NEW ORLEANS – I have covered Southeastern Conference basketball regularly since 1989 and watched it on television since the 1970s.
At times, it could be as impressive as any league in the country, but most of the time – not quite the Atlantic Coast Conference.
In the end, that is the case overwhelmingly again this season as ACC traditional powers No. 2 seed Duke (32-6) and No. 8 seed North Carolina (28-9) play in the Final Four main event Saturday night (8:49 p.m. eastern, TBS) at the Superdome in the first NCAA duel between the two programs.
No. 2 seed Villanova (30-7) and No. 1 seed Kansas (32-6) play the opener (6:09 p.m., TBS).
In November and through early March, the SEC was seen as the top league in the nation or close to it with Auburn and Kentucky in the top 10 for most of the season and Tennessee and Arkansas ranked. Kentucky and Tennessee each blew out North Carolina before conference play began – 98-69 and 89-72, respectively. And Alabama beat ACC member Miami, 96-64.
The ACC put its fewest teams in the NCAA Tournament since 2013 with just five – Duke, North Carolina, Miami, Virginia Tech and Notre Dame, which had to win a play-in game. The SEC also put in five – Auburn, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas and LSU without a play-in. So even, right, or SEC better?
The ACC proceeded to collect 14 wins over the Big 6, which is the ACC, SEC, Big 12, Pac-12, Big 10 and Big East conferences, on its way to putting three teams in the Elite Eight and two in the Final Four. The SEC had exactly zero wins in the NCAA Tournament against the Big 6. And everyone exited the first weekend other than Arkansas, which beat No. 1 seed Gonzaga of the lightly regarded West Coast Conference and reached the Elite Eight.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski was asked Friday about a conference seen as “deteriorating” earlier in the season and if he was surprised at how well the ACC did in the NCAA Tournament. The question came from a news outlet that covers an SEC school.
Coach K said he was surprised “that we didn’t get more in” the NCAA Tournament.
Krzyzewski pointed that the NCAA Selection Committee may have put too much weight on the early season. Fans and media sure did.
“You don’t know your course better at the beginning than you do at the end,” he said, speaking of academics.
Some things do not change. The ACC remains No. 1.
Even when Shaquille O’Neal was at LSU from 1989-92, and dominated opponents before becoming an NBA legend, the SEC couldn’t match the ACC. Duke and center Christian Laettner toyed with the Shaq and the Tigers twice, winning 88-70 at home in Cameron Indoor Stadium in 1991 and beating the Tigers, 77-67, in Baton Rouge as the No. 1 team in 1992.
Duke was No. 4 in the first game and No. 1 in the second game and went on to win Krzyzewski’s first two national championships in each season.
The closest O’Neal got to a Final Four was the second round of the NCAA Tournament in 1990 and 1992. At the time, Kentucky – the only real ACC-team in the SEC for most of history – had not been to the Final Four since 1984 and had not won a national title since 1978. Arkansas reached the Final Four in 1994 and won the national title, but it was a newbie to the league, having just joined in 1992. Doesn’t count. Florida did reach a Final Four in 1994.
Meanwhile, the ACC dominated the 1990s with the national titles by Duke in 1991 and ’92 and North Carolina in 1993.
I remember watching many Duke-North Carolina games on TV at this time before or after I went to an SEC game and thinking to myself, “Jesus, that’s just another world,” as the fans at Cameron Indoor seemed to come out of the set.
Oh, and here’s North Carolina’s Eric Montross bleeding from his eye against Duke on Feb. 5, 1992, at the Dean Smith Center. No. 9 North Carolina won a slugfest, 75-73, in the “Bloody Montross” game as he scored 12 points with 10 rebounds and three blocked shots.
Now, Kentucky won national championships in 1996 and 1998, and Florida won titles in 2006 and ’07. But the ACC still just seemed like another world on the television.
I’m watching CBS on March 4, 2007, and, oh, here’s North Carolina’s Tyler Hansbrough bleeding from a broken nose from the elbow of Duke’s Gerald Henderson. Hansbrough scored 26 with 17 rebounds in an 86-72 Tar Heels’ win. Henderson got tossed.
What a league!
Duke won another title in 2001. Maryland won it in 2002. North Carolina won two more in 2005 and ’09, and Duke won it in 2010 and 2015. Then North Carolina got another one in 2017 and Virginia in 2019.
From 2008 through 2022, the SEC’s only national championship was Kentucky’s in 2012.
The biggest gap between the ACC and the SEC is the fact that the SEC has nothing close to North Carolina-Duke. Kentucky-Arkansas was something, but only briefly in the 1990s.
Just watch tonight’s game in the heart of SEC country to see how the other half plays.
“It’s the greatest rivalry of all time,” Duke junior forward Wendell Moore Jr. said Friday. “That’s really the only way you can put it.”
Yes, Duke-North Carolina in basketball is Alabama-Auburn in football, but Auburn is not close in football to the level of Duke and/or North Carolina in basketball.
“I have never seen anything else like it,” Moore said. “Growing up in Charlotte, I watched every single Duke-North Carolina game that I could. Every single one of them has been an amazing game. I was glued to the TV from start to finish. That’s really the best way I can explain it. It’s iconic.”
Moore was asked what he would name a movie depicting the Duke-North Carolina rivalry. He struggled.
“So much emotion every single game,” he said. “It’s really just legendary.”
The retiring Krzyzewski summed it up best before his last ever Duke-North Carolina game:
“It would be more of an album or a set than a song,” he said.
Or “Die Hard” would work.
So would, “There Will Be Blood.”