A Waste of Time

The ACC Tournament is a waste of time.

There. I said it.

Va Tech fans know this Thinker pose well.

Now, before you get all pissy: if you’re a Clemson or Florida State fan or, God help you, a Virginia fan, then the ACC Tournament is a valuable tool to enhance your seeding or your resume for the tournament. Actually, if you’re one of those fans, why are you reading this? And if you’re a Maryland fan, I’m still not over the fact that Greivis Vasquez played for you, so you get no love from me.

The general gist of the anti-tournament argument goes something like this: for the conference royalty, UNC and Duke, seeding for the NCAA tournament is usually pretty set by the time the tournament comes around. The tournament thus serves merely a fatigue machine serving up two, maybe three more games for your star players to risk injury. At the very best, it’s forty to 120 more minutes of wear on already-beaten bodies.

On the other hand, hardware is hardware, even if it’s stupid-looking, and this year UNC probably needs a strong showing in the tournament to snag a #1 seed. In addition, many fans still remember when the ACC Tournament brought the southeastern coast to a full stop for one glorious weekend in March. Sadly, those days are no more, but many consider the tournament’s prestige undiminished with time.

I should disclose that when the ACC Tournament was in these glory years, I was still going trick-or-treating in a Power Rangers costume (red, of course), learning that you cannot eat Play-Doh despite how good it smells, and testing the scientific hypothesis that wearing a Superman costume literally gives you the power of flight. So I’m probably just too young to care about the argument that the ACC tournament used to mean something.

Carolina fans have long been split on the tournament issue. Roy Williams famously called the tournament “a great cocktail party,” serving no other purpose than to put you through three games in as many days. He also said he doesn’t like it but will try to win if he has to play. This sounds suspiciously like a contestant from “A Shot at Love” who just realized Tila Tequila isn’t nearly as hot in person as she looks on the Internet, but wants the free publicity anyway.

To be fair, Roy has tried his best to back off that derogatory stance of late. No one really believes him.

I know many of your fans are in NY, but MSG is not a road game. Also, I just really wanted an excuse to put a funny Plumlee face on here.

Interestingly, Duke tends to take a different approach. Much the same way as the Blue Devils prefer their marquee road games at neutral sites so as to prepare for the NCAA tournament atmosphere (while Carolina fans tend to view it as a cop-out for not playing real road games), Duke uses the ACC tournament as a momentum-builder, using success to keep the ball rolling.

Okay, introductory background over. So whose approach is right? Let’s look at some data in the Roy Williams era, with some Duke comparisons thrown in for good measure. Why Duke? Carolina and Duke are the only two schools from the ACC on the same plane of excellence. Though they have different fundamental philosophies on how basketball should be played, since Duke prefers to recruit big men who spend all of their time screening and making goofy faces as shown, they both have success in the tournament and beyond. In the 57-year history of the ACCT, Duke has won 19 times while Carolina holds 17 titles. The next closest is NC State with 10. Anyway:

2005: UNC loses to Georgia Tech in the semifinals of the ACCT. Sean May and Raymond Felton go on to defeat Illinois in a true clash of titans and win the national championship. Bruce Weber never gets another good recruit again and now spends his nights clutching a picture of Deron Williams and watching Just For Men ads.

Duke, by the way, won the ACC Tournament and were rewarded with a #1 seed in the real tournament; they flamed out in the Sweet 16, losing by 10 to Michigan State.

2006: UNC loses in the ACC semifinals to Virginia. In the Round of 32, they are blindsided by the George Mason Cinderellas. UNC didn’t harbor serious title aspirations that season, so this season is less relevant compared to the true title-seeking years of 2005 and 2007-2009. On the other hand:

I missed all my threes/ Shooting like my B.A.C./ Mucus is tasty. A haiku by JJ.

Duke again wins the ACC Tournament. They are again rewarded with a #1 seed. They again lose in the Sweet 16, this time to LSU as J.J. Reddick shoots a glorious 3-for-18, ending his Duke career in a pile of weepy, poetic ashes. (Please see caption on right for an example.)

2007: UNC wins the ACC Tournament this time, snapping Duke’s two-year win streak. Unfortunately, they forget how to score down the stretch against Georgetown in the Elite 8 in one of the most painful losses in recent Carolina memory. I still quiver when I think of Wayne Ellington bombing futilely away from the perimeter.

Duke just had a bad year all around. They were bounced from the tournament early and got edged by VCU in the first round – the first round! – of the NCAA’s on one of the best non-Gus Johnson calls of the tournament: “IS THIS THE DAGGER?

That, by the way, is high praise for play-by-play man Kevin Harlan, because if you know me at all you know that I. Love. Gus. Johnson. (I will forever hate FOX for stealing him from the Tournament. GO TO HELL, FOX!)

2008: UNC again wins the ACC Tournament. This time, they make it one more step further and reach the Final Four. Against Kansas, the wheels fall off the bus as UNC nearly gets run out of the building. I swore off sports for 3 months after that and had my roommate put a parental block on ESPN. I am being entirely serious. I did not know who went pro and who stayed in school until I checked back on the scene before football training camps kicked off. That was a bad year.

Duke lost in the ACC semifinals, then lost in the NCAAs to West Virginia in a phenomenal-for-Carolina-fans 2nd-round tournament game by going 5-22 from behind the arc while a 6-foot-2 WVU guard named Joe grabbed 11 rebounds. You can’t make this up.

2009: UNC loses in the ACC semifinals to FSU, playing without Ty Lawson. After Lawson’s return, which he personally announces by breaking the ankles of LSU’s Bo Mitchell in the Sweet 16, UNC annihilates every opponent they play in the NCAA tournament. National Title #2 for Roy.

