Just one year after tying the record for most teams in the Sweet 16, the ACC one-upped itself at the 2016 NCAA tournament and has six — count ’em six — schools that survived the gauntlet of the first weekend to make the regional semifinals. (The 2015 ACC and 2009 Big East both sent five teams.)
Think about that for a second. Six of 16. That’s 37.5% of teams that remain. There’s a completely reasonable, though clearly unlikely, chance of an All-ACC Final Four. And it’s all the more impressive given that the ACC started the week with seven teams, meaning that the longtime basketball powerhouse (with some new faces this time around) is a gaudy 12-1 thus far through the tournament. (Pitt lost its opening game but actually had a chance to take the lead with five seconds left.) Consider this: The Pac 12 also sent seven teams and had a 2-6 mark before tip-off of the Oregon-St. Joe’s game late Sunday night. A loss by the Ducks would mean a Pac 12 shutout in the Sweet 16. A win gives them just one squad and a 3-6 record in the opening rounds.
Most impressive about the ACC’s lineup is that no team really weaseled its way into the regionals. Four teams to hold seed in a tournament full of upsets. The other two teams survived tough opening games, then took advantage of good second-round matchups to advance. (Hey, you can say that Notre Dame had it easy by playing Stephen F. Austin, but try telling West Virginia that. It’s whatever gets you there.)
Still remaining are No. 1 North Carolina, No. 1 Virginia, No. 3 Miami, No. 4 Duke, No. 6 Notre Dame and No. 10 Syracuse. Six teams spread through four regions, with two possible Elite Eight matchups and the aforementioned sliver of a chance for the first-ever Final Four made up of four teams from the same conference.
It’s not that much of a long shot either. UNC and Virginia and the favorites going away to win the East and South, respectively. If UNC fails, then Notre Dame would have a 1-in-3 chance to win the East. Even Syracuse, a team that didn’t belong in the tournament but has made good on the selection committee’s kindness, plays No. 11 Gonzaga in Chicago and then could play a UVA team it lost to by eight points on the road back in Jaunary.
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On the other side of the draw, Miami will have its hands full with Villanova in the South semis and either Kansas or former ACCer Maryland in the finals, but Jim Larranaga has done this before and with a team with far less talent. In the West, I picked, and continue to pick, Oklahoma to make it out of the bracket, but they might have to go through, oh, just the defending national champion/officiating favorite Duke Blue Devils. Everywhere you look, there’s an ACC team with a viable shot at the Final Four.
So let’s put this into context. How good is six of 16, really? Hasn’t expansion diluted the conferences so much that most conferences have a dozen teams or more and the 15-team ACC almost has as many teams as the NFC? Obviously the sheer number of teams would make six, or even seven, Sweet 16 teams an inevitability, right?
But that’s not really the case. First off, the depth of the conference doesn’t matter when the tournament begins. The field is capped at 68, so the ACC could have 40 teams but if only seven are getting in, then it’s the same as an eight-team conference sending seven teams. Secondly, you could argue (and I do) that the more teams you get from a conference, there’s a higher likelihood a majortity of those teams lean mediocre.
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Take the 2011 Big East, which sent a record 11 schools to the tournament. Instead of having a bunch of great teams with a few bubble dwellers, the Big East was a mishmash of mediocrity – a very-good Pitt team at the top and then a bunch of teams that went between 9-9 or 13-5 in a deep conference with some awful bottom-dwellers. In that particular case, depth wasn’t a good thing. Decent teams were beating other decent teams in a type of basketball socialism and this was getting confused as power rather than parity. True, one of those teams, Connecticut, won one of the more improbable titles in history that year, but do you remember how many other schools, including UConn, that the 11-team Big East got into the Sweet 16 back in 2011?
Long story short: Six is crazy and the ACC is still king.