The present-day version of the ACC was conceived to be the most spectacular conference college basketball has ever known.
Though football ultimately drove the realignment that gave the ACC a 15-team lineup, it debuted in 2014 as a league whose dominance had sprawled well beyond Tobacco Road. All told, the league had six surefire Hall of Fame coaches, an ascendant power at Virginia, programs like Pittsburgh and Notre Dame that had thrived in the Big East and a newly-arrived blueblood in Louisville.
“I think it’s more than fair to say from a historical and success standpoint, we are now the strongest collection of basketball programs that have ever been assembled in one conference,” former ACC commissioner John Swofford said at the time.
But with the NCAA Tournament set to begin next week, the ACC’s swagger from half a decade ago has melted into near-irrelevance.
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Instead of the juggernaut college basketball was promised, the ACC now looks more like a mishmash of fading powers and underachievers, traditional programs in transition and others that desperately need a jolt of energy. When CBS reveals the tournament bracket Sunday night, it’s likely to include five ACC teams at most with only Duke getting a top-six seed.
That’s even worse for the ACC than last year, when it had no legitimate national title contender and five of its seven tournament teams lost in the first round.
Sure, the Blue Devils have enough talent to end up in the Final Four or national title game. But as of Selection Sunday, the ACC has just two teams in the top 25 of the Pomeroy efficiency ratings. The SEC has six, the Big 12 has four and the Big Ten has three.
Should that be cause for alarm? Not according to first-year ACC commissioner Jim Phillips, who told The Athletic in an interview this week that the league “may be down a notch, but I don’t think that’s a trend at all. I just think it’s part of the evolution and the cyclical process that programs go through.”
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That’s the understated, politically correct answer you’d expect from a conference commissioner, especially a new one who has other fires burning at the moment, including the league’s awful football performance last season, being a wrench in College Football Playoff expansion and the undervalued, long-term television deal his predecessor left him with.
Given the scale of those problems, a down year in basketball doesn’t necessarily demand going to the top of Phillips’ agenda.
But this is the ACC. Basketball has been at the core of the league’s identity since its founding in 1953. Given the fundamental strength of its top programs and coaches on paper, it’s stunning how poorly the league has performed the last two seasons. Of more concern is that the immediate future doesn’t look much better.
With Mike Krzyzewski’s retirement after the NCAA Tournament, Duke’s transition to Jon Scheyer contains some inherent uncertainties about its status as an annual Final Four contender. Though Scheyer appears capable of maintaining a high level in recruiting, nobody really knows what Duke basketball looks like in the modern era without Krzyzewski.
North Carolina is undergoing a similar renovation under Hubert Davis, whose work this year impressed nobody in Chapel Hill until he beat Krzyzewski in the final game of the regular season, securing an NCAA bid.
It appears 77-year old Jim Boeheim is going to be the last one to know it’s time for him to hand the reins to someone else at Syracuse, as he’s assured us he’ll be back for a 47th season despite slipping under .500 this year for the first time ever and running a generally mediocre program for the last six seasons (Syracuse is 56-54 in the ACC in that span).
Virginia was the standard for consistency and excellence between 2014 and 2019, culminating with Tony Bennett’s first national title. But Bennett’s system relies on elite player evaluation, fit and development — and the well has run a bit dry lately after sending a string of under-recruited players to the NBA. After getting bounced in the first round last season, this is Virginia’s first NCAA Tournament miss since 2013.
It was also an uncharacteristically bad season from Florida State, which advanced to the second weekend in the last three tournaments played and may well have won the whole thing in 2020 had it not been canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Leonard Hamilton is a safe bet to bounce back, but he’s also 73 so at some point the Seminoles will have to look toward the future.
Meanwhile, Louisville’s hire of Chris Mack — universally praised at the time — was a complete dud. The Cardinals are out of the mix right now, pending their next hire. Clemson is eternally stuck in neutral. Pittsburgh hasn’t come close to an NCAA Tournament bid since the under-appreciated Jamie Dixon went to TCU. Kevin Keatts has been ridiculously underwhelming at NC State with very little success to show after five seasons. Georgia Tech was a nice story last season when it won the ACC tournament, but the Yellow Jackets crashed back to 14th place after their two best players graduated.
Here’s how bad it is: Notre Dame, which went 15-5 in conference games this season, will be sweating Sunday afternoon until its name is called — and may very well get sent to Dayton for the First Four. Virginia Tech, which won 23 games and beat Duke in the ACC tournament final, is projected as a No. 10 seed. Wake Forest, which went 13-7 in the league, is probably NIT-bound after a pretty horrific conference tournament loss to Boston College.
In a normal year for the ACC, teams with those records would have nothing to worry about. Instead, the underlying deficiency of the league is just crushing them.
“I think it’s because Miami and Wake Forest and Notre Dame are in the top five (of the ACC standings), and it’s not the typical teams you see in the top five every year, so I think it’s just the narrative that we’re not as good a league,” said Demon Deacons coach Steve Forbes, who actually leads one of the few ACC programs with positive momentum right now despite the likely disappointment headed his way Sunday.
But it’s not just a narrative, it’s numbers. Several of the ACC’s better teams took bad non-conference losses, which left the league vulnerable in the metrics that the tournament selection committee uses. That’s always how this process works, and if the ACC had performed better in November, it would be positioned for a more promising March.
Instead, Selection Sunday is shaping up as the day that puts a giant spotlight on the weakness of the once-mighty ACC.