RALEIGH — Shortly after North Carolina was eliminated from the NCAA tournament by Iowa State, a security guard positioned in the media hallway at PNC Arena was told the news.
His first words: “Go Virginia.” A similar reaction came about the same time on the 300 level of the arena, a Tar Heels fan yelling “Let’s go Virginia!” after his team was finished.
The ACC has 61 years worth of basketball pride and history, but this season will not be remembered as one of its finest. A season that began with the slogan “The best get better,” along with talk about the possibility of getting 10 NCAA tournament bids, ended with just one team in the Sweet 16: Virginia.
Had the No. 1 seed Cavaliers not throttled Memphis 78-60 in the final game at the Raleigh site, the ACC would have been shut out of the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1979. This also is the first times since then – 35 years – that none of North Carolina’s Big Four ACC teams advanced to that round.
“That’s tough for guys like North Carolina and Duke to go down the way that they did even though they came in prepared,” Virginia guard Justin Anderson said. “T.J. Warren and N.C. State made a great run, so hats off to those guys that put their hearts our on the line in the tournament. We want to make sure we get it for those guys and bring it back for the ACC.
“We believe that we play in the best conference in the country. And that’s one thing that keeps us united as one. The ACC, it’s one big family.”
The Cavaliers dominated the ACC during the regular season, compiling a 16-2 record with an average margin of victory of 13.8 points. Then they dominated last weekend in Greensboro, too, knocking off Florida State, Pittsburgh and Duke in quick fashion for the official designation of ACC champion.
After Duke and N.C. State lost in the Round of 64 (the Wolfpack did at least win its First Four game to make the larger field), and UNC, Pittsburgh and Syracuse bowed out in the next round, the Cavaliers were left alone to carry the league’s mantle.
Their fans even started a small A-C-C chant briefly with about two minutes left in the game. It was followed by a more robust “Sweet 16” and then, largest of all, “Tony Bennett” and “Evan Nolte” after a highlight-reel dunk.
Before Virginia and its fans, who dominated the arena as if it were in Charlottesville, assembled in their places, Tennessee became the third SEC team to clinch a spot in the Sweet 16. The much-maligned league has a perfect 7-0 record in NCAA play.
“I’m very glad you said that because there are three teams still alive in the Sweet 16,” Tennessee forward Jarnell Stokes said when asked about the perceived weakness of the league. “And everyone was saying the SEC is a two-headed team.
“I heard Mike Wilbon and (Tony) Kornheiser say on the show (ESPN’s ‘Pardon the Interruption’), I think it was right before we played Iowa, they said the SEC is a two-headed team. And now we’re in the Sweet 16. That’s just motivation.”
Stokes was a monster down low, with 17 points and 18 rebounds as the Volunteers ended Mercer’s Cinderella run with an 83-63 win. Those 18 rebounds were just one less than the Bears had as a team.
“I almost want to cry because at times this year, it felt like this wasn’t going to happen,” Stokes said. “I felt like coming into this year we were a top 16 team, but we had so many ups and downs. I’m just glad we kept faith.”
Stokes, who hails from Memphis, said Tennessee basketball was dead in the wake of coach Bruce Pearl’s departure for running afoul of the NCAA. If it was dead, it came back to life quickly – the Volunteers have reached the Sweet 16 in four of the past eight years. In the tradition-rich ACC, just one team has more in that span: North Carolina.
“It is what it is,” Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said of the SEC’s perception. “I just think for us as a league, don’t get consumed with the peripheral, just continue to work hard and get multiple teams in the tournament because you have some very talented teams. It’s unfortunate that we only have three teams in. But I don’t think the criticism is accurate.
“You have a stage and a platform when you’re on television, you’re allowed to say what you want to say. Sometimes perception becomes the reality.”
The ACC is cognizant of that fact, too, which is why Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski took to stumping for the league in recent weeks. Fairly or not, leagues tend to be judged for their postseason participation and success. For the ACC, Virginia stands alone.