maryland and Florida State to make a case to be in the NCAA tournament.
There’s also uncertainty over whether this will be the final stop for fourth-year Wake Forest coach Jeff Bzdelik, who has struggled to turn around the Demon Deacons.
“I’m not going to talk about anything regarding my job,” Bzdelik said Tuesday. “Let’s talk about the basketball game.”