There’s nothing better than a good title race - take it from who dabbles in Premier League fandom when not sweating Carolina games. And in case you have been in hibernation for the last month or so and have missed it, we are in the midst of one of the great regular season title races in ACC Basketball history.
As of Friday night, UNC and Virginia stand at 13-2 in ACC play, with Duke right behind at 12-3. The title of champion may of course be shared by multiple teams, though for the purposes of ACC Tournament seeding, Virginia currently holds the tiebreaker on Carolina, Carolina holds the tiebreaker over Duke, and Duke holds the tiebreaker over Virginia. The only way this race could be closer is if the Dookies hadn’t tripped up in Blacksburg earlier in the week (stuff the Zion* asterisk in a sack, by the way).
Whatever the result of this ACC season, 2018-19 will go down as one of the best races ever. So what are the other great seasons? For the purposes of this piece, we’re counting the races from 1985 onward, since ‘85 was the year the NCAA Tourney widened to a 64-team field, placing the proper emphasis on regular season over conference tournament. (Feel free to add any pre-1985 races below!)
*Rankings shown are the ones held going into the final week of ACC play
#10 - 2007
Champions: (shared) #8 UNC 11-5, UVA 11-5
Hunting Pack: Maryland 10-6, VA Tech 10-6
The 2007 Tar Heels started the season off as heavy favorites to win the ACC and compete for a National Championship. That they would end the season atop the league was no surprise. What WAS a surprise was that the unheralded (and unranked) Virginia Cavaliers split the title with them. What keeps this season low is that 2007 was a down year by the ACC’s lofty standards: Duke put out their worst team of the 21st century, only two teams in the conference finished the season ranked, and none of them made the Final Four. Order was briefly restored when UNC rolled through the field to win the ACC Tournament.
#9 - 1990
Champions: #20 Clemson (10-4)
Hunting Pack: #5 Duke (9-5), UNC (8-6)
The 1990 ACC Season was Duke’s to lose: With four games left in the season, they had a two-game lead over Clemson and UNC and the inside track to win Coach K’s 2nd ACC Regular Season title. They promptly lost three of those last four, including back-to-back losses to the Tigers and Tar Heels to blow the lead and surrender it to the Elden Campbell/Dale Davis Tigers. Their defeat in the regular season finale at Chapel Hill also wrapped up an unlikely season sweep for the Tar Heels, who had struggled much of the year.
#8 - 1991
Champions: #8 Duke (11-5)
Hunting Pack: #4 UNC (10-6)
If you think Senior Night was bitter for Joel Berry and Theo Pinson, try asking for Rick Fox, King Rice, and Pete Chilcutt’s take. The Class of ‘91 bid farewell to the Dean Dome by losing both the game and the regular season title to the Blue Devils. This gave Duke not only the title, but also a regular season sweep of UNC and their third win in four years on the Dean Dome floor. UNC took sweet revenge in a 96-74 ACC Tournament Championship blowout of the Blue Devils...but then Duke cut down the nets in Indianapolis. 1991 was a fantastic year of one-upmanship on Tobacco Road, but the Blue Devils got the last laugh.
#7 - 2011
Champions: #13 UNC (14-2)
Hunting Pack: #4 Duke (13-3)
The 2010-11 Tar Heels’ surge to an ACC Regular Season title will not be soon forgotten in Chapel Hill. A team that spent much of its season in turmoil, between underachieving play and the Larry Drew saga, caught fire in conference play and raced neck and neck with defending national champion Duke all year. The winner-take-all match in the Dean Dome was the first primetime regular game shown by CBS and it lived up to the hype, as UNC ran the Blue Devils off the court before a fired up home crowd.
#6 - 2001
Champions: (shared) #4 UNC (13-3), #2 Duke (13-3)
Hunting Pack: #16 Maryland (10-6)
February 10th, 2001: The #1 North Carolina Tar Heels have just beaten #13 Maryland by 14 points to go to 21-2 and 11-0 in the ACC and new coach Matt Doherty looks like the Second Coming of Dean Smith. Man, oh man how that storyline flipped. The Tar Heels looked like a shoo-in to win the ACC outright, until they collapsed down the stretch, losing three of their last five, including the season finale at home to the Shane Battier/Jay Williams Blue Devils. This resulted in a tie at the top of the league, despite Duke having been upset at home by the Terrapins earlier that week. The Blue Devils then walloped the Tar Heels in the ACC title game and won the National Championship. Eeeeesh...
