ACC basketball and the art of the schedule

Basketball schedules are announced in late summer, largely forgotten by fall, then resurface to be dissected during the season as NCAA tournament selection approaches. Otherwise, who and when schools play is usually discussed only in strategic terms, as ACC commissioner John Swofford did last week at a media assemblage in Charlotte.

Swofford broached the idea of creating a celebratory opening to the men’s season, to create “more buzz and excitement” in place of the current approach by which league and national competition “sort of slowly rolls out of the bucket.” To make a suitable splash, he suggested delaying the start of competition, perhaps to Thanksgiving weekend.

The concept has merit. But with a wealth of intriguing November tournaments, and schools anxious to cram at least 30 games into their schedules, the logistics are problematic. Besides, coaches generally regard the early going as an opportunity to test and mesh talents and lineups. “I say this all the time – I don’t really care how good we are in October and November,” says N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried, who carefully calibrates the non-league schedule to burnish his team’s NCAA prospects.

Only the top programs, perpetually hunted, eagerly take on all comers out of the gate. Duke scheduled seven non-ACC teams that made the 2015 NCAA field. North Carolina faces 6, with Northern Iowa and Texas on the road.

Allowing time for shakedown cruises, the ACC doesn’t commence league action until Dec. 30, when Clemson renews its historic losing streak at Chapel Hill and Pitt hosts Syracuse. That’s compared to a Dec. 6 ACC start last year, when Wake Forest visited N.C. State. With 18 ACC games on tap, no non-conference opponents are scheduled after Pittsburgh plays Maryland-Eastern Shore on Jan. 2 amid a run of 13 hometown dates in 14 outings. Pitt opens with nine straight games at Petersen Events Center, the ACC’s longest home court stay.

A busy November

Twelve of 15 ACC schools open their non-conference schedules on Nov. 13, approximating Swofford’s grand debut. One of those games presents a bracing challenge – Pittsburgh’s meeting with Gonzaga in the Armed Forces Classic at Okinawa. The Zags and Purdue, a Big Ten/ACC challenge matchup, are the only non-conference powers on the Panthers’ schedule, the ACC’s weakest. “We tell ESPN we’ll play in any nationally televised game they have,” coach Jamie Dixon says of journeying to Japan.

By Thanksgiving, Nov. 26, every ACC team will have played at least three times. UNC, Virginia and Wake will have played a half-dozen games. Six ACC squads participate in tournaments on Thanksgiving weekend; some are high-profile, lucrative events, and in exotic locales like Brooklyn and the Bahamas. Every ACC football team plays that weekend as well. Carving a unique moment during such a crowded period would be tough.

Another trial balloon hoisted at Charlotte by Swofford, one discussed as recently as this past spring’s league meetings, was adding ACC contests, potentially going to 20. “It seems clear that there’s increased fan support for (additional) conference games,” Swofford said of a change conducive to a more balanced ACC schedule. “But on the other hand, how would it affect the number of teams selected from our league to NCAA tournament play?”

Dixon chuckled at the idea. “Whenever that’s brought up, we heard that in the Big East, when they start talking more conference games, that’s when your contract is up and that’s what the TV partners are asking for,” he says mischievously. At last report, the ACC’s TV contract with ESPN runs through the 2026-27 season.

Dixon was in the Big East when it began landing NCAA bids by the bushel-full – including a record 11 in 2011. The Pitt coach considers that defunct league’s decision to increase the number of conference contests a key to its broadened NCAA representation. The ACC, with 16 league games until 2013, had 4 NCAA entrants in 2011, with a high-water mark of seven in 2007 and 2009. Last year the ACC had six teams in the NCAAs; five reached the Sweet 16. Still, Miami was snubbed with a 10-8 conference mark and wins at Duke and Syracuse.

NCAA formulas

Most ACC coaches thought emulating the Big East’s NCAA strategy meant insistently proclaiming how many league members deserved berths. Meanwhile, Mike Tranghese, the Big East commissioner, dispassionately studied team strengths and weaknesses, then manipulated the conference schedule to enhance the prospects of marginal NCAA qualifiers. “There’s a strategy to setting up your regular-season schedule to get more bids,” says Notre Dame coach Mike Brey, another Big East refugee who admired Tranghese’s legerdemain.

Brey insists that, as part of allowing similar scheduling flexibility, the ACC must eliminate fixed playing partners – except perhaps Duke and North Carolina, whose meetings are rich TV commodities. Even N.C. State’s Gottfried is willing to consider sacrificing traditional rivalries for the greater good. “I would love to play Carolina twice every year, but I don’t think it’s right for us just to put that above everything else on the table,” he says, flirting with basketball blasphemy.

Individual programs have their own formulas for reaching the NCAA’s promised land. Louisville plays 19 of 31 games at the Yum! Center this season, a savory dose of comfort sure to soothe nerves and minimize disruptions – other than scandal – as the roster is rebuilt. Pitt leaves its hometown once between Nov. 17 and Jan. 6. Duke plays 18 times at Cameron Indoor Stadium, and as usual avoids a hostile court until visiting BC on Jan. 2. Georgia Tech, N.C. State, Pitt and Virginia Tech also play a cautious 18 times at home.

At the other end of the spectrum Florida State, boasting perhaps the best depth and offensive skills of Leonard Hamilton’s 14-year tenure, plays 14 home contests. Among the road games is a visit to Florida, with new coach Michael White, son of Duke athletic director Kevin White. The Gators, who also play at Miami, are among 11 SEC members facing ACC clubs.

Wake’s tough approach

Wake Forest coach Danny Manning fashioned a formidable schedule, bolstered by the league’s richest sprinkling of teams from powerful conferences. The Demon Deacons face Indiana and Rutgers from the Big Ten, Arkansas and LSU from the SEC, and Xavier from the reconstituted Big East. They’re also one of 14 ACC squads participating in an early-season tournament that yields at least one unscheduled opponent. (Pitt avoids such uncertainty.) Depending on how the Deacs fare in their opener against the Hoosiers, they’ll play either Vanderbilt or St. John’s in the Maui Jim Maui Invitational, then somebody from a group that includes Kansas, UCLA and UNLV.

Retired Wake coach Dave Odom orchestrated the Maui field. Five former coaches at current league schools are more hands-on, directing teams on 2015-16 ACC schedules. All but Coastal Carolina’s Cliff Ellis, once Clemson’s coach, are rookies at their current jobs.

Ellis’ Chanticleers, NCAA participants the past two years, come to Winston-Salem. Florida State faces either South Carolina or DePaul, coached by Virginia castoff Dave Leitao, in the Paradise Jam in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Georgia Tech, the odd-man out in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, hosts Tennessee, coached by Clemson expatriate Rick Barnes. Louisville welcomes Kennesaw State, an Atlantic Sun team coached by BC discard Al Skinner. FSU and Miami play Mississippi State, now directed by Ben Howland, Dixon’s predecessor at Pitt.

Finally, we can safely say Virginia Tech shoulders the league’s most over-Stated challenge, facing Alabama State, Jacksonville State, Iowa State, Grambling State, and of course Florida State and N.C. State.