The verdict was rendered quickly, allowing time for a brief salvo of commercials before judgment was pronounced. “You’ve just witnessed one of the greatest championship games in the history of the sport,” intoned Charlotte native Jim Nantz, the TV voice synonymous with Final Four drama.
Villanova’s victory over North Carolina on a 3-pointer at the buzzer was certainly a great ending to one of the best NCAA title games in common recollection. Instantaneous acceptance of the game’s lasting stature, even after the passions of the moment cooled, was itself a rarity. If only other historical truths were as easy to identify and as likely to endure.
Take the highly defensible notion the ACC finally justified the hype that accompanied its move to 15 members. The 2016 season was everything the conference could have hoped for, short of that Kris Jenkins jumper. Yet, as good as things look, a case can be made the league’s prowess is apt to be quite transitory.
Back in 2014, despite insistence it was destined for greatness the reconfigured ACC, featuring four of the top nine programs all-time in men’s victories (North Carolina, Duke, Syracuse and Notre Dame), got off to a miserable start. A single member, Virginia, advanced as far as the Sweet 16. Embarrassingly for the conference’s incumbents, newly arrived Syracuse debuted with 25 consecutive wins, making life in the ACC look easy before faltering.
Trading Maryland for Louisville gave the ACC seven former Big East members starting in 2015 and Four Hall of Fame coaches, easily the most ever for any league. Newcomer Notre Dame won the ACC tournament, the earliest ascent to the conference pinnacle for any expansion club. Six ACC teams got NCAA bids, five reached the Sweet 16, three advanced to the Elite Eight. Then Duke ended a four-year ACC absence from the Final Four by winning its fifth national championship.
All that was mere prelude to 2016. North Carolina started as the league’s 19th preseason No. 1 pick since 1970 and ended as a No. 1 NCAA tournament seed with Virginia. Of seven tournament entrants from the ACC, six reached the Sweet 16, record NCAA representation for any conference. Four reached the Elite Eight, tying a mark set by the Big East in 2009. UNC and Syracuse met in the Final Four, the sixth time ACC teams squared off in the national semifinals, and of course the Tar Heels came within a basket of winning it all.
“In the end, how you play in the postseason is really the measure of the quality of your conference,” Bob Bowlsby, commissioner of the Big 12, told USA Today. “I think the NCAA tournament certainly is the coin of the realm.” And Bowlsby wasn’t even discussing the windfall in NCAA payments realized by ACC members.
Money notwithstanding, how many teams the ACC got in the tournament wasn’t as important as what they accomplished. Expanded membership should give a power conference more chances at NCAA participation, anyway. But an unfortunate corollary is that, the longer a program goes without making the NCAAs, the worse its long-term competitive prospects within the league.
Six ACC teams missed the Division I playoffs over the past three seasons.
During that span four of those schools changed coaches: Boston College, Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest. The other two, Clemson and Florida State, flirted with inclusion but still haven’t made the tournament since at least 2012.
In 2016, Virginia Tech became the only program among the half-dozen also-rans that showed significant improvement since expansion. Just not enough to end the ACC’s longest NCAA-drought at nine years and counting. BC, a decade removed from the ACC tournament championship game, went as far in the wrong direction as possible, becoming the sixth team in 63 years to go winless through an entire ACC season.
Highlighting the distance between league laggards and leaders in the post-expansion era, even when Duke struggled – dropping from the AP top 25 for the first time since 2007, when the Hokies last made the NCAAs – it still won 25 games and earned its 21st consecutive bid to the tournament. That streak, the longest ongoing run in Division I, began in 1995, when coach Mike Krzyzewski returned to the sidelines after suffering a back injury and exhaustion. He’d been healthy since, until skipping a game at Georgia Tech on Feb. 2 as he spent two days in the heart wing of Duke hospital.
UNC coach Roy Williams, 65, collapsed days later, on Feb. 9, at BC’s Conte Forum after suffering a bout of vertigo. Both coaches also suffered persistent knee woes this season. Krzyzewski underwent knee replacement surgery on April 3.
Williams, visibly limping all year, similarly contemplated off-season repairs. Williams grew touchy when peppered with questions about retirement in the season’s late going. Stranger things have happened, but barring further health problems it’s difficult to envision Williams stepping away while his alma mater faces the prospect of NCAA sanctions. Krzyzewski is the only member of the ACC’s quartet of Hall of Fame coaches not confronting the consequences of rules violations.
Tainted or not, all those programs performed well in 2016. Jim Boeheim, who unexpectedly led Syracuse to the ’16 Final Four, already has announced he’ll head to pasture in two more years. Mike Hopkins, his top assistant, is the designated coach in waiting. Rick Pitino hinted at retirement following a season that concluded with Louisville’s voluntary banishment from the postseason, with formal punishment unresolved for alleged provision of sexual favors to recruits.
Neither Williams nor Krzyzewski, whose programs still define the ACC, has publicly shared thoughts regarding a successor other than to dismiss speculation.
Hints emerged when each missed bench time due to infirmity, however. Steve Robinson, formerly a Williams assistant at Kansas, took the Tar Heel reins at BC. He’s of the same vintage as Kevin Stallings, also on that Kansas staff and just hired as head coach at Pitt. Jeff Capel, who played guard under Krzyzewski in the 1990s, stepped in at Atlanta and rallied Duke to victory. The 40-year-old associate head coach is a logical successor when his boss retires, although Capel insists “I can’t envision anyone else” coaching Duke, himself included.
Good thinking. History shows the man following a coaching legend is unlikely to enjoy a smooth transition. That precedent may be especially telling when, as in the cases of Boeheim, Krzyzewski and Pitino, a program owes most of its modern prominence to a single, strong personality.
Conversely, among the nation’s top programs UNC is unique in winning almost without interruption for a half-century by generally following a blueprint established by a single man, Dean Smith. A seasoned replacement from within the Carolina continuum figures to be more readily able to maintain UNC’s accustomed level of success than any outsider.
Stretch the roster of ACC coaching masters to include Miami’s Jim Larrañaga, a 66-year-old Final Four veteran, and it’s clear the league’s fortunes depend largely on leaders who can’t help but feel the gravitational pull of the years. That’s no surprise or crisis, only a reminder we should savor the ACC’s peak prosperity while it lasts.