SAVING GRACE: Florida State, Syracuese come to ACC’s rescue in year of NCAA tournament struggles

By Richard Walker

An annual rite of passage for many Carolinas sports reporters is to see and hear about the unparalleled tradition ACC basketball tradition every October when the league hosts its annual Operation Basketball kickoff event in Charlotte.

Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton, a Gastonia native, talks to the media after the Seminoles advanced to the Sweet 16.

Certainly the ACC has much to brag about as five current members and one former member have combined to win 18 national titles, two others have advanced to champoinship games, the league has had at least one Sweet 16 participant every year since 1980 and hasn’t had a cumulative losing NCAA tournament record since 1987.

Perhaps the fact the COVID pandemic forced this year’s event to be held virtually, the earth feel off its axis as the ACC is in the midst of one of its most unusual seasons in history.

How strange?

After a regular season in which 29 league games were cancelled due to COVID, two more games were cancelled in the league tournament as perennial powers Duke and then Virginia withdrew from the event due to COVID issues within their respective programs.

Duke’s withdrawal ended up being an inglorious end to the first season since 1995 the Blue Devils haven’t played in the NCAA tournament.

That, too, proved to be a harbinger of things to come.

The Big Four schools of Duke, North Carolina, N.C. State and Wake Forest have combined to win 53 of the league’s first 66 tournaments had arguably their worst season in the history of the league.

Only North Carolina advanced to the ACC tournament semifinals and the Tar Heels also were the lone NCAA tournament qualifier from the group.

But even that was marked by historic defeat as the Tar Heels were beaten by Wisconsin in the first round for North Carolina’s first opening round tournament defeat since 1999 – and coach Roy Williams first opening round NCAA tourney loss of his career; Williams had won all 14 first round games he coached at Kansas and the first 15 he coached at North Carolina

North Carolina’s struggles were mirrored by ACC rivals Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, Clemson and Virginia as each of those five schools lost in the opening round.

It was the most first round NCAA tournament losses by ACC schools in history.

Their quick exits also threatened one long ACC streak and have threatened another streak.

So who saved the ACC’s good name?

Florida State and coach Leonard Hamilton, a Gastonia native, and Syracuse and another veteran coach, Jim Boeheim.

And Florida State and Syracuse have a chance to keep the league’s streak of consecutive winning tournament records intact.

By advancing to the Sweet 16, the Seminoles and Orange extened league’s streak of having a Sweet 16 team to 41 tournaments.

To extend the league’e Elite Eight streak to 14 tournaments will be a challenge.

Coach Hamilton, a former Gastonia Highland High and Gaston College basketball standout, suffered a torn left Achilles shortly before the tournament began when he fell while getting off the team bus on the Sunday night after NCAA tournament pairings were announced.

Now wearing a protective boot on his left foot, Hamilton’s team has defeated UNC-Greensboro and Colorado so far in this year’s tournament to make the Seminoles’ third straight Sweet 16.

To advance to the Elite Eight will be a challenge as fourth-seeded Florida State (18-6) faces top-seeded Michigan (22-4) in an East regional semifinal on Sunday at 5 p.m.

Syracuse, which has beaten San Diego State and West Virginia in the tournament, also faces a challenge as the No. 11 seed Orange (18-9) meet No. 2 Houston (26-3) on Friday at 9:55 p.m. in a South regional semifinal.

With a current 4-5 cumulative tournament record, the league will need wins from both teams in the regional semifinals and at least one more win to ensure a winning record.

Can they do it?

In this most unusual of seasons, it’s impossible to know.