Atlantic Coast Conference coaches spent much of the season boasting about the league’s competitiveness and balance, but in the end, the 2015-16 race had a very familiar look at the top.
North Carolina finished with a 14-4 ACC record to win its first regular-season title since 2012 and Virginia, which finished alone at the top in the 2013 and ’14 seasons, checked in at 13-5 to share second place with Miami.
But that isn’t to say that the Tar Heels and Cavaliers had a free ride.
Critics questioned North Carolina’s toughness after the Tar Heels lost back-to-back leagues games at Louisville and at Notre Dame to start February and then had a close call before squeaking past last-place Boston College by three points. A home loss to Duke and setback at Virginia later in the month erased what had been shaping up as an insurmountable lead for the Heels.
The Tar Heels didn’t clinch their outright regular-season title until beating Duke in Durham on the final night of the regular season after Miami had lost earlier in the day at Virginia Tech.
Virginia started the conference campaign by losing two of its first three games to two teams (Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech) picked to finish in the bottom half of the standings. The Cavaliers then lost again (at Florida State) the middle of January to fall to 2-3 in league play before winning 11 of their last 13 ACC outings.
A win over Louisville in their final regular-season game coupled with Miami’s loss to the Hokies gave the Cavaliers their share of second.
Miami actually blew two opportunities to get at least a piece of the title. In addition to the spanking they got at Virginia Tech on the last day of the regular season, the Hurricanes also lost big at North Carolina in Chapel Hill in late February with first place on the line.
The conference ended up placing seven teams into the NCAA tourney field with Duke, Notre Dame, Syracuse, and Pittsburgh joining the top three.
Syracuse’s inclusion as an at-large selection came under criticism, but the Orange rode their opportunity all the way to the Final Four, rallying to stun Virginia in a regional final to advance.
The surprise team of the conference was Virginia Tech. Picked to finish 14th out of the 15 teams, the Hokies won four of their first five league games, hit a slump with losses in seven of their next eight, then won their last five regular-season games to finish in a tie for seventh.
North Carolina (14-4, 33-7)
Virginia (13-5, 29-8)
Miami (13-5, 27-8)
Louisville (12-6, 23-8)
Duke (11-7, 25-11)
Notre Dame (11-7, 24-12)
Virginia Tech (10-8, 20-15)
Clemson (10-8, 17-14)
Syracuse (9-9, 23-13)
Pittsburgh (9-9, 21-12)
Florida State (8-10, 20-14)
Georgia Tech (8-10, 21-15)
NC State (5-13, 16-17)
Wake Forest (2-16, 11-20)
Boston College (0-18, 7-25)
With only one exception, the 2016 ACC tourney followed form with 12 of the 13 games won by the higher seeded team.
The top two seeds met in the championship game with No. 1 North Carolina taking command over the final 10 minutes for a 61-57 victory over No. 2 Virginia. The Cavaliers shot only 36.5 percent from the field to North Carolina’s 51.1 but still managed to hold onto a four-point lead 44-40 with 9:51 left before the Tar Heels went on an 8-0 run to take the lead for good.
It was the 18th ACC championship for the Tar Heels, one off Duke’s league record 19 titles, but their first since 2008.
In the semifinals, the Tar Heels routed the No. 4 seed, Notre Dame, 78-47, and the Cavaliers took care of No. 3 Miami 73-68.
The quarterfinals featured seven of the top eight seeds. North Carolina had little trouble against No. 8 Pittsburgh 88-71, Notre Dame disposed of No. 5 Duke 88-82, Miami held on against No. 6 Virginia Tech 88-82, and No. 2 Virginia coasted past No. 10 Georgia Tech 72-52.
The second round had the only “upset” with Georgia Tech rallying to defeat No. 7 Clemson in overtime 88-85. The other three games went strictly to form with Pitt edging No. 9 Syracuse 72-71, Duke getting by No. 12 NC State 92-89, and Virginia Tech eliminating No. 11 Florida State 96-85.
And on opening day, NC State opened the tourney with a 75-72 win over No. 13 Wake Forest and Florida State handed No. 14 Boston College its 20th consecutive loss to an ACC foe 88-66.
Louisville did not take part in the event because of its self-imposed post-season ban.
Player of the Year: Malcolm Brogdon, Sr.,G, Virginia
Freshman of the Year: Brandon Ingram, G/F, Duke
Sixth Man of the Year: Isaiah Hicks, Jr., F, North Carolina
Defensive Player of the Year: Malcolm Brogdon, Sr., G, Virginia
Coach of the Year: Jim Larranaga, Miami
Brice Johnson, F, Sr., North Carolina
Malcolm Brogdon, G, Sr., Virginia
Cat Barber, G, Jr., NC State
Grayson Allen, G, So., Duke
Jaron Blossomgame, F, Jr., Clemson
- North Carolina’s four league defeats were the most for the ACC regular-season champion since 2007, when the Tar Heels and Virginia both finished with 11-5 conference records.
- The seven ACC teams in the NCAA field combined to win a record 19 tournament games, eclipsing by one the former best set by the Big East in 1985. The 36 wins in the 2015 and 2016 tourneys also is a record for a two-year span, bettering the 28 by the Big East in 2008-09 and Big Ten in 1999-00.
