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Al Featherston On The ACC, History, & NCAA Expectations!

Duke played its first first-round NCAA Tournament game in 1985. Understand that when the Blue Devils played in the tournament during the Vic Bubas era, there was no first round – not as we know it today. Bubas’ 1960 ACC champs (and the 1955 team under Harold Bradley that represented the ACC because N.C. State was on probation) both started play in what we would call today the second round. It was the round of 32, although the field wasn’t filled out in those days – several teams got byes straight to the Sweet 16.Byes were based on conference records, not individual teams. The ACC, which had struggled in NCAA play in the 1950s (except for UNC’s 1957 title run) always had to play a round-of-32 game until Duke’s Elite Eight team 1960 and Wake Forest Elite Eight team in 1961 began to improve the league’s performance.

The Deacons still had to play a round-of-32 game in 1962, but when that Wake Forest team – featuring All-American center Len Chappell and balding guard Billy Packer – reached the Final Four, that bye was in within reach. As it turned out, Wake Forest’s 82-80 victory over UCLA in the third place game, raised the ACC’s tournament record to 24-16 (60.0), just ahead of the Mid-Atlantic Conference at 17-12 (58.6), which had owned the bye. “It’s the first time a consolation game has ever given me consolation,” Wake Forest coach Bones McKinney said, adding with a smile, “Tell Vic Bubas we did it for him.”

Bones know that Bubas was poised to dominate the ACC with players such as Art Heyman, Jeff Mullins, Jay Buckley and Buzzy Harrison (not to mention rising sophomores Jack Marin and Steve Vacendak). Indeed, Duke would win three of the next four ACC titles – and thanks to Wake Forest’s 1962 win – the Blue Devils were able to start every one of those NCAA runs in the Sweet 16.

It’s impossible to overemphasize how important that bye was in those days. Before Wake Forest’s breakthrough, the ACC champion would cut down the nets in Raleigh on a Saturday night, then usually play that round-of-32 game in New York or Philadelphia on Monday or Tuesday night.

In the nine ACC seasons before the bye, the league put just two teams in the Final Four. In the seven years after Bones and Lennie and Billy bestowed their gift on the league, the ACC played in six Final Fours.

Of course, NCAA Tournament expansion gradually filled out the 32 team field, putting the round-of-32 game back in play – although when that happened, the tournament would start a week after the ACC title game. Duke had to play a round-of-32 game after winning the ACC title in 1978 (barely surviving a thriller against Rhode Island in Charlotte). Duke had to beat Penn in a round-of-32 game in 1980.

Krzyzewski’s loss to Washington in the 1984 NCAA Tournament also came in the round-of-32. Both Penn and Washington had won true first-round games for the right to face Duke in the second round as the NCAA Tournament kept expanding.

But it wasn’t until the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985 that EVERYBODY had to play a first round game. Duke’s first-ever first round game was a 75-62 victory over Pepperdine in Houston. That also happens to be the first of Krzyzewski’s record 68 NCAA Tournament victories.

His second NCAA win also came in a first round game.

Duke’s1986 NCAA opener against Mississippi Valley State might be one of the most important games of his career.

The new NCAA format that came into play in 1985 created the No. 1 vs. No. 16 matchup -- over the next 22 years no No. 1 would ever be upset by the No. 16 team. But the format was only in its second year in 1986 and no one knew that. So when Mississippi Valley State raced to an 11-point second half lead in Greensboro, the top-seeded Blue Devils appeared to be in big trouble. “We weren’t prepared for their quickness,” Krzyzewski said.

The Delta Devils pressed Duke all over the court, forcing 23 turnovers and taking the Blue Devils to the brink of panic before All-American Johnny Dawkins brought them back. Abandoning Krzyzewski’s motion offense and going one-on-one against the Mississippi team’s press, he scored 16 points in a five-minute span to save the nation’s No. 1 ranked team.

“You want to know what pressure is?” Dawkins asked. “That’s pressure. We were down. It’s late and they have momentum. I can remember being on that floor and thinking to myself, ‘We are not losing this game.’ In the huddles, that was the theme ‘We are not losing this game.’ You have to will it.”

It’s interesting to think about how that game could have changed the course of Krzyzewski’s career. He was to build his national reputation on the strength of his extraordinary success in the NCAA Tournament, but on that March afternoon in 1986, Coach K was a mere 1-2 in NCAA play and in grave danger of going 1-3 by becoming the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16. Would a loss that day have derailed the most successful NCAA Tournament coach since John Wooden? Would Krzyzewski have been able to overcome the physiological damage of that loss or would he have developed the same kind of postseason paranoia that, say, Lefty Driesell developed after a couple of unlucky tournament bounces early in his career?

Krzyzewski is 20-1 in first-round games. Of course, that lopsided mark is to a large degree a function of the high seeds his team’s have enjoyed.

