It was fitting that the ACC’s best shot for a team to finish the regular season undefeated ended in the conference’s greatest upset in recent memory. Even when history isn’t made in the ACC, it sometimes is.
Which was the case Wednesday night in Syracuse, N.Y. In its inaugural ACC season, No. 1-ranked Syracuse won its first 25 games and 26-0 seemed certain with lowly Boston College entering the Carrier Dome.
Instead, the Orange’s luck ran out.
It had been tested throughout conference play, especially in recent victories against Duke, at Pittsburgh – where Tyler Ennis, the Orange’s freshman point guard, made a running 35-footer to win at the buzzer – and against N.C. State, which suffered a loss as painful as any of the others that torture Wolfpack fans.
Against Boston College, who would have thought that Syracuse needed more luck? The Orange’s 25-0 start was the third-best in ACC history, and the best since N.C. State ended the 1972-73 season 27-0.
The last time an ACC flirted with an undefeated season was during the 1980-81 season when Virginia started 22-0. Syracuse’s 62-59 overtime loss against Boston College provided a good explanation as to why it’s been so long:
The best teams nowadays aren’t nearly as good as the best teams were 20, 30 and 40 years ago. And the worst teams now are better than their predecessors – or at least more equipped to compete with the best teams.
Still, Boston College beating Syracuse qualifies as one of the great upsets in ACC history. It doesn’t approach Chaminade over Virginia in 1982, but it’d be difficult to identify a greater upset involving two league teams.
The Eagles lost nine times out of conference, needed overtime to beat Sacred Heart (4-22 entering Thursday) and had beaten only Virginia Tech, twice, in the ACC. They brought a 6-19 record into Syracuse.
According to ESPN’s stats and information department, Boston College’s victory represented just the third time that a team ranked No. 1 lost in February or March to an opponent with a winning percentage less than .400.
That happened in March 2003 when 9-18 UCLA beat Arizona. And in February 1959, when 7-12 Maryland beat North Carolina. According to ESPN, Boston College became the third team ever with a losing record to beat a No. 1 team on the road.
The Eagles’ triumph came with an inspiring back story. They wore “DK” patches on their jerseys in honor of Dick Kelly, the longtime Boston College assistant sports information director who died last week after a two-year battle with ALS.
The team was especially close with Kelly, whose funeral was earlier this week. After his team’s victory, Eagles coach Steve Donahue summed up his emotions – and the meaning of the win – in a post on Twitter.
“That was for you DK,” Donahue wrote.
Land of the free, home of the bricks
Boston College’s victory will be remembered for a lot of reasons, but the Eagles’ free throw shooting probably won’t be among them. Maybe it should be. They went 9 for 10 from the line – a modest total – but they needed just about all of them.
That’s worth nothing, given the abhorrent free throw shooting in the ACC this season. Eight of the league’s 15 teams rank 220th or worse nationally in free throw percentage.
Only Conference USA, with 10 teams that rank 220th or worse, can beat that kind of futility. When it comes to being the worst of the worst, though, the ACC has every other conference beat.
Five of the league’s teams – N.C. State (65.4 percent), Virginia (65.2), Virginia Tech (64.7), Wake Forest (63.6) and UNC (62.2, entering its game Thursday night against Duke) – rank below. No other conference can say that.
It’s looking more and more likely that the ACC will have five teams in the NCAA tournament. That would be a good year in the old nine-team ACC, and a decent year in the 12-team ACC. But five bids for a 15-team conference? Not good, especially given the thought that the ACC would automatically become the best conference in the country with the addition of Syracuse, Pitt and Notre Dame.
Syracuse has done its part, at least, and Pitt, despite its lack of quality wins, looks like a sure thing. Duke and Virginia are locks and UNC should be, too, but beyond that it’s slim pickings. A quick look at the league’s hopefuls, beyond the top five:
• Clemson (16-9, 7-6, 71 RPI): The schedule sets up nicely for the Tigers. Games at Georgia Tech and Wake Forest, followed by Maryland and Miami at home. Win those and they’re 11-6 in the ACC entering the season finale at home against Pitt. But Clemson rarely makes things that simple.
• N.C. State (16-10, 6-7, 57 RPI): The Wolfpack should be back at .500 in the league after a road trip this weekend to Virginia Tech, and then comes a must-win against UNC in Raleigh on Wednesday night. A victory there keeps N.C. State’s tournament hopes alive.
• Maryland (15-12, 7-7, 70 RPI) and Florida State (15-11, 6-8, 65 RPI): Both teams are looking at 9-9 league finishes, at best, and they’ll need to make runs in the ACC tournament. The Terrapins still have games left against Syracuse and Virginia, and the Seminoles have Pitt (on the road) and Syracuse in their final four.
Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter