2024 ACC Tournament History Reminder:
NCAA Bubble Dreams Have Died/Thrived There

By David Glenn
North Carolina Sports Network

Seemingly every year, for at least the last four decades, one or more Atlantic Coast Conference teams have been seen as NCAA Tournament “bubble teams” while the ACC Tournament has been contested.

This week, at least three ACC squads have been discussed in such terms, with Virginia often projected among the “Last Four In” by bracketologists and Pittsburgh and Wake Forest often listed among the “First Four Out,” meaning only some level of success this week in Washington, D.C., will put any of them in a more comfortable position for an at-large invitation to the Big Dance.

This 2024 scenario raises an interesting question: Have there been actual examples of teams using the ACC Tournament to clinch a spot in the Big Dance?

The short answer: yes, but probably not as many as you might think.

There are no official records on such things, of course, and the NCAA selection committee typically doesn’t answer those sorts of specific questions, so what’s left is educated speculation.

Going back to 1985, the first year of the 64-team (now 68-team) NCAA Tournament, there are at least six ACC teams that arguably went from the wrong side to the right side of the bubble just in time for Selection Sunday.

The first clear-cut example during that period was NC State in 1987. Even after winning the ACC Tournament, following a sixth-place regular-season finish in an eight-team league, the Wolfpack was just a #11 NCAA seed. (The final at-large selections typically receive #11 or #12 seeds.) Oddly, State has not won a single ACC Tournament in the 37 years since that landmark success story under legendary coach Jim Valvano.

The most recent example also was an ACC champion. Just two years ago, in 2022, Virginia Tech entered the ACC Tournament in Brooklyn clearly on the wrong side of the NCAA bubble. The seventh-seeded Hokies then won four games in four days, becoming the lowest seed ever to win the event and, of course, clinching the automatic NCAA Tournament bid that comes with that accomplishment.

During the 34 years in between, only four ACC teams earned at-large NCAA Tournament bids and became double-digit (meaning very low) seeds soon after posting multiple victories, including one over a nationally ranked opponent, at the ACC Tournament: 2005 NC State (#10 seed), 2009 Maryland (#10 seed), 2010 Georgia Tech (#10 seed) and 2014 NC State (#12 seed).

This week in D.C., both the Demon Deacons and the Panthers are trying to add their names to that relatively short list. Interestingly, if Wake can beat the Georgia Tech-Notre Dame winner on Wednesday, it would face Pitt in the quarterfinals on Thursday. The survivor of that game could get a shot at top-seeded UNC in the semifinals on Friday, while the loser of that potential Pitt-Wake game likely would remain stuck on the wrong side of the NCAA bubble.

Virginia, while on the right side of these NCAA Tournament conversations in most current projections, likely would certify that status by posting just a single victory on Thursday in the ACC quarterfinals.

ACC Tournament Bubble Jumpers

Year—Team, Coach, NCAA Seed, Key Win(s) At ACC Tournament
1987—NC State*, Jim Valvano, 11 seed, #14 Duke/#2 UNC
2005—NC State, Herb Sendek, 10 seed, #3 Wake Forest
2009—Maryland, Gary Williams, 10 seed, #8 Wake Forest
2010—Georgia Tech, Paul Hewitt, 10 seed, #19 Maryland
2014—NC State, Mark Gottfried, 12 seed, #11 Syracuse
2022—Virginia Tech*, Mike Young, 11 seed, #25 UNC/#7 Duke

*-automatic bid (ACC champions)

One final historical footnote: Among the ACC’s six teams that were documented ACC Tournament “bubble jumpers,” only one had significant success in the NCAA Tournament.

The 2005 Wolfpack, led by senior guard Julius Hodge, the 2004 ACC Player of the Year, advanced to the Sweet 16.

The surprise ACC champions from the list above, 1987 NC State and 2022 Virginia Tech, both lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.