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As ACC basketball again confounds March expectations, let’s separate fact from fiction

Regular as turning our clocks forward in March, the ACC has once again gone and confounded its increasing number of critics by outperforming expectations in the NCAA tournament.

You can set your calendar by it.

The Triangle has all three teams in the second weekend for the third time in the past 20 years — UNC and Duke won national titles on the previous occasions — and the ACC accounts for a quarter of the Sweet 16 despite only getting five teams into the field.

After a season when national pundits made a habit of taking shots at the overall strength of the ACC, the league showed up when it mattered most and proved things were the same as they ever were. For the second season in a row.

Given the discrepancy between the perception of the ACC’s strength and its performance over the past two games, it’s a good time to separate fact from fiction.

The ACC was not seeded and selected properly

FALSE The simple fact is the teams that deserved to get in got in, and the ones that did were appropriately seeded, within a line of their best-case scenario. There’s no question that Pittsburgh would have been a more dangerous team than Virginia, but that’s not how teams are selected, nor should anyone want it to be. Based on what the NCAA looks at, Virginia deserved to be in.

Virginia and Clemson had strong nonconference wins to go their ACC performances. Pittsburgh and Wake Forest were deficient in both categories, and the opportunity to improve was in their hands. There’s a simple fix to this part of it: Win more games. Pittsburgh is an interesting case, because there’s zero doubt the Panthers were a better team in March than they were in December. But the committee has made it clear it looks at the entire body of work, and by that standard, Pitt fell short.

Now, is the selection process broken? Absolutely, and UNC athletic director Bubba Cunningham — next year’s selection committee chairman — has the opportunity to fix it, by eliminating quadrants or, even better, going to a metric-based system that will give us an actual live-updated bubble, literally the best thing that could happen to college basketball in February. The efficiency components of the NET need to be tweaked as well, to remove the incentive to blow out teams in games already decided. (There are ways to do this that take margin of victory almost entirely out of the process and judge teams by their wins, and their wins alone.)

But based on the criteria everyone knew going in beforehand, and everything is a known quantity other than the exact formula that goes into the NET, the ACC got a fair shake. And has done the most with it.

The ACC continues to outperform expectations in March

TRUE If there’s an area that demands further study, it’s why ACC teams have performed not only their seed expectations but their predictive ratings in the postseason. The why is harder to pin down.

Does a difficult ACC schedule prepare teams better for the rigors of postseason play? Is there something about ACC teams that causes them to be underrated by every single metric that accurately predicts (within reason) every other league? Or is it just a fluke of sample size, the random noise in a small number of games?

Any or all of that could be true.

“I’ve been outspoken about disagreeing with some of the metrics and how the way teams are judged,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell said. “I don’t know the best way to do it. I don’t have the answers.”

Brownell acknowledged he felt the need to bang the drum for the league now that elder statesmen like Mike Krzyzewski, Roy Williams and Jim Boeheim are gone, and there’s no better bully pulpit than an NCAA tournament run. (Jim Larranaga made the most of his last spring.) But even he knows it’s hard to pin down why this keeps happening.

Regardless, you’re judged on your record in March and April, nowhere more than within the ACC, and as much as the league has changed over the past 20 years, that has not.

There are segments of the national media out to get the ACC

FALSE It may seem that way, but it’s not so much that people are out to get the ACC as they’ve been jealous of its success for a long time and take any opportunity they see to bring it down a notch, even if they end up looking foolish in the end.

If you’re a Big East flunky or just tired of hearing about Duke and North Carolina, Duke and North Carolina, Duke and North Carolina, then the past few winters have been a great opportunity to get your shots in, because the ACC hasn’t been winning as many big games early in the season as it once did even a few years ago. That is a fact.

Things were pretty quiet when the ACC had three No. 1 seeds (and a national title) in 2019, but the simmering resentment that predated even then has come to a full boil now, and once the door is open, the social-media lemmings pile through.

One of the big problems the ACC has from a narrative perspective is the lack of people to speak for it. There aren’t ACC toadies the way there are for the SEC in the football-poisoned national media and the tradition in old-school ACC markets has always been to cover the league fairly and accurately and critically, saturation coverage without shilling. That extends to most of the ACC folks with national platforms.

That has been good for the league in whole over the years — a healthy dialogue about what’s best for the ACC used to be one of its sources of strength — but in this attention-driven sports market, the loudest voices tend to rise to the top, not the most intelligent ones.

Joe Lunardi is the 118th-ranked bracketologist at Bracket Matrix over the past five years, a relic of a bygone age when he carved out a niche doing this. He’s not actually any good at it, and because of his platform on ESPN, his increasingly incorrect conclusions permeate the discussion and unavoidably influence the selection committee by osmosis.

His ex post facto criticism of the ACC came off like a cornered animal lashing out, more sad than anything else. At least Lunardi’s not as intellectually lazy as some of the prominent clowns who think taking shots at the ACC is as funny as posting the same things on Twitter over and over and over again.

Being unimaginative and jealous isn’t necessarily malicious. It just comes off that way.

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