The NCAA Tournament is the ultimate test of any conference.
It's the cornerstone of the ACC's claim to be the greatest conference in college basketball history between 1980 and 2005. In those 26 seasons, the ACC won eight national titles (more than any other league), had more Final Four teams, more Sweet 16 teams and more NCAA wins than any other conference - and it wasn't close.
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On, there were single years when the ACC wasn't the best conference, but for the 26 year period we're talking about, the ACC averaged 10.3 NCAA wins a season (with 4.7 losses), 2.8 Sweet 16 teams and as astounding 1.0 Final Four teams. Think about that - over a 26 year period, the ACC provided exactly one-fourth of the Final Four teams.
No other league can approach that level of NCAA success.
Unfortunately, that includes the ACC over the last eight years. Starting in 2006, the ACC has produced two national championship teams, but the yearly tournament averages have dropped to 7.1 wins (and risen to 5.0 losses), 1.6 Sweet 16 teams a year and 0.375 Final Four teams.
Just a few more comparisons to chew on:
-- Between 1980 and 2005, the ACC never had less than two Sweet 16 teams … and had as many as four Sweet 16 teams eight times. Since 2006, the ACC has had three seasons with just one Sweet 16 team and never a year with more than two.
-- Between 1980 and 2005, the ACC never went two years in a row without a Final Four team. Since 2006, the ACC has had a two-year Final Four gap in 2006 and 2007 and is now riding a three-year gap since Duke's appearance in 2010.
Clearly, the ACC has lost its claim as the nation's best basketball conference. What baffles me is how sudden the fall was. In 2004, the ACC won 14 NCAA Tournament games, put three teams in the Sweet 16 and two in the Final Four. A year later, UNC won the national title, helping the ACC to 12 NCAA wins with three Sweet 16 teams.
Then it was over. In 2006, the ACC went 6-4 in NCAA play with two Sweet 16 teams. That was disappointing, but there had been a couple of weak years in the 1980-2005 run. What was unprecedented was to follow the 2006 disappointment with a 7-7 year in 2007 with just one Sweet 16 team for the first time since the NCAA starting allowing more than two teams per conference in the field. That was also the first two-year streak without an ACC Final Four team since 1979-80.
The current three-year streak without a Final Four is the longest for the ACC since 1959-61.
Can the "new" ACC stop the slide this season?
Frankly, I'd be surprised if the ACC produced a Final Four team this season. I know that Virginia is a No. 1 seed and thus has to be considered a Final Four contender (although, as I noted yesterday, less than half the No. 1 seeds this century have reached the Final Four). The oddsmakers give Duke a fighting chance and Syracuse certainly has to be given a chance after last year's run (although Jim Boeheim has never reached back-to-back Final Fours)
The Vegas bookies suggest that the ACC's best Final Four bet is Louisville … and we don't get to count them for almost four more months.
While I'm hoping to be surprised, my real hope is that the ACC can start to rebuild its reputation with some broad-based success. That might have moiré impact in the long run anyway. UNC and Duke had great one-year runs in 2009 and 2010 respectively, but with the rest of the league stumbling in those years the ACC topped out at nine total wins both years - less than our 1980-2005 average.
Here's my benchmark for success:
(1) To get to 10 NCAA wins. The ACC hasn't reached what was the average for the 1980-2005 period in the last eight years. I want 10 wins - and I'm willing to count N.C. State's Tuesday night victory over Xavier in the play-in game to get to that total. Hey, the NCAA counts it as a full NCAA Tournament win, so why shouldn't we?
(2) I want four Sweet 16 teams again for the first time since 1995. While I am pessimistic about putting an ACC team in the Final Four, I think the chances of getting four teams into the Sweet 16 are actually decent. That would be a big boost for the ACC in terms of perception as there would be a three-day tournament layoff between the close of the Round of 32 and Thursday's start-up of the Sweet 16. If the ACC did have four Sweet 16 teams it would be a major topic of conversation on the national talk shows.
What are the chances of achieving those goals? Allow me to handicap the ACC's six NCAA contenders.
