That was quick.
Three rounds and gone. We had hoped to be pleasantly surprised, but realistically had minimal expectations for the seven ACC men’s teams in the 2021 NCAA tournament. The ACC immediately justified our reservations, going a combined 4-7 in the tournament. Only Florida State and Syracuse won at all, winning twice each to reach the Sweet 16.
Left by the roadside while the parade moved on, the ACC’s fizzle was presaged by what were documented here as 60-year low AP poll rankings during the regular season and by record low tournament seeds for a rightly proud basketball conference.
If it’s any consolation, the Big Ten’s cumulative flop was even more pronounced after placing four teams in the final AP top 10. Eight of its nine entrants failed to reach the Sweet 16. Michigan, like Illinois the league’s No.1 seeds, somewhat redeemed the B1G by reaching the Elite Eight, only to be eliminated by UCLA, an 11th seed.
The ACC’s losing record in the 2021 NCAAs was its first since 1987 and only the fourth since multiple league entrants were allowed in 1975.
Talk about a rapid surge of lows and highs. The ACC’s dismal ’21 showing followed a promising 2020 regular season in which COVID-19 made sure NCAA validation was never realized. That in turn came on the heels of a 2019 NCAA tournament that saw three ACC teams earn No. 1 seeds (Duke, UNC, Virginia) and UVa capture the national championship, the third won by a league team since 2015.
As soon as the ACC men’s participation concluded, the 2021 season was quickly dismissed in these parts. Before we turn away, though, at least for a few months, captivated though we are by pro day football workouts let’s circle back to see how several trends and statistical quirks we noted during the regular season turned out:
- Virginia set an ACC record for team free throw accuracy, making 81.6 percent. The previous high, 80.0 percent, was set in 2017 by Notre Dame. Syracuse likewise easily shattered a school mark set in 1984, making 78.2 percent of its foul shots. Notably, a single player from either of those teams, Orange forward Marek Dolezaj, qualified for top-10 official free throw leadership (minimum 2.5 FTM per game).
- Former Duke player Jordan Goldwire, now shopping a last year of eligibility in the transfer portal, had one more steal (54) than he hit field goals (53) on the season. That statistical, defense-oriented rarity placed him in elite Blue Devil company with Steve Wojciechowski (newly replaced as head coach at Marquette by Shaka Smart) and Tyler Thornton. No other ACC player matched this anomalous stat profile.
- North Carolina improved its team field goal percentage to .439. Where it once was on pace to match the team’s low from the ACC’s very earliest days, UNC wound up missing at the worst rate only since 2003, the year prior to Roy Williams’ arrival as head coach at Chapel Hill. Meanwhile the Tar Heels hit .318 from the bonusphere, worst at the school since the shot went into effect in 1987.
- Duke failed to sustain its habitual edge at the foul line. Opponents made 69 more free throws than the Blue Devils, and attempted 90 more.
- Matthew Hurt edged Buddy Boeheim for the ACC season lead in scoring at 18.29 points per game. Hurt became the second Blue Devil in three years to pace the conference in scoring, after RJ Barrett in 2019. His was also the lowest point average ever by a Duke player to top the ACC, below the 18.5 registered by forward Gene Banks in 1981, Mike Krzyzewski’s maiden season as head coach.
- Aamir Simms and Clemson were at the other end of the scoring spectrum. The 6-8 senior forward averaged 13.4 points in 2021; he was the sole double-figure scorer among the Tigers. Clemson was the ninth ACC team since 2010 that had a single scorer contributing at least 10 points per outing.
- Clemson, which tends to start seasons strong and finish weak, went 6-4 over its last 10 games in 2021. That tied for the second-best, late-season ending the Tigers mounted since 2011. Three of those four late ’21 defeats came as the season concluded, with customarily quick exits in the ACC and NCAA tournaments.
- The limited and unequal number of games in 2021 probably distorted the ability to post a winning road record in conference play. Only three teams – Virginia (6-3), NC State (5-4) and Louisville (4-3) – finished on the positive side of the ledger. That compares with five in 2020, six in 2019, and four in 2018.