As ACC basketball play begins, league’s November success opens door for a better March

Just when it looked like the Return of the Can’t Stand Prosperity All-Stars, North Carolina dialed up the pressure and ran Florida State into the ground.

The Tar Heels so often frustratingly failed to build on big wins last year, and it certainly looked like whatever momentum they might have taken from Wednesday night’s win over Tennessee had ebbed out of the building. But the full-court press rattled the Seminoles and provoked a 22-0 North Carolina second-half run. It is, as one of the league’s great point guards and coaches used to say, a game of runs.

The Tar Heels never looked back on their way to a 78-70 win, flirting with disaster but avoiding a bad loss to open ACC play in this brief December appetizer – an amuse hoops, if you will – before ACC play begins in earnest at the end of the month.

That was vaguely appropriate, because avoiding bad losses has been one of the major themes of the basketball season so far in the ACC. While there’s still more nonconferece play to come after this, the ACC has largely avoided the kind of self-inflicted damage that it sustained the past two seasons.

It doesn’t show up yet, and might not even when the NCAA’s first NET rankings come out Monday, but it will in March. This has been a completely different nonconference season for the ACC so far, with results that bode far better for Selection Sunday than they did a year ago. It’s not about big wins. The ACC has a few of those – UNC over Tennessee, Duke over Michigan State, Virginia over Texas A&M, Clemson over Alabama. It’s about big losses. And the ACC only has a few of those, for a change.

Put simply, the ACC has (mostly) avoided the catastrophic losses that so doomed it a year ago, setting the bar so low in conference play that no one could rise above it. The ACC lost 18 games to teams ranked 100 and worse in Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency ratings a year ago, including eight losses to teams in the 200s.

The ACC never used to lose those kinds of games. Maybe one or two, when there was a dismal Boston College or Wake Forest team dragging down the league like an anchor, but not eight of them. And precious few of the others, for that matter. That’s how you end up with six ACC teams at 100-plus in KenPom. And that’s how you end up with only five teams in the NCAA tournament. That’s the recipe.

But not this year. Not even Louisville.

The list this year is very short. Four losses to teams ranked 100-200. One to a team worse than that. (Louisville, naturally, to Chattanooga.) But that’s it. Which is also why 12 of the ACC’s 16 teams are in the top 100. Inevitably, nonconference play ends up setting the baseline for what happens in league play, and that rising tide lifts all boats.

When there are fewer catastrophic losses within league play, there’s less damage to be done. Florida State, which went 2-9 before ACC play and then won seven ACC games, was tournament-selection kryptonite last year, dragging the entire league down with it.

Ideally, for the good of the league, the ACC’s 12 better teams would now proceed to go undefeated against the other four (Georgia Tech, Louisville, Notre Dame, Syracuse) and avoid hurting their own tournament hopes, but even then, a loss wouldn’t hurt as badly as losing to Florida State or Louisville hurt last year. If Duke’s loss at Georgia Tech on Saturday were not an ACC game, it would be the second-worst loss of the ACC season so far, although moderated by being on the road unlike most of the ACC’s nonconference losses.

Still, the ACC landscape is far more favorable for NCAA tournament selection than it was this time a year ago (or two years ago, when things weren’t much better than they were last year). The league has finally stopped losing great bunches of the kind of nonconference games it never used to lose. It is no longer doing November damage that shows up in March. It just needs to finish out this month the same way.

However. Stanford and Cal, this season, have already combined for five bad losses (in only 14 games). Their arrival next season, absent massive improvement. has the potential to instantly undo all of this progress. Adding those two terrible teams could cost the ACC two or three NCAA bids as they drag the entire league down to their level.

If that’s how it plays out, all the presidents who voted yes on expansion are going to hear from their basketball coaches in March 2025. On that, Florida State and North Carolina – both no votes – can agree regardless anything that happened Saturday on the court.

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