ACC Rediscovers Its Roots: A Pre-emptive Strike Ensures Basketball DominancePosted by rtmsf on September 17th, 2011
In a conference realignment move that can only fairly be described as pre-emptive, expeditious, and quite possibly transcendent, the ACC is reportedly on the verge of adding Big East stalwarts Syracuse and Pittsburgh to its existing 12-team configuration. According to published reports, a vote by the league presidents could come as soon as Sunday, and CBSSports.com’s Gary Parrish tweeted earlier today that his source stated that the move is “done.” This is simply a phenomenal turn of events in a realignment summer that has focused almost exclusively on the Big 12 and whether its Texas schools might end up moving west, east, or sticking where they are. The transition will bring two of the top 15 or 20 national college basketball programs into the league while simultaneously forcing the blindsided Big East to scramble for its very existence.
We wrote last year that the ACC might best situate itself among conference masters of the universe by again connecting with its basketball roots. The league was built on the shoulders of bloody Tobacco Road battles among Frank McGuire at North Carolina, Everett Case at NC State, Vic Bubas at Duke, and Bones McKinney at Wake Forest when the schools were all located within a stone’s throw of each other (Wake has since moved 80 miles west). Roundball was the essence of the ACC long before football television dollars started driving otherwise rational folks to do crazy things.
If you talk to longtime ACC fans, those who were around for the 8-team configuration through most of its history, there’s a general sentiment that the league lost its soul when it expanded for football, first in 1991 with Florida State, later with Miami (FL) and Virginia Tech in 2004, and Boston College in 2005. And although nobody can quite put their finger on it as to why or how, there’s a corresponding feeling that somehow, someway, the expansion also hurt the quality of basketball played in the league. During the 1980s and 1990s, there was no question among basketball faithful nationwide that the ACC consistently played the highest quality basketball of any league in America. Not only were programs like Duke and North Carolina dominant (as they are now), but there was a verifiable depth of quality programs to support the notion.
As we’ve written in this space before, what was once a veritable lock for the ACC to put three or four teams into the Sweet Sixteen every March has dropped in likelihood as the conference has grown. Eight ACC teams have made it to the NCAA Tournament’s second weekend in the last five years, and only one of those — Florida State last season — was not named Duke or Carolina. Compare that with the halcyon era of 1984-95, when the league comprised a full quarter of the Sweet Sixteen in eight of 12 years! What’s more is that all nine conference programs made the Sweet Sixteen at least once in that period. It started slowing down in the late 1990s, but Maryland’s ascendancy was able to stave off some of the decline — yet, with a full 12-school membership, the league hasn’t yet been able to come close to that kind of success. Since the last expansion driven by football, the ACC has put a single team in the Sweets three separate times, an outcome simply unheard of a generation ago.
Which brings us to the latest expansion. Pittsburgh and Syracuse are not mere add-ons for the sake of staying ahead of the Joneses (and SECs, Big Tens, and Pac-12s). These are legitimately fantastic basketball programs. Both the Panthers and Orange have been annual 25-win teams under the tutelage of Jamie Dixon and Jim Boeheim, frequently earning top four seeds and playing into the NCAA’s second weekend. In ranking ACC programs in terms of current national significance, these two immediately slot just behind Duke and North Carolina in terms of star power, prestige, and consistent relevance. With one fell swoop, the ACC effectively doubled its national hoops cachet while simultaneously undercutting the Big East in a way that could potentially cripple that league (and sorry, but we are not buying that Jamie Dixon’s program will drop off as a result of this move).
With the ACC set to move to 14 teams and the Big East talking to any school who will listen, the question is now what comes next. You have to figure that the ACC is looking to poach two more schools, and that basketball will once again be on their minds when doing so. We have already discussed the Texas option, so assuming that the Longhorns join the ACC so that it can keep its Longhorn Network deal, who might be the sixteenth team? We’d have to figure that Connecticut would be the next target. With its ties into the New York City market and even more powerful basketball program than Pitt and SU, grabbing the Huskies to go along with the Panthers, Orange, Longhorns, and the rest would be nothing short of ridiculous. And what of an even more aggressive move — if the Big 12 dissolves and the ACC finds itself with another slot open if Virginia Tech, Florida State, or Clemson bolts to the SEC, could Kansas and its top five historical program be on the wish list? Just imagine what that would be like. Wow.
Give credit to John Swofford where it’s due. A few weeks ago the ACC as a major conference appeared as if it might have been in serious trouble — now, through a focus on its roots and what once made it great, it’s positioned to once again become the best basketball conference in America and, perhaps most importantly, a survivor in the predatory environment of modern college athletics.