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ACC membership already paying great dividends for U of L athletics

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The UofL baseball team became the first squad in the history of the ACC to notch 25 conference wins in a single season when it knocked off NC State 8-5 in the regular season finale for both teams last Sunday. The Cards became the first team other than Florida State to win the ACC's Atlantic Division in nine years, finishing a full eight games ahead of both the Seminoles and Notre Dame.

Dan McDonnell's guys made even more history by becoming the first Louisville team to capture an ACC conference title, a fact which might surprise UofL fans who watched Cardinal teams rack up 12 regular season or tournament championships in the American Athletic Conference a year ago. The ACC is not the AAC, and despite the decrease in titles, that's a good thing.

Conference championship trophies are great when it comes to making shelves and cases in athletic buildings look pretty, but Louisville has its sights set higher these days, and the Atlantic Coast Conference is already proving that it is and will continue to be the perfect home to pursue these ambitions.

Take Cardinal football, for example. In 2013, Teddy Bridgewater and company rolled through the regular season to an 11-1 record, their only loss coming by a field goal to a Central Florida team that would finish 12-1 after upsetting No. 6 Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl. UofL's reward for this effort? A trip to the Russell Athletic Bowl to hammer a Miami team that had lost three of its last five and entered the game unranked by the Associated Press.

That might have been one of the best Louisville football teams of all-time -- an assertion backed up by the fact that three players from the team wound up being selected in the first round of the NFL Draft -- but no one will ever know for sure because of the awful schedule hand it was dealt.

Contrast that season to the one UofL finished last fall. The Cards were tested with road tilts against Clemson and Notre Dame, they hosted unbeaten defending national champion Florida State, they slipped up against a bad Virginia team but held serve against the rest of the ACC. When all was said and done, Louisville had been beaten three times, but was still rewarded with the opportunity to spend its postseason preparing for a Georgia team that had spent the bulk of the year ranked in the top 10.

The evidence is just as overwhelming in men's basketball, where conference affiliation also played a major role in one of the greatest "what-ifs" in program history two seasons ago.

According to just about every advanced statistic available on the Internet, the 2013-14 Louisville basketball team was the best in the country. They led the nation in margin of victory, won their three AAC Tournament games by a combined 100 points, and carried a sparkling 29-5 record into the NCAA Tournament. The Selection Committee rewarded those accomplishments with a somewhat shocking No. 4 seed, and a spot in the most loaded region that college basketball fans have seen in recent years. You know how it ended.

Louisville didn't win a game in the 2015 ACC Tournament, it lost more games in conference play than it did overall the year before, and it had fewer wins against top 25 opponents than the Russ Smith-led squad of 2013-14 had. Despite all this, the Cards were again dealt a No. 4 seed, and were given a draw that allowed them to be one made free-throw away from crashing the Final Four for the third time in four years.

Baseball is next up, and not only do the Cardinals seem like a lock to earn the second NCAA Tournament national seed in program history, but there's a chance they could be the tournament's No. 1 overall seed. That's not possible without the ACC.

Listing Tom Jurich's accomplishments since he arrived at Louisville would be enough to fill this column's space for the next month, but he may not have done any work more significant than the miracle he pulled off during those 11 days in November of 2012. In successfully moving UofL from conference purgatory to the ACC, Jurich provided each one of his programs with the ultimate vehicle for success. Cardinal teams across the board are already cashing in.

This column runs in the current issue of The Voice-Tribune