ACC teams in Elite EIght didn't get jobbed by NCAA Tournament seeding -- they got better

ACC teams in Elite EIght didn't get jobbed by NCAA Tournament seeding -- they got better

SAN FRANCISCO — By the time the Miami Hurricanes had played 20 games, they already had fallen four times to teams that would not see the inside of the 2022 NCAA Tournament. North Carolina lost to Purdue, Tennessee and Kentucky by an average 18 points. The Atlantic Coast Conference as a whole won 66.7 percent of non-conference games. That may sound like a lot, but it’s only a lot of if you’re the Atlantic Sun.

Once the most prestigious brands in college basketball, the league of David Thompson, Michael Jordan, Ralph Samson, Christian Laettner and Chris Paul, the ACC this winter was constantly compared unfavorably to that glorious past.

The members earned every bit of that.

And now the ACC represents 38 percent of the Elite Eight. That’s three teams – Duke, North Carolina, Miami – in case the calculator app is acting up.

This is why they call it madness, obviously.

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You will hear now some attempt to argue the ACC never was that bad, that this was all a media distortion, that the conference’s achievements in the NCAA Tournament prove the league of James Worthy, Kenny Anderson and Jay Williams always was playing elite basketball. This is not art, though, where the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences can present a Best Picture nomination to “Licorice Pizza” while many of us might view it as self-indulgent trash. (Beautifully shot, though). But there are final scores in basketball games. 

Winding up on the proper side of an athletic competition is the idea, and the ACC built this ghastly reputation for itself with how it performed in games against other leagues.

How bad was that ACC winning percentage? Well, the Big Ten’s was 77.7 percent, and the Big 12 was better still at 82.7. Against the top six leagues (and Gonzaga), the ACC compiled a 19-28 record. The Big 12, by comparison, was 27-15. 

And trust me, limiting it to those conferences – Big 12, Big Ten, SEC, Big East, Pac-12 – cuts out more losses to the Atlantic 10 than the ACC teams would want to acknowledge.

The ACC was the No. 6-rated conference in the NET rankings.

No, Virginia Tech and Notre Dame received their 11 seeds and Miami its 10 seed and North Carolina its No. 8 seed on merit, or lack thereof, and Duke was seeded all the way up at No. 2 more for its non-conference victories over elite 2021-22 teams Gonzaga and Kentucky than winning the ACC regular season.

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Several ACC coaches and players have suggested the high number of transfers arriving in the league took time to incorporate. That’s a dodge. Iowa State, Miami’s victim Friday in the Sweet 16, had four first-year transfers among its five leading scorers and didn’t lose a game until New Year’s Day. In January, 11 of the top 12 teams in college basketball featured at least one first-year transfer.

So what did happen?

1. Development. Following a home loss to 13th-place Pitt on Feb. 16, less than a month before Selection Sunday, the Tar Heels won their next six games by an average of 10 points. Only one of those games was against an NCAA Tournament team, which hurt a little relative to the selection process, but it might have helped at that point in the season to build confidence and momentum. Forward Brady Manek had eight single-figure scoring games by that point; he hasn’t had one since and is averaging 18.7 points in that stretch.

The Miami defense always has been problematic, ranked only 114th in efficiency at KenPom.com, in part because of the smaller lineup the Hurricanes field. And yet their three NCAA Tournament opponents have all fallen short – Auburn and Iowa State fell well short – of a point per possession. Those teams turned over the ball an average of 17 times.

2. Talent. March always has been kindest to teams with significant ability, because defenses are schemed so thoroughly when every game could be the last that often it’s up to a gifted player to make a move that no defense can conceive a means of counteracting. For instance, former five-star prospect Caleb Love picking the Sweet 16 to fire in a half-dozen 3-pointers, most of them from well beyond the arc, a few when UCLA’s Bruins did everything conceivable to discomfort him.

Or Duke All-American Paolo Banchero nailing two 3-pointers and a stunning pass off penetration to big man Mark Williams for a powerful slam.

Duke has five players in the rotation who’ve been projected as future first-round NBA Draft picks. Carolina has two five-star recruits (Love and star Armando Bacot) and four that were four-stars.

Other successful teams this season played off a single star and produced successful regular seasons, but only four of this year’s 15 Sporting News All-Americans are left in this tournament. It has been better to have talent in bunches.

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3. March magic. North Carolina surrendered the entirety of a 25-point second half lead against Baylor but was able to recover in overtime. Miami was in a tie game with No. 7 seed USC until Charlie Moore was able to draw a whistle on a foul the Trojans disputed with three seconds left and convert two free throws. Duke had harrowing battles with both Michigan State and Texas Tech; the Devils lead by as few as 2 points inside the final 70 seconds of each.

“I felt like the ACC kind of has been underrated a bit this year,” Miami big man Sam Jayawardene told reporters this week. “We didn’t have the best start of the year as a conference … but obviously are showing now that we are a good conference. We have good teams, and throughout our conference play we were in a lot of close games.

“I think that’s probably the best preparation we’ve had for this tournament, because you never really know what’s going to happen. It’s Madness for a reason.”