The college basketball season came to an abrupt and surprising end two weeks ago in the middle of the ACC Tournament. Games came to a sudden conclusion minutes before the ACC quarterfinals were scheduled to begin, all in an attempt to control the spread of the coronavirus. Within hours, the NCAA Tournament was also canceled.
All told, the final 272 games of the college basketball season, the ones that would determine the champions of the various power conferences, as well as college basketball itself, were called off.
Some of the impacts of the decision are obvious: Fans, alumni and office pool gamblers were deprived of the annual experience of March Madness. Seniors and likely NBA Draft entrants were denied one last chance to cut down the nets.
The unique ending to the season created some situations not seen in a generation — or longer — with some of North Carolina’s teams.
Duke, for instance, was scheduled to play its first ACC Tournament game a couple hours after the decision to cancel came down. The Blue Devils had received a double-bye in the tournament after finishing in the top four in the regular season standings, allowing Duke to sit out the first two days — the only two days, as it would turn out — of the event.
That means that the last game of Duke’s season was a win over North Carolina on Senior Night at Cameron Indoor Stadium the previous Saturday.
Duke ending its season with a win is nothing new. The Blue Devils have done it five previous times since Mike Krzyzewski became coach. Of course, those incidences came following national championships for Duke in 1991, 1992, 2001, 2010 and 2015.
The last time Duke ended its season with a win but didn’t take home the NCAA title was back in 1966. The Blue Devils made the Final Four that year under coach Vic Bubas and lost in the national semifinals, 83-79 to Kentucky. Back then, the two losing Final Four teams played in a consolation game to determine the third-place team prior to the national championship game. Duke beat Utah 79‑77 in that contest.
Duke also beat Oregon State in the Final Four consolation game in 1963.
Before that, we go into the pre-ACC era when Duke won the Southern Conference Tournament but didn’t get an invitation to the NCAA or NIT tournaments a total of four times — 1941, 1942, 1944 and 1946. Twice, 1941 and 1946, UNC received a bid to the eight-team NCAA despite losing in the SoCon Tournament.
In 1938, there was no NCAA Tournament, so Duke’s season ended with a Southern Conference Tournament title.
To find the last time Duke ended on a win without playing in the postseason, you’d have to go all the way back to 1928, when Duke capped a 9-5 regular season with a win over Davidson.
Duke is the last in-state ACC team to end a non-NCAA championship season with a win since Wake Forest won the 2000 NIT.
NC State also closed its season with a win, the Wolfpack’s coming in the ACC Tournament second round. That’s the first time the Wolfpack has gone out on a high note since the 1983 champions. Prior to that, it was 1976, when State lost in the NIT semifinals then won the third-place consolation game over Providence. It was the third time in four years State had ended with a win. The Wolfpack won the 1974 national title and won the ACC Tournament in 1973 but was ineligible for the NCAAs.
In 1973, UNC also ended with a win, beating Alabama in the NIT consolation game for third place. That was the last time before this year (Duke and State) that a pair of North Carolina ACC teams went out with a win.
Carolina did it four times in a five-year stretch that included that 1973 season. The Tar Heels won the 1971 NIT, went to the NCAA Final Four in 1972 and won the third-place consolation over Louisville, and won a consolation game over Boston College in the East Regional after missing a shot at the Final Four in 1975.
The last time two of the four ACC teams in the state went out with a win prior to 1973 was several years before the birth of the ACC — 1945. UNC won the Southern Conference Tournament and didn’t get an NCAA bid. Wake Forest went 0-6 and finished 13th in the Southern Conference, which apparently kept it from getting invited to the SoCon Tournament. So the Deacs finished the year with a regular season win over Atlantic Christian.
While the end to the basketball season was a first for all of us, the finish to the year takes us back into the early days of Tobacco Road basketball.