Yes. Maybe. Not Exactly
By Al Featherston
February 21, 2006
"Maybe some of those other leagues don't like all the attention we get. I think it's an extremely competitive league that a lot of the people who say negative things wish they were writing and covering or they wish they were coaching here."
-- Maryland coach Gary Williams
ACC basketball coaches are getting tired of hearing about how the league is "down" this season.
It seems as if every TV talking head, every ink-stained scribe and every motor-mouth radio talk jock is raving about the Big East and how strong the new megaconference has become. The ACC, the most successful basketball league in the modern (64/65-team NCAA Tournament) era, apparently has become yesterday's news.
"To me, it's amazing how people do look at it," Maryland's Gary Williams said recently. "The ACC over the years has been the best conference in college basketball. Maybe some of those other leagues don't like all the attention we get. I think it's an extremely competitive league that a lot of the people who say negative things wish they were writing and covering or they wish they were coaching here."
Perception bothers the ACC coaches in part because they fear it could have some impact on the NCAA Men's Basketball Committee when it comes to tournament selection time. With all of the speculation about the Big East ("Will they get 10 bids?") and the Big Ten (lobbying for seven bids), how many spots will there be for the ACC in a "down year?"
"Hopefully, the tournament committee will sift through some of the talking heads and be able to evaluate the conference based on the strength that it has," N.C. State coach Herb Sendek said. "As a biased participant, I have a hard time identifying with anybody who says the ACC is down. I just think that's not the case at all."
W-A-A-Y DOWN FROM 2004/2005
Sendek can be forgiven for his conference loyalty. But only a myopic observer can argue that the ACC is not down here in 2006.
How could it not be, after losing so much talent to the NBA last spring? Seven of the top 22 selections in the draft were ACC products, and six were underclassmen. That doesn't include some other valuable players, such as Maryland point guard John Gilchrist, Duke big man Shavlik Randolph and Florida State wing Von Wafer, who all turned pro without being drafted so high (if at all). The league was especially hard-hit at point guard, where the departures of stars such as Chris Paul, Raymond Felton, Jarrett Jack and Gilchrist left the league so bereft of playmaking talent that a freshman is leading the league in assists.
A year after putting three teams in the final Associated Press top five, the ACC has one indisputable national title contender.
Yes, the ACC is down in 2005-06. The real question -- and the one where the coaches have a viable argument -- is this: Just how down is it?
Compared to the previous two seasons, the ACC is w-a-a-y down.
In 2003-04, the ACC recorded the highest conference RPI in the 21-year history of that rating. Three teams (out of nine in that pre-expansion season) were ranked in the top 10 during the season, and six were ranked at one point or another. The conference enjoyed a 106-22 non-conference record (82.8 percent) against the toughest non-league schedule played by any major conference. Two-thirds of the league (six of nine) earned NCAA bids, and two teams reached the Final Four, as the ACC went 14-6 in NCAA play.
In 2004-05, the ACC once again enjoyed the nation's best RPI (although a bit lower than the previous year's record mark). It was 25-13 against other major conferences and had an 80.4 winning percentage against the nation's toughest non-league schedule. Seven ACC teams were ranked in the top 25 in one early poll, and three ended up in the top five. The ACC became the first league ever to get five teams seeded in the top 16, including two No. 1 seeds and a No. 2. Its teams finished with a 12-4 NCAA record and, of course, UNC gave the league its 10th national championship.
The 2005-06 ACC simply doesn't measure up to those two amazing seasons.
But nobody else does, either. For all of the praise showered on the Big East this season, it's not even the No. 1 conference in the RPI. And with all of the speculation about how many bids the 16-team league will earn, it's unlikely to claim the same percentage of invitations as the ACC garnered in 2004 (two-thirds of the league membership) or to have as many top-four seeds as the ACC earned last year.
No, the real measure of the ACC this season is a comparison -- not with its own impossible standards, but with the reality of the other 2006 conferences. And that comparison is not nearly as one-sided as the ESPN ditto-heads would have you believe.
