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An Opening Act to the NCAAs, but a Headliner All the Same

Those who know Williams well say he was at least as happy after his team rallied to beat Duke to win the ACC tournament as he was when Maryland won the 2002 national championship. Granted, the Terrapins staged a dramatic rally to beat a hated rival that had tortured them for years, but how can an ACC championship possibly mean as much as an NCAA championship?

It did. Maryland people have no particular memories of Indiana, the team the Terrapins beat in the NCAA championship game. But Duke? How about 1980, the famous Kenny Dennard/Buck Williams undercut at the buzzer? Or 2001 (pick your venue: College Park or Minneapolis)? And N.C. State, the team the Terrapins beat in the semifinals? Well, you can start with 1974. Ask Driesell or Elmore or McMillen or Lucas if they remember that game.

Maryland Coach Lefty Driesell finally won the ACC title in 1984, on his sixth try. (AP)

Of course if you're a State fan, you probably remember the 1978 triple-overtime loss to Maryland and Duke's comeback from 15 points down in the last 10 minutes of the 2003 final pretty vividly. Then again, North Carolina fans haven't forgotten losing to State in 1987, when the Wolfpack was the sixth seed and the Tar Heels were unbeaten in league play.

The list goes on. Every school -- players, coaches, fans -- has memories, good ones and awful ones. Everyone knows nowadays that winning the ACC tournament has almost no bearing on performance in the ensuing NCAA tournament. In 1991, Duke lost the tournament final to North Carolina by 22 points and went on to win the national championship. Two years later, the Tar Heels lost the final to Georgia Tech; the Yellow Jackets lost in the first round of the NCAAs, Carolina won the title. A year later, the Tar Heels won the ACC championship, then lost in the second round of the NCAAs as the defending champion. In 2002, Maryland didn't even make the ACC final, but it cut down the nets in Atlanta after the national title game. Last year, Maryland lost to Syracuse in the second round of the NCAAs after beating Duke in the ACC final; the Blue Devils went on to the Final Four.

So, a strong case can be made that nothing truly important will be decided this weekend. Sure, a couple of teams will fall on or off the NCAA tournament bubble, but their fate will probably be decided long before the championship game is played Sunday. Additionally, ACC expansion has robbed the tournament of some of its magic, making it a cumbersome 11-team event instead of the perfectly compact three-day, eight-team donnybrook it was until 1992, when football began to intercede with the arrival of Florida State. Now, Miami and Virginia Tech will be in the building, and next year Boston College -- which belongs in the ACC as much as DePaul does in the Big East -- will join.

Chances are good, very good, the two teams who play in Sunday's championship game will have locked up high seeds in the NCAA tournament beforehand. That's true of most of the championship games in the big-time leagues these days.

But you can bet that Sunday's ACC championship game will be played as if something absolutely vital is at stake. The atmosphere will be electric. Because to those who know the history of the ACC, something very important is at stake. Best on the block. Ask anyone who has ever played or coached in, or cared about, the ACC.

Ask Lefty Driesell. There's not a soul who saw it who has forgotten the look on Driesell's face in 1984, when, after losing the final five times, he finally won the tournament title. Legend has it that Driesell promised after that game to take the trophy, put it on the hood of his car and drive around the entire state of North Carolina honking his horn until all those Carolina, Duke, State and Wake Forest fans came out of their houses to take a look at what he had finally won. That's not what he actually said.

What he said: "When I was younger, I'd a probably taken the trophy, put it on the hood of my car and pulled into every driveway in the state honking my horn till people came out to look. But I'm too old for that now. I'll probably just go home and sleep."

No doubt he did go home to sleep. And dreamed about putting that trophy on the hood of his car.

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