With Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and Syracuse entering, much was expected of the ACC this year. The end result? Well, the ACC was still pretty good, but it wasn’t exactly the super conference some expected it to be. In fact, even before the NCAA Tournament came and went with just one team making the Sweet 16 and going no further, it seemed clear that the conference underachieved relative to expectations this season.
The truth, as is often the case, is a bit more complicated than that. That’s especially true when you realize that ACC teams won five in-season tournaments in non-conference play. It was also a nice year for the conference in terms of individual talents.
For starters, Duke and North Carolina were both flawed. Duke didn’t have a rim protector or a good defensive team overall, while North Carolina went without P.J. Hairston all season. It was a given that the Tar Heels would not have Hairston right away, but the thought was that they would have him at some point. Neither team was a powerhouse, although the Tar Heels could look like one at times as they were quite the Jekyll-and-Hyde team in non-conference play.
In addition, Syracuse may have had a great run before they finally lost a game, but the Orange won a lot of close games that they easily could have lost. They were hardly a dominant team. Fellow former Big East member Pittsburgh wasn’t exactly stacked with talent or experience, and their season was somewhat non-descript in that the Panthers didn’t stand out much, if at all, from many other teams in the country.
Indeed, Pittsburgh might be the most symbolic team of the conference. The Panthers were good, but not overwhelmingly so. The middle of the pack had a bunch of teams like them, such as NC State and NIT teams Clemson and Florida State, and departing Maryland underachieved as more was expected than a 9-9 conference mark to go with a 17-15 overall record.
Through all of this, the team that quietly carried the flag for the conference this season was Virginia. The Cavaliers won the regular season and conference tournament and were the only ACC team to reach the Sweet 16. They were two games ahead of second-place Syracuse. They won their first conference title since 1976. And few people talked about them even as they beat Syracuse to clinch the regular season and then beat Duke to win the conference tournament.
Meanwhile, the bottom of the conference had different teams. There was a rebuilding Georgia Tech team that showed promise early before injuries slowed them, a Wake Forest team that won a lot of non-conference home games before coming back to earth, a Notre Dame team that was never the same after giving a game away to Ohio State and losing their best player for the rest of the season, a Boston College team that had a disastrous season, and a Virginia Tech team that simply didn’t have much to begin with.
After the season, the bottom two teams and Wake Forest all changed coaches. Wake Forest hired former Tulsa head coach Danny Manning, while Boston College hired former Ohio mentor Jim Christian and Virginia Tech lured Buzz Williams away from Marquette. All hope this will reverse the tide, something that is becoming tougher all the time.
Next season, Maryland leaves for the Big Ten and Louisville joins from the American Athletic Conference. It’s safe to say that expectations for the conference as a whole aren’t going to drop, even after this season.
The ACC Tournament opened up with Wake Forest taking out Notre Dame 81-69, then two close games followed. Miami edged Virginia Tech 57-53, then Georgia Tech beat Boston College for the third time with a 73-70 win.
The second round began with Florida State edging Maryland 67-65 in the Terrapins’ last ACC game. Pittsburgh then throttled Wake Forest 84-55, before two closer ones in the night session as NC State beat Miami 67-58 and Clemson needed overtime to beat Georgia Tech 69-65.
The quarterfinals were all close games save for the opener, with Virginia beating Florida State 64-51. Pittsburgh just got by North Carolina 80-75, NC State knocked off Syracuse in a thriller 66-63 and Duke edged Clemson 63-62 in a game that could have put Clemson in position for an NCAA Tournament bid.
The semifinals were both good ones. Virginia beat Pittsburgh 51-48, then Duke and NC State battled before the Blue Devils took home a 75-67 win to advance to the championship. Then behind Malcolm Brogdon and tournament MVP Joe Harris, the Cavaliers won their first championship since 1976 with a 72-63 win over Duke.
Player of the Year: T.J. Warren, NC State
Rookie of the Year: Jabari Parker, Duke
Coach of the Year: Tony Bennett, Virginia
Defensive Player of the Year: K.J. McDaniels, Clemson
Sixth Man of the Year: Ian Miller, Florida State
Most Improved Player: Marcus Paige, North Carolina
Malcolm Brogdon, So. G, Virginia
C.J. Fair, Sr. F, Syracuse
K.J. McDaniels, Jr. F, Clemson
Marcus Paige, So. G, North Carolina
T.J. Warren, So. F, NC State
- With 16 wins in the regular season and three more in the conference tournament, Virginia tied the 1999 Duke team for the most wins against ACC opponents in one season (19).
- Syracuse won the Maui Invitational, beating Minnesota, California and Baylor.
- North Carolina won the Hall of Fame Tip-Off, beating Richmond and Louisville.
- Pittsburgh won the Legends Classic with wins over Texas Tech and Stanford.
- Maryland won the Paradise Jam with wins over Marist, Northern Iowa and Providence.
- Virginia won the Corpus Christi Challenge.
- NC State’s T.J. Warren not only led the conference in scoring by nearly six points per game, but he also led in field goal percentage by a significant margin.
- Jabari Parker became the first freshman to lead Duke in both scoring and rebounding while tying an ACC record with ten Rookie of the Week honors.
- Clemson and Florida State reached the NIT semifinals.
What we expected, and it happened: North Carolina had a bumpy road without P.J. Hairston. It was expected that he would play at some point this season, but that never happened. It took the Tar Heels about a month into ACC play to settle into a good pattern.
What we expected, and it didn’t happen: Boston College was thought to be at least an NCAA Tournament team. Instead, the Eagles had a brutal non-conference schedule that backfired, and it was the setup for a disastrous season that ended Steve Donahue’s tenure.
What we didn’t expect, and it happened: Virginia won the regular season title and the conference tournament. While the Cavaliers were thought to be a solid team before the season, few had them contending, let alone winning it all.
Team(s) on the rise: Miami. Jim Larranaga proved his coaching chops once again this season, as the inexperienced Hurricanes were 7-11 in ACC play and could easily have been at least a .500 team. Next year they will be better, especially with Kansas State transfer Angel Rodriguez and Texas transfer Sheldon McClellan both being eligible after sitting out.
Team(s) on the decline: Boston College. The Eagles were rising up from nothing, then took a steep fall this season. Besides the coaching change, two key players transferred, and while there’s positive energy around the program early in Jim Christian’s tenure, the Eagles are not going to be in a good place personnel-wise for a year or so unless they perform some recruiting miracles early on.
Next Season Conference Outlook
Look for some familiar names to be contending for the top spot. You can start with Virginia and Duke, as the Cavaliers lose Joe Harris but have a solid core returning, while Duke brings in a tremendous group of freshmen to go with a good core of holdovers. North Carolina and Louisville will be good enough to contend as well.
Syracuse is a big question mark largely because of the point guard spot offensively. The Orange will continue to slow opponents with the 2-3 zone, but offense always tells the story of how well this team does. Losing C.J. Fair, Tyler Ennis and Jeremi Grant is a lot for this team to absorb at that end of the floor, especially Ennis as he was the steady hand for them all season.
If any team can break through from the middle of the pack, it would probably be either Florida State or Clemson. The Seminoles will defend, while Clemson has been building nicely but takes a hit with the early departure of K.J. McDaniels to the NBA Draft. Notre Dame is a wild card as well with Jerian Grant returning.
It gets tougher and tougher for teams at the bottom to emerge. All of the bottom five teams save for Notre Dame had something happen this off-season that won’t help next year. Georgia Tech saw Robert Carter transfer, while Wake Forest, Boston College and Virginia Tech all changed coaches.