Photo via Gerry Broome/Associated Press

March is officially here, and March means that before we can enjoy the beloved NCAA Tournament, we get to enjoy the appetizers first: Conference tournaments.

The ACC tournament kicks off next week from the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York, and this year it should be interesting. The league is really good top-to-bottom, and as we learned throughout the regular season, unless you’re playing Pitt, anyone can lose on any given night.

Next week is going to be fun.

The Favorite: Virginia Cavaliers (26-2, 15-1in ACC)

Virginia has continued to prove throughout the season just how good this team is. The Cavaliers lost just one game in the ACC, an overtime loss at home to a surging Virginia Tech squad, and have dominated the league all season long. As it stands now, Tony Bennett’s club would be the top overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, barring an early upset in the ACC Tournament. That being said, UVA has played in quite a few close games this year, and an off shooting night could leave Virginia vulnerable to a loss. The Cavaliers still enter next week as the favorite to win it, however.

Back to Back? Duke Blue Devils (24-6, 12-5)

Last year in Brooklyn, Duke ran the table to win the ACC Tournament after an inconsistent Blue Devils squad entered the week as a five-seed after going 11-7 in ACC play. Could they do it again this year as the likely two-seed? It’s more likely, as Duke is undoubtedly the most talented team in the field. Duke’s offense has been stellar all year, but as of late, the Blue Devils’ 2-3 zone defense has started to take shape. With Marvin Bagley III returning, and the emergence of big man Marques Bolden as a spark off the bench, Duke has all the tools to win its second consecutive ACC championship if its defense continues to play serviceable.

Sleeper: Notre Dame Fighting Irish (18-12, 8-9)

Look out, rest of the ACC: Mike Brey’s Notre Dame squad is healthy again. Matt Farrell has been back for a couple weeks now, and star big man Bonzie Colson returned on Wednesday night against Pittsburgh just in time for the Irish to make a tournament run. Before Farrell and Colson went down, Notre Dame was a top-15 team in the country at 12-3 overall with a win over Wichita State and a Maui Invitational tournament title. Farrell’s return has already regained that Irish fever, as Brey’s club has won five of its last seven heading into the ACC regular season finale Saturday at Virginia. Notre Dame has made the ACC tournament championship game in two of the last three years, and don’t be surprised if an Irish team hungry for an NCAA Tournament bid makes a run next week in Brooklyn.

Don’t Count Them Out: Clemson Tigers (22-7, 11-6)

Despite their astute record, wins over North Carolina, Florida State, Miami (FL), Louisville, Florida, and Ohio State, people continue to not take Clemson as a serious NCAA Tournament continue. Sure, senior Donte Grantham is out for the year, but the Tigers are 6-3 since he went out, and one of those losses was in overtime, and the other two were close games against red-hot teams (Duke and at Virginia Tech). This Clemson squad is for real. Brad Brownell’s team plays the game together, plays good defense, and does a good enough job on offense. The Tigers will be a top-four seed in the ACC Tournament, which means a double-bye. Don’t overlook a Clemson team that is very capable of winning this entire thing.

Coming in Hot: Virginia Tech Hokies (21-9, 10-7)

Buzz Williams has done a phenomenal job at Virginia Tech, and in just his second season, he has the Hokies as one of the top teams in one of the best conferences in College basketball. Entering the ACC Tournament, Virginia Tech has won five of its last seven, including wins over NC State, Virginia on the road, Duke, and Clemson. Yep, this team is the real deal. With a perfect mix of veteran leadership, heart, and talent, Virginia Tech is a team that can’t be overlooked. Just ask Tony Bennett. The Hokies could easily make a nice run next week in Brooklyn, similarly to how a red-hot Michigan team won the Big 10 tournament last year.

A Lot on the Line: Louisville Cardinals (19-10, 9-7)

It has been an absolute roller coaster year for Louisville basketball, and there still is a lot to come off the court. David Padgett and his staff have done an amazing job stepping in for Rick Pitino literally right before the season and leading this team to the position it is in. However, the Cardinals still have work to do for an NCAA Tournament birth. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi currently has Louisville as one of his last four teams in the tournament, meaning the Cards need a good showing in Brooklyn next week to secure a birth come Selection Sunday. Adding pressure to the situation, the FBI investigation is still pending on this program, and it’s possible this could be the last time Louisville could play in March Madness for a couple of years. A big week lies ahead for the Cardinals.

Tabaco Road Title Again? North Carolina Tar Heels (22-8, 11-6)

It’d be hard pressed to forget about North Carolina in an ACC Tournament preview. Despite a loss to Miami on a buzzer beater last week, Roy Williams has his club playing their best basketball at the right time, again. Before the Miami loss, UNC had won six straight, including three on the road in tough environments at NC State, at Louisville, and at Syracuse. This Tar Heels team has veteran leadership in seniors Joel Berry, Theo Pinson, and Luke Maye, and loads of young talent to compliment them. The defending National Champs are seasoned and know how to win away from the Dean Dome, and as we’ve learned before, that’s a recipe for success in March.

Prediction: North Carolina

Yep, I’m going with Roy and the defending champs. I just said it, but good veteran guard play leads to success in March. North Carolina’s supposed weakness before ACC play was its interior presence, but as we saw against a Duke team that starts a front line of 6-10, 6-10, and 6-11, UNC can manage as Maye, Pinson, and freshman Sterling Manley continue to play sensational. It will be a tall task for the Tar Heels to repeat as National Champs, but I think a red-hot Carolina team goes into Brooklyn and takes home the ACC Tournament crown this year.

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