Forty years ago in the ACC tournament finals, the North Carolina State Wolfpack and the University of Maryland Terrapins played a game that experts generally consider the best ever played in conference history. NC State was ranked number one in the country and Maryland was close behind at number four. The game was so memorable not only for the exceptional quality of play but also for the magnitude of the stakes. At that time, only one team per conference qualified for the NCAA tournament, and winning the ACC tournament was essential to compete for the national championship.
It’s important for Heels fans to remember what Lucas tells us in ‘Carolina Basketball’: while the ACC tournament is important to fans and programs for many reasons, winning on Sunday doesn’t necessarily lead to ultimate success at end of season. Of the last three Tar Heels’ NCAA championship runs, none started by winning the ACC tournament.
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The ACC benefited from the economic growth and unprecedented prosperity in the South after World War II. Southerners generally had more disposable income than ever and many used it to attend basketball games at ACC schools, or at least to buy television sets that broadcast ACC games. Further, the stronger economic status of Southern states encouraged much-needed improvements in education, including the allocation of greater resources to public universities. One result was that members of the ACC took steps to upgrade their academic programs and prestige. Another result was the ability of several ACC schools to build modern basketball arenas.
The first two decades of ACC basketball laid the foundations for the success on a national stage that the league has enjoyed ever since.