What everyone suspected was inevitable has happened: The ACC has become the best college basketball conference in the country. The league’s reality now is what the vision was a few years ago, when it became a 15-team conference.
But will the postseason reflect the ACC’s superiority? After reaching this point, that’s the most relevant question amid the high rankings and accolades coming the ACC’s way.
However, it has been a more difficult process to reach this point than seemed likely years ago.
Remember, it was just assumed this sort of transformation would be instantaneous. Louisville replaces Maryland, Notre Dame comes in from the Big East and automatically, the thought was, the ACC becomes the best, most competitive league in the country.
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Except it didn’t happen that way.
In 2014, the ACC’s first year with 15 teams, it sent six teams to the NCAA tournament. None reached the Final Four. Duke won the national championship in 2015 but, top to bottom, it was something of an underwhelming year for the rest of the league, with five other teams reaching the tournament.
Then came the arrival last spring: North Carolina nearly won the national championship, Syracuse joined the Tar Heels in the Final Four and two other ACC teams – Notre Dame and Virginia – reached regional championship games. Three other ACC teams also made the NCAA tournament.
With this sort of depth and with the potential among the league’s most formidable teams last spring should be just the start. This year’s postseason results should at least match those from a season ago, when the ACC set a standard by making up half of the Elite Eight and half of the Final Four.
Will the conference build on it this year? If it doesn’t, it’s a lost opportunity.
Last week, the conference set a record with seven teams among the top 25 in the weekly Associated Press poll. This week, the ACC still has six teams ranked among the top 20, though none higher than Duke at No. 7.
If there’s something to nitpick with the ACC, it’s that: The league doesn’t appear – at least for now – to have that best-of-the-best, top-end national title favorite - like UNC was a season ago and Duke a season before that.
Four or five ACC teams, at least, have the potential to play for and win the national championship. But Duke is still trying to find its away amid tripping scandals and injuries and, now, Mike Krzyzewski’s indefinite (no untoward reference intended) absence.
UNC can beat anybody in the country (by more than 50 points, no less) and can also lose to a team like Georgia Tech. Virginia has already lost two conference games, with much more difficult ones to come. Louisville has lost against the two best conference opponents it has faced … but the Cardinals own the ACC’s best non-conference win, against Kentucky.
And then there are the two teams atop the league standings after the first week of conference games: Florida State and Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish, which lost against UNC last March in the East Regional final, keeps defying expectations under Mike Brey. The Seminoles, meanwhile, look like they’re really for real this time – after squandering their considerable talent (much of it back) last year.
Approaching mid-January, there’s been no shortage of talk about the ACC being The Best League Ever. And maybe it is. But March, and early April, will be the ultimate judge, same as it was during those halcyon days of old Big East glory. Before the ACC took what it wanted from that league, the Big East was the biggest and baddest – and not necessarily because of its regular seasons.
In 2011, 11 of the Big East’s 16 teams made the NCAA tournament, and Connecticut won it all. Two years later, in the last stand of the old Big East, two of that conference’s teams reached the Final Four, with Louisville, then in its final year in the league, winning the national championship.
The ACC hasn’t exactly struggled since it became a 15-team league before the start of the 2013-14 season. Yet top to bottom the conference hasn’t quite been the behemoth that everyone expected it to be. Well, until now, that is. After the first week of conference play, it’d be easier to list the ACC teams that won’t make the NCAA tournament.
Sorry, Boston College. And nice win against UNC, but apologies to you, too, Georgia Tech. And Wake Forest, well … there’s still much work to be done under coach Danny Manning. Every one of the ACC’s other 12 teams has legitimate NCAA tournament hopes. They’ll be the ones to decide whether, amid all this talk, the ACC is as good as it looks.
And the award for having the most difficult conference schedule in the ACC goes to … (building suspense here, and building more suspense) … Pittsburgh. That’s according to an analysis that, admittedly, is entirely too dependent on last year’s conference records.
But in addition to its annual four games against primary partners Louisville and Syracuse, Pitt plays twice against UNC and Virginia. UNC, Virginia and Louisville could finish 1-2-3 in the league, and Pitt plays all of them twice. And the Panthers go on the road to play Duke.
The “easiest” of the ACC’s unbalanced schedules, according to the analysis that is entirely too dependent on last year’s records: It belongs to Miami, whose home-and-home against Florida State all of a sudden looks significantly more difficult than it did two months ago.
Among teams they only play on the road, though, the Hurricanes receive some breaks: three of those five teams finished last year with losing ACC records.
Four snow games to remember:
▪ Jan. 7, 1996: Stephon Marbury led Georgia Tech to an 86-81 victory at Duke, where only about 3,000 people made it to Cameron Indoor Stadium after snow and ice made roads impassable.
▪ Jan. 27, 2000: A 75-63 UNC victory against Maryland that’s remembered for students filling the Smith Center because no one else could amid an epic winter storm that hasn’t been matched since.
▪ Feb. 12, 2014: The snow game that never was – UNC and Duke were scheduled to play on a Wednesday night at the Smith Center, but instead they played eight days later, with UNC victorious.
▪ January 8, 2017: A winter storm forced UNC’s game against N.C. State to be postponed for 17 hours before the Tar Heels laid a historic beating on the Wolfpack, a victory 51 points wide.