Then there was North Carolina. And only North Carolina. The ACC’s only hope.
A year after the ACC thoroughly dominated the NCAA tournament, sending six of its seven tournament teams to the second weekend, only one of its nine made it through in 2017 – just the Tar Heels. That included losses by two No. 2 seeds, Duke and Louisville, and third-seeded Florida State. The ACC’s best teams let it down, not to mention its also-rans.
Just as last year’s 12-1 record through two rounds meant that the ACC had an outstanding tournament, not that it was the best conference, this year’s 7-8 record through the first weekend means that the ACC had a dismal tournament, not that it wasn’t one of the best leagues in the country.
The tournament, as important as it is, is too small a sample to make those kind of sweeping judgments. The big upset victims were all brought down by known flaws – Duke couldn’t rely on its defense, Louisville couldn’t rely on its offense and Florida State couldn’t rely on anything away from Tallahassee, and apparently Orlando was far enough away – but it was chance as much as anything that exposed those flaws at this point, compared to farther down the road (or not at all), which is what happened a year ago with, say, Syracuse. That’s why they play the games.
Still, tournament performance inevitably has an impact on both reputation and finances, and the latter is where the ACC will take a tangible hit. The NCAA hands out basketball money on a per-game basis: Each game a conference plays, other than the title game, is worth one “unit,” which pays out a specified sum in each of the next six years. This year’s units, paid in June for performance from 2011-16, are worth about $265,000 each, and they’ll go up next year, and the year after that, but they’re guaranteed to be worth more than $1.6 million over their lifespan.
In 2016, the ACC collected 25 units. The most the conference can collect this season is 19, and that’s if North Carolina makes the Final Four – at best, $9.6 million less over the next six years. That’s real money, even for the ACC, just as the $1.6 million the MEAC didn’t get when N.C. Central lost its First Four game was real money for the MEAC.
The reality is, the gap between power conference and power conference, and between contending team and contending team, has never been smaller. That’s just the way the game is trending. When Wichita State has the basketball budget of a Big Ten team, and teams can rebuild on the fly with graduate transfers, and it’s more common than ever for small-conference players to transfer “up” to bigger programs, the result is a historic degree of parity in college basketball – something Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski foreshadowed before the tournament.
“There are more teams that can win the national championship right now than ever. Than ever,” Krzyzewski said. “So much is going to be on who you draw and then who, if you win, who is there. That’s where the game has evolved.
“The landscape for college basketball has changed in the last two or three years and not a lot of people know it. There are just more good teams. Graduate transfers, transfers and the amount of money that’s invested now by the power conferences for every program is so different than it was three or four years ago. That has produced a real change. It’s an interesting dynamic that’s happening. I don’t hear many people talk about it. But it’s happening, believe me.”
Duke’s own experience ended up proving Krzyzewski right. South Carolina might have been a fourth-place program from a conference that didn’t earn much respect that went one-and-out in its conference tournament, but it was good enough to rise to the occasion and knock off the ACC champion in a semi-neutral setting, a dynamic the ACC exploited a year ago and was exploited by this weekend.
What’s that say about the overall strength of the ACC? Not as much as the nine tournament bids did. But it definitely says the ACC had a miserable NCAA tournament, and it’s up to North Carolina, and only North Carolina, to salvage some conference pride.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock