Tre Jones was named the 2020 ACC Player of the Year. It’s no surprise that a Blue Devil won it. Jones was the 18th Blue Devil to win that award, more than any other school. Duke has won three in a row, five times in the last decade.
North Carolina is second at 15, with Wake Forest at 10 and NC State at eight. That gives the Big Four 51 of the ACC’s 69 POY awards.
Sounds pretty routine.
But there’s a sidebar. Jones’ teammate Vernon Carey likely would have won the award had Duke made a different decision. Duke made a conscious decision to nominate Jones for the award but not Carey, fearing that nominating both would split the vote and allow someone else to walk off with the award.
What makes me think Carey would have won had the opportunity existed?
The Associated Press named their own All-ACC team, voted on by 15 AP writers. They named Carey POY. The United States Basketball Writers Association votes by geographic region. North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and Maryland are in District III. Carey and Jones both were named to the 10-man all-district team but Carey was named player of the year.
But not the first time Duke has been involved in some curious ACC POY voting.
Some background. Beginning in 1954 the Atlantic Coast Sports Media Association selected the post-season honors, including POY. Then the coaches got into the act, resulting in split POY winners in 2013. The ACC elected to make the coaches awards the official winners and the media awards went away.
Note that the award has always been player of the year. Most professional leagues award a most valuable player award. It may seem like a minor distinction. But the word “valuable” implies some consideration for team success. It’s not absolute, of course. Mike Trout isn’t winning all those MVP awards for taking the Angels deep into the post-season.
The ACC’s criteria are more nebulous. But team success has long been a big factor. That path was paved from the beginning. Virginia’s Buzz Wilkinson averaged over 30 points per game in 1954 and 1955 and South Carolina’s Grady Wallace led the NCAA with 31.2 points per game in 1957. But neither played for a team with a winning mark in the ACC and neither came close to winning the POY award. In fact, Wallace received only four votes in 1957 to North Carolina’s Lennie Rosenbluth’s 43. Rosenbluth was playing for a team that went undefeated, Wallace for a 5-9 ACC team.
Of course it could just be that the North Carolina-centric media had something to do with this. The first 15 ACC POY winners played for Big Four schools.
Then again, the first 16 ACC regular-season winners and 15 of the first 16 ACC Tournament champions were Big Four schools.
Duke was shut out in the POY sweepstakes until Art Heyman won in 1963. In fact, Heyman in 1961 was the first Duke player to even get a vote.
Jeff Mullins gave Duke two in a row in 1964.
Then 1966 happened. Duke won the ACC regular season at 12-2 and captured the ACC Tournament. In those days the all-conference team was selected right after the conclusion of the regular season, with the player and coach of the year awards coming the week after the ACC Tournament. North Carolina’s Bob Lewis had the most points for All-ACC, with 191, followed by Duke’s Jack Marin with 187 and Bob Verga with 161. Lewis led the ACC with 27.4 points per game, still UNC’s single-season record.
But the Tar Heels were 8-6 in the ACC.
Duke’s Steve Vacendak was voted second-team All-ACC, ninth in the total voting.
But he played well in the ACC, well enough to win the Case Award as the tournament’s top player. Clemson coach Bobby Roberts wondered out loud how Vacendak could have been left off the first-team.
Must have hit some nerves. In a shocking reversal Vacendak was voted ACC Player of the Year, with 51 votes. Marin finished second at 29, while Lewis had 19.
Was the media wrong when they voted Vacendak second team or wrong when they voted him POY? Is the glass half-full or half-empty?
I was 15 at the time but thought Marin deserved the award then and nothing has changed my mind in the interim.
The ACC changed the rules the following season, awarding POY and COY at the same time as all-conference.
Duke’s Bob Verga led the ACC with 26.1 points per game in 1967 and was the leading vote-getter for all-conference with 146 points. North Carolina’s Larry Miller (21.9 ppg) was second with 140. But North Carolina was 12-2 in the ACC, Duke 9-3 and Miller edged Verga 52 votes to 48, consistent with what happened to Bob Lewis the previous season.
Miller repeated in 1968, 76 votes to Mike Lewis’ 34.