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Do losses vs. Big Ten hint at potential struggles ahead for ACC again?

Welp, that didn’t go too well.

NCAA Basketball: Syracuse at Rutgers Catalina Fragoso-USA TODAY Sports

If not for the cancelled NCAA Tournament and COVID, the ACC’s struggles could’ve very well been the storyline of the offseason in college basketball.

As you recall, the league was basically four-deep last year with Florida State, Duke, Virginia and Louisville as the lone teams on secure footing in March. North Carolina had cratered. Notre Dame and NC State were on the bubble. Syracuse was on the outside looking in. Nearly half the conference won seven or fewer ACC games.

Without March Madness to confirm or refute the assumptions that the league had taken a major step backward, all 15 teams and the ACC as a whole got to avoid the potential reckoning that could’ve otherwise arrived. In the lead-up to the 2020-21 season, there was a general sense that things would be better — or at the very least, an improved UNC would indicate the conference was improved at the top end.

Yet after this week’s ACC-Big Ten Challenge, one could argue things are just as bad as last year.

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

We’re not extrapolating 11 games to mean an entire season’s worth of #narrative here. Rather, it’s just clear by how several ACC teams faltered against the Big Ten (especially when coupled with other early-season results) that things may not be all that much better.

First, a quick look at the ACC-Big Ten Challenge results this year:

  • Miami 58, Purdue 54
  • Minnesota 85, Boston College 80 (OT)
  • No. 3 Iowa 93, No. 16 North Carolina 80
  • No. 22 Ohio State 90, Notre Dame 85
  • Penn State 75, No. 15 Virginia Tech 55
  • No. 6 Illinois 83, No. 10 Duke 68
  • No. 21 Rutgers 79, Syracuse 69
  • Clemson 67, Maryland 51
  • Georgia Tech 75, Nebraska 64
  • No. 20 Florida State 69, Indiana 67 (OT)
  • Pittsburgh 71, Northwestern 70

On paper, that’s a 6-5 B1G win. Nothing that resounding at all. But most of the ACC’s top teams were also run off the floor against ranked Big Ten teams, while FSU scraped by the Hoosiers and Pitt barely beat fellow cellar-dweller Northwestern.

It also follows other rough results for the conference. Duke lost to Michigan State just weeks ago, as did Notre Dame. Though Georgia Tech beat Kentucky, they also lost to Mercer and Georgia State. UNC lost to Texas. Virginia lost to San Francisco. Syracuse, as you know, needed some late heroics to beat Bryant in their own opener.

While this may just be a couple weeks of basketball and it’s not enough to extrapolate out into a full season, it could be hinting at struggles ahead. Unfortunately, a rough season for the ACC this year could have some worse effects than it even would have last year.

At least in a normal season, ACC teams can conceivably make up for conference shortcomings (in the rare instances where they occur) with big non-conference matchups. Teams like UNC and Duke managed to keep some high-profile opponents in place on the schedule, but many did not.

When we get to NCAA Tournament time, ACC teams — like most in the country — will have to make their case for inclusion based just as much on their own resume as the resume of all the teams they share a conference with. If the league stumbles again as it did in 2019-20, are we looking at just five or so teams getting consideration for the field?

For teams like Syracuse, who were going to be on the bubble to begin with, having the conference schedule look “weak” is a potential death knell for an at-large bid. Obviously there’s plenty of time left for the ACC to figure things out. But the quality of this conference from the middle on up is definitely something to watch as the season starts to take shape.