Guess who won the ACCT? Duke. They then flamed out in the Sweet 16 as a 2-seed, getting destroyed by Villanova by 23 points.

2010: We’re not going to talk about this. Duke sweeps the ACC and NCAA titles off the easiest draw of all time. (Bring it on, Dukies; I only make this impossible-to-prove blanket statement out of anger, resentment, and bad memories of Gordon Hayward.) UNC doesn’t make the tournament at all. I consider buying plane tickets to Siberia.

2011: Rebuilding years for both teams – Duke from graduated talent, UNC from post-Larry Drew syndrome. By the way, I wonder how Travis Wear, David Wear, and Larry Drew feel now that UCLA’s dirty laundry was aired for all of America to read. Duke and UNC meet in the ACCT final, with Duke winning. UNC makes it to the Elite 8 before losing to Kentucky; Duke only gets to the Sweet 16 before getting pasted by Derrick Williams and Arizona.

To summarize, the winner of the ACC Tournament won the national title only once since Roy Williams arrived at UNC, while the schools share three titles between them during that time. While this information might not be the most compelling, or even useful, it is worth pointing out a few things:

  1. I greatly enjoyed writing “Duke loses” over and over.
  2. This does not mean that losing in your conference tournament predicts success for the NCAA tournament. Like I said in the beginning, for most schools doing well in the conference tournament is a measure of how good the team is, how highly they are seeded, and how capable of a deep run they are. It simply means that the recent history for Carolina indicates that they do better when they get a losing kick before starting the dance.
  3. I would be very interested to see how Duke’s successes in the ACC tournament correlate with NCAA success. A consistent knock on the Blue Devils as they have become more perimeter-oriented is that a jump-shooting team tends to lose its legs in a lengthy tournament. Duke has fit that bill for the better part of a decade now. Any Blue Devils want to take a look?
  4. It’s hard to say that Carolina does better when they lose in the ACC tournament from a statistical standpoint – the 2008 team won and made the Final Four – and I would like to see how someone with stats training sees this information. In years where Carolina didn’t go very far, the most obvious reason was that the team itself wasn’t very good (2006 is a great example). On the flip side, Carolina had some great years mitigated by middling ACC tournament performances. For whatever reason, and in very broad strokes, Carolina wins when they lose.
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You may not recognize this picture, but it is an angry Tyler Zeller. UNC fans have rarely seen this creature this season, but when he emerges he is a fearsome animal indeed.

In my mind, the critical point is this: I’ve written a few times about how this UNC team seems to have something missing – some intangible that has kept it back from performing at its peak level all season. We’ve seen UNC at its best probably three times this season: in crushing Michigan State on the aircraft carrier; at Kentucky, where a last-second Anthony Davis block prevented a possible game-winner; and at Duke in a revenge game. In all three cases, UNC had major motivating factors to win. The Michigan State game was a chance to showcase the team on a national scale and in front of gathered luminaries, including the president. The Kentucky game carried a similar, if not greater, hype in matching the top two teams in the country.

And the Duke game carried, as I wrote last week, no small measure of vengeance. It was obvious – at least to me – that UNC was on an absolute mission against Duke to destroy. In particular, I’ve never seen Kendall Marshall that aggressive (20-and-10? What the hell?) or Tyler Zeller that focused. God help FSU if they get to the finals and Carolina is there to meet them.

Speaking of Kentucky, Pat Forde of Yahoo recently wrote that UK needs to lose. Like the Soviets on the 1980 Olympic hockey team, Kentucky has forgotten how, especially since they haven’t played a top 15 team since December. No team since 1976 has carried a 20-plus game win streak into the tournament, like Kentucky, and emerged victorious. Similarly, should UNC win the ACC Tournament, it would necessitate a sixteen-win streak to take the grand prize.

Do you really like the chances for UNC to win sixteen in a row against opponents of increasing quality? I sure don’t. And I would certainly appreciate the motivational fire a loss seems to spark under this year’s Tar Heels.

Last point: it’s a fairly simple science to predict almost all of the teams that make the tournament. It’s extremely challenging to get seeding and locations right, and even the experts like Joe Lunardi aren’t very good at it. So take everything about locations with a grain of salt. Now I’ll grant that this year’s Carolina team is not guaranteed a #1 seed, while Duke seems pretty locked in to a 2-seed. Should they win the ACC Tournament, they will certainly grab one – and if everything stays as is, they’re likely to get shipped out west. Delving deeply into brackets for the tournament is a little beyond the scope of things here, but we should at least ask: would it be the worst thing in the world if UNC received the top 2 seed and stayed East, instead of getting the 3rd or 4th #1 and shipped West to Phoenix?

I will never root against my Tar Heels. In every game, I root for them to win. I want to see the Blocktopus rise again, I want to see Kendall Marshall set the single-season assist record, and I want to watch Harrison Barnes posterize an overmatched guard.

But will I be crushed if we lose a little earlier than we should? Not really.

As for Duke? Y’all can still go to hell.

This Plumlee picture has absolutely nothing to do with anything. I just can't get enough of their goofiness.

About Nate

I graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2010. I've written about the UNC-Duke rivalry since my best friend from high school took his talents to Durham the same year I went to Carolina. Astoundingly, we remain friends in part due to a moratorium on talking around Duke-Carolina games. Though capable of rationally approaching the rivalry, I generally prefer low-intellect vitriol, because it makes me feel better about myself. Visit my blog at http://thebestmedicineis.wordpress.com
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