For the second season in a row, it appears that Virginia will not be able to depend on the ACC to help build its NCAA Tournament resume. While the Cavaliers have done well to carry the flag of the Atlantic Coast Conference by picking up two strong wins against ranked opponents, the rest of the conference has not experienced similar success in non-conference play.
As of the posting of this article (before the games on Friday, 11/25), the ACC has a combined record of 6-12 against major conference opponents. The ACC’s bottom half has been especially poor, with the bottom seven teams of the conference going 0-9 against major conference foes. Even the Carolina Blue Bloods haven’t looked as dominant as they were billed to be.
North Carolina entered the season as the consensus preseason favorite to win the national title and the preseason No. 1 team in the country by a landslide. Yes, the Tar Heels are 5-0, but they have hardly won those five games in the fashion of a No. 1 team. UNC gave up 86 points to Charleston, beat Gardner-Webb by only six, and was nearly upset by Portland in the quarterfinals of the Phil Knight Invitational, escaping with an 89-81 win in a game UNC was favored to win by 14 points. There will be chances for the Tar Heels to prove themselves the rest of this week, as winning the Invitational will mean a win over Iowa State and one other major conference opponent – either No. 20 UConn, no. 12 Michigan State, or No. 18 Alabama. But so far, North Carolina has not looked at all like the team that finished as the national runner-up last season.
Duke has also been far from perfect to start the Jon Scheyer era. The Blue Devils are 5-1, the one defeat being a respectable tight loss to Kansas. Duke picked up blowout wins over Jacksonville, South Carolina Upstate, Delaware and Bellarmine, and 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 semis, they could have a date with Gonzaga in the finals. It could also be Purdue or West Virginia, so that game should be an opportunity for a marquee win no matter what. But for now, Duke seems vulnerable.
In addition to UNC and UVA, Notre Dame is the third and final remaining undefeated ACC team – but the wins are far from impressive. The Fighting Irish have beaten Radford, Youngstown State, Southern Indiana, Lipscomb, and Bowling Green and three of those five wins have come by single digits.
NC State has been decent so far, going 5-1 with the lone loss coming by just six points to Kansas and the Wolfpack picked up a solid 74-64 win over Dayton. The same can be said for Miami, who beat Providence, but lost to Maryland by 18 points. Clemson is 4-1, with wins against the Citadel, South Carolina Upstate, Bellarmine, and Loyola and a loss at South Carolina.
Several ACC teams have had more than their fair share of bad, sometimes embarrassing losses. Virginia Tech lost at Charleston. Wake Forest suffered an upset overtime loss to Loyola Marymount. Boston College has a pair of bad losses to Maine and Tarleton. Georgia Tech is 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 out in the losses to West Virginia and Michigan.
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Florida State and Louisville are in a battle for the coveted spot of the worst team in the ACC. The Seminoles are 1-5, with their only win coming against Mercer. FSU has lost to Stetson, UCF, Troy, Florida and Siena. Florida State was picked to finish fifth in the ACC.
Kenny Payne took the reins of the Louisville program at a very difficult time and this season was always going to be a challenging one for the Cardinals, but no one expected that things would be quite this bad. Louisville started the season with three consecutive one-point losses to Bellarmine, Wright State, and Appalachian State. Those losses were gut-wrenching, but the three defeats the Cards have suffered since then have been much worse, losing by 26 points to Arkansas, by 32 to Texas Tech, and by 21 to Cincinnati. Louisville is 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 saw the negative impact that a conference performing poorly early in the season can have on its member teams’ chances to make the NCAA Tournament last season. In many years throughout history, the ACC has gotten 8-10 teams into the NCAA Tournament. But last season, the ACC did poorly in non-conference play so the entire conference was labeled as weak or “down” for the rest of the season, even as several teams like Wake Forest and Virginia put together decent showings 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 didn’t make March Madness despite winning 21 games in the regular season.
The reality of the strength of the ACC last season showed itself in the NCAA Tournament, as three ACC teams made the Elite Eight and two advanced to the Final Four. But, non-conference play largely determines the pecking order of the conferences in any given college basketball season. There’s still time for the ACC to improve its position. But right now, any singular team in the ACC such as Virginia should not expect to rely on its conference to help build a resume worthy of the NCAA Tournament.
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