Jacobs: Analyzing the ACC basketball schedule

CorrespondentApril 25, 2014 

The skeletal outlines of the next two seasons were revealed the other day when the ACC released schedule partners and sites of engagement for men’s basketball. Just parsing the pairings was enough to make heads spin, given that the formulations covered 15 schools, some of them virtual strangers to one another and to ACC fans generally.

Observers immediately applied the information to calculate advantages and disadvantages in competition that’s at least a half-year away. This method of forecasting is definitely preferable to reading tea leaves, or listening to the stylings of TV experts who were near-unanimous in picking Michigan State to win the 2014 NCAA championship. You may recall that did not happen – especially if you’re a UConn follower.

Making predictions presents plenty of pitfalls, particularly when drawing conclusions about unfamiliar programs. For instance, in examining next year’s schedule, a writer for a Louisville newspaper listed Miami as a slowdown team like Virginia and Pittsburgh. That was true in 2014, but hardly fit the profile of Jim Larranaga’s first two Hurricane squads. Those veteran units each averaged around 70 points per game, compared with last year’s 61.5.

Miami’s deliberate approach enabled it to rank among five ACC teams that won more road games than they lost last year, including victories at North Carolina and N.C. State. Life at Coral Gables was a different story. Perennially ranked near the bottom of the ACC in attendance (13th last year), Miami had a losing home record in 2014, as did league also-rans BC and Virginia Tech. The only teams that don’t enjoy a trip to the league’s warm-weather outpost in 2014-15 are Duke, Notre Dame, Pitt, Syracuse and Wake Forest. Visitors to Miami shouldn’t get cocky, however – Larranaga’s first two squads won 14 of 17 ACC home games and an infusion of talent should help the ’Canes improve immediately.

Judging home court advantage based on experience in other leagues can be misleading, too. Pitt’s Petersen Events Center is reputedly a tough venue for visitors. Yet a Panther squad that reached the NCAAs in its debut ACC season, and finished fifth in the standings, lost five of nine league games at “The Pete” in 2014.

Of course some reputations are amply merited. No one relishes playing at Duke. The Blue Devils were undefeated at Cameron Indoor Stadium in all games in four of the past five seasons, compiling an 80-3 cumulative record. The Blue Devils’ 33-game home winning streak is seventh-longest in ACC history. Duke has lost 11 ACC home games in 10 years; by contrast, BC and Virginia Tech each lost eight home games in league play in 2014 alone.

Skipping Durham

Next year Louisville and Virginia, two likely contenders for upper-echelon ACC status, have the decided advantage of skipping visits to Durham.

But while Cameron is the ACC’s most noted basketball venus flytrap, it’s hardly the only one. Coaches will tell you privately that playing well at Clemson’s Littlejohn Coliseum is as challenging as surmounting the basketball gods that populate Duke’s World War II-era arena. Next season Notre Dame and Syracuse, which both entirely avoided trips to South Carolina in their ACC debuts, get to experience Littlejohn first-hand. Meanwhile, Louisville and Virginia sidestep a visit in 2014-15, yet another advantage for the Cardinals and Cavaliers. Duke, which doesn’t mind playing at Cameron, also skips a trip to Clemson.

Last year the Tigers enjoyed the conference’s most significant advance over preseason media projections, finishing sixth after being picked 14th. Only Duke won more home games overall. Just three teams had fewer home losses (Duke, Syracuse and UVa). Two of the three defeats at Littlejohn were by five points each to Virginia and Pitt, the latter in overtime in the regular-season finale. “I think a lot of home courts are difficult, but I think Littlejohn is a very good environment,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell said. “I think we have one of those older arenas that really holds the sound. The fans are on top of you, they get into the game. It’s just a good place to play.”

If all goes according to plan, in 2015-16 Clemson won’t lose at all at Littlejohn. That’s not wishful thinking – the school plans to spend an estimated $60-70 million to renovate the coliseum while playing all of its home games at Bon Secours Wellness Arena in Greenville, S.C. That arrangement is expected to end after the ‘16 season. When Clemson returns to campus, Brownell hopes the refurbished building retains its daunting home court atmosphere.

We do know fortune will smile on next season’s Tigers in one respect: Clemson avoids traveling to Chapel Hill, where it hasn’t won since first trying in 1926, a year before Mickey Mouse made his film debut and Charles Lindbergh achieved the first solo airplane flight across the Atlantic Ocean. Less fortuitously, the Tigers make unreciprocated visits to Duke, Louisville, Pitt and Virginia, a formidable slate even if they had star forward K.J. McDaniels, the rare Clemson player who left for the pros this spring with eligibility remaining.

Welcome change

Here in the Triangle, N.C. State hosts the Blue Devils in their sole 2014-15 meeting, a welcome change after playing only at Durham in two of three years under Mark Gottfried. The 2015-16 season promises a relative rarity for North Carolina’s Big Four: Duke, UNC, State and Wake will play each other home-and-home for just the fourth time since the league expanded to double-digit membership in 2005.

With so many ACC teams to mix and match, look for more manipulations to satisfy TV networks and, perhaps, to maneuver NCAA contenders into favorable positions. Former Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt, now at George Mason, used to analyze Big East schedules to point out how the prospects for certain schools were boosted by steering them clear of the league’s toughest courts. Certainly, as previously noted, powerful Louisville travels such a route as it eases into the ACC, skipping trips to N.C. State and Notre Dame as well as Clemson and Duke. Syracuse got similar treatment last season, playing a single ACC road game before Jan. 25 and avoiding visits to Clemson, UNC, N.C. State, and Notre Dame, a fellow Big East refugee.

The conference schedule for 2014-15 even minimally addresses Mike Krzyzewski’s repeated gripe that “over the years I’ve found we least promote our league.” Duke and Syracuse again trade visits to each other’s courts, nurturing a much-touted, nascent rivalry that drew impressive TV ratings. “Their celebration of basketball there, and our celebration of basketball here, was phenomenal,” Krzyzewski said last February after his Blue Devils won a return engagement with the Orange. “It’s what makes our sport so good. I love the NBA to death, but this is something they can’t do. We should always recognize that, the thing at Syracuse and here. That’s our product.”

As for the ACC’s most prominent rivalry, Krzyzewski and UNC’s Roy Williams reportedly vowed to continue playing home-and-home regardless of what league schedulers decided. For at least the next two seasons, that’s not an issue. Duke and North Carolina remain playing partners. No matter how big the ACC grows, that should be the last tradition it disrupts.

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