As soon as the doors opened to the Dean E. Smith Center for their first glimpse at North Carolina basketball on Sept. 27, deliriously excited fans scrambled inside, with many claiming their seats and others forming such long lines at the merchandise stands that they snaked into the concourse as overwhelmed cashiers failed to keep up with demand.
Wearing freshly purchased Carolina gear, they watched ballyhooed freshman Cole Anthony windmill dunk his way into their hearts in his debut. As if "Late Night with Roy" needed anything extra to put it over the top, Roy Williams wore a pink sport coat and danced the Electric Slide. After two hours filled with cheers, the giddy fans headed for the exits, likely thinking, "This is going to be our year!"
After all, there are annual national championship expectations at schools such as North Carolina. Raucous pep rallies in the form of Midnight Madness serve only to bolster what the fans expect to see come November. Replacing four starters? Psh. We're Carolina!
Five months later, though, nothing about Carolina basketball is all that electric. Losing Anthony to injury early in the season sent the Tar Heels into a nosedive, and Williams grew progressively more frustrated as the games wore on. In January, Williams opined that this is the "least gifted" team he has had at North Carolina. Last week, he went into meltdown mode after yet another last-second loss, declaring, "You got two choices: You can compete your butt off, or you can get in the fetal position and curl up and start crying," before going on a rant that included a curse word for which he quickly apologized.
North Carolina has clinched a losing record heading into the ACC tournament for the first time since 2001-02, a problem not only for the Tar Heels but also for the league as a whole. For better or worse, how Carolina and Duke go often determines how the outside world views the ACC.
Williams throws down slam for Louisville
Malik Williams gets the ball and hammers home a dunk to increase Louisville's lead over North Carolina.
As the calendar flips to March, the narrative seems to be set: This must be a down year.
A league that had three No. 1 seeds a year ago and one that represents the gold standard in college basketball is not a lock to get four NCAA tournament bids this season. No teams are on the No. 1 line. Louisville and Florida State, which play at 7 p.m. ET Monday in Tallahassee, join Duke as the only three ranked ACC teams. Defending national champion Virginia has been on the bubble for most of the past two months, and schools that in the past have been NCAA tournament regulars, such as Syracuse and Notre Dame, have been streaky at best.
By ACC standards, this is all a little unusual. Since 2014, the ACC has averaged 7.5 tournament teams in the field. The last time the league had fewer than five teams in the NCAA tournament was when it had four in 2013, the year before it became a 15-team conference. Is this merely a down season, or is something else at play? For answers, we should probably start with, you guessed it, North Carolina, a team that in many ways mirrors what is happening across the league.
Notre Dame coach Mike Brey spent a few minutes chatting with Williams before their most recent game. Brey sympathized with what the Tar Heels have gone through, dealing with injuries and too many close losses to stomach.
"That was us last year," Brey said in a quiet moment in his office the day after a 77-76 win over the Tar Heels. "But it's Carolina, and when their program is not up there in the top four of our league, our league takes a hit, perception-wise. There's no question about it. We've got to try and earn around it. We're better than people think, but I get the whole public relations factor."
The injuries and close games most closely associated with North Carolina are not exclusive to the Tar Heels, though that team has been hit the hardest. In addition to Anthony, six other North Carolina players have missed time due to injury this season -- and highly touted freshman Anthony Harris is out for the season because of a torn ACL.
There have been far more close games this season too, indicating more parity. North Carolina is 1-6 in games decided by three points or fewer, tied for the second-most such losses in Division I. In ACC play, 43 conference games have been decided by five points or fewer. As a comparison, in all of 2018-19, only 31 games were decided by that margin.
That leads us to Clemson, a team that represents what it means to play in the ACC this season. Injuries? Check. Clemson lost two players to ACL tears over the summer (one of them, Jonathan Baehre, retore his ACL in-season). Another transfer did not get a waiver and has to sit out this season. Natural roster turnover meant the Tigers had to replace four starters, and at times early in the season, they had only eight or nine scholarship players.
They had bad losses in nonconference play. But then they did what was once unthinkable in early January: They beat North Carolina in Chapel Hill for the first time. North Carolina had won 59 straight at home over the Tigers, the longest NCAA streak by one team at home over one opponent.
Clemson also has wins over Duke and Louisville this season, yet it is hovering around .500. There is an irony here that is not lost on coach Brad Brownell. Last season, Clemson went 20-14 and had an NET ranking of 35 but missed the NCAA tournament because it did not have enough Quad 1 wins. This season, Clemson has more Quad 1 wins but too many losses.
"It's been a wacky year, for sure," Brownell said. But the reason Clemson has been able to look so good at times and so average at others is a mix of his team's performance and what is happening across the league.
"I don't think the top of our league looks any different than anybody else's top of the league, but I think the middle of our league and the bottom are better than last year," Brownell said. "Yet it doesn't matter in terms of NCAA bids that much. Because of the nonconference record and injuries some of our teams had, we're not better enough to be higher in the NET for it to matter. That was settled long ago. Now you're playing each team over the course of league games, and you're finding out that anybody can beat anybody. North Carolina is a last-place team in our league, and they could beat anybody from any league."
The Tar Heels could have beaten Duke earlier this month in what instantly became one of the best games in the historic rivalry. The Tar Heels had a healthy Anthony in that game, the way they had a healthy Anthony against Oregon early in nonconference play -- one of the bigger wins the ACC had, per various metric systems.
But overall, the ACC did not play as well as it is used to doing in nonconference, including losing marks against the Big Ten and SEC -- not to mention losses to schools such as Wofford, DePaul, Stephen F. Austin, Ball State and Nicholls State. Add a new 20-game league schedule and getting any sort of traction later in the season becomes more challenging, especially with fewer Quad 1 opportunities.
"Now you're playing each team over the course of league games, and you're finding out that anybody can beat anybody. North Carolina is a last-place team in our league, and they could beat anybody from any league."Clemson coach Brad Brownell
"It's unfortunate you don't get the credit when your nonconference as a whole doesn't go the way it historically has," Louisville coach Chris Mack said. "Now you get to the point where you have some really good teams that maybe their records aren't as reflective of their talent level, and there's not a whole lot that we as a conference can do about that because the numbers are set after nonconference play.
"When you look at Miami, one of the teams toward the bottom of the league, they go to Illinois, battling for the Big Ten title, they're up 30 at one point. Rutgers -- Pittsburgh handles them. There are more than a few cases of that, but the Big Ten is the league everybody wants to talk about, and when those guys knock each other off, it's 'Wow, what a performance' versus what they say about our league, and it's because of the nonconference part."
There is a reason the ACC struggled early in the season: an unprecedented loss of star power. A staggering 13 of the 15 players who made All-ACC teams last season left the league -- none bigger than Duke megastar Zion Williamson.
Coaches across the conference knew this would be a transition year. Replicating the three No. 1 overall seeds the ACC had last season would not be possible. A feat such as that has happened only twice in college basketball history, and reality dictated that this would be a year with far more questions than answers when the season began.
"I call it the Zion vacuum factor," Brey said. "When we lost that unique star power in college basketball that drove the needle, it's almost as if there's no way we could have been as sexy. That took the wind out of a lot of sails. We don't have a guy like that."
Truthfully, nobody else does either. Virginia did not have someone such as Williamson, but it did have recognizable stars including Kyle Guy, De'Andre Hunter and Ty Jerome on its national championship team. Replacing four starters is never easy, and it was rough for Virginia at first, especially on the offensive end. But the Cavaliers seemed to have turned a corner of late, with wins in six of their past seven games, especially with the emergence of Tomas Woldetensae.
"The conference lost a lot, and maybe all conferences did, but the conference lost a lot of experience from last year, and teams start playing their way into quality basketball," Cavaliers coach Tony Bennett said. "There's so much parity in all of college basketball, sometimes the early-season things and the numbers can be a little misleading. There's more balance in conferences than people think, and I'm not saying that because, well, last year the ACC had three No. 1 seeds. It's never quite maybe as good as you think, and it's never quite as down as you think. This league has better quality depth, and teams are improving. But I understand there's a narrative, and all that stuff goes on.
"We've been fortunate over the years, probably at this stage, to be in a spot where we've been locked in or in a good spot, but that's part of having a different team. So you embrace that challenge. You embrace improvement. You always talk about the pursuit of quality, and that's what we're pursuing, and if we pursue it the right way, hopefully we'll be where we want to be."
The parity argument across the sport is an easy one to make. Take the Top 25 rankings, for example. On Feb. 15, nine ranked teams lost -- eight of them to unranked teams. That is tied for fourth most in the AP poll era. There have also been a record-tying seven AP No. 1 teams this season, including Michigan State, which is no longer ranked.
Several NBA scouts attending the North Carolina-Notre Dame game last week, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said they believe that overall play across college basketball is trending down due to myriad factors, including the transfer portal, elite-level freshmen opting to play overseas or in the G League, and what they characterized as a broken AAU system. They also believe the gap between the high majors and mid-majors is smaller than ever (look at the top 10 for proof).
What they see in the ACC, the NBA scouts said, is no different from what they see when they scout other games or other leagues. The difference, though, is that the ACC prides itself not only on having elite teams -- its three teams in the top 11 are more than that of any other conference -- but also on its depth in the NCAA tournament field.
"Ideally, you'd like to have both. We're all greedy in that respect," ACC commissioner John Swofford said. "You want as many teams in, and you want to be in as many Final Fours as you can be in. You want to win as many national championships as you can win, so I wouldn't trade ACC basketball with another conference year in and year out. We've had a lot of success in terms of the number of teams in, and we've had a lot of success in terms of winning national championships, with eight in the last 19 years. ... Certainly most years we've been fortunate enough to have both."
A month ago, many projected the ACC to get only three teams in the tournament. With both Virginia and NC State strengthening their positions, though, coaches across the league are not resigned to four or even five teams being the ACC's NCAA limit in 2020. Brey, for one, would love nothing more than if Notre Dame's win over the Tar Heels sparked his team forward.
Hubb finds Mooney for two-handed flush
Notre Dame's Prentiss Hubb steals the ball and tosses it to John Mooney, who smashes a dunk.
Notre Dame has battled back from a 2-6 ACC start to sit at 8-8 and 17-10 overall. In the locker room after the victory, Brey told his players, "Fellas, it's never too late in this league. We're within striking distance. We can finish fifth, and if we finish fifth and go down to Greensboro for the ACC tournament, we'll see which way the wind is blowing and what you have to do to get in there.
"I know we've got four. We're going to have more when it's all said and done," he said. "There's more math coming with all of us. Always remember you need 68. It's not 50. Somebody's going to Dayton. I'll go. I'll get there early. We'll bus. We'll be proud. We're in this thing. Let's see how it plays out."