Leonard Hamilton, the Florida State coach, used to repeat the phrase so often that it became something of a joke among the reporters covering his team. The phrase was this: “The new ACC.”
And Hamilton during the late 2000s – and who knows, maybe even still today – said it again and again to describe the shifting competitive balance of the conference. No longer was the league dominated by UNC and Duke, Hamilton liked to say. No, this was the new ACC.
If he saw Virginia Tech beat Duke, for instance, he’d slyly say something about “the new ACC.”
If Florida State beat one of the so-called marquee teams in the league and then lost to a team near the bottom of the league standings, Hamilton would go on some more about “the new ACC” – this place of parity and balance where nearly any ACC team was capable of beating nearly any other.
And it was true, what Hamilton was saying then. But now has come an extreme. Consider this the new new ACC, where it appears there’s one team clearly better than the rest (North Carolina), one clearly worse than the rest (Boston College) and then, well, the rest.
“The rest,” mind you, is a formidable grouping. It is not to be taken lightly. It is a 13-team blob that includes the likes of Duke and Virginia, both of which entered the season among the favorites to win the league.
But it also includes Clemson and Pittsburgh and Virginia Tech – three teams that, as of Sunday, were directly behind UNC in the conference standings. And who would have ever expected to see anything like that? Not even in the new ACC would such a thing seem possible.
But in this new new ACC? It makes sense.
N.C. State is in that middle grouping, too, despite its 0-5 start in league play. The season is likely to remain a struggle for the short-handed Wolfpack, but three of its five conference losses have come by five points or fewer. Another was by seven points. And N.C. State gave UNC fits for long stretches in Chapel Hill on Saturday.
And so the margin between 0-5 and 3-2, which the Wolfpack could easily be, is thin. Or, say, the margin between 3-2 and 5-0.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski knows something about that. His team, which may lack depth but doesn’t lack for talent, is a perfect example of how perilous life can be in the new new ACC.
“Winning is difficult in this league,” Krzyzewski said Saturday after his team’s 95-91 loss against Notre Dame. “It’s really difficult. And it will be really difficult for us. And it has been in the first five games.”
The easiest of those, for Duke, was its 24-point victory against Virginia Tech, which is undefeated in league play outside of that game. Go figure.
“Virginia Tech is good, but we played great for a half,” Krzyzewski said. “And Wake didn’t play well today, but Wake was playing really well, and that was a big win for us. Boston College is undermanned. But the rest of the teams can win.”
And have. Virginia Tech, one of the ACC’s worst teams in recent seasons, beat Virginia, which has been one of the league’s best. Clemson has defeated Louisville, Duke and Miami – three ranked teams – in three consecutive games. Notre Dame went on the road and beat Duke on Saturday.
The ACC has always been a difficult league, and conference play is always chaotic. And yet entering the third week of January it appears especially so this season, probably because of the surprise teams – Clemson, Virginia Tech – near the top of the conference standings.
The early emergence of the Tigers and Hokies have thrown upside down the ACC’s supposed tiers. They were easy to identify last year, with Duke and Virginia at the top, Notre Dame, Louisville and UNC in the next grouping, N.C. State, Miami and Syracuse in the one after that, and so on.
The bottom of the conference was orderly, too, with Wake Forest, Boston College, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech clearly the four worst teams.
Eventually the standings will sort themselves out, and we’ll be left with similar tiers this season. Except, outside of Boston College at very the bottom, who knows what those tiers will look like.
Will Clemson stick around at the top of the league? It’s difficult to discount a team that has done what the Tigers have in the past week. Can Virginia Tech, which began the season with a loss against Alabama State (No. 312 in the country, according to kenpom.com) continue to thrive in the clutch?
Ultimately, for the teams in the middle of the ACC – and, again, that appears to be every team but UNC at the top and Boston College at the bottom – that’s what it will come down to: an ability to win close games, of which there should be no shortage in the ACC this season.
Already, 10 of the league’s 15 teams have played in at least two games that have been decided by five points or less. Duke is 0-2 in those games, while Virginia Tech and Clemson are a combined 7-0. Just as we all expected, right?
“That’s the difference between being 5-0 or 3-2,” Krzyzewski said on Saturday, after the second consecutive game that slipped away from his team in the final moments. “That’s the league, though. In Clemson’s games, they’ve won those possessions.
“And that’s great for them, but overall there’s not much difference.”
There wasn’t much difference in the new ACC that emerged in the mid-2000s. Yet in the ACC’s large middle, those differences have become even smaller this season, one that could be the most unpredictable in years.
Staff writer Laura Keeley contributed to this story.