-- No. 3 Virginia (28-6, No. 1 seed in the East): Frankly, I'll be shocked if the Cavs don't win two games in Raleigh this weekend. The opener with Coastal Carolina is a given - no 16 seed has even beaten a 1 seed. The second game will either be against a talented, but undisciplined Memphis team or against George Washington from the A-10. If you read my column yesterday, you know the contempt I have for some of the unworthy A-10 teams that were invited to the tournament.
I'm not as optimistic about Virginia's chances in the Sweet 16. I'm not pessimistic either, but I expect the Cavs to face Michigan State in Madison Square Garden. While I don't agree with the ESPN talking heads that that the fourth-seed Spartans should be the pre-tournament favorites, I do think they are a formidable team. Maybe Roy Williams or Mike Krzyzewski, who are a combined 14-1 against Izzo, can give Tony Bennett some tips on how to handle Michigan State. Of course, there is always a chance that Virginia could find Cincinnati and not MSU waiting in New York. That would be a break for the Cavs, but painful for the fans - I would expect a Virginia-Cincinnati game in the 40s.
If Virginia does make it to the Elite Eight, the most likely opponents would be Villanova or Iowa State (with UNC as a long shot here). If the Cavs get this far, I'd like their chances of moving on the Final Four, since the three NCAA wins it would take to get to the regional finals would negate the team's biggest weakness - it's NCAA inexperience.
[Note: I have to correct something I wrote Wednesday. I said no player on this Virginia team had played in the NCAA Tournament. I should have said that none had won an NCAA game. Virginia did make the 2012 NCAA field, losing to Florida in the first round.]
-- No. 8 Duke (26-8, No. 3 seed in the Midwest): I know our psyches were scarred by the 2012 loss to Lehigh in Greensboro. That was a terrible moment for Duke basketball and seems to have diminished the confidence that Blue Devil fans usually had going into early round games.
Obviously, this has been an erratic Duke team, so nothing is impossible, but I'd be very surprised if the Devils didn't get out of Raleigh with two wins. Mercer is a capable first-round (technically, that's second-round) opponent, but it's a team Duke should beat. Waiting in the second round will be either UMass, an A-10 team I do think deserves to be in the tournament, or Tennessee, a powerful, athletic team that is surging late in the season.
The Vols are kind of erratic - within a two-week period in December, Tennessee lost to N.C. State by double digits in Knoxville, then blasted Virginia by 35 in the same building. Tennessee was 16-11 in mud-February, but won five of six games down the stretch before losing a close one to No. 1 Florida in the SEC Tournament.
If Duke has to take on Tennessee in the Round of 32, the Vols' size may be a problem for the Devils - especially Jeronne Maymon and Jarnell Stokes, a pair of 6-8, 260-poumd behemoths who share the post.
Should Duke move on to the Sweet 16 in Indianapolis, I expect to see Michigan waiting in the regional semifinals. That's a team Duke can beat - as the Devils proved on Dec. 3, when the Devils handled the Wolverines fairly easily in a 79-69 victory. Of course, Duke beat Louisville early last season, but lost to the Cards in the rematch in Indy.
This is a very different Michigan team than the one Duke saw. Big man Mitch McGary (who missed the last half of the season with a back injury) was at the top of his game (15 points and 14 rebounds), but Big Ten player of the year Nick Stauskas was hobbled by a bad ankle and scored just four points in 34 minutes. For Duke, Quinn Cook had his best game of the season (24 points, 9 assists), while a slumping Rasheed Sulaimon never got off the bench.
I would consider a Duke-Michigan matchup a true tossup. If the Devils were to advance to the regional finals, I would expect Louisville to be there waiting (certainly not No. 1 seed Wichita State). That would be a tough one for the Devils.
-- No. 14 Syracuse (27-5, No. 3 seed in the South): Even early in the season, when Syracuse was rolling to 25 straight victories, the Orange had a hard time putting teams - even mediocre teams - away. And most of those games were played in the Carrier Dome. And the team that lost five of its last seven games can't be regarded as a lock against anybody.
Still, Syracuse should be able to take out Western Michigan in the opener. That will likely set up a game with Ohio State in the Round of 32. I think the Buckeyes have had some stumbles down the stretch, but did win 25 games and beat some quality opponents, such as winning at Wisconsin and at Iowa. It's a tough, veteran team with a great floor leader in Aaron Craft.
