But as the ACC tournament turns 40 this week, the high wire is long gone. Not only will the team that emerges as champion Sunday at the Charlotte Coliseum play on in next week's NCAA tournament, but so will at least five others.
Top-seeded and top-ranked North Carolina (26-3), barring an unexpected loss in today's quarterfinal against Maryland (12-15), has secured the No. 1 seed in the East Regional. Duke, Florida State, Wake Forest, Virginia and Georgia Tech will also get bids.
So while seventh-seeded Clemson (15-11) and the Terrapins need to win the whole thing just to qualify, those with invitations secured will have to look for other motivation. And they seem to be getting it from a variety of sources. "We've got a number of reasons to play," said Wake Forest coach Dave Odom, whose fourth-seeded, 12th-ranked, 19-7 Demon Deacons play fifth-seeded Virginia (18-8) in the first game at noon. "We haven't won a first round or tournament game of any kind in six years."
The Cavaliers only have to look back a little over a month to find their catalyst for extending Wake Forest's ACC tournament losing streak to seven years. Virginia lost a pair of two-point games to the Demon Deacons, including one in Winston-Salem, N.C., where it had five shots in the final 12 seconds to win.
Virginia hasn't exactly come into the tournament on a roll. The Cavaliers, after a 9-0 start overall and a 4-0 start in the league, had lost three straight ACC games before beating Maryland on Saturday. They blew nearly all of a 20-point lead -- the Terps cut it to six -- before padding the final margin out to 14 points.
"We'd like to get to the championship game," said Virginia coach Jeff Jones. "There's plenty of motivation for us. In the back of our minds, we remembered in the preseason what people were saying about us. So we want to continue winning, and we want to prove our critics wrong."
It figures that Florida State's motivation is more individual than collective, since the second-seeded Seminoles often play that way. But seniors Sam Cassell and Douglas Edwards have critics to silence, too: those who left them off the ACC's first team.
Both were worthy. But the provincial power of the North Carolina voting bloc saw fit to select five in-state players: Wake Forest's Rodney Rogers, Duke's Bobby Hurley and Grant Hill, along with North Carolina's Eric Montross and George Lynch.
"It's a respect thing," said Cassell, the 6-foot-3 guard from Baltimore, who along with Edwards and teammate Bobby Sura were named to the second team. "We feel as a unit that we're not getting the respect we deserve. We have to go out, have fun and get some more respect."
Said Florida State coach Pat Kennedy, whose 10th-ranked Seminoles (22-8) play Clemson tonight at 7: "If that's their motivation, they're keeping it inside of them. Our losing to Duke and North Carolina back-to-back can be a motivating factor. There's a lot of them."
There certainly is for Duke, the tournament's defending champion and the nation's two-time defending champion. For many teams, a 23-6 record and a No. 8 national ranking would be reason to celebrate. But the Blue Devils, coming off an 83-69 defeat at North Carolina Sunday, are looking to regroup.
With junior forward Grant Hill back in the lineup after missing six games with a sprained big toe on his left foot, Duke will play in the last game tonight against Georgia Tech (16-10). The Yellow Jackets knocked the Blue Devils out of the No. 1 spot earlier this season, and Duke's current ranking is the lowest it has been in a couple of years.
"Because we've lost six games, the expectations to win are down," said senior forward Thomas Hill. "So we can use that to our advantage."
PD It's better than jumping off the high wire without a safety net.