ACC gloom and doom? A matter of opinion
Posted March 25
Updated April 7
Late March means two things in North Carolina: Sunshine with temperatures in the 70s and multiple teams playing in the NCAA Sweet 16. This year we have neither.
I am sensing great angst about a week with temperatures 20 degrees below normal and all three Triangle men’s basketball teams sitting home during the NCAA Regionals. If you look at things in perspective, I would argue the weather is worse.
A March Not to Remember
You want some real ACC gloom and doom? How about 1959.
North Carolina played a first round game against a Navy team with no starter taller than 6-foot-6. And lost. By double digits. ACC in the NCAA: 0-1.
You want to hear about a really bad year for the ACC? How about 1971 when South Carolina, the only NCAA invitee, lost badly to Penn -- and then lost the consolation game to boot. ACC in the NCAA: 0-2.
A year that also comes to mind: 1976. That was in the day before seeding, and the NCAA often matched powerful teams against each other straight out of the gate so that NBC would have a compelling game to show during the tournament’s first weekend. North Carolina met Alabama in a meeting of teams that had been ranked among the top-5. Alabama ended the Tar Heels season.
Virginia also lost its NCAA opener -- that was the other year Virginia won the ACC Tournament. ACC in the NCAA: 0-2.
Everyone knows the story of “Black Sunday” in 1979, when North Carolina and Duke both lost in the NCAA first round in Raleigh. That was the last year the ACC completely missed the Sweet 16.
Perspective: had North Carolina lost to Providence last weekend, we would have had “Black Friday,” the first time UNC and Duke had ever both lost on the same day in the round of 64. The Tar Heels’ late rally against the Friars kept that from happening.
’87 and ‘07
1987 in my mind was a worse year for the ACC than the present one. The ACC got six bids that year and four of the teams promptly lost their first games. Clemson, Georgia Tech, NC State, and Virginia all went one-and-done.
Duke lost to Indiana in a Sweet 16 game. And Carolina, which was considered a strong national championship contender, lost to Syracuse in the Regional Final.
1987 marked the last season where the ACC finished an NCAA Tournament with a losing record. ACC in the NCAA: 5-6.
2007 brought more disappointment. Seven ACC teams got bids to the Big Dance that year: Four teams lost in the round of 32, and two more lost in the round of 64, including Duke. Only North Carolina survived the first weekend, and the Tar Heels lost in the Regional Finals. ACC in the NCAA: 7-7.
ACC Not Alone
Certainly there was reason to expect a couple more ACC wins this time around. NC State led Saint Louis by 16 before the task of playing five games in eight days caught up with the weary Wolfpack -- fatigue can be a factor at the free throw line.
North Carolina led Iowa State by eight points with four and half minutes to play, losing in the final two seconds. Syracuse could have beaten Dayton with just one three-point shot (the Orange went 0-for-10).
But Virginia’s win over Memphis guarantees the ACC another non-losing NCAA Tournament. The Big East, which got four NCAA bids, went 2-4, sending no teams to the Sweet 16. The much-acclaimed Atlantic Ten, which got six bids, went 3-5, advancing just one team to the Regionals. Even the Big 12, generally considered the best league this year and rewarded with seven bids, has posted a 6-5 record to this point, same as the ACC.
The SEC, generally considered the fifth or sixth strongest conference this year, has dominated the tournament, posting a 7-0 record and sending all three of its entries to the Sweet 16. The Pac 12, similarly overlooked during the season, advanced three of its six NCAA teams to the second week, on the strength of a 7-3 record.
Really, the Big Ten is the only top rated conference to make a strong showing opening week: six bids, three teams to the round of 16, and a 6-3 record.
Virginia vs. Michigan State
Friday’s meeting between Virginia and Michigan State could certainly influence how the ACC and Big Ten remember the 2014 NCAA Tournament. This is a matchup between the two leagues with the greatest historical dominance of the NCAA’s since 1985.
The Big Ten has received 159 NCAA bids over the last 30 years to the ACC’s 143. The Big Ten has sent 20 teams to the Final Four during that span. The ACC has sent 24. The Big Ten has not suffered a losing record in the NCAA Tournament for eight years. The ACC has not suffered a losing record in the NCAA Tournament for 27 years.
Michigan State is the decided favorite Friday night in Madison Square Garden. Yet there is some history on Virginia’s side. Virginia won the ACC regular season title outright, as well as the ACC Tournament.
Among ACC teams that entered the NCAA Tournament as sole regular season and tournament champs, since 1974, the post-season record is 46-7. That includes Miami, an ACC double winner in 2013, which lost in the Sweet 16 a year ago. Most ACC double winners have made deep runs in the NCAA.
Many pundits think Virginia will join the Hurricanes as a casualty of “the second weekend.” Michigan State has a more robust offense than Virginia, and the Spartans have experience going against the "pack line" defense, although the Cavaliers play that defense better this year than Wisconsin.
Most importantly, Michigan State counts two seniors and two juniors among its top six scorers. The major lesson from this tournament is that age and experience matter.
Good Year for ACC Alumni
Two cases in point: Stanford and Dayton.
Stanford, coached by former Duke star Johnny Dawkins, and Dayton, coached by former NC State sharpshooter Archie Miller, both rode the performances of senior/junior dominated teams to unexpected victories.
Stanford came into the NCAA Tournament as a 10 seed; Dayton as an 11 seed. Yet both of these upper class dominated squads are still playing. In fact, they will play against one another. There will be at least one former ACC star coaching in the Elite Eight.
ACC Gets Older
Next year, the ACC should get older, barring massive exits for the NBA.
North Carolina returns all of its major players except Leslie McDonald, and the early indication is that James Michael McAdoo and Marcus Paige will be among that group coming back.
Duke loses a couple of seniors, and may well also lose Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood to the NBA. But the Blue Devils will still have a core of players who played major minutes, plus the nation’s best recruiting class.
NC State will sorely miss T.J. Warren should he turn pro, and the speculation is that he will. However, the Wolfpack loses just one other player, Jordan Vandenberg, and should enter the 2014-15 season as an older and wiser team.
Virginia loses two key seniors in Akil Mitchell and Joe Harris, but has a very good returning nucleus to build around. Pitt and Syracuse both lose key seniors, but will also return talented underclassmen.
This is a little less certain in Syracuse’s case, since either Tyler Ennis or Jerami Grant could leave early.
Oh, and don’t look now, but Clemson has no seniors. How much fun will it be to play against that Tiger defense, one year older?
The ACC’s NCAA Legacy
It is strange to contemplate a Sweet 16 without either Carolina or Duke, and yet thanks to Virginia’s success, the ACC can now point to an incredible 35 year run of sending at least one team to the Sweet 16.
What’s most impressive is that there have only been four years where the ACC has sent just one to the round of 16. Eight times the ACC has sent four teams into regional play. Six more times the league has sent at least three to the second weekend.
Do the math -- that means there were 17 seasons when two ACC teams reached the round of 16.
In 32 of the past 34 seasons, at least one ACC team has played in a regional final. Virginia can make it 33 of 35. That’s a pretty amazing stat.
Return to Normal
Next March we’ll see a league with more OLD hands running the court, and a NEW member, Louisville, that brings its own considerable NCAA Tournament legacy. I look for a return to our great North Carolina traditions: Two or three ACC teams in the Sweet 16. And weather in the 70s. With sunshine!