If Duke’s Kyrie Irving hadn’t suffered a foot injury, and if North Carolina’s Kendall Marshall hadn’t broken a wrist he used to break a fall, then perhaps history would be different. Maybe the Blue Devils would have advanced to the Final Four in 2011, and the Tar Heels a year ago.
Instead we’re left to wonder amid a drought that’s grown longer. Once again, when the NCAA tournament’s national semifinals began Saturday evening in Atlanta, the ACC didn’t have a representative. It has been that way for three consecutive seasons – the ACC an observer before college basketball’s grandest stage, instead of a participant.
In the ACC’s proud history, this kind of sustained Final Four futility is rare – it last happened in the four seasons from 1958 through 1961.
“It’s cause for concern,” Jay Bilas, the ESPN college basketball analyst, said of the ACC’s Final Four drought. “… That has more to do with Duke and Carolina not making it over that time period. As far as Final Four appearances, those two for a while have carried the league.”
But what happens when they don’t? Until recently, the ACC had been more than a two-team conference. N.C. State won national championships in the 1970s and 80s. In the 1990s, Georgia Tech reached a Final Four, while Florida State, Wake Forest and Virginia all made runs to the Elite Eight.
Maryland won a national championship in 2002, in the second of its consecutive Final Four appearances. And Georgia Tech reached the national championship game in 2004.
Since then, though, no ACC team outside of Duke and UNC has advanced past a regional semifinal. And only three teams even made it that far – Miami this season, N.C. State last season and Florida State in 2011.
“The rest of the league hasn’t done quite as much,” said Bilas, who played at Duke from 1982-86 and later coached there as an assistant. “And you have other leagues that have a little more diversity in participants in Elite Eights and Final Fours. I don’t think it’s just the Final Four. I think you look at how far they advance overall.”
Injuries have undoubtedly played a role in the ACC’s postseason futility during the past three years. Irving played in just 11 games for Duke before becoming the top pick in the 2011 NBA draft. After suffering a foot injury in December 2010, he returned for the NCAA tournament.
By then, the Blue Devils had learned to play on without him. Irving scored 28 points in his final collegiate game – a 93-77 loss against Arizona in the Sweet 16. If he’d been healthy throughout the season, perhaps Duke would have been better prepared to make a long postseason run.
There’s no question, meanwhile, that Marshall’s injury last March ruined the Tar Heels’ postseason. With Marshall, who rewrote UNC’s records for assists, the Tar Heels appeared destined to reach the Final Four.
Without Marshall, the Tar Heels turned to seldom-used freshman Stilman White. He played admirably, but UNC’s season ended with a loss against Kansas in the Midwest Regional championship game.
The ACC’s recruiting success, though, suggest that two injuries – as damaging as they were – shouldn’t be enough to derail the conference’s postseason hopes. ACC teams since 2007 have signed more top-50 prospects, according to ESPN.com, than any other conference.
From the class of 2009, 14 top-50 prospects signed with ACC schools. Some of them left school early to enter the NBA draft, like Georgia Tech’s Derrick Favors and UNC’s John Henson. Some transferred – like David and Travis Wear, who spent just one season with the Tar Heels.
But the majority of those prospects played key roles in the ACC this season: Duke’s Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly, Florida State’s Michael Snaer, Clemson’s Milton Jennings, N.C. State’s Lorenzo Brown (who attended Hargrave Military Academy for one year after high school), UNC’s Dexter Strickland and Leslie McDonald.
The perception in college basketball is that one-and-done players – those who spend just a season on campus before entering the NBA draft – have become the norm. In the ACC, though, just four of the 64 top-50 prospects that entered the conference between 2007 and 2012 left school after one season to enter the NBA: Favors, Irving, N.C. State’s J.J. Hickson and Duke’s Austin Rivers.
Even now, in this era of constant roster turnover and early departures – either the result of transfers or of leaving school to enter the NBA draft – it’s still more common in the ACC for a top-50 player to remain in school for at least three seasons. Of the 45 top-50 prospects who entered the league between 2007 and 2010, 26 remained with their team for at least three seasons.
It’s likely not a coincidence, then, that the ACC’s most experienced teams have had the most postseason success. Plumlee and Kelly, along with fellow senior Seth Curry, helped lead Duke to the West Region championship game. A season ago, Henson, a junior, and Tyler Zeller, a senior, played leading roles for the Tar Heels.
When Duke won the national championship in 2010, Jon Scheyer provided production and senior leadership, and both Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith – a pair of former top-10 prospects – were juniors. Experienced, upperclassmen-laden teams like that one have become scarcer in the sport, but the ACC had a few in recent seasons.
There was UNC a season ago, with Zeller, who won ACC Player of the Year honors. And there was Duke this season, along with N.C. State and Miami – both of which owed its success to three- and four-year players.
The Wolfpack failed to win an NCAA tournament game, though, while the Hurricanes, the ACC’s regular season and tournament champion, reached the Sweet 16 before losing. Miami became the third consecutive ACC tournament champion that failed to reach the Elite Eight.
Despite the postseason failures, Bilas said an argument can be made that the ACC “was the best league” this season.
“But it didn’t have the strength that we’re used to at the top,” he said. “And I think that hurt the league a little bit.”
It might have hurt especially on Selection Sunday, when the NCAA tournament selection committee included just four teams in the tournament. Virginia, which won 11 conference games, including a victory against Duke, was left out of the field – a decision that Bilas described as “indefensible.”
Bilas played at Duke during a time when the ACC was at its strongest. So, too, did Eric Montross, who led UNC to the 1993 national championship.
The 1980s and 90s were a stable time for the ACC, with tenured coaches like Dean Smith and Mike Krzyzewski leading the conference’s two best teams, and Georgia Tech’s Bobby Cremins, Maryland’s Gary Williams and Wake Forest’s Dave Odom leading competitive teams year in and year out. That stability has eroded, though. Eight of the ACC’s 12 head coaches have held their jobs for less than four years.
“You talk about all the things that have changed in the conference – and how many new coaches we have,” said Montross, now a basketball analyst on UNC’s radio network. “And when you have a new coach coming in you have to have an opportunity to build your program. And so I think a little bit of (the ACC’s struggle) is just the expected lapse when you have changeover. Because for so long, the ACC had tenured coaches.”
Help is on the way. Syracuse and Notre Dame will begin play in the ACC next season, and Louisville is scheduled to join in 2014. Two of those teams, Louisville and Syracuse, competed in the Final Four on Saturday, on opposite sides of the bracket, and their addition will make the ACC a stronger conference.
Even so, the current Final Four drought is further proof that the ACC isn’t what it once was. At 12 teams, the league seems weaker than it was with nine teams, or with eight before that.
“It can still be great,” Bilas said. “But it will never be the same. And I don’t think you have to be a genius to figure that out.”
Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter