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The Importance of the ACC Tournament

William is the resident UNC basketball historian here at THF and has written a number of well informed and detailed comments concerning UNC history dating back to the early Dean Smith years. As we prepare to enjoy the ACC Tournament, William, discusses the evolution of how this great tournament has been viewed through the past 40 years.

As we go to tournament time, we are likely to have robust discussions about the importance of winning the ACC tournament. While winning the tournament in its present incarnation still delights fans, it seems to have turned primarily into a resume builder with little or no effect on a team's ability to win the NCAA title.

While some will be quick to argue that the tournament's effect on seeding and regional placement still gives it great importance, it is difficult to find concrete evidence that such a thing is true generally, apart from random effects, although it could be true this year and it was entirely true for the UNC back in 1976.

After that season, with the possible exception of 1983, the tournament has not been particularly important, except in terms of building confidence, or staying close to home, perhaps for a team like the 1982 Tar Heels.

Certainly by the time Duke won the NCAA title in 1991 after getting annihilated in the ACC tourney finals, it became clear that the tourney didn't matter in the way that it once did. Up to then analysts would commonly say, "no ACC team has ever won the NCAA title without winning the ACC tourney first." They don't say that anymore.

In this article, I also want to deal with a couple of the enduring myths of college basketball, one being that it is more difficult to win a title now than 35 years ago and another, that the ACC tournament has always been a huge feast for upset-minded underdogs.

First, let's deal with the relative difficulty of winning the NCAA tournament.

On average, it might be true that it is more difficult to win the NCAA tourney now, than in the past, due to the more evenly divided and robust talent prevalent these days, but there are some real countervailing points against this.

Point one is UCLA. David Thompson and NC State beat UCLA in Greensboro in 1974, in a game that UCLA in some ways gave away, because commendably they refused to stop shooting even with an almost insurmontable lead in overtime.

Up to this point, the Bruins had won the tourney in 1967, 1968, 1969, 1970, 1971, 1972, and 1973, consecutively, with only a couple of teams even coming close to beating them. Lew Alcindor had an 88-2 record at UCLA, one loss coming when he was injured; Larry Farmer went 89-1 and Bill Walton went only 86-4. Several times UCLA went undefeated.

It took essentially a great, great NC State team playing at home against a team that refused to slow the game down in the second overtime with a 7-point lead and accept its victory, to stop coach John Wooden's juggernaut. Dean Smith had taken four teams to the Final Four by this time, with none of them having any real chance of winning the tournament, although the 1972 team might have kept the game under double digits had they not been upset by FSU in the Semi's.

So, in this respect, winning the tournament is easier now, because there is likely never going to be another team with the talent disparity that UCLA had.(UCLA's back-up center for Bill Walton, Swen Nater, seldom played and yet went on to an excellent pro career and several Bruin All American's sat until their junior or senior years.)

A second point has to do with the unbalanced regions, which could make getting to the Final Four very easy in some regions such as the East or the West, or very difficult, as in the Mid-East, where both the SEC and Big Ten were usually lumped together.

With the decline of basketball in New York City and Philadelphia, the ACC champion generally had a fairly easy time getting to the Final Four, with the Ivy League champions, who were better then, but still far below the ACC generally, being the main obstacle. This was definitely true for Carolina in 1972 and for State in 1974, with both coasting to the Final Four.

However, when the NCAA tourney expanded in 1975 and allowed a second team from the best conferences to play in the tourney, things began to go off the tracks because the NCAA had a Rube Goldberg system of tourney placement, often based on non-basketball considerations, and this could make a team's journey considerably harder. About 1980, when the tournament essentially doubled in size, most of the problems of unfair regions went away.

No one today is ever likely to have a more difficult path than Indiana did in 1976, or North Carolina, which fell just short the following year, did, having to play Purdue, Notre Dame, Kentucky, UNLV and Marquette in succession, ultimately being edged by Marquette in the final.

