Though its only path to reaching the NCAA tournament is four victories in next week’s ACC tournament, Virginia Tech is still enjoying the largest leap in the standings of any team in the league.
Granted, the Hokies (16-13, 8-8) had plenty of upside after a 2-16 showing in conference play last season. Nonetheless, they’re only the 18th team in ACC history to win six more league contests than the previous year, and even a split with Pittsburgh and Miami at home in the season’s final week would put them in even more select company.
It’s an intuitively easier feat to see a big jump in victories with 18 league games rather than 12 or 14, and it comes as no surprise a six-game jump has happened three times in four seasons (2013 Miami and 2015 Notre Dame were the others). But only five other ACC teams have improved by seven victories, and each has its own story.
1955 N.C. State: This one warrants an asterisk. The ACC didn’t have a double round-robin in its first season, and the Wolfpack went 5-3 in 1954 before jumping to 12-2 the following year. Nonetheless, N.C. State was the league’s best team that year and won the conference tournament at Reynolds Coliseum, but a postseason ban for recruiting violations kept it out of the NCAA tournament.
1960 Wake Forest: The Demon Deacons had gone three years without a winning record in league play, but the addition of sophomores Len Chappell and Billy Packer nudged Bones McKinney’s bunch from 5-9 in the ACC to 12-2 and a tie for first place. Wake Forest would lose the league title game to Duke, but come back to claim consecutive ACC championships and reach the Final Four in 1962.
1987 Clemson: With league player of the year Horace Grant leading the conference in points (21.0) and rebounds (9.6), the Tigers shook off a seventh-place finish at 3-11 in a loaded, veteran league in 1986 to become the first Clemson team to ever win 10 ACC games. With Grant graduated the Tigers would sink back to 4-10 the following year.
2011 North Carolina: The Tar Heels paid the price for exporting so many players to the NBA after their 2009 national title and went a rudderless 5-11 the following winter. But Tyler Zeller and John Henson matured into second team all-ACC players and Harrison Barnes and Kendall Marshall proved crucial additions as North Carolina made a nine-victory leap to 14-2.
2015 Notre Dame: Without a suspended Jerian Grant, the Fighting Irish flailed to a 6-12 finish in its first run through the ACC. With an eligible Grant the following winter, they rolled to a 14-4 finish and the first conference tournament title in school history.
Virginia guard London Perrantes entered the week shooting a league-best 51.9 percent from 3-point range. Who was the last ACC player to shoot 50 percent from beyond the arc for a full season and have enough made shots to qualify for the league lead in the category?
UNC assured top-three seed
The ACC’s many tournament scenarios remain muddled in the middle. For example, it was still possible entering Tuesday night for Clemson, Duke, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Virginia Tech to forge a six-way tie for fourth place (a Duke or Notre Dame victory in the season’s final week would dash that bit of chaos).
As such, full-scale ACC tournament permutations can wait a day. But North Carolina’s 75-70 defeat of Syracuse did lock up a top-three seed for the Tar Heels (24-6, 13-4), who can seal the top seed with a victory at Duke on Saturday or losses by Miami and Virginia.
Should North Carolina lose at Cameron Indoor Stadium, the only way it tumbles to the No. 3 seed is if both Miami and Virginia win out.
At the other end of the field, three teams are already assured of their seeds: No. 12 N.C. State, No. 13 Wake Forest and No. 14 Boston College. N.C. State and Wake Forest will meet in the tournament opener Tuesday in Washington.
The last qualifying ACC player to shoot 50 percent from beyond the 3-point line for a full season was Wake Forest’s Ricky Peral, who shot 51 percent (51 of 100) in 1996. The only qualifying player since then to shoot even 45 percent was Miami’s Jack McClinton in 2009 (45.3 percent).