For All Its NCAA Tournament Dominance, ACC Could Have Done Even Better

The ACC is in the latter stages of completely dominating the 2016 NCAA Tournament, but the league’s impressive March isn’t over yet; after placing four teams in the Elite 8, No. 1 seed North Carolina will face 10th-seeded Syracuse this week on college basketball’s biggest stage with a title-game berth on the line.  

It is guaranteed that the ACC will have a representative in the National Championship Game, as the conference ran through the East and Midwest Regions, which make up the entire right-half of the bracket. But here’s a thought for avid ACC hoops fans to consider: the league, under different circumstances, could have been even more dominant during the tournament.

There are always infinite “what-ifs” to consider in the world of sports, and many fans could drive themselves crazy pondering the many, more positive scenarios that might have played out for their respective teams on different days.  But looking at a few “what-ifs” in relation to the ACC in the NCAA tournament, and there are a few major ones, can’t hurt. Here’s what I mean:

Duke bowed out in the Sweet 16 with an 82-68 loss to an Oregon team that simply had more depth.  The Ducks are among the nation’s best in two-point field goal percentage, which made the team a poor matchup for the Blue Devils considering the lack of depth Coach Krzyzewski’s squad had inside.  But what if Amile Jefferson was thrown into the mix?  Jefferson played in just nine games this season before his injury, averaging 11.4 points and 10.3 rebounds per game.  His veteran presence on the floor amongst Duke’s talented but young starting lineup might have made a world of difference.  Marshall Plumlee did an admirable job holding down the fort this season in Jefferson’s absence, but the duo would’ve been quite the one-two punch if healthy, and the defending National Champions almost certainly would have gone deeper into the tournament.

Another fact that makes the ACC’s dominant March even more incredible is this: the conference didn’t even send its fourth-best team (according to regular season standings) to the tournament.  Louisville’s self-imposed postseason ban, which has been well documented in recent weeks, kept a Cardinal team that posted a 23-8 regular season record out of the Big Dance.  The team finished just two games out of first place in a loaded ACC and seemed to have the formula for a deep tournament run; Damion Lee was nearly unguardable at times this season and U of L’s frontcourt, led by Chinanu Onuaku, was formidable.  For purely speculative purposes, let’s say the Cardinals received a three or a four seed in the South Region, which is actually being hosted in Louisville.  There’s no reason to think the Cardinals would not have had a chance to knock off the likes of Kansas or Villanova.  It’s a shame we didn’t get to see them go dancing.

The NCAA Tournament Selection Committee was under fire during the first few rounds of the event due to “seeding errors” in the eyes of many, and it is quite possible that the ACC’s participants in the tournament should have been placed in different locations in the bracket.  It is pure coincidence that each of the ACC’s four remaining teams hailed from the right side of the bracket, which resulted in North Carolina and Syracuse eliminating fellow league members Notre Dame and Virginia.  In a perfect world, two of the league’s last four teams would have been in a different region and the possibility of an all-ACC National Championship would still be alive.

The performance of the league in the tournament also raises another question: did more ACC teams deserve to make the field?  It was impossible to forecast such a stout tournament from the conference, but there were a few teams who started slow, came on late but narrowly missed the dance.  10-8 Clemson and 10-8 Virginia Tech didn’t receive invitations to compete in the tournament, despite having better ACC records than Jim Boeheim’s Final Four-bound Orange.  If the conference is really as strong as it is currently indicating, maybe these two teams deserved a chance.  There’s no reason to think a team who won double-digit conference games in the regular season couldn’t have gone on a Syracuse-like run.

While it’s fun to speculate that the ACC could have potentially landed three teams in the Final Four or had an all-league National Championship, let’s look at the numbers that actually played out.  With an inevitable victor in the UNC-Syracuse game, the ACC will break the all-time record for most wins by a conference in the tournament. The record of 18 was posted by the Big East in 1985 and tied by the ACC this year. The ACC's 18 wins during the NCAA Tournament, are twice as many as the Big 12, which has nine and placed Oklahoma in the Final Four.  

March will soon be drawing to a close, but the impact of the ACC’s tournament dominance will be long-lasting.  With 19 total wins, four Elite 8 teams and a 10-seed in the Final Four, there shouldn’t be much argument in the future over which league is the best in America.  But here’s the crazy thought: the ACC could have done even better this March.

Most fans of the league, however, will agree that things panned out pretty well.