Since expansion, the ACC has been merely another common conference in basketball
By John Feinstein,
The discussion, according to those in the room, was brief. The vote was emphatic: 9 to 0 against expansion.
“It might have been the only 9 to 0 vote we ever had in my 22 years,” former Maryland coach Gary Williams recalled recently, laughing at the memory. “Of course the commissioner and the presidents said, ‘Thank you very much,’ and did what they were planning to do. Our thoughts never left that room because they didn’t care.”
Almost eight years later, it looks as if they should have cared. Consider these names: Iona (which beat Maryland, easily), Wofford, Boston University, Holy Cross, Mercer, Coastal Carolina, Princeton, Harvard (twice) and Tulane. They all have wins over ACC teams this season.
This is the basketball conference in the country?
“One of the reasons I think we were all against the expansion is because we looked around and said, ‘If it ain’t broke, why fix it?’ ” North Carolina Coach Roy Williams said. “We were being told, ‘This will help you,’ and our attitude was, ‘Why do we need help?’ ”
At that moment in time, the conference had produced five national champions in the previous 15 seasons. In those same 15 years, four ACC schools had made 17 Final Four appearances (Duke 7, North Carolina 6, Maryland 2 and Georgia Tech 2.) Three other ACC schools — Florida State, Wake Forest and Virginia — had reached the Elite Eight during that time.
Since expansion, the ACC has made four Final Four appearances in seven seasons: North Carolina has three and Duke one. The Tar Heels have won two national titles and the Blue Devils one to keep the image of the league — at least at the top — afloat. What is far more troubling is what has happened to the other 10 schools: zero Elite Eight appearances since expansion, three trips to the Sweet 16 (one each by Boston College, Florida State and North Carolina State).
Last season, two teams other than Duke and North Carolina represented the ACC in the NCAA tournament: Florida State and Clemson, which only got in as one of the last four teams selected because of the tournament expanding to a 68-team field. By contrast, the Big East received 11 bids.
“That was a frustrating day,” ACC Commissioner John Swofford conceded on Friday. “It wasn’t a complete surprise but it was frustrating. There is no question that we need to rebuild the depth in our conference. It hasn’t been as good in the last few years as it has been historically. We have certain standards we expect to live up to as a league. But you are only as good as a whole as the individual teams are year in and year out.”
Translation: On a national level since expansion, the ACC has become, for all intents and purposes, a two-team league.
“What you did was you took what was the basketball league and sent a message that said: Now we’re trying to be a football league,” Gary Williams said. “Other leagues use that when they recruit against you: ‘Well, the ACC used to be a basketball-first league.’ And, because of the way things have gone and the way the league was marketed, a lot of players from, say, the West Coast, when they think ACC now, they think two schools: Duke and Carolina.”
Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski agrees that the ACC needs to change its branding approach, and part of that change needs to come when schedules are put together following the upcoming expansion that will include Syracuse and Pittsburgh.
“I don’t the problem was just expanding,” he said. “It’s the way the expansion was handled. I think a majority of our administrators took the ACC basketball brand for granted. It’s a little bit like the people who run Coca-Cola saying, ‘Let’s focus on making Diet Coke more popular even if it means selling out Coke.’ You don’t do anything that hurts your core brand in the hope that it will help another brand. That’s what they did.
“And putting together a schedule with two regular partners for each school was a mistake. It should be no more than one. The schedule worked fine for Duke and for Carolina and for Maryland [which plays Duke twice every year], but not so much for the other schools. You’ve got to have everyone playing everyone else. They’re talking about some kind of pod system for the new expansion where some teams wouldn’t play at all in a given year. That would be a big mistake and I’m afraid they might make it.”
Right now, the ACC has three teams that appear headed for brutal seasons: Wake Forest, Boston College and Georgia Tech. When it was pointed out to Swofford that the bottom of the league may be as weak this season as it has ever been, Swofford said, “Let’s put it this way: the bottom of the league probably isn’t as strong as it has been in the past.”
Another issue is the fall of the ACC tournament, once the event in college basketball outside of the NCAA tournament. For more than 40 years, there was no public sale of ACC tournament tickets. Now there is one.
The first day of the tournament, on Thursday, “is a challenge,” Swofford said. “Of course that’s true of early rounds across the country. The difference is, we’ve been the standard-bearer in the past so it’s more noticeable when it happens to us.”
Naturally, the coaches defend the quality of the league.
“College basketball has changed everywhere,” Krzyzewski said. “People go everywhere now, not just to the power conferences. There are more good teams, less great teams. The ACC is still pretty damn good.”
“Hey, we’ve got eight teams in the [RPI] top 100,” said Virginia Tech’s Seth Greenberg, who has lived his life on the bubble since he was in grade school. “What’s so bad about that?”
Nothing, except this: The ACC was once an eight-team league that received six NCAA tournament bids (1986). Last season, it was a 12-team league that was lucky to get four.
The first 10 times the ACC and the Big Ten met in their “challenge” series, the ACC won. The last three years, the Big Ten has won, including by an 8-4 margin this season.
Then again, the ACC is 4-3 against the Ivy League this season. Of course, six of those seven games were played on ACC home courts; one at a neutral site. Maybe the ACC can work out a similar deal with the Big Ten in the future.
Or it could expand again. The Washington Wizards might be available. That would probably give the league one more team in the top 100. Then again, maybe not.
For more by the author, visit his blog at www.feinsteinonthebrink.com