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Many Acc Paths Lead To Ncaa Success

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

When North Carolina held off N.C. State in Tampa to win the 2007 ACC Tournament championship, it put the Tar Heels in a very special place.

Coach Roy Williams' team owned a share of the league's regular-season title and the tournament title. That has proven to be a potent combination for ACC teams when it comes to NCAA Tournament success.

One funny thing: Like another UNC coach almost 50 years before him, Williams had become famous for downplaying the importance of the ACC Tournament as a potential launching pad for the Big Dance.

"Everybody acts like I pooh-pooh the ACC Tournament, because there's that thought process that you play (conference opponents) for nine weeks, why do you have to play them again in three days?" Williams said in Tampa this year. "But since we're here, I want to win this sucker."

By Al Featherston

March 21, 2007

The 1959 ACC Tournament title game should have been a classic.

North Carolina and N.C. State had tied for the ACC regular-season title, and both schools were ranked in the top 10 nationally.

N.C. State (21-4), led by the senior Philadelphia duo of big man John Ritcher and flamboyant point guard Lou Pucillo, was ranked No. 6 going into the tournament. UNC (20-3), powered by the balanced trio of center Lee Shaffer, forward Doug Moe and sharpshooting guard York Larese, was ranked No. 9. Both teams had beaten No. 2 Cincinnati and Oscar Robertson in the Dixie Classic back in December. They had split two games against each other during the regular season.

So the Saturday night ACC Tournament final would be the rubber match between the two great rivals. Normally, the ACC championship game determined the league's one and only NCAA representative, but there was one small problem in 1959. State was on probation, because of recruiting violations committed in pursuit of a Louisiana schoolboy named Jackie Moreland.

That meant that Carolina had clinched the ACC's NCAA Tournament slot the night before, when the Tar Heels edged Duke in the semifinals.


The unique circumstances of the 1959 ACC Tournament offered UNC coach Frank McGuire a rare opportunity. His thoughts leapt past the matchup with State and turned to the upcoming NCAA playoffs, specifically a Tuesday night game with Navy in Madison Square Garden.

"What would happen if I didn't start my first five (in the title game)," McGuire asked reporters after the Duke game. "It would give us some badly needed rest."

Apparently thinking out loud, the coach answered his own question: "No, I don't think I can do it. We'll have to play them, but if (UNC's players) begin to look bad or tired, I won't hesitate to pull them."

That's exactly what happened the next night. N.C. State, with the 5-9 Pucillo dominating play, jumped to an early eight-point lead. McGuire, who usually rode his starters until they dropped, subbed frequently during the first half and early in the second. The Tar Heels rallied to within four points with 10 minutes to play, but when the Wolfpack spurted to a 13-point lead in the next two minutes, the UNC coach pulled all of his starters and let his scrubs finish out the 80-56 rout.

McGuire's tactics infuriated the crowd at Reynolds Coliseum. One irate Wolfpack fan snuck into the basement of Reynolds and turned off the lights, forcing an eight-minute delay in the game. With four seconds left to play, a State reserve called a very unnecessary timeout. That was a deliberate slap at McGuire, who used to do the same thing quite often, huddling with his team and telling them to enjoy the victory.

Afterward, N.C. State coach Everett Case halfway apologized for the timeout, but he took some thinly veiled shots at his rival.

"We just wanted it," he said, when asked the difference in the game.

And UNC didn't?

"I don't know if Carolina wanted it or not," Case answered.

McGuire, who joked that his team should have slipped out of Reynolds during the blackout, got quite irate when a reporter asked about his unusual substitution patterns.

"That's my business," he snapped. "You don't mind if I coach my own ballclub, do you? I don't want to lose my temper. I think you're trying to intimate that we were not trying."

Debate Simmers For 15 Years

A modern reader might not understand the anger that McGuire's tactics provoked in ACC circles. But the fact is that the Tar Heel coach was throwing down the gauntlet to the league's orthodoxy and suggesting that success in the NCAA Tournament was more important than winning the ACC's cherished postseason event.

It's a debate that would simmer in the background for the next 15 years, when only the ACC Tournament winner would be invited to the NCAA Tournament. But when the NCAA changed its rules in 1975 to allow more than one team per conference to participate in the playoffs, McGuire's old argument came roaring back to life.

However, the debate had changed slightly over the years. Back in 1959, the NCAA didn't have the stature it has today. It was only just beginning to outstrip the NIT as the nation's most important postseason tournament.

