After Lackluster Season, ACC Must Improve Depth to Have the “Best Ever” Conversation AgainPosted by Lathan Wells on April 4th, 2014
Prior to the beginning of the college basketball season, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski infamously proclaimed that the ACC had the potential to be the greatest college basketball conference of all-time. That was a bold proclamation at the time, as we covered here, and with the 2013-14 season now drawing to a close, it’s become painfully apparent that the conference this year did nothing to stake such a claim. So the question then becomes, what does the ACC need to do in coming years to proudly proclaim itself the best basketball conference ever assembled? Here’s a road map for the league’s coaches and administrators.
The conference’s elite have to dominate the non-conference slate and enjoy copious postseason success. While there were a handful of marquee wins spread around prior to ACC play (North Carolina’s defeats of Michigan State, Kentucky, and Louisville; Duke’s defeat of Michigan; Syracuse handling Villanova), the league’s postseason results were anything but stellar. The conference managed to get six teams into the NCAA Tournament, but the upper tier didn’t produce much success when they got there. Duke lost in the opening round; North Carolina and Syracuse fell in the round of 32. Virginia, the regular-season and ACC Tournament champion, may have drawn a rough match-up in the Sweet Sixteen with Michigan State, but it could not advance (and UConn was able to handle the Spartans in the nexts round). The embarrassing result was that there was no ACC teams in the Elite Eight. These teams have to produce in postseason play in addition to their non-conference victories to help the perception of the conference return to an elite level.
The “middle tier” has to make some noise and regularly upend some of the teams at the top. Right now, this middle-tier group would include (in no particular order) NC State, Pittsburgh, Notre Dame, Florida State and Clemson. Minus Notre Dame’s unusually poor season, this group had a fairly successful year as well, considering expectations. NC State and Pittsburgh made the Big Dance, and the Seminoles and Tigers represented the ACC well by playing into the NIT semifinals. The problem with this group is they didn’t do much at all against the best teams in the conference, save for a Clemson win over Duke and a painful Pittsburgh loss to Syracuse on a Tyler Ennis half-court heave. These teams have to start routinely scaring the ACC’s best for the conference’s depth to be considered legitimate. There will always be weak teams in every conference, but if the middle of the group is soft without many marquee conference wins, there’s no way that the ACC can lay claim to legendary status.
The new hires have to bring their teams into contention quickly. Buzz Williams’ splash hiring at Virginia Tech has to translate into relevance, especially with in-state rival Virginia on the ascent. Boston College’s somewhat puzzling hire of Jim Christian cannot be another miss like the Steve Donahue hire, or the Eagles will bring up the depths of the conference for years to come. Danny Manning must recruit the state of North Carolina well and steal some of the prized local players from Duke, North Carolina, and NC State. Jim Larranaga has to show he can re-build a Miami program that won the conference a year ago but struggled after all of its main contributors departed. The worst teams in the ACC this season can’t remain that way indefinitely, they have to start making moves up the conference ladder to place pressure on the schools above them.
The ACC clearly has thoroughbred programs in Duke, Syracuse, North Carolina and incoming Louisville to count on for national relevance every year. Virginia’s rise is an excellent boon to the conference’s national status; if Tony Bennett can keep his team in contention for conference titles and high seeds in the NCAA Tournament every year, the league benefits. In order to expect historic achievements, though, the teams in the middle of the pack and the bottom must improve and remain competitive with that top tier. NC State has fielded good teams of late, but Mark Gottfried has yet to prove he can win big with a talented roster. Notre Dame floundered with the loss of its best player this year, but Mike Brey is typically one of the better coaches in the nation at getting the most from his roster. Jim Larranaga is only one year removed from winning the ACC. The pieces are there, but they have to coalesce at the same time and remain viable for years at a time for the ACC to have any chance of being regarded as the greatest college basketball conference of all-time in a single season.