Raise your hand if you’ve heard some version of the following comment, during a recent conversation. Maybe with your parents. Perhaps with your grandparents.
“When I was a kid, man, the ACC was a war every single night. You never knew who was going to win. Every game mattered. Players and fans HATED each other.”
After UNC has pulled out a heart pounding victory on the road (Clemson), or an edge-of-your-seat battle against a top 10 foe (FSU), you’ve probably had an older relative mutter something to that effect. Hell, you may have said similar words. I know I have, my dad has, my mom has, and if my grandfather were still alive he would say the same thing.
There was a time before expansion, when the league was only eight or nine teams deep, that every single contest had a must-win vibe. If that sounds hyperbolic, consider that from 1980-1989, out of eight teams in the league, six different schools were either regular season champion or co-champion. Only Clemson and Wake Forest could not break through in the 80’s. Half the league -UVA, UNC, Duke, and N.C. State- made at least one Final Four.
From 1990-1999, seven of the nine teams (Florida State joined the party in 1991) were either champion or co-champion. That includes that ridiculous 1995 season that saw Maryland, UNC, UVA, and WFU all tie for the top spot. Only N.C. State, who is still arguably recovering from sanctions in the early 90s, and Florida State couldn’t bring home a title. Three teams, or 33%, made the Final Four, as Georgia Tech joined the festivities with the Heels and Blue Devils during the decade.
That trend continued through the first five seasons of the millennium from 2000-2004, when there were four different teams who could claim to be ACC champions. Duke, Wake Forest, and Maryland all won the league outright, whereas UNC split with Duke in 2001. Even in that half-decade, the ACC STILL had four separate schools reach the Final Four as Georgia Tech returned to the big stage in 2004, and Gary Williams finally earned his national title in 2002.
During those 25 years, as a fan, all you could do was hope the best version of your team took the court that night. At a time when the league played a true 18-game round robin schedule, you lived your life in two or three week increments, as everyone waited for the ensuing rematch. Bragging rights at work and avoiding incessant bullying at school depended on the God-given athletic abilities of Michael Jordan, Kenny Smith, J.R Reid, Eric Montross, Jerry Stackhouse, Vince Carter, and Ed Cota.
You didn’t use Twitter, Facebook, and comment sections as a buffer when you felt some overwhelming desire to cross the line with your verbal braggadocio. You saved your best insults for personal interaction, because an angry Wolfpack fan is always a funny Wolfpack fan. However, God help the person who praised Len Bias, Ralph Sampson, Danny Ferry, Bobby Hurley, WoJo, Mark Price, Joe Smith, or Randolph Childress after a tough loss.
That doesn’t even take into account the legendary coaches that crossed paths. Maryland welcomed Lefty Dreisell and Gary Williams. Virginia had Terry Holland roaming their sidelines while Jim Valvano took the reigns at N.C. State. Bobby Cremins with the Ramblin’ Wreck was almost as entertaining as Rick Barnes of Clemson challenging Dean Smith. There was, seemingly, never an easy night.
Unfortunately, since the ACC expanded and continually raided the Big East, that atmosphere has changed. Gone are the round robin schedules, and tight geographically centered fan bases. No matter how hard Brad Brownell may try to imitate Rick Barnes by lecturing Ole’ Roy, the downright hatred that existed may never truly resurface. However, as the conference grew, the regular season unpredictably became a little more...predictable.
In the 12 seasons since Virginia Tech and Boston College first joined the ranks of the Atlantic Coast Conference, the regular season has only crowned five different champions. Yet, only one of those champs are part of the cumulative seven team Big East Expansion Pack - Miami in 2013, a full nine seasons after they first joined the league.
The remaining four regular season champions are part of the old guard, as UNC, Duke, Virginia, and Maryland found continued success. Although, as we all know, Maryland wasn’t satisfied living in the shadows of UNC and company any longer. Instead, they sought greener pastures. Fortunately for them, they’ve found them, as those green pastures, thus far, have been tucked away beneath Michigan State and Wisconsin’s shadow. But I digress.
Even more surprising (or disappointing)? Before last year, the Colonial Athletic Conference actually had as many schools reach the Final Four as the ACC over the previous 12 years, with two participants. The ACC needed Syracuse to crash the party last season as a 10-seed in order to break that tie and give the conference their third different institution in the National Semifinals since expansion started.
Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how healthy your heart may be), there have been shades of chaos and intrigue this year. So, I took this trip down memory lane to make this point:
This season’s ACC finally feels like the ACC that you and your parents grew up with. Almost every game has been unpredictable. The standings are flipped upside down from what has been expected. It seems as though the conference’s reputation hinges on every outcome.
When you watch UNC, you feel as though one more loss will ruin any chance they have of winning the regular season title. If that happens, it’ll have an adverse impact on their ACC Tournament seeding. Seriously, how important are those first AND second round byes? Of course, by default, a poor conference tournament seed or result would affect their NCAA Tournament seeding. Every result is connected by some weird Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon scenario. It’s THAT kind of year, even if it is totally irrational and yet completely logical.
Not because the Heels are bad. Not because they are not a threat to make a deep March run. Instead, our fear is driven by the fact that, at 5-1 in conference play, the Heels’ upcoming schedule is borderline terrifying. You’re worried because you have absolutely no earthly idea who is supposed to be good right now.
Sure, you expect Duke to a difficult game, but what if it isn’t? Is that possible? Suddenly it’s not impossible to imagine that the Fighting Irish and Tar Heels will be playing for the regular season title when Notre Dame visits Chapel Hill.
Geez, but what if UVA pulls off the regular season sweep? Thank God Louisville has to travel to the Dean Dome, right? You know State is going to want revenge for that historical 51-point drubbing they received.
For the first time in a while, every game not only matters, but every game has the potential to bring unfavorable results, regardless of opponent. More so than previous years, such as when Boston College didn’t win a single game. Doesn’t that seem to be a ridiculous thought? Can you believe it happened less than 10 months ago?
The traditional schools such as Wake Forest and Clemson, despite their records, have refused to be doormats that are easily trampled. Georgia Tech decided they wanted to start the Josh Pastner party about two years earlier than expected. Virginia continues to both impress and cause intense boredom across the nation due to superior defense and overall efficiency. Even Florida State is doing their best early-90’s Charlie Ward-Sam Cassell-Bob Sura impression.
Plus, FINALLY, a plethora of the “new” schools are all simultaneously competing on a nightly basis. Boston College has suddenly forgotten they are Boston College. Notre Dame has helped remind people that you can consistently win in college basketball without multiple one-and-done players. Louisville, while stumbling with two ACC losses, also caused college hoops fans’ hearts to melt with victories against Kentucky and Duke. Syracuse and Virginia Tech, even with three losses, are firmly in the middle of the standings.
And those classic coaching battles of yesteryear? Well, Rick Pitino, Jim Boeheim, and Ole’ Roy are carrying the mantle. There are five national titles between those three men alone. Coach K is still around. And while the rest of the league may not seem to have many heavy hitters (yet!), Buzz Williams, Tony Bennett, Jim Larranaga, and Mike Brey have proven to be of equal, if not higher, caliber than say....Dave Odom, Jeff Jones, Les Robinson, Pat Kennedy, Pete Gillen, and even current Tar Heel Steve Robinson.
Nobody knows how the standings will end up. Due to unbalanced schedules, TV quirks, and traveling considerations, it’s harder than it used to be to truly assess how teams are performing. Currently, only one game separates Virginia and Boston College. There are six other teams between them. That means over half the league is separated by 40 minutes of competition. Among the major conferences, only the B1G can make the same claim - and top to bottom, any objective college hoops fan will agree the B1G is nowhere near as good as the ACC this season. The ACC’s 9-5 record in the ACC-B1G Challenge helps confirm that notion.
This season has even gifted us perhaps the most hated Duke player of all-time. Thanks to a really weird obsession with tripping people, Ted Cruz Jr. continues to flood our social media timeline with his latest escapade. In the internet age this is both hilarious and tiresome. It’s mostly hilarious though.
What more, as fans, can we really ask or hope for?
To be fair, eventually, everyone’s expectations may still be met. The conference can still legitimately earn 10 or more bids to the tournament. Duke may find the cure to whatever is ailing them, literally and figuratively. Clemson will very likely make a charge towards the tournament as they are much better than their current record indicates. N.C. State will hopefully sign Mark Gottfried to a 5-year extension.
In the meantime, with the conference season one-third complete, sit back and enjoy what’s coming. Also, don’t be fooled just because a team has three ACC losses early in the conference season. It doesn’t mean they won’t recover, win the conference tournament, and make a run to the Final Four. That’s not unprecedented.
If you don’t know what I’m referring to, just google “UNC Basketball 1997”.
Buckle up. This season is just getting started.