Commentary

Jacobs: Assessing ACC’s NCAA selection success

March 19, 2014 

Now that the lobbying and griping have receded, if only temporarily, it’s worth pausing to gauge the respect accorded ACC men’s basketball by the NCAA tournament selection committee.

ACC coaches have argued loudly for more than a decade that the league deserves more entrants in the NCAA tournament field. This year the chorus reached a crescendo at the ACC tournament. The message last week was consistent: If lower-echelon squads like Boston College and Georgia Tech could beat Syracuse on its home court, if 12th-place Wake Forest could defeat Duke, UNC and N.C. State, then surely the ACC possessed uncommon top-to-bottom strength. That in turn meant the conference merited numerous NCAA bids.

“I’m not sure our league has gotten the respect it deserves,” N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried said after his team beat Miami in the ACC tournament second round. “This is a great league. We’ve got good teams all the way down through and, you know, hopefully we’ll get rewarded for that.”

In fact, the message discipline was so good – at times despite clear evidence to the contrary – conspiracy theorists might suspect the coaches were working from a common script. Or speaking in an echo chamber.

“I really don’t think the conference is getting the respect it should,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said after his team beat Clemson in the ACC tournament quarterfinals. “I’m just trying to be realistic. We have a great conference this year. This year we have as many top ranked teams to match up against anybody.”

The compulsion to talk up the league’s prowess partly reflected past snubs, perceived or real, including a belief the old Big East outmaneuvered the ACC in cultivating public esteem and enhancing NCAA participation.

Big East coaches routinely crowed about the strength of their conference, often with good reason, and argued it deserved an extravagant number of NCAA bids. To an extent this argument became self-fulfilling, framing the national discussion throughout the season.

Meanwhile ACC coaches made similar arguments, but to a more regionalized media contingent. When the ACC didn’t fare as well as the Big East in securing NCAA berths, it confirmed the belief in some quarters that the conference was losing a battle based as much on public relations as quality of play. Thus it was no surprise that, upon adding Notre Dame, Pitt and Syracuse last June, with Louisville waiting in the wings, a smattering of ACC folks immediately predicted better than half of the league’s 15 members would flood the NCAA field.

Such heavy representation was standard practice for the ACC from the mid-1980s through the late 1990s, a period when the league frequently had the best RPI, was admired for its internal competitiveness, and seemingly reserved an annual slot in the Final Four.

The old rules

Back then ACC teams routinely made the NCAAs with break-even conference records. Just playing in the ACC lifted all boats – in all but one season from 1984 through 1998, a majority of league clubs went to the NCAAs. The exceptional year was 1995, when four teams tied for first during the regular season in a nine-member league. (They were the only schools that got NCAA invitations.)

If the old rules of the Road to the Final Four held sway today, the ACC would have had nine teams in the current NCAA field, approaching coaches’ fondest aspirations. Instead the conference was fortunate to get six.

Despite boasts of balance, who got in and who didn’t was influenced by an ongoing gap between the premier squads and everyone else.

Three ACC teams were considered among the top 12 in the NCAAs – No. 1 seed Virginia and third-seeded Duke and Syracuse. But the weight load on the regular-season seesaw wasn’t evenly distributed. Four ACC squads ranked lower than 100 in the power ratings, according to Jeff Sagarin in USA Today. Ken Pomoroy of kenpom.com had five ACC teams rated below 100. RealTimeRPI.com had six, all of whom played on the first day of the ACC tournament.

Contrast that with the three leagues considered stronger than the ACC – the Big 12, Big Ten, and Big East. Each has a single team rated below 100. The other ostensibly stronger conference, the Pac-12, has two teams rated below 100 compared to the four in the ACC by Sagarin’s reckoning, for example.

This year the old ACC profile for inclusion would have benefited Clemson (10-8), Maryland (9-9) and Florida State (9-9). Instead they were dragged down by four teams with losing overall records. The percentage of ACC programs that lost more than they won was even higher in 2013 and 2012, when the league got only four and five bids, respectively.

Clemson is the eighth ACC squad since 2006, when Boston College joined the fold, that failed to command an NCAA bid despite a winning record in the conference. That was unheard of prior to 2000.

Protests recede

But strength of schedule outside the conference matters more now than it did, as does the league’s reduced balance and lower RPI. Consequently, Virginia was snubbed last year despite an 11-7 ACC mark, as was Seth Greenberg’s Virginia Tech team in 2010 at 10-6.

Of course Greenberg perennially crafted creampuff nonconference schedules, then used the platform of the ACC tournament to argue his Hokies deserved an NCAA berth. That practice went from mildly entertaining to embarrassingly comical in 2008 when Greenberg, in the wake of a tough semifinal loss to UNC, said anyone was “certifiably insane” who doubted the NCAA caliber of his squad.

The declaration didn’t help. Virginia Tech, 9-7 and fourth in the league during the regular season, didn’t get in.

As recently as 2004, the year before Miami and Virginia Tech joined the ACC, six of nine conference teams made the NCAA tournament. Since 2005, the ACC sent more than half its membership to the NCAAs only twice (2007 and 2009).

This season’s 40 percent NCAA representation doesn’t even match the levels achieved in five of the previous nine seasons. Yet somehow the protests have receded.

Maybe N.C. State’s edging into the tournament field as a 12th seed brought a level of unexpected satisfaction.

Maybe there was solace in the fact Virginia, the ACC’s regular season and tournament winner, was accorded better treatment than Miami, which had virtually the same profile last year. While the Cavaliers got a No. 1 seed, the Hurricanes were a No. 2 in 2013, sparking considerable consternation in ACC circles.

Or maybe the muted criticism reflects the fact the ACC made the selection committee’s job easy, and got what it deserved.

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