GREENSBORO, N.C. – There’s not a whole lot of glory for the well-performing players in the early rounds of conference tournaments, especially if your team has a quick exit. A 30-point outburst is great, but what have you done for me lately? Did you take your sub-.500 team to the conference championship? I don’t think so. Were you able to win four games in four days? Nah.
This article is here to change that. In honor of the efforts and hard work of those toiling in half empty arenas amongst fans of teams who have no vested interest in the game itself, this is the Early Round Heroes team for the ACC Tournament.
Games from only Tuesday and Wednesday are included, and no performance later in the week matters for this exercise. Voting was done by myself and myself only, although the various “oohs” and “aahs” throughout the days’ games did have an impact. If I was hungry or thirsty while the game was going on, I did not penalize anyone despite my strong inclinations to the contrary.
NC State G Anthony “Cat” Barber
By far the most impressive single-game performance of the early rounds was by Barber against Pittsburgh on Wednesday. Barber was sensational from the get-go. He hit four of his four three-point tries in the first half and had 21 points at the break. He was ripping down rebounds, attacking the rim, hitting jumpers and making sensational passes (including one deep in the lane that somehow found Trevor Lacey at the top of the key and even though Lacey missed the shot, Barber really deserved at least half an assist on that one).
When it was all over, Barber had a career-high 34 points on just 13 shots. NC State is already a dangerous team with the talent it can toss at you from multiple positions, but with Barber playing at this level, the Wolfpack get even more intriguing. They were playing for their bubble lives on Wednesday, and Barber came through in a big way.
Florida State G Xavier Rathan-Mayes
Okay, so he needed more than 4:38 to score 30 points this time, but 30 points is still a lot of points regardless of how long it takes to get there over the course of the game. XRM was a self-starter against Clemson, and was pretty much the only one creating any offense throughout much of the Seminoles’ first-round game against the Tigers on Wednesday.
The freshman (yes, freshman) went 11-of-19 from the floor and hit on five of his nine three-point tries. Even though Florida State tried its darnedest to lose this one, with everything from botching the inbounds pass to outright throwing the ball away down the stretch, the ‘Noles moved on, and Rathan-Mayes was arguably the biggest reason why.
Boston College G Olivier Hanlan
The Canadian sensation is no stranger to ACC tournament heroics after scoring 41 points (a freshman record at the tournament) against Georgia Tech in 2013. Two years later he added another individual performance to his Boston College legacy after scoring 25 points, pulling down eight rebounds and chipping in five assists in the win over the Yellow Jackets.
It was his game winner that won’t be forgotten, and it’s sweet shots like those that make him an intriguing pro prospect. He may not be a first-rounder yet (if at all), but the dude can flat out score. And on a team where he doesn’t have all that much help sometimes.
Hanlan didn’t have an easy time against North Carolina on Wednesday, and playing two straight days probably factored into that, as did the fact that Hanlan drew J.P. Tokoto, a lengthy and talented defender for the Tar Heels. The Eagles junior struggled mightily in the first half, but he picked it up in the second half and managed to still score 18 points. After the game, Tar Heels forward Brice Johnson said of Hanlan, “The second half he was a little man on a mission. He was really hitting some shots.”
North Carolina G Marcus Paige
Speaking of Tar Heels, Paige looked about the healthiest he’s looked all season long, and it couldn’t come at a better time. The UNC leader was confident on his drives and attacked the rim a few times. He was hitting on his jumpers. And he facilitated the offense, getting other guys involved and forcing the Boston College defenders to take some attention off of him.
“Coach always tells him to be more aggressive and that’s not just necessarily shooting the ball,” North Carolina freshman Justin Jackson said. “With him being keyed in more, whenever he has the ball and tries to go make a play, everybody else is going to key in on him which leaves everybody else open. To see he had nine assists, obviously he was really aggressive.”
Paige had 17 points on 7-of-12 shooting against the Eagles, but it was his nine assists (and his six rebounds) that stood out on Wednesday. This is the kind of game Paige needs to play if the Heels want to make it to the weekend, and it’s especially important if UNC has hopes of making it to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament.
Virginia Tech G Jalen Hudson
It might rank behind some of the other great guard performances already in the tournament, but Hudson’s game against Wake Forest deserves its own special mention. Hudson had 32 points, including a shot with just under 12 seconds to play to snag a one-point win over the Demon Deacons, and it’s clear the freshman has a bright future ahead of him.
Following his scoring outburst (Hudson averaged a hair under seven points a game this season), Wake Forest guard Codi Miller-McIntyre had some high praise.
“He was extremely aggressive,” Miller-McIntyre said. “Once he got his few points he just kept on attacking, attacking the rim [and] made 10 for 10 from the free throw line. That was the biggest thing. He saw that he could get in the paint and he continued to do that throughout the game.”
Virginia Tech won just 11 games on the year in Buzz Williams’ first season, but if he can get more consistent effort out of players like Hudson on a regular basis, the Hokies could get better sooner rather than later.