Jacobs: ACC’s Status Remains Unclear

These days commentary about ACC men’s basketball is a bit like listening to the forecast of a winter storm. The worse things look, the more excitedly breathless the coverage.

We get it. The ACC might have been the best college basketball conference at one time, but those days are past.

Nor is the newly configured ACC, soon to be half-filled with Big East refugees, the best league that ever existed. All the hype prior to his season was just that – overheated rhetoric that conflated the historical record with the current state of affairs.

And the current state of affairs is that the ACC is a league in transition, facing the humbling prospect of having its latest Big East imports become the teams to beat. At least for now.

In some respects the situation is reminiscent of 2006, when a veteran Boston College squad left the Big East and immediately muscled to the fore in the ACC.

The Eagles won 11 of 16 conference games, finished third during the regular season, and took Duke to the wire before losing by a basket in the ACC Tournament finals. Three of BC’s five regular-season league losses were by a single basket. Two Eagles, Craig Smith and Jared Dudley, made All-ACC.

But new additions Syracuse, Pittsburgh, and Notre Dame are a far more formidable basketball trio than the group that arrived with BC. In fact, outside observers took it as a sign of weakness when Virginia Tech, another Big East refugee with a paucity of basketball tradition, finished among the ACC’s top four teams all but once in its first seven conference seasons (2005-11).

In retrospect, the critics were probably right. Certainly NCAA tournament selection committees thought so.

Where once the ACC’s internal strength routinely propelled a majority of its members to the NCAAs, since the expansion of 2005 intra-league play has failed to lift all boats. Over the past nine years the ACC sent the majority of its members to the NCAA tournament only twice.

Conversely, after averaging about one team annually in the Final Four for a quarter-century, the conference hasn’t sent a squad since Duke won the championship in 2010.

That’s the longest drought since 1958 through 1960.

Making matters worse, at least for traditionalists, as January draws to a close it appears the league’s best hope for a return to the Final Four is Syracuse, with ACC roots about as deep as North Carolina’s stable of outside shooters. 

Duke showed the other night at Pittsburgh, which already has 18 wins, that at least one of the ACC’s incumbent powers is not ready to cede the high ground. According to some writers in Pittsburgh, the Blue Devils’ 80-65 victory also reflected a chronic inability to win big games by Jamie Dixon’s Panthers. That charge has dogged his program in NCAA play – just one regional final in 10 tries – and during in-season matchups with top teams.

Meanwhile, having rediscovered its defensive prowess, Duke looks like the team picked to finish atop the ACC standings in 2014. In fact, the Devils are right where they were at the same time last season, with six victories in their first eight league outings.

Of course the 2013 Devils finished third in the ACC, but we won’t quibble. They did, after all, advance farther than any other league member in the NCAAs, bumped in the Elite Eight by Louisville, the eventual champ and next season’s replacement for departing Maryland.

This year’s early stumbles by Duke and UNC, coupled with Syracuse’s undefeated start through 20 games, have distracted from a larger truth: it remains unclear whether many of the ACC’s holdover programs are on the upswing, or treading water.

When the league started notably fading, conventional wisdom had it the fault lay with the ACC’s cadre of coaches. Administrators and circumstances combined to ratify that assessment — between 2009 and 2012 all but three of the then-dozen ACC schools replaced their head coaches.

Only Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, Florida State’s Leonard Hamilton, and UNC’s Roy Williams remain from the 2008-09 coaching contingent. The shift in coaching leadership has produced one breakthrough season and plenty of promise, but few conclusive results.

Clearly the most impressive achievement among the recharged schools belonged to Miami, which won an ACC title and finished first in 2013. Both were unparalleled achievements during the Hurricanes’ league tenure.

This year Jim Larranaga has cobbled together enough holdovers and newcomers to keep Miami competitive despite replacing its top six scorers. That’s a testament to good coaching, and to the staying power that’s the mark of a quality program.

Virginia similarly seems on the right track under Tony Bennett. The Cavaliers are well-positioned to earn their second NCAA bid during the coach’s five years at Charlottesville. Their 7-1 ACC start, employing a roster entirely recruited by Bennett, is the school’s best in more than 30 years.

Mark Gottfried, like Larranaga, did well with the talent he inherited at N.C. State. His first two Wolfpack squads reached the NCAAs, something predecessor Sidney Lowe failed to achieve in a half-decade at Raleigh. Now Gottfried, too, is striving to establish continuity in a program that lost its top four players.

This season’s capable squad is in the middle of the league race, a better showing than many expected. Sophomore T.J. Warren has led ACC scorers the entire year; he could become the first Pack player to pace conference scoring since Todd Fuller in 1996.

There are even signs of progress in Winston-Salem, where lagging attendance and three straight losing seasons appeared about to overwhelm Jeff Bzdelik.

Instead, his ’14 Deacons have 14 wins. That’s more than any of his previous clubs.

While Wednesday’s loss to Syracuse ended a 13-game winning streak at Joel Coliseum, the Deacs still have a reasonable chance at 17 victories, heights surpassed only twice at the school since 2005. 

With an underclass-dominated squad and a coach whom many Wake fans dislike, that showing might be as impressive as anything the ACC’s other new bench maestros has orchestrated.