There wasn’t a conference more grateful for summer break than the Atlantic Coast Conference after the 2020-21 men’s college basketball season. Long the sport’s gold standard, the ACC entered the big dance without the Duke Blue Devils for the first time in 26 years — and that wasn’t even the oldest streak it snapped in March. ACC teams went a combined 4-7 and ended a record run of 32 consecutive NCAA Tournaments in which it posted a winning record.
For a conference with three of the previous five national championships and four of the nine all-time winningest teams under its banner, it was a stunning collapse — asterisk season or not. And for the first time since 1960, the ACC didn’t have a single team in the top 10 of the final AP Poll. Two seasons prior, it claimed the top three.
So this season, the conference was primed for a rebound. But instead of bouncing back to its former glory, the conference of coastal luminaries has only gotten worse.
When Duke and Kentucky tipped off their respective seasons in a top-10 tilt at Madison Square Garden, it figured to be the first of many marquee matchups for the ACC, which featured four ranked teams in the AP preseason poll. But by the third week of the regular season, the Blue Devils were the only remaining ACC representative in the AP Top 25. Thirteen weeks later, they are still the only team from the conference since mid-November to crack it.
There’s a legitimate possibility that the final regular season of Mike Krzyzewski’s Hall of Fame coaching career and the first without mainstay Roy Williams since 2003 will end without so much as a single conference game between two ranked teams for the first time in 55 years.
The ACC has put at least seven teams in each of the past five NCAA Tournaments, which means nearly half the conference goes to the Big Dance annually. If it started today, the ACC would have just five bids, according to Joe Lunardi’s Bracketology,1 fewer than just about all of the major-conference peers it measures itself against.2 More concerning than the bid total — which would be the conference’s fewest since 2013, when the ACC had only 12 member schools — is the perceived strength of the teams which might qualify. There are only two ACC programs in the top 40 of the NET ratings, the primary sorting tool used by the NCAA selection committee to evaluate teams. The Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Mountain West, Pac-12, SEC and West Coast Conference each have at least three. Duke is the only ACC team projected higher than a No. 9 seed, according to Lunardi. For comparison, in 2019 the ACC accounted for three of the four No. 1 seeds in the bracket. As it stands, Duke would be the only ACC team to enter the opening round of the NCAA Tournament as the higher seed in its matchup.
Resumes are sorely lacking throughout the conference. ACC bubble contenders — Miami, North Carolina, Notre Dame, Virginia, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest — are a combined 11-30 in Quad 1 games.3 Bart Torvik’s website provides 10 past teams that most closely resemble each Division I team in a given season, and outside of Duke, the prospects look grim. None of the ACC bubble teams has a single comparison point that made it past the Sweet 16 since at least 2008.
Collectively, the conference has played 8.75 points better than the average team this season, according to Sports-Reference.com’s Simple Rating System, a lower mark than any of the major conferences. That would be the ACC’s second worst single-season mark since 1971 if maintained.
Any notion that the ACC could build off what little success it had a season ago now seems misplaced. Its two Sweet 16 teams from last year, Florida State and Syracuse, would each need to win the conference tournament to return to the Big Dance. In a handful of months, Clemson and Georgia Tech regressed from top-10 seeds to among the worst teams in the conference. By SRS, Virginia Tech is the only tournament-qualifying team from last season to improve in 2022.4
The collective downturn began immediately. Nearly half the conference had a loss on the resume by each team’s fourth game of the season. Shocking defeats began to accumulate: Virginia lost at home to Navy and then at James Madison; Boston College, Louisville and N.C. State lost home games to Albany, Furman and Wright State, respectively. Then the Big Ten bested the ACC in the annual cross-conference challenge, and the ACC has largely ambled along ever since.
Is a talent shortage to blame? While the recruiting efforts weren’t as fruitful for the conference going into this season as they were in previous years,5 the ACC still produced seven top-30 recruiting classes: Duke, Florida State, Louisville, North Carolina, Miami, N.C. State and Georgia Tech. The conference’s elite-level talent is undeniably concentrated in Durham, though. The Athletic’s preseason mock draft projected that two ACC players would be selected in the first round of the 2022 NBA draft, both in the lottery. Its most recent mock draft now includes two lottery picks and five ACC first-round selections — and four of the five are Blue Devils.
Individual hardware will be difficult to come by, too. No conference over the past 30 years has won more Wooden Awards than the ACC. Those odds are long this year, as Duke’s Paolo Banchero was the only ACC representative named to the Wooden Award’s top-20 late-season watch list.6
Roster continuity is a contributing issue to ACC performance in 2022. All but one player who earned first- or second-team all-conference honors in 2021 isn’t active this season, and players like Walker Kessler and Quincy Guerrier are making noise in competing conferences after transferring. Five ACC teams7 rank in the bottom quartile in roster continuity, according to Ken Pomeroy.
The last time the ACC faced a five-bid reality, the tournament didn’t go particularly well. At the 2012 NCAA Tournament, Lehigh upset No. 2 Duke in the opening round, only one ACC team reached the regional finals, and none made it to the Final Four.
The ACC has gone from a conference synonymous with championships to a conference ripe with discord and pleas for support made by coaches to the student body. Since 2007, the ACC has won 133 NCAA Tournament games (most), five national championships (most) and boasts a 0.616 tournament win percentage (best). You just wouldn’t know it by watching its teams in 2022.