It was a common greeting prior to tipoff in ACC arenas this winter.
“I bet four or five opposing coaches shook my hand and said, ‘Man, it’ll be great when we get out of the ACC and play some other teams,’” Florida State assistant coach Charlton Young said. “’We’re tired of seeing y’all, and y’all are tired of seeing us.’”
After beating each others’ brains in and thumping their chests over their league’s superiority, the ACC’s representatives in the NCAA tournament will take the fight to the rest of the college basketball world. After setting a conference record by placing nine of its members in the tournament – a 10th, Syracuse, nearly made it – the ACC can validate coaches’ claims that it’s the best conference in the history of college basketball over the next three weekends.
“We’ve beaten each other up a lot,” Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick told the AJC Saturday night, after the Irish fell to Duke in the ACC championship game in Brooklyn, N.Y. “Everybody needs to get some rest, but I expect to see more than one ACC team in the Final Four.”
Should the ACC send more than one team to the Final Four in Phoenix, it would be the first time that a conference has had multiple teams in the national semifinals in successive years since 2002-03, when the Big 12 accomplished the feat.
In last year’s tournament, the ACC set NCAA records with six teams in the Sweet 16 and 19 wins by conference teams. North Carolina and Syracuse, which made it as a No. 10 seed, made the Final Four, and the Tar Heels played for the championship, losing at the buzzer to Villanova. The perception is that the league could be even stronger.
“The depth of this league is so much better,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said.
The performance of the teams that didn’t make the tournament would indicate as much. Syracuse beat Duke (No. 2 seed) and Florida State (No. 3 seed). Georgia Tech beat No. 1 seed North Carolina and Florida State. N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried lost his job before the season was over, but not before beating Duke and another tournament team, Virginia Tech.
“There was just no place you could really go and not get a battle,” Swarbrick said. “So, yes, we’re battle tested.”
The teams with the best chances of reaching Phoenix are, naturally, the highest seeds. The league placed four teams among the top 12 seeds – South No. 1 North Carolina, Midwest No. 2 Louisville, East No. 2 Duke and West No. 3 Florida State. Since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985, 73 percent of Final Four teams have been seeded third or higher.
Among the other five, East No. 5 seed Virginia plays excruciating defense and could have a breakout star in freshman guard Kyle Guy. West No. 5 seed Notre Dame has reached the Elite 8 the past two seasons, the only team that can make that claim. Midwest No. 8 seed Miami has reached the Sweet 16 in 2013 and 2016 with coach Jim Larranaga. East No. 9 seed Virginia Tech, in the tournament for the first time since 2007, would likely draw No. 1 seed Villanova if it made the second round, but coach Buzz Williams made three Sweet 16 appearances in his tenure at Marquette. Making its first appearance since 2010, Wake Forest will play Kansas State in a First Four game Tuesday to be the South No. 11 seed, but has been toughened by the 18th most challenging schedule in the country by RPI.
History might suggest caution. The record for most teams from one conference in the NCAA Tournament is 11, set by the Big East in 2011. The contingent included two teams now in the ACC, Notre Dame and Louisville.
While Connecticut ultimately won, the Huskies were one of only two teams to make it to the Sweet 16 (Marquette, with Williams on the bench, was the other) and the only one to reach the Elite 8.
The next three weeks may reveal what it meant that this season, the home team won 69 percent of the time in ACC play, the highest rate in the country this season, according to KenPom.
“It’s great coaches, teams playing, great home-court atmosphere, and the home-court advantage in the ACC is worth 20 points,” said Young, a former Georgia Tech assistant.
Maybe the neutral courts will expose the league as too dependent on that advantage, or perhaps that playing against a non-ACC opponent away from Cameron Indoor Stadium or the Carrier Dome will be freeing.
“When you come out of the ACC, you’ve been in the crockpot,” Young said. “I mean, you’ve been in the pressure cooker. And out of pressure, comes diamonds.”