Brad Brownell knew Clemson’s NCAA prospects were in jeopardy in mid-January, even as his team conjured one of the most impressive winning streaks in school history. The Tigers eventually racked up victories in five consecutive games, the last three against Top 20 ACC opponents Louisville, Duke and Miami. Never before had Clemson defeated three ranked teams in a row; only Duke enjoyed a similar run this season.
As it turned out, the coach’s fears proved well-founded. Despite finishing 10-8 in the ACC for the second time in three seasons, and enjoying that remarkable January burst, the Tigers faded from bracketologists’ ravings about soft bubbles and hard bubbles, of last four in and first four out, as the season wound down.
Clemson (17-14 overall) and its winning conference record were shrugged aside even as league adherents insisted the ACC deserves better NCAA tournament representation than the six members invited in each of the past two seasons and the seven this year. Unfortunately, that sense of entitlement isn’t borne out by achievement once ACC teams get to the NCAA tournament, a fact we’ll revisit shortly.
“There’s so much emphasis placed on November and December,” Brownell lamented two months ago, after Clemson lost five nonconference games, including to lowly UMass and Minnesota, part of a less-than-scintillating optional schedule. “Unfortunately that’s been a little part of my undoing here, that’s kept us maybe from making the tournament.”
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While Clemson’s hopes were cast aside as March rolled around, Pittsburgh and Syracuse, which each finished a step behind at 9-9 in the league, were selected to the tournament Sunday night. Syracuse was in the mix even after losing to Pitt in its ACC tournament opener. Virginia Tech, 10-8 during the regular season, was ignored entirely. Since we’re constantly assured program reputation and past performance aren’t considered in assembling the NCAA field, it couldn’t matter that the recent Big East defectors simply had a higher profile than the Tigers or Hokies.
Clemson’s losses compared unfavorably with those of Pitt, which suffered just one defeat outside the ACC. Then again, the Panthers’ schedule was crafted, as usual, so they left their home city just once prior to entering league play, giving them a distinct edge in nearly every nonconference game. By contract, even when the Tigers were at home – a temporary den in Greenville, S.C. – they competed for attention with a football team en route to the national title game. Only twice did Clemson so much as half-fill Bon Secours Wellness Arena in eight non-ACC outings.
When Clemson had mathematical advantages, they apparently didn’t help, even before the Tigers were eliminated in their ACC tournament opener by Georgia Tech. While Clemson was 6-6 against Top-50 opponents during the regular season, Pittsburgh was 5-6, Syracuse 5-9. Clemson was 3-3 against ranked teams, Pitt 1-6, Syracuse 4-5. Against one another, the Tigers were 2-0 against the Panthers and Orange, Pitt 2-1 against the others, Syracuse 0-3.
No member of that trio finished strong, another supposed factor in judging a team’s qualifications for NCAA consideration. Entering the ACC tournament, Clemson dropped five of its last eight, Pitt six of nine and Syracuse four of five. So much for peaking at the right time, or making a persuasive case down the stretch.
The larger question is why these also-rans, already advantaged in strength of schedule by playing in the ACC, are invited at the expense of deserving mid-major aspirants. Sure, our affinity for familiar faces and a general respect for the league’s overall toughness have us pulling for teams from the middle of the ACC standings. Making the NCAAs offers short-term satisfactions such as bragging rights, coaching job security, recruiting leverage, and bigger payouts for everyone in the conference – except the athletes.
But the NCAA performance of middling ACC teams doesn’t justify the fuss. History demonstrates that, unless an ACC team is seeded one through four – that is, among the top 16 in the field – it’s not apt to last long or do well in NCAA competition.
For all the squawking about how many bids the ACC deserves versus how many it receives, consider that, over the quarter-century from 1991 through 2015, the ACC sent 18 teams to the NCAAs that were seeded ninth through 12th. (No ACC member has been seeded lower than No. 12 since seeding was instituted in 1979.) Combined, the 18 clubs won a piddling 16 games.
Only four of 18 ACC teams that commanded bottom-four seeds won a pair of contests to reach a Sweet 16. Six were one and done, most recently Virginia as a No. 10 in 2012. Lower seeds from the ACC, such as those Cavaliers, appeared formidable during the regular season. Half of the 18 teams seeded ninth through 12th since 1991, including the 2012 Virginia squad, had winning ACC records and finished among the top four in the conference. That intraleague competitiveness just didn’t translate to success in a wider setting.
Keep precedent in mind when assessing this year’s NCAA field. ACC squads seeded fifth since 1991 were 6-9. Sixth seeds were 8-8, seventh seeds 7-12, No. 8s 7-8. In all, ACC teams seeded No. 5 through No. 12 were more than twice as likely to be eliminated in their first outing (23 of 55, 42 percent) as to win at least twice (10 of 55, 18 percent) over the past quarter-century. A modest majority (33 of 55, 58 percent) managed to get into the win column before being eliminated.
Of those 55 ACC clubs seeded fifth through 12th since ’91, only North Carolina in 2000 won more than twice. Bill Guthridge’s last Tar Heel squad, a No. 8 seed, was 4-1 in the NCAAs and reached the Final Four. Go back farther and you find two more midlevel ACC seeds that got to the Final Four – No. 6 N.C. State won the national championship in 1983 and No. 7 Virginia made the semifinals the following season. That’s it.
Where the ACC realizes most of its NCAA success is, not surprisingly, at the top of the ticket. That’s convenient, since better than 60 percent of the ACC’s modern tournament representatives were seeded among the top four.
Even better, more ACC teams were seeded first than in any other slot – 25 over the last 25 years prior to this season and 33 since 1979. North Carolina and Virginia are top seeds this year.
The high-seed contingent, especially the No. 1s, went a long way to secure the league’s reputation for NCAA prowess – admittedly less compelling in recent years when the ACC went five seasons between Final Four participants.
The majority of ACC No. 1s since 1991 reached the Final Four (14 of 25). Eight won a national championship, most recently Duke in 2015. The ACC’s sole top seed that missed the Sweet 16 over the past quarter-century was North Carolina in 1994 – against Boston College, then a Big East club. (Carolina in 1979 and 1984, and Virginia in 1982, also fell short of the regional semifinals.)
Sure, it’s fun to pack as many ACC teams as possible into the tournament. But don’t be distracted by which of the league’s lesser lights are named, or dismayed by how quickly their seasons are extinguished. That’s not where the league shines the brightest, or places members capable of a decisive burst of brilliance.