There is now, after Notre Dame’s last-second victory over Stephen F. Austin on Sunday, a legitimate path to the national title for North Carolina that includes Indiana, Notre Dame, Virginia and Duke.
At that point, they might as well pack things up in Houston and move them to Greensboro.
Just as legitimate, if slightly more likely, is a path that ends with a title-game matchup with Kansas, because we’ve gone a whole two years without that particular matchup popping up in the bracket.
And still in the cards is an all-ACC Final Four of Miami, Duke, Virginia (or possibly Syracuse) and North Carolina (or Notre Dame).
Who would bet against the ACC now? Notre Dame’s win gave the conference five teams in the Sweet 16 for the second straight year. Only the Big East, in 2009, has even done it once (even if the ACC had the last laugh in the end). Syracuse’s 75-50 win over Middle Tennessee on Sunday brought it to a record six.
And that doesn’t include Louisville, a probable No. 4 seed if not under a self-imposed postseason ban. While the Cardinals could have changed the ACC tournament dynamic, as things stood, Syracuse was safely in the field, which means the ACC would probably have gotten eight teams in the tournament and could potentially have been in a position to send seven to the Sweet 16.
All of which suggests we may be headed for at least one, if not two, if not three, if not four ACC teams in the Final Four – and, potentially, the apocalyptic Duke-North Carolina national-championship game that will signal the end of history as we know it.
Their only meeting after the ACC tournament was in the semifinals of the 1971 NIT in New York. The really surprising part is it hasn’t happened since. Of a combined 34 Final Four appearances, they have both made it only once, in 1991, when Roy Williams (at Kansas) beat Dean Smith and Mike Krzyzewski beat Williams.
This is the 15th time in the Krzyzewski era at Duke that the Blue Devils and Tar Heels have both made the Sweet 16. Even with NCAA protocols that separate conference teams in the bracket – relaxed in recent years, but still enough to keep teams apart – it’s hard to believe they have never collided.
There exists a realistic possibility of a 1991 reunion in 2016, with Kansas, Duke and North Carolina all being together again in Houston in April. There’s also a slightly less-realistic possibility that Duke and North Carolina play for the title.
It would be a fitting conclusion to a two-year stretch that has seen the ACC dominate the NCAA tournament, thanks to the second wave of expansion.
Duke’s national championship last season ended a five-year title and Final Four drought for both Duke and the ACC; North Carolina hasn’t done either since its 2009 title. Historically speaking, it was a long time coming for Duke and the ACC, and the Tar Heels are long overdue for at least a Final Four appearance.
If North Carolina can get past Indiana, it could face three straight ACC opponents on its way to the title (all three of whom beat the Tar Heels, then were beaten by the Tar Heels this season). The toughness of Duke’s road will be determined by Sunday’s late Oregon-St. Joseph’s game, but despite their rocky history out west, the Blue Devils could potentially face the 13th, 12th, 8th and 11th seeds on their way to the Final Four.
At this point, how can you count North Carolina or Duke out? How can you count any ACC team out?
Brace yourself. It’s looking like the ACC’s tournament – or more accurately, the ACC tournament – which means all five or six remaining teams should feel pretty good about their chances of getting to Houston, or as it may soon be known, Greensboro on the Bayou.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock