Observations: ACC makes its case as college hoops' best conference
The NCAA Tournament is proving that the teams at the top of ACC make it stronger than any other league in the country, even the vaunted Big 12.
Five observations from Saturday's NCAA Tournament action:
1. The ACC has separated itself as the best conference in college basketball: I'll admit it, I was wrong. The Big 12's double round-robin made the league a bear to navigate, but the NCAA Tournament is proving that the ACC is truly college basketball's best conference. The ACC is 9-0 in the field of 68 with Duke, Louisville and Virginia still set to play Sunday. One of the things that may have hurt the ACC's perception was the conference's imbalanced schedule. Teams in the bottom third of this league are struggling to keep their heads above water and that opens up the door for more lopsided games in conference play. I felt all season that the ACC had more quality teams at the top of its league than the Big 12, but, top-to-bottom, the Big 12 was the better league. The field of 68 is proving that the teams at the top of ACC make it stronger than any other league in the country.
2. Villanova suffered heartache in the NCAA Tournament for the second consecutive year: Again the Wildcats put together a dominant season only to fall short in the Round of 32. Twelve months after losing to eventual national champion UConn in the Round of 32, Villanova fell to NC State on Saturday night, trailing the entire second half. Jay Wright's squad is a combined 62-8 over the past two years, but again fell short of the NCAA Tournament's second weekend. Similar to what we saw a year ago when the Wildcats lost to UConn, Villanova looked overmatched against the size and power of the Wolfpack. NC State won the battle of the boards 45-32 and regularly had its way in the paint in the 71-68 victory.
3. Gabe York again showed why he’s the X-Factor for Arizona: Outside shooting has been the big question surrounding Sean Miller's team all season, and York again showed that his strength in that area could make all the difference for the Wildcats in the NCAA Tournament. Arizona held a one-point halftime lead over Ohio State on Saturday, but York's ability to make timely shots made all the difference in what wound up as 15-point victory. The 6-foot-3 junior made four 3-point shots in the second half and finished with 19 points off the bench as the Wildcats advanced to the Sweet 16 for the third consecutive season. Arizona has elite length, elite athleticism and steady point guard play thanks to T.J. McConnell, but York's ability to continually stretch the defense is the wild card for this squad. If York continues to do what he did against Ohio State, it's going to take an awfully good team to beat the Wildcats.
4. Gonzaga-Iowa is Sunday's most underrated game: This tilt might be not be getting the same amount of national attention as Michigan State vs. Virginia or Wichita State vs. Kansas, but there's a good chance it could be one of the highest scoring games in the entire NCAA Tournament. Iowa played one of its best games of the season in a 31-point rout over Davidson on Friday night, and Gonzaga is always a threat to score in excess of 80 points. Fran McCaffery's squad has been mercurial at times this season, but does have a win at North Carolina on its resume along with a home rout over Maryland. This team isn't going to be intimidated by the allure of the Bulldogs, especially since this Gonzaga team could be Mark Few's best. Expect tons of offense in this one from the opening tip.
5. Chris Mack has gotten Xavier to play its best when it matters most: This team was 9-9 at the end of regular season play in the Big East, but now finds itself in the Sweet 16 where it will face Arizona next week in Los Angeles. The Musketeers were a surprise at the Big East tournament last week at Madison Square Garden and made it all the way to the finals before falling to Villanova. Now in the field of 68, Mack has led Xavier to back-to-back wins over Ole Miss and Georgia State to advance to the NCAA Tournament's second weekend for the first time since 2012. This isn't the best team that Mack has had, but it's definitely one he's gotten the most out of. It will be interesting to see how the Musketeers do next week against Arizona and Mack's former boss, Sean Miller.
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