College Sports

ACC already has made history, but finishing the job won’t be easy

There’s never been a season like this, when one conference had what are clearly and openly acknowledged to have the three best teams in the country like the ACC has this year.

That’s clear from the NCAA seeding, with the ACC becoming the second conference to get three No. 1 seeds in the same bracket.

That’s clear from the Associated Press poll, with the ACC becoming the first conference to get the top three teams in the final AP top 25.

Duke, Virginia and North Carolina already have made history. Now it’s time to finish the job.

As impressive as this season was for the ACC, no one’s really going to remember if someone doesn’t win the national title. And that’s just not up to the No. 1 seeds, but Florida State and Virginia Tech and Louisville and Syracuse as well. (You can never rule out Syracuse in March!)

“This has been unusual,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said after winning the ACC title. “It’s unusual for this level. We have four 25-game winning programs, and Virginia Tech was just below. And in conference, the 16-2, 16-2, 14-4, 13-5 made it look like the league may not have been as good, but that’s wrong. It just made it harder.”

When the Big East got three No. 1 seeds, none of them won the title, thanks in part to Tyler Hansbrough and the 2009 North Carolina juggernaut. Everyone remembers that Tar Heels team. Few can name the three Big East teams. (Hint: Two are currently in the ACC.)

Thanks in part to that migration of teams from Big East to ACC, the ACC is coming off an amazing run of tournament success. No conference has ever won more NCAA tournament games over a four-year span than the ACC’s 59, including four Final Four appearances and two national titles, and this is the fourth straight year the ACC has gotten seven or more teams into the tournament.

That’s all great – and an unprecedented financial bonanza given the $1.6 million each conference gets from the NCAA for each win outside the national title game – but it doesn’t guarantee success this year, just as Virginia’s No. 1 seed didn’t guarantee success last year.

Based on seeding alone, the ACC is expected to win 21 games, put three teams in the Final Four and win the national title. That’s a pretty high bar to clear. It won’t take much stumbling to fall short of that, and there’s almost no way to overachieve unless someone makes a really unexpected run. Even then, with three teams in the East Regional and two in the West, there’s going to be some friendly fire at some point, as there was in Omaha last year between Duke and Syracuse or in the Final Four three years ago between North Carolina and Syracuse.

The reality is, given the bracket and the percentage of No. 1 seeds that historically get to the Final Four and the utter certainty of upsets here and there, that there’s almost no way for the ACC to measure up to expectations without someone winning a national title and getting (at least) two teams into the Final Four. One preferably being Virginia from Greensboro’s perspective, to finally get the Cavaliers over the hump.

The way things have gone so far this season, that’s not impossible. No conference has ever been this top-heavy in conference play – and the regular-season title was still up for grabs between the three on the final day – and only one has ever been given this kind of headstart in the postseason.

Merely by putting itself in this position, the ACC made history. There’s still a lot more out there to be made, and a lot of disappointment at hand if it cannot.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered the Summer Olympics, the Final Four, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.