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A Brief History Of “Open” ACC Tournaments

Open is a term we hear every March

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: MAR 11 ACC Tournament - Notre Dame v Duke
 BROOKLYN, NY - MARCH 11: Duke Blue Devils guard Grayson Allen (3) cuts the net after winning the 2017 New York Life ACC Tournament Final round game between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Duke Blue Devils on March 11, 2017, at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn,NY.
Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Most every year, including this one, you’ll find a sage who insists the ACC Tournament is “wide open”, presumably meaning results will not go according to form.

That form is reflected in the seed each competing team earns for its play during the regular season.

Mike Krzyzewski fed the untethered narrative by musing the 67th edition of the ACC Tournament “could be the most open tournament I’ve been a part of in my four decades as an ACC coach.” That was before a positive COVID test knocked out Duke, easing the path for erstwhile quarterfinal opponent Florida State and others to advance.

Picking up on that “open” theme, the same NC newspaper in which a writer called the ACC’s post-season event the nation’s oldest – it’s actually third-oldest after the Southern and CIAA – also declared this year’s edition “the most wide-open ACC men’s basketball tournament since at least 2004.”

Well, maybe, if you carefully sift out evidence to the contrary.

Certainly the 2021 ACC Tournament does look different, with Duke a 10th seed, North Carolina No. 6. That’s unique in and of itself, lending credence to a sense of room at the top. So did Duke’s COVID elimination.

Of course the perception of weakness at the top may also be a Triangle-centric view, given that Virginia finished first during the regular season and got the top seed for the fifth time in eight years, along with a second seed in two others (the Cavs’ COVID elimination altered that scenario — well after forecasts were made). FSU is among the top two for the third time in five seasons.

As for open paths, after seven games there was a single early-round upset as No. 13 Miami beat No. 5 Clemson. (The Hurricanes also defeated No. 12 Pitt.)

This is the seventh tournament with teams seeded 13 or lower and, despite TV-talker misinformation, the second – not the first – win for a 13. (Teams seeded 14th prior to this year have four wins among them.)

Also, Duke advanced with several wins, something only two previous tenth seeds managed – Notre Dame in 2018 and NC State in 2007, when Sidney Lowe’s first Wolfpack squad won three times to reach the final.

Surely in discussing an open field it’s worth mentioning that in 2017 Duke became the first school to win four games to capture the ACC title, as well as the first and only No.5 seed to become champs. Until then it was a standing trick question to ask how many fifth seeds had won an ACC Tournament, the answer being zero.

Along the way in 2017 the No. 5 Blue Devils beat a 12, a four, top-seed North Carolina, and No. 3 Notre Dame for the championship.

Open, no?

Granted, it was Duke, winner of more tournament titles than anyone else. Although, as K would say, each year and each team is different.

And, when seeking proof of an open tournament, let’s factor in upsets, which the NCAA defines as a win by a team seeded at least five places lower than its opponent.

As noted, this week Miami upset Clemson. That makes 34 ACC Tournament upsets, an average of about one every two years. Which makes 2005, 2006 and 2009 – all more recent that the short-memory newspaper folks care to grant — unusually open, given there were two upsets in each of those tournaments.

And what about 2007, another recent tournament, which saw four upsets, one in every three games (.364 of 11), including a pair by NC State en route to the final?

Or, most recently and most strikingly in ACC history, the five upsets in 11 tournament games (.455 percent) in 2010, nearly half of the contests. A No.7 Georgia Tech squad coached by Paul Hewitt that season was the second seventh seed to reach the final, only to lose (to Duke), after Virginia in 1977 (vs UNC).

Wonder if anybody predicted an open tournament in those years, or bothered to savor it afterward?

Or remembers it now.

And we’d argue the five years that sixth seeds won the ACC Tournament – no team seeded lower has ever emerged as champion – were by definition “open”. Whenever they occurred.

ACC Tournament Titles By Lowest-Seeded Teams
Year School Seeds Beat Title Opponent Teams In ACC
2017 #5 Duke 12,4,1,3 Notre Dame 15
2004 #6Maryland 3,2,1 Duke 9
1993 #6 Georgia Tech 3,7,1 North Carolina 9
1987 #6 NC State 3,7,1 North Carolina 8
1980 #6 Duke 3,2,1 Maryland 8
1976 #6 Virginia 3,2,1 North Carolina 7