March normalcy has been restored in the Triangle.
A year after all three of the Triangle’s ACC teams were shut out of the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1996, the whole trio advanced for the first time in a decade. Duke filled the final spot with a win over San Diego State in Charlotte on Sunday, joining N.C. State and North Carolina, both of which advanced Saturday.
“How about the Triangle region?” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said Sunday. “It’s not bad.”
In fact, it’s historically good.
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This is only the fourth time all three teams have made it to the second weekend, the first since 2005. North Carolina went on to win the national title that season, while Duke advanced to the Final Four in the two previous instances, 1986 and 1989.
This season, N.C. State is headed to the East Region semifinals in Syracuse, N.Y., to play Louisville or Northern Iowa – the same place, coincidentally, as 2005. North Carolina is headed to the West Region in Los Angeles to play Wisconsin or Oregon, and Duke to the South Region in Houston to play Utah.
If there’s a reunion of any of these three, it’ll be in the Final Four in Indianapolis.
“Obviously we’re rivals, and when we’re playing against each other it’s heated and everything, but the ACC has done really well in the tournament,” North Carolina’s Marcus Paige said Saturday. “That just shows the strength of our league. We’re happy that the ACC is doing as well as they’re doing.”
As so often happens, what’s good for the Triangle is good for the ACC, but the conference’s success this March goes far beyond the 919 area code.
After one of the most disappointing tournament performances the ACC has ever had – Virginia was the only ACC team to survive the first weekend a year ago, and lost in the regional semifinal – the league has bounced back with a vengeance this season.
The conference won its first nine games of the tournament, until Virginia’s loss to Michigan State on Sunday. With Louisville still to play in Sunday’s late game, the ACC has a chance to tie the Big East’s record of five teams in the Sweet 16, set in 2009.
None of this will mean anything if one of those teams doesn’t end the conference’s Final Four drought, but it’s a good start. Not only is there a solid chance the ACC will get a team to the Final Four for the first time since 2010, there’s still a small chance Indianapolis could be an all-ACC affair.
This is partly the result of a top-heavy league that had a few good teams and a lot of mediocre-to-bad teams. But the good teams have been really, really good in the tournament this year.
“We’ve played in a great league. A great league,” N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried said. “In my opinion, it’s an undervalued conference right now for how strong our league is. So when you went on the road like we have and beat North Carolina on the road and beat Louisville or beat a Duke team, it’s not that you don’t respect – we respect Villanova, but we’ve seen good teams. We’ve seen a lot of them in our conference. You see them about every night.”
The collective success has made for some odd moments of brotherhood. At halftime in Jacksonville, when the N.C. State highlights were shown on the scoreboard, many North Carolina fans applauded. North Carolina’s players didn’t find out about the Wolfpack’s win until they had secured a regional trip of their own, but they were … pleased?
“Good for them,” Paige said. “But if we happen to cross paths, it’ll be the same way it’s always been.”
There’s no doubt about that, just as there’s no doubt that even by the Triangle’s high standards, this is shaping up as an exceptional NCAA tournament.
DeCock: email@example.com, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947