One week ago, for one halcyon hour, the ACC lorded over college basketball. The NCAA tournament committee awarded the league nine bids, more than any conference in the country, a nod to their perceived superiority all winter. The conference controlled the entire bracket, with a top-three seed in all four regions. The path to the Final Four, it seemed clear, would include Tobacco Road.
Then the tournament began, and from the blase first night through a shock late Sunday, the ACC did almost nothing but watch its teams depart, often in unsightly fashion. The ACC’s embarrassing opening weekend ended with only top-seeded North Carolina alive and its eight other entrants knocked out, none in more stunning fashion than venerable Duke, the conference champion. The Blue Devils, No. 2 in the East and the betting favorite to win the whole bloody tournament, lost, 88-81, to seventh-seeded South Carolina. They were overwhelmed by the defensive intensity of the Gamecocks and a raucous crowd in Greenville, S.C., packed with both rabid South Carolinians and Tar Heels fans, leftover from the early game, with a thirst for schadenfreude.
Duke’s upset only continued a dreadful day and weekend for the ACC. Sunday’s first game featured Louisville, the Midwest’s second seed, falling, 73-69, to seventh-seeded Michigan. North Carolina gave the ACC its only Sweet 16 qualifier in the late evening but only after it squandered a 17-point to No. 8 Arkansas, fell behind by five with less than four minutes remaining and held on for dear life for a 72-65 win.
The ACC appeared poised to send multiple teams to the Final Four. Instead, it advanced one to the Sweet 16.
Louisville’s opponent also continued a surprising conference trend. When the committee released its initial rankings in February, it regarded precisely zero Big Ten teams among the top 16 seeds. Ultimately, none received any seed better than Purdue’s four in the Midwest. Faced with skepticism all season, the Big Ten has mounted a powerful rebuke in the bracket.
Three Big Ten teams earned regional semifinal slots, with Michigan State’s 90-70 loss to top-seeded Kansas the league’s lone blemish in the second round. Along the way, the Big Ten can claim some of the tournaments most impressive pelts. Wisconsin, slighted as an eight seed, struck a major blow for the league Saturday afternoon when it upset Villanova, the top overall seed and defending national champion.
While the Big Ten can puff its chest, the ACC can only cower. It advanced one fewer team to the second weekend than the Big East. The most troubling aspect may not be the number of losses the league suffered but the nature of them. No. 3 Florida State bowed out to 11th-seeded Xavier by 25 points. Virginia failed to crack 40 in a blowout second-round loss to Florida. Miami lost by 20. Louisville squandered a nine-point second-half lead. Duke never seriously threatened South Carolina down the stretch.
Viewed in a kind light, some of the carnage can be explained away. The Cavaliers had to play the Gators in Orlando, effectively a road game. Michigan has been shooting more like the Harlem Globetrotters than a No. 7 seed and could be the hottest team in the country. Duke faced South Carolina in Greenville. Maybe North Carolina will carry the ACC torch all the way to a national title. What did anybody expect from Wake Forest, a play-in loser, anyway?
But, you know, yikes. Duke is a standard bearer and was viewed as a serious title threat. Ditto Louisville. In its worst visions, the ACC could not have imagined a Sweet 16 with both Mike Krzyzewski and Rick Pitino cast as observers.
Much of the ACC’s pain has come at the hands of the previously derided Big Ten. With Michigan’s victory, the Big Ten moved to 3-0 against ACC opponents this tournament, with all three victories coming as either an underdog or near-equal seed.
How did the Big Ten come alive in March? It’s clear now that the personnel of its teams far surpasses their accomplishments. Wisconsin was under-seeded as an eight but not by much after a disappointing season. The Badgers proved a team with Nigel Hayes’s strength, Ethan Happ’s offensive versatility and Bronson Koenig’s shot-making can beat any team on any given night. Michigan suffered through injuries, but the Wolverines have waves of players who can make shots from anywhere and a transcendent talent in Derrick Walton Jr.
Early in the season, the Big Ten suffered a series of damning losses out of conference. Starting in January, it didn’t have a chance to alter the perception. In conference play, as the rest of the country assumed the best basketball was being played elsewhere, the league grew up.
“We’re all going to be judged a lot on what happens in November, December,” Michigan Coach John Beilein said. “We had a tremendous league last year with a lot of turnover. Guys going pro, great seniors in the league. … There’s always going to be a lot of hype about what teams are getting most hype early, and it just doesn’t go away. And so as a result, I just told everybody, ‘Just wait.’ The level of coaching in this league, the resources in this league, the level of talent in this league, it will come to the top at the end of the year.”
So, there’s an explanation. The other vexing question, of course, is what happened to the ACC? That one may take longer to explain. Its teams can get started on that project now because almost all of them have nothing left ahead but the offseason.