The ACC Did It!

The ACC did it! The ACC is in the Final Four! The ACC is in the Final Four!

Well, not the entire ACC. Just the teams from Maryland and Notre Dame.

There’s also some question whether those two teams truly represent the ACC, unlike North Carolina, which fell in a regional final on Stanford’s home court. Frankly it’s difficult to imagine either Maryland’s Brenda Frese or Notre Dame’s Muffet McGraw crowing about the prowess of the ACC, which had five teams in the top 20 in mid-March in both the AP and USA Today Coaches polls.

Second-ranked Notre Dame is in its inaugural conference season. Maryland is in its last ACC incarnation after a 61-year stay. They are the yin and yang of ACC basketball. 

But they are in the ACC. 

We may ache to give the ungrateful Terrapins a shove out the door, but for now the name “ACC” remains affixed to the backs of the players’ jerseys.

If you hadn’t realized the ACC commanded half the berths in the Final Four, it’s because we’re talking women’s basketball, the variety the vast majority of ACC print media ignore and privately disparage. Widespread discussion of the league’s failure to reach the Final Four for the fourth consecutive season assuredly, if tacitly, focused on the men. 

Actually the focus is almost always on the men. In common media parlance, basketball and men are synonymous. There are multiple reasons for this, history and stylistic preference foremost among them. 

Besides, disappointing as the ACC men have been recently in reaching the Final Four, the women have been worse. This is the first time since North Carolina in 2007 that an ACC women’s squad got as far as the national semifinals. 

Nor has any ACC women’s team won an NCAA title since 2006, when Maryland rallied to defeat Duke in overtime in the national championship contest. North Carolina also won in 1994. 

We’ll find out soon enough if this season marks a rebound for ACC women’s basketball, or just a happy confluence of circumstances. Next year the level of play shouldn’t decline; the league replaces Maryland with Louisville, which fell to the Terps in the regional final and reached last season’s NCAA title game.

On the other side of the ledger, the ACC men appear to be suffering a swoon of historic dimension. This is actually a bit deceiving, however, as misfortune has played a key role.

There’s no denying that untimely injuries are part of the game – the Notre Dame women just lost forward Natalie Achonwa to a torn ACL in her left knee. Achonwa is the Irish’s top rebounder, most accurate shooter, and third-leading scorer. 

As a result, Maryland has an improved chance of reaching the title game behind 2014 ACC Player of the Year Alyssa Thomas, a powerful post presence (18.6 points, 10.9 rebounds) and the sister of Devin Thomas, the Wake Forest center.

Working in Notre Dame’s favor, this is its fourth straight appearance in the Final Four, significantly reducing the awe factor that often derails a squad such as Maryland. That there’s no substitute for experience is more than a cliché when it comes to handling the scrutiny of functioning on the game’s biggest stage. 

Still, even if McGraw can steer her team to the championship game, Achonwa’s injury takes some of the luster off a potential matchup between a healthy, undefeated UConn and the undefeated Irish.

Meanwhile the men recently have fallen by the conversational and competitive wayside in part due to injuries. The broken wrist that sidelined UNC’s Kendall Marshall in 2012, incurred during the NCAAs, was as untimely as Achonwa’s. 

Then there was Duke in 2010-11, which lost freshman playmaker Kyrie Irving to a big toe injury after winning its first eight games. That eventually derailed a team which Mike Krzyzewski recently counted among the seven he coached in the past 15 years that were capable of making an NCAA title run. 

The ’11 Blue Devils bore an unfortunate resemblance to UNC in 1984, when freshman guard Kenny Smith recovered from a January wrist injury and rejoined the lineup late in the year. Like Smith, Irving returned for the NCAAs, only to fatally disrupt the rhythms of a superior squad that had recovered its equilibrium without him.

This season, while the men had no such excuses, Notre Dame’s women can offer a similar explanation for falling short of a pinnacle achievement. Hopefully neither they nor Maryland will need it.