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ACC basketball: We choked, big time

acc basketballRemember when the ACC was on its way to a historic season, like, a week ago?

Yeah. And now there’s one team left standing in the NCAA Tournament, and barely at that.

Because North Carolina had to rally in the last three minutes to keep the conference alive. The other eight teams who made the Big Dance had their tickets pilfered before the first weekend was up, a historic choke job for a conference that was so high back on … Thursday.

Duke, after winning the ACC Tournament, was actually the Vegas favorite, even as the #2 seed in the East Region. Louisville was also a two, Florida State a three, Notre Dame and UVA fives.

You expected at the least maybe four or even five from those six, including Carolina, the top seed in the Southeast, to get to the Sweet Sixteen, and maybe somebody to sneak in from among Miami, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest.

Those three were gone in the Round of 64, unfortunately. Virginia (by 26) and FSU (by 25) were unceremoniously bounced in the Round of 32. Notre Dame put up something of a fight before being dispatched by West Virginia. Louisville lost a tight game to Michigan. Duke couldn’t get a stop in the second half in a loss to South Carolina.

And … there you go.

You’ve got UNC left from among this Murderer’s Row.

The college hoops world is laughing at us now, and deservedly so. All season long, it was … ACC, ACC, ACC.

And now: 7-8 through two rounds, with the one team in the Sweet Sixteen.

What the heck happened?

Plenty of theories are abounding. One that is gaining ascendancy is the ACC’s scheduling, backloading the marquee matchups in the final weeks of the regular season.

I’ll debunk that one. This has been a scheduling strategy for the past few seasons, and it’s been looked at in past years, for example, last season, when the ACC was 12-1 through the first weekend, as a great prep tool.

Having the likes of Duke, UNC, Louisville, UVA and Syracuse going head-to-head in the final two to three weeks was something that was seen as getting them ready for the rigors of the NCAA Tournament.

Now that the conference is down to one in the Dance, yeah, it’s easy to say that we killed our teams with that approach to scheduling.

Nah.

The big issue is the one none of us who live and breathe ACC hoops want to admit. The critics are right. We were just overrated.

Actually, that’s oversimplifying it. The analytics are what they are. The ACC earned its reputation this year as its teams piled up solid performances in non-conference play: Louisville beating Kentucky and Wichita State, UNC beating Wisconsin, Duke and FSU each beating Florida, Virginia Tech beating Michigan, Georgia Tech beating VCU, Clemson beating South Carolina.

But all of those victories were back in November and December. Then the attention turned to the meat grinder that was January, February and early March, with the nine teams that eventually earned NCAA bids, and the three who missed out on the Big Dance and ended up in the NIT, beating each others’ brains in night after night after night.

How tough is the ACC in the regular season? UNC, the team left standing, lost by 12 at Georgia Tech, which is still alive in the NIT, by 12 in the conference opener. Duke, the favorite in the NCAA Tournament as of a few days ago, lost at home to N.C. State, which fired its coach with a couple of weeks left in the season.

Louisville, a two seed in the national tournament, lost twice to Virginia, which led by 12 before losing at #1 overall national seed Villanova in Philadelphia, led Sweet Sixteen participant West Virginia by double digits before losing in the final minute in December, and held UNC to 43 points in a late-season game in Charlottesville, but also scored 39 in an ugly loss to Florida in the Round of 32.

Florida State probably peaked too soon, winning five of six against ranked ACC opponents in one early-season stretch, before limping home to a 7-6 finish in conference play (including the ACC Tournament).

Miami, also, peaked too soon, beating Virginia in Charlottesville and then Duke in one week in late February, before losing by 25 to North Carolina in Brooklyn, then losing by 20 to Michigan State in the Round of 64.

Wake Forest played its ass off just getting into the field, beating Louisville and Virginia Tech in the final week of the regular season to secure a bid.

Virginia Tech got the most out of a limited roster just to get into the tourney field. Kudos to the Hokies for giving Wisconsin a better game than ‘Nova did before bowing out.

Virginia also played over its heads getting 23 wins out of a rotation that offered nothing in the manner of points in the paint from its bigs, and thus had to rely on jump-shooting to be consistent night-in and night-out, and still got those two wins against Louisville, the win over Carolina, five ACC road wins and the close calls against WVU and Villanova in non-conference play.

Notre Dame just got a bad matchup against another battle-tested team in West Virginia, which to its credit beat Virginia at Virginia, and beat Kansas at home and should have made it a sweep with a win in Allen Fieldhouse.

Louisville ran into the team of destiny of 2017 in Michigan, which survived a plane crash two weeks ago and has been playing with house money in every respect since.

Duke … is a disappointment. Admittedly. The Blue Devils were the consensus preseason #1 with Grayson Allen and Luke Kennard returning, with Harry Giles and Jayson Tatum coming in, and they played to potential for all of four days all season, in NYC.

That four days was enough for the world to anoint Duke as the tourney favorite, but it may have also sowed the seeds of the early exit. The limited roster having played four grueling games, coming from behind from big second-half deficits in the final three, may have left its legs in the Big Apple.

Write these all off as excuses, fine. They probably are.

History will remember the 2016-2017 ACC season as the one that ended with a thud, because the way we judge a conference’s performance is by looking at what it does beginning in mid-March.

This is only fair, because most years, the ACC looks damn good in this kind of rendering.

This year, not so much.

We choked. Big time.

But hey, we have football.

Column by Chris Graham

   
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