CHARLOTTE — Notre Dame coach Mike Brey traveled around the country, from gym to gym, and he said the conversation followed him everywhere he went. He was on the road this summer, like he is every summer, to scout high school prospects at events where coaches gather and gossip and talk college basketball.
There in the bleachers, Brey said, the topic inevitably arose. Conversations about Duke sharing the same conference real estate as Syracuse. Discussions of North Carolina being joined by Pitt and Notre Dame. At times, Brey said, it was all any college coach in the country could talk about the new ACC, perhaps better than ever.
Coaches from SEC, the Big Ten, the Big 12, the Pac-12 sit them in the bleachers somewhere (and they were saying), Man, that league, Brey said. Theyre not talking about their league. Theyre going to be watching us as much as their own league. Thats what the Big East was the last couple of years.
Everybody turned us on What the hecks going on up there? I think that has translated to the ACC now.
Brey recounted those bleacher talks on Wednesday at the ACCs annual preseason basketball media day. It had been a long time coming.
The arrival of Syracuse and Pitt had been years in the making, and already those schools have started ACC competition in football and other sports. The ACC announced the addition of Notre Dame a little more than a year ago. They all came together at the conferences first formal basketball event of the year.
When the leagues head coaches met with reporters, there was Dukes Mike Krzyzewski sitting at a table in one corner across the room from Brey, who once served as one of Krzyzewskis assistants at Duke. Later, Roy Williams, the North Carolina coach, sat across the way from Jim Boeheim, the Syracuse coach.
The ACC has never lacked star power among its coaches, dating to the days of Everett Case and Frank McGuire to now, with three Hall of Famers coaching in the league and another, Louisvilles Rick Pitino, set to join next season.
While Williams said without hesitation that the ACC was now the best basketball conference in the country, Boeheim cracked some one-liners, and also tried to diffuse a controversy he ignited last March when he implied that he might find no better place to eat than Dennys when Syracuse comes to Greensboro for the ACC tournament.
They're jokes, Boeheim said. People sometimes think I'm serious and I'm not. They're just jokes. It's just like the ACC tournament. I don't care where they play it. I don't go out, I don't shop. I try to coach the game and get ready for the next day.
In some ways, this was all new to Boeheim. New faces surrounded him. He spoke of facing new opponents, and the challenges that come with that. In other ways this was the same old, same old. He said at one point, joking, that ACC media day wasnt that much different from the one in the Big East: a waste of a day.
One thing was clear enough on Wednesday: Notre Dame, Pitt and Syracuse arent intimidated by their new surroundings. Nor should they be, based on the ACCs annual preseason media poll. Syracuse was picked to finish second, Notre Dame fifth and Pitt sixth.
C.J. Fair, Syracuses senior forward, said with confidence that Syracuse should be considered the favorite to win the ACC.
Were used to winning (in the Big East), he said. I think thats going to translate over.
Fair acknowledged that his sense of confidence comes with unease about unfamiliarity. He hasnt experienced the final moments of a tense game inside Dukes Cameron Indoor Stadium, where Syracuse plays on Feb. 22. Outside of Notre Dame and Pitt, he doesnt know the tendencies and styles, strengths and weaknesses of the ACCs other 12 teams.
The same goes for those 12 teams. It will be an adjustment to play against Pitts physical style, and Syracuses vaunted zone defense.
That zone, Jerian Grant, Notre Dame senior guard, said of Syracuse. I feel like its really going to run through the ACC a little bit. If youre not used to that, its really troubling. It showed them making it to the Final Four last year playing against that zone without being able to really study it is going to be tough.
Grant, a second-team All-Big East selection a season ago, grew up in Maryland and his brother and uncle, Horace Grant, played at Clemson. And so the younger Grant understands the culture of ACC basketball, and how Notre Dame might fit in.
The road games no matter where youre playing, those arenas are going to be really loud, Grant said. And theyre going to have a great home crowd. Going to my brothers Clemson games a few times, Ive seen how those fans were, and its exciting. The Maryland games, I got to go to a few of them.
Grant is anticipating playing amid new environments, yet he will miss playing in Madison Square Garden, which was the longtime home of the Big East tournament. There are no more road trips to Connecticut and Georgetown and other places where memories were made.
It will take time to forge new rivalries. Players from Notre Dame, Pitt and Syracuse spent part of Wednesday reminiscing. Yet the day wasnt so much about the past as it was about the future and what the ACC will become this season and next, after Louisville replaces Maryland, which is departing for the Big Ten.
During his days as an assistant coach at Duke, Brey experienced his share of losses against North Carolina. After those games, Brey said, he would tell his son then in elementary school to prepare to catch grief from classmates who were Tar Heels fans.
Duke and Carolina is always going to be Duke and Carolina in this league, Brey said. I can say that. I lived it. Ive been there, done that. But you know what with whats coming into the league and with whats brewing, I think you have a lot of programs really trending up. Theres going to be a lot more to watch than Carolina and Duke.
And so a sense of giddiness prevailed on Wednesday. It was a vibe similar to one that exists in football in the SEC, which knows its the best league in the land and doesnt apologize for it. Some coaches on Wednesday spoke with a sense of fear of how difficult the ACC will be.
But this might just be the beginning.
Certainly, potentially, this league has every chance to be the best basketball league ever, Boeheim said. I think that's true. But I still kind of think, let's go out and prove it rather than talk about it.