As we speed towards March, an ACC fan can’t help but feel a little uneasy about the prospects of the conference in the Big Dance.
The signs were there early, despite the lofty expectations of certain members. Was it asking too much of North Carolina to put up another stellar season despite having won a national title last year? Was this really going to be the year that Clemson became a powerhouse?
Syracuse crushed the Tar Heels in the first true test of the year. The nation’s most storied conference actually lost the ACC-Big Ten challenge, for the first time ever. Granted, Duke probably should have won at Wisconsin. Clemson also probably should not have blown a 19 point lead at home to Illinois. Be that as it may, when the smoke cleared, the guys from the Midwest were holding the trophy.
If the season ended today, with ACC tournament underdog heroics out of play, the conference would probably get five teams in. Duke and Wake Forest are mortal locks. Then it gets sticky. Georgia Tech looks good with an RPI ranking of 28. Clemson and Maryland look okay, with their respective RPI rankings in the 30s.
Then it gets stickier. Virginia Tech sits at second in the conference standings because they have been stellar in Blacksburg. There are no big wins on their record, largely because beating North Carolina doesn’t count for anything this year other than historical significance. With an RPI of 47, their best hope for an at-large bid comes from hoping the Atlantic Ten only gets three teams in.
Florida State is another matter. They are in the logjam with the Tigers and Terps in the standings. Losses to Florida, Ohio State, and NC State aren’t helping matters.
So the ACC gets five to seven teams into the field of 65. Does any one of them have a legitimate shot of making the Final Four?
Duke initially looks up to the task. They might even get a top seed in a regional if they stay true to form for the rest of the season. Take a closer look. Duke won their first true road game less than a month ago, on January 23rd at Clemson. Are they ready to handle a stretch of games away from the coziness of Cameron Indoor Stadium?
Following the 2003-2004 loss to Connecticut in the National Semifinal, Duke has yet to make it back to the Final Four. Duke is not supposed to be a team that loses to Virginia Commonwealth in the first round, as they did in 2007.
Duke is also a better team as an underdog than a favorite. Their 1991 title came from a team that wasn’t even supposed to contend with UNLV. The 2001 title team wasn’t expected to beat Arizona. When the expectation is on Duke to win, as it was in 2000, 2002, and 2004, they perform miserably. So what is Duke, an underachieving favorite or an overachieving underdog? Maybe it just depends on their seed.
Could it be a relatively unheralded Wake Forest team that comes out and makes a statement this year? Tim Duncan, Chris Paul, and no Final Four trips since the 1960s? Really? Wake is another chronic underachiever in March. Cleveland State was their undoing last year, and that team had spent time with the top ranking in the country. Wake’s losses to William and Mary and Miami don’t inspire confidence. At least they beat Xavier and Richmond.
It’s highly possible that one of the other five mentioned could get hot in the ACC tournament and use that momentum to sustain a drive towards Indianapolis. It’s more likely that this year’s Final Four will feature Kansas, Kentucky, and two teams from the mammoth Big East.
March is about surprises, and if the ACC gets to send a team to Lucas Oil stadium this year, it will be a surprise. Hurry back to prominence, Roy Williams and North Carolina. It’s hard to feel good about the ACC without you at the top.