So here we are again, embarked on a basketball journey that denizens of our neighborhood routinely expect will last until the national championship game in early April.
For some it seems only yesterday the Tar Heels fell a jumper shy of winning the ACC’s second straight NCAA championship. For others, the seven months between jump balls ushered in a state of limbo that lasted just short of an eternity. Still others were caught unawares by the arrival of the 2016-17 season, distracted by a cornucopia of sports that flowed virtually without pause from NBA playoffs deep in June, to football that started in August and a World Series that ran almost until the tuneup portion of the college basketball schedule got underway.
Now that we’re all paying attention, ACC prospects look quite bright. The gushing hasn’t ceased over how this could be the best season ever for Triangle teams. Less noted, the entire league’s elevated status reflects the effects of a decade of raids that supplied almost half of the current membership. Perennial powers remain strong, but it’s schools from the Big East that have transformed the ACC.
On the women’s side, teams added in the past few years immediately emerged as conference powers. Notre Dame, No. 1 in this year’s Associated Press preseason poll, is 56-1 in ACC competition, with first-place finishes and ACC tournament titles in each of its three league seasons, along with a pair of Final Four appearances. Syracuse’s women made the Final Four last year. Louisville is a perennial top-10 team.
The newcomers disrupted the league’s internal balance; last season was the first since 1992 neither Duke nor North Carolina finished in the AP top 20. Neither starts this year ranked, a first since 2000.
Benefit of the doubt
The story is a bit different among the men, who’ve adopted a few practices from the Big East with minimal pain. The ACC tournament final is presently played on a Saturday night, an old ACC custom, and the event will be hosted for two years in the New York borough of Brooklyn. Potentially more significant, the ACC is now the beneficiary of the persistent bragging by former Big East coaches regarding how many NCAA tournament berths their league deserves.
The Big East, launched in 1979-80 as a basketball league, immediately cut into the ACC’s boast it was the college game’s leading practitioner. A keen rivalry ensued, fueled by the early-season ACC/Big East Challenge. Envy also was a factor, coming to a head in 2011 when Big East coaches sold the media and apparently the NCAA tournament selection committee on the merits of including 11 of their teams while the ACC got a measly four.
Notre Dame’s Mike Brey speaks almost mockingly of the attitude toward NCAA participation he encountered when his school joined the ACC in 2014. According to Brey, the ACC focused on improving teams’ seeds, and fixated on perceived scheduling manipulation within the Big East rather than on broadening representation by its own clubs. “They didn’t know how to think past that,” Brey says. “Oh, my God! It was unbelievable.”
This fall, Brey talked up the notion at least 10 ACC teams merit NCAA inclusion. To assure that happens beginning in 2019-20, he was among the handful of men’s coaches who supported ESPN’s desire/demand for a 20-game conference schedule. More chances for bubble teams to face quality opponents within the league means more chances to improve their NCAA prospects, according to Brey. “That’s all you want come March,” he says.
For now, recent NCAA success eloquently argues for giving ACC teams the benefit of the doubt.
Eleven of 13 ACC squads invited to the NCAAs over the past two seasons reached the Sweet 16. That was with meritorious Syracuse sitting out in 2015 and Louisville voluntarily sidelined in 2016, both due to NCAA rules violations.
Seven of 16 teams in the Elite Eight (43.8 percent) in 2015 and 2016 came from the ACC. Three reached the Final Four, among them NCAA champ Duke in 2015 and Syracuse last year, when the Orange finished tied for ninth in the conference.
UNC started the ’16 season top-ranked, the 19th ACC team so honored, and finished in the national championship game. Duke, No. 1 to begin this season, is even more highly regarded. In fact, the Blue Devils are this year’s magnet for foolish talk of going undefeated. We’ve seen more improbable outcomes lately in and outside sports, but that’s a bit much.
Even if the ball bounces Duke’s way, it doesn’t take a long memory to recall those pesky twists of fate that can unexpectedly hobble a team, like last year’s early injuries to the Blue Devils’ Amile Jefferson and N.C. State’s Terry Henderson.
The ’16 Devils, ranked fifth when the season began, finished 19th and expired in the Sweet 16. This year Coach K’s NBA Nursery is uncommonly rich in first-year talent, not only serving as a buffer against ill-fortune but attracting the admiration of prognosticators the way a dancing string mesmerizes a cat.
Yet what really makes Duke tough is a core of experienced team captains – Jefferson, Matt Jones, Grayson Allen – who under-gird the teen contingent. Depth is good, but experienced depth is better. Duke has both.
One way to get a quick read on the ACC this season is to look for experience. Six teams boast a trio of returning upper-class starters – Clemson, Duke, North Carolina, Notre Dame, Virginia and Virginia Tech. Duke, UNC and UVa started the year ranked in the AP top 10.
Three veteran-laden squads retained players who led in scoring and one other key statistical category: Clemson with Jaron Blossomgame (18.7 points, 6.7 rebounds), the Devils with Allen (21.6 points, 3.5 assists) and the Hokies with Zach LeDay (15.5 points, 7.9 rebounds).
Allen and Blossomgame were the top vote-getters on the preseason All-ACC team and led for honors as league player of the year. On the other hand, LeDay, the ACC’s No. 3 returning rebounder and fifth-best holdover scorer, eluded notice. So, for that matter, did the team for which LeDay plays.
Both Virginia Tech and Clemson finished 10-8 in the ACC last season, tying for seventh. Yet the Hokies, resurgent after three consecutive last-place finishes, were picked 10th by the media in 2016-17. The Tigers, who’ve flirted with .500 ACC finishes in seven of the last eight seasons, were tabbed for 11th.
In part the predictions reflect a lack of imagination by the pack of pickers. But disregard for the league’s non-traditional powers also underscores the increase in weighty programs suppressing upward mobility. Once a school falls off the pace in the newly bolstered ACC, the odds shift against recovery. Buoyed by the arrival of their current coaches, only Miami, N.C. State and Virginia recently escaped also-ran status and maintain a high competitive level.
Meanwhile, Boston College had one winning record and three coaches over the past seven seasons. Georgia Tech, in the Final Four as recently as 2004, had four winning seasons and three coaches in the 11 years since. Wake Forest enjoyed a single winning record since 2011. Virginia Tech had three coaches and one winning ACC record in the past half-decade.
Last year’s top six teams were 34-5 against the bottom five. Strivers navigating ACC waters must now row that much harder, or risk being swamped entirely by the big boys’ celebrated passage.