The ACC men’s basketball marathon already has taken an intriguing turn. A mere four games into the schedule, only North Carolina remains unbeaten in league play, a first under 13-year coach Roy Williams. The Tar Heels alone boast an unblemished road record in a league where no one has played more than three times away from home. At the other end of the spectrum, at mid-January only Boston College and N.C. State were winless within the conference.
That left a dozen clubs in the muddled middle, the sort of internal parity the ACC has touted for decades as a defining strand in its ever-mutating DNA. Maybe this season, when lowly Virginia Tech got off to a better start than Virginia, the first-place finisher the past two years, the claim of top-to-bottom balance is defensible.
Certainly in one respect the league season is closely following form: finding North Carolina at the forefront, or Duke in other years, is numbingly routine. A remarkable 19 seasons have passed since neither made the ACC tournament final. Only once during that span did both fail to finish the conference regular season in the top two. That year, 2014, the Blue Devils and Tar Heels wound up tied for third.
Yet competitive life is increasingly vibrant within the giants’ shadows. Last season was the fourth in a row that produced a different official ACC champion. With four strong teams added over the past two years, in which 10 different schools posted winning ACC records, traversing what Clemson’s Brad Brownell calls the ACC “gantlet” is arguably as formidable a task as it’s ever been.
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Unfortunately, says Brownell, the sixth-year Tiger coach, the ACC’s allocation of NCAA rewards has not kept pace with the degree of difficulty of intraleague competition.
High-profile teams, highly successful over the years, have kind of reached down and grabbed some other teams and pulled them up.
Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton
The ACC got six NCAA tournament berths in each of the past two seasons. Because programs and coaches are judged by whether and how often they reach the NCAAs, and leagues are compared superficially according to their number of tournament representatives, any exclusion stings. “That’s what’s been frustrating,” observes Brownell. He adds, sounding a perennial ACC theme, “The gantlet you have to go through is way more difficult than people realize.”
Brownell spoke after Clemson beat ninth-ranked Duke, only the third time in the past quarter-century the Tigers won as many as four straight in ACC competition. Then they defeated eighth-ranked Miami for a fifth win in a row. Granted, four of those victories came at home. But home this year is a 45-minute drive from campus, where Clemson supporters half-fill Greenville’s Bon Secours Wellness Arena. The crowd was dominated by South Carolina fans when the Gamecocks came to town and beat the Tigers.
“I think we’ve added more good teams but we’re not getting three or four more bids to the tournament,” Brownell says of the ACC. The comment reflects his own program’s recent disappointment. The 2014 Clemson squad, led by a rare first team All-ACC selection, forward K.J. McDaniels, was among the ACC’s top six at 10-8 but failed to command an NCAA invitation.
Leonard Hamilton, whose Florida State squad won the league title in 2012, starting an unprecedented run of champions from outside North Carolina, similarly lauds the ACC’s recent wealth of estimable teams.
“What that does is that it shows the power of the ACC, because programs that have won it have gotten a lift and a boost from the quality of the ACC,” says Hamilton, head coach at FSU since 2003. “High-profile teams, highly successful over the years, have kind of reached down and grabbed some other teams and pulled them up. And we’ve been a little more competitive.”
The best ever
In fact, Hamilton continues to embrace the once-popular assertion, still unfulfilled and now a bit tarnished, that the newly-expanded, 15-member ACC is “the best basketball conference ever assembled in the history of college basketball.” That rosy perspective is doubtless buoyed by directing the league’s third-most successful program – after Duke and UNC – since expansion to a dozen teams a decade ago. Not even Virginia’s recent prosperity, including consecutive 16-win seasons, enabled it to match Florida State’s cumulative 92-74 ACC record from 2006 through 2015.
Besides the Tar Heels and Blue Devils, only FSU and UVa managed as many as four straight winning league records over the past decade. During the period Hamilton’s teams enjoyed their greatest prowess, from 2009 through 2012, they routinely led the ACC in field goal percentage defense and blocked shots, and were near the top in steals. The coach says that reflected the stability and savvy of units stocked with veterans. His hard-nosed conference champs featured four seniors, two graduate students, and a junior among their top nine.
Older players understand what is required to be good defensively, Hamilton says, from playing hard to sealing the baseline to boxing out. Last week Florida State had reasonable success keeping N.C. State’s Cat Barber out of the lane and off the foul line in a close victory, thanks largely to the efforts of Devon Bookert, the team’s best on-the-ball defender. Bookert, noted Hamilton, is a senior.
Just three years ago, as FSU struggled and its defensive acuity waned, Hamilton vowed never again to get stuck relying heavily on young players. Easier said than done. This season Florida State’s leading scorers, both in the ACC’s top 10, are freshman guards Dwayne Bacon and Malik Beasley. Bacon is one of four McDonald’s All-Americans in the ACC (of 17) not playing at UNC or Duke.
“When I looked up tonight,” Hamilton said after the ragged win at Raleigh, “and saw I had four freshmen on the court for a road game in the ACC, I thought, ‘Oh, my goodness!’”
But in an era of accelerated and often unpredictable roster turnover – of transfers galore and social media providing a ready conduit to lobby players to turn pro at the earliest opportunity – seasoned lineups are uncommon. So is winning while relying on youngsters, the recent successes of Duke and Kentucky notwithstanding.
Asked if his prized freshmen will stick around, Hamilton grimaces briefly. “Let’s hope so,” the coach says. “Let’s hope that we gain some experience.”
The bitter taste of instability is fresh at Tallahassee. Last year Aaron Thomas, a 6-5 junior, was expected to lead FSU. Instead the team’s top returning scorer and steal producer was declared ineligible by the school for non-academic reasons, and went pro. Paced offensively by then-freshman Rathan-Mayes, the team struggled to break even. This year Rathan-Mayes has calmed down and embraced a playmaker’s role; he leads the ACC in assists per game from a program that hasn’t posted a positive team ratio of assists to turnovers since 1997.
Clemson likewise faltered last season after McDaniels left for the NBA with a year of eligibility remaining, only the second Tiger to follow that route in two decades.
A handful of premier programs have a sufficient array of top-notch talent to take such shocks in stride. The majority, those where players need extensive ‘coaching up’ to become ACC-caliber performers, rarely have that luxury. Which makes this season’s early success at recruiting-challenged outposts like Clemson, and Florida State’s long-term staying power, all the more impressive.