Six teams have a chance to revive the ACC's reputation, and a third of them will try to do it on one court Friday. The ACC's case might stand a better chance, however, if those two teams weren't dragging so much baggage with them.
At Buffalo's HSBC Arena on Friday, Clemson, the seventh seed in the East region, takes on 10th-seeded Missouri in the afternoon, and Florida State, the No. 9 seed in the West, faces eighth-seeded Gonzaga later that night. Both programs were locks to make it by the time regular-season play ended, both have been ranked during the season and, like their brethren, their coaches have spoken up against the nationwide perception that this is a down year for the conference.
What else do they have in common? Since the turn of the millennium, Clemson and Florida State have combined for zero NCAA tournament victories. And both were part of a widespread flameout (with one notable exception) by the ACC in last year's tournament, as two of the four conference teams lost in the first round to lower-seeded opponents.
Thus, the baggage in Buffalo, which even the players couldn't deny, even if their coaches -- Clemson's Oliver Purnell and Florida State's Leonard Hamilton -- downplayed it.
"Of course, there will be people that talk about us and say a repeat of the past will happen,'' Clemson guard Demontez Stitt told reporters after the field was unveiled Sunday. "Like Coach Purnell always says, we have a chance to write our own script. It's a new start for everybody, for all the teams that were selected today. Everybody's 0-0 right now.''
Hamilton might have been reading from the same script on the same day in Tallahassee: "It's another season; everybody's starting over. There are going to be a lot of predictions of where people will fall, but everybody really knows that's why you play the tournament, because everybody has an equal chance.''
It was to the detriment of those two programs that they became living proof of that last March. On the first Thursday last season, seventh-seeded Clemson lost to Michigan, and the next day, Florida State was victim of one of those reliable 12-5 upsets, by Wisconsin in overtime. With Boston College and Wake Forest going one-and-out, four of the ACC's seven teams were headed home by the weekend. (In addition, Maryland lost in the second round, Duke got trounced in the Sweet 16 by Villanova ... and North Carolina saved everybody by winning the national championship, accounting for six of the conference's nine wins.)
For Clemson, it was its second straight first-round loss, after returning to the tournament for the first time since 1998 -- and after missing the dance entirely in 2007 despite starting the season 17-0. Florida State's appearance in 2009 was its first since '98, and it had gotten there after falling off the NCAA bubble each of the previous three years, further cementing its reputation as a program that delivered less than it promised.
To make matters worse this season, both are emerging from the train wreck that was the ACC tournament, in which three double-digit seeds reached the semifinals along with Duke. Both, as it turned out out, were taken out by North Carolina State, which finished next to last in the standings.
The Tigers and Seminoles are hardly stuck with having to carry the ACC banner alone; they are not even the two entrants catching the most heat for their spots in the field. Duke's No. 1 seeding in a relatively soft South region, and its jump ahead of Syracuse in the overall ranking of No. 1 seeds, is being hotly debated, and Wake Forest (No. 9 in the East and facing Texas Thursday) is the target of supporters of NIT invitee Virginia Tech, who point out that the Hokies finished ahead of Wake and beat them head-to-head.
Still, Clemson's and Florida State's recent history hangs over their heads as they arrive in Buffalo. Senior Trevor Booker, Clemson's first-team all-conference forward, clearly has suffered through the recent abrupt endings. "It'll be real big,'' he said of his team's tournament trip. "We haven't gotten that win yet. Just to get one win, it'll be a big chip off my shoulder.''
Clemson, however, got no favors from being paired with Missouri, which looked strong entering postseason play in fifth place in the Big 12, its last five losses coming to conference teams that also made the tournament (including Kansas twice). Plus, it made an electric run to the Elite Eight last season before falling to Connecticut. The fact that those Tigers laid an egg in last week's Big 12 tournament against Nebraska will likely give them an edge they might not otherwise have had.
Meanwhile, all Florida State has to do is defeat Gonzaga, which was ranked in the top 10 earlier this season, is testy about not having swept its conference's regular-season and tournament titles, has been to the Sweet 16 five times since 1999, and has grown to such prominence that coach Mark Few earlier this season insisted that the Bulldogs stop being called "mid-major.'' Its path to this position? Knocking off schools from prestigious conferences.
Hamilton, though, is more concerned with his Seminoles finally getting over the hump -- making the tournament last season and now trying to hang around for a while. The last time Florida State was an NCAA regular, in the mid-1990s, he was coaching at Miami and Sam Cassell was the 'Noles' star.
"I don't think by any stretch of the imagination we've reached our potential,'' Hamilton said of his team, which is loaded with freshmen and sophomores and is largely centered around a pair of defense-minded frontcourt players, Chris Singleton and 7-foot-1 Solomon Alabi. "I think that before too long we'll be considered one of those upper-echelon teams year-in and year-out. That's our goal.''
Staying alive to the weekend would be a good start -- for Florida State, for Clemson and for the poor perception of the ACC.