The Tar Heels had barely finished snipping the nets in Arizona before savants were projecting the top 25 teams for the 2017-18 men’s basketball season. Long-range predictions are routinely unreliable – who could have imagined the identity of the current U.S. president a year in advance?
Forecasts of any kind rely on precedent, which tends to steer conclusions in familiar directions. That works well enough in ranking basketball teams, except this time of year. The spring signing period for recruits starts on April 12, even as heavyweight programs are disrupted by players’ annual rush to check out their NBA stock. College players have until April 27 to say they’re interested in being drafted, and until May 24 to withdraw from consideration to retain their NCAA eligibility.
Already seven ACC schools have seen more than a dozen players either irrevocably declare their NBA intentions or officially toy with the idea. Among the league’s pledged undecideds – putting themselves in the mix to be evaluated by the pros – are North Carolina’s Tony Bradley, Wake’s John Collins and N.C. State’s Omer Yurtseven. On Thursday sophomore Luke Kennard became the third Duke underclassman to close the door on college in pursuit of an NBA career. This skim of top talent doesn’t include transfers, academic casualties or accomplished veterans such as UNC junior Justin Jackson, whose decision to stay or go will surely make news.
At least until the roster shuffles slow, now is actually a good time to digest and appreciate the immediate past, which rushed by fast enough.
Of course Tar Heels fans are happily appreciating their favorites, a well-honed unit that doggedly redeemed its national championship coupon. UNC was the 25th team in the ACC’s 64-year existence to reach the title game. That’s a shade under 40 percent of the possible finals. Lately the ACC’s appearances have reached habitual status: a stunning nine have come in the 17 seasons since 2001.
Tellingly, no ACC participants to date came from the deputation of Big East teams appended since 2004. Rather, of the ACC’s 25 NCAA finalists, an overwhelming 23 came from Duke (11), N.C. State (2) or Carolina (10). No wonder, after House Bill 2 was rescinded (sort of), a New York Times headline declared, “North Carolina’s Love of College Sports Spurred Move to Repeal Bathroom Law.”
While lawmakers restored the state’s eligibility to host NCAA, ACC and probably NBA events, the Tar Heels restored the league’s wounded basketball pride. Five ACC members were among The Associated Press’ final top 25; nine league teams were invited to the NCAA tournament. (Impressively, the ACC women had seven of The AP’s top 21 squads. All made the NCAA field.) Most of the season the ACC contentedly basked in acclaim as the best conference in the nation; a piece in the Times wondered whether it was the best league ever.
Coming off a terrific showing in the 2016 postseason (two teams in the Final Four, four in the Elite Eight), ACC coaches declared NCAA performance the true measure of conference-wide excellence. Then eight of nine ACC clubs fell during the first week of NCAA play. Oops.
Injury-plagued Duke led in the wrong direction, yielding 65 second-half points in an upset by South Carolina. Stocked with one-and-done talents, the second-seeded Blue Devils began the year atop the polls but erratically sputtered as often as they purred – a week before their NCAA ouster, the Devils impressively marched to four victories in four days to win the ACC tournament.
Virginia, picked third in preseason, tied with Duke for fifth. Coach Tony Bennett is rightly praised for conjuring a program built on discipline and unselfish teamwork. The Cavaliers control tempo. Their scoring defense led the ACC for the sixth season in a row. Bennett’s approach helped Virginia post six straight records of 22 or more wins. But UVa’s offensive limitations are troubling, reflected in one advance as far as the NCAA regional finals in eight years under Bennett. The Cavs edged UNC-Wilmington, coached by Kevin Keatts, in their 2017 NCAA opener. Then they lost 65-39 against Florida, the fewest points ever scored by an ACC team in NCAA competition, with or without a shot clock and 3-pointer.
Keatts was hired within days by N.C. State. The Wolfpack endured a spiritless, forgettable season punctuated by several of the most overwhelming losses in school history and the mid-February firing of Mark Gottfried.
Like Virginia, Florida State crumbled in the NCAAs, losing by 25 points to Xavier after finishing second in the ACC. FSU’s 26 victories were one shy of a school record set in 1972, when it reached the NCAA title game as an independent. Boasting rare depth and athleticism, this was Leonard Hamilton’s best squad since the 2012 ACC champions. Yet it never managed to establish dominance, losing more than it won beyond Tallahassee.
Louisville was similarly ineffective at crunch time, going out early in the ACC and NCAA tournaments. That after the Cardinals won 25 games and stayed in the AP top 10 the majority of the season despite a sex scandal and pending NCAA penalties looming in the background. Louisville’s success reaffirmed coach Rick Pitino’s knack for seamlessly executing major personnel revamps. He shares that skill with Miami’s Jim Larrañaga, whose Hurricanes reached the NCAAs after quietly posting their fifth 20-win season during his six-year tenure.
Miami was among four ACC squads that defeated UNC during the regular season. So were Duke, Virginia and Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets shockingly won eight ACC games and reached the NIT final behind first-year coach Josh Pastner, freshman Josh Okogie, and vastly improved postman Ben Lammers.
“We’ll sure use it in recruiting,” Pastner says of the win over the national champs, commemorated by a game ball displayed in his Atlanta office. Boston College, picked to finish at the bottom of the standings with the Jackets, unfortunately lived down to expectations. The Eagles did show improvement, winning two ACC games. That’s two more than in 2016. But they dropped their last 15 en route to a sixth consecutive losing season, most by an ACC program since Clemson from 1968 through 1973.
This year’s veteran Clemson squad, led by all-ACC senior Jaron Blossomgame, avoided the usual early stumbles against weak opponents. The start buoyed hopes for a second NCAA appearance in Brad Brownell’s seven-year tenure. Instead the Tigers lost a dozen regular-season games by six or fewer points and were eliminated in their NIT opener.
Syracuse also missed the NCAAs with 18 wins and an anemic schedule.
Curmudgeonly Orange coach Jim Boeheim, a year away from his announced retirement, derided Greensboro as an ACC tournament site. Then assistant Mike Hopkins, who spurned BC while marking time as Boeheim’s designated successor, took the head coaching job at Washington. Boeheim agreed to stay on for a while, as many suspected he would, anyway, and so should be on the bench when Syracuse comes to Greensboro for the 2020 ACC tournament.
Virginia Tech did make its first NCAA appearance since 2007, Wake Forest its first since 2010. The Demon Deacons finished strong, broke even in ACC play, and seemed to turn a competitive corner. Their mainstay, John Collins, blossomed into a first team all-conference selection under the tutelage of coach Danny Manning. Then the 6-10 sophomore announced he’d test his NBA prospects, reinforcing the wisdom of avoiding premature fortune-telling.