Here’s hoping Rick Pitino wears his white Colonel Sanders suit to ACC basketball media day in Charlotte on Wednesday. It’s going to take that kind of showmanship right off the hop if the Cardinals want to match the inaugural-season impact Syracuse had on the ACC.
At the least, Louisville will certainly give a bump to the ACC’s competitive metabolism in basketball, arriving as one of the nation’s power programs to replace Maryland, which exited while plumbing new depths of mediocrity. But Syracuse made such a splash in Year 1, it’s hard to imagine Louisville doing any better.
Consider not only the weary wisdom of Orange coach Jim Boeheim, whose razor-edge sardonicism started to be perceived as intended – more tongue-in-cheek, less grumpy – by rival fans as the season wore on, but the image he burned in the ACC’s collective retinas as he rampaged across the court at Duke, arms flailing wildly, in the season’s most photogenic moment. That may also have been the ACC’s most memorable moment, after a disappointing NCAA tournament that saw the conference’s Final Four drought reach four seasons.
Syracuse also contributed two legitimate stars – forward C.J. Fair and one-and-done point guard Tyler Ennis – and co-starred in some of the most dramatic finishes of the conference schedule, most prominently the two games against Duke but also the last-second drama against N.C. State and the end-of-season showdown at Virginia, which lost some luster thanks to the Orange’s late-season swoon.
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All in all, not a bad package for Syracuse’s first season in the ACC. It’s probably unfair to expect the same from Louisville, but maybe not unrealistic. The Cardinals boast many similarities to Syracuse – tradition, pedigree, a rabid fan base, the charismatic coach, star power. And their mere presence, having gone to two straight Final Fours, not only eclipses the other 14 ACC teams combined over the past four years but increases the league’s chances of ending that drought.
More important, swapping Louisville for Maryland, along with last season’s addition of Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame, restores the true strength of ACC basketball, which is depth. It always has been.
North Carolina and Duke have captured most of the headlines and attention over the past two-plus decades, but the ACC isn’t at its best when only those two are competing for titles, no matter how many they win. In the ’70s, N.C. State and Maryland set a standard for everyone in the ACC. In the ’80s and ’90s, Georgia Tech and Virginia were power programs. The ACC always has strength at the top, but so does every other power conference. It’s the strength in the middle that has differentiated the ACC, and for so much of the past decade, really since Maryland’s national title in 2002, that’s been lacking.
Virginia’s revival has changed that. So did Syracuse’s arrival. And now Louisville joins the mix as well. With both Duke and North Carolina harboring legitimate national-championship aspirations, the ACC can point to five potential Final Four teams before a ball is dribbled.
The ACC can claim four of the top 11 teams in Ken Pomeroy’s preseason efficiency ratings including No. 1 (Duke) and No. 3 (Louisville) as well as six of the top 23. That’s way ahead of the field.
Much is expected of Louisville, from Pitino’s fashion to one-time Virginia Tech recruit Montrezl Harrell of Tarboro, who made it to the ACC one way or another. Syracuse showed what kind of impact an ACC newcomer can have. As a new basketball season dawns, Louisville offers hope for more of the same.