Unexpected ACC Championship? Depends On Who You Ask

Miami's Reggie Johnson wasn't shy about his expectations for this season.
Miami’s Reggie Johnson wasn’t shy about his expectations for this season.

Of course Miami and North Carolina will meet in the ACC Tournament Championship.  Who else were you expecting?

When this college basketball season started in November, the ACC favorites were NC State.  Returning starters from a Sweet Sixteen run, the Wolfpack were the hot pick to claim conference superiority.  North Carolina, having lost four starters, was projected to finish third by the media.  Miami was slotted fifth.

The Hurricanes lurked under the radar through non-conference play, thanks to an early loss to a Florida Gulf Coast team that ultimately punched a ticket to the NCAA Tournament by winning the Atlantic Sun Conference tournament.  NC State also suffered losses to Oklahoma State and Michigan, turning the national spotlight to a Duke team that started the season 15-0.

Even when Duke finally lost, it was to NC State in a thrilling contest in Raleigh.  Miami truly wouldn’t catch the eye of many people watching basketball for another week and a half, when the Hurricanes dominated Duke in Coral Gables to get to 5-0 in ACC contests.

Reggie Johnson tried telling us in October that Miami would be a dangerous team in March.  “We’re going to win big,” he said.. “I’m sorry if I sound cocky or whatever it sounds, but I think we’re going to win big. That’s my mindset.”

Not many paid any attention to it, of course.  The win over Duke forced people to take notice, and Miami would go on to win the ACC regular season championship before defeating Boston College and NC State in Greensboro this weekend.

When Dexter Strickland spoke in October, however, everyone knew about it.  The Tar Heel senior took umbrage to all the talk of NC State during the preseason, a team that North Carolina had beaten 13 consecutive times.  “They talk those guys up every single year and we beat them every single year,” Strickland said. “They are the least of our worries. Beat us one year and then they can talk smack. Until then, you can’t put them in the mix.”

NC State did beat the Tar Heels in January to end that skid.  At that point, when Miami’s star was shining bright, everyone wondered what was wrong with North Carolina.  UNC struggled mightily through non-conference play, with ugly losses to Indiana, Butler, and Texas.  They followed it with an 0-2 start to ACC action, and the loss to NC State made the Heels 3-3.

Roy Williams needed to retire. North Carolina was NIT-bound. The 2013 season was going to be a disaster of biblical proportions.

Then a funny thing happened: North Carolina started winning. Following an 87-61 loss to Miami, the Tar Heels “went small,” bringing P.J. Hairston into the starting lineup in favor of a rotation of centers.  In the small lineup’s first game, Duke defeated North Carolina, but the team’s offensive production was much improved.  The lineup stuck, winning the next seven games.  Suddenly, the coach who needed to retire in January was getting tossed around loosely for ACC Coach of the Year.

North Carolina finished the regular season third in the conference, just where they were projected.  The difference, of course, was that Miami was first instead of NC State.  Strickland was right.  The Tar Heels finished the regular season ahead of the Wolfpack, and outlasted them by defeating Maryland in the ACC semifinals while NC State lost to Miami.

Now, the Heels will get a chance to deploy their hot lineup against the last team to beat the “old” North Carolina team.  While this is Miami’s first appearance in the title game since joining the ACC, It marks the third consecutive season that North Carolina has played in the ACC Championship, but the Tar Heels lost in both 2011 and 2012.  The 2011 title game was a Duke rout, while a senior-laden Florida State squad (much like this year’s Miami team) took an 85-82 win last year.

So maybe this matchup isn’t the one most people expected in the preseason.  It’s not because we weren’t warned, though.

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