If the ACC and Pac-12 want respect in March, they need to earn it in the regular season.
Each of the past two years, surprise runs in the men’s NCAA tournament have brought about March conversations around how to evaluate the strength of conferences. The Pac-12 was much maligned in 2020–21 when a UCLA team that finished 13–6 in conference play was sent to the First Four, then showed out in the Big Dance with three Elite Eight teams. And in ’21–22, jokes about a one-bid ACC were all the rage until the league sent three to the Elite Eight and two to the Final Four. In both years, the Big Ten produced nine NCAA tournament bids, yet across the two tournaments sent just one total team to the Elite Eight (Michigan in ’21).
This dichotomy prompted rather inflammatory comments from Jim Boeheim at ACC media day in October, when he claimed the ACC was the best conference in the nation a season ago because of the league’s 14–5 NCAA tournament record and said the Big Ten “sucked” in the Big Dance.
“If you can’t play in the [NCAA] tournament, you’re not good,” Boeheim said.
I wonder what Boeheim thinks losing to Maine, Bellarmine, Colgate, Troy and Loyola Marymount makes you. Because that’s just a sampling of the schools that have taken down ACC teams early in 2022–23.
In the season’s first 15 days, the ACC has lost 11 games to teams outside of the traditional “high-major” designation (Power 5, Big East, AAC and Gonzaga). The Pac-12 has lost 16 such games. The Big Ten, on the other hand, had zero such losses before finally taking one Monday, when Ohio State lost to a top-20 San Diego State team. The Big East and Big 12 each have three, while the SEC has seven.
It’s inevitable that every power league will have its anchors. In the Big Ten, Nebraska has produced its fair share of bad losses in nonconference play in recent years, and even an NCAA tournament team a year ago like Rutgers took a horrific loss to Lafayette early that season. But the failure to take care of business has been conference-wide in the ACC and the Pac-12 so far, and that’s why those leagues will have no one to blame but themselves come Selection Sunday.
In the ACC, Florida State was picked fifth in the preseason by the media. It led for just two minutes in its opening-night loss to Stetson and for just over five minutes the following week against Troy. Expectations weren’t high for Louisville, but three losses to mid-major foes in the season’s first eight days is still stunning. Boeheim seemed confident in his young Syracuse team until the Orange got blown out at home by an admittedly feisty Colgate squad from the Patriot League. And while there was hope Boston College was trending up, its losses to Maine and Tarleton State in the first two weeks illustrate just how big a rebuilding job this is.
Somehow, the Pac-12’s fate has been worse. While an important effort educationally and a positive step for equitable scheduling, the Pac-12’s Legacy Series against the SWAC turned out to be a massive self-inflicted wound. Six men’s games were played, three on Pac-12 campuses and three at SWAC schools. The SWAC (KenPom’s lowest-ranked conference last season) won four of the six games, including all three home games. And again, these losses weren’t just taken by the Pac-12’s bottom-feeders: Washington State is fresh off a trip to the NIT semifinals but couldn’t get past Prairie View A&M, Colorado could beat a ranked Tennessee but not Grambling State, and ArizonaState‘s dominance over Michigan would look better without a loss to Texas Southern on its summary.
Those outside the Legacy Series didn’t do much better. Oregon got hammered at home by UC Irvine, the preseason No. 4 in the Big West. USC trailed by as many as 20 against Florida Gulf Coast, picked fourth in the Atlantic Sun. Washington, the type of team the Pac-12 needs to be on the bubble to earn respect nationally, dropped one to California Baptist, the fifth-ranked team in the WAC’s preseason poll. And don’t get me started about calwhich has lost to the murderer’s row of UC Davis, UC San Diego, Southern and Texas State already.
How can coaches, ADs and commissioners expect the NCAA tournament selection committee to ignore these failures? The Big Ten has plenty to answer for in terms of its lack of March success, but a fair selection process can’t put in teams with clearly worse summaries over Big Ten schools keeping a clean team sheet. Data is noisy in the season’s first few weeks, but without any preseason forecasting baked in, T-Rank (an analytics site comparable to KenPom) ranks seven Pac-12 teams and 10 ACC teams outside the top 75 nationally as of Tuesday morning. In the Big Ten, that number is just three. It’s not just reputation: Big Ten teams are performing far better than their counterparts early on and have taken care of business against supposedly inferior teams.
It’s a long season: Syracuse still has everything in front of it despite its loss to Colgate, and Arizona State has plenty of time to dig itself out of the Texas Southern–sized hole. But losses like that do shrink each team’s margin for error, and collectively they hurt the case for mid-pack teams from their respective leagues to earn at-large bids.
The Big Ten may “suck” in March. And despite its strong start, it may very well stumble again this year. But if you want to take its bids away, don’t suck in November.
Five More Observations From the Season’s Second Week:
- It’s so great having basketball back in the Lahaina Civic Center in Maui. A pandemic casualty the last two seasons, college hoops in Maui (especially in that tiny venue) is a signature part of the sport’s calendar. Cheers to soft rims and coaches in flowered shirts!
- I’m still not over this absurd buzzer beater by Ohio to take Michigan to overtime Sunday, though the Bobcats’ late-game execution otherwise left much to be desired. Michigan eventually survived in OT.
- Kevin Willard has Maryland ahead of schedule, which probably shouldn’t be surprising given the work he did at Seton Hall. This Terps team has its flaws, but the starting five fits well together and played at a very high level this weekend in wins over Saint Louis and Miami.
- Saint Mary’s might have its best chance in a while of toppling Gonzaga for the WCC title: The Gaels have been dominating thus far against top mid-major competition, especially defensively. Remember the name Aidan Mahaney, a gifted freshman guard.
- College of Charleston winning the Charleston Classic on its home floor is quite the achievement for Pat Kelsey and staff. The Cougars are a team no No. 5 seed will want to see pop up in its pod come Selection Sunday.
Five Games I Hope Feast Week Produces:
- Battle 4 Atlantis: Kansas vs. Dayton – The last two meetings have produced instant classics, including last year’s buzzer-beating winner for Dayton.
- Maui Invitational: Arizona vs. Arkansas – Eric Musselman vs. Tommy Lloyd in a battle of two of the best roster-builders in college hoops.
- PK Legacy: Duke vs. Gonzaga – Need I say more?
- PK Invitational: UConn vs. North Carolina – For as much as UNC has struggled with its early-season buy games, UConn has dominated. This could be an upset to watch.
- Emerald Coast Classic: Iowa vs. UCT – The Hawkeyes are explosive on offense, and the Horned Frogs are as physical as they come. This would be a fun litmus-test game.
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