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The (Tobacco) Road To The Final Four: ACC Flames Out In 2017 NCAA Tournament

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The ACC sent nine teams to the 2017 NCAA Tournament. But as we head to the Sweet 16, only UNC remains. Duke was among the contenders that failed to make the event’s second weekend.


And then there was one.

Throughout the 2016-17 college basketball season, there was a lot of debate as to whether the Atlantic Coast Conference would go down as being the best league ever in the history of college basketball. The standard-bearer is the 2010-11 Big East, which sent 11 of its 16 teams to the NCAA Tournament that campaign—the first time in Big Dance history that 11 squads from one league were invited. That number has never been hit since, though there was talk that the ACC could flirt with that figure this season.

Ultimately, the league settled for nine invites. Still a very good number and indicative of the league’s strength in ’16-17.

Then the NCAA Tournament started.

North Carolina entered the Big Dance as a No. 1 seed and has advanced to the Sweet 16. But the other eight invitees? They’ll be at home watching the Tournament like the rest of us.

So what went wrong for the strongest league in the country? Let’s take a look as I try to defend what happened to the league since last Tuesday.

Wake Forest

As the No. 11 seed in the South, the Demon Deacons had to win a First Four game just to get into the 64-team field. Third-year head coach Danny Manning’s squad, however, dropped a high-scoring game to Kansas State. Both teams came into the game with very potent offenses, but the Wildcats just had the hotter shooters on the night. Four players finished in double figures, which had been par for the course for Bruce Weber’s squad, as the Wildcats shot a season-high 66 percent from the field. While it was a disappointing setback, this is a Wake squad that will return a good portion of one of the youngest teams in this year’s Dance. The question is whether star big man John Collins, who had 26 points and nine rebounds in the loss to K-State, will return for his junior season. It may be hard to pass up an opportunity to be an NBA Draft pick this summer. Still, Wake Forest (19-14) made its first Tournament appearance in seven years. Manning has done a very fine job thus far in Winston-Salem, and a loss in a First Four game should not put a damper on a breakthrough season. No blame should be directed toward Wake.

Virginia Tech and head coach Buzz Williams should feel no shame in losing to Tournament staple Wisconsin. (Credit: Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports)

Virginia Tech

The Hokies had a brutal draw as a No. 9 seed in the East, getting Wisconsin in the first round and falling victim to the Bronson Koenig Show. The senior Badger made a school-record eight 3-pointers and scored 28 points, as the Hokies fell to an NCAA Tournament staple: a battle-tested Wisconsin squad that ended up knocking off the defending national champion and No. 1 overall seed Villanova. So there is no reason for Buzz Williams and Co. to have their heads down about this loss, as the veteran Badgers just made more key plays down the stretch and are the only school in the country to make the Sweet 16 in the last four years.

Moreover, Hokies guard Seth Allen was hobbled, struggling through turf toe and only playing 25 minutes. Additionally, the loss of do-everything forward Chris Clarke was finally felt. Williams has turned around the Hokies program in a short amount of time, though, and his team will be a tough out every night in the ACC if his guard-oriented attacks in the future are potent.

Miami

Jim Larrañaga’s Hurricanes certainly had a chance to be a dangerous team in the Tournament as a No. 8 in the Midwest, but a draw with Tom Izzo in March is most certainly daunting for any squad (outside of 2015-16 Middle Tennessee, of course). Miami entered the Big Dance with losses in three of its last four games, but the team had wins over UNC, Duke and Virginia on the year.

The problem was that the ‘Canes were outrebounded by 13 and allowed 17 second-chance points to Sparty. It was tough for Miami fans to watch, especially since the ‘Canes had Sweet 16 experience, the guard play and defensive mentality to advance to a potential matchup with top-ranked Kansas. Beating Izzo is difficult to do at this time of year, but this was one of his younger squads too. Tough loss for the ACC, as the ‘Canes could have been a tough draw for Kansas.

Virginia

It’s tough to defend offensive ineptitude, which is what the Cavaliers exhibited in their second-round loss to Florida on Saturday. Tony Bennett’s No. 5 squad in the East took a major step back after the offense started to look better late in the year with Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome getting more minutes to help out fellow guard London Perrantes. Low-scoring, grind-it-out, close games are to be expected when UVA takes the court, so that’s why what happened against the Gators was so frustrating for Cavalier fans.

This can be a defense-first squad, but at the end of the day getting the ball through the hoop is necessary. Putting up a mere 39 points in a 26-point loss is just flat-out embarrassing. Bennett did a fine job with this team after it lost four significant contributors from last year’s Elite Eight squad, and he had a combined 89 wins the three seasons before this one.

UVA will be fine moving forward as its young players develop. The Cavaliers can beat most any team in the country if they can dictate tempo—and make a shot or two, of course. But Bennett has to ensure that his team’s preferred style of play does not lead to such atrocities as the one UVA fans had to witness on Saturday.

Florida State

Much like Virginia, it’s tough to make an excuse for the Seminoles as they bowed out as the No. 3 team in the West with a loss on Saturday to Xavier. Sure, the Musketeers had made five Sweet 16 appearances in the last nine years heading into their 91-66 destruction of the Seminoles, but Leonard Hamilton’s squad looked ill-prepared for Xavier’s half-court zone defense. Plus, big men Michael Ojo and Christ Koumadje were non-factors. Dwayne Bacon and Xavier Rathan-Mayes combined for 36 points, but they were just a combined 1-of-10 from 3-point land. Meanwhile, 6-foot-10 star freshman forward Jonathan Isaac took just seven shots.

Since scoring five wins in a six-game stretch against Top 25 teams earlier in conference play, FSU had been a bit inconsistent. But their athleticism, length and depth should have overwhelmed Xavier—or at least prevented such a debacle. Perhaps Hamilton should consider tightening up his rotation a bit. Is there such a thing as too much depth in college basketball, because everything seemingly went awry for this talented FSU squad in this Dance.

Notre Dame

Mike Brey’s squad had made it a habit of going to the Elite Eight—the Fighting Irish are the only team in the country to have made back-to-back appearances in the Elite Eight in the last two Tournaments heading into this year’s version—that it was almost a foregone conclusion for many that the Irish would at least advance to the Sweet 16. But the No. 5 Irish fell in a West Region second-round matchup to Bob Huggins and his defensive-minded West Virginia squad. Thus, Brey will have to wait another year for a chance at his first Final Four appearance.

Junior Bonzie Colson deserved a better Tournament fate, as the double-double machine went 10-of-15 from the field (including 4-of-5 from downtown) to lead all Irish scorers with 27 points. No other Irish player had more than 11 (Steve Vasturia). V.J. Beachem had a tough final game with the Irish, connecting on just two of his 14 attempts from the field and hitting just one of his nine shots from long range.

Brey is one of the better offensive coaches in the country, but his unit looked out of sync as WVU—Press Virginia, if you will—made Notre Dame’s offense ineffective outside of Colson. The Irish entered the second-round matchup ranked second in the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio, but they were sloppy with the basketball and looked tentative. WVU’s defense will do that to a lot of teams, but this was an Irish squad that was playing very good basketball heading into the Tournament. A staple of March—Brey and Co. into the second weekend—was taken away from the ACC. And that hurts.

Louisville and head coach Rick Pitino had a tough second-round matchup, falling victim to a streaking Michigan squad. (Credit: Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports)

Louisville

When the bracket came out, a potential second-round matchup for the Cardinals against Michigan looked like a real test. And, boy, was it ever. John Beilein proved once again that he is one of the best head coaches in the country because his teams peak at the right time, as the Midwest Region’s No. 2 team fell victim to the Wolverines on Sunday.

I picked Rick Pitino’s squad to win the national championship because I thought it was going overlooked, would be in every game because of its defense and get spectacular performances on both ends of the court from Donovan Mitchell. I also thought that Deng Adel would be a real X-Factor. Pitino has advanced to the Final Four with three different squads, so March has been a sanctuary for him. It looked like this region could be The Ville’s for the taking if it made enough shots, but it was the defense that let Pitino down on Sunday.

Six-foot-11 forward Moe Wagner scored a career high 26 points, as the Wolverines rallied in the second half to knock out the Cards. It was the Wolverines’ seventh straight win, while the Cards suffered their first-ever loss as a No. 2 seed. Star Wolverines guard Derrick Walton Jr. was held to 10 points, but the Wolverines’ inside game of D.J. Wilson (17 points, three blocks and two steals) and Wagner ended up being the difference. Louisville’s pressure defense forced only six Michigan turnovers, and the offense connected on just 5 of 20 3-pointers. There’s no question that this was a disappointing loss for the ACC, but the Cards just ran into a red-hot Michigan team. It happens quite often at this time of year, and Louisville was a victim of that scenario this past weekend.

Duke

This is the one loss that is inexcusable. Mike Krzyzewski’s team had it made as the No. 2 seed in the East, especially with top overall seed Villanova knocked out. This was supposed to be a Final Four team, yet South Carolina was able to shock the nation with a win over the Blue Devils on Sunday night.

After an entire season filled with adversity, the Blue Devils started to resemble the national championship contender that most college basketball experts and fans expected them to be entering the 2016-17 season when they claimed the ACC Tournament crown. For the league’s naysayers, the fact that Duke did win the league’s postseason title and was bounced out of The Dance early further underscores their “the ACC was overrated this year” argument.

Coach K’s team was plagued by turnovers, finishing with 18, as Frank Martin’s defensive-minded Gamecocks ultimately revealed that Duke was not a true championship contender because it never really did have a real, battle-tested point guard. The team’s defensive woes haunted it as well, as the Blue Devils struggled to contain dribble penetration and was outplayed inside. A parade of McDonald’s All-Americans will continue to flow into Durham, but cohesiveness was always an issue for this squad. More turnover is expected with several star players moving onto the NBA, so Coach K has a lot of work to do before this team is a true national title contender again.

North Carolina

Roy Williams and the Tar Heels are the last team remaining in the ACC’s postseason (unless you count Josh Pastner’s Ramlin’ Wreck of Georgia Tech, which has two nice NIT wins). UNC easily dispatched No. 16 Texas Southern and had a 30-13 lead on No. 8 seed Arkansas on Sunday. Then the Tar Heels were down five points with less than four minutes to play against the Razorbacks.

This is a team that has not looked great at times outside of Chapel Hill, as was evidenced against the Hogs. It’s still a team that is a head coach’s dream, with forward Justin Jackson, point guard Joel Berry II and plenty of frontcourt depth. But UNC is all the ACC has right now, which is shocking for a league that was unquestionably the nation’s best in ’16-17. For that distinction to carry some more weight, though, a national championship being claimed by the team from Chapel Hill would really help.

This was a great regular season for the ACC. The postseason? It was incredibly disappointing. But for the conference to be deemed overrated because of the failures in the postseason? Based on the action I saw throughout 2016-17, I would disagree.

There were a variety of reasons why eight of the nine Tourney squads fell victim before the second weekend of the Dance, none of which should take anything away from what the teams in this conference did in this ’16-17 campaign.

“I was shocked about only UNC remaining,” Pastner told Campus Insiders on Monday. “Our league is the best league in all of college basketball. However, that is what makes the NCAA Tournament so great. Anyone can beat anyone on any given night in a one-game scenario.”

Perhaps things will be different for the league as a whole in the 2018 NCAA Tournament. Before we look ahead to next season, though, UNC will try to salvage the league’s reputation by winning a national championship on Monday, April 3, in Phoenix.

MORE: Complete NCAA Tournament Bracket, Previews, Predictions

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