ACC on cusp of unprecedented NCAA tournament success

The ACC has five teams in the Sweet 16 for the first time, and one of them is NC State, an 8-seed that knocked off No. 1-seed Villanova.

At this time last year, the ACC’s only hope remaining in the NCAA tournament was Virginia. Now, Virginia’s loss in the Round of 32 to 7-seed Michigan State is the league’s only blight.

At this time last year, national pundits were mocking the ACC supposedly being the greatest conference ever with the addition of Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame (Louisville would come this year in exchange for Maryland, which didn’t make the tournament in 2014). After all, the league at the time had just one team in the Sweet 16 (Virginia). Three ACC teams got a top-three seed. Of those, just one made it out of the first weekend.

The 6-6 record was worth a chuckle or two, at least. It was the ACC’s worst postseason march since 2006. And all that with the additions of the new programs intended to bolster the league. Instead, No. 3 seed Syracuse was upset by an 11-seed, and Pitt — a 9-seed — lost in the second round to No. 1 seed Florida. Duke lost to 14-seed Mercer in the first round.

North Carolina’s loss to 3-seed Iowa State (as a 6-seed) snapped a streak of 34 straight years that at least one team from North Carolina had made the Sweet 16.

Now, the ACC is on the cusp of making history.

This year, the ACC can go full SEC football mode by touting its postseason success, justifiably so. The league, so far, is 11-1 in the NCAA tournament, and five of the six teams that made it advanced to the Sweet 16. Virginia was the lone exception this year, instead of the one remaining team in the event last year. The ACC hasn’t had double-digit wins in the tournament since 2005.

The ACC used to be the pre-eminent basketball league in the country. Its last real glory year, though, was 2005: North Carolina won it all, and five of the 11 teams in the league made it (three got top-two seeds; one more got a No. 5). Three teams made the Sweet 16. But only North Carolina made it out.

From 2001-05 (five seasons), the league went 52-22 in the tournament and won three titles, getting 12 teams to the Sweet 16 and six to the Elite Eight AND Final Four.

Now that’s dominance.

But from 2006-14 — nine seasons — the league was 63-45 in the event. In that stretch, the ACC won two national titles (North Carolina in 2009, Duke in 2010) and reached a total of 15 Sweet 16s. North Carolina and Duke were responsible for 12, and had 45 of the 63 wins and just 14 of the losses.

This year, the league has a chance to do something it hasn’t done since 2004 — get multiple teams into the Elite Eight. It could even see three teams get there in the same tournament for the first time since 1985. And the last time an ACC team not named Duke or North Carolina reached the second weekend was 2004 (Georgia Tech).

The league is four wins away from having its most NCAA tournament wins ever. EVER.

But how realistic is that?

NC State and Louisville will play each other in the Sweet 16 on Thursday, so there’s one more guaranteed win there (and one team guaranteed to be out). So the ACC will have at least one Elite Eight team for sure. The winner of that game will face the winner of Michigan State and Oklahoma for the right to go to Indianapolis. But there’s at least one more win.

Notre Dame as the No. 3 seed will get No. 7 Wichita State and then No. 1 Kentucky may lay ahead. The Irish could get at least one win out of that; beating the Wildcats would be an incredibly tall order, though. And Wichita State is as hot as anyone. So let’s call that a tentative one win.

No. 1 seed Duke will face No. 5 seed Utah on Friday night in Houston to go to the Elite Eight; win that, and get either UCLA or Gonzaga. With as well as Duke is playing, one win at least seems reasonable, and possibly two. So that’s three to four wins, maybe.

North Carolina’s odds will be the longest — the No. 3 seed Tar Heels will play the No. 1 seed Wisconsin in the Sweet 16, and should they win that, they’ll get No. 2 seed Arizona in the Elite Eight — in Los Angeles. Let’s go ahead and tentatively scratch the Tar Heels out of the mix.

So that’s three teams — the winner of NC State-Louisville, Duke and Notre Dame — vying for four more wins.

History won’t be easy to achieve, but it rarely is.

Either way, this much is certain — maybe it’s a year too late, but the addition of Louisville, Notre Dame, Syracuse and Pittsburgh to the league has clearly bolstered it, and plenty of programs are on the upswing. Two more wins in this event will give the ACC more wins than it had the previous two seasons combined.

That’s certainly progress.