It's kind of ironic - for most of the ACC's history, there was no such thing as the regular season title in basketball. It simply didn't exist in any shape or form. The team with the best regular season record was merely acknowledged as the league's first-place finisher and was given the top seed into the ACC Tournament.
During that era, the mythical regular season title clearly was a fairer and more logical way to choose a champion than the three-day tournament that actually determined the ACC Champion. Coaches from Bud Millikan and Frank McGuire in the 1950s to Dean Smith and Lefty Driesell in the 1980s railed about the absurdity of ignoring the results of a balanced home-and-home schedule.
And, you know what? They were right.
But something happened in 1990. Hapless Clemson - far and away the least successful basketball program from among the league's original members - finished 10-4 in the regular season to finish first in the standings. The league coaches liked Tiger coach Cliff Ellis and wanted to reward him and his program for its achievement. They petitioned the ACC to recognize Clemson as the ACC "Regular Season Champion."
Make no mistake about it - the ACC did not change its method of determining its champion. Georgia Tech, which beat Virginia 70-61 in the finals of the 1990 ACC Tournament in Charlotte, was crowned as the 1990 ACC Champion.
But the league did decide to honor the regular season winner. There's some debate about this, but I'm told that Clemson even received a small trophy for winning the first regular season title. I say first, even though the league office decided to retroactively recognize the first-place finishers from 1954 to 1989 as "regular season champions". Future first-place finishers were to automatically be declared the regular season champion.
Schools were allowed to hang banners recognizing their regular season titles, although the conference made it clear that the banners must include the designation "regular season" to separate those titles from the real titles, still won in the tournament. UNC, long an opponent of determining the champion in the tournament, responded by hanging banners with the words "ACC Champions" in huge letters, with the words "Tournament" or "Regular Season" in much smaller print underneath. Since Duke has since copied that practice, it's hard to sneer at Carolina's subterfuge.
But make no mistake of what we are talking about.
There are three ways to talk about the best team in the ACC. You can call a team the regular season champion or the tournament champion. However, when you call a team simply "the ACC champion", you are talking about the team that wins the tournament.
Virginia and Syracuse will meet Saturday in Charlottesville with the 2014 ACC regular season title on the line. If Virginia wins, the Cavs will clinch the regular season title. If Syracuse wins, the two teams are very likely to end up in a tie for the regular season crown. Forget the tiebreakers - that's only to determine seeding in the tournament. The ACC does not use tiebreakers to determine championships - if both teams finish 16-2 (or, less likely, 15-3) in the league, Virginia and Syracuse will share the Cliff Ellis Memorial Championship.
But the real ACC championship will be determined In Greensboro between Mar. 12-16.
And you know what - and here's where the irony comes in - now that we have a regular season title, the tournament has become the fairest way to determine a champion.
A HISTORY LESSON
The Southern Conference Tournament is actually older than the Southern Conference.
The first postseason tournament was played in Atlanta in the spring of 1921. It was organized by the Atlanta Athletic Club and was billed as a tournament to determine the Champion of the South. The impetus for the event was explained later in the 1947 Southern Conference Handbook:
Until recent years, championships in basketball were always uncertain and they were generally disputed by half a dozen institutions. This condition was no doubt due to the fact that colleges and universities did not have uniform courts. Some courts were long and narrow with low ceilings, while others were irregular and in some instances, had columns or other obstructions on the playing field. The result was that the home teams usually won. The team that could schedule the greatest number of home games frequently had the highest percentage of games won at the end of the season and, of course, "claimed" the championship.
That first tournament drew 15 entries from such varied institutions as Millsaps, Birmingham Southern and Kentucky. The pre-Rupp Wildcats won the five-day event and to this day, often claim it as a Southern Conference title.
But the Southern Conference had nothing to do with the first tournament. The conference was, in fact, being formed that very weekend in an Atlanta hotel. The original membership included many of the teams that we know today from the ACC and SEC. By 1922, the Southern Conference had taken over control of the tournament, but it remained open to any Southern school until 1924, when the league closed the door to all but conference members.
By that time, the Southern Conference included 22 members. Duke University (newly renamed after years as Trinity College) became the 23rd member in 1928.
The huge size of the conference demanded a postseason tournament to determine a champion. Regular season schedules were wildly unbalanced and no one at the time was silly enough to suggest that the team with the best regular season record should have been crowned champion. That reasoning continued even after the conference split (on strictly geographical grounds) in 1932 - the Deep South schools becoming the SEC and the schools in the Atlantic Seaboard states remaining in the Southern Conference.
