At the midpoint of the college basketball season, it’s already clear the ACC could be in for an atypically muted Selection Sunday.
Perhaps the most surprising part of this is the league’s sheer size, which appeared to help make it nearly recession-proof. And to date, it has. Since expansion added Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and Syracuse in 2013-14 (and Louisville was swapped in for Maryland the following season), ACC teams have averaged 7.3 NCAA tournament berths per year and never less than six in a season.
This year is different. It’s not hard to sketch a worst-case scenario of just four ACC teams in the 68-team field. There’s still a lot of victories to be had over the course of a 20-game conference schedule, and the way-too-early guess here is that at least a five-team showing is more likely once everything sorts itself out.
Still, only five of the top 50 teams in the KenPom.com rankings are ACC members. Just four ACC schools cracked the top 50 of the NCAA’s NET rankings entering Friday’s games, with N.C. State at No. 51. Outside of Duke, Florida State and Louisville, no one has distinguished itself.
So what gives for a conference whose identity remains so tied to hoops, regardless of how many football playoff appearances Clemson earns? Lots of issues are percolating:
North Carolina and Virginia are down.
Let’s start with Virginia, which gets more of a pass than anyone. The Cavaliers, a program built on continuity and veteran players, saw Kyle Guy, De’Andre Hunter and Ty Jerome turn pro early after last year’s national title run. What they left behind in Charlottesville was a championship banner, a superb defense (because Coach Tony Bennett wouldn’t have it any other way) and a husk of an offense.
If you’re a Virginia fan, this is a no-brainer of a trade. That trophy isn’t going anywhere, the Cavaliers (11-3, 3-1) are still smothering opponents into submission and Braxton Key appears to be ready to shoulder considerable offensive responsibilities now that he’s healthy.
Nonetheless, scoring is not an easy thing for this Virginia team, which just isn’t going to flirt with a 30-win season this year. But at least the Cavaliers have a clear enough route to follow: Defend like mad, scrape together 60 points and hope it’s enough.
North Carolina (8-7, 1-3) would happily accept such a reality right now. The Tar Heels were always going to be heavily reliant on freshman point guard Cole Anthony. Then he got hurt, an already imperfect team fell apart and Chapel Hill might be on its way to seeing its worst team since the 8-20 bunch of 2001-02.
The remaining pieces have not added up to a good team, though junior forward Garrison Brooks has blossomed into a formidable post presence. Carolina was defensively derelict against Georgia Tech last weekend, then allowed Pittsburgh to erase a 14-point deficit to snap a 22-game conference road losing streak.
The ACC has come to bank on Virginia being elite over the last five years. It isn’t quite at that level this season. The league has counted on an elite North Carolina for more than 60 years. The Tar Heels are nowhere near their usual perch.
Too much parity?
The current KenPom projections for league play have Duke finishing at 18-2, Florida State and Louisville landing at 14-6 and Virginia getting in the barn at 12-8.
No one else projects to finish above .500, though N.C. State and Virginia Tech are pegged to wind up 10-10.
The good thing about a scenario in which no one winds up worse than 7-13 in conference play is there won’t be any truly wretched teams dragging down the league. But there aren’t a bunch of top-shelf teams to raise the rest of the boats. And if the top four wind up combining for closer to 15 league losses than the projected 22, that will be fewer chances to pull along some teams in the middle of the pack.
Syracuse not coming through
Sometimes, a long-running problem commands attention more when other things go wrong. The addition of the Orange to the ACC was an obvious win for basketball, and Syracuse obliged by going 14-4 in its first year in the conference.
In the last five years, Syracuse topped out at 10-8 (twice) and maxed out as a No. 8 seed on Selection Sunday. There were two postseason commendable runs — to the Final Four as a No. 10 seed in 2016, and to the regional semifinals as a No. 11 seed in 2018 — but the Orange hasn’t been a regular season powerhouse.
Its struggles are amplified this year. Syracuse (8-7, 1-3) didn’t build any sort of a postseason résumé in nonconference play, and it has dropped home games against Notre Dame and Virginia Tech in the last week. Coach Jim Boeheim was optimistic this version of the Orange could exceed middle-of-the-league expectations in the preseason. That’s looking like a tough ask.
Even a surprise team is flawed
No one should complain about Virginia Tech’s approach to its nonconference schedule. At the end of last season it lost its coach (Buzz Williams) and most of its rotation, and brought in former Wofford sideline maestro Mike Young to work with a heavily remodeled roster. From afar, a winning season could have been viewed as a solid showing, even with a home-heavy November and December slate designed to deliver victories.
The Hokies (11-4, 2-2) have done well, beating Michigan State in the Maui Invitational while already picking off a pair of conference road wins (Clemson and Syracuse). But Virginia Tech’s nonconference strength of schedule (No. 333) is a good bet to be held against it if it constructs a borderline postseason résumé.
Perhaps Virginia Tech can break out in the second half of the season. The same could happen for N.C. State (11-4, 2-2), which has mostly handled its business since an opening night loss to Georgia Tech. Perhaps youthful Pittsburgh (11-4, 2-2) achieves some elusive consistency. For now, though, the search for tournament-worthy depth is an unusually difficult one in the ACC.