From 2015-19, the ACC owned the NCAA men’s basketball tournament like no other conference in the event’s history.
Duke, North Carolina and Virginia won national championships. Syracuse reached the Final Four, Notre Dame, Louisville and Florida State the Elite Eight, Virginia Tech, N.C. State, Clemson and Miami the Sweet 16.
That’s 11 of the ACC’s 15 programs advancing to at least a regional semifinal in five seasons, an extraordinary display of talent and depth. Moreover, the league’s NCAA Tournament record during that span was an unprecedented 74-35 — the Big Ten was next at 50-33 — highlighting yet another remarkable accomplishment.
From 1988-2019, a record stretch of 32 seasons, the ACC never had a losing record in the NCAA Tournament. Every other conference has experienced at least two sub-.500 tournaments in the 2000s alone. The Big East, Big 12, Pacific 12, Big Ten and Southeastern Conference have had 18 combined.
Acknowledging this dominance is essential to placing the ACC’s substandard 2021 NCAA Tournament in context and not overreacting.
Seven league teams earned bids, second only to the Big Ten’s nine. But Virginia, Virginia Tech, Clemson, North Carolina and ACC Tournament champion Georgia Tech fell in the first round. Florida State and Syracuse advanced two rounds each, only to drop their respective regional semifinals to Michigan and Houston by a combined 34 points.
The league’s 4-7 tournament aggregate was its worst since 0-2 in 1979, when an East Regional doubleheader at N.C. State’s Reynolds Coliseum saw Duke lose to St. John’s, and North Carolina to Penn, a grim afternoon still known on Tobacco Road as Black Sunday.
The ACC’s most recent losing NCAA Tournament had been 5-6 in 1987, and the four victories are its fewest in any season in which more than two teams from the conference made the field.
Those numbers are jarring but not shocking.
The first sign of decline was the ACC underperforming in limited regular-season, non-conference competition. League teams went 8-12 against outside opponents that reached the NCAA Tournament, two of those victories over Drexel and Georgetown squads that required stunning conference tournament championships just to make the bracket.
Then three of the top four teams in the ACC standings — Virginia, Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech — entered the NCAA tournament in compromised states.
With the league’s Player of the Year, forward Moses Wright, sidelined by COVID-19 protocol, the Yellow Jackets lost to Loyola Chicago 71-60. Wright led Georgia Tech in scoring, offensive rebounds, defensive rebounds and blocked shots this season, and in his absence the Ramblers punished the Jackets on the offensive glass 13-1.
Elite teams can overcome such a personnel hit — Michigan advanced to the Elite Eight with second-leading scorer Isaiah Livers shelved by a foot injury — but no ACC squad fit that bill in 2020-21.
COVID-19 limited Virginia Tech to five games between Feb. 1 and St. Patrick’s Day, and the Hokies never regained the mojo that lifted them to earlier victories over Villanova, Clemson, Virginia and Duke. Add sixth man Jalen Cone’s season-ending ankle injury and you have a team that couldn’t summon quite enough in a first-round overtime setback to Florida.
But at least Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech had more than one practice between the ACC and NCAA tournaments. Due to contact tracing and subsequent quarantining, Virginia managed one brief practice and a game-day shoot-around before losing to Ohio 62-58.
No offense to Ben Vander Plas, Jason Preston and the Bobcats, but given routine practice, the Cavaliers almost certainly would have won.
Clemson and North Carolina had no apparent hurdles in their tournament preparation. They just didn’t play well in losing to Big Ten opponents Rutgers and Wisconsin, respectively.
The mercurial Tar Heels were most baffling, their 23-point defeat the most lopsided Roy Williams has experienced in 30 NCAA tournaments. But that was their MO late in the season, a team that in one three-game stretch routed Louisville by 45, lost to Marquette by 13 and defeated Florida State by eight.
The focus now becomes the future.
Florida State, Duke and Louisville have secured top-20 recruiting classes, and after missing postseason for the first time since 1995, the Blue Devils figure to rebound with a vengeance. Virginia and North Carolina remain bluebloods, and Virginia Tech expects to return its core.
But in today’s college sports world, much hinges on transfers, as the ACC saw this season with the impact of Virginia’s Sam Hauser, Virginia Tech’s Keve Aluma and Louisville’s Carlik Jones.
More than three dozen ACC players have entered the NCAA transfer portal, a number sure to grow. The league’s coaches need to counter by landing quality transfers of their own.
Amid all the portal drama, there is one foolproof upgrade for ACC basketball.
Recruit Gonzaga to the league.
David Teel reports for the Richmond Times-Dispatch.