ACC basketball is bigger and should be better than ever

lkeeley@newsobserver.comNovember 4, 2013 

— Back in the golden age of ACC basketball, before TV money blew up natural rivalries and football became the undisputed king, there was an eight-team league that was the best in the land.

From 1986 through ’89, the ACC landed three-fourths of the league – six teams – in the NCAA tournament on three occasions. Twice, four teams advanced to the Sweet 16, and three times one made it through to the Final Four.

“The ’80s in the ACC, I’m not sure you can get much better than that,” said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, who has been in the league since 1980.

This new 15-team ACC will do its best to measure up.

Thanks to the addition of Pittsburgh, Notre Dame and especially Syracuse, the ACC will be more basketball focused now than at any point this decade. With five ranked teams to begin the season – No.4 Duke, No.8 Syracuse, No.12 North Carolina, No.21 Notre Dame and No.24 Virginia – and two others receiving votes (Pittsburgh and Boston College) – the league is poised to be as deep as it has been since it expanded past nine teams.

That’s good news for everyone.

“You’re going to be able to steal bids in this league with the power in this league,” said Notre Dame coach Mike Brey. “But you have enough big games on your schedule that if you get one or two of them, they’re top 50, top 25 RPI wins. All of the sudden you’re 9-9 with a couple of those wins, all of the sudden, you’re on the board. You’re never dead in a league like this.”

The Irish, picked to finish fifth in the ACC, return four starters in guards Eric Atkins, (senior) preseason-all ACC pick Jerian Grant (senior), Pat Connaughton (junior) and forward Tom Knight (senior). Notre Dame will also bring one of the toughest home-court advantages in college basketball – over the past six seasons, the Irish are 111-8 (.933) at the Joyce Center.

ACC preseason favorite Duke will open its league schedule in South Bend, Ind., on Jan.4. Brey is well-acquainted with the Blue Devils, as he was one of Krzyzewski’s assistants in 1987-95.

“I am glad it’s in South Bend, and I have an advance weather report: there will be 4 feet of lake-effect snow when the guys from Durham get off the plane up there,” Brey said to laughs from reporters at the ACC’s media day last month. “Mike was a great mentor and still a good friend. I also know he likes to eat his young. I’m fully aware of what I’m getting into.”

The Blue Devils will make trips to all three new cities this season – “amazing,” Krzyzewski said – traveling to Pittsburgh on Jan.27 as part of the ACC’s new television deal with ESPN’s Big Monday series.

Since the home of the Panthers, the Petersen Events Center, opened for the 2002-03 season, Pittsburgh has won 89 percent of its home games (180-22).

The Panthers, picked sixth in the ACC, return three starters – guards James Robinson (sophomore) and Lamar Patterson (senior) and forward Talib Zanna (senior) – from a team that went 24-9 and made the NCAA tournament for the 11th time in 12 years.

The final newcomer, Syracuse, is the most historically successful program and in the best position to challenge for a league title. Senior forward C.J. Fair, the preseason ACC Player of the Year, junior forward Rakeem Christmas and sophomore center DaJuan Coleman are back from last season’s Final Four squad.

“It’s the deepest frontcourt that we’ve ever had,” coach Jim Boeheim said. “It’s not the best players at the top, but overall.”

Add in freshman point guard Tyler Ennis, poised to be one of the best newcomers in the country, and it’s not hard to see why much is expected from the Orange.

Beyond the new additions and traditional powers in Duke and North Carolina (picked to finish third), many of the teams projected to finish in the middle of the ACC should be much improved.

Virginia returns the only first-team all-ACC selection from last season in senior guard Joe Harris, along with two other starters, senior forward Akil Mitchell and sophomore guard Justin Anderson.

The Cavaliers have improved their win total in each of coach Tony Bennett’s four seasons and are expected to earn an NCAA bid and try for their first tournament win in his tenure.

Boston College, picked eighth, returns a league-high five starters, including last season’s ACC Rookie of the Year in guard Olivier Hanlan.

“We played Duke and Miami to one-point losses at home. We beat a really good Virginia team with a buzzer-beater (after being) down 12,” said coach Steve Donahue, reciting some of his team’s accomplishments last season, led by freshmen and sophomores and returning 96 percent of its scoring.

Even a team like Georgia Tech, picked to finish 11th, should be much improved, with four returning starters and a key transfer addition in guard Trae Golden, who averaged 12.1 points and 3.9 assists last season at Tennessee.

“We’re in the same position with other programs like Wake Forest, Boston College, Clemson, Maryland, Florida State, Virginia, schools fighting to take another step along the process,” coach Brian Gregory said. “The marking of a great league is not only to be strong up top, but also for the emerging teams to continue to improve and not only be successful in the league, but also have postseason success.”

Twice the ACC earned seven NCAA tournament bids, in 2007 and 2009, and that was as a 12-team league. To stake a claim to modern dominance, the percentage of teams earning bids needs to be closer to the six of eight the ACC had in the 1980s or the record 11 teams (out of 16) that the old Big East sent in 2011.

“Bigger glory days are coming with this thing,” Brey said. “Even other college coaches in other leagues out on the recruiting circuit this July, guys from the Big 12, Pac-12, the SEC, were like, ‘wow, what your league is becoming.’”

Keeley: 919-829-4556; Twitter: @laurakeeley

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