Friedlander: Looking back at the ACC's 5 most unlikely Final Four teams
Miami will almost certainly be portrayed by CBS and others around the nation as a surprise participant in the most surprising collection of Final Four teams in the event’s 84-year history.
But that’s only because the Hurricanes, as the No. 5 seed in the Midwest Region, were so undervalued by the committee that filled out the bracket 3 weeks ago.
As the regular-season co-champion of a Power 5 conference that advanced as far as the Elite 8 a year ago, coach Jim Larrañaga’s team can’t be lumped into the same category as mid-major upstarts Florida Atlantic and San Diego State.
They’re not even the most unlikely Final Four team in ACC history.
Not even close.
For comparison sake, here’s a look back at 5 conference teams that defied the longest odds to crash college basketball’s biggest party. Including 1 memorable squad that shocked the world and won the whole thing.
5. NC State 1983
Coach Jim Valvano’s Cardiac Pack is generally considered the biggest underdog ever to win an NCAA championship.
And their victory was a shocker.
For one thing, they had to win the ACC Tournament just to ensure their spot in the NCAA bracket. Then, as the No. 6 seed in the West Region, they had to stage several miracle comebacks just to survive and advance out of the early rounds.
Then after beating Virginia and 3-time national Player of the Year Ralph Sampson for the 2nd time in 3 weeks to get to the Final Four, they were matched in the title game against a Houston team led by 2 future Hall of Famers and considered one of the greatest college teams ever assembled.
You’re probably wondering why the Wolfpack aren’t higher on this list, based on the strength of their last-second victory – secured on the dunk by Lorenzo Charles. It’s because they weren’t as much of a Cinderella as they’ve been made out to be once top perimeter threat Dereck Whittenburg returned to the lineup after missing more than a month with an injury.
4. North Carolina 2000
The Tar Heels struggled through a regular season that saw them go 18-13, fall out of the national rankings for the 1st time in 172 weeks dating to the 1990-91 season and stumble into the NCAA Tournament as a No. 8 seed after losing 3 of their 4 previous games.
But somehow, they found some mgtic after losing to Wake Forest in the opening round of the ACC Tournament. Led by point guard Ed Cota, big man Brendan Haywood and future NFL star Julius Peppers, UNC beat Missouri in its NCAA opener before upsetting top-seeded Stanford. The Heels followed with wins against 4th-seeded Tennessee and No. 7 Tulsa to earn its 2nd Final Four trip in Bill Guthridge’s 3-year tenure as coach.
The Tar Heels lost to Florida in the national semifinals. But things would only get worse from there after Guthridge retired and was replaced by Matt Doherty.
3. North Carolina 2022
As was the case 22 years earlier, these Tar Heels were a pedestrian group for most of the 2022 season before catching fire at just the right time. They were projected to be on the wrong side of the NCAA bubble as late as Feb. 16 when they were beaten at home by lowly Pittsburgh.
That proved to be a turning point for rookie coach Hubert Davis’ team. They finished the regular season with 5 straight wins, including an emotional upset of arch-rival Duke in coach Mike Krzyzewski’s final game at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Then after going 1-1 at the ACC Tournament in Brooklyn, they rode the leadership of graduate transfer Brady Manek, the double-double consistency of Armando Bacot and the hot shooting of point guard Caleb Love all the way to the Final Four.
It’s a run that was aided by some incredible bracket luck. Their 2nd-round opponent, top-seeded Baylor, played without leading scorer LJ Cryer because of injury, and because of a series of upsets, they only needed to beat 15 seed St. Peter’s to get to the Final Four. Once there, they knocked off Duke again before squandering a 16-point lead to Kansas in the national championship game.
2. Syracuse 2016
The Orange, in their 3rd season as an ACC member, were 1 of the last teams selected to the NCAA Tournament field after going 19-13 and stumbling into the postseason with 4 losses in their final 5 games – including a first-round conference tourney ouster at the hands of Pittsburgh.
Seeded 10th in the Midwest Region, they benefited from a busted bracket that saw them matched against 15th-seeded Middle Tennessee State in the 2nd round and 11th-seeded Gonzaga in the Sweet 16. They then faced ACC rival Virginia, which despite being the region’s No. 1 seed, panicked in the 2nd half when Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim began pressing full-court.
Led by Malachi Richardson, who scored 21 of his 23 points after halftime, the Orange outscored UVA 29-8 down the stretch to erase a 16-point deficit and advance to the last of Boeheim’s 5 Final Fours. Their luck ran out in Houston, though, where another ACC team, UNC, ended their Cinderella run.
1. Virginia 1984
The Cavaliers’ championship window was supposed to have closed with the graduation of superstar center Sampson. But coach Terry Holland and his unheralded team, sparked by the trio of Othell Wilson, Rick Carlisle and Jim Miller surprised everyone by accomplishing the goal the previous year’s more talented team couldn’t.
Seeded 7th with an unimpressive record of 16-11, UVA beat Iona in the 1st round of the NCAA before stringing together upsets of the No. 2, 3 and 4 teams in their region – Arkansas, Syracuse and Indiana to reach the Final Four. There, they faced No. 2 Houston, a team looking for revenge after losing in the title game to another ACC underdog – NC State – in 1983.
The Cavaliers gave Hakeem Olajuwon and the Phi Slama Jama Cougars a good run for their money, taking them to overtime in the national semifinal. But they were unable to finish the job, losing 49-47 in what would be their last Final Four appearance until their national championship season of 2019.