As much as anything else, ACC basketball media day is usually a celebration of the league’s success. Historically, there has been a lot of it. There was some of it again this year.
And yet the prevailing atmosphere Wednesday was not one of self-congratulation but soul-searching. John Swofford spent two-thirds of the opening statement of his commissioner’s forum addressing the issues with college basketball highlighted by the FBI investigation into the sport, with Louisville and Miami mentioned prominently. Both North Carolina and Syracuse have recently emerged from the NCAA’s disciplinary process, with differing results, and Louisville is still mired in it.
Perhaps less concerning but just as foreboding, after a three-year period in which the ACC won two national titles, sent four teams to the Final Four – after sending none over the previous four years – and successfully cultivated its basketball tournament in Brooklyn, this may be the season where basketball takes a back seat to football, even if just temporarily.
That’s a massive shift for the ACC, a league that has had basketball as its foundation for five decades, from a smoky room at Sedgefield Country Club to the Louisville-Maryland swap, with the exception of that first round of television-driven expansion that brought in Boston College and Miami and Virginia Tech. Swofford even launched the ACC’s own basketball task force to complement the NCAA’s.
“This league should care deeply about the situation in front of us in college basketball,” Swofford said. “I think it’s fair to say this league has been one of the most prominent ones in college basketball in a long, long time.”
True. It’s just as true that football is more important to the ACC than it has ever been before. Football is driving the launch of the ACC Network. Football is paying the bills. And football may have a better chance of landing a team in its Final Four – with Miami, Clemson and N.C. State all still alive headed into this weekend – than basketball does this season.
Duke is a contender, no question, assuming the Blue Devils’ freshmen can coalesce around Grayson Allen the way the freshmen coalesced around Quinn Cook in 2015. It would be unwise to count out North Carolina, even with Joel Berry’s video-game injury. So there are those two, as there usually are.
Beyond that? Virginia has a lot to prove after last season, Louisville has talent but will be missing Rick Pitino’s mad-genius machinations, Notre Dame appears to be very Notre Dame-ish for better and for worse and Miami has sleeper potential but only so much of it. It gets even more muddled after that.
“You cannot pick 1-10,” Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton said. “I promise you, you cannot do that. You cannot pick 1-10 and get it right.”
Given the talent drain – 10 first-round picks in the NBA draft, including players like Wake Forest’s John Collins who before his meteoric rise last season would have been expected to be a star this season – and the high the ACC has been riding in March lately, some kind of correction was probably overdue. It just so happens to come when football is at an all-time high, which puts more pressure than ever on basketball just to keep up after decades of setting the pace.
“I’m a guy that thinks you should be able to do both,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “We’ve won five national championships in the 14 years I’ve been back in basketball. That’s pretty darn good. I don’t look at us as taking a back seat just because Clemson wins a football championship.”
It felt a little that way on Wednesday, a day that lacked the fanfare and triumphant sense of the football event in July, a coming-out party for ACC football in the wake of the ACC’s second title in four years while basketball operates under the shadow of scandal and lowered expectations, if only for this season.
After 52 basketball media days, this was the ACC’s first as a football conference. It’s a strange set of circumstances for a conference that was built upon, and prides itself on, basketball. It’s the new reality of the ACC.
Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock