The 58th annual North Carolina Invitational ACC Tournament is set to tip off with four opening round games on Thursday. Calling the event the North Carolina Invitational is only halfway joking-in fifty-seven previous editions of the tournament, a team outside the state has emerged victorious only eight times, the last being when Maryland hoisted the trophy in 2004. In fact, in the last twenty years, the only teams outside of North Carolina to win have been Georgia Tech and Maryland (once each), with North Carolina, Duke or Wake Forest winning the other eighteen times. And let’s not forget that in most years (but not all) the tournament is held somewhere in North Carolina; most frequently in Greensboro, where it is being held this year for the 23rd time. Despite all of the above, what the ACC tournament is about is two things: tradition, and good basketball (even in a down year for the conference).

For this year’s edition, the top four seeds feature two expected teams, and two surprise teams. Duke, predicted by many in preseason to run away with the ACC title and repeat as national champion, earned a bye as the second seed. They lost the top spot on Saturday in a defeat at the Smith Center against North Carolina, which earned the regular season title with the victory. Sitting in the third and fourth positions are Florida State and Clemson, the aforementioned surprises. Florida State was predicted to be in the top half of the conference, and Clemson was slated for the middle of the pack. The Seminoles held on to the three seed even after losing Chris Singleton, and Clemson did just enough (with some help from Virginia Tech) to squeak by and claim the fourth seed. Those four teams will see their first action on Friday after taking on the winners of Thursday’s first round games.

This tournament also has quite a few questions that will be answered by the end of the championship final on Sunday. Can Virginia Tech shake a disappointing end to the regular season (losses to Boston College at home and Clemson on the road following a win over Duke) to get into the dance or improve its seeding? Depending on which bracketologist you like, the Hokies are either one of the last teams in or the first teams out. Will Boston College tighten its grip on a tournament berth? The Eagles are also one of the last teams in according to most bracket projections. It says here that both teams must win at least one game, and in the case of the Hokies, maybe two to feel safe going forward. The Tigers also could use a win to feel more assured of making the field of 68. Maryland-whose last week of the season was every bit as underwhelming as the Hokies’-will by all accounts have to win four games in four days to have any chance of making the NCAA tournament. The Terps’ face North Carolina State in their opening game; should they get past the Wolfpack, Duke awaits in the quarterfinals. At the other end of the spectrum, Duke and North Carolina are playing for possible #1 seeds in the national tournament. An ACC tournament championship for either team could result in a top seed in the Big Dance; right now many projections have the Blue Devils holding the last of the top seeds, with the Tar Heels a solid #2.

As far as a prediction, I’m taking North Carolina to win. The Tar Heels have been steadily gaining confidence and explosiveness on offense ever since Kendall Marshall was made the starter at point guard. Their dismantling of the Blue Devils Saturday night is just the latest example of what their offense can do when it clicks on all cylinders (their destruction of Boston College in Chestnut Hill is another example). The Heels’ improved play has several pundits predicting a dark horse title run in the NCAA tournament. However, I don’t think it will be a cakewalk. Florida State gave the Heels all they could handle just last week, and the rematch against the Eagles at home was the worst offensive showing of the season. If a third matchup with Duke occurs in the championship game, it could be another great battle in a great rivalry, in one of the great conference tournaments in the land.