Parity rules the new ACCGREENSBORO, N.C.—Gone are the days when the ACC tournament champion could effectively be decided by a coin flip between conference powerhouses Duke and North Carolina.
Virginia's 72-63 win against Duke Sunday at the Greensboro Coliseum made the Cavaliers the fourth different program to take home the tournament hardware in as many years. Josh Hairston, Tyler Thornton, Andre Dawkins and Todd Zafirovski are the only members of the Duke roster with an ACC title, which came back in 2011 as the last of three consecutive Blue Devil championships.
In the ensuing three years, a trio of teams outside the state of North Carolina claimed the tournament trophy for the first time ever. Florida State won in 2012, followed by one-hit wonder Miami last season and Sunday's coronation of Tony Bennett's Cavaliers.
"That's special, but it shows you the stranglehold those schools have had on it," Bennett said of finishing off the historic stretch. "Our job is to pry it away."
Thornton said the Blue Devils can't expect to coast to a title.
"You can't come in expecting to just hang a banner, you have to fight for that," Thornton said. "Each one of those teams had a chip on their shoulder at some point in the season and they weren't getting the respect they felt they deserved. They had a point to prove and they proved it."
Seventeen of the 18 ACC tournament champions between 1994 and 2011 hailed from the Tar Heel state. Maryland needed overtime against Duke in 2004 to bust up that streak. The Blue Devils climbed the podium 10 times in that stretch, and North Carolina cut down the nets five times. Tim Duncan-led Wake Forest hoisted the trophy in 1995 and 1996.
Despite the parity within the conference in the last three years, the ACC has struggled to shed its reputation as consisting of Duke, North Carolina and the rest of the field. The conference's dilemma is reminiscent of the PGA in the heyday of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. That duo's absence from the leaderboard in the late 2000s allowed the nation to appreciate the next generation of talented golfers, but the last three tournament champs have entered the NCAA tournament still under-appreciated at the national level.
Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski didn't hold back during the weekend in voicing displeasure concerning the conference's dwindling number of projected tournament bids. He jokingly offered the services of his Blue Devils and Roy Williams' Tar Heels in continuing to promote the top-to-bottom strength of the league.
"[It] hasn't done anything yet," Krzyzewski said of the new found parity's effects on the conference's national perception. "Should I tell Roy the two of us should keep losing?"
The Cavaliers' rise to prominence this season has been predicated on all the things that allowed Krzyzewski's Blue Devils to achieve perennial postseason success during the past three decades. Virginia stifled their tournament competition by allowing 54 points per game in its three victories. A veteran ball club, the Cavaliers executed efficiently on offense behind All-ACC selection Malcom Brogdon and tournament MVP Joe Harris, even if it wasn't always pretty.
Down low, forwards Akil Mitchell and Anthony Gill made life difficult for Blue Devil slashers at the rim and forced Jabari Parker to work hard for each of his 23 points. Offensively, the duo contributed 19 points and 22 rebounds, including several big offensive boards down the stretch after Duke appeared to make the defensive stops it needed.
"Virginia's a very methodical team, they run their offense and they don't take bad shots," Duke guard Rasheed Sulaimon said. "One thing about them is you have to stay disciplined all the way through the rebound. I thought a lot of times we stayed disciplined throughout the shot and then kind of [lapsed] a little bit on the rebounding. When you're playing a team like that you've got to finish the whole play out."
Conference expansion makes a return to the Tobacco Road-dominated ACC that much more unlikely. Syracuse won its first 25 games before stumbling down the stretch, and Jamie Dixon's Pittsburgh squad played Virginia tight in the conference semifinals. Reigning national champion Louisville, which enters the league next season, blew through the American Athletic Conference tournament like a tornado.
"I mean, [the ACC is] the best conference in America," guard Quinn Cook said. "People can say the Big 12, the Big Ten, no disrespect to them but... there's never a consistent winner."
The chance to play against elite competition is what draws players like Sulaimon to Durham. They know that year in, year out, they'll have a chance to compete for titles, even though the conference's improvement has made that path increasingly more difficult.
"Now that the ACC is expanding too with more teams coming in, it just makes the tournament that much better," Sulaimon said. "I signed up for Duke to come here and win ACC championships and national championships. It hurts for us to not win [today] but we've got another chance to win the big thing."