Assessing the Performance of the ACC in 2018 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament
By: Bryan Bruwer
Although Boston College was not involved in this year’s NCAA Tournament, the tournament provides a fantastic opportunity to assess the seasons and performances of their ACC foes, nine of which were fortunate enough to go dancing this march.
Virginia Cavaliers (#1 Seed, 31-2)
Virginia entered the tournament as the #1 overall seed, and the undisputed champion of the ACC. The Cavaliers were red hot, and fresh off of an impressive victory over North Carolina in the ACC Championship game. Tony Bennett and company were primed to shed their reputation of floundering in the tournament, as they were among the most popular picks to cut down the nets on April 2nd in San Antonio. What ensued was nothing short of chaos. In a shocking turn of events, #16 seed UMBC knocked off Virginia, becoming the first 16 seed to ever triumph over a one seed. However, this was more than a shocking upset; it was thorough domination. The Cavaliers’ once dominant defense failed to contain senior guard Jairus Lyles, who scored a whopping 28 points while shooting 9-11 from the field. Virginia fell behind early and never got into a groove offensively, only mustering a meager 54 points. It was an incredibly disappointing end to an otherwise outstanding season for the Cavaliers, and one that nobody in sports will soon forget.
Miami Hurricanes (#6 Seed, 22-10)
The Hurricanes entered the tournament as a team on upset alert after being matched up with Loyola Chicago, a highly touted mid-major program from the Missouri Valley Conference. Miami lost standout guard Bruce Brown to an injury earlier in the season, and a victory against the Ramblers would’ve possibly enabled his return. The Hurricanes still performed valiantly in ACC play and down the stretch, led by potential lottery pick Lonnie Walker IV. They ultimately came up short against Loyola-Chicago, who drilled a game-winning three-pointer as time expired, and would fulfill their destiny as a Cinderella by making an improbable run to the Final Four. Although the Hurricanes failed to win their first round game, they have to be proud of their performance this season. Who knows what they could’ve accomplished if Brown had remained healthy.
North Carolina Tar Heels (#2 Seed, 25-10)
Like Virginia, the defending national champions expected a deep run in the tournament in their quest to reach their third straight Final Four. The Tar Heels managed to draw a #2 seed despite having 10 losses, which speaks to the rigor of their schedule and the quality of their wins. After recovering from a slow start to defeat Lipscomb in the first round, UNC found themselves overwhelmed by #7 seed Texas A&M. The Aggies controlled the game from start to finish, knocking off the Tar Heels by a score of 86-65. Although one wouldn’t have expected UNC to bow out early, this was not a vintage Roy Williams team. They lacked size on the inside due to losing Kennedy Meeks, Isiah Hicks and Tony Bradley after the 2017 season, and also lacked star power, despite strong performances by Joel Berry and Luke Maye. The fact that the Tar Heels were bounced from the tournament this early certainly came as surprise, but perhaps many had expectations that were simply too high for a team that may have been in over its head.
Florida State Seminoles (#9 Seed, 21-11)
Few people were high on Florida State as a potential sleeper going into the tournament, but the Seminoles proved doubters wrong by making a deep run. After crushing highly touted NBA prospect Michael Porter Jr. and Missouri in the first round, the Seminoles pulled off a shocking upset of Xavier after being down double digits about halfway through the second half. The Seminoles were not done though, knocking off a dark horse Final Four team in Gonzaga to advance to the Elite Eight. Their Cinderella run came to an end when they fell to a red-hot Michigan team. Like another team to be discussed later in this article, the Seminoles demonstrated the depth of the ACC with their tournament performance, and certainly have a lot to be proud of.
Virginia Tech Hokies (#8 Seed, 21-11)
The Hokies had the misfortune of drawing perhaps the toughest 9 seed in the field in the Alabama Crimson Tide, led by star point Collin Sexton, who literally carried an otherwise lackluster squad to the tournament with heroics in the SEC tournament. VT put together a strong season in ACC play highlighted by marquee victories over Virginia, North Carolina, and Duke, but they ran into a team that got hot at the right time. Alabama defeated Virginia Tech by a score of 86-83, in one of the more exciting games from a memorable first weekend of action. Had the Hokies drawn a team such as Missouri they may have been able to advance, but Sexton and the Crimson Tide proved to be too much for them to handle.
Duke Blue Devils (#2 Seed, 28-7)
As the second best team in the ACC during the regular season, expectations were high for Coach K and the Blue Devils entering the tournament. All was going according to plan, as Duke breezed past Iona in round one before knocking off Rhode Island in the round of 32 to reach the sweet sixteen. Many anticipated a titanic matchup between Duke and Michigan State at this junction of the tournament, but Syracuse’s upset of the Spartans set up a date between the Orange and Blue Devils. In an exciting contest, Duke held on to advance to the Elite Eight, where they met Bill Self and the #1 seeded Kansas Jayhawks. This battle between blue-blood programs certainly lived up to the hype, but the Jayhawks advanced to the Final Four behind 32 points from Malik Newman, who took over the game in overtime. It was a disappointing end to the season for Duke, but the future is certainly bright, as they boast an incoming class of freshmen that some consider to be the best in modern recruiting history, including the top three recruits in the nation (R.J. Barrett, Cam Reddish, and Zion Williamson).
Clemson Tigers (#5 Seed, 25-9)
The Tigers put forth an impressive showing in the ACC tournament, and entered the tournament as a 5 seed. They drew New Mexico State, a team that plays at a similar plodding pace and prides themselves on their defense. New Mexico State’s defensive prowess combined with Clemson’s struggles after losing Donte Graham to a season-ending knee injury made the Aggies a popular pick to upset Clemson, and even advance to the Sweet Sixteen in some brackets. The Tigers were ultimately able to dispel the talk of an upset and take care of business against the Aggies. They went on to embarrass Auburn in a 84-53 blowout, a result that few could have foreseen. Clemson ultimately fell to the eventual winner of their region, the Kansas Jayhawks. The Tigers certainly performed well in the tournament given their rash of injuries, even giving Kansas a run for their money in a four-point loss in the Sweet Sixteen.
NC State Wolfpack (#9 Seed, 21-12)
After falling to Boston College early in the ACC tournament and losing to Georgia Tech about a week before that, the Wolfpack were certainly not riding a wave of momentum entering the tournament. Kevin Keats and company met their end in the form of #8 seed Seton Hall. Baylor transfer Allerick Freeman, the Wolfpack’s leading scorer, certainly did his part by pouring in 36 points in a losing effort. Freeman and the NC State defense (particularly the wing players) struggled all game, allowing senior guard Khadeen Carrington to score 26 points, and Desi Rodriguez to contribute 20 points off the bench. The Wolfpack simply found themselves outmatched on the defensive end, and couldn’t muster the offensive firepower to win this shootout of a contest.
Syracuse Orange (#11 Seed, 23-13)
As the last team into the tournament, not many people expected Jim Boeheim and Syracuse to make a deep run. Once again, the Orange defied expectations and pulled off the upset against TCU, a 6 seed. They then proceeded to bust brackets across the nation by defeating Michigan State in one of the more stunning upsets of the tournament. The Spartans were baffled by Syracuse’s zone, as future lottery picks Jaren Jackson and Miles Bridges failed to get it going offensively. The Orange moved on to face a familiar foe in the Duke Blue Devils. This signified the end of the road for Syracuse, who kept the game within reach, but failed to come out with the victory. Despite the loss, this was certainly an impressive showing for the Orange, and their run speaks to the depth of the ACC and its wide distribution of talent. It also marks the second time in three years that the Orange have won two or more tournament games despite receiving a seed of 10 or lower.
On the surface, one would consider this year’s tournament to be a poor showing from the ACC. Despite being widely considered to be one of if not the best top to bottom conference in all of college basketball, the ACC failed to send a team to the Final Four for the first time since 2014, with perennial contenders such as Virginia and North Carolina bowing out early in shocking upsets. Despite a lack of representation in San Antonio, the tournament was not a total bust for the ACC. Both Duke and Florida State made their ways to the Elite Eight, while Clemson and Syracuse punched their tickets to the Sweet Sixteen before losing. As mentioned earlier, the fact that middle of the pack ACC squads such as Florida State and Syracuse were able to cause a bit of mayhem by busting brackets across the country certainly bodes well for the strength of the conference as a whole. The ACC also sent nine teams to the tournament last year, indicating that there was no drop-off in the league’s performance. In addition, Notre Dame was widely cited as a tournament snub, meaning that one could reasonably argue that the ACC should have had ten teams in the tournament, which would break a league record. The ACC is arguably deeper than it has ever been before, which will be an interesting development to follow as we look ahead to next season.