ACC-BIG EAST: BEHIND BIG TEN
The stampede of anti-ACC sentiment reached a crescendo in the last week of January, when in a four-day span the league's two best teams lost to middle-of-the-pack outfits from the Big East. Just days after holding off N.C. State in Durham, unbeaten Duke traveled to Washington, D.C., and was upset 87-84 by Georgetown. Four days later, the Wolfpack was stunned on its home floor by Seton Hall, 83-65.
Those two losses -- admittedly, somewhat embarrassing -- were perceived as proof that the ACC was inferior to the almighty Big East. But did anybody bother to put those games into any context?
The Georgetown and Seton Hall wins allowed the Big East to even its record against the ACC this season at 4-4. The same Seton Hall team that hammered N.C. State lost by 53 to Duke in the Preseason NIT. The Wolfpack defeated Notre Dame in Indianapolis. ACC bottom-feeder Virginia Tech easily handled St. John's in Blacksburg.
Of course, an eight-game sample is awfully small. But when you measure conference records against the other top-six conferences in the RPI, you get an interesting picture:
- ACC 20-15 57.1%
- Big Ten 20-16 55.6%
Big East 21-22 48.8%
If you measure overall non-conference winning percentage (against Division I opponents), you get this ranking:
Big Ten 105-26 80.2
- ACC 116-30 79.5
- Big East 148-43 77.5
And if you simply measure conference RPI, you get:
- Big Ten .5893
- Big East .5851
ACC .5808 If you prefer Jeff Sagarin's rankings, you get exactly the same order:
Big Ten 83.44
- Big East 83.42
- ACC 82.90
So what objective measure can anyone use to argue that the Big East is the best conference, or that the ACC doesn't measure up? The numbers seem to show that the Big Ten, not the Big East, is the best conference in 2006, with the ACC and Big East vying for the second spot. Either way, there's little separation among the top three.
It's funny, when ACC contender N.C. State lost to Seton Hall at home, it was used as evidence that the entire league was weak. But what did it say about the Big East when on the same night when the Pack was losing to the 15-7 Pirates, Big East co-leader West Virginia was losing on a neutral court to 9-13 Marshall (223 in the RPI)? What did it say about the Big Ten when first-place Illinois lost at home to last-place Penn State, a team stomped at home by Clemson?
Is the ACC really the only league with some bad losses?
"Illinois can lose to Penn State at home and people say, Well, that's just one of those things,'" Maryland's Williams said. "If one of our teams loses a very competitive game -- like we lose to N.C. State, and we play them to a four-point game on their home court -- people say we're not any good."
The ACC clearly is among the nation's top three conferences. The other major leagues don't come close to measuring up. The Pac-10 has more teams outside the top 100 than in the top 50, and league officials are worried that the conference won't get but three NCAA bids. The Big 12 may be in the same boat, unless Colorado surges to give the league a fourth candidate. The SEC will get Tennessee, Florida and LSU, but Kentucky and Alabama are very much on the bubble.
CLOSE GAMES, PARITY RIGHT HERE
Big East touts will assert that the league boasts more good teams than its two closest rivals. That's a valid argument. UConn and Villanova certainly are among the three or four best teams in the country, while West Virginia, Pittsburgh and maybe Georgetown are not far behind.
But the Big East also is very soft at the bottom, and isn't the true measure of a conference the strength of the entire league? You'd have to use Curry Math (ex-UNC quarterback Ron Curry once suggested that if you threw out his bad plays, his stats would look a lot better) to make a case for the Big East as the nation's best conference.
"I think one of the unique things about our league is that the bottom teams, whoever they are, they're pretty good, comparing them to the other major conferences," Maryland's Williams said. "The ACC has tremendous balance this year. There is no bottom-feeding in our league."
Amazingly, 13 percent of the first 64 ACC games played this season were decided in overtime.
N.C. State followed its Seton Hall loss with five straight games decided in the last 30 seconds, including two double-overtime wins. Georgia Tech lost eight straight games in the league, including three decided in the last seconds. Then the Yellow Jackets snapped the streak with a win, when N.C. State missed a game-tying three-pointer on its final possession. Wake Forest was buried at the bottom of the standings after losing nine of its first 10 ACC games, but four of the losses were by six points or less, and eight of the nine were by 10 points or less.
