And then it was over. One-hundred and thirty-five games later, one of the best regular seasons in ACC history – it had to be one of the best, right? – came to an end on Saturday with North Carolina’s 90-83 victory against Duke.
That’s as good of a place as any to begin any discussion about the regular season that was. The Tar Heels’ victory gave them the outright regular-season championship (which, again, is a thing that’s recognized by the conference) by a full two games. So what’s that say about UNC?
“Well,” UNC coach Roy Williams said on Saturday night, asked the same question, “winning the league, winning by two games is something we’ll always be proud of. And I think it is the best league. I think top to bottom, there’s no league in the country like it.
“Now we’ve got to back it up and do it in postseason what we did last year. I think we showed everybody we’re the best league last year, with what we did in postseason. But up until this point, we’ve sort of shown that we’re the champions.”
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Not just “sort of,” Roy. For all the talk about how difficult a conference the ACC is, how cutthroat, how teams just beat up on each other, UNC clinched the No. 1 seed in the ACC tournament last weekend – eight days to go – and then already had the outright regular-season championship by tip-off on Saturday.
Yes, the Tar Heels won the regular season because they received some help from their schedule: No road games at Notre Dame, Florida State or Louisville, and the combined conference records of UNC’s five road-only opponents was 35-55. That’s a fact that can’t be discounted.
But UNC also won the regular season because, well … it was the best team over three months. Gripe all you’d like about the unbalanced schedule, but remember that UNC also went undefeated at home, beating Louisville, Florida State, Notre Dame (in Greensboro), Virginia and Duke at the Smith Center.
Louisville didn’t go undefeated at home in conference play. Neither did Duke. Neither did Virginia. Florida State did, but the Seminoles went 3-6 in conference road games. We hear about the unbalanced schedule every season, the effect it has on the conference race.
And it’s true: It has a real effect. Ideally, there would be a round robin like in the old days – a 28-game conference schedule (it’d be fun to see how coaches would react). But this is what we have, and over 18 games it usually becomes clear which team is the best. It became clear enough this season.
More thoughts, memories, observations and conclusions from the past three months:
-This was not the best the ACC’s ever been.
It was a great season, a memorable season – probably one of the best regular seasons in conference history. But let’s not get carried away. This was not the ACC at its very best. Its very best during the short 15-team era? Sure. But if you’re waiting for the ACC to be as good as it was during the 1980s, the wait goes on.
The early-to-mid 1980s remains the standard. College basketball was a different sport back then. But the ACC has never been a stronger, more intriguing conference than it was then, at half the size and arguably twice the star power. That era might never be matched.
-The awards voters got it right … and wrong.
First-team All-ACC had become a given for weeks, and so it was no surprise on Sunday when Justin Jackson, John Collins, Luke Kennard, Bonzie Colson and Donovan Mitchell all received first-team All-ACC honors. Nor was it a surprise that Jackson, the UNC junior, won ACC Player of the Year.
The best player on the league’s best team is always going to be a favorite there, and though compelling cases could be made for Wake Forest’s Collins and Duke’s Kennard, Jackson was probably the right pick. The same can’t be said for coach of the year.
Georgia Tech’s Josh Pastner won it, and that wasn’t a surprise, necessarily, given how bad the Yellow Jackets were expected to be. The surprise? That he won it by such a wide margin over UNC’s Roy Williams, who lost his best two players and won his second consecutive ACC regular-season title.
Williams remains in the midst of his most difficult years at UNC, especially off the court. The ongoing NCAA investigation has clearly affected UNC’s ability to recruit (and that will hurt UNC in the coming years) but, despite that, the Tar Heels continue to do what they’ve usually done under Williams.
-More teams can win the ACC tournament than can’t.
Who’s going to win the ACC tournament? Maybe it’s best to start with the teams that won’t win it.
Sorry, Boston College. And Pittsburgh. And N.C. State, even though it’d be fun to see the chaos involved if the Wolfpack were to somehow win five games in five days (“N.C. State welcomes, as its next head coach … Mark Gottfried!”).
Who else won’t win? Clemson probably won’t win. Georgia Tech. And yeah, Wake Forest and Virginia Tech are NCAA tournament teams, but it’d be stunning to see either one standing at the end in Brooklyn.
But everyone else? Everyone else has a shot. Don’t sleep on Syracuse, the hometown favorite.
-Ranking the best arenas in the ACC.
I’m one of the few ACC scribes who’s fortunate enough (if that’s the right way to put it) to have witnessed a game in every ACC arena – including some no-longer ACC men’s basketball arenas, namely Cole Field House and Reynolds Coliseum.
Every year I tell myself I’m going to spend a weekly column ranking the ACC’s homecourts and … it never happens. This has been years running now. So here’s an abridged version. My favorite gyms in the ACC, according to my own secret formula (which includes things like personal nostalgia and good sightlines):
1. Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium; 2. Virginia’s John Paul Jones Arena; 3. Louisville’s (very ridiculously named) KFC Yum! Center; 4. UNC’s Smith Center (home of too many late nights for me); 5. N.C. State’s PNC Arena (at least media is still on the court).
6. Notre Dame’s Joyce Center; 7. Georgia Tech’s McCamish Pavilion (mainly for its Thriller Dome roots); 8. Pittsburgh’s Petersen Events Center; 9. Wake Forest’s Lawrence Joel Coliseum; 10. Syracuse’s Carrier Dome (impressive in scope but just sort of dumpy, cold and industrial-feeling).
11. Virginia Tech’s Cassell Coliseum (sort of charming, actually); 12. Miami’s Watsco Center (blah); 13. Clemson’s Littlejohn Coliseum; 14. Florida State’s Donald L. Tucker Center (thought it was haunted during my years covering Florida State); 15. Boston College’s Conte Forum (not a bad place for hockey).
-The ACC as a 10-bid league.
Ten teams finished at least .500 in the ACC this season. All 10 should be in the NCAA tournament. That includes Virginia Tech and Wake Forest, though a win in Brooklyn in the ACC tournament wouldn’t be a bad idea for those two.
-UNC as a national title favorite.
The Tar Heels looked bad, quite bad, in that 53-43 loss at Virginia last week. But remember: UNC used a similar loss a year ago as a springboard to better things. It’s not far-fetched to think the same thing could happen this season.
-The prospect of Duke putting it all together.
The Blue Devils enter the postseason with losses in three of their past four games. All of those defeats were on the road, all against strong competition, but long gone is the momentum of Duke’s seven-game winning streak.
-The possibility of ACC tournaments returning to the state any time soon.
Every day that passes without a resolution to North Carolina’s House Bill 2 fiasco, it becomes a little less likely that this state hosts an ACC (or NCAA, for that matter) tournament any time soon. With the tournament in Brooklyn this week, it’s a good chance to get used to it being out of North Carolina.
Four bold predictions for the postseason:
1. Louisville wins the ACC tournament.
2. Florida State doesn’t last the first weekend of the NCAA tournament.
3. Two ACC teams make the Final Four again. Let’s say … UNC and Louisville.
4. The Tar Heels get back to the final Monday night of the season.