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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — On Friday afternoon, a number of ESPN and Atlantic Coast Conference executives gathered in a room at the Spectrum Center for the first in a series of programming announcements leading up to the launch of the new ACC Network this August.
For ACC commissioner John Swofford, the timing couldn’t have been better. Two months ago, Clemson tore through Alabama in the College Football Playoff championship game, winning a second national title in the last three seasons. And though he wasn’t sure how it would work out on Selection Sunday, the idea of three ACC teams being No. 1 seeds in the NCAA basketball tournament for the first time in league history was certainly on his mind.
“It would be nice,” Swofford said. “It happened once before (the Big East in 2009) and one of our teams (North Carolina) won the championship that year, so it doesn’t guarantee the end result you want. But it’s never happened before (in the ACC), and any time in this league in basketball something happens that has never happened before, it’s pretty remarkable.”
Indeed, the ACC’s run of good fortune continued Sunday when the selection committee anointed the league with the top three seeds in the tournament: No. 1 Duke, No. 2 Virginia, No. 3 North Carolina.
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For the committee, this was a rather easy decision to justify. Whatever metric you want to use — Sagarin, NET Rating, strength of schedule, Ken Pomeroy or the eye test — all three of them had the goods to be No. 1 seeds.
“They earned their right to be there, and with Duke and Zion (Williamson) back, a phenomenal run in the ACC tournament, we thought Duke, Virginia and North Carolina were deserving on that one line,” NCAA men’s basketball committee chair Bernard Muir said.
But being afforded that kind of credit in a process that is ultimately subjective to a degree comes with a downside: The target on the ACC has never been bigger. And if somehow these teams don’t live up to the hype over the next couple of weeks, the collective hangover will not make for a pleasant offseason as the ACC gets ready for its summer-long celebration of new TV riches and exposure.
“I wouldn’t be surprised at the end of it to see more than one team from the ACC in the Final Four,” Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton said. “I think we are just that good and that well-coached and loaded with talent.”
Indeed, for most leagues, getting one team into the Final Four is a reason to celebrate. This year, if the ACC only gets one, it will feel a bit like a letdown. That’s how dominant the league has been in the national landscape, starting the first day of the season when Duke beat Kentucky by 34 points on a neutral court.
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And this isn’t just the media fawning over traditional brands without the schedule substance to back it up. Duke also beat the SEC’s tournament champion (Auburn) and the Big 12 co-champion (Texas Tech); North Carolina beat Gonzaga and Virginia got early wins over Wisconsin and Maryland before tearing through the conference schedule as it has done the last couple of years. That doesn’t even include a team like Virginia Tech, which went 11-1 in non-conference play with wins over Pac-12 champion Washington and Purdue. According to the Pomeroy ratings, six of the nation’s top 17 teams, as of Sunday, come from the ACC.
“It’s remarkable,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said Saturday night after his team beat Florida State for the ACC tournament title. “I hope we get the due that we should get for that level of achievement and because the league has achieved a lot. You can talk about other conferences, but it’s grueling. It’s grueling in our conference, and I think it makes us all better, but we should get rewarded for that.”
But the seeding rewards don’t mean much now because the ACC has to go do it, and there will be obstacles — some from within — for those teams to advance. Duke could end up playing Virginia Tech, which is getting point guard Justin Robinson back from injury, in the Sweet 16.
Though the advanced analytics love Virginia, the Cavaliers’ NCAA tournament demons from the last few years will give No. 2 seed Tennessee — or perhaps a team like No. 5 seed Wisconsin — some belief that they can make a run to Minneapolis out of the South Region. And North Carolina would potentially have to go through two fellow bluebloods in Kansas and Kentucky to win the Midwest Region.
There will also be potential for the ACC’s depth teams to perform better outside the league than they did inside, starting with Syracuse, which got sent out West as a No. 8 seed but might make for a formidable challenge against No. 1 seed Gonzaga in the Round of 32. Florida State’s ACC semifinal win over Virginia showcased the Seminoles’ frontcourt height and athleticism, making them a popular sleeper to come out of that region as well. And though Louisville’s 20-13 record doesn’t wow anyone, the Cardinals are still No. 17 in the Pomeroy rankings, which project them well above their standing as a No. 7 seed.
“I told these guys in the locker room that we have played the best teams in the country,” Louisville coach Chris Mack said after his team was eliminated from the ACC tournament. “It beats you up.”
Now we’ll see whether the ACC, coming off a historic regular season, can beat up on everyone else or if it was all just hype.