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Perspective | In a tense throwback, this ACC tournament game really mattered

Perspective | In a tense throwback, this ACC tournament game really mattered

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 0

College basketball has so many bracketologists these days, the likely NCAA tournament field is updated about every 15 minutes.

Most of them try to copy the NCAA tournament committee’s analytics-driven system for selecting the field, which means the so-called “eye test” often means little.

Which is why a game such as Thursday’s second ACC quarterfinal inside Capital One Arena was unusual. It was truly an “eye test” game — or at least one in which the final score mattered more than any advanced metric. Even the bracketologists were in agreement: The winner of the Wake Forest-Pittsburgh game was a likely NCAA tournament team. The loser? The NIT will be in touch.

The Panthers, after blowing most of a 17-point second-half lead, hung on to win, 81-69, raising their record to 22-10 — including 12-3 mark since a 1-5 start in ACC play. Wake is 20-13 and, regardless of what ACC people say, likely to be in the Not Invited Tournament.

Once upon a time, a 4-vs.-5 game in this event involved two teams already safely in the NCAA tournament, with rare exceptions.

In 1984, when Mike Krzyzewski was in his fourth season at Duke and Bobby Cremins in his third season at Georgia Tech, the two teams played a quarterfinal — which in those days was the first round — with everyone in the Greensboro Coliseum knowing the winner would be in the NCAAs and the loser would go to the NIT.

Duke won a pulsating overtime game, with Tommy Amaker hitting the game-winning jump shot with the score tied at 63. “That was just about as draining a game as I ever coached,” Krzyzewski said years later. “We all knew what was at stake.”

Both coaches understood exactly what was at stake Thursday afternoon. Top-seeded North Carolina had started the day by routing Florida State, and everyone knew a matchup with the Tar Heels on Friday night would be a very tough out.

Once, winning the ACC tournament was massively important. But that changed gradually as the NCAA tournament expanded from 25 to 64 teams between 1975 and 1985.

Roy Williams, who sat in the front row at center court Thursday afternoon, was asked when he returned to his alma mater in 2003 after 15 seasons at Kansas how important it was to him to win the ACC tournament. In response, he referred to it as the world’s biggest cocktail party.

Williams actually won an NCAA tournament (2005) before he won an ACC tournament (2007). He ended up with as many ACC tournament championships — three — as national titles.

For Pitt or Wake Forest, winning this tournament would be a lovely bonus, but Thursday their only focus was on winning at least once more so they would have a chance to play a meaningful game next week. Playing Carolina on Friday would be a nice treat, but Thursday was the game that mattered most.

“All we can do is win as many games as we can and hope that’s good enough,” Pitt Coach Jeff Capel said. “I try not to pay attention to what the so-called experts are saying because I simply don’t understand it all.” (Memo to Capel and all coaches: Neither does the committee.) “We never talk to the kids about it. The message today was the same: Win another game and keep playing.”

It wasn’t quite that simple. The last time the two teams met, Wake Forest won, 91-58. “They just pounded us,” Capel said. “We couldn’t let that happen again.”

“The message was, ‘We owe them one,’ ” said Ishmael Leggett, who came off the bench to score 30 points.

The Panthers got what they wanted and needed, holding Wake — which averages 78 points — to 26 first-half points. The Panthers built their lead to 57-40 with 11:12 left before the Deacons rallied to within 67-64 with more than three minutes on the clock.

But Blake Hinson scored inside with 2:48 left, and Pitt hung on from there.

“Wake showed incredible character and why I think they’re an NCAA tournament team,” Capel said in his opening comments after the game.

Wake Coach Steve Forbes wasn’t nearly as sure as Capel. “I don’t know,” he said walking down the hall. “Who knows?”

Well, the bracketologists claim they know. According to them, the ACC has only three bids locked in — North Carolina, Duke and Clemson. Virginia is almost certainly in — almost. No one else is a certainty, although it would be impossible to imagine the ACC with fewer than four bids. The league has taken a beating this season, from both media and fans. Capel, who is a bit biased, believes it’s undeserved.

“It has been unfair,” he said. “Some of it is that the ACC was so praised for so long that some people got tired of it. I get it. When I was at Oklahoma, people … talked about the ACC all the time without giving the Big 12 the credit it deserved. You know what? They were right — the Big 12 was very underrated. Not so much now.

“Plus, with Coach [Roy] Williams and Coach K retiring, people automatically think Carolina and Duke won’t be as good. Well, Carolina went to the championship game in Hubert [Davis’s] first year and Duke won the ACC tournament in [Jon Scheyer’s] first year. They’re both top 10 teams this year. And, by the way, Miami was in the Final Four last year.”

“The ACC is still plenty good.”

Whether the committee agrees won’t be known until Sunday evening. One thing that bothers so many coaches is the makeup of the committee, which is filled with athletic directors and conference commissioners. None of the recently retired coaches can serve on the committee.

“They make their decision based on numbers, not on watching games,” Capel said. “I think most of us agree on that.”

On Thursday evening, Capel was on his way to watch tape of North Carolina. “Just glad to still be working,” he said. “The best thing we can do is win two more games and get in automatically.”

He smiled. “If we get in, it’ll be the first time we’ve been in two years in a row since Jamie [Dixon] was coach. That’s why today, regardless of how you look at it, it was a big deal.”

Forget the bracketologists. Thursday was a big deal.

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