For the second consecutive men’s college basketball season, only five of the 15 teams in the Atlantic Coast Conference were selected to 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 big pick. and Pittsburgh (the Panthers defeated Mississippi State on Tuesday to clinch the No. 11 seed in the Midwest) was assigned one of four play-in games.
It wasn’t that long ago when the ACC was the top men’s basketball conference in the country. Over the past several seasons, however, 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 tournament. By contrast, in the 19 NCAA Tournaments held from 2002 to 2021, the ACC saw just one-third of its member teams earn tournament berths four times overall — and never twice in a row.
Over the period for which both KenPom and BartTorvik have data (2002 to 2023), the ACC’s overall bid share (the share of its member teams that have earned NCAA Tournament bids) is now just 45 percent. That percentage falls 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. It still controls 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 has been, well… it’s been a little bad this season — at least compared to the other top conferences.
The ACC’s Adjusted Efficiency Margin (AdjEM) per KenPom was just +8.02, marking the first time he’s posted an AdjEM rating south of plus-10 in the entire era of that statistic’s availability. That AdjEM rating also ranked just seventh among the nation’s 32 conferences, marking the first time the ACC has finished outside the top six, as well as just the second time (along with 2013) that it has finished behind any league other than the Big East. , Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 or SEC.
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 those six conferences posting an AdjEM south of 10 — and just twice has a conference had a worse mark than the ACC collectively manages this year.
The ACC has fallen by power conference standards
Worst collegiate adjusted performance margin (AdjEM) for a power conference in men’s basketball, plus the share of teams that made the NCAA Tournament and the furthest round those teams reached, 2002-2023
|Time||Conn.||AdjEM||AdjEm Rank||Offer share||Best Round|
No team from one of those conferences has ever advanced to the national championship game, while only one of the previous 33 teams to go dancing from one of those conferences (Kentucky in 2011) made it to the Final Four.
By Bart Torvik’s Performance Against Seed Expectations (PASE) metric — which measures how many tournament games a team won compared to what we’d expect from its seed — these conferences have actually done better than you’d think in tournament, averaging 0.17 more wins than their seeds suggest. And to be fair, the ACC itself has generally exceeded seeding expectations in the tournament as well. During the aforementioned 2002-22 season, ACC teams were outscored by a combined 6.0 wins, the fourth-best mark out of 32 counted conferences. Of course, nobody hangs a banner that says “PASE” in the rafters of their arena. The ACC has produced eight national champions since 2002, but obviously, none of those championships came 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 been able to surpass what one would expect of them in the Big Dance, it doesn’t change the conference’s downward trajectory. As measured by the AdjEM rating, the ACC has actually been in decline for years.
With the exception of the 2020 season (which was shortened by COVID-19), the conference saw its AdjEM rating drop every year from 2016 to 2023. The league once held a significant lead in season-long average AdjEM over the other power conference — when he led the nation in AdjEM rating in three of four seasons from 2004 to 2007, including a record plus-20.32 in 2004. But the ACC hasn’t led the nation in AdjEM rating since the 2007 campaign. and hasn’t finished better than third since 2018. As a result, it now trails both the Big 12 and Big Ten in that metric.
In fact, the ACC’s decline is essentially matched by the rise of the Big 12, which now has by far the best AdjEM rating since 2002, as well as the highest share of conference bids.
From 2002 to 2007, the ACC had a better AdjEM than the Big 12 in five of six seasons. In the 16 seasons since then, however, the ACC has been better than the Big 12 just once — when it just did in 2011. The Big 12 even had six seasons (from 2014 to 2019) when it led the nation in AdjEM rating each time. (No other conference has led the nation more than five times, consecutively or otherwise, since 2002.) After a two-season reign that finished behind the Big Ten in 2020 and 2021, the Big 12 has returned to the top in each from the previous two seasons. He hasn’t finished worse than third since the aforementioned 2011 campaign, which was also the last time he 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 lowly leagues isn’t all that encouraging — at least if you’re dreaming of cutting down the nets and you have a shining moment. The fact that the ACC has been able to exceed expectations in the past provides a glimmer of hope, but the conference is working against a lot of history, and its teams that have made the tournament aren’t as strong as the ones it usually sends to the Big Dance.
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