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NCAA: ACC to Overwhelm Tournament

By Brian Chase

SPORTS EDITOR

Now that the football season is over, attention in the sports world can turn to other things, like the NCAA Division I basketball season now fully underway. Plus, now that the season is roughly half over, some trends in this year’s teams are being revealed. The biggest and most substantiated trend of this year is that the Atlantic Coast Conference is having a great year, while several other conferences are much worse than they were last year. This combination could lead to an all-time record for tournament bids for one conference.

Before this season, the most powerful basketball conference seemed to be the Big XII, since it had gotten two teams into the Final Four of the NCAA basketball tournament each of the last two years. But now, none of the three teams that were a part of that trend -- Kansas, Texas, and Oklahoma -- are in the top ten; they all have at least one conference loss, and unheralded Texas Tech and Oklahoma State are playing better ball. All this means that the Big XII heavy hitters are not going to dominate this year; the conference will not get as many tournament bids as in previous years, and all the teams that do get in will probably be out by the Sweet 16 or the Elite Eight at the very latest.

A digression: I was watching the ESPN highlight reel of KU’s loss to Iowa State last Saturday and the announcers rolled out this statistic: “the Jayhawks are 13-0 when scoring 70 points or more, and 0-3 when they don’t.” Well, DUH! When a team doesn’t score that many points, they do tend to lose. That statistic doesn’t even imply the Jayhawks lose low-scoring games because it could just be that the other team plays better defense and scores a ton of points. These kinds of comments by ESPN and other college broadcasters bug me.

College b-ball pundits such as SI.com’s Stewart Mandel report that a similar change of fortunes to the Big XII is happening in other conferences like the Big Ten and Pacific Ten. There was a series earlier this year where Big Ten teams played ACC teams, and the ACC won nearly all of those contests. The Pac-10 conference has only two teams, Stanford and Arizona, that have ever been ranked in the top 25 on either the Associated Press or College Coaches poll. That is not to say that, like the Pac-10, there aren’t good teams in these conferences, just that there are fewer of them, or that the best teams in these conferences aren’t as good as the best teams in these conferences last year. And some of the smaller conferences, which usually contribute a team or two to the tourney, are also struggling to produce a team qualified for a bid. Across the board, most college basketball conferences are weaker this season.

Except for the ACC, that is. Home to Duke, North Carolina, Georgia Tech, NC State, Wake Forest, and others, the ACC has had more teams rated in the top ten of both polls than any other conference. There was a time earlier this season when three of the top five teams in the country as rated by the Coaches’ poll were ACC teams. And in what may be the most important factor, the Ratings Percentage Index, and rating of basketball teams by calculated statistics somewhat like the BCS in college football, has eight of the nine ACC teams in the top 40. That may not sound impressive, but the RPI has a huge influence on who goes to the tournament, and there are only 65 tournament bids. These eight teams also have at least six more wins than losses. If the latter part of the season continues as the first part has, all eight of these teams will get into the tournament, a record number for the ACC. At the same time, the Big Ten and Pac-10 could qualify a record low number of teams.

The worst part of the ACC dominance trend this year is that it kills, at least for now, my assertion a few weeks ago of parity in college b-ball. But, I look forward to knowing that next year, the fates of the college conferences will probably change as much as they did this year and put a new conference on top of things. In addition, for all its regular season dominance, the chance for any one ACC team to win the tournament is more or less the same as a good team from any other conference. So in that sense at least, Div. I College Basketball is still anybody’s game.