ACC coaches ponder repair of basketball credibility

Duke forward Paolo Banchero (5) dunks ahead of North Carolina's Brady Manek (45) during the first half of a college basketball game in the semifinal round of the Men's Final Four NCAA tournament, Saturday, April 2, 2022, in New Orleans. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

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Duke forward Paolo Banchero (5) dunks ahead of North Carolina's Brady Manek (45) during the first half of a college basketball game in the semifinal round of the Men's Final Four NCAA tournament, Saturday, April 2, 2022, in New Orleans. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

AMELIA ISLAND, Fla. – Before they could entertain the pressing matters that are poised to shake up college athletics – namely, the transfer portal and name, image and likeness – the ACC men’s basketball coaches had a higher priority upon gathering at this week’s conference spring meetings.

“It was, how did we only get five teams in (the NCAA Tournament), and why were we so disrespected as a league?” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said Tuesday.

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To his point, the five teams selected to the field of 68 – Duke, Miami, North Carolina, Virginia Tech and Brey’s Fighting Irish – made a compelling case that the ACC was far better than perceived by the tournament selection committee. The five teams had a combined 14-5 record in the tournament, the best mark of any conference. Three teams made the regional finals, including Miami as a No. 10 seed, Duke reached the Final Four and UNC played in the championship game as a No. 8 seed.

The five teams in were the fewest for the ACC since 2013, when four teams made the field, although the ACC was a mere 12 teams at the time. Further, since the NCAA began seeding teams in the 1979 tournament, it was the first time that the conference didn’t have at least two teams among the top 16 seeds. Duke had a No. 2 seed, but next was UNC with a No. 8.

Since the league expanded to 15 teams in the 2013-14 season, the ACC had averaged 7.3 teams in the seven tournaments before this season, including an average of 7.8 between 2016 and 2021. It was a stinging rebuke for the conference that prides itself on its basketball excellence.

All that said, as Brey reported, NCAA senior vice president of basketball Dan Gavitt, who attended the meeting, had a fairly simple explanation.

“Paul (Brazeau, senior associate commissioner for men’s basketball), Dan shed some great light on it,” Brey said. “Certainly, I think we were 3-14 against Quad-1′s in November. We kind of made our bed.”

Using its NET rankings system (a replacement for RPI), the tournament selection committee evaluates teams (and conferences) by how they fare against teams separated in different quadrants. Quad-1 games are home games against teams ranked in the top 30 of NET, neutral games against teams in the top 50 and road games against teams in the top 75.

In arguably the most equitable measure of comparing conferences, the ACC fell on its face in non-conference games before the start of conference play. And it wasn’t only the top-tier games. Georgia Tech contributed a 6-4 non-conference record against Division I opponents that included a home loss to Miami (Ohio), which ended up 14-18. Tech wasn’t alone. Virginia (Navy, James Madison), Syracuse (Colgate, VCU), Miami (Central Florida), Boston College (Albany and Rhode Island) and Louisville (Furman, Western Kentucky), among others, absorbed non-conference defeats to mid-major opponents that created the impression that it was a down year for the conference.

Further, the losses dropped ACC teams’ own NET rankings, which then limited opportunities for Quad-1 wins in conference play.

“So you didn’t have the opportunity to play your way in in our league,” Brey said. “Now, that’s not going to happen every year. That’s who we were this year.”

Brey, whose team was among the last invited into the field of 68, shared another tidbit from Gavitt that offered confirmation of the reality that league records aren’t always a credible measure of a team’s strength, particularly when the schedule is not balanced.

“(Gavitt) said, ‘Well, Notre Dame was 15-5 (in ACC play), but 13 of their wins came against the bottom seven in the league,” Brey said. “I wasn’t naive as we were rolling along. Thank God we had the Kentucky win to hang our hat on because it was really close.”

The emphasis placed on non-conference games in establishing baselines for conferences is at the root of Tech coach Josh Pastner’s unorthodox suggestion – moving from 20 league games to 28 for a true round-robin schedule. With teams able to play a maximum of 31 regular-season games, a 28-game league schedule largely would eliminate the risk of costly non-conference losses. It is Pastner’s contention that ACC teams, which typically lose significant numbers of early-entry players to the NBA draft, may be more vulnerable early in the season than other leagues’ teams. Another corresponding idea is for the ACC to shift league games into November and play more non-conference games in December.

The full round-robin plan has the further benefit of creating a stronger schedule to sell to potential ticket buyers and what would seem better content for ACC Network. Pastner said he proposed it at the meeting Tuesday and was “shot down,” in his words.

“There was no vote,” Pastner said. “I just think people thought it was crazy when I said it. I still stand by it.”

Brey proposed changing the scheduling model, which includes teams having two permanent home-and-home partners (Tech’s are Clemson and Notre Dame) and then rotating home-and-homes and single road or home games among the other 12 teams to create the 20-game league schedule. When Notre Dame was in the Big East, Brey said, the home-and-homes and single games were adjusted annually to try to ensure that the teams most likely to make the NCAA Tournament would have home-and-homes with each other to strengthen schedules and presumably create better matchups for television. Brey said that the viability of the 20-game league schedule, first implemented in the 2019-20 season, was also discussed.

“Was that good for us?” Brey asked. “We don’t really know because we’ve only done it three years, and one was the COVID year, so that doesn’t count.”

At least three factors were in play this season that would seem to be aberrant. One, Virginia wasn’t as strong as it has been in recent seasons, finishing with double-digit losses (21-14) for only the second time in the past nine seasons. Two, North Carolina struggled to find its footing early with first-year coach Hubert Davis, with the Tar Heels losing decisively to Purdue, Tennessee and Kentucky before roaring to the NCAA title game. Three, Florida State, an NCAA Tournament perennial, looked like it was on track to earn another bid before being waylaid by injuries in conference play. Those outcomes don’t seem likely to repeat themselves, or at least not together. Better non-conference performance by North Carolina and Virginia alone likely would have affected the perception of the league.

Another possibility – the league’s NCAA showing, which fed the “ACC was disrespected” narrative, had the benefit of some fortunate outcomes. Notre Dame needed double overtime to win its First Four game over Rutgers before upsetting Alabama in the first round. Miami, on its way to the Elite Eight, escaped the first round when USC’s potential game-winning desperation shot was just off the mark. North Carolina lost a 25-point lead to No. 1-seed Baylor in the second round before winning in overtime.

Were those coin-flip results changed, the idea that the ACC was shortchanged likely wouldn’t have lasted past the tournament’s first weekend.

There is, though, a simpler solution to the conference’s handwringing: Don’t lose so many non-conference games.

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