Madness commenced when the ACC basketball tournament first strayed from its roots. The year was 1976, and after 22 consecutive years in North Carolina, the event was staged in Landover, Md., where its most improbable champion emerged.
Mired in next-to-last place with a 4-8 conference record, Virginia toppled, in ascending order, the tournament’s Nos. 3, 2 and 1 seeds: N.C. State, Maryland and North Carolina.
But though faint, there had been hints during the regular season of the Cavaliers’ potential. Yes, Wally Walker and friends had gone 0-6 against the Wolfpack, Terrapins and Tar Heels, but those defeats were by a combined 25 points, none by more than 8.
Conversely, there is nothing subtle about this year’s signs. The ACC tournament that starts Tuesday at Greensboro Coliseum figures to be replete with anarchy.
Consider the following weirdness, framed in large measure by the COVID-19 pandemic:
- A record-tying nine teams, nearly double last year’s five, completed the regular season with winning conference records. But none separated from the pack.
- Indeed, for the first time in 25 years, no ACC team is among The Associated Press’ top 10 entering the tournament. Moreover, Virginia’s No. 16 ranking is the second-lowest for an ACC regular-season champion — Clemson was No. 17 in 1990, and North Carolina was No. 16 in 1960.
- Due to COVID-19 cancellations, UVA and Miami are the only two ACC teams that faced each of their league rivals this season, and third-seeded Virginia Tech has not played since Feb. 27, a pretournament pause unprecedented in conference history.
- Fourth-seeded Georgia Tech and ninth-seeded N.C. State enter the tournament on winning streaks of six and five games, respectively, the first time two teams that finished below second place closed the regular season with at least five straight victories.
“You tend to overdo it sometimes and say the thing that you’re doing right now is the most ever,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “… But this could be the most open tournament that I’ve been a part of in my four decades as an ACC coach.”
Krzyzewski’s 2017 Blue Devils are the only ACC tournament champions that had to win four games in as many days. But though it finished fifth in the standings, that team was ranked 14th nationally entering the tournament, hardly the quintessential underdog.
No unranked team has won the ACC tournament since Maryland in 2004, but no one should be surprised if someone other than UVA, No. 15 Florida State or No. 22 Virginia Tech is celebrating on the Coliseum floor late Saturday night.
Georgia Tech has beaten FSU, Virginia Tech, Clemson and North Carolina and boasts the ACC player of the year in Moses Wright and defensive player of the year in Jose Alvarado. Clemson has an ACC-high 10 victories that the NET rankings classify as Quadrant 1 or 2.
Led by Richmond’s Armando Bacot, UNC’s frontcourt can batter most any opponent. N.C. State’s winning streak includes a victory at Virginia, the only home game the Cavaliers dropped this season. NCAA tournament bubble perennial Syracuse hopes its victories over Carolina, Virginia Tech and Clemson will translate to good news Selection Sunday.
And then survey the top three seeds. UVA lost three straight before closing the regular season with victories over Miami and Louisville. Florida State gift-wrapped the ACC’s No. 1 seed for the Cavaliers by dropping its finale at 11th-place Notre Dame. Virginia Tech has not played Florida State or North Carolina, missing two games against the Seminoles and a road test against the Tar Heels, plus away dates at Virginia and N.C. State, because of COVID-19 protocols.
Jeff Capel has spent 14 years in the ACC, four as a player at Duke, seven as an assistant to Krzyzewski and the last three as Pittsburgh’s head coach. He considers this season the most indecipherable.
“There hasn’t been just this dominant, dominant team,” he said. “You look at Florida State, Virginia, Virginia Tech. Those have been the teams, I think, that have probably been the most consistent, but each of those teams have shown that they’re beatable.
“There have been times in this league where there were dominant teams, where you knew you were going to have to play your A-plus game and then maybe hope they didn’t play a B game, because the talent and experience was just that much different.
“This year, it’s not that.”
The ACC grew from 12 to 15 members in 2013-14, expanding the conference’s basketball tournament to five days. Since, no team has emerged from the opening round to win five games in as many days.
A decade ago, that 5-for-5 transpired in the Big East tournament, where Kemba Walker famously carried Connecticut, the league’s ninth-place team at 9-9, to the title. Three-plus weeks later, the Huskies won the third national championship of Jim Calhoun’s Hall of Fame coaching career.
Duke went 9-9 in the ACC this season, has a Hall of Fame coach and the conference’s leading scorer in Matthew Hurt. But unlike UConn in 2011, the Blue Devils are neither ranked nor an NCAA tournament lock, and even in a pandemic season the notion that any of Tuesday’s competitors — Pitt, Miami, Duke, Boston College, Wake Forest and Notre Dame — winning five straight doesn’t compute.
“A lot of people say, ‘Well it’s a down year [for the ACC], and perhaps it’s not been as strong as it has been,” said Virginia coach Tony Bennett, whose team lost at Duke two-plus weeks ago. “… But it’s still good basketball, and there’s a bunch of teams that absolutely are capable. …
“I get it, it’s different this year, but that doesn’t mean we’re not going to give our guys rings [for winning the regular season] and we’re not going to hang a banner. It’s legit. … But I also acknowledge that it’s been more unbalanced and uneven, and trying to figure it out is crazy. So heading into this, intrigue? Mystery? Who knows? … As the years go by, the NCAA tournament’s become more like that in certain ways, and of course the ACC tournament, especially this year.”