Analysis: What went wrong with ACC hoops this season
As the regular-season and conference-tourney champs, the 2013-14 season was a great campaign for Virginia. As for everybody else ... the ACC underwhelmed in its first year as a super-sized conference, writes Lauren Brownlow.
Unlike North Carolina and Syracuse (knocked out in the Round of 32), the Joe Harris-led Virginia Cavaliers (center) were the only ACC team to reach the Sweet 16 in this year's NCAA tournament.
Kevin Jairaj/Adam Hunger/Kevin Hoffman / USA TODAY Sports
By Lauren BrownlowFOX Sports South
The numbers aren't pretty for the ACC, any way you slice it.
A hoops-dominated conference that recently expanded in the hopes of becoming the nation's preeminent basketball league missed on that mark in Year 1.
And it's been trending downward for quite some time.
This marks the fourth consecutive year without an ACC team in the Final Four, the league's longest such drought since 1958-61. And it's the first time an ACC team has failed to make the Elite Eight since 2006.
The state of North Carolina, long the center of ACC hoops, got three of its four ACC teams into the NCAA tournament. But those teams combined to go 2-3 overall and two clubs (Duke and NC State) were out in the Round of 64.
The new additions didn't fare much better. Notre Dame finished 15-17 and didn't come close to making the NCAAs, missing it for just the second time since 2006. Syracuse, which started 25-0 and was ranked No. 1 in the country before sliding late in the year, earned a 3-seed and lost in the Round of 32 to 11th-seeded Dayton. No. 9-seed Pittsburgh also won its first game before getting beaten fairly soundly by top-ranked Florida.
And yet, you still could argue Pitt had one of the better performances of the ACC's six postseason members. Top-seeded Virginia belongs atop the list, making the Sweet 16 before falling to No. 4 Michigan State in a close one.
There's only one team in the Final Four that beat an ACC team on its way there: Florida.
The Non-Conference Problem
During the regular season, Syracuse and Duke arguably did good things for the ACC by either competing in or winning high-profile games. Florida State was close, losing only to Michigan in overtime, at Minnesota and a close one at Florida, while beating VCU and Massachusetts.
Pittsburgh enjoyed an easy non-conference slate, and Virginia struggled for a while, dropping games to Wisconsin-Green Bay and getting thrashed by Tennessee in December. They were the ACC's regular-season and conference-tourney champs, but the Cavaliers' best non-league win came against SMU.
North Carolina had some great wins for the league -- Michigan State, Louisville and Kentucky -- but the Tar Heels lost at home to Belmont and at UAB, as well. North Carolina State found itself waiting anxiously on Selection Sunday because it couldn't win most of its high-profile non-conference games, and Clemson -- a bubble team for a sustained period -- incurred embarrassing losses to Arkansas and Auburn, with its best win arguably against Davidson.
The league's bottom-feeders -- Georgia Tech, Wake Forest, Boston College and Virginia Tech -- didn't do more or less than expected, with the exception of BC, which was just ghastly.
A lot of people thought the Eagles, a year more experienced, would make noise throughout the season. However, their non-conference schedule was just competitive enough to ensure that didn't happen, and they went 4-9 against non-league teams.
The issue then becomes that if the non-conference slate doesn't help out the league much ... then how can the ACC expect to build on that -- particularly when it comes to boosting the RPI's of middling teams?
If you cannot beat good teams out of conference consistently -- or even bad teams, for that matter -- there's no reason to expect other programs to get a boost in beating each other during league play.
The ACC collectively went 138-53 in the non-conference slate with far too many bad or questionable losses.
Commissioner John Swofford loves how the ACC has some of college basketball's finest coaches, a status that will be bolstered with the addition of league member Louisville next season.
Rick Pitino joins established legends Jim Boeheim, Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams, up-and-comer Tony Bennett (Virginia) and long-timers Leonard Hamilton (Florida State), Mike Brey (Notre Dame) and Jamie Dixon (Pittsburgh).
(Long-timer being relative in today's college basketball landscape.)
Williams, Dixon, Hamilton, Brey, Krzyzewski and Boeheim all have been with their schools for at least 10 years. Bennett just completed his fifth season at Virginia.
Maryland, with coach Mark Turgeon (just completed his third season), is the Big Ten's problem now.
After that, there is less stability with the other ACC programs.
Virginia Tech ousted James Johnson after only his second season (22-41 overall record). He subsequently has been replaced by former Marquette coach Buzz Williams.
Wake Forest's Jeff Bzdelik also is out after his fourth season (51-76 overall), along with Steve Donahue at Boston College (54-76).
Hence, it's not a huge shock that of the six teams to make the NCAA tournament, four of the coaches had been with their programs for 10 years or more. The exceptions were Bennett and N.C. State's Mark Gottfried (Year 3).
Bottom line: There may be plenty of optimism with ACC coaches, but there still are question marks remaining. Brad Brownell (Year 4 at Clemson) took his team to the NIT semifinals, with a big season looming next year. Brian Gregory at Georgia Tech (entering Year 4 next season) has plenty of question marks, along with a 43-52 record to date.
Miami's Jim Larranaga won the regular season title last year and was surprisingly competitive this season while rebuilding. Things may be trending upward for the Hurricanes, but for how long with the 64-year-old Larranaga running the program? Gottfried has gotten the Wolfpack to the NCAAs in two of the past three seasons, which is nothing to sneeze at. Both coaches have done a great job.
It's possible that going in a new direction at some of the bottom-feeder schools will lead to an overall upgrade of coaching talent; and the schools have been in a proverbial purgatory for so long that it likely will take time to be consistently competitive again.
The ACC Eating Its Own
This has been a problem for decades in this league, and it used to be a good one. It's not anymore, though, citing how 14th-place Boston College tallied one of its seven wins against D-I competition against previously undefeated Syracuse.
Wake Forest, which finished 13th, beat the Nos. 3, 4 and 6 teams in the ACC at one point -- the win over Clemson might have sealed the Tigers' fate as an NIT team. Those victories were half of Wake's total in conference play. That doesn't even cover a home win over N.C. State that nearly knocked the Wolfpack from the NCAA tourney.
Miami emerged from an (understandably) lackluster non-conference schedule to fall to an awful Virginia Tech club in the ACC opener -- only to win at North Carolina, N.C. State and Florida State. Nearly half of the Canes' ACC wins. (And that's not even counting the two scares put into Syracuse.)
Even Notre Dame, whose season was doomed after it lost Jerian Grant to academic problems in December, managed to somehow beat Duke and Clemson on its way to a 6-12 ACC record.
Yes, the top teams in the league should have done a better job taking care of business against the worst teams. But, just putting this out there:
ACC bottom-feeders, couldn't you have saved the league some embarrassment by beating awful teams during non-conference action?
Only Wake Forest was able to say as much, as the Deacons' worst non-league defeat occurred at Xavier. Miami, Boston College and Notre Dame, however, all had embarrassing non-conference losses before improbably winning an ACC game or two.
As a result of a combination of non-conference problems and in-league cannibalism, the ACC didn't end up with a great NCAA tournament draw.
A reeling Syracuse team really had no excuse to fall to Dayton -- in Buffalo, no less -- in the Round of 32, and neither did No. 3-seed Duke against No. 14 Mercer (in nearby Raleigh).
Pittsburgh has nothing to be ashamed of as a No. 9 seed ... except for its non-conference schedule, the only reason the Panthers (23-8 entering the ACC tourney) were long considered a bubble team.
Same goes for top-seeded Virginia. The Cavaliers drew Michigan State in the regional round -- a Spartans club that likely was under-seeded (No. 4 in the East). Still, Virginia was the lone ACC club to reach the Sweet 16.
As for N.C. State and UNC? Well, one could argue both should have advanced at least one round further. The No. 12 Wolfpack beat Xavier in First Four play-in game and had a double-digit lead on Saints Louis late in the Round of 64 before collapsing down the stretch in mind-blowing fashion.
The Wolfpack weren't expected to do much this season, and yet the head-scratching losses -- at Wake, at Clemson (in blowout fashion) and home to Miami -- have to leave even the most positive N.C. State fan disappointed.
The Tar Heels were perhaps the most frustrating team of all. Huge non-conference wins coupled with plenty of "Huh?" losses early on. After that, the P.J. Hairston-less Tar Heels won 12 in a row, only to lose three of their final four games to close the season.
The No. 6 Tar Heels edged Providence in the Round of 64, but couldn't hold on to an eight-point lead against 3-seed Iowa State in the Round of 64, losing in the final seconds on Evander Kane's runner off the glass.
And while the ACC hasn't yet claimed Louisville, the league still had to be chagrinned by the Cardinals' disheartening defeat to arch-rival Kentucky during the Sweet 16.
Oh, and Louisville will be rebuilding next year. So, there's that to look forward to.