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It’s looking like a lost season for most of the ACC

Duke Mark Mitchell - The Canadian Press

When it comes to men’s basketball, the ACC is synonymous with winning.

An ACC team has won the NCAA tournament 15 times, tied for the most of any conference. But unlike the Pac-12, which won 10 of its 15 titles behind John Wooden’s UCLA dynasty of the 60s and 70s, the ACC has been, until recently, here and now.

There’s Duke, a five-time champion under recently retired Mike Krzyzewski, and North Carolina, which won the most recent of its six titles in 2017 under the legendary Roy Williams. 

But it’s not just the blue bloods. There’s Virginia, which won the 2019 championship, 12 months after the most historic meltdown in NCAA history, when it became the first No. 1 seed to fall in the first round. And then there’s Syracuse, a perennial contender, which joined the ACC in 2013, followed by Louisville in 2014, just a year removed from a since-vacated national title that it won under Rick Pitino while a member of the Big East.

The results were immediate – the best conference in men’s college basketball went from good to great. In 2017 and 2018, nine of the 15 teams in the ACC reached the NCAA tournament. That’s the second-highest number of single-season bids from any conference in men’s history, trailing just the Big East, which sent 11 in 2011. That Big East gauntlet included Syracuse and Louisville, as well as Pittsburgh and Notre Dame – a pair of additional teams that shifted to the ACC in 2013.

But the conference that ascended to the top of college basketball has since faded.

In 2022, Duke and North Carolina reached the Final Four – the Tar Heels beat the Blue Devils before falling to Kansas in the final – but the ACC still sent a total of just five teams to the NCAA tournament, the least since its expansion nearly a decade earlier.

Last year, Miami reached the Final Four as a No. 5 seed, but was again just one of five ACC teams to qualify for the NCAA’s big dance.

This year, the ACC is at its worst.

As of this week, ESPN Bracketology is projecting just four ACC teams to be taking part in March Madness – sixth most of any conference, trailing the Big 12 (nine projected), SEC (nine), Big Ten (six), Mountain West (six) and Big East (five).

There are the stalwarts – eighth-ranked Duke and 10th-ranked North Carolina – but not a whole lot beyond that. Clemson is looking like a lock, buoyed by a win over the Tar Heels in Chapel Hill earlier this month, and Virginia is likely in, despite an uneven season and a pair of recent losses to unranked conference foes Pittsburgh and Virginia Tech.

There are a pair of teams on the fringe as well. First, Wake Forest, which essentially needs an upset win over Duke in front of the Cameron Crazies on Saturday, something that is highly unlikely, but not unprecedented. Pittsburgh pulled off such a win over the Blue Devils earlier this month – one of just two Duke home losses this season – and is clinging to its own NCAA tournament hopes on the strength of that.

A miracle run to a title at next month’s conference tournament is about all that could save Syracuse, and what’s improbable for the Orange looks impossible for Miami, which is 6-10 in the ACC this season, including five straight losses.

Louisville, meanwhile, is last in the ACC for the second straight year – 8-19 overall, but considerably better than the 2022 edition that went 4-28 under first-year coach Kenny Payne.

Through it all, there’s still the two national championship hopefuls. North Carolina won its only meeting with Duke three weeks ago – a loss the Blue Devils will be looking to avenge on their home court in the regular season finale on Mar. 9.

There’s still plenty at stake for the blue bloods. Namely, a shot at another conference title – the Blue Devils have won 21 to the Tar Heels’ 18 – as well as a favourable seed in the NCAA Tournament.

For the rest, the final three weeks will be a slugfest – a fight to salvage what’s looking like a lost season for the bulk of the ACC.