The 2016-17 Atlantic Coast Conference is not going to be remembered as “one of the greatest leagues in the history of college basketball.” That preseason question has been answered, and it didn’t even take two weeks of the NCAA tournament for it to happen.
In fact, the ACC’s performance over the first week of the Big Dance was so abysmal that it’s likely to make everyone — or at least everyone who’s sane and not trying to garner attention for work purposes — think twice about making any sort of bold preseason proclamations about conference superiority anytime soon.
The ACC didn’t just lose eight of its nine representatives during the tournament’s opening week, it lost them in overwhelmingly embarrassing fashion.
Here’s the rundown:
—Wake Forest kicked things off with a somewhat understandable, albeit disappointing loss to Kansas State at the First Four in what was deemed by most as something of a toss-up game.
—Virginia Tech was competitive but ultimately lost by 10 to Wisconsin in an 8/9 matchup.
—Miami also squared off against a Big Ten foe in an 8/9 game, but was throttled by Michigan State (78-58) in a game the Hurricanes were favored to win.
—Fifth-seeded Virginia continued its trend of March disappointment with a humiliating 65-39 second-round loss to Florida.
—Fellow five seed Notre Dame also bowed out to a four seed in the second round, as the Irish were surprisingly rattled by West Virginia’s pressure in an 83-71 loss.
—Third-seeded Florida State got rocked by 11th-seeded Xavier, 91-66, in perhaps the most humiliating final score of all of them for the conference.
—Second-seeded Louisville fell to seventh-seeded Michigan by four, and second-seeded Duke fell to seventh-seeded South Carolina by seven.
—Even North Carolina, the only ACC team still standing, didn’t exactly acquit itself well. The Tar Heels were stunningly pushed to the brink by eighth-seeded Arkansas, and if a few questionable calls in the game’s closing minutes hadn’t gone their way, we could be talking about all nine league representatives being axed on week one.
In all, that’s eight losses for the conference in five days, five of them coming against worse seeds (Kansas State was below Virginia Tech on the seed list), five coming by double-digits, and none of them coming in one-possession games.
There’s really no defense here. The ACC can’t go the college football route and claim that their teams were “disinterested” or didn’t have anything to play for. This is the NCAA tournament, not a meaningless bowl game. This is what you spend the whole year building towards, and what ultimately makes or breaks your season.
The ACC was broken last week.
But before anyone dances too feverishly on the grave of the conference, they would be wise to remember the lessons of 2011.
It was in that year that the Big East, discussed all season long in “greatest conference of all time” terms, set the still-standing record for most teams in an NCAA tournament from a single conference. After the tournament’s opening weekend, nine of the Big East’s 11 representatives had been eliminated, and schadenfreude from the rest of the country was at an all-time high. The only problem was that one of those remaining representatives, Connecticut, went on to win the national championship. The Huskies’ run also salvaged (at least partially) the legacy of the 2010-11 Big East, and is the reason why the conference’s performance that year still gets brought up in a mostly positive light.
Now, there are stark differences between Connecticut in 2011 and North Carolina this season. UConn was able to preserve its conference’s reputation in large part because it finished the regular season in ninth-place in the 16-team Big East before winning five games in five days at Madison Square Garden, and then six more in the Big Dance.
North Carolina’s situation is different. The Tar Heels won the ACC’s regular season title by two full games, earned a No. 1 seed for the NCAA tournament, and were one of the betting favorites in Las Vegas heading into last week’s first-round action. If UNC cuts down the nets in Phoenix in a couple of weeks, the narrative is more likely to resemble something along the lines of “at least there was one legitimate team from that otherwise fraudulent conference” than it is “actually, we were right; the ACC was great all along.”
Regardless, Roy Williams’ third national championship seems like the only way for the 2016-17 ACC to save any portion of its face at this point.