Victory over Syracuse last weekend assured Virginias men a perch alone atop the ACC standings for only the second time ever. But unlike 1981, when Terry Holland coached a Final Four squad led by Ralph Sampson, Jeff Lamp, Lee Raker, Othell Wilson and Jeff Jones to a first-place finish, this seasons triumph was accompanied by whispers of unfairness.
The knock on UVa was the strength of its league schedule. The Cavaliers played the other top three ACC finishers Syracuse, Duke and North Carolina once each. Of the four league teams they did face home-and-home, short of winning the ACC tournament only Florida State stands a chance of earning an NCAA bid.
Then again, Tony Bennetts club is 16-1 in the ACC, having beaten everyone but Duke, with a game remaining at Maryland. The loss to the Blue Devils could have gone either way. The Cavaliers rallied from a double-digit deficit at Durham on Jan. 13 to take the lead with 36.5 seconds remaining, only to be felled on a 3-pointer by Rasheed Sulaimon and a late pair of free throws. The game was so hard-fought and pivotal for Duke, which had lost two of its first three ACC outings, Mike Krzyzewski and assistant Steve Wojciechowski hugged like long-lost friends when the final buzzer sounded.
Not since the 2002 Terrapins (the eventual NCAA champions) has an ACC squad finished with a single league loss. Others have had the chance to match that record in the intervening years but have fallen short.
The 02 Terps, like the 81 Cavs, had to visit every court in the league due to the ACCs round-robin schedule. That competitive balance, key to the founders vision in 1953, was eliminated when the ACC expanded twice in the past decade. With 15 teams now, a 28-game league schedule for each school isnt feasible or desirable, for numerous reasons.
But laments over a lost past shouldnt obscure the central truth of Virginias achievement: The 2014 team didnt pick its conference schedule, it just mastered it.
A diet of home games
Similar, if more pointed, criticism swirls around second-ranked Wichita State, 31-0 entering the Missouri Valley Conference tournament this weekend at St. Louis. Barring a stumble en route to the MVC title, the Shockers are a probable No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, privileged status derided because of their low strength of schedule (99 according to RealTimeRPI.com, 130 in Jeff Sagarins ratings for USA Today).
Certainly coach Gregg Marshall had a chance to shape his nonconference schedule. His team, which replaced four players who started the majority of its 2013 games, also competes in a non-elite league. But to deride what Wichita State accomplished in becoming the first squad since St. Josephs in 2004 to finish the regular season undefeated is to overlook the sheer improbability of playing for nearly four months without a stumble.
Just ask Syracuse, which reached mid-February undefeated, only to fall to Boston College, 14thin the ACC standings. At Syracuse, no less. The Orange has lost three of four since then, including the other night against Georgia Tech at the Carrier Dome.
Syracuses nonconference schedule was buoyed, as usual under Jim Boeheim, by a rich diet of home games, most against weaker opponents. The Orange voluntarily took on fewer likely NCAA entrants outside the league than Wichita State. Increasing the degree of difficulty for the Shockers, theyre in a 10-school conference that has round-robin competition, producing more carefully calibrated scouting and often-heightened intensity the second time around. Whenever you lose to someone, then you want to get back at them, North Carolina freshman Nate Britt said after the Tar Heels crushed Wake Forest in a return bout.
I think the criticism for our schedule, if thats where they want to hang their hat, we can only control what we can control, WSUs Marshall said the other day in a telephone interview. Things that we did not have any control over are the fact that Creighton left the Missouri Valley Conference. There are some teams in the Missouri Valley Conference this year that are young and/or in a rebuild-type mode, a down cycle. Thats not anything we have any control over.
A quality loss
He points out the Shockers played in a late-November tournament in which Texas was eliminated before the teams could meet; faced Saint Louis, the 2013 Atlantic 10 champion, on its home court; and beat two underperforming squads picked in the top half of the SEC. One was Tennessee, which defeated Virginia 87-52. We dont coach their team, Marshall said of opponents. We just put them on the schedule because theyre pretty good. WSU also beat potential NCAA participants Brigham Young, Davidson and N.C. Central.
Already Wichita State is negotiating with several BCS schools to start home-and-home series next season, now that Marshall said his team is getting to the point where we would be considered a quality loss.
Therein lies the scheduling dilemma for mid-major programs. As well soon see, the media celebrate heightened parity in mens college basketball when marketing the NCAA tournament. Yet it remains difficult for dangerous teams from mid-level conferences to land the sort of high-profile, rating-enriching matchups that bolster resumes in March. Getting the big boys to visit a place like Wichita State, which routinely fills 10,506-seat Charles Koch Arena, is even more difficult. We all as coaches have this innate gene we want to keep our job, Marshall said understandingly. Its called self-preservation.
The sole ACC school thats shown interest in taking on Wichita State, according to Marshall, is Wake Forest. To be honest with you, we dont think theyre good enough, he said. They dont help our schedule.
Of course the Deacons may be under new bench management next season. Marshalls name has surfaced as a possible replacement for Jeff Bzdelik, whos in the process of posting his fourth underwhelming record in four years at Winston-Salem. (Marshall also reportedly was considered for the N.C. State job in 2011.) But the 51-year-old South Carolina native, who spent nine seasons at Winthrop before moving to Kansas in 2007-08, said hes not particularly interested in coaching at Wake should the opportunity arise.
They would have to have a Brinks truck full of money, said Marshall, who earns about $2 million annually. Ive got a pretty good situation here. We can win. We sell out every game. They really like me here.
Meanwhile, the NCAA tournament offers the best option for mid-majors to prove their mettle. Unless, like No. 1-seed Gonzaga last year, they stumble in an early round. They would have been in the Sweet 16 if they hadnt met up with us, Marshall said, laughing. People forget who beat them. Wichita State, known for its defense, went on to the 2013 Final Four, losing a close game to Louisville, the eventual champion.