The conference is larger now, nearly double the size, and the spaces available in the NCAA tournament are far more plentiful. Yet the ACC is in the midst of a Final Four drought it hasn’t seen in more than 50 years – a drought that’s difficult to fathom, perhaps, given the league’s depth.
It really has been this long – 53 years, to be exact – since the ACC has gone as long as it has now, four years, without a team reaching the Final Four. If no ACC team makes it this season, it would be the longest such streak in conference history.
To find the ACC’s equal to this four-year stretch of postseason futility, you’d have to go back to the late 1950s and early 60s, when only one ACC team – the conference tournament champion – even made the NCAA tournament. Wake Forest, led by Bones McKinney and Billy Packer, broke that four-year drought in 1962.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski was 15 then. North Carolina coach Roy Williams was 11. Those two men, perhaps more than anyone, could determine whether the ACC’s drought comes to an end or whether it stretches on, growing longer than the one from their childhood.
The ACC this season welcomes Louisville, the 2013 national champion, and a season ago it welcomed Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame. John Swofford, the ACC commissioner, has boasted about the league’s basketball prowess and has, more than once, called the ACC the greatest collection of college basketball programs ever assembled.
It might be true, based on history and prestige and banners hanging in the rafters. Since Duke won the national championship in 2010, though, Swofford and the ACC’s coaches have traveled to the various sites of the Final Four and watched the grandest stage in the sport go on without them.
If that’s to change this season, the conference’s two oldest blue bloods – the ones separated by two shades of blue and eight miles of pine trees, as the old ESPN promo commercial put it – could have the most to say about it. Duke and UNC are likely to enter the season both ranked among the top 10 for the first time since 2011-12, and that’s already the case in the recently-released coaches poll.
As recent NCAA tournament history suggests, though, rankings hardly matter in March. And expectations in October don’t often translate into the first Monday night in April.
Duke’s success will be defined by whether yet another heralded freshman class – led by center Jahlil Okafor and point guard Tyus Jones – can mesh with an experienced corps of veterans, including guard Rasheed Sulaimon and forward Amile Jefferson.
The Blue Devils faced a similar challenge a season ago with Jabari Parker, the freshman forward who left school after one season, immediately becoming the team’s most important player the moment he arrived. For the second time in three seasons, Duke lost its first NCAA tournament game.
“It’s huge,” Krzyzewski said of the importance of chemistry. “But it also means that your upperclassmen have to be accepting of it. That’s where Quinn Cook has been exceptional in how he has helped the freshmen, especially with Tyus, making sure that he is comfortable.
“With Jah (Okafor), you’ll see, he’s good. He was accepted pretty much right away. Also, because there is nobody like him, so there is no competition, no, ‘OK, I can do what he can, I look like he does.’ No, you don’t. And he shares the ball.”
Despite the relative lack of success – two first-round NCAA tournament losses – Krzyzewski recently hasn’t hesitated to build his teams around freshmen who are likely to play one season then leave. A season ago, it was Parker. Two seasons before that, it was Austin Rivers.
Down the road a ways, Williams has embraced an old-school approach: build a team, or try to, around more experienced players. UNC has some ingredients common to Williams’ national championship teams in 2005 and 2009.
Those teams had dominant, strong point guard play with Raymond Felton and Ty Lawson and so should this one, with junior Marcus Paige. Those teams had strong post play with Sean May and Tyler Hansbrough and so should this one, albeit perhaps not with one star player like the ’05 and ’09 teams.
While there isn’t a May or a Hansbrough at UNC there is, for the first time in a while, a collection of depth and proven scorers, led by Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks.
“I’ve said this so many times I’m already sick of hearing it myself, but one or two or three of those guys have got to step up and say ‘I’m going to be a big-time player,’ ” Williams said. “I don’t think there’s anybody that’s questioning here that Marcus last year stepped up and said, ‘I’m going to be a big-time player.’
“Now one of the post players has got to step up and say that and not be willing to run up and down the court and wait on Marcus to do something.”
Williams’ 2009 team might have been the last of its kind in college basketball – the last upperclassmen-laden, experienced national championship team that dominated a season from start to the finish. When Duke won the national championship the next season, it was the fifth time that ACC schools won the national championship in back-to-back years.
Since then, though, the conference has been uncharacteristically unsuccessful in March, and the ACC enters this season seeking to avoid its longest Final Four drought in history.