Indeed, even unbeaten Duke has not run away from the league the way it did in 1999, when coach Mike Krzyzewski's Blue Devils fashioned a 16-0 record and left the other eight league members trampled in the mud.
"This year in the conference, I think there have been more close games than I've ever seen before," Krzyzewski said. "You can look at everyone's record -- including ours -- and say they could have three or four more wins or, in our case, three more losses with just a change in one possession."
Maryland's Williams is worried about what perception outsiders are getting from the ACC's succession of close games and the resulting muddle in the middle of the standings.
"After Duke, there is parity in the league," he said. "It's going to be tough for other teams to separate themselves. I get tired of hearing about the other leagues. I see those teams knocking off each other, too, and those losses don't seem to affect those teams that lose those games. So hopefully, it will be the same for our league. We have to be very proactive and talk about how good our league is.
"Sometimes, with a team like Duke in your league, there's a tendency to think maybe the other teams aren't that good because Duke is so dominating. Just like Connecticut in the Big East, I don't think that's necessarily true, that just because you lose to Connecticut, that doesn't make you a bad basketball team. I always look at it as, nationally, how many teams beat Duke? How many teams beat Connecticut?"
TRUE BAROMETER: NCAA RECORD
Florida State's Leonard Hamilton suggests that parity only will make the ACC better.
"Eventually, it's going to do nothing but help," he said. "I think, on the surface, well, we're beating on each other and we don't have great records. In the past, it seems like conferences have received recognition because one or two teams have been so dominant and maybe they're nationally ranked and that elevates the status of everyone else.
"I think the general public hasn't caught up with the fact that every game you play is exciting, and anybody's going to have a chance in every game. I think that's going to elevate the league another notch, because in the past, you've always had three or four teams that have beat up on everybody, even though everybody else was pretty good. Now it seems to go, from top to bottom, anything's capable of happening. I think it's going to make it even more exciting."
He also argues that the new parity will help the ACC in postseason play.
"I think it's good," Hamilton said. "We might knock each other off, but I think we'll be better prepared when we get in the NCAA Tournament, because we will have had a tough schedule. I can see, down the road, where that might be the way of the ACC in the future, where you see a lot of good teams playing every night. I think it's going to create an even more exciting conference than just having one or two teams at the top all the time."
For all of the talk, NCAA Tournament time is when conference strength is revealed -- or exposed.
"Regardless of what you guys are going to write about how strong conferences are, it's the end of the year (that matters)," UNC coach Roy Williams said. "One year in the Big 12, we just walked on people -- I mean they had no hope -- then at the end of the year (people said) the Big 12 was overrated because we didn't have anybody in the Final Four. I know you've got to write something so you can get your paychecks now, but at the end of the year, that's when you determine how strong your conference is."
That's when the ACC has earned its reputation as the nation's best basketball conference. In the modern era, it has more national titles, more Final Four teams, more Sweet 16 teams and more NCAA wins than any other conference. The ACC has averaged more than 10 NCAA wins per season since the tournament went to 64 teams in 1985.
Of course, the ACC also has won three of the last five national titles, with three different teams (Duke 2001, Maryland 2002, UNC 2005) cutting the nets.
But the past success of a team or a conference is not one of the factors the selection committee uses to fill its field. ACC coaches just are hoping that the committee members won't listen to the league's critics, either.
Looking at bubble teams, will the committee give Maryland a fair shake when compared to Alabama, Kentucky or Colorado? (The Terps have a very slight statistical edge on those three teams.) Will anybody note that Virginia's RPI is better than California's and far better than Louisville's? Indeed, FSU's Hamilton got to mid-February with almost exactly the same credentials as Rick Pitino's Cardinals, so he can be forgiven a little lobbying for his Seminoles.
"I'm not into counting numbers," Hamilton said. "I think we're as deserving of bids as anyone. Once we get into the NCAA Tournament, I think you'll see that our teams will do well, on account of the competitive spirit that we've developed over the course of the year."
That will be the final measure of the "down" ACC. How well will the league -- and not just frontrunner Duke -- do in the NCAA Tournament?
If Hamilton, Williams and the others are right, then the ACC's down year might turn out to be not so down after all.