The ACC keeps winning in March Madness. It wants to convert that into more future NCAA bids

GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP) — No one expected North Carolina State to be in the Final Four after needing a miracle run through the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament to even make the NCAA Tournament.

It’s no surprise, however, to see the ACC here based on recent history.

The league has been in transition with the retirement of coaching giants, and the perception of it has taken a hit compared to the days when the likes of David Thompson, Ralph Sampson, Michael Jordan and Christian Laettner roamed the court. Yet March Madness wins keep coming to outperform that recent reputation — and number of bids — in a messaging conundrum the league is trying to solve.

“That perception is not reality as it relates to ACC men’s basketball,” Commissioner Jim Phillips told The Associated Press. “The national narrative could not be more inaccurate as it relates to the success our teams are having and have had in the NCAA Tournament, over whatever period of time you want to look at.”

It’s been another strong postseason for the 15-team league despite earning just five NCAA bids for the third consecutive year.

N.C. State is the sixth different ACC team to reach a Final Four dating to 2015, while 10 different ACC teams reached at least one Elite Eight and three — Duke in 2015, North Carolina in 2017 and Virginia in 2019 — won the national title in that span. The ACC has 10 more Sweet 16 appearances (31) and eight more Elite Eights (19) than the Big 12 as the next closest league, while the ACC’s nine Final Fours nearly double that of the Big 12, Big East and Big Ten (each with five).

This year’s ACC teams have a combined tournament record of 12-4 (.750) and will finish with the most wins of any league after putting four teams into the Sweet 16 and three in the Elite Eight, including an all-ACC regional final between the Wolfpack and Duke.

Yet this is the same conference that hasn’t ranked higher than fifth in KenPom’s efficiency rankings dating to the 2020-21 season.

Clemson coach Brad Brownell, whose Tigers fell to Alabama in a regional final, said before the Sweet 16 that he felt varied styles within the league have prepared ACC teams for March. Forward P.J. Hall said then that the league gets “disrespected” through the year, only to “start waxing people” in the NCAAs.

N.C. State forward Ben Middlebrooks has heard ACC critics, too. He spent two seasons at Clemson and is now part of the ACC’s latest Final Four entry at the end of another strong March.

“Obviously, for the last couple of years, that’s been something a lot of people have said about the ACC: it’s down or whatever, this and that,” Middlebrooks said Thursday, adding: “People always overlook, that’s maybe the best conference and we’ve shown it this year in the tournament.”

Now it’s about capitalizing and changing future fortunes of teams like 22-win Pittsburgh, which fell on the wrong side of this year’s bubble despite winning 12 of its last 16, which included wins against NCAA teams Duke, Virginia and N.C. State.

Phillips said the league has an internal committee of athletics directors evaluating the league’s basketball stature and chaired by North Carolina’s Bubba Cunningham, who will chair the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Committee that selects the 68-team field next year. It includes Stanford’s Bernard Muir, a former NCAA selection chair whose Cardinal officially join the ACC this summer in the latest wave of realignment.

“We are digging in as a conference and we’re going to create some additional strategies going forward about how we change the narrative,” Phillips said, “because there’s a significant disconnect right now.”

Among the most tangible ideas Phillips mentioned: the possibility of reducing the ACC’s 20-game league schedule to its previous 18-game size. The league went to 20 games for the 2019-20 season with the launch of the ESPN-partnered ACC Network, though two additional games equate to 15 more losses for ACC teams.

Of the top six leagues, the ACC, Big East, Big Ten and Pac-12 play 20-game schedules. The Big 12 and Southeastern conferences play 18.

“We have, and I have specifically, laid the groundwork for (ESPN) to know we’re going to come to them at some point after we do this analysis … relative to not getting as many (NCAA) teams as we believe we deserve,” Phillips said. “And that there may well be a request from us.”

In a hypothetical scenario like that, the league would have to replace lost TV inventory with quality nonconference matchups that could give the league more ways to improve postseason resumes.

Phillips also referenced supporting a move for the selection committee to recognize past league accomplishments when weighing which teams get the last 10 or so at at-large bids. A league’s past strength isn’t part of the bid evaluation.

“There’s a lot of good conferences in there,” Phillips said. “So it’s not about, ‘Hey we’re the only conference that plays really good basketball at the end of the year.’ But my point, you can pick the conference, but playing in the ACC is different than (another) conference.”


AP March Madness bracket: and coverage:

Copyright © 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

Federal News Network Logo
Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up