For all the weirdness witnessed in the NCAA tournament’s first week – Northern Iowa for both better and worse; Bronson Koenig for the win; Thomas Walkup, greatest Lumberjack since Paul Bunyan – the oddest part is how not-at-all-odd the Sweet Sixteen appears. The four No. 1 seeds remain. The remaining double-digit seeds are No. 10 Syracuse and No. 11 Gonzaga, who together have graced the Big Dance 57 times. And the “A” in ACC again stands for “ascendant.”
Of the seven ACC teams that gained admission, only Pittsburgh is gone. Of the 16 regional semifinalists, 37.5 percent hail from one conference. That has never happened. Nobody thought it would happen to this league this year.
Yes, the ACC has, over the past 42 years, been the nation’s best conference. It has taken 12 NCAA titles since UCLA’s string of seven consecutive ended in 1973. (No other league has more than seven.) ACC teams have filled half a Final Four on five occasions. And yes, North Carolina and Virginia were No. 1 seeds. That said …
Tar Heel fans have done more grousing than gushing this season. Virginia went 16-2 in league play last year but 13-5 this time. Duke went from winning the 2015 NCAA title to a No. 4 seed, and that placement seemed kind. Of the six remaining ACC teams, only North Carolina (by a little) and Miami (by a lot) are better than they were a year ago.
But still: Six of the Sweet Sixteen, an unprecedented yield. Proof positive that the ACC remains the mightiest fortress, right?
Er … maybe.
The ACC entered the NCAA tournament ranked third – behind the Big 12 and Pac-12 – in league RPI. Boston College and Wake Forest were bad beyond belief; N.C. State was awful by any standards but doubly so by its own. This was not the ACC of 1983, when the conference included Michael Jordan and Ralph Sampson but saw Jim Valvano’s Wolfpack win the national title, or 1974, when champ-to-be N.C. State needed triple overtime just to beat Maryland for the ACC championship.
When this tournament began, Dr. Joel Sokol’s LRMC rankings had the ACC’s seven NCAA teams rated third, fifth, 12th, 18th, 37th, 41st and 45th in the nation. (The Big 12 had six of the top 36.) After the tournament’s first week, Ken Pomeroy’s rankings show the ACC as having three of the five weakest teams remaining: Duke, Syracuse and Notre Dame are slotted behind Gonzaga.
Not to get catty, but the ACC has been the beneficiary of outrageous fortune. North Carolina faced No. 9 seed Providence in Round 2, not No. 8 USC. Virginia drew No. 9 Butler, not No. 8 Texas Tech. Miami played No. 11 Wichita State, not No. 6 Arizona. Duke got No. 12 Yale, not No. 5 Baylor. Notre Dame was pitted against No. 14 Stephen F. Austin, not No. 3 West Virginia. Syracuse was matched with No. 14 Middle Tennessee, not No. 2 Michigan State. Average seeding of the ACC’s dozen victims – 12.25.
Going by those seeds, the ACC will be favored in four Round of 16 games, and not just the No. 1s North Carolina and Virginia but also No. 6 Notre Dame, which plays Wisconsin, and No. 10 Syracuse, which faces Gonzaga. Heck, the league could have six of the Elite Eight and the entire Final Four, each of which would mark a first.
Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said Sunday: “It’s hard to judge a conference during the year. The tournament is a good measuring stick. It’s not everything, but it’s certainly something you can look at.” And it is. But did the Orange even deserve their bid? They finished with an RPI of 72, the lowest ever for an at-large invitee. (Georgia’s was 62, Georgia Tech’s 68.) And yet: If Louisville hadn’t withdrawn from the postseason, the ACC might have seven teams still going.
Maybe the league really is great. Maybe the Final Four will be North Carolina, Virginia, Duke and Miami and, in tribute to Tobacco Road, they’ll move the event from Houston to Cameron Indoor Stadium. But I still don’t see any ACC crew winning it all, not even the Tar Heels. In a sport skewed by the trey, is a title apt to be taken by a team ranking 303rd in 3-point percentage?
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