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The ACC And The ACC Tournament: A Distinguished Legacy But Not Exactly What You May Think: Part 1

A good look at the history of the ACC Tournament and Duke’s role in it.

Basketball Players Competing in Game
That time NC State decided to try stall ball against Duke in the ACC Tournament.

Ginger or Mary Ann?

Boxers or briefs?

Regular-season titles or ACC Tournament titles?

Important questions all.

But only the third is in our purview.

And with Duke on a brief hiatus, we have time to take a look at that question.

First, some context.

The ACC was formed in the spring of 1953 when Clemson, Duke, Maryland, North Carolina, North Carolina State, South Carolina and Wake Forest left the Southern Conference to establish a new athletic conference.

Fortunately they elected not to call the association the Dixie League.

It was on the short list.

We think of the ACC as a basketball league but football was the fracture point. The Southern Conference had 17 teams in 1953, 15 of whom played football. Schools like Washington and Lee, Davidson and VMI were all opposed to big-time college football, enough so that the conference tried to ban schools from accepting bowl bids, under the curious theory that academics trumped extra football. Clemson and Maryland were suspended for the 1952 season after they violated the ban and played in bowl games anyway.

Not a stable situation.

Back to hoops.

The Southern Conference had nothing resembling a coherent schedule in 1953. South Carolina played 19 conference games, the Citadel played 11. Washington and Lee played 18 games and lost 17 of them.

The championship logically was decided by a post-season tournament that included only the top eight teams. There was an obvious incentive to schedule the weaker teams, which explains why Washington and Lee played so often.

It was a mess.

But the tournament wasn’t. It was a big deal, especially when Reynolds Coliseum opened on the campus of North Carolina State. Seating 12,400 Reynolds began hosting the conference tournament in 1951.

Virginia joined the original seven teams later that summer. The ACC began play in 1953-’54 with a decidedly unbalanced schedule. Virginia only played five conference games. Wake Forest played 12 and everyone else played somewhere in between.

So, it made sense to have a conference tournament to decide the conference champion and NCAA Tournament representative.

But it was a double round-robin in 1955. Why continue the tournament?

Everett Case was one reason why. Case came to NC State after a legendary career in the Indiana high-school ranks. If you’ve seen the movie Hoosiers you have an idea how much excitement that tournament generated and Case wanted that for the ACC.

It didn’t hurt that his school hosted it.

But there was something else. Having a post-season tournament when none of the other major conferences did gave the league a distinctive quality. It stood out.

The Big 10 was the top conference in college basketball at the time. The New York-centric point-shaving scandal of the early 1950s ran CCNY, Long Island and Manhattan out of the big-time but St. John’s and NYU held on. Philadelphia’s Big Five was at its competitive peak.

The ACC was recruiting against these schools and the tournament gave it an edge, as did the TV network that C.D. Chesley started in 1958.

And the rest of the college-basketball-world has come around to the ACC’s view of things.

Of course, in order for the ACC Tournament to be more than just an exhibition the league had to award the winner the official championship and NCAA bid.

The tournament was a phenomenal success. I grew up in North Carolina and remember being allowed—sometimes encouraged—to bring a transistor radio to school to keep up with the opening-day’s afternoon games.

Good times.

But did the league pay a competitive price for picking it’s champion in a three-day shootout rather than a season-long slog?

The evidence suggests it did.

Proponents of the tournament sometimes suggested that it guaranteed the ACC sent its hottest team into the post season.

Any truth to that argument?

From 1954 through 1974 only one team per conference advanced to the NCAAs. The ACC sent 10 teams to the Final Four in that period. North Carolina went in 1957, 1967, 1968, 1969 and 1972. Duke went in 1963, 1964 and 1966. Wake Forest went in 1962, NC State in 1974.

Every one of those teams finished first in the regular season.

Now, clearly any team good enough to finish first in the regular season and win the tournament had to have been pretty darn good.

But there isn’t a single case of a non-regular-season-title team getting hot and riding that wave to the Final Four. Maryland in 1958 and Duke in 1960 each won the tournament after finishing fourth in the regular season and lost in the East Region title game.

Look at North Carolina State. The ACC sent a team to the Final Four every year from 1962 through 1969.

With one exception. In 1965 second-seeded State upset top-seeded Duke in the title game, shooting 51 percent in a 91-85 win.

A week later the Wolfpack shot 26 percent in its NCAA opener, a 66-48 loss to Bill Bradley and Princeton.

So much for riding the wave.

Five years later State upset 14-0 South Carolina 42-39 in the title game, with Gamecocks star John Roche hobbled by a sprained ankle.

State followed that up by losing to Saint Bonaventure 80-68.

How did Duke fare under this system?