By Al Featherston
Mike Krzyzewski has a chance to win a championship this week.
That makes this a significant week for Duke basketball.
The Blue Devils' Hall of Fame coach has always made it clear that the focus of his program is winning championships. Whether it's winning the Maui Invitational (as this year's team did earlier this season) or winning the national title in April, every championship is important - a goal to be pursued.
Duke can win the ACC regular season championship Saturday. Going into the final week of the regular season, Duke and North Carolina are tied atop the ACC standings - each at 12-2 in the league. Both teams have a preliminary to take care of at midweek - Duke at Wake Forest Tuesday night and North Carolina at home Wednesday night, but in all likelihood, the regular season title will be decided Saturday night when the two old rivals meet in Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Even if one of the two contenders stumbles early in the week, that team can still claim a share of the title by winning Saturday.
I'm sure Coach K is focused on winning the two games this week - both to get that regular season title, to secure the No. 1 seed in the ACC Tournament and to bolster his team's chances of getting a No. 1 seed for the NCAA Tournament.
But let's be clear about one thing - while the regular season championship is real and meaningful, the ACC determines its champion a week later in Atlanta. Saturday night's winner will be the ACC regular season champion. The team that wins the tournament will be the ACC champion.
I know this creates a lot of confusion. It's a matter for some debate among coaches and serious fans, plus there is a lot of misinformation out there.
Let me try and walk you through it.
-- First, there is an official regular season champion.
For many, many years there was not. The sole purpose of the regular season was to determine the seeds for the tournament. The conference did not recognize a regular season championship, although that never stopped Dean Smith from hanging banners for his regular season "titles".
That situation changed when Clemson finished first in the league in 1990.
The league's coaches recognized that Cliff Ellis had the toughest job in the ACC (and in 1990, it was BY FAR the toughest, although Virginia Tech and FSU are now contenders). They thought he deserved recognition for his accomplishment. And since a number of them thought the ACC regular season was a more valid test of excellence than the tournament, they urged the ACC to recognize the Tigers as ACC regular season champions.
The conference officials finally gave in. They not only recognized Clemson as the 1990 ACC regular season champion, they authorized any school the right to hang banners for their regular season "championships". But the conference emphasized that the league's official champion was still the tournament winner.
That rule was formalized on July 1, 1961 when at the conference meetings in Greensboro, UNC's motion to designate the regular season winner as champion failed to receive a second. As soon that that motion was off the table, the league officials voted unanimously to designate the tournament winner as champion.
So whatever happens Saturday night, the official ACC championship will still be decided in Atlanta.
-- Second, there's still the question: SHOULD the regular season champion be recognized as the real champion. The ACC Tournament could remain as a second-chance for teams to earn an automatic NCAA bid. There is no rule that in order to get an automatic bid, you have to declare the tournament winner as your champion.
Several leagues currently recognize their regular season leaders as champions and still have the tournaments to decide their automatic bid.
Should the ACC do that too?
For years, the majority of ACC coaches argued that the winner of the regular season round-robin was a more valid champion that the winner of the three-day tournament.
The debate was really fierce back in the 1950s and 1960s, when only the tournament champion could represent the ACC in the NCAA. When fourth-seeded Duke upset co-regular season champions North Carolina and Wake on back-to-back nights to win the 1960 ACC Tournament, there was outrage. And when N.C. State upset Duke - clearly the best team in the league - in the 1965 finals, Blue Devil fans moaned and groaned.
The worst was probably 1970, when a South Carolina team that had dominated the ACC (14-0 with one game closer than 10 points) lost to N.C. State in double-overtime after Gamecock star John Roche twisted his ankle in the semifinals.
The expansion of the NCAA Tournament in 1975 - for the first time two teams per conference were allowed to compete - took some of the urgency out of the debate. Starting with a Maryland team that was beaten in the tournament semifinals, the ACC regular season winner was safely in the NCAA field from that point on.
But still the question lingers - is the regular season winner a more valid champion than the tournament winner?
Over in Chapel Hill, you'll find a lot more emphasis on the regular season title than the official ACC championship. In 2005, Roy Williams had his team cut down the nets after beating Duke in the finale to win the regular season title (Duke won the ACC championship a week later). In 2009, Williams had injured point guard Ty Lawson injected with a pain killer so he could play in the regular season finale against Duke - and clinch the regular season title. The next week, he let Lawson rest during the ACC Tournament and just shrugged as the Tar Heels were eliminated in the semifinals by Florida State.
Maybe that's a smart move - he had a fairly healthy Lawson available for the NCAA Tournament. But, if that were the case, why risk him against Duke? And if that was no risk, why not use him in the tournament?
The point is that UNC's Williams doesn't really care about the tournament - he's made it clear that he considers it a big cocktail party.
Is it just a coincidence that during his tenure, Duke has passed North Carolina as the team with the most ACC championships? When Roy was hired after the 2003 season, Duke had 14 ACC titles and UNC had 15. In the last seven years, Duke has won five more titles and UNC two - so now Duke leads 19-17.
To be fair, UNC has always been a source of anti-tournament rhetoric in ACC history. In the 1950s, Frank McGuire was the tournament's biggest critic. Dean Smith never liked it, although he was enough of a realist to understand that in his early years, it was his only path to the NCAA Tournament, so he focused a lot of energy on winning it.
He changed his approach in the early 1980s, de-emphasizing the tournament to focus on getting his team ready for the NCAA Tournament. Twice in the decade he had teams finish the regular season undefeated in the ACC â¦ and on both of those occasions, UNC was beaten in the ACC Tournament.
Smith discovered two things - his teams didn't perform better in the NCAA Tournament after he de-emphasized the ACC Tournament and his fans didn't like seeing Duke and N.C. State celebrating their conference titles.
He admits that he changed his approach in 1988 and once again focused on winning the ACC Tournament. It took a year to pay off - the Heels lost a thriller to Duke in the '88 finals, but edged the Devils in '89. In his last nine years, Smith won four more ACC championships â¦ and by coincidence, went to four more Final Fours.
It's interesting that Smith would relate how much it bothered UNC fans to lose the ACC Tournament in the 1980s. Roy Williams has grown a new crop of Tar Heel fans who profess not to care that the Blue Devils now dominate the event in a way that Dean Smith never did.
Maybe they honestly share his contempt for the big cocktail party. Or maybe it has something to do with the fact that Duke now rules the tournament with an iron hand (10 titles in the last 13 years). After all, the banner for the 1924 Helms Foundation championship was a small, obscure piece of cloth until after the 1992 season when Duke tied UNC with is second nation championship â¦ and suddenly the Helms banner was given equal status with the Tar Heel NCAA title banners in the rafters of the Smith Center.
When UNC was the ACC's most successful tournament team it was a big deal - so big that Dean Smith felt pressure to win the tournament for the fans. Now that Duke has that honor, it's just not that important in Chapel Hill.
I think that's what they call "The Carolina Way."
WHY THE TOURNAMENT
You have to understand that the ACC Tournament is an outgrowth of the Southern Conference Tournament. The old Southern Conference was too big and too varied to play anything like a fair regular season schedule. Some teams played 6-8 conference games, but only played the ones in their state. Some teams played 16-18 conference games and even they rarely played every conference opponent.
In that era, no one disputed the idea that the tournament was the only fair way to determine a champion.
The problem came when the ACC broke off from the Southern Conference and the new league was small enough to play a complete home-and-home round robin. But the tournament was so popular and so successful (and most importantly so profitable) that the league never considered replacing it with a regular season playoff.
The coaches who argued against the tournament between 1955 and 2004 - when the schedule was fair and balanced - had a reasonable point of view.
That changed with expansion. Starting in 2005, the ACC no longer played a balanced schedule. And it's only going to get worse - when Syracuse and Pittsburgh join the league in the near future, the schedule will become even more out of whack. And it's clear that the ultimate goal of ACC officials is to get to 16 teams â¦ which will be just one less than the 17-team Southern Conference that broke apart in the spring of 1953.
So, it could be argued that as of today, the tournament is once again the fairest way to determine a true champion.
-- Third, it's more than that.
Not too long again, I was going through Eddie Cameron's papers for a book project and I came across an interesting letter from Dr. Lenox Baker. It was something he wrote in the spring of 1965 to an irate Duke fan who couldn't accept the fact that Bubas' great '65 team - one that finished three games ahead of N.C. State in the regular season standings - was bumped off in the ACC Tournament finals and denied a chance to compete for the NCAA title.
Dr. Baker a distinguished orthopedic surgeon, whose ties to Duke athletics dated back before Wallace Wade's arrival in Durham, offered an eloquent defense of the tournament to his friend, a Duke law professor.
"I am not certain that Duke had the best basketball team at the end of the season and I am not certain that the team with the best record at the end of the season is always the strongest team," Baker wrote in the letter he shared with Cameron. "Some teams slip back and some come on; some lose stars through injuries.
"Another way of looking at it is that a champion must always win his last fight. That is the way it has always been. The  World Series is a good example. I do not believe that the St. Louis Cardinals are as good a team as the Yankees, but they are champions."
Think about that for a second.
Isn't that the essence of sports?
Who is the reigning NFL champion? Do we recognize Green Bay for their 15-1 regular season performance? After all, that was two games better than anyone else in the league managed over the course of the long, trying season. If you want to crown the ACC regular season champion, shouldn't the Packers be touted as NFL champs over a 9-7 Giants team that got hot at the right time?
Or how about Major League baseball? The Phillies won 102 games over the course of the regular season, yet because they lost a short series in the playoffs, we celebrate a 90-win St. Louis team as World Champions.
That's the way it is in every sport â¦ and I mean every sport.
A UConn team that tied for ninth place in its conference is the reigning NCAA basketball champion. An Alabama team that didn't even make its conference title game won the BCS national championship in college football. A Dallas Mavericks team that finished third in the West won the 2011 NBA title. A Boston Bruins team that finished second in the East won the Stanley Cup.
Dr. Baker was right back in 1965 - champions might by forged over the long course of the season, but they are decided at the end of the year. We do that in football - we play a championship game to determine the ACC champion, so why does it seem to wrong to do so in basketball?
Face it, the ACC tournament winner is more than the official ACC Champion.
It's the real ACC champion.
|DBR Is On Twitter!(DBRTweetz)|