Both conferences retained a postseason tournament. The Southern Conference (which eventually grew to 17 teams) was still too big to play a balanced schedule - or even the semblance of one as we have today. Teams would play wildly different numbers of games and would often dodge the best teams. In 1938, The Citadel finished 10-1 in conference yet played just one team with a winning record (and lost it). In 1952, West Virginia finished 15-1 in league play, yet played just one game against any of the league's powers from North Carolina (and that one was at home).
Clearly, the tournament was the only fair way to determine a champion.
PICKING AN NCAA TEAM: That only became important with the rise of the NCAA Tournament.
Wake Forest was invited to the first NCAA Tournament in 1939. The '39 Deacons were a good team, but lost to Clemson in the quarterfinals of the tournament that year. Two years later, Duke beat UNC in the conference tournament and won the title, yet UNC got an NCAA bid.
It wasn't a big deal at the time - UNC's 1941 NCAA offer was reported on the inside sports pages of the local papers.
That changed in 1946. Both Duke and UNC had terrific teams. The two rivals split during the regular season (each winning on the road). UNC had a slightly better regular season, but the Tar Heels were upset by Wake Forest in the Southern Conference Tournament, then Duke beat the Deacons to win the conference title.
When the NCAA offered UNC a bid, there was outrage:
"What does a team have to do to earn an invitation to the N.C.A.A. (sic) Tournament?" Jack Horner the sports editor of the Durham Morning Herald, wrote. "I don't see how the committee can afford to pass up the conference champion and select another team from the same loop."
Duke partisans pointed out that the head of the regional selection committee was Davidson athletic director Norman Shepard, a former UNC basketball player. He defended the choice and UNC reached the NCAA title game before losing to Bob Kurland and Oklahoma A&M.
I can't prove what happened next. But there is evidence that Duke athletic director Eddie Cameron - a powerful man and the chairman of the Southern Conference Basketball Committee - worked behind the scenes to change the NCAA selection process. My best evidence is what happened the very next year - new N.C. State coach Everett Case dominated the league during the regular season, but Shepard merely offered Case "a conditional bid" - conditional on winning the Southern Conference Tournament.
It was not an automatic bid. At the time, the NCAA Tournament involved just eight teams, chosen regionally. Each of the eight regions had their own selection committee. The Southern Conference was in Region 3 - along with the SEC. Late in the decade, Case's best teams were matched against Kentucky's "Fab Five" in the competition for the region's one bid.
That awkward arrangement blew up in 1950, when both N.C. State and Kentucky fielded powerful teams (both ranked in the top 5 in the new AP poll). The new chairman of the Region 3 Selection Committee was Virginia athletic director Gus Tebell, who had once coached football and basketball at N.C. State.
After Kentucky blew away Tennessee in the SEC Tournament in Louisville and N.C. State blew out Duke in the Southern Conference Tournament at Duke Indoor Stadium, Tebell came up with a unique solution to his selection dilemma. He suggested that Kentucky and N.C. State play a one-game playoff to determine the NCAA bid.
N.C. State's Case immediately agreed to play Kentucky "any time and any place." But when Kentucky's Rupp refused to even consider a playoff game, the committee voted to offer the bid to N.C. State.
At least, that was what Tebell told reporters. Rupp offered a different take:
"No one from the committee or from the NCAA consulted us about a playoff," the angry coach said, adding, "A playoff on the basis of the teams' record would have been ridiculous."
Tebell responded with a statement that stopped just short of calling Rupp a liar.
"I don't intend to get in a big controversy," Tebell said, "but you can say that I did not make up the story about the playoff. As I have not questioned the integrity of Mr. Rupp and I don't see why he's questioning mine."
N.C. State got the bid and ended up losing a thriller to the City College of New York in the semifinal game. The Pack then beat Bob Cousy and Boston College in the third-place game.
More importantly, the controversy helped spur changes in the NCAA Tournament - and in the selection process. In the off-season, the NCAA expanded its tournament from eight to 16 teams and designated 11 major conferences to receive automatic bids.
The conferences were allowed to choose whatever team they wanted. Ten of the 11 leagues designated their regular season champion to represent the league. The one exception was the Southern Conference, which elected to send its tournament champion.
Three years later, when the league's seven strongest members broke off to form the ACC, they took the automatic bid - and the use of the tournament to choose a champion - with them.
It made sense that first year. The 1953-54 ACC played as wildly unbalanced a regular season as the old Southern Conference. But starting in 1954-55, the schedule was perfectly balanced - everybody played everybody else home and away.
Fortunately - or unfortunately, depending on your view of the tournament - the postseason event had become a vital money-maker for the league in that pre-TV era (at least it was pre-big payouts for broadcast rights). So the ACC retained its tournament, even as coaches complained that the regular season - with its balanced home-and-home schedule - offered the best and fairest way to select a champion.