I think it's a tougher game to get to the Sweet 16 than Duke or Virginia will face. Beyond that, the 'Cuse is looking at a possible Sweet 16 game with Kansas.
It's a tough path, but the Syracuse zone is tough for tams to deal with and the Orange have had a lot of experience playing the close, low-scoring games that are prevalent in the tournament. If Kevin Cooney can snap out of his month-long shooting slump, the Orange could go a long way.
-- No. 19 North Carolina (23-8, No. 6 seed in the East): I like North Carolina to take care of Providence in the opener, but the Tar Heels face a tough test against Big 12 Tournament champ Iowa State in the Round of 32.
I read two stories on ESPN about the Cyclones - one listed them as one of the coldest teams going into the tournament … the other listed them as one of the hottest. Looking at the record, I'd have to go with the latter - Iowa State has won eight of its last 10, losing tough road games at Baylor and Kansas State in that stretch. They did win the Big 12 tourney, beating Kansas State, Kansas and Baylor to win the title. The Cyclones have a monster in the middle - Big 12 player of the year Melvin Ejam. And he's surrounded by an experience, athletic lineup.
Of course, North Carolina has demonstrated the ability to play with anybody, so an upset is not farfetched. They play one of the fastest tempos in the country and that's in UNC's favor - Roy loves to play fast. On the other hand, after watching Talib Zanna destroy the Heels in the post in Greensboro, I shudder to think what Ejam will do.
Just one interesting scenario. Iowa State opens with North Carolina Central. The odds of the Eagles winning are long, but an NCCU upset would set up a matchup with the Tar Heels. You think the Eagles would be pumped up for that one?
-- Pittsburgh (25-8, No. 9 seed in the South): Pitt played well in the ACC Tournament, but Lamar Patterson appeared to be bothered by the thumb injury that plagued him midway through the ACC season. His shot, which seemed to be coming back in the last week of the regular season, was off again.
That's significant - Patterson's explosive offensive potential is important to a Panther team that sometimes has trouble making shots. But Pitt plays very good defense and is comfortable tin the slow game that becomes normal in the NCAA Tournament.
I think they are a much better team that Colorado, despite what the seeding says. I'll be surprised if Pitt doesn't win its opening game. But I'll be even more surprised if the Panthers win their second game - almost certainly against Florida, the No. 1 seed in the entire tournament … in a game to be played in Orlando.
-- N.C. State (22-13, No. 12 seed in the Midwest): The Wolfpack will go as far as T.J. Warren can carry them and anybody who saw Danny Manning or Glen Rice carry their teams well past where those teams should have gone has to keep an open mind about N.C. State and St. Louis in today's game in Orlando.
St. Louis looked like a really powerful team for much of the season. For a long time, the Billikens were touted as Wichita State's best win. But the bottom has fallen out for the Billikens. St. Louis has lost four of its last five games, including a dreadful home loss to Duquesne and a first-round knockout from the A-10 Tournament by a very weak St. Bonaventure team.
Vegas sees N.C. State as a three-point underdog against the Billikens … although that's actually less than the 31/2 points the Pack was getting an underdog against Xavier in the opening round.
For the ACC's sake, I hope Warren has one more big game and the Pack survive to face (probably) Louisville in the Round of 32. I don't have a lot of hope of N.C. State reaching the Sweet 16, but one more win would help the ACC's profile.
I realize I'm taking a rather optimistic view of things, but I feel good about Virginia and Duke getting to the Sweet 16. Syracuse has a little tougher path, but the Orange should be favored against Ohio State. I think it's going to be tough for Pitt and/or N.C. State to get past the Round of 32.
That leaves North Carolina as the ACC's best chance to get a fourth teams into the Sweet 16. I think it's going to be tough for the Heels, but I like their chances much more than I do Pitt or N.C. State.
Anyway, I think my goals are reasonable - 10 NCAA wins and four Sweet 16 teams.
If the ACC can put somebody in the Final Four or steal a national championship, that will be a dream scenario.