ACC trying to live up to lofty reputation
GREENSBORO, N.C. — The ACC touted itself the best basketball conference in the country after adding Big East bullies Pitt, Notre Dame and Syracuse in expansion.
With only five of its 15 member schools projected to receive bids to the NCAA Tournament on Selection Sunday, the ACC's inaugural season hasn't lived up to the hype. What ACC commissioner John Swofford called “the strongest collection of basketball programs ever assembled in one conference” in October now is fighting to live up to that lofty reputation.
Now the ACC is facing the possibility of tying its lowest percentage of NCAA tourney teams (33 percent) since the field expanded to 64 in 1985. Only six times in the past 29 years did just one-third of the league reach the NCAA tourney, most recently last year.
Pitt coach Jamie Dixon warned before the season that ACC schools would need to back up the hype with their performance and that the league will become more competitive with the addition of Louisville next season but that its reputation will be built over time.
“I think there was a lot of talk about it. It was not based on the short run but the long term,” Dixon said this week at the ACC Tournament. “I said all along that we've got to go prove it. It's great to talk about. We have the potential to do that.
“The teams are going to have to step up. That's what happened with the Big East. It didn't happen overnight. It didn't come together and become the best conference. The best conference is not a one-year thing. It's based over time. Over time, that's our goal. In no way should one year be the tell-tale sign.”
With only four nationally ranked teams — No. 6 Virginia, No. 7 Duke, No. 11 Syracuse and No. 15 North Carolina — entering tournament week, the ACC has been viewed as a top-heavy league whose middle-tier teams aren't NCAA Tournament-worthy.
N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried takes exception to that perception, noting that the ACC had nine teams with top-80 RPI rankings (seven are in the top 68) and that Syracuse won its first 25 games and spent three weeks atop the national rankings last month.
“I'm not sure our league has gotten the respect it deserves,” Gottfried said.
Where Pitt was considered the ACC's best bet to earn a fifth bid to the NCAA tourney — and virtually clinched an at-large berth by beating Wake Forest and North Carolina — four other conferences were projected to have better percentages of teams qualifying for the Big Dance.
The Big 12, with seven of its 10 schools (70 percent) predicted to earn NCAA bids, is considered the best conference in the country this season. The Pac-12 (six), Big Ten (six) and American (five) all could have a 50-percent success rate, while the Atlantic 10 could get as many as six of its 13 in (46.2).
N.C. State was one of three schools with bubble status trying to use the ACC Tournament as a springboard. By reaching the quarterfinals, both N.C. State (21-13) and Clemson (20-12) cracked the 20-win plateau, giving Gottfried reason to believe the ACC deserves more than five teams in the 68-team field. By beating Syracuse to reach Saturday's semifinals, his Wolfpack improved their chances.
But a 75-67 loss to Duke in the ACC semifinals might put the Wolfpack on the wrong side of the bubble.
Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton believes his Seminoles (19-13) belong in the NCAA tourney and could have helped their chances by making a run in the ACC Tournament. After losing to top-seeded Virginia, Florida State likely is headed to the NIT.
“But the reality is, we don't have a vote,” Hamilton said. “And what we have to do is wait and see what happens. I do believe that we're more than capable of doing well in the NCAA Tournament. But at this particular point, it doesn't do you any good to play the what-if game because there's a lot of criteria that the committee will use as they try to make their decision.”
Gottfried noted that the ACC showed the strength of its depth late in the season, when Boston College (8-24) and Georgia Tech (16-17) both beat Syracuse, and Wake Forest (17-16) beat Duke, North Carolina and N.C. State.
“We added Syracuse and Pittsburgh to a league that was already good,” Gottfried said. “Yet it doesn't seem like our league gets credit for it. It seems like it's a top-heavy league. And I don't think it is. We have good teams at the top. Syracuse spent most of the year No. 1 in the country.
“I don't care who you are: Go try and beat Duke at Duke — you've got your hands full. This is a great league. We've got good teams all the way down through, and hopefully, we'll get rewarded for that. I don't know. We'll see. I hope that we're a legitimate contender, I really do. I hope that we get a chance to play in the greatest show on earth.”