With March rapidly approaching, the main item of interest in the College basketball landscape turns to the bracket. Who’s in? Who’s out? Who will the committee underseed, etc…
So far this season could be called the “Year of the Mid-Major” with the West Coast Conference and Mountain West Conference both looking like potential three to four bid leagues. This has given rise in the twitter-verse to a sentiment that the ACC, which by all accounts is down this year, should be a one bid league. Now, while it can be argued that the upper class of the ACC is smaller than ever, just Duke really, I think people are forgetting about the still somewhat robust middle class the ACC brings to the table.
Starting with Wake Forest, the Demon Deacons are the clear cut second team in the ACC this season behind the outstanding play of transfers Alondes Williams and Jake LaRavia. The metrics don’t love Wake Forest (37 in KenPom, 34 in Haslametrics) and some will say the Deacs don’t really have a signature win, but it’s hard to argue with their 19-5 record. This team beats the teams they are supposed to beat and usually handily which can’t be said for a lot of teams around the nation this season. With games still in hand at Duke and at home against Notre Dame the Demon Deacons still have a couple of opportunities to pad their tournament resume and secure a top five seed.
Speaking of Notre Dame, the Fighting Irish are another team that, while not a darling of the advanced statistics community, have put together a solid resume. The Irish had a rough start to the season but looking back, outside of a head scratching game at Boston College, the Fighting Irish don’t have a bad loss. The win over Kentucky will keep looking better and better as long as the Wildcats continue climbing the polls which gives Notre Dame a strong signature win to lean on. They also were able to gut-out a win over a tough UNC squad who we will talk about later. The Irish unfortunately don’t have any games left on the schedule that give them a chance to make a statement to the committee but if they handle their business down the stretch, it’s safe to say Notre Dame will be dancing in March.
Next up are the Tarheels of North Carolina. The Heels are one of the most enigmatic teams in the country this season. In Hubert Davis’ first season at the helm, UNC has been plagued by inconsistency, particularly on the defensive end where they rank just 95th in adjusted defensive efficiency according to KenPom. The Tarheels were dominated in early season losses by Purdue and Kentucky and haven’t seized their opportunities in conference play to lock down a defining win, losing to both Duke and Wake Forest in embarrassing fashion. UNC is currently just on the right side of the bubble according to most bracketology but with very little margin for error. If the Heels lose even one of their next five they could enter the regular season finale at Cameron Indoor Stadium in desperate need of a victory, in Coach K’s final home game, to solidify their tournament hopes.
Finally, we have a bit of surprise, the Virginia Cavaliers. Full disclosure if the tournament began today Virginia would not make the field of 68. The Cavaliers season didn’t begin how they hoped, losing two of their first three games, an upset against Navy and a blowout loss at Houston. Tony Bennett’s squad struggled to find consistency on either end of the floor until mid-January but have now won four of their last five including a win on the road against No. 7 Duke on Monday night. Despite being 75 in KenPom and 76 in Haslametrics, if the Cavs can win at least four of their last six, which includes another showdown with the Blue Devils, and have a decent showing in the ACC tournament, they could be positioned to sneak into one of the final spots in the field.
So, while the ACC is admittedly down for a conference that is accustomed to being a seven to eight bid league, the “one bid ACC” hubbub is a bit of an overreaction. There may not be a ton of potential for deep tournament runs, but it’s safe to say the ACC will have its share of teams in the tournament.