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The Daily Tar Heel

Column: Should UNC care about the ACC Tournament this year?

Assistant Sports Editor: Daniel Wei
Assistant Sports Editor: Daniel Wei

As No. 7 UNC men's basketball sits atop the ACC, I can’t help but wonder if going too deep in the conference tournament might potentially hurt UNC’s chances in March.

Intuitively, it makes sense: advancing in next week's tournament means one less day to prepare for the Big Dance and one more day of wear-and-tear. And the Tar Heels would hate to throw away their projected 2-seed in the NCAA tournament, right?

It's just a hunch, but one I’m sure several others have shared. As I contemplated my theory, I thought back to the two biggest March Madness upsets in recent memory: Virginia losing to 16-seed UMBC in 2018, and 16-seed Fairleigh Dickinson toppling Purdue in 2023. The Cavaliers and Boilermakers both won their conference tournaments in those years.

Then, through a Carolina Blue-shaded lens, I recalled UNC’s past three national title squads: 2005, 2009 and 2017. All three lost in the ACC tournament semifinals.

Of course, intuition requires evidence to make it a working theory. I'm no scientist, but I am a B-School kid, so honing the power of Microsoft Excel spreadsheets, I pulled data of every Power 6, top-4 seed of the last 10 tournaments, dating back to 2013.

Here’s what I found:

A quick primer on the dataset

The Power 6 refers to teams competing in the ACC, Big East, Big 12, Big Ten, SEC and Pac-12 (RIP). Every national champion since 1991 has been a P6 team.

Unfortunately, that means leaving out non-P6 unicorns — like perennial West Coast Conference superpower Gonzaga and Houston, who left the AAC for the Big 12 this season — but I don't care. They get enough advantages in their Mickey Mouse conferences anyways.

So P6 it is. But why limit the data to top-4 seeds as well? Aside from the fact that nine of the past 10 national champions were a 4-seed or better, there’s a noticeable drop off in performance from the 4s to the 5s.

sports-column-mens-basketball-acc-tournament-throw-march-2024.png

For this dataset, I assume any top-4 P6 seed is a national title contender. Last year, 4-seed UConn steamrolled the tournament, winning all six games by at least 13 points.

And one last note, I promise. Finalist means a team that made its conference championship, non-finalist means it didn’t.

Cool? Ready to go? Let's ride.

Seven of the past 10 national champions didn’t make their conference championship

Even though it’s a tiny sample size, this initially looks pretty good on paper, right?

Not so fast. Even in my careful, Microsoft-clad calculations, I will admit there's a flaw: a P6 league has 11 to 15 teams, give or take. Only two play in the conference championship. So obviously, there would be significantly more non-finalists than finalists vying for the ultimate crown, right?

But of the 142 teams in the dataset, 76 — or about 54 percent — played in their conference tournament final. So, more national title contenders were league finalists than non-finalists. It's true. But the fact remains that the majority of national champions in the past 10 years didn't even compete in their respective conference tournament championship.

It has to be more complicated than that. How do teams perform in the early rounds?

Thank you, skeptics! I’d be remiss to forgo transparency and only show you data that suggests UNC should throw the ACC tournament.

We’re approaching the point of getting too deep in the weeds here, but, in a nod to my faithful Hark the Pod listeners, here’s some quick hits:

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  • There are 31 ACC teams in the dataset. Sixteen were conference non-finalists and 15 were finalists. All three of the ACC’s national championship winners ('15 Duke, '17 UNC, '19 Virginia) didn't play in their conference tournament championship.
  • First round: 19 teams in the dataset were upset in the round of 64. Twelve of those losers made their conference tournament final.
  • Second round: 36 teams lost in the round of 32, and 21 of them were non-finalists.
  • Sweet 16: 37 teams lost in their regional semifinal, and 22 were finalists.

I debated expanding the dataset to 15 or 20 years, but decided against it for two reasons:

For one, it’s way too time-consuming, and, two, the landscape of college basketball is rapidly evolving. Five years ago, one-and-done was more prevalent. Now, the transfer portal and Name, Image, Likeness are king. Five years from now, college athletes might be signing contracts, who knows?

Also, every year is different. Some would argue the volatile nature of March Madness makes predictions for any given year futile, and that’s a valid point.

But ultimately, I’ll still stand by the fact the Tar Heels will be better off in the long run by losing in the ACC semifinals.

The data on this? Well, it's more or less inconclusive.

After all, it’s March — what else did you expect?

@danielhwei

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com


Daniel Wei

Daniel Wei is a 2023-24 assistant sports editor at The Daily Tar Heel. He has previously served as a senior writer. Daniel is a junior pursuing a double major in business administration and economics.