The just-completed subregional at PNC Arena always looked like it would function as an opportunity for the ACC to soak in the spotlight.
It just so happens that makes it a microcosm of the NCAA tournament’s opening weekend.
North Carolina and Virginia arrived in Raleigh just days after producing a high-level conference title game to further establish the two teams as threats for lengthy stays in March. As their respective paths diverge, little has changed for the Tar Heels and Cavaliers.
They do, however, have some company in the regional weekend. Miami survived a push from Wichita State to advance to its second Sweet 16 in four years, while postseason mainstay Duke heads west after fending off Yale in the second round.
And the party grew even more Sunday, as sixth-seeded Notre Dame edged upstart No. 14 seed Stephen F. Austin in Brooklyn and 10th-seeded Syracuse walloped 15th-seeded Middle Tennessee in St. Louis.
With both Big East imports advancing, it gave the ACC a record six teams in the final 16. The previous mark of five set was by the Big East in 2009 (Connecticut, Louisville, Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Villanova). The ACC matched the total last year when Duke, Louisville, North Carolina, N.C. State and Notre Dame navigated the first two rounds.
Such success is connected in some ways to the league’s expanded size. It’s far easier for four or five or even six teams to advance when a league is 15 schools deep to begin with, and ignoring such math is foolhardy.
Yet there’s also no denying the league will scatter its teams to all four regional sites. Duke travels to Anaheim, Calif., and Miami will head to Louisville, Ky., for Thursday games, while North Carolina and Notre Dame are off to Philadelphia, and Syracuse and Virginia trek to Chicago for regionals set to start Friday.
While a heftier Big East influence emerged Sunday, Saturday was a banner day for the old-school ACC. And nowhere was it more evident than in Raleigh.
Virginia (28-7), the top seed in the Midwest, followed up its blowout of Hampton with a 77-69 defeat of ninth-seeded Butler. It wasn’t easy, but not many will be the rest of the way.
The Cavaliers turned to their standbys to outlast the Bulldogs (22-11), notably defensive stopper Malcolm Brogdon and efficient inside play from Anthony Gill and Mike Tobey. Brogdon silenced Kelan Martin during the first half, then turned his attention to forward Andrew Chrabascz for the final 16 minutes.
Meanwhile, Gill and Tobey combined for 29 points while shooting 12 of 14 from the floor as Virginia effectively pounded it inside.
“It’s just now about who’s playing the best basketball at the right time and it’s possession by possession, and that was one of these possession games tonight,” said Virginia coach Tony Bennett, whose team meets fourth-seeded Iowa State in the regional semifinals.
North Carolina stuck to its strengths to move on to Philadelphia. The Tar Heels (30-6) didn’t author an awe-inspiring start-to-finish showing against Providence and actually trailed the Friars briefly in the second half. But they still wound up with a comfortable 85-66 victory, one abetted by foul trouble for Providence stars Kris Dunn and Ben Bentil.
Roy Williams’ team isn’t going to suddenly morph into a great outside shooting bunch, and that surely remains a concern as North Carolina delves deeper into the tournament beginning with a date with fifth-seeded Indiana. But it did throttle the Friars on the glass and in the paint as Brice Johnson (21 points, 10 rebounds) and Isaiah Hicks (13 points, seven rebounds) largely did as they pleased in the second half.
And it also survived, turning in a pair of impressive second halves during the opening weekend.
“At the end of the day, it’s about advancing, and that’s what we did tonight,” North Carolina guard Joel Berry said.
Ultimately, no league did a better job of it during the first weekend than the ACC. Whether such success continues will be tied heavily to how the No. 1 seeds who marched through Raleigh fare next weekend – and perhaps the one after that.