DeCock: N.C. State brightens tough spring for ACC

ldecock@newsobserver.comMarch 22, 2012 

— When the ACC ended up getting five teams into the NCAA tournament, three of them top-four seeds, it was shaping up to be a solid postseason for the conference. A week into the tournament, it hasn’t exactly worked out that way.

So far, N.C. State’s run has been really good news for a conference that hasn’t had much in March.

Duke went out at the first hurdle, at the hands of a Patriot League team, in Greensboro, of all places. Ouch.

Once a top-25 team, Virginia’s late-season woes extended into the tournament as the Cavaliers slinked out at the hands of Florida in a 26-point opening defeat.

Florida State, the league champion and a team many saw as a Final Four contender, didn’t make it through the first weekend, ousted by Cincinnati.

Meanwhile, the league’s top national-title contender, North Carolina, is still alive, but lost its point guard and most irreplaceable player, Kendall Marshall, to a broken bone in his wrist. His status for Friday’s game against Ohio and beyond remains very much in doubt.

Fortunately for the ACC, the Wolfpack, which went into the conference tournament with an NCAA bid in doubt, has made the most of its windfall. With wins over San Diego State and Georgetown, N.C. State has helped salvage the spring for the ACC.

The conference has been waiting for a while for N.C. State to come around, and between this year’s postseason success and next year’s recruiting class, that moment may finally have arrived.

“This team is wonderful for our area,” said Bucky Waters, the former N.C. State player and Duke coach. “It has really instilled that adrenaline back, that we are the basketball culture. There’s no telling where it can end. … It’s good for the league, it’s wonderful for the Triangle. I see it as a very healthy sign.”

No matter how many national championships North Carolina and Duke win, the real strength of the conference has always come from its depth. Programs like N.C. State, Virginia, Georgia Tech, Wake Forest and Maryland won ACC titles, national championships and went to Final Fours for decades. Just not lately.

In the past 25 years, those five programs have generated only five ACC tournament titles, one national title and four Final Four appearances. (Duke and North Carolina have combined for seven national titles and 19 Final Fours over that span.)

Florida State has become a beacon of hope under Leonard Hamilton, breaking the blue monopoly on the tournament for the first time since 2004 after making it to the round of 16 last year, but for all that growth, Florida State is still 3-4 in NCAA games under Hamilton. There’s a long way to go yet.

Among the traditional-but-dormant powers, N.C. State’s revival is the conference’s best hope at the moment. Even the Wolfpack’s biggest rival can appreciate that.

“It’s good to see N.C. State doing well,” North Carolina forward John Henson said. “As part of the ACC, we’ve got to band together in the postseason, flex our muscles, ACC-wise, and show what we’ve got.”

In Columbus, Ohio, where N.C. State navigated the first weekend of the tournament, ACC associate commissioner Michael Kelly wore a red N.C. State pin on his lapel, a show of support for the conference member he was there to observe and support.

The N.C. State fans who think the league office has it out for them might be surprised to find no one will be rooting harder for the Wolfpack against Kansas on Friday than the ACC itself.

luke.decock@newsobserver.com, twitter.com/LukeDeCock or (919) 829-8947

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