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On To Washington And The ACC Tournament

I don’t think the NCAA Tournament is the only thing worth winning each year. It can erase a lot of frustrations, but I still believe that more than one team … or even the Final Four teams, can have a successful season. There are other things worth winning. And one of them is the ACC Championship.

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11 March 01: Tournament MVP Shane Battier #31 of the Duke Blue Devils celebrates their 79-53 victory over the North Carolina Tar Heels during the ACC Tournament finals at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, Georgia.
11 March 01: Tournament MVP Shane Battier #31 of the Duke Blue Devils celebrates their 79-53 victory over the North Carolina Tar Heels during the ACC Tournament finals at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, Georgia.
Craig Jones/Getty Images

Maybe it’s a generational thing.

Or maybe it’s a Duke thing.

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But the fact is, I love the ACC Tournament. It’s the highlight of my year.

I understand that some fans – mostly younger fans or UNC fans – don’t have much regard for the ACC Tournament. To them, it’s a wearying distraction before the real prize starts a week later.

I get that. And I understand that the NCAA Tournament overshadows everything else: the regular season, the conference tournament … everything.

At the same time, I don’t think the NCAA Tournament is the only thing worth winning each year. It can erase a lot of frustrations, but I still believe that more than one team … or even the Final Four teams, can have a successful season. There are other things worth winning.

And one of them is the ACC Championship.

That championship is decided during the week of the tournament, not over the 18 games and two months of the (unbalanced) regular season ACC competition.

Indeed, the conflict between the ACC "regular season" championship and the real ACC championship is at the heart of one of the great dynamics in league history.

Full disclosure here, I wrote a (so far unpublished) history of the ACC Tournament – not the entire history of the event, but the 21 years between 1954 and 1974 when only the ACC Tournament champion earned a bid to the NCAA Tournament.

It’s my contention that the tournament and that winner-take-all prize is what made the ACC the premier conference in college basketball – the only major conference that has always been basketball-centric. Is it just coincidence that the ACC was the only major conference to use a postseason tournament to determine its champion in that era?

The ACC Tournament is an outgrowth of the old Southern Conference Tournament, which actually predated the original Southern Conference. The first tournament in 1922, sponsored by the Atlanta Athletic Club, was actually played the same week as the Southern Conference was formed.

The league – and the tournament – underwent many changes over the next three decades, but established itself as one of the premier events on the sports calendar, especially in North Carolina, where the tournament was played every season from 1933 through 1976. The tournament was necessary for a league that was so large and so varied that the members were never able to play anything resembling a fair and balanced regular season schedule.

That changed when the seven strongest Southern Conference athletic powers broke off to form the Atlantic Coast Conference in the spring of 1953. Virginia joined as an eighth member that fall and the league had its modern shape.

The ACC retained its postseason tournament, even though the new eight-team conference could and did play a balanced regular season schedule.

That led to the first great controversy in ACC history – whether or not to decide the league basketball champion (and the ACC’s one NCAA representative) in the tournament or in the regular season?

On one side of the debate were UNC and Maryland. Frank McGuire of UNC and Bud Millikan of Maryland were the two loudest and most bitter critics of the tournament.

On the other side was N.C. State and Duke. Everett Case of N.C. State and Duke athletic director Eddie Cameron were the two strongest advocates of the tournament.

The critics argued that it was all about money. Maryland’s Millikan labeled the tournament "a $60,000 farce" at a time when it was actually earning almost twice that. There was some truth to the charge. In the first decade of the conference, long before huge TV deals were available, the tournament revenues provided the bulk of the league’s income and a large part of the athletic budgets of the competing teams.

But there was more to it than that as Cameron told a reporter in 1962:

"I think tournament basketball is what brought us out of mediocrity and to the level of excellence we now enjoy," he said. "That’s the reason teams always keep improving. They always point to March. If we lose the tournament, we’ll return to mediocre basketball."

The ACC stuck with its tournament and, I would argue, forced the NCAA to adjust. The 1974 N.C. State-Maryland matchup in the ACC championship game was at the same time the greatest college basketball game ever played and one of the most important – the incredible battle between two great teams demonstrated the absurdity of limiting the NCAA field to just one team per conference and led directly to the expansion of the NCAA field into the event we know today.

Again, it’s no coincidence that the key players on the NCAA Men’s Basketball Committee who approved expansion were N.C. State athletic director Willis Casey and Davidson athletic director Tom Scott (a former basketball coach at UNC). Vic Bubas, who played and coached under Case at N.C. State, and led Duke to three Final Fours as head coach, was on the committee five years later when the decision was made to drop all limits on conference participation. And Virginia athletic director Gene Corrigan, a Duke grad, was the chairman of the committee five years after that when the NCAA adopted its modern 64-team tournament model.

I thought the expansion of the NCAA Tournament would drain the ACC of its drama – and, indeed, it has over time. But it took a long, long time for that to happen. In 1985, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution did a survey that rated the ACC Tournament as the toughest ticket in all of sports – tougher than the Masters, the Super Bowl or the NCAA championship.

As late as 2001 – a quarter century after the NCAA allowed more than one team per conference to participate – the ACC staged what has to be the greatest conference tournament ever held. More than 22,000 fans packed the Georgia Dome for the play-in game! The Duke-UNC championship game drew more than 40,000 spectators.

The ACC Tournament remained a dynamo through the 2008 event in Charlotte. But the half-century of momentum that the ACC had built up came to a crashing halt in 2009, when the conference returned to the Georgia Dome. This time, interest was luke-warm. The failing economy, the expansion to non-basketball schools and bad seasons by some of the league’s strongest programs all combined to knock back interest in the tournament. The final numbers weren’t bad – sales for each session was reported to be 25,000 or so -- but anyone who was there could confirm that the passion in Atlanta wasn’t a fraction of what it had been in 2001.

Worse, when the tournament returned to its heart – Greensboro – in 2010, tickets were being given away. Over the span of two years, the ACC Tournament had gone from one of the most unique events in sports to just another conference tournament.

It’s the ultimate triumph of the haters – Frank McGuire and his disciples -- down to Roy Williams, who once dismissed the tournament as "a big cocktail party."

Saturday after beating Duke, Williams told reporters, "I want to win the ACC Tournament, but I’ve always been more impressed by the regular season championship."

Again, no coincidence that UNC led the ACC in championships when Williams took the job. But that 15-14 edge on Duke has disappeared in the last decade-plus. Coach K has won five ACC titles since Williams arrived to two for the Tar Heels.

Duke now has a 19-17 edge in ACC Championships (N.C. State is a distant third with 10 titles).

You can bet that if UNC doesn’t win the title this week in Washington, you’ll hear how it’s not as important as their regular season title.


Eight is the perfect number for a one-week tournament – quarterfinals, semifinals, finals.

Seven is not too bad … just give the regular season champion a first-round bye. Even nine is okay … although that punishes the last two finishers with a play-in game.

For most of its history, the ACC has featured an eight-team tournament, although there was a decade-long interlude with seven teams (the years after South Carolina left the league in 1971 and before Georgia Tech joined in 1980) and a 13-year span with nine teams (after FSU joined the league in 1992).

That sweet balance was upset in 2005, when the addition of Miami and Virginia Tech made the ACC an 11-team league. A year later, Boston College raised the number of teams to 12. In 2014, Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame joined the party, raising the tourney field to 15 teams.

That number stayed the same last year when Louisville replaced Maryland.

So 15 teams is now the ACC’s model, even though the league has only had to stage a 15-team tournament once. A year ago, Syracuse was ineligible due to a self-imposed postseason ban. This year, Louisville will sit the event out after Strippergate.

Who knows about next year after the NCAA finally rules on UNC’s five Level One violations?

It may be quite a while before we see a 15-team tournament again.

Historically, it’s strange to see teams on probation miss the ACC Tournament.

Three times in the ACC’s first 20 years, N.C. State teams on probation actually won the tournament – 1955, 1959 and 1973.

The first of State’s probation titles allowed Duke – the loser in the championship game – to make its first NCAA appearance in 1955. The 1959 ACC finale between probation-ridden State and UNC led to a bitter scene when McGuire – who never really cared about the ACC title anyway – pulled his starters late in a competitive game and let the Wolfpack coast to victory. Fans were outraged, including one anonymous spectator who snuck into the basement at Reynolds Coliseum, broke into a power box and plunged the arena into darkness!

Two years later, McGuire earned his own probation for cheating violations and provoked more outrage when he elected to have UNC sit out the tournament rather than (in his words) "knock a deserving team out of a chance to compete in the NCAA tournament." Dean Smith once told me that fans were so angry about that decision that when he and McGuire attended the 1961 ACC Tournament as spectators, they had to have police protection.

The ACC gave Wake Forest, which had finished second to UNC in the regular season standings, a first-round bye in 1961. The Deacons converted that bye to the school’s first ACC title. That raises the question, how much advantage does a bye confer?

Well, counting Wake Forest in 1961 and the eight regular season leaders in the 1970s that got first round byes, the teams with the extra day’s rest (and one less chance to lose), won six of nine possible championships. Maryland missed in 1975 (losing to N.C. State in the semifinals), UNC missed in 1976 (losing to Virginia in the finals) and UNC missed again in 1978 (losing to Wake Forest in the semifinals).

That 1978 ACC Tournament is interesting in own regard – it’s the last championship game that featured a life-and-death struggle between two teams to earn an NCAA bid.

Obviously, that was the case between 1954 and 1974, when only the tournament champion could earn an NCAA bid (or the championship game loser, if the champion was on probation). But between 1975 and 1979, there was a five-year period where two teams could earn NCAA bids from the ACC. It soon became very evident that one bid would go to the tournament champion and the extra bid would go to the regular season champion.

That was made clear in 1975 when No. 7 N.C. State upset No. 5 Maryland – the ACC’s regular season winner – in the semifinals. Then the Pack lost a heartbreaker to No. 9 North Carolina in the finals. There was some speculation that the defending national champion Wolfpack – featuring the great David Thompson – would get the ACC’s second bid. But not only did that bid go to Maryland, but several committee members later revealed that there was never any debate – the regular season "champs" would always get a bid.

That’s what made the 1978 Wake Forest-Duke championship game so dramatic. The young Blue Devils had been the league’s second-best team over the course of the season. Had they faced first-place UNC in the finals, there would have been no NCAA pressure – both teams would have been guaranteed a bid.

But when the Deacs upset UNC – guaranteed a bid as the regular season champions – that turned the title game into winner-take-all. Duke won and made its historic run to the national title game.

A year later, Duke and UNC met for the ACC title with no real pressure. They had tied for the regular season title, so both were guaranteed an NCAA bid. And a year later, the NCAA dropped all restrictions on conference participation. Five ACC teams participated in the 1980 NCAA Tournament, including Duke, which upset Maryland in the title game.

It’s one of the cherished myths of the ACC that the tournament offers any team a chance to redeem its season and earn an NCAA bid by winning the title. That’s a nice dream, but it’s my contention that’s never happened … at least not since the NCAA expanded in 1980,

A couple of teams have come close – specifically N.C. State in 1997 and 2007 – but no team that wasn’t going to make the NCAA field anyway has won the ACC Tournament to earn a bid.

I know some have made the case for 1983 N.C. State, but while the Pack did need to bolster its resume in Atlanta that year, the title was not necessary. Gene Corrigan, who was on the selection committee at the time, confirmed that the Pack locked up a bid when it beat UNC in the semifinals. It’s worth noting that Maryland, which tied N.C. State in the regular season standings, lost in the first round of the ACC Tournament and still got a bid.

So no non-NCAA team has earned its way into the field by winning the tournament – not in the modern era anyway. Going into this year’s event, five ACC teams are a lock to earn bids. Two more – Pittsburgh and Syracuse are on the at-large bubble. Since they play each other in the second round Wednesday, it creates an interesting situation – the winner of that game is almost certainly in, while the loser might have to sweat it.

Seven teams have almost no chance at an at large bid and will chase the dream of earning a bid by winning the ACC Tournament – Virginia Tech, Clemson, Georgia Tech, Florida State, N.C. State, Wake Forest and Boston College.

What are their chances?

Four of those teams would have to win five games in five days to win the title. That would be tough for any of the ACC’s best teams, much less for the league’s four weakest members. History doesn’t offer much guidance – we’ve only had two tournaments that required any team to face the five-wins-in-five-days dilemma.

