UNC Roy Williams: ‘I didn’t picture it ending like this.’
Virginia's historic upset at the hands of UMBC was the Cavaliers' fourth game in nine days, the price of winning an ACC title. North Carolina's second-round exit at the hands of Texas A&M was the Tar Heels' sixth game in 12 days, the price of playing for an ACC title.
Maybe Roy Williams is right about the value of the ACC tournament after all, at least relative to the NCAA tournament. You're better off treating it as a cocktail party than a worthwhile endeavor, at least if you're interested in hoisting an even bigger banner in what the North Carolina coach refers to as the “big tournament.”
Even though the days when only the ACC champion advanced to the NCAA tournament are long gone, there's still a tremendous desire to claim that title. (Just ask a school that hasn't won one in three decades.) But at what cost, with the NCAA tournament only four or five days away?
If it's a matter of priorities, the evidence continues to mount teams that have safely secured high seeds are better off if they lose early and save their energy for later in March, especially since the ACC expanded to 15 teams.
No one's suggesting actually trying to lose -- and an ACC title still carries tremendous meaning -- but it's increasingly starting to look like an either-or situation, as much as it ever has before
With Virginia and North Carolina both eliminated, only one of the ACC's six national champions since 2001 was still playing basketball on the last day of the conference tournament, and Duke is favored in some quarters to make it six of seven.
Moving the title game from Sunday to Saturday was supposed to have a beneficial effect on that – the move was made in 2015, with the ACC staring down a historic four-year Final Four drought – but the ACC has won two national titles since then and neither of those teams was still playing on Saturday.
Over the past 20 years, teams that played for the title have been No. 1 seeds 16 times but have gone to only five Final Fours, winning two national titles (Duke in 2001 and 2010). Despite those prime seedings, they have averaged two wins per tournament.
Meanwhile, the rest of the ACC's NCAA tournament teams have won five national titles over that span and gone to eight Final Fours. It's a bigger pool – 59 teams, compared to the 39 champions and runners-up that made the tournament – but with a much lower average seed. Limit it to the 13 teams that were still No. 1 or 2 seeds despite losing before the ACC title game and the numbers are staggering: 40-8, with all five teams that made the Final Four winning titles. (And that includes the two years Wake Forest was a top-two seed and failed to make it out of the first weekend.)
Something's going on there. It's more than just old ACC superstition.
How else could Syracuse win one ACC tournament game in the past three years but seven in the NCAA tournament? Jim Boeheim, crazy like a very old fox with a bunch of vacated wins. The ACC's surprise teams this March – Clemson, Florida State and Syracuse – went a combined 2-3 in Brooklyn. They're 7-0 in the next phase of the postseason.
And the jury is still out on Duke, which despite exiting the ACC tournament early still played four games in 10 days with the same six-day break as Virginia – the Blue Devils played Iona on Thursday, the Cavaliers UMBC on Friday – but looked unbothered doing it.
That's a big change from Duke last year: the Blue Devils became the first team ever to win four games in four days to win the ACC tournament and didn't make it out of the next weekend. Only four teams have ever played four ACC tournament games in four days; collectively, they're 5-4 in NCAA tournament games. North Carolina in 2015 was the only one to make it to the Sweet 16.
Winning the ACC title matters to fans. It matters to players. And it matters to coaches, albeit some more than others. It always will. But maybe not winning it is worth the heartbreak in the long run, the long run being the next three weeks.
Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock