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A Wild And Crazy - But Historically Great - Season For The ACC

The ACC could be headed for one of the greatest conference seasons of all time.

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NCAA Basketball: Duke at Notre Dame
Jan 30, 2017; South Bend, IN, USA; Duke Blue Devils guard Matt Jones (13) guard Grayson Allen (3) and forward Amile Jefferson (21) take the court in the first half against the Duke Blue Devils at the Purcell Pavilion. Duke won 84-74. 
Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Buzz Williams was asked Monday to compare the 2017 ACC with the 2011 Big East.

The Virginia Tech coach – who coached at Marquette six seasons ago when the Warriors were one of 11 Big East teams to receive an NCAA bid – was reluctant to compare the two conferences.

“I don’t know if it’s a fair comparison,” he said. The game is played differently now, even six years later.”

But he did point out that the ACC is a MUCH more balanced league than the 2011 Big East, which had five very weak teams at the bottom.

“This league has no bottom,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino, who was also a Big East coach in 2011, said, pointing out that the so-called “bottom teams” Boston College, Wake Forest and (especially) Georgia Tech are stronger than anyone imagined.

The comparison is fruitless anyway. The 2011 Big East might have set a record with 11 NCAA bids, but that doesn’t make it the strongest conference ever. Yes, it got 11 bids and ninth-place UConn (just 9-9 in conference play) won the national title. But the league was very weak at the bottom and overall, did not do well in the NCAA Tournament – nine of those 11 teams lost on the first weekend – just UConn and Williams’ Marquette team reached the Sweet 16.

Measure a conference by NCAA performance and the ACC is coming off the greatest two-year postseason run in history – and it’s not even close. In the last two seasons, the ACC has a national champ, three Final Four teams, seven Elite Eight teams, 11 Sweet 16 teams and 36 NCAA wins (no other conference has better than 28 wins in a two-year span).

Does than made the ACC 2015-16 the strongest in history?

I would argue no, simply because of numbers.

The ACC is a 15-team league. The 2011 Big East was a 16-team league.

Put it this way – by getting 11 of 16 teams in the NCAA Tournament, the 2011 Big East put 68.75 percent of its conference membership into the tournament.

That’s good, but four times (1986, 1987, 1989, 1991) the eight-team ACC put six teams in the tournament – 75 percent.

The 11-team NIT horde combined to win 13 NCAA games in 2011 … with 10 losses. The six-team ACC contingent in 1986 managed to win the same 13 games … with just six losses. The six-team ACC entry in 1991 finished 13-5 … with Duke winning the national title.

So what was the strongest conference ever?

You COULD argue for the 1986 Big East, which put three teams in the Final Four – all three beating ACC contenders in regional championship games. But while the Big East was very strong at the top that year, it was not very deep – only the top three teams were ranked and a third of the nine-team league finished before .500 overall.

That season is very similar to the ACC’s 1974 season – three of the top five teams in the country (including national champ N.C. State), but the other four teams in the seven-team league all had losing seasons.

No, I think I would argue that the strongest conference season ever was the 1984 ACC. How about this: The 1984 ACC did not have a team with a losing record!

Seven of the eight teams in the league that season were ranked at some point – four (half the league) finished in the final poll (all in the top 19) – including No. 1 North Carolina. The Tar Heels dominated the regular season with national player of the year Michael Jordan, first-team All-American Sam Perkins and future No. 1 NBA draft pick Brad Daugherty.

Maryland ended up winning the tournament behind Len Bias with Adrian Branch, Herman Veal and Keith Gatlin in support, beating Coach K’s first strong team – essentially a younger version of the team that would win 37 games and play in the NCAA title game two years later.

Bobby Cremins had his first great team at Georgia Tech with Mark Price and John Salley as sophomores. Even last place Clemson – 14-14 overall – boasted future NBA standout Horace Grant, who teamed with Raymond Jones in a powerful post combo. The Tigers beat such strong teams as Marquette, Vanderbilt, Baylor and South Carolina – twice. They were good enough to upset Duke in Cameron.

And THAT was the worst team in the league that season.

The depth of the ACC was demonstrated in the NCAA Tournament. UNC, still reeling from the wrist injury that limited freshman point guard Kenny Smith was famously upset by Indiana in the Sweet 16. But Wake Forest – just 7-7 in ACC play – knocked off No. 1 seed DePaul in the Sweet 16, then took Houston (with Akeem Olajuwon and the rest of Phi Slamma Jamma) to the wire in the regional championship game.

Virginia – a mere 6-8 in ACC play – did even better. The Cavs beat Iona, Arkansas and Syracuse to reach the South title game, where the Cavs – in the year after Ralph Sampson’s graduation – upset the Indiana team that had upset No. 1 UNC.

Virginia went to the Final Four, where the Cavs lost to Houston in overtime.

It’s hard to imagine a better season.

THE ACC BIDS FOR GREATNESS

As Buzz Williams suggested, it’s impossible to compare conferences across different eras – and it’s clear that it was a different world in 1984 than in 2017.

So forget comparisons and just marvel at the madness and magnitude of the 2017 ACC.

We see it almost every game day. Has there ever been a season more unpredictable?

For instance, Georgia Tech opens the ACC season by upsetting North Carolina, then loses to Duke by 53 points. After a home loss to Louisville, the Jackets – predicted to finish 14th in the ACC preseason poll, proceed to win four of six games, including victories over ACC contenders Florida State and Notre Dame.

Or take Pitt, which opened ACC strong – losing to Notre Dame in overtime, then beating Virginia in overtime … then losing seven straight, including a 55-point homecourt loss to Louisville. But just when it looks like the Panthers are about to wither and die, they go t Chapel Hill and take first-place UNC to the wire.

Pitt’s 55-point loss to the Cards is the most lopsided homecourt loss in ACC history. But it’s just one of three 50-point ACC wins this season … and the ACC hasn’t had a 50-point conference game since 1965!

The victims of those 50 point games are not patsies – N.C. State , a 51-point loser to UNC, has a win at Duke. Pitt, as noted, has a victory over Virginia. Georgia Tech, as noted, has a 53-point loss to Duke, but victories over UNC, FSU and Notre Dame.

You could go nuts measuring comparative scores – Duke beats Georgia Tech by 53 in Cameron … Georgia Tech wins at N.C. State … State wins at Duke. N.C. State blows out Virginia Tech by 26 points, loses at Boston College, then Virginia Tech takes care of the Eagles.

Halfway through the conference season, there are 10 teams within two games (in the loss column) of the lead in the conference.

More importantly, there are still 14 ACC teams with reasonable NCAA Tournament dreams.

Now, there’s no way than 14 (or even 11) ACC teams will get bids, but at this point, only Boston College is clearly out of the running.

Looking at the other 14 teams in the RPI, you get some interesting breakdowns.

-Six teams are as close to being an NCAA lock as a team could be with a month left in the season. No. 4 Louisville, No. 7 North Carolina, No. 10 Florida State, No. 13 Virginia, No. 15 Duke and No. 25 Notre Dame all have both the record and the RPI rank to earn a bid. Add Virginia Tech (16-5 and No. 37 in the RPI) as a team that has strong credentials.

But that’s just seven teams. There are seven more teams that have EITHER strong RPIs or good records … but not both.

Understand that as a rule of thumb, No. 44 is usually the RPI cutoff line for at large teams. Of course, it’s not as simple as that, but most teams below that line get in, while only a few above that line make the field every year.

Right now, nine ACC teams are below that line – the seven I mentioned, plus No. 29 Wake Forest and No. 40 Clemson. [Note: Rankings are before last night’s games]

The problem for the Deacs and the Tigers is that – as of the moment – they are struggling to compile NCAA-worthy records.

Clemson is 12-8 and 2-6 in the ACC. The ACC record doesn’t really matter – as the Tigers found out last season when a 10-8 Tiger team was passed over for 9-9 Syracuse. But since Clemson finishes its season against ACC teams, the league record will matter for its impact on the team’s overall record.

If Clemson could get to 9-9 in the ACC this season, that would be 19-11 going into the ACC Tournament. With a strong non-conference performance (which translates into a strong RPI) Clemson could make it. But worse than 9-9? It’s going to be though, even with a solid RPI.

Wake Forest is in the same position. That RPI – a reflection of an impressive non-conference performance -- gives the Deacs a chance, but a 4-6 ACC record – with three home losses so far – will make it tough to get to 9-9 … and 9-9 in the ACC is only 18-12 overall.

Then there are teams with the opposite problem.

Georgia Tech is surging with a 5-4 ACC record that includes three top 25 wins, and 13 wins overall. But the Jackets played a weak non-conference slate (including an upcoming game with Division II Tusculum) and didn’t do that well – hence an RPI of 61. I doubt that 9-9 in the ACC will be enough for this Tech team.

Miami (No. 59 RPI) and N.C. State (No. 60 RPI) s in much the same situation, So is Pitt, although the Panthers appear to be in free fall at the moment – despite the strong showing Tuesday night in a loss to UNC.

The most interesting case in the ACC is Syracuse, which goes into tonight’s game at N.C. State as the only team in the power six conferences than has not won a game away from home (either road or neutral). But the Orange have won all five ACC home games and are 13-9 overall A year ago, Syracuse was 13-8 before winning five straight.

The Orange was 19-13 on Selection Sunday last season (9-10 in the ACC after a tournament loss to Pitt) and No. 68 in the RPI. Many observers were surprised when the Orange got a bid … then even more surprised when Jim Boeheim’s team made a run to the Final Four.

There are those in upstate New York who are dreaming of a similar scenario. I think that’s unlikely – Syracuse’s overall strength of schedule is not quite as good and that failure to win away from home hurts. To sneak in the field again, the Orange must continue to hold serve at home (with Virginia, Louisville and Duke all coming to the Dome) while stealing at least a couple away from home.

Right now, Syracuse is a dreadful 90 in the RPI, but that’s actually 30 points higher than they were a week ago.

So, Boeheim has a lot of work to do, but it’s not impossible.

As of Tuesday’s Bracketology, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has 10 ACC teams in the field – he’s giving the benefit of the doubt to Clemson and Miami, while he had Wake Forest as the last team in.

To me, the true measure of the conference will not be how many ACC teams end up making the field, but how well the ACC teams that do get in perform. Just six ACC teams got in in 2015, but they won 17 NCAA games, producing three Elite Eight teams and five Sweet 16 teams. Last season, seven teams got bids, but they combined for a record 19 NCAA wins, including two Final Four teams, four Elite Eight teams and six Sweet 16 teams.

THAT is the true measure of a conference.

The ACC has put itself in position to have one of the great seasons – if not THE greatest season – of any conference in the modern era. But wait and see what happens in March before anybody raises a banner.

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