For the second season in a row, it appears Virginia won’t be able to depend on the ACC to build its NCAA Tournament resume. While the Cavaliers have done well to carry the Atlantic Coast Conference flag by picking up two strong wins against ranked opponents, the rest of the conference has not had similar success in non-conference play.
As of this article’s publication (prior to Friday’s 11/25 games), the ACC has a combined record of 6-12 against major conference opponents. The bottom half of the ACC was particularly poor, with the conference’s bottom seven teams going 0-9 against major conference foes. The Carolina Blue Bloods also didn’t look as dominant as they should have been.
North Carolina entered the season as the consensus preseason favorite to win the national title and the #1 preseason team in the country by a landslide. Yes, the Tar Heels are 5-0, but they hardly won those five games as a No. 1 team. UNC surrendered 86 points to Charleston, edged Gardner-Webb by just six, and was nearly upset by Portland in the quarterfinals of the Phil Knight Invitational, managing an 89-81 win in a game that UNC was a 14-point favorite. There will be chances for the Tar Heels to prove themselves the rest of this week, as winning the Invitational will mean a win over Iowa State and another top conference opponent: the no. 20 UConn, the no. 18 Alabama. But so far, North Carolina looked nothing like the team that finished runners-up last season.
Duke was also less than perfect to start the Jon Scheyer era. The Blue Devils are 5-1, their only loss being a respectable loss to Kansas. Duke had explosive wins over Jacksonville, Upstate South Carolina, Delaware and Bellarmine, and then narrowly avoided an upset bid from Oregon State, winning 54-51 in the Phil Knight Legacy Tournament. If the Blue Devils can get past Xavier in the semis, they could have a date with Gonzaga in the finals. It might as well be Purdue or West Virginia, so that game should be an opportunity for a major win no matter what. But for now, Duke looks vulnerable.
Other than UNC and UVA, Notre Dame is the third and final undefeated ACC team, but the victories are less than impressive. The Fighting Irish beat Radford, Youngstown State, Southern Indiana, Lipscomb and Bowling Green and three of those five wins came in single digits.
NC State has been decent so far, going 5-1 with their lone loss coming by just six points to Kansas and the Wolfpack notching a solid 74-64 victory over Dayton. The same can be said for Miami, which beat Providence, but lost to Maryland by 18 points. Clemson is 4-1, with wins against Citadel, South Carolina Upstate, Bellarmine and Loyola and a loss to South Carolina.
Several ACC teams have had more than their fair share of nasty, sometimes embarrassing losses. Virginia Tech lost in Charleston. Wake Forest suffered an upset overtime loss to Loyola Marymount. Boston College has a couple of bad losses against Maine and Tarleton. Georgia Tech is 3-2, losing both of its major conference games against Utah and Marquette. Syracuse lost to St. John’s in overtime and were upset by Colgate. Pittsburgh suffered three straight losses to West Virginia, Michigan and VCU and the Panthers were eliminated in losses to West Virginia and Michigan.
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Florida State and Louisville are battling it out for the coveted worst team spot in the ACC. The Seminoles are 1-5, with their lone win coming against Mercer. FSU lost to Stetson, UCF, Troy, Florida and Siena. Florida State was picked to finish fifth in the ACC.
Kenny Payne took the reins of the Louisville program at a very difficult time and this season was always going to be a busy one for the Cardinals, but nobody expected things to get this bad. Louisville began the season with three straight one-point losses to Bellarmine, Wright State, and Appalachian State. Those losses were heartbreaking, but the Cards’ three losses since then have been much worse, losing by 26 points to Arkansas, 32 to Texas Tech and 21 to Cincinnati. Louisville is favorite to win just four of their remaining 25 games.
So how does this affect Virginia? Non-conference play determines what the college basketball world thinks of each conference. We’ve seen the negative impact a conference that performs poorly early in the season can have on its members’ chances of making last season’s NCAA Tournament. Over many years throughout history, the ACC has drawn 8-10 teams in the NCAA Tournament. But last season, the ACC did poorly in non-conference play, so the entire conference was labeled weak or “down” the rest of the season, even as several teams like Wake Forest and Virginia combined decent performances in the ACC game. The result was that only five ACC teams—Duke, North Carolina, Miami, Notre Dame, and Virginia Tech—earned NCAA Tournament selections. Wake Forest did not make March Madness despite winning 21 games in the regular season.
The reality of the ACC’s strength last season manifested itself in the NCAA Tournament, as three ACC teams made the Elite Eight and two advanced to the Final Four. But non-conference play largely determines the pecking order of conferences in any given college basketball season. There is still time for the ACC to improve its position. But right now, any single ACC team like Virginia shouldn’t expect to rely on its conference to help build an NCAA Tournament-worthy resume.
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