Luke DeCock

One of the few ACC basketball milestones not yet achieved dangles within reach

UNC’s Roy Williams on playing for NCAA seeds: ‘We’re just trying to frickin’ beat Duke’

UNC basketball coach Roy Williams reacts to a question about the importance of beating Duke in regards to NCAA Tournament seeding.
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UNC basketball coach Roy Williams reacts to a question about the importance of beating Duke in regards to NCAA Tournament seeding.

In the middle of celebrating one vision of the future that came true – with the opening programming for the ACC Network’s August launch announced Friday – ACC commissioner John Swofford was willing to entertain another.

Only one conference, the Big East in 2009, has ever claimed three of the four No. 1 seeds for the NCAA tournament. The ACC, with three teams ranked in the top five playing in Friday night’s semifinals, has a shot to match that feat.

Virginia by excellence, as the likely No. 1 overall seed.

North Carolina by resume, thanks in large part to its two wins over Duke.

Duke by Zion Williamson, if the committee weighs the games he missed less heavily.

It’s possible.

“It would be nice,” Swofford said. “It’s happened once before, and then one of our teams actually won the national championship that year, if I remember. That doesn’t guarantee the end result that you want. It would be nice, but whether that’s realistic or whether that can happen, we’ll have to wait and see. It’s nice to have three teams that are even being talked about.”

What happened in 2009 – when the fourth No. 1 seed, North Carolina, claimed the title – remains permissible under the NCAA selection committees policies and procedures, NCAA spokesman David Worlock confirmed via email Friday.

Two of those three Big East teams – Louisville and Pittsburgh – are in the ACC now, arriving in the waves of expansion that partially accounts for the strength and depth that has vaulted this year’s ACC contenders, even if all three are charter ACC members.

The ACC is reasonably confident it has a good shot to get eight teams in, although the dominoes don’t appear to be falling right for Clemson to make it nine for a third straight year. (The Big East had seven in 2009).

For the No. 1 seeds, one of the necessary dominoes fell when Gonzaga was upset by St. Mary’s in the WCC title game, the Zags’ first loss since December in Chapel Hill. Gonzaga would have been a lock for a No. 1 seed before that, and may yet earn one, but the loss opened the door for a different conversation.

Tennessee and Kentucky loom in the SEC tournament, and Michigan State could yet play its way into the conversation at the Big Ten tournament, but the same cone of uncertainty surrounds the top of the seed list as the bottom, thanks to the NCAA’s switch from the RPI to the NET as its primary organizing metric and the doubt over how it will be used by the committee in this inaugural bracketing.

As things stood Friday afternoon, Bracket Matrix – which assembles a consensus of bracketologists – has the three ACC teams in the top five, with Virginia the No. 1 overall seed, North Carolina second overall and Duke the best of the No. 2 seeds behind Gonzaga and Kentucky. Statistician Bart Torvik created an algorithm that attempts to predict what the committee will do; it has Virginia, Duke and North Carolina 1-2-3 in that order, although there’s a wide margin of error given the ambition of the project.

North Carolina’s Luke Maye (32) puts up a shot between Virginia’s Mamadi Diakite (25) and Virginia’s Ty Jerome (11) during the first half on Monday, February 11, 2019 at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C. Robert Willett

“I don’t think it’s likely to happen but if it did, Duke would have to win (Friday),” said Patrick Stevens, who projects the bracket for the Washington Post. “And secondly, the committee would have to evaluate Duke ahead of Gonzaga. I think it would be easier to evaluate Carolina ahead of them than Duke because of the head-to-head.”

Duke forward Zion Williamson (1) and guard Tre Jones (3) pressure Virginia guard Ty Jerome (11) at John Paul Jones Arena in Charlottesville, Va., Saturday, Feb. 9,2019. Chuck Liddy

The other factor, often overlooked, is the way the NCAA committee operates. The No. 1 and No. 2 seeds are tentatively set early in the week – in this particular year, on Wednesday, Worlock said – as the committee shifts its focus to more contentious portions of the bracket like at-large selection as Sunday approaches. While there’s still room for movement or reassessment, by all accounts it tends to happen more often via the line-by-line, team-to-team comparisons the committee refers to as “scrubbing.”

Which is to say, things can and do still change, but there’s a little more inertia to the process once the teams start being slotted into place. Duke beat North Carolina in the 2017 ACC semifinals in what was widely speculated to be a possible playoff for a No. 1 seed; the ACC champion Blue Devils were a No. 2 seed while the Tar Heels remained a No. 1 seed.

So Friday’s results may not matter much, in the big picture. The ACC may match the Big East’s feat of a decade ago and make a little history of its own, but if it does, the hard work is already done.

“At any time, in this league, in basketball, when something happens that hasn’t been done before, it’s remarkable,” Swofford said.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered the Summer Olympics, the Final Four, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.