ACC Notebook

Slow-starting ACC teams face long odds of reaching NCAA tournament

acarter@newsobserver.comJanuary 17, 2014 

We’re not yet through two full weeks of conference games and already nearly half of the ACC faces long odds – at least according to history – of making the NCAA tournament. We’re looking at you, N.C. State, Georgia Tech, Notre Dame, Miami, Virginia Tech, Boston College and North Carolina.

And we’re looking especially hard at you, UNC. Of those seven teams, the Tar Heels, at 0-3 in the league, are the only one without an ACC victory. The other six are 1-3.

Either way – 0-3 or 1-3 – a slow start doesn’t bode well for making the NCAA tournament. That likely doesn’t come as a surprise, of course, but it’s worth noting just how rare it has been to overcome a poor start.

Since 1990, just six of the ACC’s past 119 NCAA tournament teams started 0-3 in the league.

Two of the past 69 NCAA tournament teams started 0-3 in the 2000s. In 2005-06, Boston College, led by the formidable frontcourt duo of Jared Dudley and Craig Smith, shook off an 0-3 start and finished 11-5 before reaching the Sweet 16.

Maryland did the same thing in 1999-2000, turning an 0-3 start into an 11-5 finish – thanks in no small part to the young nucleus of Juan Dixon, Lonny Baxter and Steve Blake that went on to win a national championship in 2002.

Four more teams in the 1990s made the tournament after starting 0-3: 1996-97 UNC, 1995-96 Maryland, 1995-96 Duke and 1989-90 Virginia. Duke and Virginia started 0-4.

The difference between 1-3 and 0-4 is large when it comes to making the tournament. The aforementioned Duke and Virginia teams are the only ACC teams since 1990 to reach the NCAA tournament after losing their first four conference games.

Thirteen teams since 1990, meanwhile, have overcome 1-3 starts to reach the NCAA tournament. Looking at it another way, that means that 104 out of the league’s 119 NCAA tournament teams since 1990 – 87 percent – have started 2-2 or better.

History tells us that it’s not impossible to overcome a slow start. The last time UNC opened 0-3, for instance, it reached the Final Four in 1997. Still, stumbling early is hardly part of a blueprint for March success.

The ACC’s representatives in each of the past four NCAA tournaments all had at least .500 records after four league games. The ACC’s most recent team that overcame a 1-3 conference start to reach the tournament was Boston College in 2009.

The Eagles started 1-4, but senior guard Tyrese Rice led the comeback. Which raises another point: The best antidote to a poor start is having a player – or players – capable of carrying a team out of the abyss.

In 1997, UNC had that with Antawn Jamison, Vince Carter and Shammond Williams. Maryland had it in 2000 with Dixon, Baxter and Blake, and Boston College in 2006 with Dudley and Smith.

Do the Tar Heels have it now, with sophomore guard Marcus Paige and junior forward James Michael McAdoo? How those two perform is likely to go a long ways toward determining whether UNC joins a small fraternity of ACC teams that have overcome rough starts to reach the NCAA tournament.

Getting defensive

Last week in this space we bemoaned the low-scoring games that have plagued the ACC. And, indeed, points have been hard to come by – even with rules changes that were supposed to increase scoring and make the game easier on the eyes.

Defense deserves a lot of credit, too, though. Midway through the regular season, you could make an argument – a good one, at that – that the ACC is the best defensive conference in the country.

Clemson and Florida State rank second and third nationally in field goal percentage defense, and seven of the ACC’s 15 teams enter the weekend among the top 40 nationally in that category. All seven – Virginia, UNC, Virginia Tech, Pittsburgh and Miami, in addition to Florida State and Clemson – are holding opponents to fewer than 40 percent from the field.

No other league comes close to those numbers. Six of the ACC’s 15 teams also rank among the top 34 nationally in fewest points per possession.

So it’s no wonder that some of the scores in league games remain, well, offensive.

Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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