Wolfpack win first step in ACC's quest for respect
Posted March 19, 2014
We’ve just witnessed one of the best ACC Tournaments in recent memory. The games were generally well-played and compelling. The Greensboro Coliseum rocked, even between games, thanks to some well-chosen music and special videos produced by the ACC staff. Crowd noise, buoyed by newcomers Pitt and Syracuse, and amplified by the biggest Virginia turnout ever seen in North Carolina, resembled that heard at a Final Four. The energy in the building resonated to the far corners of the coliseum, even spilling out into the streets of Greensboro.
Apparently, the ACC’s elite teams must now transport that energy to arenas all over America for the NCAA Tournament. Because the event sometimes called “The Greatest Show on Earth” did little to change the curious perception nationally that the expanded ACC has somehow not improved, but grown weaker. It seems that nothing short of major March/April victories by ACC teams can override the power of punditry.
Pundits of America
Yes, somewhere in early January, the POA (Pundits of America) began downgrading the ACC like Moody’s Financial Rating Service putting the kibosh on junk bonds. Print and broadcast analysts alike often get caught up in a kind of pack mentality, much like the follow-the-leader thinking that triggers a Wall Street selloff. By late February, pundits had relegated the proud ACC to fourth place in the lexicon of college basketball power conferences, behind the Big Twelve, the Big Ten and the Atlantic Ten.
The winningest coach in the history of NCAA Division I men’s basketball felt compelled to take on the issue during his postgame press conferences in Greensboro.
“I really don’t think the conference is getting the respect it should,” Mike Krzyzewski said. “Because Syracuse was the number one team in the country for awhile. Virginia’s been really good. Carolina was as good as anybody in February and may still be as good as anybody. And we’ve been pretty darn good the whole year.”
How many bids?
I heard and read predictions that the ACC would get no more than five bids to the NCAA Tournament and possibly as few as four. Early last week some theorized that Pitt, whose only non-conference loss was a one-point affair against NCAA bound Cincinnati, still had more work to do! Krzyzewski not only campaigned for NC State and/or Clemson to get into the NCAA, he questioned the status of the A-10. “I like the Atlantic Ten. They’re a really good conference,” he began. “I hear people saying there are six teams in there. Come on. I mean put them in our conference and go through the meat grinder our conference has to go through.”
NC State grinds up Xavier
NC State on Tuesday night underscored Krzyzewski’s point, whipping Xavier 74-59.
For two months, the pundits have watched ACC teams take on other ACC teams, coaches and players who know each other’s tendencies extremely well. It can be difficult to look good at times and even tougher to win consistently. But NCAA play, pitting the ACC against first-time opponents from out of conference, gives a better indication of where the league’s basketball profile ranks nationally.
NC State, as the last team in to the NCAA Tournament, will be an underdog from here on out, as a No. 12 seed. Despite having played four games in seven days, the Wolfpack got strong performances in Dayton from T.J. Warren and Tyler Lewis, and, as luck would have it, will now face the top team from the Atlantic Ten. Saint Louis sports a No. 5 seed, but some think the Billikens are vulnerable. They've strugged on offense and lost four of their last five.
ACC vs. Big Ten
And what caused the ACC to drop behind the Big Ten? If I recall, the ACC-Big Ten Challenge finished in a six-six tie. Moreover, among teams headed to the NCAA Tournament, the ACC went 5-1 against the Big Ten. OK, you can say that among Big Ten teams invited to the “Big Dance,” the Big Ten prevailed against the ACC 4-2. But in head-to-head competition, in games where both teams made the NCAA, the ACC won two and lost one. Duke and North Carolina took down Michigan and Michigan State, while Virginia fell to Wisconsin.
Where’s the love?
Theories about the ACC’s perceived decline swirl about in my head, but they are, at this point just theories. Here are a few:
Bad Losses: The conference did suffer some bad losses in December. Clemson lost to Auburn and Arkansas; Carolina fell to Belmont and UAB; Virginia lost to Wisconsin-Green Bay and Tennessee. NC State lost to NC Central and Missouri but beat Tennessee. Still, three of the league’s other top teams played extremely well out of conference. Duke lost only to Kansas and Arizona; Pitt, as mentioned, lost only to Cincinnati, and Syracuse did not lose at all.
No Final Fours: During the years when ACC teams regularly went to the Final Four, the conference was more difficult to overlook; however four years have passed since the league’s last trip. The Big 10 sent Ohio State in 2012 and Michigan last year. At the same time, Syracuse made the Final Four last year and Syracuse is now in the ACC. Could the Orange go again? Well, most of American punditry puts one or two Big Ten teams in this year’s Final Four, but not one from the ACC.
Low Possession Games: The addition of Pitt, Syracuse, and Notre Dame has accelerated the trend toward low possession games in the ACC, a trend already begun by Virginia, Clemson, Miami, Boston College, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech.
Personally, I can appreciate a game in the 50s or 60s if teams take care of the ball and make shots or at least confine errors to those forced by the defense. But many observers don’t appreciate these tight, lower-scoring affairs.
The term “ugly game” has become the new overused cliché among a certain element of the fourth estate. Coach K also took on this issue Friday night after Duke’s “hard-fought” game with Clemson, saying, “Commentators say it wasn’t a pretty game. Then don’t commentate.”
In my mind, it’s the eye test more than the numbers that have pushed the ACC into fourth place in the “Pundits’ Standings.” Most opinions crystallized, it seems to me, during the conference games of January and February. Somehow in the Big Ten, upsets and surprise victories prompted the pundits to talk about that league’s power and balance, while similar results in the ACC evoked words like parity and even mediocrity. So maybe there was something about the style of play in the various leagues that influenced the conversation. Because we certainly have not seen any head-to-head competition among the power conferences in more than eight weeks.
The ACC owns the highest all-time winning percentage in NCAA play, better than 65 percent, to just above 60 percent for the Big Ten. The ACC has not had a losing season in the NCAA Tournament since going 5-6 way back in 1987. That’s 26 straight years of going at least .500, and actually 24 of those 26 seasons were above .500.
Among active conferences, the Big Ten has the next longest non-losing streak, just seven years.
Also since 1985, the ACC has the most Sweet Sixteen appearances, the most Final Four appearances and the most championships.
Yet here in 2014, the conference feels under-appreciated. The NCAA Tournament Selection Committee treated the ACC fairly relative to other conferences, with six bids; that’s the same as the Big Ten and A-10, and one fewer than the Big 12. But the ACC’s showing on Selection Sunday has not changed the tenor of the discussion about the favorites in the NCAA Tournament. The preponderance of pundits pick the Big Ten and the Big 12 to dominate.
Road to respect
For the ACC, the road to respect winds its way through the brackets that define this tournament.
No Early Upsets: Reaching the destination will require that all ACC teams, except perhaps NC State, survive beyond their first game.
Are you listening North Carolina? Providence is exactly the kind of team that gives you guys trouble; a zone-playing, board-crashing, half-court oriented quintet from a smaller conference.
At least three to the Sweet Sixteen: UNC and Pitt will join the Wolfpack as underdogs this weekend, should they win their Thursday/Friday games, and appropriately so, although I think the Tar Heels can beat up-tempo Iowa State if they survive Providence, and I believe Pitt, now playing the way it did before Lamar Patterson’s thumb injury, can give Florida fits (I did say “can” not “will.”). Virginia, Duke and Syracuse should all make the Sweet Sixteen.
Incredibly, I have heard some suggest that Virginia could stumble against Memphis or that Duke might lose to Mercer. One analyst even picks Western Michigan to beat Syracuse Thursday in Buffalo. Really? WMU will solve the Syracuse zone in front of 20,000 people wearing orange? Only if the Broncos make shots from downtown Rochester.
One in the Final Four: I find it fascinating that the “ESPN Predictor,” a complex computer analysis of hundreds of team stats, margin of victory, strength of schedule, history of performances by seed (for example #4 vs. #13) and more, has picked Virginia to go the Final Four, beating Michigan State, and Iowa State/Villanova. The ESPN Predictor also puts three ACC teams in the Sweet Sixteen – Virginia, Duke and Syracuse.
Obviously if three ACC teams make the Sweet Sixteen and one of them reaches the Final Four that has to help the national perception (or misperception) about ACC basketball.
But outside of the computer, there aren’t many takers for ACC teams. Among those who know at CBS and ESPN, only Seth Greenberg, who picks Duke, predicts a Final Four berth for the ACC. Even Duke alumnus Jay Bilas, whom I greatly respect, projects a Final Four with two Big Ten teams and none from the ACC.
ACC coaches will have plenty of bulletin board material these next few days. They can legitimately tell their teams, “No one’s giving us much of a chance.” As of today, the league that through the years has become synonymous with the term “survive and advance,” stands officially overlooked.