ACC is back to being known as a superior basketball conference

North Carolina’s Justin Jackson (44) shoots as N.C. State’s Torin Dorn (2) and Maverick Rowan (24) defend in UNC’s 97-73 win over N.C. State on Feb. 15.
North Carolina’s Justin Jackson (44) shoots as N.C. State’s Torin Dorn (2) and Maverick Rowan (24) defend in UNC’s 97-73 win over N.C. State on Feb. 15.

Things can’t get much better if you’re a fan of ACC basketball. Start with the fact that seven of the top 21 teams in last week’s Associated Press poll hail from the ACC, including two of the top 10. Several of those squads appear capable of making a run at the 2017 NCAA title, or at least to the Final Four.

“This is the best we’ve been for a regular season, this is the best we’ve been, and I’ve seen them all,” says Nora Lynn Finch, an ACC senior associate commissioner. “This is the year that nobody can take anybody for granted.”

Just as everyone’s been saying: Top-to-bottom balance. High quality of play. One ACC team a national leader in scoring offense, another a leader in scoring defense. Players among the national top-10 in scoring, foul shooting, ratio of assists to turnovers, per-game steals and assists, and on and on.

“We’re really good, that’s all I can say,” notes Finch, who first joined the ACC in 1972. “We don’t have the best team, but we have the best collection of them. We’ve got more of them, really good teams. Maybe it’s because we have more teams, but I don’t think so.”

In this case Finch was talking women’s basketball, although the ACC men have a similar profile. In fact, you could make most of the same statements about the men you can about the ACC women – six teams in the AP top 25, several championship contenders, top-to-bottom balance, plenty of stellar players and plenty of competitive games.

The quality of ACC men’s basketball, or at least the esteem in which it’s held, has come full circle. For a long stretch the conference was known for its superior basketball. Then envious arbiters and incontrovertible evidence said it wasn’t. Instead the national media saluted the ascension of the Bigs – East, Ten and 12.

Now the 15-member, four active Hall-of-Fame-coach ACC has returned to its previous preeminence. One NCAA title, consecutive championship game appearances, three Final Four berths, seven Elite Eight entrants and 13 NCAA bids over the previous two years will do that for your reputation.

Back when each conference got a single NCAA bid, ACC teams went to the Final Four all but once between 1962 and 1969. Come the 1980s it again seemed at least one Final Four berth was reserved annually for the ACC.

Remarkably, every year but one from 1984 through 1998 the ACC sent a majority of its members to the NCAA tournament. (The exception came in 1995, when four squads tied for first place.) Over those 15 seasons, ACC teams made 14 Final Four visits, earned 11 No. 1 seeds, and won three NCAA titles. Internal balance reached new heights between 1980 and 1990 when every team but Wake Forest finished first during the conference’s regular season, and every school made at least three NCAA appearances.

That depth of achievement waned with a new century. In the 17 seasons since 2000, the ACC won more NCAA championships (6) than it sent a league majority to the NCAAs (4). From 2011 through 2014 no ACC squad reached the Final Four, either, matching the longest drought in history (1958-61).

But the conference rebounded the past two years. The ACC’s prowess is widely accepted despite early, informal seeding that projected none of its teams with a No. 1 seed in the NCAA field. Observers argue whether this is the best the ACC has ever been, at least during the regular season, conjuring criteria and comparisons that make for lively, nostalgic conversation.

We like to look at ourselves sometimes and say, ‘Boy, we are the crappiest thing of all time.’ Sometimes the other team is pretty good too.

Mark Gottfried

But excellence isn’t all that’s made the 2017 season uncommonly entertaining. A guilty pleasure seemed to swallow mid-February, at least in North Carolina: Nothing quite matches the frenzy among fans and media when the thirst to fire a coach reaches a fever pitch, as N.C. State’s Mark Gottfried found to his dismay. The fascination is as irresistible as an open jump shot the opposition dares you to take.

Identifying the flaws of Gottfried’s six-year tenure, and the prospects if it was extended, became a popular pastime. Critics appropriately chided Gottfried for bemoaning his team’s youth – a common malady nowadays – but minimized the long, injury-related layoffs endured by his best players. Media members unreasonably heralded the instant NBA lottery status of Turkish freshman Omer Yurtseven, who started his career in a new country with a nine-game NCAA suspension. Touted by Gottfried as a potential top pick in this June’s NBA draft, Dennis Smith Jr. was stellar, but neither a complete player nor the commanding leader the current team desperately needed.

Each defeat added to a dossier of dissatisfaction magnified by last season’s losing effort. Even before athletic director Debbie Yow announced that Gottfried would not be back next year, giddy speculation grew over the possibilities to replace him.

The in-season dismissal, in keeping with a lamentable recent pattern in big-money college programs, relieved public pressure for change, but cast a pall over the remainder of the season. “I don’t understand what that accomplishes,” says former coach Dino Gaudio, who was fired, much to his surprise, after the third of three winning seasons at Wake Forest concluded in 2010. “Why would you put someone in that position where the kids know that this guy’s not going to be here anyways?”

Pulling the trigger now in the hopes of limiting damage to the program actually made things more difficult for Gottfried’s successor, Gaudio predicts. “You can mark it down – there are coaches out there calling the AAU coaches, the high school coaches, trying to pluck those kids off of that team,” he says of any Wolfpack holdovers.

February’s woes began with a pair of close home losses marked by squandered opportunities and erratic defensive intensity. Three embarrassing blowouts followed. The last, at PNC Arena, was a second ignominious defeat by nemesis North Carolina, a supposedly do-or-die game for any N.C. State squad. When emotionally distant Herb Sendek was at Raleigh, matching a school record by taking the Wolfpack to five straight NCAA appearances from 2002-06, he helped sabotage his own tenure by downplaying the importance of a 24-point home loss to the Tar Heels.

“Everything that happens is my responsibility,” Gottfried said after last week’s 24-point rout by UNC. The coach who opened his N.C. State career with four straight NCAA berths, with the second-most wins in school history over his first five years (108) after Everett Case’s 137, added, “Just like if you beat Villanova in the NCAA tournament or go to the Sweet 16, you get a lot of praise as a coach. Other times you take the hits. That’s part of what we do.”

Gottfried, like Gaudio now, did TV basketball commentary before Yow, spurned by a number of higher-profile candidates, turned to him in 2011. His analysis after the Wolfpack dropped to 14th in the ACC was that his talented but inexperienced squad was a victim of that league-wide strength everyone celebrates.

“You just get caught in a vulnerable spot when you are relying on a bunch of young guys when you’re playing really good teams every night,” Gottfried said at his post-Carolina news conference. “We like to look at ourselves sometimes and say, ‘Boy, we are the crappiest thing of all time.’ Sometimes the other team is pretty good too.”

As long as it’s not too good, too often.