Luke DeCock

As other contenders collapse, Duke is the ACC's last best title hope

And then there was Duke. There are a few other ACC teams still around, but the conference went into the weekend with three legitimate national-title contenders and exited it with one.

A disappointing NCAA tournament for the ACC turned downright dismal on Sunday when North Carolina was run out of the tournament by Texas A&M, following Virginia into the offseason as the de facto “home” teams in Charlotte followed the example of the arena's primary tenant and gave up any hopes of postseason success at the earliest opportunity.

RAL_ UNCTAMU-SP-031818-RTW08.JPG
North Carolina's Kenny Williams (24) reacts after coming out of the game in the closing minute during North Carolina's loss to Texas A&M. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

The ACC is 10-5 going into Sunday's late game, but it's an absolutely brutal 10-5.

The ACC had three of the top six teams in the NCAA field, and it's down to one after a pair of historic upsets: Virginia becoming the first-ever No. 1 seed to lose to a 16 and North Carolina losing its first-ever NCAA tournament game in Charlotte, where it was 12-0 before Sunday, and only its second ever within the borders of North Carolina.

NCAA UMBC Virginia Basketball.JPG
Virginia's Devon Hall (0) takes questions from the media in the locker room after losing to UMBC in a first-round game in the NCAA men's college basketball tournament in Charlotte, N.C., Friday, March 16, 2018. Bob Leverone AP

Syracuse and Clemson have been unexpected surprises and will join Duke in Omaha, the Greensboro of the Midwest, the first time since 1986 three teams from the same conference have ended up in the same regional. The Orange has won three games and upset Michigan State in Detroit to advance to face Duke on Friday -- guaranteeing at least one ACC team in the Elite Eight -- while Clemson opened eyes with its absolute thrashing of Auburn on Sunday.

And then there's Florida State, which knocked out West No. 1 seed Xavier late Sunday night. Those three teams went 2-3 in the ACC tournament, but they're alive and Virginia and North Carolina are not, even if all three will be underdogs in their next games.

Of all the ACC's best hopes for a title, having only one survive the opening weekend is about as badly as things could have gone for the conference.

In terms of carrying the flag, it will likely come down to, as it so often has, either North Carolina or Duke. In this case it's Duke – just as it was North Carolina last year after Duke lost to a mid-tier SEC team in the second round only a few hours from home.

Throw Syracuse in there, too, lately – the only other ACC team than those two to make the Final Four in the past 13 years, with more NCAA tournament wins (seven) than ACC tournament wins (one) over the past three years – but the last ACC team other than North Carolina or Duke to win a title isn't even in the league anymore.

N.C. State had its run, from Norm Sloan to Jim Valvano, and may yet again. Virginia's recent resurgence hasn't extended to the NCAA tournament, and this year the Cavaliers' struggles in March became a national and historic embarrassment. Georgia Tech and Maryland rose, then fell, then one departed.

When it comes to going deep in the tournament, North Carolina and Duke account for 35 of the conference's 45 Final Fours and seven of the past eight. Even in the conference's two most glorious recent tournament runs – 17-5 in 2015, a record 19-7 in 2016 – the Tar Heels and Blue Devils accounted for 15 of those 36 wins.

The ACC has a growth spurt every El Nino or so and now stretches from Indiana to the Canadian border to South Beach, and still, at this time of year, it's like not much has changed from that smoky room at the Sedgefield Inn in 1953.

The blue-focused nature of ACC basketball has endured both the first round of football-focused expansion and the second round of basketball-focused expansion, and more globally speaking, the ACC's attempts to realign itself as a football conference – the key to unlocking, finally, its own television network. Football pays the bills, but basketball makes the ACC tick.

Each spasm of metastasis has added more teams, more area codes, more tournament destinations. The constant, when March gets closer to April, remains the same. Perhaps Syracuse can make a miracle run, or Clemson or Florida State. But the ACC's best chance at a title, as it so often is, is either North Carolina or Duke.

This year, it's Duke, the ACC's last best hope.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

ACC record in the NCAA tournament, post-2013 expansion

Year Rest of ACCUNC/Duke
20187-43-1
20174-77-1
201612-57-2
20159-48-1
Total32-2025-5
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