Stronger Than Ever, ACC Forges Ahead

NCAA men’s and women’s tournaments each feature five ACC teams among final 16

Steve Phillips, Special to theACC.com

GREENSBORO, N.C. (theACC.com) – NC State men’s basketball coach Mark Gottfried faced the inevitable questions last Saturday night.

As he took the postgame podium in Pittsburgh following his eighth-seeded team’s 71-68 win over top-seeded Villanova, many surprised – if not stunned – members of the media viewed it as seismic upheaval of the East Region side of the NCAA bracket.

One writer asked Gottfried about tournament seeding and the possibility that Villanova played “tight” as a favorite, while the Wolfpack played “pressure free” as the underdog.

From Gottfried’s standpoint, the win over the Wildcats wasn’t about mindset. It was about preparation – and not just specific preparation for Saturday night’s game. NC State took the floor against Villanova battle-tested and confident, having already fought and won similar battles throughout the Atlantic Coast Conference season.

“We've played in a great league -- a great league,” Gottfried said. “In my opinion, it's an undervalued conference right now for how strong our league is.

“When you went on the road like we have and beat North Carolina or on the road and beat Louisville or beat a Duke team … We respect Villanova, but we've seen good teams. We've seen a lot of them in our conference. You see them about every night.”

Few are selling the league short this week, as they stare at a men’s bracket that features an NCAA-record trying five ACC teams among the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16.

“The ACC has historically been the nation’s strongest men’s basketball conference, and we grew even stronger with the recent additions (Louisville, Notre Dame, Pitt and Syracuse) over the last two years,” ACC Commissioner John Swofford said. “We’ve raised the bar a little this year with five teams reaching the Sweet 16, but we feel that can be a realistic annual goal with the 15 member schools we now have in place.”

The NCAA Women’s Championship field looks remarkably similar, with ACC five teams among the Sweet 16 to lead all conference and tie for the most in tournament history.

With Miami’s men advancing to the NIT semifinals and NC State’s women having reached the WNIT Round of 16, 12 ACC basketball teams’ seasons remain ongoing.

Not bad for late March, but this weekend brings fresh challenges, starting on the men’s side.

Third-seeded Louisville and NC State are set to meet head-on Friday night in the East Region semifinals at Syracuse. In the South Region, top-seeded Duke faces Utah. Fourth-seeded North Carolina is in L.A. for a West Region semifinal date with top-seeded Wisconsin, while third-seeded Notre Dame faces Wichita State in the Midwest Region at Cleveland.

“You could see multiple teams in the Sweet 16, in the Elite Eight, in the Final Four from the ACC,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. “I think you could see any of us make the Final Four. Obviously one of us – between NC State and us – will make the Elite Eight.”

With an 11-1 mark so far, the ACC is certain of extending its record non-losing streak in NCAA Tournament play to 28 years. The ACC leads all conferences with 79 teams having reached the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament since 1985. The ACC’s 39 Elite Eight berths during that same time span are also a tournament-best and, as Pitino noted, the conference will definitely add at least one more to that list this weekend.

The Women’s NCAA Tournament finds top-seeded Notre Dame facing Stanford in the semifinals of the Oklahoma City Region. The Greensboro Region features a pair of ACC teams, with No. 4 North Carolina facing top-seeded South Carolina on Friday night, followed by No. 2 Florida State versus Arizona State. The Albany Region finds third-seeded Louisville taking on Dayton, while No. 4 Duke meets top-seeded Maryland in the Spokane Region.

The ACC also boasts eye-opening numbers when it comes to the Women’s Sweet 16, where the conference has placed at least one team since the start of the NCAA Women’s Championship in 1982.  The five ACC head coaches that have guided their teams to this year’s NCAA Sweet 16 field own a combined 2778 wins, 79 NCAA Tournament appearances and two national titles.

“From an overall basketball standpoint, this is probably the strongest the ACC has ever been,” Swofford said. “Our teams have met expectations and set a new, higher standard. It has been one of the most fulfilling and exciting years in our league’s history.”