Before Syracuse left Verizon Center on March 9 after losing in the first round of the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament, Coach Jim Boeheim made a desperate plea. Most bracket experts believed the Orange had played itself out of an NCAA tournament berth with a loss to Pittsburgh, its fifth defeat in six games. Boeheim attempted to sway the committee, arguing Syracuse shouldn’t be punished for the five losses it suffered while the coach served an NCAA suspension. For Syracuse, prospects seemed bleak.
Eleven days later, an unthinkable sentence came true: Syracuse muscled past 15th-seeded Middle Tennessee State, which had knocked off Michigan State in the first round, in order to reach the Sweet 16.
The Orange provided the most extreme example of how, in the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament, everything has come up ACC. When Syracuse won, 75-50, Sunday night, it became the sixth ACC team to reach the Sweet 16, extending the record for number of teams from one conference to make the second weekend. Notre Dame had become the fifth earlier in the afternoon, joining North Carolina, Virginia, Miami and Duke
“I’m really proud of our league,” Notre Dame Coach Mike Brey said. “It’s playing out to be the best league. Remember, I came from that league called the Big East when we were by far the best league and had this kind of depth and number of NCAA tournament caliber teams. … Six from one league in the Sweet 16? It’s unbelievable and further validates how hard our league was.”
The seven ACC entrants have gone 12-1. The conference seized more than a quarter of the Sweet 16 by beating teams it was supposed to — no easy feat any season, and especially this season — and having good fortune in avoiding high-seeded foes. To their credit, ACC teams lost no games in which it was the higher-seeded team. They also played only two games in which they were an underdog.
In every second-round game an ACC team played, it faced a team that had sprung an upset — at least by seeding — in the first round. None of the six Sweet 16 teams from the ACC downed a seed higher than No. 7 Dayton, which Syracuse blew out in the first round; Pittsburgh, which lost in the opening round to Wisconsin, was the only other ACC team to even face a No. 7 seed.
By virtue of earning high seeds during the season and facing opponents who prevailed as underdogs in the first round, ACC teams mostly beat unheralded foes. The average seed of ACC foes in the first two rounds was 11.8.
But that shouldn’t diminish the strength of the ACC, especially considering the team absent from the tournament. Louisville’s self-imposed postseason ban prevented it from appearing in the tournament, which means one of the ACC’s best teams is watching its conference brethren advance from home.
Louisville finished fourth in the conference standings and, depending on its performance in the ACC tournament, could have earned a No. 3 or No. 4 seed. Given Coach Rick Pitino’s experience and the Cardinals’ talent, Louisville would have been considered a Final Four threat.
The ACC finished only third in the conference RPI, behind the Big 12 and Pacific-12. Two rounds of the NCAA tournament is a small sample, but those conferences have certainly failed to validate those rankings. The Pac-12 also sent seven teams to the tournament, and it faces one of the worst showings for any conference in history. Five Pac-12 teams lost in the first round and another got smoked in the second round. Only top-seeded Oregon, which faces St. Joe’s late Sunday, remains.
In one way, though, the Pac-12 is just like every other conference: It is looking up at the ACC. In a quirk of bracketing, none of the ACC teams will face one another in the Sweet 16. So next round, six of the eight games will feature an ACC team. If it feels like the tournament belongs to the ACC, just wait a few days.