ACC Men's Basketball Hit A New Low This Year. Can The NCAA Tournament Save It?
Probably not, but it has before.
This article is part of our March Madness series.
For the second consecutive men’s college basketball season, just five of the 15 teams in the Atlantic Coast Conference were selected to participate in the NCAA Tournament: Duke earned an automatic bid and the No. 5 seed in the East after winning the ACC tournament; regular-season co-champions Miami (No. 5 in the Midwest, No. 1 in this writer’s heart) and Virginia (No. 4 in the South) earned at-large bids; North Carolina State (No. 11 in the South) was another at-large selection; and Pittsburgh (the Panthers defeated Mississippi State on Tuesday to earn the No. 11 seed in the Midwest) was assigned to one of four play-in games.1
It wasn’t all that long ago when the ACC was the nation’s premier men’s basketball conference. Over the past several seasons, though, the conference has taken a significant step in reverse. The latest sign of its decline: back-to-back seasons with only a third of the league’s teams making the tourney. By contrast, in the 19 NCAA Tournaments played from 2002 through 2021,2 the ACC only saw as little as a third of its member teams earn tournament berths four times in total — and never twice in a row.
During the period for which we have both KenPom and BartTorvik data (2002 through 2023), the ACC’s overall bid share (the share of its member teams that have earned NCAA Tournament bids) now sits at just 45 percent. That figure lags behind those of the Big 12 (54.3 percent), Big Ten (51 percent) and Big East (50 percent), three of the other five so-called power conferences in college basketball.3 It still checks in ahead of the Pac-12 (39.7 percent) and SEC (39.3 percent), but it’s trending in the wrong direction.
Of course, this year’s ACC earning only five bids shouldn’t have been all that surprising. The league was, well … it was just kind of bad this season — at least in comparison to the other top conferences.
The ACC’s Adjusted Efficiency Margin (AdjEM) per KenPom was just plus-8.02,4 marking the first time it has posted an AdjEM rating south of plus-10 in the entire era of that statistic being available. That AdjEM rating also ranked just seventh among the nation’s 32 conferences, marking the first time the ACC has finished outside of the top six, as well as only the second time (along with 2013) it has finished behind any league other than the Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 or SEC.5
And a plus-8.02 AdjEM mark isn’t just bad for the ACC; it’s really bad for any power conference. Since 2002, there have only been 11 instances of one of these six conferences posting an AdjEM south of 10 — and just twice has a conference had a worse rating than the one collectively managed by the ACC this year.
The ACC had a down year by power conference standards
Worst collective adjusted efficiency margin (AdjEM) for a power conference in men’s college basketball, plus the share of teams that made the NCAA tournament and the furthest round reached by those teams, 2002-2023
|Season||Conf.||AdjEM||AdjEm Rank||Bid Share||Best Round|
|2004||Pac-10||+6.66||9||30.0%||Rd of 32|
|2012||Pac-12||+8.14||6||16.7||Rd of 32|
|2018||Pac-12||+9.02||6||25.0||Rd of 64|
No team from one of these conferences has ever advanced to the national championship game, while only one of the previous 33 teams that have gone dancing from one of these leagues (Kentucky in 2011) has made it to the Final Four.
By Bart Torvik’s Performance Against Seed Expectations (PASE) metric — which measures how many tourney games a team won as compared with what we’d expect from their seed — these conferences have actually done better than you’d think they would in the tournament, averaging 0.17 more wins than their seeds suggest. And to be fair, the ACC itself has generally outperformed seeding expectations in the tournament as well. During the aforementioned 2002-22 period, ACC teams have collectively outperformed their seed by 6.0 wins, the fourth-best mark out of 32 measured conferences. Of course, nobody hangs a banner that reads “PASE” in the rafters of their arena. The ACC has produced eight national champions since 2002,6 but obviously, none of those championships have come at the end of a season where the league was as weak as it appears to be this year.
And even if a few ACC teams have managed to exceed what we might expect of them at the Big Dance, it doesn’t change the conference’s downward trajectory. As measured by AdjEM rating, the ACC has actually been in decline for years.
With the exception of the 2020 season (which was cut short by COVID-19), the conference has seen its AdjEM rating drop each year from 2016 through 2023. The league once had a significant lead in average season-long AdjEM over the other power conferences — back when it led the nation in AdjEM rating in three out of four seasons from 2004 through 2007, including a record-setting plus-20.32 mark in 2004. But the ACC hasn’t led the country in AdjEM rating since the 2007 campaign, and it hasn’t finished better than third since 2018. As a result, it now lags behind both the Big 12 and Big Ten in that measurement.
In fact, the decline of the ACC actually maps neatly with the rise of the Big 12, which now has by far the best AdjEM rating since 2002, as well as the highest conference bid share.
From 2002 through 2007, the ACC had a better AdjEM than the Big 12 in five out of six seasons. In the 16 seasons since then, however, the ACC has been better than the Big 12 just once — when it just barely eked by in 2011. The Big 12 even had a six-season run (from 2014 through 2019) when it led the nation in AdjEM rating every year. (No other conference has led the country more than five times, consecutively or otherwise, since 2002.) After a two-season interregnum finishing behind the Big Ten in 2020 and 2021, the Big 12 has been back on top in each of the past two seasons. It hasn’t finished worse than third since that aforementioned 2011 campaign, which was also the last time it checked in behind the ACC.
Only time will tell how Duke, Miami, Virginia, NC State and Pitt will fare in this year’s tournament, but the track record of similarly lackluster leagues is not all that encouraging — at least if you have dreams of cutting down the nets and having your One Shining Moment. That the ACC has been able to outperform expectations in the past provides a glimmer of hope, but the conference is working against a lot of history, and its teams that made the tournament are not nearly as strong as the ones it typically sends to the Big Dance.
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