The latest round of ACC expansion, the one driven by basketball instead of football, was supposed to be bad for teams like N.C. State and Virginia and Georgia Tech, the old-school ACC basketball powers that had fallen on hard times.
As it turns out, they have weathered the injection of programs like Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame just fine. It’s the ACC’s blue bloods that have suffered the most.
Since expansion, North Carolina is 8-6 against the four Big East imports and 29-10 against everyone else; Duke is 8-7 against Louisville, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and Syracuse and 31-7 against the rest of the ACC.
While either Duke or North Carolina has played for the ACC title every season since 1996, it has been four years since either actually won it. Instead, the winners have been a perennial ACC also-ran (Florida State), a football expansion arrival (Miami), a former ACC power recapturing past glory (Virginia) and one of the new arrivals (Notre Dame).
After winning 14 of the previous 15 championships, this four-year drought for the two rivals is the longest ever.
That could change in Washington this week, with the Tar Heels the top seed, but even North Carolina’s regular-season title was its first since 2012, ending a combined three-year drought for North Carolina and Duke that was the longest since 1975. In the 10 years before the latest wave of Big East refugees arrived in 2014, Duke and North Carolina combined to capture the top seed in the ACC tournament nine times.
Virginia, meanwhile, is enjoying its best era of basketball in decades. N.C. State has been to the Sweet 16 twice in the past four years. Florida State won an ACC title. Miami won both the championship and the regular-season title in the same season.
The schools that were supposed to be hurt the most by the influx of regular NCAA tournament participants from the Big East, not to mention Maryland’s replacement by Louisville, have generally flourished instead.
North Carolina and Duke spent most of the early 2000s getting fat and happy beating up on the rest of the ACC. Maryland and Georgia Tech both made it to the Final Four, with the Terrapins winning it all in 2002, but neither program could sustain excellence. Nor could N.C. State ever break through under Herb Sendek, or Wake Forest under the late Skip Prosser.
The Duke and North Carolina teams of the oughts were clearly also more talented than their more recent incarnations, some of whom might have fared differently were it not for unfortunate injuries to Duke’s Kyrie Irving in 2011 or North Carolina’s Kendall Marshall in 2012.
That’s not how it turned out, and since Syracuse and Notre Dame arrived in 2014, along with Louisville a year later and the Virginia renaissance, the two pillars of ACC basketball have faced a broader, more consistent, more sustained challenge than they had in at least a decade. Even Duke’s national champions couldn’t win the ACC regular season or tournament.
North Carolina holding off Miami and Virginia to win the regular season for the first time since 2012 is certainly a step in the right direction, but the Tar Heels’ record against top competition (2-4 against the rest of top six in the ACC) and Duke’s fatigue issues certainly make it easy to entertain the possibility that Saturday’s title game could be played without one or the other for the first time in two decades.
By the same token, either team is capable of ending the title drought under the right circumstances, especially with Louisville sitting this one out. Expansion hasn’t been all that kind to North Carolina or Duke, but this week offers a chance to change that.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, email@example.com, @LukeDeCock
Tuesday’s ACC Tournament games
Noon: 12. N.C. State vs. 13. Wake Forest (WMYT)
▪ 2:30: 11. Florida State vs. 14. Boston College (WMYT)