Syracuse streak prompts a look at ACC history books
Posted February 13
Updated February 14
After surviving one more close call, this time at Pitt, Syracuse is almost two-thirds of the way to an improbable undefeated season in the Atlantic Coast Conference, in the school’s first season in the conference. The Orange will still face difficult road tests at Duke and Virginia, but based on what this team has accomplished there is reason to dust off the ACC record book and examine the past.
Undefeated in the ACC
It is rare that a team goes undefeated in ACC play. The only teams with membership in this elite club are UNC ’57, Duke ’63, South Carolina ’70, NC State ’73, NC State ’74, UNC ’84, UNC ’87 and Duke ’99.
That’s it: only eight teams in 60 years.
Several of these teams rank among the best in ACC history.
The ’57 Tar Heels are the ACC’s only undefeated national champions. Duke’s ’63 team became the first in Blue Devil history to reach the Final Four. The ’73 Wolfpack went undefeated, but could not play for the NCAA title due to probation. The ’74 Wolfpack did win the national title, losing only once during the season. The ’99 Duke team narrowly lost to Connecticut in the championship game.
A few more notes about this group:
- The ’73 State team still ranks as the top scoring team in ACC history. They averaged more than 92 points per game.
- The ’74 State team twice scored 144 points. That’s still the ACC record for most points in a single game.
- The ’99 Duke team averaged a very respectable 91.8 points per game.
- And here’s the other eye-popping stat: the average margin of victory for Duke that year was 24.7 points per game, still an ACC record.
Syracuse will not be breaking any of the aforementioned scoring records, but the Orange can do something no ACC team has done – go 18-0 in conference play. The ’99 Duke team is the only one to go 16-0. All the other undefeateds went 14-0, except State, which went 12-0 in both ’73 and ’74. NCSU is the only ACC school ever to post back-to-back undefeated seasons in conference play.
ACC gets little respect
Nationally, I don’t sense a great deal of respect for the ACC this season, outside of Syracuse. Pitt, for example, is ranked No. 25 despite two narrow losses to the No. 1 team, and three other competitive losses to ranked teams. North Carolina defeated Louisville, Michigan State and Kentucky and is not ranked at all. I know that Pitt has few wins over elite teams and that UNC lost several it shouldn’t have. But if you watch the games you have to feel like these are teams that could be factors in March. And there are several other teams in the ACC that bear watching.
Of course lack of respect is nothing new for the ACC. In its early years, the league had to play a preliminary game before advancing to the Sweet 16. The ACC Champion had to play the likes of Yale, Navy and St. John’s before moving on to the regional semifinal during an era when teams from the Big Ten, Big Eight and SEC got byes. For example, in 1958, Maryland, which had defeated eventual champion Kentucky during the regular season by nine points, had to play a preliminary in the East while the Wildcats (then playing in the Mideast) drew a bye!
That was how it was for the ACC until Wake Forest (with the great Len Chappell at center and former college basketball analyst Billy Packer at point guard) defeated UCLA in the 1962 consolation game. Consolation games in the NCAA went away in the late 70s, but that one in ‘62 gave the ACC a bye, starting with Duke in ’63. That ’62 game, incidentally, marked UCLA’s last NCAA Tournament loss until NC State in 1974. Think of it: The great John Wooden, who rarely lost NCAA Tournament games, suffered his last two losses against ACC teams!
You don’t have to look very far to find reasons why the ACC should be respected at tournament time. The league ranks first in NCAA Tournament winning percentage, at better than 65 percent. The ACC has the most titles since the Wooden era, 10, and its teams have won at least 10 tournament games an amazing 13 times. ACC teams have reached the Final Four 19 of the last 27 years.
You have to go all the way back to 1987 to find a time when ACC teams didn’t win at least half of their tournament games. And that season saw the conference slip to just a 5-6 record in the NCAA. Many conferences are pretty happy going 5-6. The only real bust for the ACC, when multiple, highly-ranked teams lost, occurred in 1979. North Carolina, which had beaten eventual champion Michigan State that year, and Duke, which began the season ranked No. 1, both lost to East Region teams – in Raleigh no less – on what will always be known as Black Sunday. That’s the only time the ACC ever went 0-2 in the NCAA.
Best ACC era? Many arguments
The ACC has had so many great years and decades, the debate typically focuses on which era is the best. Analyst Dave Odom, perhaps the best coach ever at Wake Forest, recently said on the air he thinks the late 80s and 90s were the best. Those were great years, but to this point, it’s hard to top the 70s and early 80s.
During the 70s, the ACC posted a non-conference winning record of better than 80 percent for the entire decade. That hasn’t been done since, although both the 80s and 90s saw non-conference winning percentages of around 79 percent. By contrast, last year’s ACC non-conference winning percentage was around 74 percent. You have to go back to 2009 to find the last time the ACC won more than 80 percent of its non-conference games in a single season.
Moreover, the ACC’s best-ever NCAA Tournament showing, in terms of winning percentage, came in 1983. Buoyed by NC State’s national championship run and a UNC trip to the Final Eight, the league went 11-3, for a winning percentage of better than 78 percent. There have been several other seasons that were very close to that figure. The league went 14-5 in 1993 with six different teams in the tournament. And it posted a 12-4 mark in 2005. Both ’93 and ’05 were championship years for UNC.
Here’s what really stands out to me about the 70s and early 80s in the ACC: Between 1973 and 1985 (roughly the time of Carl Tacy’s tenure at Wake Forest) every ACC school reached the NCAA Tournament quarterfinals at least once. That includes Georgia Tech, which reached the quarterfinals in 1985 under Bobby Cremins. You can’t find another period in ACC basketball with that kind of upward mobility, where Clemson, Wake Forest, Maryland, and Virginia, as well as the traditional powers in the Triangle all made deep tournament runs.
What about scoring?
Low scores and slow tempos have created a great deal of conversation this year. Clemson and Florida State have played a 56-41 game and a 53-49 affair. The first Miami-Syracuse game didn’t get out of the 40s, 49-44. The big Virginia-Pitt game finished 48-45.
Low-scoring games are nothing new in the ACC. In the days before the shot clock, Duke once beat UNC 21-20. That was in 1966. In 1979, the same two teams played another game where the halftime score was 7-0 in favor of the Blue Devils. UNC still holds the record for fewest points in a half, zero.
UNC still holds the ACC record for fewest points in a half. The 1982 UNC-Virginia ACC Championship game saw the Tar Heels hold the ball for more than 13 minutes in the second half, after a high-scoring first half. That game, which the Tar Heels won 47-45, probably did more to bring about the shot clock than any other, but that’s a story for another day.
The ACC’s lowest scoring game did not involve a Dean Smith team. NC State beat Duke 12-10 in the ACC semifinal game of 1968. The Pack committed just one turnover that night and yes, that’s still an ACC record.
By and large, the ACC is known for high scoring and up-tempo games. And we would include high shooting percentage. In the 70s and 80s, the top ACC teams regularly shot better than 50 percent. All of Lefty Driesell’s teams at Maryland shot better than 50 percent from 1971-1980, and Smith’s teams at UNC shot better than 50 percent most years in the 70s and 80s as well. The ACC’s top shooting team topped 50 percent from 1971 to 1989, led by the 1986 Tar Heels who hit nearly 56 percent.
With the emphasis on the three-point shot and the dunk shot (Let’s face it, the TV highlights kids see usually include one or the other.), the 15-foot pull-up jumper has become a lost art. Defenses are more physical as well. And so shooting percentages have dropped. State led the league last year at 49.5. Carolina topped in shooting in 2012, at just over 45 percent. No ACC team has broken the magic 50 barrier, since, well, that ’99 Duke team.
A look at the Duke-UNC rivalry
And this year’s Duke team is shooting about 44 percent from the field in conference games, barely above the 42.9 percent of the top 1954 ACC marksmen from Maryland. Duke now, however, shoots almost as well from the three-point line as it does from inside the arc (43 percent), so few people notice the drop off.
Duke holds the upper hand in its series with North Carolina (which will resume next Thursday) in recent years. The Blue Devils have won 10 of the last 15 games in the Dean Smith Center, and have won three of four in Chapel Hill since the departure of Tyler Hansbrough. The Tar Heels’ advantage against Duke in the new building has shrunk to 15-13, despite Carolina’s starting off 10-3. Duke won four straight in Chapel Hill from 1999-2003. ACC analyst Jay Williams never lost at the Smith Center.
By contrast, Duke almost never won in old Carmichael Auditorium, now Carmichael Arena. The Blue Devils won the first game against Carolina in 1966, and the last one, played in 1985. In between, the Heels won 18 straight.
North Carolina, on the other hand, has had surprising success at Cameron Indoor Stadium, a place where the Blue Devils were once so dominant that in the Vic Bubas era, they compiled a record of 75-4 between 1961 and 1968 (The Tar Heels were responsible for two of the four). Duke won five straight home games against the Heels in the Bubas and Bucky Waters days, 1968-1972, but then the Tar Heels started winning in Durham.
UNC beat Duke on its home court five straight times from 1973 to 1977. I’ve always considered that one of Smith’s greatest accomplishments. By contrast, since 1972, Duke has won no more than four in a row at home against the Heels – in the late 90s and again from 2002-2005. And of course during the Tyler Hansbrough era, UNC improbably won four straight in Durham.
North Carolina and Duke remain the ACC’s most dominant teams through time, followed by NC State. The Tar Heels have 29 regular season titles, the Blue Devils have 19 and the Wolfpack seven. The ACC of course has always valued its conference tournament more than any other league. Duke owns 19 titles, to UNC’s 17 and NC State’s 10.
The late Everett Case preached tournament above all else. Case and his protégés at NC State on multiple occasions won the tournament as an underdog. Mike Krzyzewski has also been a great tournament coach, winning an unprecedented five straight tournaments and six out of seven. UNC’s Smith remains the ACC Tournament’s all-time winningest coach having won 58 games.
Upsets abound in the ACC Tournament. While Miami last year won both the regular season title and the tournament, the No. 1 seed has won just 29 times in 60 years. Even the sixth seed, starting with Virginia in 1976, has won something like five times.
Syracuse is riding high now. But will it last through the regular season? Will it last through the ACC Tournament? History says probably not.