So far, the five Tuesday winners (three in 2014; two last year) are a collective 0-5 on Wednesday … so no Tuesday team has won two games in two days, much less five in five days.

I should note that it has happened once in the old Big East Tournament. In 2011, UConn won five games in five days to claim the Big East title – a springboard to a totally unexpected NCAA Tournament run.

But, frankly, I can’t see Boston College doing that … or even N.C. State, which does have a great player in Cat Barber (similar to UConn’s 2011 star Kemba Walker?) or even Florida State, which has a lot of good young talent.

What about Virginia Tech, Clemson or Georgia Tech?

All three have a number of significant wins over the ACC’s better teams and they "only" have to win four games in four days.

Is that possible?

Maybe, but it’s never before happened in ACC history.

So far, 56 teams have entered the ACC Tournament needing to win four games in four days to win the title. Of the 28 first-round winners, 15 have won their second game in the quarterfinals … and four of those have won a third game to reach the championship game:

-- 1997: No. 8 seed N.C. State beat No. 9 Georgia Tech in the play-in game; beat No. 1 Duke in the quarterfinals; beat No. 5 Maryland in the semifinals; lost to No. 2 UNC in the finals.

-- 2007: No. 10 N.C. State beat No. 7 Duke in the first round; beat No. 2 Virginia in the quarterfinals; beat No. 3 Virginia Tech in the semifinals; lost to No. 1 UNC in the finals.

-- 2010: No. 7 Georgia Tech best No. 10 UNC in the first round; beat No. 2 Maryland in the quarterfinals; beat No. 11 N.C. State in the semifinals; lost to No. 1 Duke in the finals.

-- 2015: No. 5 UNC beat No. 12 Boston College in the second round; beat No. 4 Louisville in the quarterfinals; beat No. 1 Virginia in the semifinals’ lost to No. 3 Notre Dame in the finals.

So four of the 56 teams needing to win four games in four days have reached the championship game … but none have won it.

There is reason to think that will change in the near future.

Before 2014, the teams facing four games in four days were always the dregs of the conference. That’s changed with the new 14/15 team format. Some pretty good teams are going to be seeded with a single bye into Wednesday’s second round – especially in a year with so much depth and balance in the league. A year ago, North Carolina was a pretty good team, ranked in the top 15 in the two major polls, and destined to reach the Sweet 16.

Sooner or later, we’ll have a team start Wednesday and win four games in four days.

Could it be Duke this season?

Certainly the Blue Devils are good enough to beat anybody in the ACC. Mike Krzyzewski’s young team has beaten the top two seeds – UNC and Virginia.

But Duke is also a very thin team, relying on six players (with a small contribution from a seventh man, Chase Jeter). That’s enough in any one game – but can six players will four games in four days?

I asked Coach Krzyzewski that question after the UNC loss locked the Devils into the No. 5 seed.

"Well, let’s just play the first game," he said. "If we win, then we get to play the second game. Can you assure us of getting to play the fourth game?

I gave him the expected, "No."

"In the military, one of the expressions they have is ‘a need to know’ basis," Coach K continued. "We don’t need to know that. What we have to figure out if what we need to know about Wednesday’s game."

Of course, Duke won’t know its Wednesday opponent until about 2 p.m. or so on Tuesday after N.C. State and Wake Forest meet in the tournament’s first game. Those are two teams Duke beat twice this season, but the Devils hardly dominated any of those four wins.

I suspect that game-planning will be a secondary concern in the days leading up to Duke’s ACC Tournament opener. Krzyzewski is more likely to use the time to get his team rested and healthy for the formidable task facing it in Washington:

-- N.C. State or Wake Forest on Wednesday

-- Notre Dame on Tuesday

-- Probably UNC in the semifinals Friday night.

-- Probably either Virginia or Miami in the finals Saturday night.

That’s an unlikely path to a 20th ACC championship – it would be an impressive achievement for a deep and experienced team. If this thin and inexperienced crew could do it, it would be a monumental achievement.

Whatever happens in Washington, Duke will be in the NCAA Tournament next week. But there will be plenty of time to focus on that event after this one is over.

Don’t be like UNC fans – value the ACC championship.