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Thursday, March 23, 2023

Teel: Blip or trend? ACC men’s basketball ending second consecutive trying season

David Teel

When your storied conference loses 16 of 20 games against ranked non-league opponents, spin options are limited.

But that hasn’t deterred ACC men’s basketball coaches this season from discounting results that may sentence the conference to a relative pittance of NCAA Tournament teams.

Before delving into the weeds, an acknowledgment: NCAA bids are not the sole measure of a league’s strength. In 2014, for example, only three of the SEC’s 14 squads made the field, but Kentucky, Florida and Tennessee combined to win 12 tournament games, with the Wildcats and Gators reaching the Final Four and the Volunteers making the Sweet 16.

Conversely, nine of the ACC’s 15 teams earned bids in 2017, and North Carolina won the national championship. But the other eight lost in either the first or second round.

Back to this season, when the aforementioned 4-16 record versus top-25 nonconference teams flatlined the ACC’s rankings and may well limit the league to 4-6 NCAA bids. Indeed, Duke is the conference’s only presence among the top 35 in the NET ratings used by the NCAA Tournament selection committee.

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That top 35 also includes seven teams from the Big Ten, six from the SEC, five each from the Big 12 and Big East and three from the Pac-12.

The weekly Associated Press poll is irrelevant to postseason selection, but the following nugget is jarring nonetheless: With Duke the ACC’s lone top-25 representative since November, this almost certainly will be the first regular season since 1966-67, when the poll included only 10 teams, in which no ACC game matches ranked opponents.

On media Zooms each of the past seven Mondays, the conference’s coaches, some more than others, have rationalized the data. Losing quality players to the NBA, graduation and transfer portal, they said, created a steep learning curve and contributed to the early season issues.

“To me the best teachers are not the ones that give you a final grade at the beginning of the semester,” Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski said. “My feeling is if I didn’t do well on an exam early but by the end I really got it, then I should still have a chance to get an A. … Same thing with a basketball team.”

Fair enough. But does anyone believe player attrition is unique to the ACC?

Like the ACC, the SEC returned only four of the 16 players who made its all-conference teams last season. Moreover, NBA teams drafted 12 SEC players, five more than the ACC.

The one high-major league that welcomed back considerable riches was the Big Ten, with three first-team all-conference selections and its entire five-man All-Freshman squad. That collection includes 2021-22 headliners such as Purdue’s Jaden Ivey and Zach Edey, Ohio State’s EJ Liddell and Illinois’ Kofi Cockburn.

The transfer portal? Yes, losing the likes of Walker Kessler (North Carolina to Auburn) and Quincy Guerrier (Syracuse to Oregon) damaged the ACC. But incoming transfers such as Alondes Williams (Oklahoma to Wake Forest), Brady Manek (Oklahoma to UNC) and Charlie Moore (DePaul to Miami) became immediate assets.

Yet KenPom.com rates the ACC sixth among the nation’s 32 conferences, behind the Big 12, SEC, Big Ten, Big East and Pac-12. In 21 previous seasons of KenPom rankings, the ACC has finished that low only once, sixth in 2013.

That season coincides with the last time only four ACC teams reached the NCAA Tournament. But the league had only 12 schools then. Since expanding to 15 basketball members the following year, the ACC has averaged seven NCAA bids, with never fewer than six representatives.

Most extraordinary: In the 2014-19 tournaments, ACC teams went 80-41 as Duke, North Carolina and Virginia won national championships.

Then came last year, when seven ACC squads went 4-7 in the NCAA Tournament, the league’s first losing tournament record since 1987. This after a regular season in which the ACC lost 10 of 12 contests against ranked nonconference opponents.

Yes, the ACC merits applause for having a .500 or better record in an unrivaled 32 consecutive NCAA Tournaments. But the trend line is not good.

Over the last two regular seasons, ACC teams are 6-26 versus outside ranked competition. The league was 28-29 in such games the previous three seasons combined.

The whims of March teach us that the league could rediscover its postseason mojo this year. But six NCAA bids, let alone the norm of seven or more, may be a stretch.

You can bank on Duke, with Notre Dame, Miami and Wake Forest well-positioned. That’s four.

Virginia and North Carolina improved their profiles with Saturday wins at Miami and Virginia Tech, respectively. Thought No. 41 on the NET and No. 22 in ESPN’s Basketball Power Index, the Hokies lack a signature victory.

(To be fair, after completing a regular-season sweep of Miami in late January, Florida State was poised for its fifth NCAA appearance. But subsequent consecutive injuries decimated the Seminoles, who are 1-7 since.)

So are the last two seasons an anomaly? Signs of deeper systemic issues?

Leave it to the dean of college basketball coaches, a Hall of Famer who’s worked in the Big East and ACC, to be blunt.

“It’s pretty simple,” Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim said. “You get better players, you win more games and that makes the league better, in whatever sport you’re in. The teams in our league from a football and basketball perspective have enough resources to win.

“It really comes down on the coaches. … We had a down year or two in the Big East, and that was the only message I ever got from [commissioner] Mike Tranghese: Get better players and win.”

David Teel reports for the Richmond Times-Dispatch.


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