Jim Phillips: ACC considering returning to 18-game league schedule after March snubs

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ACC commissioner Jim Phillips said Monday that he’s “incredibly proud” of men’s basketball teams from his league making up a quarter of the Sweet 16 in this year’s NCAA Tournament, but he said that the league still has work to do to earn the respect he feels it deserves from the selection committee.

Phillips said that the ACC will reconsider the number of conference games it plays as part of a wholesale evaluation of the state of the sport, perhaps opening the door to drop from 20 to 18 league games in men’s basketball.

The ACC sent five teams to this year’s NCAA Tournament, with Pittsburgh and Wake Forest among the teams on the wrong side of the bubble on Selection Sunday. Virginia lost in the First Four, but the other four teams — No. 1 seed North Carolina, No. 4 seed Duke, No. 6 seed Clemson and No. 11 seed NC State — all advanced to the Sweet 16. The Wolfpack are the only double-digit seed that survived the first weekend, continuing a magical run that began with five wins in five days at the ACC Tournament to earn the league’s automatic bid.

The ACC is 8-1 in the NCAA Tournament so far, and the conference leads its peers with a .725 winning percentage (29-11) over the past three tournaments.

“That is a statement about how good this league is,” Phillips said Monday. “But over the last three Selection Sundays, we’ve had 15 teams — five each year — which I just think is not reflective of the caliber of play. We’ve had three different teams in the last two Final Fours in Duke, Carolina and Miami, the most of any conference.

“That speaks to how worthy our teams are. I was very disappointed about Pitt and Wake Forest not getting in. I felt that they had done enough. … None of us feel as if the number of selections has reflected the level of play and how our teams have actually performed.”

Phillips has served on both the Division I men’s basketball committee and the Division I women’s basketball committee, so he understands how difficult it is to select, seed and bracket teams. Still, he says he has advocated on behalf of his schools through conversations with committee members and by speaking out in the media. He also knows he’s not alone in his frustration about this year’s field; Big East commissioner Val Ackerman has spent much of the past week discussing her conference only getting three teams into the 68-team field.

But Phillips said he believes the committee needs to tweak the NET as well as the way it relies on advanced metrics such as KenPom. “There is absolutely a place for metrics,” Phillips said. “But at the end of the day, you can’t forget about actually watching these teams.”

“We can’t continue to go, year after year, with five teams and then claim the selections aren’t reflecting the performances of our teams because they do incredibly well in the national tournament,” Phillips said. “Part of that is this rush to judgment in the media. We were in January, and someone says we’re a conference that only deserves two bids.

“That’s ludicrous to me. It just is. That means you’re not watching ACC basketball. You’re not watching our teams play nearly as closely as you should be if you’re putting out those kinds of statements about our league.”

This season, the ACC is 11-3 against the Big 12, the conference widely considered to be the deepest in the country. The Big 12 is sending three teams to the Sweet 16, the same number of teams that the ACC is sending from one area code (919).

Phillips said that the ACC has been studying and assessing the state of its men’s basketball and will continue to do so, relying specifically on insight from current committee vice-chair and UNC athletic director Bubba Cunningham and former committee chair and Stanford athletic director Bernard Muir. They’ll examine the NET, KenPom and other metrics available to the committee as they consider future scheduling.

That includes the number of ACC games played by men’s teams. The league reiterated its commitment to playing 20 conference games back in February at its winter meetings, but Phillips said “we’re revisiting it.”

“We went from 18 to 20 games (in 2019-20) alongside the advent of the NET — that came in around the same time,” Phillips said. “Except for one year, all of our other seasons have trended way below where we’ve been in the past. With games 19 and 20, half your league loses twice. You end up having another 14 losses for your teams.”

The shift from 18 to 20 arose out of the need to create additional inventory for the then-new ACC Network. But it also takes away opportunities for flexibility in nonconference scheduling or, for a league like the ACC, chances to get resume-boosting wins that help both the league’s reputation and its metrics.

“We’re really, really working hard on this,” Phillips said. “We get our basketball coaches together in May, and the goal is to have a presentation for them about the road and the path forward because we can’t continue to live with what’s happened the last two or three years. It’s not reflective of the teams and the play that comes out of this conference.

“We have to fix it. We have to find a path forward that allows us greater access to the tournament.”

(Photo: Amber Searls / USA Today)

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