Tar Heels embrace role at ACCs last hope

Eight of the leagues nine NCAA tournament teams were eliminated in the first two rounds last week -- five by double digits -- leaving UNC as the ACCs only hope for preventing a total meltdown

Jeremy Brevard—USA Today Sports
Mar 19

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Remember that conversation about this year’s ACC being the best, deepest college basketball conference ever?The narrative sure has changed now that the league has gone from the giddiness of getting nine NCAA tournament bids on Selection Sunday to the disappointment of having eight of those teams unceremoniously bounced from the field after the first two rounds.It’s a performance that has led the ACC’s critics to begin the dreaded chant every player and coach hates to hear.Over-rated! Over-rated!As the last conference team standing, North Carolina’s players and coaches are keenly aware that their performance from here on out probably won’t do much to change the perception the rest of the league has created with its postseason stumble.At the same time, though, they understand that they’re also the ACC’s final hope for saving face in this tournament, a role they’re more than willing to accept for as long as they can.”We would like more teams to represent the ACC, but it didn’t play out like that,” junior point guard Joel Berry said on the eve of the Tar Heels’ South Region semifinal matchup with Butler at FedExForum. “To be the only team left, it’s an honor. We’ve just got to finish it out and hopefully we can bring it back, the whole thing, to our conference.”With five teams ranked among the nation’s top 10 at one time or another and a 165-45 record in nonconference competition, this year’s ACC was being compared favorably to the old Big East in 2011 — the league generally accepted as the best ever.Those comparisons were still valid, even though the ACC fell two short of the Big East’s record of 11 NCAA tournament bids.Until the bottom dropped out.Not only did the ACC’s representatives go down, they went down hard. Five of the eight teams that got eliminated last week did so by double-digit margins. Three — eight seed Miami against Michigan State, five seed Virginia against Florida and three seed Florida State against Xavier — were embarrassed by 20 points or more.That’s a stark contrast to last year’s performance, when the ACC set an NCAA record by getting six of its teams through to the Sweet 16.”Last year at this time we were 16-1 coming into this weekend and now we’re 7-8,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “I firmly believe last year we were really a big-time conference, but we didn’t show it during the regular season and we did show it during the tournament.”This year I was convinced we were by far the best league, but we haven’t shown it in the tournament.”Berry said he thinks it’s unfair to pass judgement on a conference solely on the basis of its tournament performance.”That’s why the call it March Madness,” he said. “Anything can happen. It’s one game. Some teams just didn’t have their best games on the day they played and they don’t get another chance. Winner stays and loser goes home.”It’s hard to say that the other teams are better. It just so happened that the other teams came to play that day and they just had a good day.”Tournament record aside, both Berry and Williams still think the ACC is the nation’s best college basketball conference this season.”I thought we were the best,” he said. “But again, we haven’t proven it in the tournament and that’s the bottom line.”Williams’ Tar Heels still have an opportunity to sway perception at least partially back into the ACC’s favor by going all the way to the national championship game and winning this time — since the thing most people ultimately remember about the NCAA tournament is who cuts down the nets on the first Monday in April.That was the case in 2011 when despite having nine of those record 11 teams eliminated in the first two rounds and all but one out after the Sweet 16, the Big East still came away with its image unscathed when UConn beat Butler for the national championship.As much as winning this year’s title would help the ACC, that’s only secondary to UNC’s true motivation for as long as it’s still playing. After coming so close a year ago before falling to Villanova on a last second shot, these Tar heels are playing for themselves first and their conference second.”It’s important for the Carolina family — alumni, fans, professors, whatever it is,” senior center Kennedy Meeks said. “Everybody deserves one after the stuff that’s been going on in recent years and I think this is the team that can do it. We just have to have the right mindset.”