Let me add these links though to show how much more important the ACC tournament was before 1980, even after they started allowing a 2nd team, because the regions were unbalanced. Given travel costs in the past, it might be understandable that such was the policy but it makes it difficult to compare across eras without looking more closely, as some regions could be easy and others hard.

1976 NCAA Tournament

1977 NCAA Tournament

This shows just how great Indiana was in 1976 and why UVa's upset of UNC in the ACC tournament final that year was so crushing. The regions were unbalanced then and Indiana winning the region was much tougher than winning the Final Four.

Why? Look at the Mid-East regional line-up and the UPI rankings: Indiana(1), Marquette(2), Alabama(6), and UNC(8). That is the two best teams in the country were in the same initial bracket, and four of the top 8 teams were in that one regional, and if you go by the AP, it was five of the top ten teams in that regional.

It took 5 wins to win it all then.

Indiana's first win was against a top-twenty team, St. John's (18). Its second win was against Alabama, number (6). In the regional final and pseudo-national championship, Indiana beat the number (2) team in the nation, Marquette, who had only lost one time all season. In the National Semi-final, they took out defending champ UCLA (5) easily and then beat Michigan, who was only number (9) for the 3rd time that year in the finals.

Indiana finshed 32-0 with Bob Knight tying Frank McGuire's record for most wins in a season without a loss and did it by facing the most brutal post-season schedule, but at least, unlike the ACC, Indiana didn't have three extra bruising games back to back to back.

For ACC regular season champs to it all win back then, like NC State in 1974, they had to win 7 post-season games in a row, since the ACC tourney had a first round bye then for the champions. That is brutal.

Had Carolina beaten UVA in 1976, they would have had a virtual walk to the Final Four. Rutgers had not played anybody all year and was way, way overrated, getting pummeled in the Semi-finals by Michigan. Rutgers beat, get this, VMI in the Regional Final. UConn, pre-Big East was another "power" in the region. For the most part, during the unbalanced region phase, winning the ACC tournament almost guaranteed a spot in the Final Four.

In the interest of disclosure, the 1976 first round games were slated for Charlotte in the East Regional and my father surprised me with tickets to see Carolina play, except that we ended up getting to see UVa lose to Depaul.

Carolina's journey in 1977 was almost as rigorous as Indiana's the previous year had been and shows the unfairness of the unpredictable seedings. This time Carolina edged UVa in the finals in somewhat of a miracle win, with half of UNC's team either hurt or fouled out. Unfortunately, this year, the NCAA decided to load the East Region. Had Carolina lost, they would have been placed in the much easier Mid-West Region. People may feel differently now, but back then it seemed as though Carolina never caught a break.

While Marquette played some good schools, including Wake Forest, the second ACC team chosen in its region, Carolina ended up playing a who's who of college basketball powers during the era, with all of its opponents being Final Four teams at some point within the next five years and two of them, Kentucky and Marquette, winning it all in 1977 and 1978.

I dare say that whoever the Tar Heels play in the tournament this year, they will not play five different schools that have made the Final Four during the 2000's.

So, the answer to the question as to whether it is harder to win it now than back then, is it depends on the season, but it probably is easier now for the most part. That is why it is unfair to compare Vic Bubas with Coach K and assume that K is the better Duke coach just based on NCAA titles.

Now let's look at the ACC tournament. Prior to 1975, either a team won the ACC tournament or they missed the NCAA tourney, unless the champion was on probation, which did happen a couple of times.

Particularly in the period between 1963 and 1975, there were some incredibly exciting and downright bizarre games in the ACC tournament. Because of this "almost anything can happen in the tournament" lore, many fans and even analysts seem to believe or to "remember" that upsets were prevalent.

They were not, at least among the top teams. Unlike what we often hear, upsets were not very common in terms of the tournament winner. The best team during the regular season almost always won the ACC during the period between 1963 and 1975, and when they did not, they usually lost to the second place team that had been considered almost as good during the regular season.
Carolina finished first in the ACC during the regular season in 1967, 1968, 1969, 1971 and 1972 and won the tournament every year except 1971, losing to the Gamecocks who were only 1 game back in the regular season.