Break down those 22 games and look at the seedings:

  • 1985 No. 3 Duke 75, No. 14 Pepperdine 62
  • 1986 No. 1 Duke 85, No. 16 Mississippi Valley State 78
  • 1987 No. 5 Duke 58, No. 12 Texas A&M 51
  • 1988 No. 2 Duke 85, No. 15 Boston 69
  • 1989 No. 2 Duke 90, No. 15 South Carolina State 69
  • 1990 No. 3 Duke 81, No. 14 Richmond 46
  • 1991 No. 2 Duke 102, NE Louisiana 73
  • 1992 No. 1 Duke 82, No. 16 Campbell 56
  • 1993 No. 3 Duke 105, No. 14 Southern Illinois 70
  • 1994 No. 2 Duke 82, No. 15 Texas Southern 70
  • 1995 [no tournament]
  • 1996 No. 9 Eastern Michigan 75, No. 8 Duke 60
  • 1997 No. 2 Duke 71, No. 15 Murray State 78
  • 1998 No. 1 Duke 99, No. 16 Radford 63
  • 1999 No. 1 Duke 99, No. 16 Florida A&M 58
  • 2000 No. 1 Duke 82, No. 16 Lamar 55
  • 2001 No. 1 Duke 95, No. 16 Monmouth 52
  • 2002 No. 1 Duke 84, No. 16 Winthrop 37
  • 2003 No. 3 Duke 67, No. 14 Colorado State 57
  • 2004 No. 1 Duke 96, No. 16 Alabama State 61
  • 2005 No. 1 Duke 57, No. 16 Delaware State 46
  • 2006 No. 1 Duke 70, No. 16 Southern 56

Duke’s 10-0 record as the No. 1 seed is not surprising – overall, the No. 1 seeds are 88-0 against the No. 16 seed. And Duke’s 5-0 record as a No. 2 seed is in line with the overall No. 2 mark of 84-4. The Devils are 4-0 as the No. 3 seed (73-15 overall) and 1-0 as a No. 5 (59-29).

Coach K’s 0-1 record as a No. 8 seed requires explanation. Not only is that the lowest seeded team he’s ever taken into the tournament, but it was badly crippled by tournament time. Guard Chris Collins, the team’s second-team All-ACC performer, started, but was still hobbled by the injury he suffered in the regular season finale against UNC that had kept him out of the ACC Tournament. His backup, sophomore Steve Wojchiechowski was hurt in the ACC quarterfinals and only able to go three minutes against Eastern Michigan. The Devils were so banged up that soccer players Stan Brunson and Jay Heaps combined for 25 minutes in the loss.

Virginia Commonwealth represents the second-highest seeded opponent Duke has ever faced in the first round. At least Duke will be at full strength when the Devils take on the Rams tonight in Buffalo.


Boston College stumbled into the NCAA Tournament, losing five of its last seven games. The Eagles barely held on to beat Miami in overtime in the ACC Tournament quarterfinals, then fell decisively to top seeded UNC in the finals.

After that game, BC coach Al Skinner was asked about his team’s recent troubles.

“Let’s understand something,” Skinner said. “Once we get out of this freakin’ ACC, we’re going to do okay.”

Skinner wasn’t complaining about Boston College’s recent switch from the Big East to the ACC, but about the grinding nature of play in what he believes is the best conference in the country.

“I hope you, as media and fans, understand the quality of basketball played in the league this year,” Skinner continued. “I’m looking forward to the NCAAs. It’s not going to be easy, but it will be easier.”

Well, the 2007 NCAA Tournament opens today and it’s put-up or shut-up time for the coaches who have sung the praises of the league all season. They wanted nine NCAA bids, but ended up with seven.

That’s the most bids the ACC had ever received, although seven of 12 teams isn’t as impressive as when the ACC put six of eight teams in the NCAA field in 1986, 1987, 1989 and 1991; or when the league qualified six of nine teams in 1993, 1996, 1997, 2001 and 2004.

ACC success will be judged against a high standard. The league has averaged almost exactly 10 NCAA wins a season since the field expanded to 64/65 teams in 1985. The league hasn’t had a losing overall NCAA season since 1987, when six ACC teams went a combined 5-6. The league has produced at least two Sweet 16 teams in every season since 1979.

What are the chances of the ACC maintaining its 20-year non-losing streak? Is there a chance that with seven teams, the ACC could break its single-season record of 14 NCAA wins (1990, 1993, 2004)?

If everything goes by seed, the ACC will go 6-1 in the first round (only No. 10 Georgia Tech is seeded to lose); 3-3 in the second (No. 7 Boston College, No. 6 Duke and No. 5 Virginia Tech are seeded to lose).

That’s 9-4 with three teams advancing to the Sweet 16. However, two of those (No. 4 Maryland and No. 4 Virginia) are seeded to lose in the third round with just No.1 seed North Carolina surviving to reach the Final Four. At that point, the ACC would be 11-6. Since UNC is listed as the second No. 1 seed, the selection committee’s projections would seem to be that North Carolina would beat Ohio State (the third No. 1) in the semifinals, then lose to Florida (the top No. 1) in the championship game.

So there you have it – the ACC should be 12-7 with three Sweet 16 teams and the NCAA runnerup!

Of course, the NCAA Tournament NEVER goes according to seed. A year ago, not a single No. 1 seed reached the Final Four. I just suggest the 12-7 standard as an average performance by the ACC ... an expected performance. If the league is really as strong as the coaches think, then it ought to do better than that ... maybe much better.