At the time, winning the ACC title was regarded as a very big deal. For many, it was even more important than winning a game or two in the NCAA Tournament. And in the 1950s, McGuire's 1957 national champions were the only ACC team to win more than a game or two in NCAA play. For every other league champion, winning the ACC Tournament was the pinnacle of success.

But by 1975, the NCAA had grown to dominate college basketball's landscape to the point where it overshadowed everything – regular-season success, conference championships and, of course, the once-proud NIT. Getting to the Sweet 16, and to the Final Four, became the ultimate goals. McGuire's point – that NCAA Tournament success was far more important than winning the ACC Tournament – was no longer an issue for serious debate.

The ACC Tournament loyalists didn't give up without a fight, though. They came up with a new theory – that winning the league tournament was an important launching pad for NCAA success. They argued that it was a more important stepping stone than regular-season success, even the success of winning the league's coveted regular-season title.


Surprisingly, their argument was bolstered for more than a decade by a curious fact. In the years after the NCAA began inviting both the ACC regular-season champion and the tournament champion, the tournament champion fared significantly better in NCAA play.

Between 1975 and 1988, the ACC produced two national champions and nine Final Four teams. Both champions (UNC in 1982, N.C. State in 1983) and seven of the nine Final Four teams had won the ACC Tournament. That included one national champion (N.C. State in 1983) and four Final Four teams (Duke 1988, UNC 1981, N.C. State 1983, Duke 1988) that failed to win the regular-season title.

The only regular-season champion that reached the Final Four without also winning the ACC Tournament title in that span was Virginia in 1981. Interestingly, the Cavaliers were beaten in the national semifinals by the team that did win the ACC title that year!

The only other exception to the domination of ACC Tournament winners in that span was Virginia in 1984, which didn't win either the regular-season or tournament title.

By the way, perhaps it's worth looking back to 1959 and checking the results of McGuire's great experiment. Did throwing away a chance at the ACC Tournament help his team?

As it turned out, it didn't. The well-rested – and heavily favored – Tar Heels trailed all the way and were thrashed 76-63 by unranked Navy in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.


When North Carolina held off N.C. State in Tampa to win the 2007 ACC Tournament championship, it put the Tar Heels in a very special place.

Coach Roy Williams' team owned a share of the league's regular-season title and the tournament title. That has proven to be a potent combination for ACC teams when it comes to NCAA Tournament success.

Coach Dean Smith's 1982 national champions shared the regular-season title with Virginia, beat the Cavaliers in the ACC Tournament title game, then used that triumph to vault to the national title. Duke's 2001 national champs pulled off a similar double-double. Coach Mike Krzyzewski's Blue Devils tied North Carolina for the regular-season title that year, whipped the Tar Heels in the ACC title game, then marched to the national championship in Minneapolis.

When you survey the ACC's 10 national champions, logic would suggest that the great majority have won both the ACC Tournament title and at least a share of the regular-season title. That group includes:

  • 1957 North Carolina

  • 1974 N.C. State

  • 1982 North Carolina (shared regular season)

  • 1992 Duke

  • 2001 Duke (shared regular season)

But that's only five of the 10 champions. So how many won only the ACC Tournament title?

  • 1983 N.C. State

And how many won (or shared) only the regular-season title?

  • 1991 Duke

  • 1993 UNC

  • 2002 Maryland

  • 2005 North Carolina

That's four regular-season-only champions that have claimed NCAA titles, against just one tournament-only champ. And note that no ACC team has ever won a national title without winning either the tournament or the regular season.

But also note that the success of the regular-season-only champions has come in more recent years. Duke's 1991 team, which beat UNC in Chapel Hill on the last day of the regular season to claim that title, was blown out by the Tar Heels in the ACC Tournament title game. Both teams reached the Final Four, but for a change, it was the ACC regular-season champion that outlasted the tournament champ to win the national title. Since then, three other regular-season champions have captured the ultimate NCAA prize.


It may be instructive to take a close look at the first decade of the expanded NCAA field to see how the perception developed that ACC Tournament winners enjoyed more NCAA success than the regular-season champions.

  • In 1975, North Carolina (tied for second in the regular season) won the ACC Tournament. The Tar Heels routed New Mexico State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, but they lost 78-76 to Syracuse in the regional semifinals. (UNC also won a consolation game over Boston College.) Regular-season champion Maryland, getting the first at-large bid in ACC history, beat Creighton in the first round, then Notre Dame in the Sweet 16. The Terps lost to Louisville in the regional title game.

