Luke DeCock

Duke, ACC at home on top

Duke sophomore Harrison Suh celebrates with his friends Louis Li, middle, and Ellen Yuan, left, both sophomores, as Duke defeats Michigan State in the semifinals of the NCAA basketball championship during a watch party in Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Duke sophomore Harrison Suh celebrates with his friends Louis Li, middle, and Ellen Yuan, left, both sophomores, as Duke defeats Michigan State in the semifinals of the NCAA basketball championship during a watch party in Cameron Indoor Stadium. newsobserver.com

Throughout the NCAA tournament, Mike Krzyzewski has, unusually for him, worn the ring commemorating Duke’s 2010 national championship. It has been tapped against microphone stands, used as the fulcrum of team huddles and served as a visible reminder of where Duke wanted to go.

“Every day when you see coach wearing that ring, it’s just motivation for us all, that that’s what we’re working for, that’s what we’re trying to accomplish,” Duke guard Tyus Jones said. “One day we all want to be able to have one of those. It’s just a good reminder for us.”

Krzyzewski’s ring also happens to represent the Triangle and the ACC’s last title and previous Final Four appearance, a five-year drought that provoked no end of conference-wide introspection. One has come to an end. The other may be at hand.

It’s been a good year for basketball in the Triangle already. Duke, North Carolina and N.C. State all made the Sweet 16 for the first time in 10 years. N.C. Central won the MEAC regular-season title. And Duke is one win away from a national title.

It has also been an incredibly lucrative tournament for the ACC, which accounted for two other teams in the Sweet 16. The conference will collect 21 NCAA tournament units, one for each game played outside the title game, which over the next six years will be worth at least $32 million dollars.

A national championship, the conference’s first since Duke in 2010, would be a fitting conclusion to a season that has restored the ACC to what it would consider to be its rightful place atop college basketball.

“Hopefully, it’s a standard that is sort of re-established, and this will be the norm rather than the exception,” ACC commissioner John Swofford said Sunday. “That’s what we would look for with our expanded league. That’s a reasonable standard to have for ourselves.”

Although adding basketball schools like Syracuse and Pittsburgh has had unintended results – Syracuse is in NCAA hot water and Pittsburgh has fallen from its recent standards – Notre Dame won the ACC title and came within a minute of upsetting Kentucky in the regional final.

And then there’s Louisville, which turned out to be an ideal replacement for Maryland, excited to be a part of the conference and a solid fit in both football and basketball.

Together, Louisville and Notre Dame accounted for as many tournament units as traditional powers N.C. State, North Carolina and Virginia combined this season, and brought the ACC to within a few possessions of putting three teams in the Final Four. Miami, meanwhile, was one questionable call away from winning the NIT.

That depth, that gantlet, helped hone Duke to a very fine edge.

“It’s definitely one of the best conferences in the country, just every game you have to bring it,” Duke guard Quinn Cook said. “Doesn’t matter what your record is and what your opponent is, everybody’s bringing it.”

The ACC has now participated in the NCAA championship game in eight of the past 17 years, going 5-2 in those games. (Wisconsin, by way of comparison, would be the Big Ten’s first national champion since Michigan State in 2000, and that league is 0-5 in title games since then).

“I’ve learned over the years you should enjoy these periods when you have them,” Swofford said. “There are certainly no guarantees. We’ve had our share of postseason success over the years and we’ve had some disappointing performances as well, fortunately more of the former than the latter.”

That record of success only underlines how historically unusual this recent gap has been, not only for the ACC but for the Triangle, considering the national champion has come from the 919 area code a staggering nine times since 1982.

That number could be 10 by the time Monday becomes Tuesday.

DeCock: ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947

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