Duke finished first in 1963, 1964, 1965 and 1966 and won the tournament every year except 1965, when State won, who was only 1 game back.

State finished first in 1973 and 1974 and won the tournament both years. This is why the 1970 loss by the Gamecocks was such a big deal. It was a rare loss by the regular season champ, and an undefeated one at that.

Carolina's 1971 loss to the Gamecocks, who finished only one game behind them and who had beaten them shortly before that, was more unusual for another reason: it was the only victory ever by a team from South Carolina and was the first win by a non-North Carolina team since 1959.

Coaches would save special sets and strategies just for the tournament and injured players like John Roche in 1970 for USC would play when they should not have normally, because there was no tomorrow. Everything was left on the court, among teams that knew each other really well, with the North Carolina-based teams sometimes playing each other four times a season back then.

This well-established pattern of one of the top two teams virtually always winning the tournament ended fairly quickly, however.

After the NCAA tourney expanded in 1975, it quickly became common for the top regular season team not to win the tournament, and this happened the first two seasons after the rule change, with both Maryland and UNC getting upset in 1975 and 1976. UNC had finished two games behind Maryland in 1975, in a 3-way tie with State and Clemson, who had their best team ever. In 1976, last place Virginia won the tournament, something that remains inexplicable to this day.

UVa was a team that had ACC tournament "magic dust" on them in 1976 and 1977. They were mediocre in 1976 and downright awful in 1977 and yet won five out of 6 tournament games over two years against topflight competition. In the 1976 NCAA's, however, the Cavs reverted to form and went out in the first round against a weak Depaul team.

Dean Smith made little secret of his diminshed emphasis on the tourney, noting at one time that he was disappointed not to win the ACC tourney in 1987 because he said that the coaching staff had made an attempt to emphasize it that year. In 1993, he seemed completely unperturbed not to win the title, even though Carolina lost it in a heartbreaking fashion to Georgia Tech, with Derrick Phelps out with an injury and Donald Williams shooting from outside as though he were wearing a blindfold.

Coaches are not dumb and just as in horseracing, most of them know that if you apply the whip too much, you will wear out the ride.

Four of the last six national champions from the ACC did not win the ACC tournament and the smart money now says that expending any excessive energy or risking injuries in winning the conference tournament is simply not worth it if you are already guaranteed a number one or two seed.

Duke seems to be the only major national program that continues to place great emphasis on winning the conference tournament, having won it two of the three times that they won it all. Nevertheless, many critics wonder if Duke expends too much mental and physical energy in its quest to always win the ACC tourney crown.

Roy Williams has never made the Final Four, after winning his conference tournament, nor has Gary Williams or Terry Holland. In 1984, UVa had a losing record in conference and lost in the first round of the ACC tournament and then went on to the Final Four.

The last ACC tournament that had much meaning at all in terms of winning the NCAA's was probably the 1982 tournament, where Carolina edged UVA, 47-45. This allowed them to stay at home in the East Regional, where they barely edged JMU in Charlotte and Alabama and Villanova in fairly tight games in Raleigh, while UVA lost to Birmingham. Some will point to NC State's triumph in 1983, but the general consensus is that State had already clinched a bid with its upset of Carolina the day before.

I do think that the way the NCAA is placing teams now in their home areas can be an attractive carrot to make the ACC tourney more competitive again. But there are still no guarantees and Carolina could conceivably be edged out by Tennessee, so I expect UNC will have an increased emphasis this year, but I caution anyone from placing too much importance on the ultimate winner.

I don't think anyone at UNC particularly wants to play Duke again just a week later, not because Carolina couldn't win it, but why waste the mental energy for bragging rights that, as in 1990, really don't mean a whole lot. Twice a season is enough.