Some old habits are best left unbroken.
For more than three decades, from 1977 to 2010, it became almost a given that at least one ACC squad would reach the men’s Final Four. The habit grew so ingrained, we almost took it for granted.
During those 34 years of competitive prominence, the ACC saw 31 of its teams advance to the national semifinals. From 1981 through 2005, a quarter-century at the core of that run, there were only four seasons in which the ACC was not represented in the Final Four (1985, 1987, 1996, 2003). Five times a pair of ACC clubs reached the same Final Four (1981, 1990, 1991, 2001, 2004). Ten of the dozen national championships won by ACC programs were secured during that period of prowess – North Carolina in 1982, 1993, 2005 and 2009; Duke in 1991, 1992, 2001 and 2010; N.C. State in 1983; and Maryland in 2002.
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No other conference came close to matching that success.
Then the drought settled in. Quickly, what had seemed almost a fact of life became an increasingly distant memory, like the familiar song of whippoorwills disappearing from Piedmont forests.
Four seasons have passed now without an ACC team getting to the Final Four, matching the longest absence in the conference’s 62-year history. During the earlier dry spell, from 1958 through 1961, only one team from each league – in the ACC’s case the tournament champion – could appear in the NCAA tournament.
There is no simple explanation, no single identifiable failure responsible for the ACC’s recent prolonged exclusion from the Final Four. “I think it’s more the elevation of play everywhere else that’s probably played a role in that. And maybe we just got spoiled, quite frankly,” offers former Duke standout Mike Gminski, an ACC TV basketball analyst with a national portfolio.
“John Chaney (the long-time Temple coach) never made a Final Four,” he continues. “Gene Keady (whose Purdue program was perennially potent) never made a Final Four. There are a lot of coaches who never made a Final Four. People down here think it’s like a birthright. It’s not. It’s hard. It’s more a testament to what was done as opposed to what’s not been done.”
A lot has to go right
The past two seasons, the ACC arguably failed to produce a bona fide Final Four caliber team. Last year, of six ACC participants in the NCAAs, only No. 1-seeded Virginia, the regular season and tournament champion, made it to the Sweet 16. In 2013, no ACC team was considered worthy of a No. 1 seed.
Gminski, in Greensboro as a commentator on tournament telecasts, played for Duke early in the ACC’s remarkable run of Final Four participation. He cites his own experience in one-and-done competition as illustrative of the pitfalls in presuming success.
“A lot has to go right for you,” he says. “The year we went to the Final Four, in ’78, we should have lost the first two games” against Rhode Island and Penn. Bill Foster’s squad then fell to Kentucky in the national championship contest when Jack “Goose” Givens scored 41 points, a career high. “If Goose has an average game, we win by 20,” Gminski insists.
Contemporary parity does make it more difficult to advance in NCAA tournament play. The strength of programs throughout Division I is reflected in nonpower conference teams such as Butler, Virginia Commonwealth and Wichita State seizing berths in recent Final Fours. Equally telling for the ACC, several of its best squads fell by the wayside during its current drought as a result of disruptive injuries.
In 2011, Duke lost superlative freshman playmaker Kyrie Irving to a ligament injury in his right big toe nine games into the season. The Blue Devils rallied to win the ACC tournament behind Kyle Singler and ACC player of the year Nolan Smith. Come the NCAAs, coach Mike Krzyzewski’s No. 1-seeded Blue Devils attempted to reintegrate a healthy Irving. But by then it was Smith’s team and the unbalanced Devils were blitzed by Arizona in the Sweet 16.
The following year North Carolina earned a top seed with a cast that included first-team All ACC players Tyler Zeller, John Henson and Harrison Barnes. But the season went awry for Roy Williams’ club when its most valuable player, playmaker Kendall Marshall, broke his wrist in the Tar Heels’ second NCAA game, a win against Creighton. Sorely handicapped, UNC got to the regional finals, only to be dispatched by Kansas.
This season, Virginia faces a similar challenge to Duke’s in 2011, or to the task that brought down a great 1984 UNC squad. Those Tar Heels, led by Michael Jordan and Sam Perkins, couldn’t regain their chemistry after point guard Kenny Smith, felled by a broken wrist, recovered and tried to rejoin the team. The Cavaliers reintroduced Justin Anderson, one of their best players, after a broken finger and an appendectomy sidelined him for more than a month. Anderson, the team’s most dynamic player, was ineffective in Virginia’s two ACC tournament contests.
The other 2015 ACC tournament semifinalists all have a reasonable shot at reaching the Final Four. Inconsistent but talented North Carolina finally clicked just as the season climaxes, winning three times to reach the ACC championship contest.
Duke has great talent, but lacks depth and experience, the latter a trait Krzyzewski has nurtured like a flame in a stiff wind. Notre Dame has firepower, teamwork and veterans’ toughness, and made a questionable defense work to subdue Duke and UNC to win the ACC title.
A team or league probably shouldn’t be judged based on its postseason fate rather than on its entire body of work. That certainly was Krzyzewski’s take when asked to compare his current squad with his 2014 team, defeated by Mercer in its NCAA opener to end a 26-win season. “We all have different ways of looking at it,” the Duke coach said, unwilling to concede last year’s group failed to meet expectations.
We expect the ACC’s top teams to compete for national championships. Coaches have been telling us for decades that, if you’re good enough to win in the ACC, you’re an NCAA title contender. History also tells us the conference has an unequaled record of Final Four participation. By its own standards, the ACC is overdue.
Final Four breakdown
UNC and Duke won back-to-back NCAA titles in 2009 and 2010, respectively. Since then, no ACC team has reached the Final Four. A look at which conferences have (based on league affiliation that year).