Virginia’s Malcolm Brogdon (15) high fives teammates London Perrantes (23), Anthony Gill (13) and Joe Harris (12) as the final seconds tick away in the ACC championship game. Virginia is one of six ACC teams that will play in the NCAA Tournament. (Reuters)
GREENSBORO, N.C. — Confetti lay strewn across the Greensboro Coliseum’s blond hardwood court. Tina Turner’s “Simply the Best” pumped out of the arena speakers. Virginia players, wearing fresh ACC championship hats and t-shirts, hugged and laughed, overjoyed in the moment.
From the stands, Virginia fans rained down cheers of “U-V-A!”
Virginia’s ACC championship, earned Sunday with a 72-63 win over Duke, was a long time coming. It joined the Cavaliers’ only other ACC tournament title, won in 1976.
“It felt amazing,” said forward Akil Mitchell, whose fierce effort on the interior helped secure the championship. “It’s what you dream of.”
A challenge now awaits Virginia and its brethren from this proud conference — for one of them to enjoy another net cutting in the next three weeks. The six ACC teams invited to the NCAA tournament Sunday night — Virginia, Duke, Syracuse, North Carolina, Pittsburgh and N.C. State — will attempt to be the first from the conference to reach the Final Four since Duke won the national title in 2010 in Indianapolis.
The three-year drought is the conference’s longest since it failed to place a team in the national semifinals 1958-61, a few years after the league’s founding in 1953. Since the Blue Devils’ championship in 2010, teams from the Big Ten, Big East, SEC, Big 12, Missouri Valley, Colonial and Horizon conferences have earned Final Four trips, but not the ACC.
The Blue Devils themselves have their own Final Four dry spell, relatively speaking, to address. Duke did win it all in 2010, but that is its only Final Four appearance in the past nine tournaments, despite the benefit of four No. 1 seeds (including 2010) and four No. 2 seeds. Duke earned a No. 3 seed in the Midwest region and will play No. 14 seed Mercer, the state of Georgia’s lone representative, in Raleigh, N.C., Friday.
The conference improved its chances to return to the Final Four with its power grab of Syracuse, Notre Dame and Pittsburgh, which joined the league this academic year. As such, to miss out for a fourth consecutive year would be a bit embarrassing for the self-proclaimed kings of college basketball (a just honorific given the conference’s 12 national titles and 42 Final Four appearances).
This may sound familiar. It was Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski on Saturday evening making the case for N.C. State to make the NCAA tournament. (The Wolfpack were one of the last teams in and will play in a First Four game Tuesday against Xavier for the No. 12 seed in the Midwest region against No. 5 seed St. Louis.)
“I’ll get in trouble probably for saying it,” he said. “Like the Atlantic 10, they’re a really good conference. I hear people saying there are six teams (considered to be in the NCAA field). Come on. I mean, they’re good, but put them in our conference and go through the meat grinder that our conference has to go through.”
Change a couple nouns, and Krzyzewski could well have been a sports-talk radio caller with a rant about SEC football and the college football playoff. It was in the spirit of the rhetoric that the league’s coaches issued last summer, when they welcomed their three newest members, that the ACC would be a 10-bid league and the best conference in the history of the game.
Just being the best conference in 2014 would be a start. According to cbssports.com, the ACC ranks fifth in conference RPI after finishing fourth last year and sixth in 2011. Sunday, the selection committee gave the league ample opportunity to prove its worth — three teams are in the top 16. Besides Duke, Virginia is No. 1 in the East and Syracuse is No. 3 in the South.
Virginia, which won the regular season outright and the conference tournament, will find out what surviving the crucible is worth.
“It gives us a lot of confidence going into the tournament,” Virginia center Mike Tobey said. “Now we know what we can do against some of the best teams in the country who are in the ACC. So just going into the tournament, we know we can succeed.”
As for Duke, if form holds, the Blue Devils will get UMass out of the Atlantic 10 team in the round of 32. It promises to be a meat grinder.