It has been 31 years since the ACC tournament decided the postseason fate of the entire league. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that the 1974 final, the last one played in which only the tournament winner could advance to the NCAA tournament, is generally considered the best game played in the event's 51-year history and perhaps one of the greatest college basketball games ever played.
North Carolina State, led by David Thompson, Tom Burleson and Monte Towe, defeated Maryland, led by Len Elmore, Tom McMillen and John Lucas, 103-100 in overtime on that remarkable night in Greensboro. It was a game remembered for sterling play at both ends, a frenetic pace throughout, almost no turnovers and the sight of Lucas, after missing a critical free throw in overtime, sitting on the scorer's table sobbing uncontrollably. Many of the State players involved in the game still say their most vivid memory of the night was the sight of Maryland Coach Lefty Driesell getting on their bus as he walked out of the building.
Maryland Coach Lefty Driesell finally won the ACC title in 1984, on his sixth try.
"I'm proud of y'all," he said. "You played a great game. Now you better go and win the national championship."
State went and won the national championship. Maryland went home.
From 1954 through 1974, only the ACC tournament champion could advance to represent the league in the NCAA tournament. For many years, the ACC was the only league to stage a postseason tournament and the only league to throw away its regular season results once the tournament began.
"The pressure in those years was unbelievable," former Georgia Tech coach Bobby Cremins said. "It was toughest on the team that finished first because if you lost, you felt like you had taken a great season and blown the whole thing."
Cremins vividly remembers 1970, his senior year at South Carolina, when the Gamecocks, coached by Frank McGuire, won the regular season title only to lose the conference final to N.C. State.
"I'm not sure I've ever completely gotten over that game," Cremins said. "We could have won the national title, but we didn't even get a chance to compete for it."
It is all different now. There is no way a team such as Maryland, no worse than the third-best team in the country in 1974 (perhaps behind UCLA as well as N.C. State) or Cremins's South Carolina team, could possibly fail to make today's 65-team tournament. Of the 11 teams that will gather at MCI Center this weekend, at least five will hear their names called when this year's NCAA tournament field is announced.
Since 1975, the ACC regular season champion has been guaranteed a bid to the big tournament regardless of how the conference tournament turned out. Since 1980, there has been no limit on the number of teams a conference can send, and the ACC has never sent fewer than three teams. Now, every conference except the Ivy League stages a postseason tournament. The only ones that truly matter now are those in which only the tournament champion will go to the NCAAs, the so-called one-bid leagues. The rest are just made-for-TV and corporate America events.
The exception is the ACC tournament.
The ACC tournament still matters because of tradition and history. It matters because of what happened in 1974, and it matters because every player who has ever played in the ACC has aspired to win it. And it matters because everyone associated with the league still thinks that it matters.
"We all know that the NCAA tournament ultimately decides your season," said Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski, who has won the event eight times. "But in the ACC it has always been important to be the best guy on your block. That's what the ACC tournament still decides: who the best guy on the block for that year is. Everyone wants to be that guy."
Last year, Maryland was that guy. Don't tell Gary Williams, who spent three years as a player and 15 as a coach trying to win the ACC tournament, that it doesn't matter. Remember, Maryland had already locked up an NCAA bid when it arrived in Greensboro last year. If there was even a hint of doubt, it was long gone after the Terrapins upset Wake Forest in the first round. By the time they played Duke in the final, only seeding was at stake -- that, and being the best guy on the block.