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The Big East Was Very Good In The 1980s. But The ACC Was Better.

It was a great rivalry but the ACC generally won out.

Duke vs. UNC, Johnny Dawkins
College Basketball: ACC Tournament: Duke Johnny Dawkins (24) in action, dunk vs UNC. Greensboro, NC 3/10/1984 
Set Number: X29723 TK2

Best not to make a boastful claim without first checking the facts.

Memory, tinged by sentiment, can lead anyone astray, as a recent article in the New York Times proved, making the parochial but understandable assertion that the Big East, which began play in 1979-80, “became the center of the college basketball universe in the early 1980s.”

Only true in the sense New Yorkers think their city is the center of the civilized universe, and what’s celebrated there must be the best there is.

More than half of the basketball-first Big East’s original members were located in the New York metropolitan area – Syracuse, UConn, Seton Hall and St. John’s – and the conference title game was played in Madison Square Garden. That’s much like the old ACC with four of eight members located in North Carolina.

And nowhere within the country, then or now, is there an attentive media concentration to approach the one in Manhattan.

The young Big East was worthy of immediate coverage and praise. Four Big East squads reached the Final Four between 1980 and 1984, with Georgetown winning the 1984 national championship.

But the more-established ACC outshone the upstarts.

Between 1980 and 1984, the ACC sent 21 teams to the NCAA tournament compared to 17 for the Big East.

Across that half-decade the Big East saw 6 squads reach the Elite Eight (regional finals) and Georgetown, coached by John Thompson, make two Final Fours. The Hoyas won the NCAA title in 1984.

Over that same span the ACC had 10 regional finalists, 5 teams reach a Final Four, and a pair of national champs: North Carolina in 1982 and NC State in 1983.

We’ve used the Times writer’s definition of “early 1980s” to make that comparison. Unfortunately for his argument that leaves out 1985, the Big East’s highwater mark, when it placed a record three teams in the Final Four.

The last one standing that year was surprising Villanova, which beat Georgetown for the title on April Fool’s Day by hitting a championship-game record of 78.6 percent of its field goal tries (22-28).

Over the second half of the eighties the Big East more or less caught up, at least temporarily, to the ACC in NCAA berths, Elite Eight survivors, Final Four teams and NCAA champs.

The two leagues combined for 53 NCAA bids and 10 Elite Eight teams each from 1985-89. The ACC had three representatives in the Final Four between 1985 and 1989 – Duke (1986), Duke (1988) and Duke (1989). The Big East had twice as many Final Four entrants but no more titles.

Then came the nineties, which opened with the Big East and ACC splitting their matches in a three-year Challenge series. Moving forward the ACC pulled away more or less for the next quarter-century while the Big East was torn apart by TV money, football and their rival league’s avarice.

ACC And Big East In NCAA Tournament During 1980s
Elite 8
Final Four
1980 5/3 Clem,Duke/G't None None
1981 4/3 UNC, UVa/None UNC, UVa None
1982 4/2 UNC/BC,Vill,G't UNC UNC
1983 4/4 UNC,UVa,NCS/Vill NCS NCS
1984 4/5 UVa,WF/G't UVa/G't G't
1985 5/6 UNC,GT,NCS/StJ,G't, Vill None/StJ,G't, Vill Villa
1986 6/3 Duke,NCS/None Duke None
1987 6/5 UNC/G't, Prov, Syr None/Prov, Syr None
1988 5/6 Duke,UNC/Vill Duke None
1989 6/5 Duke,UVa/G't,S Hall,Syr Duke/S Hall None
Totals 49/42 20/16 8/7 2/2