For the second season in a row, it appears that Virginia will not be able to count on the ACC to help build an NCAA Tournament resume. While the Cavaliers have done well in carrying the Atlantic Coast Conference flag with two solid victories over ranked opponents, the rest of the conference has not seen similar success in non-conference play.
As of the publication of this article (before the games on Friday, 11/25), the ACC has a combined record of 6-12 against major opponents in the conference. The bottom half of the ACC was particularly weak, as the bottom seven teams in the conference were going 0-9 against major conference foes. Even the Carolina Blue Bloods didn’t look as dominant as they were told.
North Carolina entered the season as a consensus preseason favorite to win the national title and the #1 preseason team in the nation by an overwhelming majority. Yes, the Tar Heels are 5-0, but they’ve barely won those five games in first-team fashion. UNC gave up 86 points to Charleston, beat Gardner-Webb by just six, and were upset by Portland in the quarterfinals of the Phil Knight Invitational, escaping with an 89-81 win in a game UNC would have preferred to win by 14 points. There will be opportunities for the Tar Heels to prove themselves the rest of this week, as a win in the Invitational would mean wins over Iowa State and another major opponent in the conference – either No. 20 UConn, No. 12 Michigan State, or No. 1 Michigan State. 18 Alabama. But so far, North Carolina has never looked at a team that finished last season as runner-up nationally.
Duke was also far from perfect for starting the Jon Scheyer era. The Blue Devils are 5-1, the only defeat being a respectable loss for Kansas. Duke earned blowout wins over Jacksonville, South North Carolina, Delaware, and Bellarmine, then narrowly avoided an upset bid by Oregon State, winning 54-51 in the Phil Knight Legacy Tournament. If the Blue Devils can get past Xavier in the semi-finals, they can get a date with Gonzaga in the finals. It could also be Purdue or West Virginia, so this game should be a chance to win big no matter what. But for now, Duke looks vulnerable.
In addition to UNC and UVA, Notre Dame is the third and last remaining undefeated ACC team—but the wins are far from impressive. The Fighting Irish have defeated Radford, Youngstown State, Southern Indiana, Lipscomb, and Bowling Green and three of those five victories have come in single figures.
NC State has been good so far, going 5-1 with a lone loss by just six points to Kansas and the Wolfpack pulling off a solid 74-64 win over Dayton. The same can be said of Miami, which beat Providence but lost to Maryland by 18 points. Clemson is 4-1, with wins over Citadel, South Carolina Upstate, Bellarmine, and Loyola and a loss at South Carolina.
Many ACC teams have suffered more than their fair share of nasty and sometimes embarrassing losses. Virginia Tech lost in Charleston. Wake Forest suffered a shock overtime loss to Loyola Marymount. Boston College had a pair of bad losses to Maine and Tarleton. Georgia Tech went 3-2, losing both of its major conference games against Utah and Marquette. Syracuse lost to St. John’s in overtime and was upset by Colgate. Pittsburgh suffered three straight losses to West Virginia, Michigan, and VCU and the Panthers were blown away by losses to West Virginia and Michigan.
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Florida State and Louisville are locked in a battle for the coveted spot as the worst team in the ACC. The Seminoles are 1-5, with their only win coming against Mercer. FSU lost to Stetson, UCF, Troy, Florida, and Siena. Florida State was selected to finish fifth in the ACC.
Kenny Payne took over Louisville’s program at a very difficult time and this season has always been a challenge for the Cardinals, but no one expected things to be this bad. Louisville started the season with consecutive losses by one point to Bellarmine, Wright State, and Appalachian State. Those losses were painful, but the three losses the Cards have suffered since then have been much worse, losing 26 points to Arkansas, 32 to Texas Tech, and 21 to Cincinnati. Louisville was favored to win only four of its remaining 25 games.
So how does this affect Virginia? Non-conference play determines what the college basketball world thinks about each conference. We’ve seen the negative impact a conference that performed poorly early in the season can have on its member teams’ chances of reaching the NCAA tournament last season. In many years throughout history, the ACC has had 8-10 teams make it to the NCAA Tournament. But last season, the ACC underperformed in non-conference play, so the entire conference was labeled weak or “weak” for the rest of the season, even as several teams like Wake Forest and Virginia put in decent performances in ACC play. The result was that only five ACC teams—Duke, North Carolina, Miami, Notre Dame, and Virginia Tech—earned selections to the NCAA Tournament. Wake Forest did not make March Madness despite winning 21 regular season games.
The reality of the ACC’s strength last season showed itself in the NCAA Tournament, where three ACC teams reached the Elite Eight and two teams made it to the Final Four. But, non-conference play largely determines the conference selection order in any given college basketball season. There is still plenty of time for the ACC to improve its position. But right now, no individual ACC team like Virginia should expect to rely on its conference to help build an NCAA tournament-worthy resume.
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