If last season was the moment when expansion finally gave ACC basketball the adrenaline boost it needed for so long, this season will be when it really pays off.
On the heels of one of the most successful NCAA tournaments in ACC history, the league is poised for record success. It has a gold-plated national-title contender in North Carolina. It has national elites in Duke and Virginia. It has strong reloading teams in Notre Dame and Louisville. It has up-and-coming teams in Florida State and Miami. It has tournament stalwarts like Syracuse and N.C. State. It has wild cards like Pittsburgh and Clemson.
It has the raw material for at least nine NCAA bids. And that’s not even considering the possibility of a surprise from a Georgia Tech or Wake Forest.
For ACC basketball, expansion finally means better, not just bigger.
“I really believe this is the year we get to eight bids and maybe more,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. “I really feel this is the year. My first two years I didn’t have that feeling. I do feel with the teams and knowing what’s coming back and how teams have recruited, I think this is the year it has the look of that Big East that I left those last couple years when we were getting eight, nine, and that one year we got 11 bids.
“And everybody in the ACC was thoroughly pissed off that year because I think you guys got four and the Big East got 11.”
That was 2011, perhaps the nadir of modern ACC basketball. The league had been watered down by the first expansion that brought in Virginia Tech and Boston College and Miami, none of which were basketball powerhouses. (Although Miami did win an ACC basketball title before it ever played for an ACC football title.)
The Big East was in ascendance, along with the Big Ten and even the Big 12. That season was the beginning of a four-year Final Four drought, the longest in decades and a source of much consternation within the ACC, especially after the league added Syracuse, Notre Dame and Pittsburgh, all basketball schools.
“I thought the Big East mastered that, in getting teams in,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “And they were really good with their attention to detail about everything: scheduling, times of games, you name it. In other words, you look at the littlest points. I think the Big East studied all those things. I don’t think we have over the years. Basically, because it’s been easier (for us).”
The arrival of the Big East teams finally paid off last spring, when the ACC seemed to turn a corner. The three 30-win teams (Duke, Notre Dame, Virginia) were a conference first, and although the ACC got only six of 15 teams into the tournament, it also got five teams into the Sweet 16 and three into the Elite 8 before Duke won the national title. It was unequivocally the best overall tournament performance of any conference.
(A contrarian might say that the ACC was bailed out, yet again, by Duke or North Carolina, which have combined for the league’s last four titles and last five Final Four appearances. Or by swapping also-ran Maryland for powerful Louisville, although the Terrapins were newly competitive last season in the Big Ten and look even stronger this season.)
Even though Brey’s team was one of the bright spots for the ACC last season, he’s not ready to declare the ACC preeminent quite yet – in no small way because he was in the Big East for that 11-bid season and still has some residual loyalty (“you guys”) for that unrecognizable league.
“When you get to half your league in consistently, and then maybe nine sometimes, then you can say you’re the best league,” Brey said. “That’s when you can proudly say it.”
The ACC got six in last season. It could get nine, 10 or even 11 in this season. If that happens, even Brey won’t have any problem saying the ACC is the best league. Proudly.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock