ACC ends forgettable season with early NCAA Tournament exit

Based on its own lofty standards, the Atlantic Coast Conference had a poor regular season.

Its postseason was even worse.

Florida State and Syracuse were the only ACC teams to make it past the first round, and both lost convincingly in the regional semifinals. ACC teams finished with a 4-7 NCAA Tournament record, marking the league’s lowest win total and winning percentage in this event since 1979.

This will mark just the fourth time the ACC hasn’t sent a team to a regional final since the NCAA Tournament went to a 48-team format in 1980 (it’s now a 68-team event). The only other years the ACC was left out of the Elite Eight were 2003, 2014 and 2016.

“I think every conference goes through those periods,” Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton said Sunday after the Seminoles’ 76-58 loss to Michigan. “You can’t stay on top forever.”

Hamilton expects the ACC to return to form in short order.

But the league that has won three of the last five national titles – and a total of 11 since 1991 – had to take its lumps this year.

The ACC’s problems started with the uncharacteristic struggles of one of its signature programs. Duke went 13-11, withdrew from the ACC Tournament due to a positive COVID-19 test and ended a string of 29 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances.

When the NCAA Tournament brackets came out, the ACC teams with the best seeds were Florida State and Virginia at No. 4 in their respective regions. That marked the first time since seeding began in 1979 that the ACC didn’t have any team seeded higher than fourth.

That represented quite a fall for a conference that had three No. 1 seeds for the 2019 NCAA Tournament: Duke, North Carolina and eventual national champion Virginia.

“We weren’t quite as good at the top,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said after the first round of the NCAA Tournament. “Obviously (North) Carolina and Duke weren’t as good as they’ve been. Virginia was good, but they struggled during the middle of the year. We didn’t really have a top-10, top-15, top-16 team, top-20 team, really, at the end of the day. We had a lot of good teams.”

That became apparent during this tournament.

First-round losers from the ACC included Clemson, Georgia Tech, North Carolina, Virginia and Virginia Tech. Virginia fell to No. 13 seed Ohio in one of the first round’s bigger upsets. North Carolina coach Roy Williams watched his personal record in first-round games fall to 29-1 when the Tar Heels got blown out by Wisconsin.

The ACC’s one pleasant NCAA Tournament surprise was Syracuse, which sneaked into the field with a No. 11 seed but knocked off San Diego State and West Virginia before losing 62-46 to Houston.

While the ACC was down this year, the league figures to be strong again quickly.

Hamilton noted how the consistent strength of the league’s traditional powers has made the conference’s other programs get better. Florida State’s a prime example, as the Seminoles have reached the Sweet 16 in the last three tournaments and might have earned a No. 1 or No. 2 seed last year if the pandemic hadn’t halted the season.

Some of those usual heavyweights weren’t quite as strong this year, and the entire conference suffered as a result. Hamilton doesn’t expect it to start a trend.

“This year, maybe we do not have someone in the Elite Eight,” Hamilton said. “But I think most people – most rational, reasonable-thinking people – they know this is not going to be the issue moving forward.”

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