George Washington, the Revolutionary War commander and first American president, not the university, publicly cited uncontrollable factors to explain the outcome of the Battle of Cape Henry in March 1781. The naval engagement near Portsmouth, Va., preparatory to the decisive land battle at Yorktown, ended in a draw between French and English forces. The result led a disappointed Washington to offer that “the winds and weather had more influence than valor or skill.”
Much as we want fortune to shine on our favorites, few of us are so keenly sighted we can guarantee favorable conditions. Even in athletic competition, where much is predictable and outcomes are definite, ACC basketball seasons like 2019 follow their own dramatic patterns and twisting narrative.
Consumed as we are about to be with the NCAA tournament, focused on three neighborhood powers sailing toward a possible national championship, it’s easy to cruise past the ACC regular-season that unfolded over these past 10 weeks.
Let’s not, just yet.
There was of course plenty of Washington’s “valor or skill” – or both -- in evidence this season, key to the ACC’s perennial charm. Louisville with new coach Chris Mack exceeded best expectations. N.C. State’s amalgam of new players feasted on empty calories in nonconference play, but rallied often in league competition and helped Kevin Keatts become only the 11th coach to post consecutive 20-win seasons to launch an ACC career.
Individual salvos illuminated play. A 3-pointer by proven clutch shooter Luke Maye propelled North Carolina to overtime and a win over Miami en route to the best ACC start of Roy Williams’ 16-year tenure. Duke’s Cam Reddish broke out of a shooting slump to hit a 3 at the buzzer, handing Florida State its sole home loss. N.C. State won as time expired thanks to a Braxton Beverly 3 against Clemson, only to lose the home finale on a last-gasp dunk by Georgia Tech.
Duke and Virginia started the year looking untouchable, and other than twice succumbing to the Blue Devils the Cavaliers stayed that way. UVa has three of the ACC’s top 10 players, according to a vote by coaches and a screened coterie of media members. That’s the most all-league selections during Coach of the Year Tony Bennett’s decade-long tenure. So much for winning without superior talent.
This year North Carolina, also with three players reckoned among the ACC’s top 10, started slowly then gained strength like a hurricane over warm water. After a 21-point home loss to Louisville -- in its turn shocked by an overtime defeat at lowly Pitt -- the Tar Heels responded with 14 wins in 15 games to close the regular season.
Roy Williams’ club finished with a piece of first place for the ninth time in 16 tries since he returned to Chapel Hill in 2003-04. The emphasis on regular-season achievement is a UNC coaching tradition. Williams’ mentor, Dean Smith, had teams that unfailingly finished among the ACC’s top three between 1965 and his 1997 retirement. The streak started the same year Smith was twice hanged in effigy on campus, a once-common form of protest.
Duke followed a more recent tradition, starting four one-and-done hopefuls for the second straight season. R.J. Barrett and Zion Williamson were the first pair of freshmen ever voted first team All-ACC.
Williamson is Duke’s third combination ACC Player and Rookie of the Year in the past five seasons, its fifth top rookie since 2012. He’s also a cultural and athletic phenomenon; it was national news and a catalyst for wide-ranging debate when a Nike sneaker misfire and consequent knee sprain sank Williamson for all but a half-minute in the final six games of the regular season.
All but one Duke loss came with a starter drydocked by injury, two at Cameron Indoor Stadium, making it 11 defeats in the past decade at their home anchorage, still best in the ACC.
The ACC’s three leaders, closely shadowed by Florida State and Virginia Tech, formed a clear power elite. All five squads were ranked among the top 25 in all but one week during the regular season. (FSU in January.)
Meanwhile six teams, 40 percent of the league, finished the regular season with losing overall records. That’s the largest portion of programs to run aground since 1973, when three of seven ACC members lost more than they won.
Of this year’s laggards, Georgia Tech and Pittsburgh have young coaches trying to right the ship. Miami and Notre Dame boast proven leaders – Jim Larranaga and Mike Brey, respectively -- whose programs took on water due to heavily depleted rosters.
Becalmed Boston College and Wake Forest, particularly the latter, may be poised to tack in a new direction. BC has had three winning seasons in the past dozen, one of five under Jim Christian. Wake has two winning seasons in the last nine, one of five under Danny Manning.
Rebuilds after prolonged, painful struggle usually take years. The longer schools wait to refit, the farther behind they fall in a league now placing every breakeven program in position for NCAA consideration.