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ACC Kings Of The Hill(s)

Finishing in the Top Two in the regular season and tournament isn’t all that easy

Murray State v Florida State
HARTFORD, CONNECTICUT - MARCH 23: Head coach Leonard Hamilton of the Florida State Seminoles reacts against the Murray State Racers in the second half during the second round of the 2019 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament at XL Center on March 23, 2019 in Hartford, Connecticut.
Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

The achievement passed with scant recognition, lost in the run-up to the ACC Tournament and the season’s sudden shutdown. But, in its 29th year in the conference, Florida State notched a notable first, finished alone atop the ACC’s regular-season standings at 16-4.

Three of the league’s recognized powers – Duke, Louisville and Virginia, all national champs within the previous seven seasons – finished tied for second place, a game off FSU’s pace. Leonard Hamilton’s club swept Louisville, lost at Duke and split with Virginia.

That was just the second time FSU earned an ACC championship, after the 2012 ACC Tournament title that brings with it the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

For decades the ACC celebrated only its tournament winner, to the overt chagrin of several coaches, notably Dean Smith of UNC, a longtime tournament critic who felt the round-robin regular season (surely you remember that path to competitive equity) was a better measure of a team’s mettle.

Then Clemson, featuring first team All-ACC big men Elden Campbell and Dale Davis, finished first in 1990, shortly after popular cheater Danny Ford resigned ahead of an NCAA probation. “We had problems of our own in football, but the basketball program literally lifted the smoke away from Clemson,” said Cliff Ellis, the ACC coach of the year.

Ellis’ Tigers gloried in their supremacy a year after the league inaugurated an award for the regular-season winner. “Games and history, that’s all I’ve been hearing for six years at Clemson,” said Ellis. “Tradition’s been kicked in the butt.”

Clemson, an original ACC member, took 22 seasons to finish as high as second during the regular season, and 37 to land atop the standings, the longest drought to date.

Florida State, by contrast, got off to an impressive league start. FSU came in second in 1992 and 1993, its first two ACC seasons, under the direction of Pat Kennedy, who brought the program over from the less-academically rigorous Metro Conference. Those teams were talented and tough, led by Sam Cassell, Doug Edwards, Chuck Graham, Rodney Dobard, Charlie Ward and Bob Sura, the ’92 ACC rookie of the year.

Then the Tallahassee tide receded. Not until 2006, Hamilton’s fourth season on the job, did FSU again finish in the league’s first division – fifth among a dozen teams.

Until 2020 the previous regular-season apex under Hamilton came in 2017, when Florida State tied for second with Louisville and Notre Dame. By then FSU was a constant contender: last season was the eighth in the last dozen Hamilton had a team finish in the top third of the ACC.

As for the rest of the ACC’s current members, six of 15 (40 percent), Clemson included, have yet to win an ACC Tournament.

A slightly different six have failed to finish first during the regular season. Four programs have yet to reach the ACC Tournament championship game or to finish among the top two during the regular season.

Of the three 2005 and 2006 newcomers, only Miami under Jim Larranaga (2013) won an ACC title, regular-season or tournament. Among the four 2014 and 2015 fiscal emigres, Mike Brey’s Notre Dame Fighting Irish are the only tournament champion so far (2015).

TOP DOGS, OR CLOSE TO IT
Teams That Finished Among Top Two in ACC Tournament, Regular Season
(Totals Include Ties, Maryland And South Carolina Not Included)
ACC Tournament Regular Season
School (Yr Joined ACC) Title Runnerup First Second
Boston College (2006) None 2006 None None
Clemson (1954) None 1962,2008 1990 1975,1987
Duke (1954) 21 12 19 17
Georgia Tech (1980) 1985,1990, 1993 1986,2005,2010 1985,1996 1986
Louisville (2015) None None None 2017,2020
Miami (2005) 2013 None 2013 2016
North Carolina (1954) 18 17 32 15
NC State (1954) 10 7 7 8
Notre Dame (2014) 2015 2017 None 2017
Pittsburgh (2014) None None None None
Syracuse (2014) None None None None
Virginia (1954) 1976,2014,2018 6 9 1972,1989,2016,2020
Virginia Tech (2005) None None None None
Wake Forest (1954) 1961,1962,1995,1996 6 1960,1962,1995,2003 8