Jackets give ACC tourney a bit of drama
In the Atlantic Coast Conference, you can save the bubble drama for your mama. Or at least for Georgia Tech.
Everyone else seems pretty well set. Six teams are all but in: Duke, Maryland, Florida State, Clemson, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest. Five teams are out unless they win the conference tournament: Boston College, Virginia, North Carolina, North Carolina State and Miami.
The Yellow Jackets are the only gray-area team, at 19-11 overall and a dicey 7-9 in the league. They were undoubtedly rooting for Butler on Tuesday night to win the Horizon League's automatic bid and alleviate bubble stress, and undoubtedly rooting against St. Mary's co-opting a bid in the West Coast Conference tournament. ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi has Tech in the field as a No. 11 seed at present.
But there are other storylines brewing, as the ACC tourney returns to its traditional Tobacco Road home in Greensboro, N.C., after stops in Atlanta last year, Charlotte in 2008 and Tampa in '07. The top three:
Can Duke wrap up an NCAA tournament No. 1 seed? The Blue Devils are seemingly the leaders for the fourth No. 1. Both West Virginia and Ohio State could make a case for a top seed if they advance to their league's finals or win their tournaments. The Devils were most recently a No. 1 seed in 2006.
Will North Carolina go down with a whimper or a fight? The Tar Heels have had an utter post-championship collapse this season, bottoming out in a lay-down-and-quit loss at Duke on Saturday. Can they salvage some pride with a run here, or are they simply playing out the string and trying to end this nightmare as quickly as possible?
How long can Maryland sustain its mojo? The Terrapins have won seven straight games, vaulting into a tie for the regular-season league title with Duke after being picked to finish fifth in the preseason. They're shaping up as one of the X-factor units for the NCAA tournament next week.
A few other facts you must know to be fully ACC-conversant when the games tip off at noon Thursday:
Who loves this tournament: Duke. The Blue Devils are the defending champions and have won eight of the past 11 tourney titles.
Who hates this tournament: Virginia. The Cavaliers have won all of one ACC tournament, in 1976. They haven't even reached a final since '94 and haven't won a game since 2006.
Vulnerable high seed: Wake Forest. The Demon Deacons make the short drive to Greensboro having lost four of their past five, and with a recent history of struggles in this event. (The last time they reached a final, Tim Duncan was in uniform.) Their first-round opponent is Miami, which split with Wake during the regular season.
Dangerous low seed: North Carolina State. The Wolfpack made a surprise run to the ACC final in 2007, and they've won three of their past four heading into this tourney. When you've won only five conference games all season, that qualifies as a hot streak. Their first-round opponent is inconsistent Clemson.
Best first-round matchup: Georgia Tech-North Carolina, Thursday at 7 p.m. For all of the above reasons pertaining to Tech's bubble status and Carolina's mess of a season.
Best potential quarterfinal matchup: Georgia Tech-Maryland, which would be Friday at 7 p.m. if it comes to pass. Not only would it be a rematch of a game that came down to a last-second shot (twice) last month; it could be the game that solidifies an NCAA spot for the Yellow Jackets. Meanwhile, advancement in this tourney could significantly enhance Maryland's seeding for the next tourney.
Coaches on the hot seat: North Carolina State's Sidney Lowe and Georgia Tech's Paul Hewitt. Lowe's record in ACC play is 20-44 in four seasons, which cannot be acceptable to any NC State fans. Hewitt has seen blue-chip recruits come and go in recent years without a winning ACC record since 2004.
Coach on the rise: Maryland's Gary Williams has risen again. On top of the game in 2002 and under fire often since then, he has somewhat unexpectedly returned the Terps to a position of prominence.
Hottest team: Maryland has won seven straight games, though it should be noted that the past six were all won by single digits. The Terps haven't exactly been blowing teams away.
Hottest player: Greivis Vasquez, Maryland. Everyone was prepared to give Duke's Jon Scheyer ACC Player of the Year honors until Vasquez went ballistic down the stretch. During the Terps' seven-game winning streak he averaged 24.7 points and 6.9 assists.
Coldest team: Virginia has lost 10 straight and suspended its leading scorer, Sylven Landesberg, before its opening game against Boston College.
Coldest player: Al-Farouq Aminu, Wake Forest. Aminu had a nice bounce-back game against Clemson -- going for 18 points and 12 rebounds -- over the weekend, but in his previous two games he combined for seven points and made only two field goals, while fouling out of both.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.