Back in those halcyon days of the ACC’s round-robin, home-and-home conference scheduling format it was a lot easier to figure where teams stood – which ones were clearly the best, which were the worst, which were the ones best-suited to earn an invitation to the NCAA tournament.
And those things are clear enough now, too, but not as much as they were. Not with the league’s unbalanced, somewhat clunky 18-game scheduling format.
You know how it works: the ACC’s 15 teams all have two scheduling partners – for North Carolina it’s Duke and N.C. State – that they play against twice, home and home, year after year. Each team then plays home-and-home against two other teams on a rotating basis.
And then every team plays one game against the other 10 teams in the league – five at home and five on the road. Given the reality that the league has settled on an 18-game format – for now – the way the ACC does it is probably the best way it can be done.
But it isn’t perfect. Some teams clearly have an advantage over others, and an unbalanced schedule certainly didn’t hurt Virginia last season when the Cavaliers won the ACC regular season championship with a 16-2 conference record.
Last season’s Virginia team is a good case study of how an unbalanced schedule can help a team – especially a good team. The Cavaliers had to play but one game each against Duke (which beat Virginia in Charlottesville), North Carolina and Notre Dame.
The Cavaliers a season ago did play two regular-season games against Louisville, one of Virginia’s scheduling partners, along with Virginia Tech, and N.C. State. But Virginia also played twice against Virginia Tech and Wake Forest, which basically amounted to four guaranteed victories.
The combined conference record of Virginia Tech and Wake Forest a season ago: 7-29.
Another aspect of the unbalanced schedule that doesn’t receive the same attention is that for most teams it’s literally unbalanced, and often either front-loaded or back-loaded with more difficult competition. Gone are the days, in the nine-team ACC of the 1990s, of playing the first eight league games against the other eight teams, and then cycling back through in the second half of the schedule.
If you believe in the concept of momentum, and some coaches probably do, the unbalanced schedule can make it more difficult – or easier – for teams to build it. Take Florida State, for instance.
The Seminoles, in the midst of an 0-3 start to ACC play, received no favors from their schedule. By Jan. 20 Florida State will have played home games against UNC and Virginia and road games against Miami and Louisville. The Seminoles already have lost against UNC and Miami.
Throw in a game this week at already-desperate N.C. State, and Florida State could be looking at an 0-6 start in conference play. Are the Seminoles really that bad? Probably not.
But because of the unbalanced schedule, the five-game stretch they’re in now is significantly more difficult than the five-game stretch that comes after: against Pittsburgh, at Boston College, against Clemson, against N.C. State and at Wake Forest.
UNC provides a counter example. The Tar Heels have already won what appeared, on paper, to be their most challenging early ACC games: at Florida State and at Syracuse. Now UNC has several days off before a four-game stretch against N.C. State, Wake Forest, Virginia Tech and Boston College.
Of those, only the Virginia Tech game is on the road. Regardless, it’d be a surprise if UNC wasn’t 8-0 in the ACC entering its game at Louisville on Feb. 1.
The unbalanced schedule also creates the quirk of two UNC-Duke games in relative close proximity. They will play twice in six games once again this season – as they’ve done the past two – and they don’t play for the first time until Feb. 17. For both teams, their first meeting will come in their 13th conference game.
By then the ACC race will be well established and we’ll have a good idea of which teams stand where. But not as good of an idea as the schedule used to provide. Among the league’s top five contenders, here’s a look at which teams could benefit the most, and the least, from the unbalanced schedule:
Plays twice: UNC, Wake Forest, Louisville, N.C. State
One-offs: Virginia at home and Miami on the road could be two of Duke’s most challenging ACC games, but there are also some sneaky-tough road games at Clemson, at Georgia Tech and at Pitt.
Thoughts: The ACC clearly wants Duke and UNC to form some quick history and rivalries with Syracuse and Louisville, and Duke has the more difficult draw this year with a home-and-home against Louisville. The one-off road games make this ACC schedule more challenging than others.
Plays twice: Pitt, Virginia, Duke, Georgia Tech
One-offs: Louisville plays Miami on the road, and Notre Dame, too, but the Cardinals host UNC in what’s shaping up to be a monumental game on Feb. 1.
Thoughts: Of all the contenders in the ACC Louisville’s conference schedule might be the most difficult. Virginia and Duke are two of the league’s best teams, Georgia Tech is improved and Pitt will be in the hunt for an NCAA tournament bid.
Plays twice: Florida State, Virginia Tech, Notre Dame, Virginia
One-offs: Hurricanes host Duke and travel to North Carolina, and they also get Pitt and Louisville at home.
Thoughts: The home-and-homes are manageable, especially if Virginia has taken a step back, as the early results indicate, and Miami faces most of the ACC’s other contenders – Duke, Pitt and Louisville – at home. In other words: the schedule sets up nicely for Miami.
Plays twice: Duke, N.C. State, Boston College, Syracuse
One-offs: UNC gets Miami at home and only has to play against Louisville and Virginia once, though both on the road.
Thoughts: The Tar Heels are always at a scheduling disadvantage given the annual series against Duke, but overall UNC receives some breaks this year. The other three teams it plays twice are unlikely to finish with winning league records.
Plays twice: Louisville, Virginia Tech, Clemson, Miami
One-offs: Virginia makes that anticipated return to Duke, and plays UNC at home. Cavaliers already have lost at Georgia Tech.
Thoughts: Virginia is off to a rockier-than-anticipated start and it still has to play four games against Louisville and Miami, two of the better teams in the league. The Cavaliers also have an inexplicable loss, already, at Virginia Tech.