Embarrassment of riches or just an embarrassment?

<p>Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey saw his team beaten by a tough-minded West Virginia side last weekend.</p>

Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey saw his team beaten by a tough-minded West Virginia side last weekend.

A year ago at this exact point, the Atlantic Coast Conference had just made history—six of its teams were among the final 16 sides in the 2016 NCAA tournament.

And even after Duke and Miami were throughly dominated in their Sweet 16 matchups, four teams advanced to set up a pair of all-ACC Elite Eight contests before North Carolina and 10th-seeded Syracuse faced off in the 2016 Final Four in Houston.

This year’s ACC was hyped as potentially the best conference in college basketball history. The league had talent at the top and depth throughout—and some argued it had the chance to match an NCAA-record 11 tournament bids.

Ultimately, nine ACC teams earned a spot in the 2017 version of the Big Dance—but with six of the nine among the selection committee’s top 20, the league had an opportunity to both top its own Sweet 16 record and settle the debate once and for all.

Instead, what seemed to be an embarrassment of riches turned out to be little more than an embarrassment.

No. 1 seed North Carolina is the ACC’s lone representative remaining, yet it was not an easy ride for the Tar Heels. Arkansas held a five-point advantage with 3:31 to play before North Carolina closed the game on a 12-0 run to eke out a Round of 32 win.

But aside from the Tar Heels, the opening weekend could not have gone much worse.

Wake Forest failed to win its First Four game, No. 9 seed Virginia Tech went out in the first round against Wisconsin and the eighth-seeded Hurricanes got steamrolled in the opening round thanks to a 20-2 Michigan State first-half outburst.

In the second round, No. 3 seed Florida State and fifth-seeded Virginia were smushed in 25- and 26-point blowouts, No. 2 Louisville was outlasted by Michigan and No. 5 seed Notre Dame came up well short against West Virginia after barely hanging on in the first round against Princeton.

The Blue Devils had a chance Sunday night to solve some of the league’s woes.

And yet the preseason’s No. 1 team—one loaded with talent and one of the all-time coaching greats—could not take out a South Carolina team that finished third in the SEC and had the nation’s 122nd-ranked adjusted offensive efficiency, per statistician Ken Pomeroy.

What does this all say about the ACC? Pretty clearly, the league was nowhere near as strong as we thought it to be.

Yes, the ACC had 11 of its 15 teams inside the top 54 of Pomeroy’s overall rankings—more than any other conference. It had two more top-five seeds than any other league—the Big 12 was next with four.

But what about the case against it?

Only two ACC players have won the Naismith Player of the Year trophy since 2002, and none since Tar Heel Tyler Hansbrough last collected the award in 2008—there are no ACC players among the four finalists this season.

The league also did not earn many big-time nonconference wins this season.

Sure, Duke and the Seminoles beat Florida, the Cardinals topped both Kentucky and Purdue and North Carolina got a solid neutral-site victory against Wisconsin.

But the Blue Devils came up short against Kansas. North Carolina failed to beat Kentucky. Both the Fighting Irish and Cavaliers could not top Villanova. The Seminoles did not play a true road game until Dec. 31, and Louisville still lost to Baylor.

Perhaps most importantly, the Big 12, Big Ten, SEC and Pac-12 all have three representatives in this weekend’s Sweet 16 and even the Big East has a pair of teams.

The ACC has one.

Now, I am not one to make snap judgments to a single four-day weekend after a grueling four-and-a-half months of college basketball.

Even when Duke was not playing, I found myself tuning into ACC game after ACC game. Every night was a dogfight—N.C. State pulled off an unexpected and miraculous win in Durham Jan. 23 and Georgia Tech, which is still in the midst of a deep NIT run, knocked off three of the league’s top four teams on its home floor.

And figure this: The ACC’s 2015-16 nonconference record was 166-49, winning games at a better than 77 percent clip. How did the league fare in 2016-17? A nearly identical 165-46.

Maybe the ACC simply wore itself down throughout the season—both the Blue Devils and Notre Dame utilized relatively small rotations en route to a spot in the conference tournament title game. Neither team looked consistently sharp this weekend and both were sent packing in the Round of 32.

Maybe it was a lack of defense—just seven of the ACC’s 15 teams are inside the top 50 in adjusted defensive efficiency, compared with seven of 10 for the Big 12 and seven of 14 for the Big Ten. And of the SEC’s 14 teams, four are among the nation’s 10 best defenses.

When it came tournament time, offense did not come as easily. Five of the eight eliminated teams scored 71 points or fewer in their losses, a mark which 11 of 15 ACC teams surpassed on average during their 18-game conference slate.

There certainly was no conference more compelling than the ACC. The league has the four winningest active coaches in the nation—who all have at least 600 victories—has the best rivalry in all of college sports and lays claim to seven national championships since 2001.

But as this year has shown, great drama does not always translate to postseason success.

Mitchell Gladstone | Sports Managing Editor

Twitter: @mpgladstone13

A junior from just outside Philadelphia, Mitchell is probably reminding you how the Eagles won the Super Bowl this year and that the Phillies are definitely on the rebound. Outside of The Chronicle, he majors in Economics, minors in Statistics and is working toward the PJMS certificate, in addition to playing trombone in the Duke University Marching Band. And if you're getting him a sandwich with beef and cheese outside the state of Pennsylvania, you best not call it a "Philly cheesesteak." 


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