TheSportsMuse is a contributor to Midwest Sports Fans. He graduated from both Duke University and the University of Virginia, and is an avid ACC follower. He can be followed on twitter @TheSportsMuse.
People across the land have talked all season about how bad the ACC is. Some have even used what can only be hoped is hyperbole and claimed that the league is on par with the (gasp!) Horizon league.
So I thought it was my duty, as an avid follower of the ACC since the mid ‘80s, to weigh in on the debate.
The ACC has a proud history. In fact, I think most would be hard pressed to dispute the notion that it has been the premier basketball conference in the country going back 15, 20, 30 years or more. Over the past 15 years, the conference boasts the most Final Four appearances and most National Champions. ESPN (not me!!!) voted Duke and North Carolina the top 2 programs (in that order, of course) in college basketball since the tournament field expanded to 64 teams in 1985. Because of this prolonged success, it is noticeable when this league does not perform at as high a level.
Is the ACC down this year? YES! Quite simply, the conference is not as good as it usually is. More alarming, it is really not due to an unusually high flow of talent leaving early for the NBA. In fact, the ACC only had five players picked (three of whom were early entrants) in the entire first round. But we will get a bit more into the why below.
What I want to propose here is that the ACC, while clearly down, and not one of the top three conferences in the country, is not as awful as some would like you to believe. In fact, I would argue that, of the six power conferences, the SEC and the Pac 10 are both inferior to the ACC.
If you believe what the RPI tells you, then the ACC is rated higher than both of its big-conference brethren. If you like the Pomeroy Rating system (www.kenpom.com), which I believe is a strong statistical measure of quality, then the ACC has 5 teams ranked between 20-40 (UNC, Maryland, Virginia Tech, Boston College, and Florida State) in addition to #2 Duke. In comparison, the Pac 10 and the SEC both have 3 teams in Pomeroy’s Top 40. And, the highest ranked team from the Horizon league is squarely-on-the-bubble Butler, at #58. Finally, Joe Lunardi currently has 5 ACC teams in the NCAA field, tied for 4th with the SEC behind this year’s three best conferences (Big East, Big 10, and Big 12 in that order).
So why is the ACC down? In my opinion, there are three major reasons.
First, it is a more competitive recruiting landscape that ACC schools face. It used to be that a great TV contract and the chance to play Duke and North Carolina were enough to attract strong talent to the ACC schools. Not anymore. More and more schools are getting significant TV time, and many schools are increasing their schedule strength, so that those advantages have been mitigated. Second, the switch to mega conferences (in the ACC’s case adding BC, Va Tech, and Miami) was a football-based decision and has in turn hurt basketball. Rivalries are not as strong as they once were, and the overall perception of the conference has declined. This, too, cannot help with recruiting.
Finally, and most importantly, the coaching talent is not where it needs to be in the conference. Sidney Lowe has proven at NC St that he cannot coach with or without talent. Last night’s game at Clemson proved it again. They squandered a 19-point lead by giving up something like a 48-12 run, and had no answers along the way. This team is talented. They have experienced talent in Tracy Smith and skilled youngsters in CJ Leslie and Ryan Harrow. If there is not a new coach in place next year, there needs to be an investigation in Raleigh (I would recommend they let former UConn booster Robert Burton pick the coach and write the check that goes along with it; he is available: http://sports.espn.go.com/ncf/news/story?id=6057094).
Oliver Purnell did not leave the Clemson program in great shape, while Dino Gaudio was a stopgap after the untimely passing of Skip Prosser at Wake Forest. On the flip side Gary Williams is a great sideline tactician, but has never cared for recruiting, and that is hurting the Terps. Finally, and who am I to criticize a coach who has won two National titles, but Roy Williams has not handled adversity at all well during the past season and a half in Chapel Hill. The good news on coaching is that Steve Donohue at BC, Tony Bennett at Virginia and Brad Brownell at Clemson are really good coaches who will build winning programs in the next 2-4 years.
Of course, all the discussion of the quality of any conference is preliminary and must be reserved until the end of March. That is the great thing about college basketball. We can debate all we want, but in the end, the schools themselves get to prove it on the court. The ACC, and all other conferences, will be judged on how many teams they get into the beautiful splendor that is March Madness, and what those teams do once they get there.
I think most would agree that Duke should get to the Sweet 16 and is one of about 10 teams to have a legitimate chance to win six games and take home the National Championship, with or without Kyrie Irving. After the Blue Devils, can any other teams put together multiple wins and still be playing on the tournament’s second weekend? I say yes, but it is not a slam dunk.
North Carolina is the most likely candidate to get to the Sweet 16 or beyond. They have loads of talent, and with Kendall Marshall supplanting Larry Drew II at the point guard spot (which was long overdue), they can get the consistency they need to be a winning team. If they can figure out ways to open up Harrison Barnes and get him producing up to his talent level, this team can be nasty by March.
Of the remaining teams, they could all lose in the first round, but they all have the potential to win at least a game. The other team most likely to make a dent in March is Florida State, who plays hard nosed defense and half court offense that is a strong formula for winning in the tournament. Of course, FSU lost to Auburn this month so they are capable of getting beat by anyone, except probably 0-21 Centenary (The Chief, Robert Paris, is probably just shaking his head about the Gents).
Finally, a sleeper team is Maryland. Playing as they are today, the Terps have no chance to win a game. They have a young and inexperienced backcourt that has no clue how to leverage one of the country’s premier assets in Jordan Williams. If Gary Williams can unlock that formula in time to get a bid, he may have a shot to do something with it.
So while the ACC is down this year, and down pretty far from the lofty standards which it has established over the past quarter century or more, it still has a chance to acquit itself successfully when they throw the ball up in the air on March 17th. That is the beauty about hoops; we don’t have to wonder whether TCU could beat Auburn. We get to see who can win one, two, or six games right on the court.