Top-seeded North Carolina and Clemson looking to move ACC beyond Sweet 16 vs Alabama and Arizona

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Armando Bacot and his North Carolina teammates heard the bashing about the ACC’s quality this season and they’ve added it as a chip on their broad shoulders.

Ever since Zion Williamson left Duke for the NBA in 2019 after one season, “I feel like the respect for the ACC just in general kind of went down,” Bacot said.

Yet, the league is having the last laugh in the NCAA Tournament so far.

Besides the top-seeded Tar Heels and sixth-seeded Clemson in the West Regional, No. 4 seed Duke and No. 11 seed North Carolina State remain in the South bracket. It’s the 13th time the league has had at least four teams in the Sweet 16.

“Most ACC programs are playing a high-level non-conference schedule, too, so I think that really plays a factor,” Bacot said. “I feel like other conferences might not be as strong or they’re kind of manipulating it in a way. Hopefully everyone sees after this year how competitive ACC basketball is and how good the teams are.”

The Tar Heels (29-7), who missed the tournament last year, will try to prove it against fourth-seeded Alabama (23-11) on Thursday in the Sweet 16.

ACC teams went 8-1 during the first week of the NCAA Tournament, the most of any league, with the victories coming by an average of 18.4 points per game. The league received five bids, with only Virginia losing in the First Four to Colorado State.

Coach Hubert Davis is taking a page from his predecessors Dean Smith and Roy Williams in breaking the NCAA Tournament into mini-tourneys. The Tar Heels won two games in the Charlotte tourney to advance to what Davis calls the “Los Angeles Invitational.”

“They’re always ready for the moment. At Carolina, there’s very few programs that are at our level, and the spotlight is bright playing at North Carolina,” said Davis, who has spent 12 years coaching at the school where he starred from 1988-92. “This is something that our guys not only are used to or accustomed to, but it’s a position that they want to be in.”

The ACC has continued to outperform other leagues in recent NCAA Tournaments. Miami reached the Final Four last year, Duke and North Carolina were there in 2022, Virginia won the title in 2019 and the Tar Heels were champions in 2017.

“I just think that there’s great parity in our league,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell said. “I think because we have a lot of different styles of play in our league that, when we get to the NCAA Tournament, we’ve kind of seen everything. Our teams adjust and we seem to play very well this time of year.”

Thursday’s first game pits second-seeded Arizona (27-8) against No. 6 seed Clemson (23-11) at Arena.

Clemson played Sunday night in Memphis, Tennessee, and got back to campus at 3:30 a.m. Monday before starting its journey to the West Coast about 12 hours later.

“Yesterday was a little challenging. We practiced, but it wasn’t easy,” Brownell said. “Just trying to get our legs back, just get used to the time change and all of that. It’s been a quick turnaround, that’s for sure.”

The Wildcats played their first two games in Salt Lake City and then made the short trip from Tucson to Los Angeles, where they are 6-3 all-time in tournament games. They could be playing on the same Thursday-Saturday schedule they’re used to during Pac-12 play.

“But just because you had an extra day or a few extra hours doesn’t mean you have a significant advantage this time of year because the other team’s really good,” Wildcats coach Tommy Lloyd said. “They’re playing for something as well.”

Keshad Johnson and Caleb Love are looking to take the Wildcats to where each of them has been before. Johnson played for San Diego State in last year’s championship game loss to UConn. In 2022, Love led North Carolina to the title game. Both players used their fifth year of eligibility to transfer.

“What I learned the most is just do whatever it takes. Make your sacrifice. Try to make the game easier on your teammates,” Johnson said. “Don’t really worry about the number of stats. That’s me problems. It’s bigger than me when it comes to March.”

Clemson guard Joseph Girard III is another fifth-year senior who left Syracuse to spend his final season with the Tigers.

“I had one shot at it, to get back to a moment like this, to get back to a Sweet 16 like I did my sophomore year,” he said. “I felt these guys gave me the best chance.”


AP Basketball Writer Aaron Beard contributed to this report.


AP March Madness bracket: and coverage:

Copyright 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.