- The Tar Heels are the only ACC team in the Sweet 16. But even though it's a starkly different landscape than last year's NCAA tourney, the ACC still has a shot at a national title.
GREENVILLE, S.C. — On Selection Sunday, John Swofford learned nine of his conference’s teams were in the NCAA tournament. They were spread across six different sites, so to catch them all he either needed a fast private jet or a good TV setup.
By Sunday night, all he needed to see the remaining ACC teams in the tournament was a ticket in Greenville.
Now the decision on where to go next weekend has been made for the ACC commissioner. It’s North Carolina in Memphis in the Sweet 16, and that’s it.
No. 1 seed North Carolina survived a scare against Arkansas Sunday night, but No. 2 Duke couldn’t fend off South Carolina as the two blue bloods stood as the last hope for the proud conference. In a rather boring NCAA tournament, most of the upset-related drama has come at the expense of the Atlantic Coast Conference.
The ACC owned last year’s NCAA tournament, going 19-7 with its seven teams and putting two squads (UNC and Syracuse) in the Final Four. It was the first time the ACC had two representatives in the Final Four since Duke and Georgia Tech in 2004. Meanwhile, the ACC in the 2017 tournament was 6-7 before Carolina and Duke took the floor Sunday night.
That Wake Forest or Virginia Tech didn’t deliver a win was unsurprising. But Virginia couldn’t break 40 against Florida. Florida State, the West’s No. 3 seed, continued its NCAA tournament lull with a 25-point loss to 11th-seeded Xavier. Second-seeded Louisville lost its 2013 title game rematch with Michigan on Sunday. And now it’s up to UNC to carry the ACC in basketball.
“We felt like the whole year the ACC was the strongest conference in the country,” ACC player of the year and UNC forward Justin Jackson said. “The crazy thing about the tournament is it just takes one game. I think that’s showing now. You’ve got to come out and play every single game.”
The past two weeks have been strange ones for the ACC. The conference tournament was held above the Mason-Dixon line for the first time in history, with the thought being that the country’s most powerful basketball conference could draw on the media attention in Brooklyn. It will take some time to see the fruits of the ACC’s Big Apple move, but the early indications are it did nothing.
N.C. State made a coaching move that for the first time in decades was unanimously greeted warmly. Kevin Keatts will try to bring the Wolfpack back to national relevance in what many consider—right or wrong—to be a rather difficult job down the road from Duke and UNC.
Jim Boeheim, the legendary Syracuse coach who has riled ACC loyalists since interloping four years ago, seemingly pulled a Jay Leno this weekend and changed his retirement plans as assistant Mike Hopkins (loosely playing Conan O’Brien here) bounced to Washington.
Take away the four Hall of Fame coaches and the ACC will be difficult to recognize next season. Nearly all of Duke’s rotation that won the ACC tournament championship will either be graduated or in the NBA. UNC will cycle through most of its starting lineup. Stars Dennis Smith Jr. of N.C. State and Jonathan Issac of Florida State will be lottery picks.
Then came the month of the ACC’s discontent, kicked off by seven losses by Sunday afternoon and capped with its biggest blow so far later that night.
Carolina went on a 12-0 run to close the second-round game against Arkansas and advanced to its 35th Sweet 16 in the first game in Greenville. Duke led by 10 early in the second half but couldn’t get on a stop on defense after that, allowing the Gamecocks to shot 71.4% from the field in the second frame to win 88-81. This wasn’t nearly as bad as Mercer or Lehigh, but for the third time in six tournaments, the Blue Devils are out by the end of the first weekend.
The overrated jeers will rightfully rain down on the ACC, which the Tar Heels won in the regular season by two games. Perhaps most telling of the ACC’s failures from 2016-17 came from the mouths of Roy Williams and Mike Krzyzewski Sunday night.
Williams and his team repeatedly said they had not been in a game like that all season. UNC’s 17-point lead had vanished and the Heels were down three at the last media timeout when Williams told his team that “it’s gotta be with our brain and our heart” if they were to beat the Razorbacks. It’s March and all, but how had this test not come up in the 18-game conference slate?
And Krzyzewski called the South Carolina matchup “the most physical game we’ve been in all year.” Didn’t mighty ACC challengers give the Blue Devils physical games?
ACC fans that have championed its recent football success now have their tail between their legs. The ACC boasts two football national championships and two Heisman winners in the past four years, but the SEC has three times as many Sweet 16 teams this year as the ACC.
The other Power 5 conferences each have three teams playing next week (the Pac-12 went 8-1 in the first weekend). Even the Big East, raided over the years by Swofford, has two squads still dancing.
A national championship win would make all of this O.K., and UNC has as good a chance as any team to win it. What would have saved the ACC would have been a Duke-UNC national title match, which would have paralyzed alumni for two days but would have likely set a ratings record. South Carolina eliminated that possibility by midnight.
The North Carolina redemption tour continues this weekend in Memphis as the Tar Heels try to forget about that Villanova loss and make its own history in 2017. But before that bus left Greenville, the Tar Heels had to add more even more luggage—suitcases filled with all of the ACC’s hopes.