Two years after taking advantage of the realignment ripple effect to build on its history of poaching schools from the old Big East Conference, the ACC is back. And if that sounds cynical, just consider it the peevishness of a traditionalist telling the new order to get off his lawn.
But for the next few days, the ACC is entitled to beat its chest about having six of the seven league members who received NCAA Tournament bids advance to the Sweet 16. That number includes traditional Tobacco Road schools North Carolina, Virginia and Duke along with former Big East members Syracuse, Miami and Notre Dame.
The next best conference was the Big 12, which still has Kansas, Oklahoma and Iowa State going strong. The way the brackets are structured, it wouldn’t be a surprise if those two conferences produced the entire Final Four, with North Carolina seeded first in the East, Virginia seeded first in the Midwest, Kansas seeded first in the South and Oklahoma seeded second in the West behind Pac-12 champion Oregon, which beat St. Joseph’s Sunday night.
Speaking of the Pac-12, that conference was given far too much credit by the NCAA Selection Committee and by television commentator Charles Barkley, who said he mainly watched those schools on TV. Oregon was the last of seven Pac-12 schools standing.
The first two rounds produced some remarkable moments, with Middle Tennessee State shutting down the Midwest bracket for 99 percent of the country with its upset of Michigan State and Stephen F. Austin knocking off third-seeded West Virginia in the East. The Lumberjacks could have become the greatest tournament sensation since Florida Gulf Coast in 2013, but they fell by a point to Notre Dame on Sunday at Barclays Center.
Third-seeded Texas A&M staged a frantic last-second comeback to prevent 11th-seeded Northern Iowa from joining double-digit seeds Gonzaga and Syracuse in the Sweet 16. UNI’s failure to master the art of the inbounds play caused it to blow a 12-point lead in the final 44 seconds of regulation en route to a double-overtime loss Sunday night. That’s more shocking than the upset that went awry.
So a tournament that was presumed to be wide-open when it began reached the Sweet 16 with 13 teams ranked as a sixth seed or better. If there’s a Cinderella, it’s 11th-seeded Gonzaga, which has been fitted for that slipper again and again but has never worn it better than this season after blowouts of overrated Seton Hall and massively overrated Utah.
If there’s a “Sin-derella” story, it’s 10th-seeded Syracuse, and not just because the Selection Committee took its dubious resume over some mid-major schools such as Monmouth that had met all the criteria, only to get bypassed. It’s that the NCAA chose a team whose coach, Jim Boeheim, it had suspended for eight games along with taking away 12 scholarships and vacating 108 wins as a result of an investigation that uncovered academic fraud.
So, Gonzaga versus Syracuse on Friday in the Midwest is a classic good vs. evil battle for those inclined toward the metaphorical side of things.
There’s still a chance this tournament could produce an unexpected champion, or at least a team to rival the Butler squads that finished as runner-up in 2010 and 2011. But Kansas and North Carolina, the top two teams in the overall seedings, looked more powerful than anyone.
Second-seeded Villanova played to its potential to advance in the South and might pose a threat to Kansas. Virginia’s defensive toughness can’t be ignored, and if one player can carry his team to the title, it might be second-seeded Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield, following in the footsteps of Syracuse’s Carmelo Anthony in 2003 and Kansas’ Danny Manning in 1988.
Maybe the tournament has a few more surprises in store.
Six ACC teams have advanced to the Sweet 16, the first time one conference has advanced that many teams to the regional semis. The ACC survivors:
Team Seed Regional
North Carolina 1 East
Virginia 1 Midwest
Miami 3 South
Duke 4 West
Notre Dame 6 East
Syracuse 10 Midwest