ACC tourney: where joy meets misery

Published 5:27 pm Tuesday, March 9, 2021

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For those of us who grew up along Tobacco Road, life simply stopped when the Atlantic Coast Conference basketball tournament was underway. We’d all find a way – schoolchildren and businessmen alike – to invent a reason to stay at home so we could catch all the action on the radio or TV. Even if we grudgingly made our way to work or school, someone had a radio tuned into the tournament and updates made their way from classroom to classroom or around the office.

Now we can catch all the action on the tube, at home or, for those lucky enough to be under the employ of a kind boss, at work. We can either catch the game live on TV or via the Internet.

The 68th annual tournament is being held this week at the Greensboro Coliseum. There, for the first time in the long and storied hoops history of the ACC, a school from the Big Four (Duke, NC State, UNC-Chapel Hill and Wake Forest) is not among the tournament’s top four seeds.

Yep, you read that right…..from the ACC’s inaugural tournament held in 1954 until last year’s event that was cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s been at least one Big Four team seeded first, second, third, or fourth.

At three tournaments (1956, 1962, and 1991), the Big Four claimed all four of the top seeds. On numerous occasions there were at least three members of the Big Four as the top seeds.

Even when the league expanded in the early 2000’s (first to 11 schools, then to 12), the streak of Big Four teams among the top seeds continued, led by UNC and Duke.

UNC, Wake, and Duke were 1-2-3 in the 2009 tourney.

Duke was the lone Big Four team in the top four in the 2010 tourney, going on to defeat Georgia Tech, 65-61, for the title. Duke (#2 seed) won it again in 2011, defeating arch rival and top-seeded UNC, 75-58, in the title game.

The ACC expanded again in 2014, adding Pitt, Syracuse and Notre Dame to become a 15-member conference. Still, the Big Four held two of the top four seeds that year (Duke at #3 and UNC at #4).

In 2015, Duke was the only Big Four school with a top four seed (#2), but it was UNC (seeded 5th) who made it to the championship game, falling to third-seeded Notre Dame, 90-82, in the finals.

UNC was the only Big Four member to earn a top four seed in the 2016 tournament bracket. The Tar Heels, the regular season champion and the top seed, collected yet another tournament title by defeating second-seeded Virginia, 61-57.

The Tar Heels repeated as regular season champs and the tourney’s top seed the following year (2017), but it was 5th seeded Duke who brought the tournament’s first-place hardware back to Tobacco Road with a 75-69 win over third-seeded Notre Dame.

The Dookies (at #2) were the lone member of the Big Four seeded in the first four spots for the 2018 tournament. However, they lost, 74-69, vs. rival UNC (the 6th seed) in the semifinals. The Heels then lost to top-seeded Virginia, 71-63, in the title game.

UNC (#2) and Duke (#3) were among the top four seeds in the 2019 league tourney. They met in the semifinals, where the Devils edged the Heels, 74-73, en route to winning their 21st title by beating Florida State, 73-63.

Last year’s tournament made it through the first two days where Duke (#4) was the Big Four’s lone representative among the top seeds. But the Blue Devils never got to play as league officials pulled the plug before the tip-off of Thursday’s quarterfinals due to growing health concerns with the COVID-19 pandemic. The NCAA followed suit later the same day, cancelling their annual post-season tournament for the first time in history.

Of the 66 tournament championships awarded to date, the Big Four has combined to win 52 (Duke – 21; UNC – 17; NC State – 10; Wake Forest – 4).

There was one stretch of 12 consecutive years (1959 – 1970) where the tournament title never left Tobacco Road. Duke won four of those championships during that streak while NC State and UNC each won three.

That type of dominance wasn’t only restricted to the early days of the league. With the exception of a pair of titles earned by Georgia Tech in 1990 and 1993, one member of the Big Four cut down the nets at the conclusion of the tournament from 1986 until 2003. Duke won eight titles during that stretch, including a record five straight from 1999-2003.

After Maryland edged Duke in overtime to deny Tobacco Road from earning another post-season championship in 2004, the Big Four – well, rather the Big Two – were back for the next seven years. Duke won back-to-back titles in 2005 and 2005; UNC climbed the same mountain in 07-08; and then Duke pulled off a three-peat, winning in 09, 10, and 11.

Here’s a bit of ACC Tournament history. Can you name the four current or past members of the conference who did not play in the annual post-season event?

North Carolina (1961), Maryland (1991), Syracuse (2015), and Louisville (2016) did not participate because due to program NCAA probation.

Who was the first, non Big Four team to win the tourney title? (Maryland – 1958).

In what year was the tournament first held outside of North Carolina (1976 at Landover, Maryland).

What memories will be made in 2021…tune in this week and see for yourself!!

Cal Bryant is the Editor of Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact him at or 252-332-7207.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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