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In Defense of the ACC

Why a poor NCAA tournament showing isn’t an accurate reflection of the conference

NCAA Basketball: ACC Conference Tournament Final-Notre Dame vs Duke Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

Author’s Note: Thanks to Riley, Ned, Grumpy, and the rest of the BSD staff for their contributions to this article. Many of the points in this article were their ideas that I took and expanded upon.

For the Atlantic Coast Conference, college basketball season began with very high expectations and the clear title favorite in the Duke Blue Devils. Duke was number one in almost every preseason poll, and North Carolina was consistently in the top five, coming off of a loss to Villanova in the NCAA Championship game.

The conference had just come off of a season in which it saw four of its teams advance to the Elite Eight and two of its team advance to the Final Four.

Now that the Final Four is here one year later, many writers are calling the ACC a failure and don’t consider it one of the best conferences in the nation. Only North Carolina has advanced to the Final Four, and in fact the Heels were the only ACC team to make it out of the Round of 32. They are using this fact to claim that the ACC has been a bust and claim that the conference is one of the weakest in the Power 5.

I don’t buy that argument, and Riley called it lazy journalism to call the ACC overrated, a statement which I completely agree with.

For one thing, the NCAA Tournament is a very small sample size that is full of upsets every single year. It’s a limited event where any given team can have a bad night and be knocked out. Don’t get me wrong-March Madness is my absolute favorite sporting event and I think it’s one of the best systems for determining a champion in all of sports, but it cannot be used to compare conferences.

The ACC clearly was not overrated, and should be considered as one of the top two conferences in college basketball.

While Duke did not live up to their preseason number one ranking-thanks in large part to a myriad of injuries to five star freshmen Jayson Tatum, Harry Giles, and Marques Bolden, as well as Amile Jefferson and Grayson Allen, North Carolina has still emerged as the odds-on favorite for the title this weekend in Phoenix.

Take a look at the conference standings below:

The above standings show the depth of the conference, with ten teams finishing with a .500 or better record in conference and Georgia Tech finishing just one game below .500. Overall, all but the bottom three teams finished with records above .500.

Combined with performances in the conference tournament, this was good enough to get nine teams into the NCAA Tournament, and three teams into the NIT Tournament. Therefore, all but three of the conference’s teams received a post-season bid, and the nine teams the ACC had in the NCAA were by far the most of any conference this season and the most overall since the Big East had ten teams in 2011.

Josh Pastner’s Georgia Tech team was expected by many journalists not to win a single conference game, yet he led them to an 8-10 record in conference and made them a bubble team for the NCAA Tournament. They also advanced to the NIT title game as a 6 seed, before falling to TCU in the championship game.

Wake Forest was projected to finish 13th in the conference, but John Collins put the team on his back and led them to a 9-9 record in the conference and the school’s first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2010. The ACC is such a competitive conference that the 9-9 record was good for a 10th place finish and an 8-10 record was good for 11th. In any other conference, both Wake Forest and Georgia Tech would have had much better records and been almost certain locks for the NCAA Tournament.

If these stats don’t pop out at you, consider the fact that the ACC consistently had at least five, and at times up to seven, teams ranked in the AP Top 25 every single week. While some of these votes are self-fulfilling prophecies based on brand-name recognition from the national media, it still demonstrates how deep the conference was.

Below is a look at some further metrics:

While the records against the AP and USA Today Top 25 polls do not look great for most of these teams, it must be pointed out that almost all of the losses in these categories were against fellow conference opponents who were also ranked.

The fact that almost every team, including some of the traditional powerhouses like Duke and Louisville had records of .500 or worse on the road shows just how strong the conference was from top to bottom, and just how difficult it was to win on the road in the conference this year.

Which takes me back to the NCAA Tournament argument. It is a single game elimination tournament, which again I think is a terrible metric to use to measure conferences against one another. This small sample size just doesn’t cut it.

Below are a list of KenPom ratings for each of the Power5 conferences, plus the two other conferences with teams in the Final Four:

Here at BloggerSoDear, we use KenPom as our preferred metric for college basketball rankings. As you can see above, the ACC was second in KenPom behind only the Big 12.

For all of the banter about how bad the ACC was in the tournament, the ACC at least has a team in the Final Four, while the Big 12 has none. The Big 12 and ACC both had just one team in the Elite Eight, and while yes the ACC only had one team in the Sweet Sixteen and the Big 12 had three, the Big 12 really hasn’t done any better than the ACC.

If we go by KenPom ratings by conference, nobody can really say that the ACC is overrated and flopped in the tournament. While the expected win total was likely not what would be expected overall in the NCAA Tournament, using that as the sole determination as to how good a conference is doesn’t make the most sense.

One last point is that the ACC boasts four Hall of Fame coaches in Mike Krzyzewski of Duke , Roy Williams of North Carolina, Joe Boeheim of Syracuse, and Rick Pitino of Louisville. There are also many coaches who are obviously below Hall of Fame status, but have experienced a lot of success as well. Mike Brey has done wonders at Notre Dame, Jim Larranaga took mid-major George Mason to the Final Four in 2006 and has resurrected the Miami program, Leonard Hamilton has led Florida State to some of its best seasons in school history, and Tony Bennett has turned Virginia into a national contender seemingly every year. Then there are the younger coaches who are up and coming and getting their programs headed in the right direction in Buzz Williams at Virginia Tech, Josh Pastner at Georgia Tech, and Danny Manning at Wake Forest.

No other conference can boast that it has four Hall of Fame coaches, and many others who are well on their way.

In summary, most of the ACC may have lost earlier than expected in the NCAA Tournament, but that is only a small sample of what the greatest conference in college basketball is capable of. In looking at the metrics-there are many more which I didn’t include-the Atlantic Coast Conference is still one of the two best in the NCAA, and is poised to be just as strong going forward.

Thank you as always for reading and allowing me to defend the honor of the Atlantic Coast Conference.