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The ACC’s Long Record Of March Excellence

Who is even close to this level of sustained success?

NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament - Sweet 16 - San Francisco
SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA - MARCH 24: AJ Griffin #21 and Theo John #12 of the Duke Blue Devils react against the Texas Tech Red Raiders during the second half in the Sweet Sixteen round game of the 2022 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament at Chase Center on March 24, 2022 in San Francisco, California.
Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

That was close.

We’ve heard ACC men’s basketball is second-rate even before North Carolina, previously the top-rated team nationally, went into a protracted late-November funk, losing four straight, the first three to eventual NCAA entrants. Even when the ACC decisively captured the final Challenge series with the Big Ten, national talk remained discouraged and discouraging.

There was no ACC team that looked to be a national championship contender.

There was no ACC player who stood out as an All-American (Armando Bacot?) or as the obvious choice for the league’s Player of the Year. The anonymously selected award went to Miami guard Isaiah Wong, a solid performer but hardly a luminous presence. Through the ACC Tournament Wong, among the least impressive POYs in the league’s 70-year history, stood eighth in the conference in free throw accuracy (.836), ninth in scoring (16.2-point average) and steals (1.4 per game), 11th in field goal percentage (.453) and 13th in assist average (3.4)..

A third of the ACC’s members posted losing records in ’23, including a miserable 4-28 mark by a proud Louisville program that had yet to prove it belongs in the league. Only three ACC teams were ranked by AP as the regular season concluded, none higher than Duke at 12th. (Virginia was No. 14, Miami No. 16).

Where in 2015 the league boasted loudly of having four Hall of Fame coaches plying its sidelines, by the end of the 2023 season the last of that group, Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim, had stepped down.

All in all, below par by the ACC’s admittedly high standards.

Then the ACC got five of 15 teams in the 2023 NCAA tournament, a normal level of inclusion for the league in this century. Two of those teams, NC State and Virginia, lost their openers. The fourth-seeded Cavaliers, highest rated among the ACC entrants in the NCAAs, went out after a bonehead play by fifth-year player Kihei Clark led to Furman notching one of the great underdog wins of this or any other year.

Then Duke, looking like a bunch of teenagers playing against a squad of grizzled men with elbows honed by roller derby combat, went out against Tennessee after opening with an impressive victory against Oral Roberts. (We heard an echo of Dean Smith shouting “Iturbe!” at Clemson forward Iker Iturbe during the 1995 ACC Tournament after a particularly rough foul).

Pitt, a play-in entrant, did win twice in its first NCAA appearance in seven years before losing decisively in the second round. Oh, and Clemson, arguably snubbed by being left out of the NCAAs altogether, proceeded to drop a home opener in the NIT.

That left Jim Larranaga’s fifth-seeded Miami Hurricanes to either carry the ACC banner forward or whiff on the last chance to keep alive the league’s run of 43 straight years with at least one team in the Sweet 16. Think about that: 43 years.

“The ACC needs to be well-represented today, and we did,” said “Coach L” after his Canes ran a ponderous Indiana team off the court in the second round. Wong had a game-high 27 points. A loss would have been cited, and reasonably so, as conclusive proof the ACC was down in 2023.

Instead, the ACC extended its unmatched string of placing at least one team in the NCAA regional semifinals every year since 1980. (Multiple entrants from the same league were included in NCAA fields starting in 1975.) Five ACC squads reached the Sweet 16 as recently as 2019, four in 2018. From 1980 through 2008 the ACC advanced at least a pair of teams to every Sweet 16.

From ’75 through 2022 the ACC sent 38 teams to the Final Four, with another 13 making it to the Elite 8. Last year was the seventh with a pair of ACC squads in the Final Four.

Overall 51 ACC teams reached the regional finals or beyond over the past 47 years, and counting.

No wonder the measure of ACC excellence is so high.

Number of ACC Teams Per Year in Sweet 16 and Percent of Membership
(Since Multiple Entrants Allowed From Same League)
6 2016 (40.0)
5 2019 (33.3), 2015 (33.3)
4 2018 (26.7), 1995 (44.4), 1993 (44.4), 1992 (44.4), 1990 (50.0), 1989 (50.0), 1986 (50.0), 1985 (50.0)
3 2011 (33.3), 2005 (27.3), 2004 (33.3), 1998 (33.3), 1983 (37.5)
2 2021 (13.3), 2013 (13.3), 2012 (16.7), 2009 (16.7), 2006 (16.7), 2003 (22.2), 2002 (22.2), 2001 (22.2), 2000 (22.2), 1999 (22.2), 1997 (22.2), 1996 (22.2), 1994 (22.2), 1991 (25.0), 1988 (25.0), 1987 (25.0), 1984 (25.0), 1981 (25.0), 1980 (25.0), 1977 (28.6), 1975 (28.6)
1 2023 (06.7), 2017 (06.7), 2014 (06.7), 2010 (08.3), 2008 (08.3), 2007 (08.3), 1982 (12.5), 1978 (14.3)
0 1979 (00.0), 1976 (00.0)