They are calling it the biggest game in Charlottesville since Ralph Sampson’s last home game for Virginia in 1983. The ACC regular season title is at stake. Two teams that wear orange will square off in one of the league’s great traditional rivalries.
Oh wait, not exactly.
Syracusejoined the ACC about 15 minutes ago, but it already has become one of the conference’s most important teams. Both Syracuse-Duke games this season were hyped-to-the-max epics. The Orange gave the conference a top-ranked team for several weeks and is the league’s best chance for a No. 1 seed when the NCAA unveils its 68-team tournament field March 16.
Unless it loses this week’s game of the decade to Virginia.
If Syracuse falls to the Cavaliers on Saturday, it will finish behind the Cavaliers in the regular season standings, meaning it likely would have to win the ACC tournament to be a No. 1 seed.
No matter. For the first time in forever, the ACC actually has a big game going on that doesn’t involve Duke or North Carolina. Finally, the conference has expanded in a way that appears to have turned out well, perhaps because this one is not 100 percent football-driven.
The first ACC raid was in 1991, when then-commissioner Gene Corrigan, desperate for a high-profile football team, brought Florida State into the fold. The Seminoles did give the ACC a genuine national contender for the next 10 years, but in doing so they overwhelmed the rest of the ACC to the point of embarrassment.
By the time Florida State started to slip, Corrigan had retired and John Swofford was sitting in his seat. Swofford decided to pillage the Big East, poaching Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College. Miami has won one ACC title since joining the league — in basketball. That’s one more than Boston College. Virginia Tech has won four football titles but has yet to win a meaningful nonconference game since arriving.
As many basketball coaches have said, that expansion hurt ACC basketball. Coaches in other leagues began pointing out to recruits that the league had sold its soul to football and was no longer a true basketball league. Since Virginia Tech and Miami began playing football in the ACC in the fall of 2004 (Boston College arrived a year later), no ACC team other than Duke or North Carolina has reached the Final Four. In fact, no ACC team at all has reached the Final Four since 2010, a three-year drought that hadn’t happened since 1959, 1960 and 1961.
Perhaps but not likely.
Now the ACC has added Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame. Next season, Louisville will arrive and Maryland will depart.
The raid of Syracuse and Pittsburgh from the Big East may have been inspired by ESPN executives who were looking to undercut the Big East after the conference turned down an offer to extend its TV contract and decided to put it out to bid. Regardless of how it happened, there’s no doubt the arrival of those two schools has improved the basketball profile of the league — especially in the case of Syracuse.
If the Orange and Panthers were not part of the ACC this season, it might be faced with the embarrassing specter of receiving only three NCAA tournament bids — two fewer than the Atlantic 10 is likely to receive. Notre Dame is having a down season but has been solid for most of Mike Brey’s tenure. Louisville will add another true power team to the conference next season.
The latest round of expansion will do little for football.
But after diminishing its stature with each football-inspired expansion, the ACC has finally gotten it right for basketball this time.
Let’s not get carried away, though. The screaming TV pundits already are insisting that Duke-Syracuse is one of sport’s great rivalries. Let’s calm down. They played two great games, and it’s probably safe to say both will remain important teams nationally at least as long as Mike Krzyzewski and Jim Boeheim are coaching them.
But what will the most riveting rivalry in the history of the last 15 minutes look like in five years when Krzyzewski, currently 67, and Boeheim, 69, are drinking wine and reminiscing about the good old days?
With all due respect to Steve Wojciechowski and Mike Hopkins, who are fine young assistant coaches who deserve the chance to follow their mentors, will Duke and Syracuse be quite as big a deal?
Maybe. Then again, maybe not.
And Louisville’s Rick Pitino, who is 61, might be at the same table arguing about the quality of the chardonnay with Boeheim in the not-too-distant future. Roy Williams, 63, won’t be there, but he might be working full time on his golf game by then.
That’s four Hall of Fame coaches gone, two from the most recent expansion.
All four of those schools have great pedigrees and should be able to continue to win without those coaches. Whether they will win is hard to say.
The good news is that Tony Bennett has breathed life into Virginia, and the Cavaliers should be a factor for a while. But the added depth at the top of the conference doesn’t exactly give hope to those who are trying to climb back to prominence.
Last summer, Georgia Tech Coach Brian Gregory sat watching a game at an AAU tournament and talked to Tom Izzo, his old boss at Michigan State, about the changes in the ACC and the Big Ten.
“I feel like I started out trying to construct a building,” Gregory said. “Just when I got the foundation built, I found out that someone has already built three new penthouse units on top of me.”
No doubt that’s tough for Gregory, Maryland’s Mark Turgeon and those other ACC coaches who are staring next month’s National Invitation Tournament — at best — in the face.
But for the conference as a whole, the new rivalries — even if they’re shallow ones right now — are a much needed boost. It isn’t so much that the ACC needed to become a 15-team league. It’s that it needed to stop being a two-team one.
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.
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