Result: In this case, the regular-season champion lasted one game beyond the tournament champion.

  • In 1976, Virginia (sixth in a seven-team league) won the ACC title in a monumental upset. The Cavaliers promptly lost a first-round NCAA game to DePaul. Regular-season champion North Carolina lost its NCAA opener to Alabama.

Result: No advantage.

  • In 1978, Duke (second in the regular season) won the ACC Tournament and used that victory to make a run to the national title game. The young Blue Devils beat Rhode Island, Penn and Villanova to reach the Final Four, then knocked off Notre Dame (the only Digger Phelps team ever to get that far) before losing to Kentucky in the final. Regular-season champion North Carolina lost to San Francisco in the first round.

Result: Big advantage to the tournament champ.

  • In 1980, Duke (tied for fifth in the regular season) won the ACC Tournament. The Blue Devils beat Penn in the second round (Duke had a first-round bye), then upset No. 1 seed Kentucky in Lexington, Ky., to reach the regional final, where the Devils lost to Joe Barry Carroll and Purdue. Regular-season champion Maryland also got a first-round bye and beat Tennessee in the second round, but the Terps were beaten by Georgetown in the regional semifinals.

Result: One-game advantage for the tournament champ.

  • In 1981, North Carolina (second in the regular season) won the ACC Tournament and, like Duke in 1978, made a run to the national title game. The Tar Heels (given a bye in the first round) beat Pittsburgh in the second round, Utah (in Utah!) in the regional semifinals, then Kansas State in the Elite Eight. In the Final Four in Philadelphia, the Tar Heels beat ACC foe Virginia in the semifinals but lost to Indiana in the title game. Regular-season champion Virginia also got a first-round bye. The Cavaliers beat Villanova, Tennessee and Brigham Young (this was the year of Danny Ainge's famous drive against Notre Dame) to reach the Final Four. After the loss to UNC, Virginia beat LSU in the last NCAA consolation game ever played.

Result: Again, a one-game advantage to the tournament champ. And it should be noted that UNC's head-to-head victory over Virginia went a long way toward solidifying the perception that winning the ACC Tournament was a better NCAA preparation than winning the regular-season title.

  • In 1983, N.C. State (tied for third in the regular season) won the ACC Tournament and used that as a launching pad for the greatest NCAA run in basketball history. The Cardiac Pack didn't get a bye but beat Pepperdine in the first round, UNLV in the second, Utah in the regional semifinals and Virginia in the West regional title game. N.C. State then beat Georgia and, of course, Houston to win the national title. Regular-season co-champ North Carolina did get a bye, then beat James Madison and Ohio State to reach the East title game before losing to Georgia. Virginia, the other regular-season co-champ, also got a bye and beat Washington State and Boston College before losing to N.C. State.

Result: Another huge victory for the tournament champ.


At this point, the six ACC Tournament-only champions had a national title, three Final Fours and two head-to-head victories over regular-season ACC champions in NCAA play. The regular-season-only champions had no titles, one Final Four and an 0-2 record against the tournament champs.

Overall, the six tournament-only champions were 18-5 in NCAA play, and the seven (counting the co-champs in 1983) regular-season-only champs were 11-7. Each side counted one consolation win in its total.

Is it any wonder that, by the mid-1980s, the perception was widespread that winning the ACC Tournament was a necessary adjunct to succeeding in NCAA play?

The difference in performance between the regular-season champion and the ACC Tournament champion narrowed after the Wolfpack's run in 1983, but the real change was the rise of teams that didn't win either title.

It started with Virginia in 1984. The Cavaliers – in their first post-Ralph Sampson year – finished 6-8 in the regular season and lost in the first round of the ACC Tournament. Yet somehow the Cavaliers got an NCAA bid, and they proceeded to outperform both ACC Tournament champion Maryland and regular-season champ North Carolina. While both were losing in the Sweet 16, Virginia put together a run to the Final Four.

Duke would bolster the resume of the non-champs as Krzyzewski began to put together the most impressive 10-year NCAA run in ACC history. His 1986 Final Four team won both the regular-season and ACC Tournament titles, while his 1988 Final Four team won just the ACC Tournament.

But his 1989 team won neither ACC title yet still reached the Final Four. His 1990 team finished second to Clemson in the regular season, then lost to Georgia Tech in the ACC semifinals. After senior guard Phil Henderson called out his teammates (calling them "a bunch of babies"), the Devils rallied to reach the NCAA title game in Denver.

It was almost as if the success of the non-champions helped to pave the way for the change in the NCAA fortunes of the two kinds of ACC champions. The regular-season champs began to flex their muscles with more and more regularity.

It started in 1991, when regular-season champ Duke lost by 20 points to UNC in the ACC Tournament championship game. Judging from past ACC trends, that meant that Carolina should have enjoyed the most postseason success, and indeed the Tar Heels reached the Final Four. But Duke bounced back from its ACC Tournament loss to win six straight and to give Krzyzewski his first national title.

Two years later, Smith did the same at UNC. His 1993 regular-season champs lost to Georgia Tech in the ACC Tournament final. But while the Yellow Jackets lost in the NCAA first round to Southern, Carolina regrouped and won six straight games to give Smith his second national title. Smith added another Final Four trip in 1995, with a team that shared the regular-season title but lost in the ACC Tournament.


The ACC Tournament also was irrelevant to coach Gary Williams' great NCAA run in the early 21st century. His 2001 Terps finished third in the regular season and lost to Duke in the ACC semifinals, but they managed to reach the Final Four for the first time in school history. There, he was eliminated by the ACC Tournament champ, Duke.

A year later, Maryland won the ACC regular-season title, flamed out against N.C. State in the ACC semifinals, then gave Williams and the school their first national championship.

Oddly, the Terps did finally win an ACC Tournament title under Williams, upsetting regular-season champion Duke in the 2004 title game. But by this time the postseason pendulum had swung far back from where it was in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Maryland managed just one NCAA Tournament win after its title, while Duke bounced back from the loss to give Krzyzewski his 10th trip to the Final Four.

Of course, the ultimate statement about how times had changed was delivered by North Carolina and Roy Williams in 2005.

When the Tar Heels edged Duke in the regular-season finale to finish alone atop the ACC standings, Williams brought out the stepladders and cut down the nets. That was as strong a symbolic statement as the one McGuire had made by pulling his starters 46 years earlier; in the eyes of the purists, Williams was celebrating the wrong championship. The ACC Tournament champion was the official ACC champion, and regular-season champs didn't cut down the nets, at least not before Williams did it.

When the powerful Tar Heels bombed out in the ACC Tournament semifinals after two lackluster performances, the perception grew that Williams didn't care about winning the tournament, just as McGuire didn't care in 1959.

It's not certain that the current Tar Heel coach really feels that way. He's sent some mixed messages.

On one hand, the coach claimed that UNC's problems in the 2005 tournament were the result of mental fatigue, after six straight grind-it-out wins down the stretch, plus the awkwardness of working Rashad McCants back into the lineup after he had missed several weeks with a mysterious illness. On the other hand, Williams has bragged that every one of his five Final Four teams (four at Kansas, one at UNC) achieved that success only after losing in the conference tournament.

"Everybody acts like I pooh-pooh the ACC Tournament, because there's that thought process that you play (conference opponents) for nine weeks, why do you have to play them again in three days?" Williams said in Tampa this year. "But since we're here, I want to win this sucker."

Whatever his real feelings, Williams had been luckier in the postseason than McGuire in 1959. His 2005 Tar Heels shrugged off their ACC Tournament debacle and marched to the national championship in St. Louis.


So what does the record show? Is it really necessary to win the ACC Tournament anymore? Or is the best regular-season team most likely to succeed in NCAA play?

"If you don't have a lot of depth or experience, you can get worn out (at the ACC Tournament), but my feeling is you can't pace yourself," Krzyzewski said. "(In the new four-day format), you gotta give it your all on Thursday night, and if you're fortunate enough to win, you gotta give it your all on Friday, and just see where it goes."

Since 1975, when both ACC Tournament and regular-season champions were guaranteed an NCAA bid, different teams have won the two titles in 21 seasons. Three times, the two champions have had exactly the same outcome in NCAA play.

The ACC Tournament champion has outperformed the regular-season champion 10 times in the remaining 18 seasons. But the 21 regular-season champions in our study have a better overall NCAA record – 60-17 (77.9 percent) compared to 51-20 (71.8 percent).

