Friedlander: The numbers don't lie, but ACC basketball isn't as bad as they want you to believe
Ask anyone in marketing and they’ll tell you that now more than ever, it’s all about the messaging.
Want to sell a product? Flood the airwaves with enough commercials to make consumers remember them in their sleep.
Want to start some buzz about a band? Create a user-generated content campaign on TikTok.
Just about any perception can be turned into a viral reality if it’s repeated enough times by enough people.
Including the disparaging kind.
A case in point is the most repeated narrative in college basketball these days – that the ACC isn’t just just down, it’s historically down.
You hear it virtually every time a national analyst or “bracketologist” comes on the air to discuss the state of the game as we get closer to the madness of March. And it’s reflected in the rankings, where only 2 ACC teams – Virginia at No. 6 and a woefully underrated Miami at No. 13 – appear in this week’s Associated Press Top 25.
Check out the NCAA’s NET ratings, they’ll say.
And it will look bad.
The ACC comes in at No. 7, behind the Big East and Mountain West. But while the numbers don’t lie, they also don’t always tell the full story.
In this case, they don’t reflect that the ACC came out on top of the 2nd-ranked Big Ten in their annual early season challenge, a result that included the league’s 14th-place team, Notre Dame, putting an 18-point beatdown on Tom Izzo’s Michigan State Spartans.
They also don’t reflect how that overall ranking has been dragged down by 4 anchors at the bottom of the standings, led by a historically bad Louisville.
Or that the NET, which is determined by a formula nobody seems to understand, is skewed by the weight it gives to games in November and December compared to those once conference play begins.
NC State and Pittsburgh, in particular, are much different teams than they were 6 weeks ago. They have evolved, grown and improved significantly now that their lineups – both bolstered by a large influx of transfers – have established a chemistry and identity.
But none of that is taken into account.
“If you get off to a bad start, you can’t get your NET rating up,” said Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, whose Orange are 16-11, but ranked No. 101. “The top teams (in the ACC) are really good teams. It doesn’t look like it if you evaluate the NET thing. But I think these teams are really good, just as they were last year. It will be interesting to see them in the Tournament.”
Ah, the Tournament.
It’s the final exam that ultimately determines the grade each team and conference earns at the end of a long semester. The results, however, don’t always line up with either the NET rankings or the popular narratives.
No matter how loud or how many times they’re repeated.
Take last year, for example. Despite a cumulative NET of No. 5 that resulted in only 5 teams placed into the field of 68, its fewest since expanding to 15 in 2014, the ACC still ended up with 3 in the Elite 8 and half of the Final Four.
Its Elite 8 total was the same number as the Big 12, Big Ten, SEC and Big East combined for those keeping score at home.
Still, here we are again. Right back in the same place.
“I’m frustrated with the narrative of the league,” Clemson’s Brad Brownell said. “I get it a little bit. But I think that the 8-9-10 teams at the top of our league that are playing very well, we can all play with the best teams in just about any league.”
Brownell’s Tigers are 19-8 (11-5) in the ACC. But at No. 80 in the NET, they’re not even within sniffing distance of the NCAA bubble.
Some of their trouble is of their own making. They have 3 unsightly Quad 4 losses – to South Carolina, Loyola and last week against Louisville. Even with 3 Quad 1 wins, that’s simply too deep a hole to climb out. It will likely take a championship run at the ACC Tournament to get in.
Pittsburgh, at 19-8 and just 1 game behind Virginia for the league lead at 12-4 in the ACC, is in only slightly better shape. At No 50 in the NET, the Panthers are by no means locked into the NCAA bracket.
While their precarious positioning in the rankings is due largely to a pair of close losses to VCU and Vanderbilt 4 months ago, the perception that they’re not worthy of being ranked – or even in the slightest danger of being left out of the Tournament – is much more subjective.
And Capel has a theory as to why.
“When we were at Virginia Tech, I’m watching our own network and one of the first questions that comes up is: ‘Is it perception or reality that the ACC is down?’” Capel said. “I never see that on the Big Ten Network. I watch the Big Ten Network a lot because one of my best friends coaches in that league, so I’m watching them. They’re always, always pumping the Big Ten.
“I think it’s a really good league. But I think ours is too. I wish the people that represent us would have respect, pump our league and be positive, instead of looking at negative things.”
It doesn’t help the ACC that its brand name programs haven’t lived up to their preseason expectations – especially North Carolina, which is well on its way to becoming the first preseason No. 1 to be left out of the NCAA field since the Tournament expanded in 1985.
Or that its most marketable coaching personalities, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and UNC’s Roy Williams, have both called it a career.
Perception, in answer to the question Capel referenced, actually is reality.
And the ACC has a serious perception problem.
Steering the narrative in a more positive direction is a good place to start. Because as any good marketer will tell you, it’s all about the messaging. But the only way it’s ever truly going to be fixed is for the conference to start winning more games in November and December.