The ACC Hasn't Been as Bad as Everyone Thinks
Going into the NCAA Tournament, we addressed the discussion about which major conference was best represented. As it turns out, the ACC, with nine total teams and six squads seeded on the 5-line or higher, had the most to show for their efforts in the regular season.
Using our nERD metric -- a team ranking that represents the number of points we'd expect a team to win by against an average one on a neutral court -- we found that the ACC held the highest combined nERD (136.59) and the second-highest average (15.18) of major conferences, behind the Big 12 (16.02) and their six tournament squads.
As we would expect, the six teams seeded five or better all advanced past the Round of 64. The ACC was looking good, but it's an entirely different story with the Sweet 16 set. The 1-seeded North Carolina Tar Heels are the only ACC team remaining, leaving analysts and critics with the conclusion that it was overrated by the selection committee and has been the worst performer among the major conferences.
While we can't argue with calling them overrated, is it true that it's been the worst of the core six conferences? Let's revisit the conversation.
Round of 64
In the Round of 64, 1-seeded North Carolina and 2-seeded Duke and Louisville all took care of business. They each won by at least 15 points and averaged a margin of victory of 25.3 points between them.
On Day 1, the madness of March crept in early for the ACC. The 9-seeded Virginia Tech Hokies came up 10 points short against an extremely underseeded Wisconsin squad in their first game. The Hokies made it a close game, but were the only ACC school to lose on Thursday.
As for the three other squads, each of their opening-round matchups came down to the wire. A 3-seeded Florida State squad won by six over a tough Florida Gulf Coast team, while 5 seeds Virginia and Notre Dame won by just five and two points, respectively.
The conference was technically 6-2 after all this, but outside of North Carolina's blowout win, their average margin of victory in five games was 10 points.
Round of 32
After winning the opening round, the Round of 32 was almost all losing for the ACC. Their six teams went 1-5 overall, including upset losses by Duke, Louisville and Florida State. The lone win came from the Tar Heels, who beat Arkansas.
The Seminoles were blown out by 25 points at the hands of the Xavier Musketeers and the same went for Virginia, who also lost by 25 points to Florida. Notre Dame's March full of luck finally ran out against a superior West Virginia team, but the other two losses -- by Duke and Louisville -- were super tight.
After having a 30-23 first-half lead, Duke fell to South Carolina by seven points. Despite winning at the three-point line and foul line, the Blue Devils turned the ball over 18 times compared to the Gamecocks' 11. Our numberFire Live platform tells us the game was even quirkier, as it was practically a toss-up -- at 57.45% in favor of Duke -- up until a very impactful sequence of plays at the 9:30 mark.
After a Duke miss and South Carolina rebound, Duane Notice made a layup to put the Gamecocks up 57-53, which gave them a 53.46% chance of winning -- signaling that the single score was worth an increase of 7.56%. Seconds later, the Blue Devils missed a three-pointer and Notice knocked down another shot on the ensuing possession -- this time it was a three, putting South Carolina up seven and pushed their win probability to 70.21% at the 8:51 mark. The defensive rebound and three-point make constituted the biggest swing of the game, with a win probability change of 13.1% in the victor's favor.
With Duke's Luke Kennard in foul trouble, the Gamecocks took the game home from that point on, as Florida State's win probability slowly mounted and they took the win. But for the most part, math tells us it all came down to one very important sequence.
The same thing happened to Louisville. They were up 36-28 at the half, but they fell short by four points. In terms of statistical performance, they were outplayed by Michigan in most categories, but it was one run that did the Cardinals in.
Throughout the second half, the Cardinals had a win probability of at least 60% all the way up until there was 9:16 to go. The game was tied, but probability still favored Louisville. Then, after a Louisville layup two minutes later, the Cardinals and Wolverines were tied at 55. That sunk their win probability to 55.06%.
The Wolverines' next two offensive possessions netted them two three-pointers, a 61-57 lead and a gain of 22.7% in win probability. They sat at 69.23% and never looked back. You can see that from the game's win probability graph, which includes the point at which Michigan made their way to the near-70% mark.
So, in a nutshell, the ACC lost in the Round of 32. The difference between a poor 1-5 record and a respectable 3-3 record was a matter of a few possessions, which speaks to the variance of single-game elimination tournaments.
The average nERD of the six ACC teams to appear in the Round of 32 was 17.04. The average nERD of their six opponents was 14.36, meaning, on average, the ACC teams were nearly three points better than their adversaries. In addition, each of those teams has outperformed their pre-tournament nERD by at least .09.
We shouldn't have been surprised by that, though.
Historically, each of their opponents had a nERD that would suggest they were underseeded. The least underseeded just so happened to be Arkansas, whose nERD was just .04 above the average 8 seed since 2000. As for the five others, all but South Carolina were at least 1.2 nERD above the historical average for their seed line. Florida and West Virginia top the group, at 4.42 and 4.56 above the average 4 seed.
We need to consider context when evaluating teams and their conference's performance. Despite the tough matchups in the Round of 32, the ACC is not far off the mark of the other major conferences.
In the Mix
Take a look at each conference's average nERD, which is current and factors all tournament games thus far.
Despite having just one team remaining to the Big Ten's three, the ACC has still proven to be much better as an overall product. It's also right behind the Pac-12 and not far from the SEC, two conferences that boast three Sweet 16 teams each.
This should tell us the ACC could very well have three teams in the Sweet 16. If not for the committee's misseedings and a few certain possessions, the story might be about North Carolina, Duke and Louisville all advancing.
It's the combination of those factors that make for a truly unpredictable postseason. It's what we love about March Madness, but it's also the downfall. A one-game sample size doesn't consistently determine the better team. It just tells us who played better that day.
And that's something talented ACC teams have learned all too much lately.