Three times as many ACC schools excused their coaches this basketball season as reached the NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16. Two more teams from the conference advanced to the National Invitation Tournament semifinals as played in NCAA regional finals.
Not exactly what the expanded league’s founding fathers had in mind when they added three quality programs last fall in Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame. Not exactly what they envisioned when they proclaimed, rightfully so by the way, that this could become an unsurpassed collection of college basketball heritage, accomplishment and depth.
Indeed, there’s no sugarcoating the season’s collective shortcomings, a jarring contrast to football, when Florida State, led by Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston, earned the ACC’s first national championship in 14 years, and Clemson won the Orange Bowl.
‘Twas role reversal of the highest order for a conference so accustomed to football frustration and basketball excellence.
Six of the league’s 15 teams were chosen for the NCAA tournament, disappointing to ACC officials, who during preseason expected eight, nine, or even 10. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski and others scolded the conference for a lack of promotion, but spin doesn’t produce NCAA bids, and come Selection Sunday, no ACC team omitted had a credible complaint. In fact, North Carolina State was among the last to make the field, and no one would have shed crocodile tears had the Wolfpack been relegated to the NIT.
The non-conference season had its moments: North Carolina defeating Louisville, Michigan State and Kentucky; Duke besting UCLA and Michigan; Florida State beating Massachusetts and VCU; Syracuse knocking off Baylor and Villanova.
But there were just as many unsightly setbacks: Carolina to Belmont and UAB, Maryland to Oregon State and Boston University, Miami to St. Francis and Central Florida, Virginia Tech to South Carolina Upstate and UNC Greensboro.
Highlighted by Virginia’s dominance and two Duke-Syracuse classics, the conference schedule created many a headline. But the league’s lower two-thirds did not perform well enough to impress the NCAA selection committee.
On the strength of its UMass and VCU conquests, Florida State was among the last four teams considered, but the Seminoles could blame only themselves. A home finale against Syracuse and an ACC tournament quarterfinal with Virginia were ideal opportunities to turn heads, but Florida State lost both. Plus, the Seminoles dropped February home games to Clemson, Miami and North Carolina, the latter after bolting to a 21-5 lead.
As the Southeastern Conference has shown, with a vengeance, NCAA tournament success by a few can virtually erase the sins of many.
Only three of the SEC’s 14 teams earned NCAA bids, and like the ACC’s N.C. State, Tennessee was a coin-flip selection that landed in a First Four, a.k.a. play-in, game. But now look.
Tennessee won three games to reach the Sweet 16, while Florida and Kentucky made this weekend’s Final Four, with the Gators clear favorites to claim their third national championship, all on coach Billy Donovan’s watch.
In short, the SEC, mocked throughout the regular season, is 11-1 in the NCAA tournament. The ACC, its final hope vanquished when Virginia fell to Michigan State in the East Regional semifinals, went 6-6, matching its worst tournament winning percentage of the last 27 years.
This marks the ACC’s fourth consecutive year without a Final Four team, its first such drought since 1958-61. Virginia was the conference’s lone regional semifinalist, and the league was MIA from the Elite Eight for the first time since 2006.
Ranked among the top 10 for most of the season, Duke caved in March for the second time in three years, losing to 14th-seeded Mercer as its young leaders, Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood, panicked in the clutch. Shades of Austin Rivers and Co., stumbling against Lehigh in 2012.
Leading Iowa State by eight points with four minutes remaining in the round of 32, North Carolina failed to close and lost by two. N.C. State squandered a 16-point, second-half lead before falling to Saint Louis in overtime in the round of 64. Atop the national polls at 25-0 in mid-February, Syracuse lost six of its last nine games, including a round of 32 contest to 11th-seeded Dayton.
Virginia and Clemson. That’s the short list of ACC teams that should embrace their overall season.
The Cavaliers won the regular season outright and confirmed their superiority by claiming their first ACC tournament championship since 1976. They advanced two rounds in the NCAA and lost a quality regional semifinal to an accomplished opponent.
Picked in preseason to finish 14th, the Tigers placed sixth. They play Southern Methodist on Tuesday in the NIT semifinals, followed by Florida State-Minnesota.
Amid the ACC’s March follies, Virginia Tech, Wake Forest and Boston College bid farewell to coaches James Johnson, Jeff Bzdelik and Steve Donahue, who had combined for no NCAA tournament appearances in 10 seasons.
The Hokies quickly hired Buzz Williams, who guided Marquette to eight NCAA victories in six seasons. The Deacons and Eagles continue to search.
Each new coach will join an ACC with much to prove in 2014-15.
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