The ACC has long been recognized as one of the country’s best basketball conferences, and it is no different this year. The conference counts six top-25 teams among its ranks and could conceivably place up to 11 teams in the tournament, depending on what happens with bubble teams like Syracuse, Wake Forest and Georgia Tech.
Two teams that don’t have to worry about missing the tournament are Mike Brey’s Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Rick Pitino’s Louisville Cardinals. In fact, those two squads are fighting for one of the top seeds in the ACC tournament coming next week. They’ll meet up in the regular-season finale on Saturday at 2 p.m. in a game to air on CBS.
To get perspective on these teams and what kind of damage they could potentially do in the Big Dance, we caught up with CBS Sports college basketball analyst Dan Bonner.
CBS Local Sports: The first time these two teams met in January, it was a 77-70 win for Notre Dame, led by the trio of Bonzie Colson, Steve Vasturia and Matt Farrell. How does Louisville try and contain that group this time around?
Dan Bonner: Well, that’s a hard task, because Notre Dame is one of the more efficient and effective offensive teams in the country. They can come at you from so many different directions. You have to try to put pressure on them, you have to contest shots and you certainly can’t give them second opportunities. It’s all “Basketball 101” stuff. But Louisville didn’t play particularly well against Wake Forest (88-81 loss) defensively, and they have to be much, much better defensively against Notre Dame.
CBS Local Sports: You mentioned Louisville’s defense struggling in their last game, but for the most part they’ve been the typical top defensive team they always are under Rick Pitino. Is the Wake Forest game a blueprint of how to attack the Cardinals?
Bonner: Attack is the key word. You can’t be intimidated by the length of Louisville and by the fact that they have a pretty good shot blocker. You have to try to attack them. You have to try to get to the free throw line against them. That was a big key in what Wake Forest did on Wednesday night. When they (Wake Forest) finally decided “we’re not really going to be able to get these jump shots off over these long guys on the perimeter, we’re going to attack the basket,” they had much better success.
The key to that game is that the guys who were playing well offensively for Louisville — Donovan Mitchell, Ray Spalding and Jalen Johnson — all went down with two fouls, and Louisville ran out of steam offensively. That’s the key. You have to attack Louisville, and you can just sit back and decide that you’re going to be a jump-shooting team.
CBS Local Sports: Both of these teams would seem to be safely in the tournament, but how far can they go? Can they make a Sweet 16 run? Final Four? If so, how would they do it?
Bonner: Let’s not forget that there’s only one team in the country that’s been in the Elite Eight each of the last two years, and that’s Notre Dame. So, the answer to that question is yes, they can certainly do that.
Louisville, again, they have to be able to play well on the defensive end of the court because that’s their mojo. That’s what they have to do. They have to force turnovers, they have to force tough shots. If they can get into a game, any game, where they can do that, then they can beat any team in the country. They’ve shown that. Early in the season they had some great wins against Purdue and Kentucky that stand out. Obviously they can play with the really good teams in the country, but they have to play well defensively. Their defense has to dominate the game. Either one of those teams could go to the Final Four.
CBS Local Sports: As we approach Conference Championship week next week, we’ll see the auto-bids locked up and also a lot of the “bubble” teams in play. Which teams are you going to be following most closely as we get ready for the tournament?
Bonner: That’s a really interesting question, because if you listen to all these prognosticators and bracket people, there are like 5,000 teams that are on the bubble. One of the big stories that I’m looking at is that most of these bracket people are talking about the fact that teams like Syracuse, Wake Forest, TCU, Georgia Tech, Vanderbilt and Georgia are either on the bubble, they’re really close to being in, they’re just in or they’re close to being close to being in. While all that talk is going on, these bracket people generally agree that Wichita State needs to win their conference tournament in the Missouri Valley to get into the tournament. I don’t understand that.
One of the great things that the tournament selection committee does is they force you to value the entire season, so the bigger schools can get away with playing really weak schedules and get into the tournament anyway. That’s been a good thing. But, the tournament selection committee has to find a way to appreciate the fact that a team like Wichita State, when they had the opportunities against the teams in November and December against the top teams that will play them, they were trying to break in an entirely new backcourt. They have improved as the season’s gone on, and you have to somehow factor that in.
I can’t really see just taking all the teams from the big conferences who have mediocre records in the big conferences. That’s going to be the biggest storyline with the tournament selection. How many of these so-called mid-majors who don’t win their conference tournament are going to get bids versus how many of the middling schools from the big conferences get those bids?
CBS Local Sports: You mentioned Wichita State, and that speaks to my followup question. Which team isn’t getting talked about enough nationally?
Bonner: Wichita State would be my team in that particular conversation. As I said, I’ve been very surprised by many of the people saying that they may not get in. I’m not trying to be insulting to any of these teams, but a team like Marquette or a team like Providence, are they more deserving than a team like Wichita State?
Another big story is: will Northwestern actually get in? They had a big win Wednesday night, and that probably sealed it up for them. I was a little afraid for them, that they had been on a bit of a slide. And had they lost their two games this weekend and in the first round of the Big Ten tournament, they might have been on the outside looking in. But they probably took care of themselves by beating Michigan.
Those are the two big stories. Will Northwestern get in? The answer is yes. And Wichita State is the overlooked team so far.
CBS Local Sports: Now that we’ve seen most of the regular season play out, if you had to pick today, who would be your National Player of the Year?
Bonner: Well, we do have some interesting candidates because there have been guys who have had fabulous seasons. But if I were going to vote right now, today, it would be for Josh Hart from Villanova.
Caleb Swanigan from Purdue, he’s put up video game numbers, so he certainly deserves to be part of that conversation. I like those two guys in particular, because they’re on really good teams. Then Frank Mason from Kansas is another guy that should be in the conversation. But if I were going to vote today, I would vote for Josh Hart. But certainly guys like Frank Mason and Caleb Swanigan are going to get a lot of votes and deservedly so.
CBS Local Sports: What is it about Josh Hart that separates him from Swanigan and Mason in your view?
Bonner: Villanova, being the defending national champion, has had a bullseye on their back the entire year. Hart is a guy that everybody knows “okay, we have to do something about him,” and despite that, he has played very well on a team that is going to be a number one seed in the NCAA Tournament. They could possibly be, depending on how things go in the conference tournaments, the number one seed. I’ve always thought that the player of the year in a conference or in the country, if you have the opportunity to do it, it ought to go to the best player on the best team.
Notre Dame and Louisville are part of CBS Sports’ triple-header of games on Saturday, beginning with Kentucky-Texas A&M at noon, followed by Notre Dame-Louisville at 2 p.m. and finishing with between Arizona-Arizona State in a Pac-12 showdown at 4 p.m.
If Saturday’s full slate of games isn’t enough, another triple-header awaits on Sunday with Cincinnati-UConn at noon, the Missouri Valley Championship game at 2 p.m. and Purdue-Northwestern at 4 p.m.
Watch CBS Sports’ live NCAA basketball coverage here:
Saturday, March 4:
Sunday, March 5: