ACC aims to build on ‘down’ year’s final NCAA flourish

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Jayden Gardner heard the criticisms of the strength of the Atlantic Coast Conference last year, then felt the effect when his Virginia team joined league-mate Wake Forest on the wrong side of the NCAA Tournament bubble.

He figures there won’t be a repeat this year, not after the way the league teams that did make it ensured the ACC outperformed its power-conference peers in March Madness.

“It showed itself in the tournament,” the forward said Wednesday of the league’s strength, adding: “They’ll be expecting a lot because of most of the people are back.”

It was a common vibe among league teams during the ACC’s preseason men’s basketball media day, a validation after landing three teams in the Elite Eight, rivals Duke and North Carolina in the Final Four and the Tar Heels coming within minutes of winning the national championship.

“We were better than we got credit for,” first-year Duke coach Jon Scheyer said.

Yet there’s also the reality that the league is coming off its lowest haul of tournament bids since expanding to become a 15-team league for the 2013-14 season. And it’s up to the rest of the teams to restore the league’s strong middle tier that has typically gobbled up bids every Selection Sunday.

“I do believe the league is at its best when the depth is greater,” commissioner Jim Phillips said in an interview with The Associated Press. “And you can move around who’s in what positions, but the strength of this league functions at its highest level when, 1 through 15, you don’t have nearly the gaps that maybe we saw last year.”

At minimum, it was an unusual year for the league.

The ACC had been on a strong run in the five seasons before the COVID-19 pandemic, with Duke (2015), North Carolina (2017) and Virginia (2019) all winning national titles while the Tar Heels played for another title in 2016. The league also twice set its high of nine bids in 2017 and 2018, approaching a long-stated and still-unfulfilled expansion goal of becoming a regular a 10-bid league.

Yet the ACC never quite looked on par with its tradition-rich history last year.

Rosters reshaped by the transfer portal and players who had only competed during the no-crowd days of the pandemic needed time to develop. League teams didn’t perform particularly well in marquee nonconference games.

The league had just one team — Duke in the final season of retiring Hall of Famer Mike Krzyzewski – ranked in the AP Top 25 for much of the season while also finishing fifth in KenPom’s conference rankings last season with its lowest-ever efficiency rating as a 15-team league.

“You’ve got to perform,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. “One thing we didn’t do was perform in November and December. We made our bed.”

And that set the stage for what came on Selection Sunday, which included Wake Forest missing the NCAAs despite 13 ACC wins, followed by Virginia with 12.

“They’re going to tell you that the narrative doesn’t matter, but we’re all human,” Demon Deacons coach Steve Forbes said. “So you can’t help it when you hear that over and over and over. That’s what we heard in November. And you know what? Probably we didn’t win the right games in November.”

“The hard part for me was not getting the bump in the league,” he continued. “The narrative, once it got going, there was no way to change it — until all of a sudden we went 14-5 in the tournament. … And you’re like, ‘What are you going to say now?’”

Those 14 wins — most of any conference — came largely on UNC and Duke pushing all the way to New Orleans for the rivalry’s epic first-ever NCAA Tournament matchup, as well as Miami reaching a regional final before falling to eventual champion Kansas.

Now the Tar Heels return four starters from the team that reached the final Monday night of the season in coach Hubert Davis’ first season as Hall of Famer Roy Williams’ successor. The Blue Devils are stacked with the nation’s top-ranked recruiting class as Scheyer replaces Coach K.

And looking at ESPN’s “Bracketology” preseason mock NCAA bracket, the league has five other expected tournament teams: Miami, reigning first-time ACC Tournament champion Virginia Tech, Virginia, Notre Dame and Florida State.

“I’ve always felt like the ACC is the best college basketball conference in the country,” Davis said. “I felt that way last year and I felt that way this year. … I feel like we’re at a really good point this year with our strength. And again, we’ll prove it out there on the floor how strong our conference is.”


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