There's also that great divide at about 1990. At that point, there was no debate: The ACC Tournament winners were far more successful than the regular-season champions in NCAA Tournament play. Aside from the three ties, the tournament champs outperformed the regular-season champs in six of eight years. The tournament champs were a combined 28-10 (73.7 percent), compared to just 20-11 (64.5 percent) for the regular-season champs.

But starting in 1991, the numbers have reversed. The regular-season champions have outperformed the tournament champs in six of 10 years during that span. The regular-season champions have compiled a 40-6 NCAA record (87.0 percent), while the tournament champs have been 23-10 (69.7 percent).

What caused the great shift in postseason fortunes after 1991?

There doesn't seem to be an obvious reason for the change in ACC fortunes, although it does coincide very closely to a change in philosophy by one of the league's key figures.

UNC's Smith spent the first decade of his long tenure in the era when only the ACC Tournament champion could represent the league in the NCAA Tournament. In those days, the McGuire disciple didn't rail against the ACC Tournament as his boss did. He simply treated it as a necessary evil.

But after winning hard-fought, back-to-back ACC championships in 1981 and 1982, Smith decided that it wasn't worth focusing that much energy on a three-day event that was no longer a required steppingstone to NCAA success. It was, he realized, now an unnecessary evil.

So starting in 1983, Smith reduced his focus on the ACC Tournament. He didn't blow the games off, but he treated them as ordinary, pre-NCAA games. That lasted until the end of the 1980s, when he claimed that pressure from Carolina fans who wanted the tournament convinced him to restore his focus on ACC Tournament play. He said in his memoirs that by 1988, UNC was really trying to win the tournament again – a quest that succeeded the next year, then again in 1991, 1994 and 1997, just before the coach's retirement.


The only problem is that this doesn't explain the original question. The hard fact is that UNC didn't enjoy a lot of NCAA success in the period when Smith reduced his focus on the ACC Tournament. Not only did UNC miss the ACC title between 1983-88 (despite winning or sharing the regular-season title in five of those six years), but the Tar Heels failed to reach the Final Four in the span.

It was only when Smith began focusing on the ACC Tournament again that his Tar Heels began to return to the NCAA semifinals, although Smith's last four Final Four trips didn't quite coincide with his last four ACC titles.

So Smith's experience would seem to validate the theory that the ACC Tournament is a necessary preparation for NCAA success, just as the overall trend line swung in the other direction!

Maybe we should look at Smith's great rival instead. Krzyzewski has enjoyed great ACC Tournament success, especially in the last decade. He also has been the ACC's most successful NCAA Tournament coach.

"You'd rather win (the ACC Tournament)," Krzyzewski said. "I've really always respected the ACC Tournament. It's a very important tournament for me personally and obviously for our school. I love the ACC Tournament."

But Krzyzewski's NCAA success is not related to his ACC Tournament success. True, he's used ACC Tournament titles as springboards for Final Four runs (1986, 1988, 1992, 1999, 2001), but he's also fashioned Final Four runs out of ACC heartbreak (1989, 2004) and even out of outright ACC Tournament disaster (1990, 1991, 1994).

What connection does he see between success and failure in the ACC Tournament and success and failure in the NCAA Tournament?

"My teams that have done the best have always been able to put the regular season and the (ACC) tournament behind them," Krzyzewski said recently. "Whether we win or not, the most important thing is to start fresh."

Williams, despite his earlier comments about reaching the Final Four after losing in the conference tournament, also insisted that a fresh start is the key to NCAA success.

"I don't believe you can carry momentum into the NCAA Tournament," Williams said. "You have to make your momentum once you're there."

That's what Williams – and Krzyzewski and the other five ACC coaches in this year's NCAA field – have tried to do.

History suggested that North Carolina – the ACC regular-season co-champion (with Virginia) and the ACC Tournament champ – had the best chance for NCAA success in 2007.

But history offers no guarantees – not for the ACC regular-season champion, not for the ACC Tournament champion, and not, as McGuire found out almost half a century earlier, for a team that blows off the possibility of an ACC title to rest up for the NCAA Tournament.

Al Featherston, formerly of the Durham (N.C.) Herald-Sun, has covered ACC basketball for 37 years. He is a regular contributor to the ACC Sports Journal and ACCSports.com, and the author of the recent release "Tobacco Road: Duke, Carolina, N.C. State, Wake Forest, and the History of the Most Intense Backyard Rivalries in Sports," which is available in bookstores and at Amazon.com.