That debate would continue until expansion forced the first unbalanced schedules in 2005.
UNBALANCED EQUALS UNFAIR
North Carolina won the first regular season title after the adoption of an unbalanced schedule. After the 2005 Tar Heels beat Duke in a tense regular season finale in Chapel Hill, second-year UNC coach Roy Williams had his team cut down the nets to celebrate the "championship."
Later that night, Wake Forest knocked off N.C. State in Raleigh (in the famous game where Chris Paul pinched Julius Hodge in the nuts). That left the two teams separated by a single game in the standings: UNC was 14-2 … Wake was 13-3.
Would the standings have been different if the two teams had played a balanced schedule?
Well, to start with, the two contenders played just once. It was in Winston-Salem and Wake Forest won. The Heels would have been favored in the rematch in Chapel Hill, but it would have given the Deacs a chance to claim a share of the title.
Beyond that inequity, UNC got two games that the Deacons didn't - Clemson at home and at Maryland. The first was a gimmie (Clemson was 5-11 in the ACC). The second was a little tougher, although 7-9 Maryland was not a super power. Wake had to play two games that UNC didn't - at Miami (like Maryland, 7-9 in the ACC that year) and at Georgia Tech.
The latter is the problem. The Jackets, one year off their 2004 Final Four team, were just 8-8 in the ACC, but were still a powerful team featuring Final Four vets Jarrett Jack, Will Bynum, B.J. Elder and center Luke Schenscher. The Jackets would take Duke to the wire in the 2005 ACC title game and would win a game in the NCAA Tournament.
Wake lost in overtime to the Jackets in Atlanta - in the Thrillerdome as it was known at that time.
Trading a game at Maryland (an NIT team) for a game at Georgia Tech was hardly a fair trade. Had the schedule been balanced, I don't think it's wrong to suggest that the two teams would have had an equal record going into their rematch in Chapel Hill.
Not saying that UNC's 2005 "regular season championship" is bogus … not quite. But it hardly justified cutting the nets. It was clearly shaped by the schedule.
The same thing happened in 2013.
Miami won the ACC "regular season title" with a 15-3 record - one game ahead of 14-4 Duke.
But the two teams played 14 common games that season. Let me be clear - I consider a common game as the same team at the same place. You can't compare a home game with Clemson with a road game at Clemson.
Duke and Miami played 12 common opponents last season - plus they played each other home and home.
In that 14 game balanced schedule, Duke finished 12-2 … Miami 11-3.
The 'Canes regular season title was solely a function of the unbalanced schedule. Their other four games were at 6-12 Georgia Tech, at 5-13 Clemson, 9-9 Florida State at home and 11-7 Virginia at home. Duke's other four games were 6-12 Wake at home, 11-7 N.C. State at home, at 11-7 Virginia and at 8-10 Maryland.
Miami swept it's four "other" games … Duke went 2-2, losing at Virginia and at Maryland.
That gave Miami the regular season title.
Of course, Miami also won the tournament title, so despite the fraudulent regular season title, they are - at least to mu mind -- true ACC champions.
That brings us to this season.
Virginia (15-1) currently leads Syracuse (13-2) by one and a half games in the ACC standings. But that lead is the product of a significantly easier regular season schedule.
There are five likely NCAA teams in this year's ACC - Virginia, Syracuse, Duke, North Carolina and Pitt. Games against those teams represent the toughest in-conference tests an ACC contender can face. Let's look at the matchups for the five contenders.
-- Duke and Syracuse have six such games on their schedules. The Blue Devils play at Syracuse, at UNC and at Pitt. They get Syracuse, UNC and Virginia at home. The Orange play at Duke, at Pitt and at Virginia. They get Duke, Pitt and UNC at home.
-- UNC has five games against the contenders -but just two at home. They get Duke and Pitt in Chapel Hill and have road games at Syracuse, Duke and Virginia.
-- Pitt also has five games against the contenders - three at home and two on the road. They get Duke, Syracuse and Virginia at home, UNC and Syracuse on the road.
-- Virginia has just four games against the other contenders. The Cavs play at Duke and at Pitt and get UNC and Syracuse at home.
I don't mean to denigrate the Cavaliers. Tony Bennett's team has played great and deserves credit for reaching this point in the season with a 15-1 ACC record. And the schedule didn't make Syracuse lose at home to hapless Boston College.
Still, if Virginia wins Saturday - at home - in their only meeting with Syracuse, it will be obvious how big a role the schedule will have played in their title.
Excuse me, in their "regular season title".
The real ACC championship will be decided in Greensboro in two weeks.
That's the way it has always been … and since 2005, it's also the way it should be.