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

The conclusion to Jim’s look at the ACC Tournament

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: MAR 16 ACC Tournament - Duke v Florida State
CHARLOTTE, NC - MARCH 16: Duke Blue Devils forward RJ Barrett (5) and Duke Blue Devils forward Cam Reddish (2)celebrate at the end of the ACC Tournament championship game with the Duke Blue Devils versus the Florida State Seminoles on March 16th, 2019, at the Spectrum Center in Charlotte, NC.
Photo by Jaylynn Nash/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Vic Bubas’ tournament championship in 1960 is one of the great stories in Duke history, especially the semifinal win over a North Carolina team that had defeated Duke by 22 (Dixie Classic), 26 and 25 points in the regular season.

Duke followed with the first two NCAA Tournament wins in program history.

New sheriff in town and all that.

But in 1954, 1958 and 1965 Duke finished first in the regular season, lost in the tournament and stayed home.

A net loss.

For the record Bubas always spoke positively about the ACC Tournament, at least in public. Remember he was from Indiana and played for and coached under Case.

NC State’s epic 1974 win over Maryland in the ACC Tournament title game was one of the catalysts for the NCAA expanding the tournament in 1975, allowing up to two teams per conference in the field.

The tournament winner still retained the official champion status and the official bid. Still does. The regular-season champion became the de facto second team, Maryland in 1975 and North Carolina in 1976 and 1978 advancing on that basis.

The margin for error was still pretty small. Look at Duke’s 1978 team, one of the great teams in Duke history.

Duke finished second in the regular-season, one game behind the Tar Heels, the regular-season title being decided in an 87-83 Carolina win, one of the best games in the rivalry’s history.

So, UNC was in. But the Tar Heels lost to Wake Forest in the ACC Tournament semifinals; Wake met Duke in the title game. The winner would get the official bid but the loser would be looking at an NIT bid.

And Wake Forest led 42-37 at the half before Duke rallied for the 87-77 win. But it was that close.

The NCAA eliminated the two-team limit in 1980, just in time for Duke to pull off its most recent win-or-go-home ACC Tournament championship game.

Bill Foster’s last Duke team included Mike Gminski, Gene Banks, Kenny Dennard and Vince Taylor. They started 12-0 and were ranked No.1 for eight weeks before the wheels came off. Dennard missed nine games with a leg injury, leading to a four-game losing streak that left Duke 7-7 in the ACC.

It’s not clear how many games un-ranked Duke needed to win in Greensboro that week to avoid the NIT. But Duke took it out of the hands of the folks-in-the-back-room by defeating NC State, North Carolina and Maryland for the title.

Mike Krzyzewski took over for Foster and faced a much different environment in an expanded NCAA field. His first three Duke teams went 13-29 in the ACC and all lost their ACC-Tournament opener.

It was different in 1984. It was a strange season for Duke, which went 2-5 in the ACC at home, 5-2 on the road. Duke opened the tournament against 6-8 Georgia Tech.

A play-in game for the NCAAs?

Not for Duke. The Blue Devils were ranked 16th in the AP poll. There were 40 teams in the NCAA Tournament in 1984. Duke was in.

Duke beat Tech 67-63 in overtime, upset top-ranked North Carolina in the semifinals and advanced to Krzyzewski’s first NCAA Tournament.

Except for the ill-fated 1995 season Duke has gone into every ACC Tournament since 1984 looking to win a title, gel as a team and burnish its NCAA credentials.

But knowing they were in the NCAAS and certainly not the kind of pressure Bubas and his teams faced in the win-or-end-your-season 1960s.

Not every ACC team has had that luxury. But the possibility of an underdog stunning the world isn’t realized very often. Only three teams have ever gone into the ACC Tournament with a losing conference record and won the whole thing. Those would be 1976 Virginia (4-8), 1987 NC State (6-8) and 2004 Maryland (7-9).

Back to Krzyzewski. His Duke teams have finished with at least a share of first place in the ACC regular season 12 times. That includes a five-year run from 1997 through 2001. That’s an ACC Record. His Duke teams have won 15 tournament titles, including five-straight from 1999 through 2003. That’s also an ACC record.

Neither title necessarily presages a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. Duke won the ACC regular season in 1997 and lost its second NCAA game. Duke won the ACC Tournament in 2017 and didn’t make it out of the first weekend. Duke won the ACC Tournament in 2000, 2002, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2009 and 2011 and lost in the Sweet Sixteen.

But every deep Duke run has been preceded by regular-season success.

Duke has won five NCAA titles. The 1991, 1992, 2001 (shared) and 2010 (shared) teams all finished first in the regular season. The 2015 team finished one game behind Virginia but that was with a 15-3 record. The cumulative ACC record of those five title teams was 66-14, an 82.5 winning percentage.

Four of Krzyzewski’s Duke teams have lost in the NCAA title game. The 1986 and 1999 teams hold the school record with 37 wins, 12-2 and 16-0 respectively in the ACC. The 1994 team also won the ACC regular season at 12-4. The 1990 team was second at 9-5.

That comes out to 49-11, an 81.7 percentage.

That leaves us with 1988, 1989 and 2004, Final Four teams that lost their Final Four opener. Duke finished first in 2004, third in 1988, second in 1995, 31-13, 70 percent.

The football-driven expansion of the league and the subsequent disappearance of the double round-robin may have diminished the regular season. But still. Mike Krzyzewski has never had a Final Four team at Duke finish worse than third in the ACC and only one worse than second.

Now about the ACC Tournament?

The 1992, 2001 and 2010 teams all won. The 1991 team made it to the ACC title game but got blown out by North Carolina. Duke lost its second game in 2015.

That comes to a 12-2 record, an 85.7 winning percentage.

The four second-place teams include title teams in 1986 and 1999. The 1990 and 1994 teams both lost in the second round. Duke won the 1988 tournament, lost in the title game in 1989 and 2004.

In other words, each of Krzyzewski’s 12 Final Four teams won at least one ACC Tournament game.

What can we glean from all this? Two things stand out to me. The first is that winning the regular season and winning the ACC Tournament are not mutually exclusive. Duke’s best teams have done well in both areas.

The second is that Krzyzewski has never had a true Cinderella team, one that came out of nowhere to make a deep tournament run. The injury-plagued 2017 team finished fifth in the league at 11-7 but regrouped to win the conference tournament, the only team to ever win four times in the ACC Tournament.

But this was the year that North Carolina’s HB-2 “Bathroom Bill” compelled the NCAA to move first-round matches scheduled for Greensboro to Greenville, South Carolina, where Duke met South Carolina in a quasi-road game that a 2-seed isn’t supposed to have to play in the first weekend.

The ACC Tournament is a ways off. But Duke’s 6-2 ACC record and the resumes of the remaining teams suggest that a run at the regular-season title is realistic.

And that’s a good thing.