#5 - 1985
Champions: (shared) #10 Georgia Tech (9-5), #8 UNC (9-5), #16 NC State (9-5)
Hunting Pack: #7 Duke (8-6)
Oh for the days when the ACC was just nine teams and NC State actually won a regular season championship... The inaugural year of the 64-team NCAA field was also one of the biggest bloodbaths the ACC has ever seen: Imagine being the #7 team in the country and being 4th best in your own league! Ultimately the loaded Blue Devils (Dawkins, Alarie, Bilas, and Co.) were beaten out by the Kenny Smith/Brad Daugherty Tar Heels, the Lorenzo Charles/Spud Webb(!!!) Wolfpack, and the Mark Price/John Salley Yellow Jackets.
#4 - 2005
Champions: #2 UNC (14-2)
Hunting Pack: #4 Wake Forest (13-3), #6 Duke (12-4)
An ACC Title race decided in three unforgettable minutes. Not that Tar Heel Nation remembers it for this reason, but the Marvin Williams Play also gave the Heels its first outright regular season title since 1993. The Heels, trailing by 9, were looking at a season sweep at the hands of the Blue Devils, who had handed them three agonizing defeats the last three times they’d played, as well as a split title with the Demon Deacons, who would have been seeded over them, courtesy of a 95-82 victory in Winston-Salem. We all know what came next.
#3 - 2008, 2012, 2016
Yup, I cheated here. Here’s why: In all three seasons, the Tar Heels won the ACC Regular Season outright by winning the season finale at Hansbrough Indoor Stadium. In addition, they avenged three crushing home losses to an inferior Blue Devils squad in Chapel Hill: The No Ty Lawson Game, The Austin Rivers Game, and the “WHY DID WE STOP GIVING IT TO BRICE?!!” Game. Each of these vengeful victories gave the Tar Heels their 14th ACC win and helped them avoid a tie or loss of the regular season title. In 2008 and 2012, the Heels defeated Duke in a winner-take-all match, while in 2016 they won to outpace two-time defending champ Virginia and a surprising Miami squad.
#2 - 1986
Champions: #1 Duke (12-2)
Hunting Pack: #4 Georgia Tech (11-3), #3 UNC (10-4)
Much like the 1985 season, the 1986 season was a barn-burner between familiar foes Duke, UNC, and Georgia Tech. The difference? These teams were all one year older and one year better. UNC seemed to have the advantage when they knocked off the Blue Devils in Chapel Hill (the first game ever played in the Dean Dome), but Duke passed them late in conference play and set up huge stakes for the the return match in Durham: A loss to the Heels would result in a three-way tie for the title. Instead, the Blue Devils rolled, securing Coach K his first ever ACC Regular Season title and cementing their legacy as K’s first great team. The quality of the top three teams lands this at #2.
#1 - 1995
Champions: (FOUR-WAY TIE) #2 UNC, #9 Wake Forest, #6 Maryland, #13 Virginia (all 12-4)
Controversial take: The 1995 ACC Season, factoring in both Regular Season and Tournament play, was the best ever. Four teams tied at the top of the standings. The league featured the following All-Americans: Jerry Stackhouse, Rasheed Wallace, Tim Duncan, and Joe Smith (the National Player of the Year). Three teams ranked in the top 10 at year’s end. It had the greatest game in UNC-Duke history (Jeff Capel, Double-OT Classic), even though Duke sucked so bad that Coach K ran off to get back surgery. That alone puts it at #1, but as a bonus, the ACC Tournament was...somehow even better: The four co-champions all made the Semifinals, which featured two terrific games (Virginia pushing Wake to the end, UNC and Maryland going to OT), and eventually culminating in an all-time Championship game between UNC and Wake Forest (won by Wake in Overtime, courtesy of Randolph Childress).
So where will 2019 ultimately rank? The next two weeks will tell. But if the first two months are any hint, we may have a strong candidate for the Top 3 on our hands. Finish the job, Heels! (And someone beat Virginia, please...)