- With North Carolina and Syracuse both advancing, 2016 marked the sixth time that two ACC teams have made it to the NCAA’s Final Four. The other occurrences were in 1981 (North Carolina and Virginia), 1990 (Duke and Georgia Tech), 1991 (Duke and North Carolina), 2001 (Duke and Maryland) and 2004 (Duke and Georgia Tech). The six ACC teams in the Sweet 16 set a tournament record, surpassing five by the ACC in 2015 and Big East in 2009.
- It was a case of feast or famine for Miami in conference play. Of the Hurricanes’ 13 league wins, seven were by double digits with an eighth by nine points and a ninth by eight. Of their five defeats in the regular season, four were by double digits (Clemson, NC State, North Carolina, and Virginia Tech).
- Only one player named first team all-ACC in the preseason made first team all-ACC in the postseason awards. That was Virginia guard Malcolm Brogdon.
- Seven ACC teams (North Carolina, Virginia, Miami, Louisville Notre Dame, Duke, and Syracuse) were ranked in either the final Associated Press media or ESPN-USA Today coaches’ polls.
What we expected, and it happened: North Carolina and Virginia were picked to finish 1-2 in the conference, and, though the Cavaliers had to share second place with Miami, that’s how the league wound up. The Tar Heels beat Duke in the regular season finale to finish a game ahead of the Cavaliers and Hurricanes.
What we expected, and it didn’t happen: Duke was a strong pick for third place in preseason media polling, but after winning their first two ACC games, the Blue Devils finished January by losing four of their next five outings and even with a five-game winning streak in February, never really got back into contention. Their 11-7 mark was their worst conference record since they were 8-8 in 2007.
What we didn’t expect, and it happened: Everybody pretty much knew Louisville was in deep trouble after a woman claimed that a former assistant gave her and other escorts money and game tickets in exchange for dancing and providing sexual favors to recruits. But with the investigation still in its relative preliminary stages, the news that the school was making a preemptive strike by instituting a post-season tournament ban for 2016 was stunning. The Cardinals were coming off a win over North Carolina and were in second place in the standings when the announcement, which caught players and even coach Rick Pitino by surprise, was made in early February.
Team(s) on the rise: Duke, Virginia Tech. The Blue Devils have some key personnel losses but bring in one of the nation’s top recruiting crops and will have forward Amile Jefferson back, making them a contender for a No. 1 national ranking in the preseason. The Hokies return eight of the top nine scorers from a team that finished with its most conference wins (10) in six years.
Team(s) on the decline: Wake Forest, Georgia Tech, Boston College. Coach Danny Manning’s Demon Deacons lost four league games by five or fewer points (plus one by three in the tourney), but turning all those around still doesn’t get the Deacons to .500. The Yellow Jackets are more or less starting over with a new coach (Josh Pastner, late of Memphis) and without their top four scorers and top two rebounders. It’s going to take some breaks for BC to snap that 20-game conference losing streak with its top scorer (Eli Carter) and rebounder (Dennis Clifford) both having exhausted their eligibility.
2016-17 ACC Outlook
In what might be the ultimate dog bites man story, Duke will go into the fall as the early favorite to capture the 2017 championship.
The Blue Devils must replace three departing players (Marshall Plumlee, Derryck Thornton, and Brandon Ingram) but reload with one of the top recruiting classes in the country. In fact, the arrival of top guard prospect Frank Jackson is seen as one of the reasons Thornton decided to transfer before seeing his playing time reduced.
In addition to the key freshmen, the Blue Devils also will get back Amile Jefferson, who missed all but the first month of last season after being sidelined by a foot injury. Grayson Allen also is returning for his junior year and will be a candidate for Player of the Year.
North Carolina loses seniors Marcus Paige (who went from hero to NCAA Championship game footnote in 4.3 seconds when his came-tying three-pointer was upstaged by Villanova’s Kris Jenkins and his buzzer-beater) and Bryce Johnson, but don’t shed too many tears for coach Roy Williams.
Kennedy Meeks has withdrawn his name from the NBA draft to join returnees Joel Berry, Isaiah Hicks, Nate Britt, and others plus another A-plus recruiting class is coming in.
Virginia, Miami, and Louisville each have some work to do in replacing lost stars, but all look to have the right answers and should join the Blue Devils and Tar Heels as NCAA entrants in 2017, assuming the NCAA doesn’t come down harder on the Cardinals.
Virginia Tech has no significant personnel losses from a team that won six league games in a row down the stretch (including its ACC tourney opener) and looks poised for its first NCAA bid since 2007.
The rest of the field essentially looks split into two groups:
First are six teams that could make a significant move up in the standings if things fall right. That list includes Pittsburgh, where former Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings will have one of the league’s top front courts (Michael Young and James Artis).
The fortunes of Florida State, Syracuse, Notre Dame, NC State and Clemson could depend on whether key players who have applied for the NBA draft withdraw their names and return to school.
At the next level are three teams that will be fighting to stay out of the league basement with Wake Forest probably holding a slight edge over Georgia Tech and Boston College.