The ACC will open its 52nd season as competitively strong and talent-rich as ever, with six teams nationally ranked in the top 20, including three in the top four. But in the past year, the conference's makeup and reputation have been altered by factors that previously only affected other leagues.
For the first time at Duke and North Carolina, the ACC's vanguard, committed recruits opted to turn pro rather than play, even for a year. And because of football-driven expansion, the league will not crown what many view as a true regular season champion for the first time. The changing landscape has caused some to question whether the venerable conference will lose some of the uniqueness that consistently made it one of the nation's most attractive leagues.
"If I thought about it, I might just leave, keep driving and go back to Pittsburgh," Wake Forest Coach Skip Prosser said of the competitive ACC.
(Bob Jordan - AP)
Because of the additions of Virginia Tech and Miami this season, the ACC had to forgo its traditional double-round robin schedule in which every school plays every other twice. Instead, schools will retain a 16-game conference schedule, but they'll play four teams only once -- shifting rivalries and giving some teams distinct scheduling advantages.
For Wake Forest Coach Skip Prosser, the format change is the "most dramatic casualty" of expansion. "Your regular season champion -- there will always be a question mark," Prosser said. "There will always be that cloud, if you will."
Even amid change, league coaches applauded the conference's power and depth. Last season, the ACC became the first conference ever to have five teams receive No. 4 seeds or better in one NCAA tournament. The league earned the highest regular season Ratings Percentage Index mark ever recorded. And the quarterfinal round of the ACC tournament was so contentious, it was dubbed "Bloody Friday."
This year, it is better, largely because 20 of the ACC's top 25 scorers return, as does Duke's Mike Krzyzewski, the sport's most accomplished coach who spurned an offer from the Los Angeles Lakers in the offseason. Many coaches say there has never been a better league in any one season than what the ACC promises to be this year.
"I really don't even want to think about it," said Prosser, whose team is considered the league favorite in several polls. "If I thought about it, I might just leave, keep driving and go back to Pittsburgh or off into the sunset."
North Carolina's Roy Williams, the former Kansas coach, remembers the recent power of the Big 12 in 2002 and 2003. In those two years combined, Big 12 teams held six slots in the national quarterfinals and four spots in the Final Four. "But I don't think anything compares to what we have in the ACC right now," Williams said. "This year, it's probably the best league I have ever been involved in."
Added Clemson assistant Kevin Nickelberry, "When the fifth-best team in the conference is Duke, that's scary."
The Blue Devils' predicament is symbolic of the difficulties in recruiting and retaining players. Duke reached the Final Four last season with only one impact senior, Chris Duhon, but the Blue Devils couldn't keep incoming recruit Shaun Livingston and freshman Luol Deng, both of whom were selected among the top seven in the NBA draft. As a result, Duke was not picked by the media to win the ACC title for the first time since 1999.
"I've been asked, 'Well, you're not on the radar screen anymore,' " Krzyzewski said. "Are you kidding me? We're not on the radar screen? We'll always be on the radar screen. Now, whether you want us off or you don't want us there, we're there."
North Carolina nearly lost two recruits to the NBA, but Marvin Williams decided against turning pro even though he was touted as a top 20 pick. Another Tar Heels recruit, J.R. Smith, whose draft stock soared only after strong performances in spring all-star games, was chosen with the 18th pick.
The sport's changing culture finally reached the top of the ACC last year, when Williams made a recruiting visit to a player's home in Georgia. Inside, the high school senior showed Williams a two-page essay he wrote as a ninth-grader. Several goals were detailed, including plans to win a state title as a freshman and eventually be the top pick in the NBA draft.
"There was no Final Four, no 'One Shining Moment,' no anything about college basketball," said Williams, who in June watched the player, Dwight Howard, get selected first overall in the NBA draft. The chance to play for the nation's most recognized program had lost some appeal.
Yet the ACC remains a showcase of stars, particularly point guards. Five of the country's top seven point guards hail from the ACC, according to one preseason magazine.
"It's an NBA league," Nickelberry said. "Come and watch Shaq play, come and watch Michael Jordan. It's mini-NBA marketing. Every kid knows about the ACC; you don't have to sell it. You tell kids they'll get to play against Chris Paul or Raymond Felton. And if you don't have pros on your team, you can't win in this league."
The ultimate stage for the ACC's best is the conference tournament, which has been played outside North Carolina only once since 1990. The tournament, to be held March 10-13 at MCI Center, will occur in North Carolina only three times in the next six years.
"In some ways it's great to give those other people a chance, but in Kansas City and in Greensboro, time stopped for the Big 12 tournament and the ACC tournament," Williams said. "It remains to be seen whether time will stop in all the other places. And if it doesn't, I'm one of those old-fashioned guys -- I like to go around and see the marquees on all the hotels and restaurants saying 'Good luck in the ACC tournament' as opposed to people in town not even knowing the ACC tournament is going on."
The round robin scheduling change has coaches most concerned. Duke will not play at Virginia this season. Maryland, on the other hand, gets a distinct advantage, having to face preseason top-five teams Wake Forest and Georgia Tech only once each.
The driving force behind expansion, which concludes when Boston College joins next fall, was to strengthen the football conference and stage a lucrative conference championship game. Many, however, counter that it has weakened ACC basketball -- Virginia Tech and Miami are expected to be the league's worst teams -- and disrupted tradition. In any event, as Krzyzewski said, "You move on."
"And here we are," Maryland Coach Gary Williams said. "And now it's up to us, the basketball people, to continue basketball to be what it's always been."