Duke and Louisville will soon share a conference. They were already united by the moment their coaches once shared. By the time they’re done Sunday, at least one ACC team is going to be in the Final Four, either present or future.
This Midwest regional final is the first tournament reunion of Mike Krzyzewski and Rick Pitino since Duke and Kentucky met 21 years ago in what may be the most famous game in NCAA tournament history.
Krzyzewski and Pitino have met only twice in their long careers – once earlier this season, once in Philadelphia in 1992. Grant Hill to Christian Laettner, cue history.
“Our relationship was good before that game,” Krzyzewski said. “After that game, it grew exponentially. When the basketball gods deem you worthy enough to put you in a great moment, sometimes you’re placed in that moment as a winner and sometimes you lose. But sometimes the loser shines more than the winner.”
“I did a Vitamin Water commercial with Laettner,” Pitino said. “A lot of Kentucky fans don’t like him. I got to know him,” and here Pitino paused for effect before breaking into a big grin: “And I still don’t like him!”
Still, this game is less about the past for either team – “I wasn’t even thought of when that game was going on,” Louisville forward Chane Behanan said – or either coach than it is about the future of the ACC.
Three of the eight teams still alive Saturday morning were, technically, ACC teams. Only one is, technically, a member at the moment. Syracuse will join next season, Louisville the season after that.
It’s a little jarring to think that this game, a collision between two such prominent programs, both led by coaching giants, will soon be a regular feature of the ACC. It raises hopes that the conference, in the midst of such an overwhelmingly disappointing season, might someday rise again.
Krzyzewski on Saturday issued a reasonably stern challenge to the rest of the ACC, the league office and the member schools alike, to make the most of what he called “the most powerful basketball conference, ever.”
“Does our conference develop its own TV network? Where do we play the tournament? When do we play the tournament? How do we position our regular season? How do we make teams play schedules that are worthy of NCAA consideration?” Krzyzewski asked.
“In other words, to take a real close look at our league with the new members and say, ‘Why are we different? Why are we better? How can we be the top league?’ If we don’t do that, then we’d be negligent. We’d miss out on a great opportunity.”
The ACC is already missing out. Seven ACC teams had the talent to make the tournament this year. Only four did. Only one is still alive, and it isn’t Miami, the regular-season and tournament champion. Underachievement was the common thread of the ACC season.
That’d be fine if this were an aberration, but it has become the rule. In the nine seasons since Georgia Tech and Duke both made the Final Four in 2004, only five ACC teams that aren’t Duke or North Carolina have made the Sweet 16. The arrival of the new teams should change that.
“Our league was founded on basketball, and that doesn’t mean football isn’t important. It is,” Krzyzewski said. “I like it. I want it to be great. But I want ACC basketball to be the best. And we have a chance to do that again.”
Sunday, the league is at risk of missing the Final Four three straight years for the first time since 1961, which leaves the ACC at risk of making a mockery of its own slogan, “A tradition of excellence: Then, now and always.”
Then? No doubt about it. Now? There’s a lot riding on Duke on Sunday. Always? The ACC may have even more riding on Louisville.