We’re on familiar turf, at least in those parts of the ACC footprint not obscured by snow. Crocuses are blooming, robins grace lawns, and conversation has turned to the paucity of ACC teams deserving of NCAA consideration. Even players readily accept the belief the league is down (again) this season.
Yet regardless of what transpires in 2013, and despite the sense the conference is caught in an extended loop of mediocrity, things may actually be looking up for the ACC.
That’s assuming the ship can’t be righted this season, or that the recent record is as gloomy as many insist.
With an 18-game league schedule that’s not quite half completed, middling teams have time to raise their performance another notch to make a strong stretch run. Virginia, for instance, has games remaining against three of other four ACC squads with winning records in league play.
Sure, home teams have won an unusually high 70 percent of conference contests in 2013 (35 of 50), a sign of overall competitive anemia. In general the ability to win on the road is a key indicator of a squad’s prowess – so far ACC leader Miami is five-for-five away from home and 8-0 overall within the league. Duke, Florida State, and North Carolina are the only other programs with as many as two road victories each.
Don’t read too much into this imbalance, however. As recently as 2010, homestanding ACC squads won 69 percent of the time in conference play, and the league still sent half its members to the NCAA tournament.
That same season Duke carried the league banner to a national championship. It was the league’s fifth NCAA title within a decade and second in a row, following on the heels of North Carolina’s 2009 victory.
Not too shabby.
Nor is it much of a leap to argue the ACC’s streak of consecutive NCAA championships might easily stand at four and counting, a SEC-football sort of dominance, were it not for injuries to a pair of superlative point guards.
The 2011 Blue Devils, built around a core of Nolan Smith, Kyle Singler, Seth Curry, and the brothers Plumlee, were top-ranked and undefeated with freshman Kyrie Irving running the club. “We felt with him, that team was head and shoulders the best team in the country,” says Chris Collins, Duke’s associate head coach.
Irving, the NBA rookie of the year in 2011-12 and an all-pro this season, was lost to injury in early December 2010. Duke, despite a 32-5 record, was never the same, not even when Irving recovered in mid-March for the NCAAs.
Then last year North Carolina, boasting four first-round NBA picks, lost catalyst Kendall Marshall in its second NCAA outing. The Tar Heels likewise never recovered.
But injuries are part of the game, as a beset Virginia team discovered last season in spiraling from 18-3 to crippled irrelevancy.
Here’s where a long view brings a bit of solace, even if you stipulate the ACC is not enjoying a vintage season and hasn’t really been the same since expanding a decade ago.
The region’s sports media began clamoring for an upgrade in coaches about the time the ACC started losing its annual challenge series with the Big 10.
No doubt it was a coincidence, but that’s when athletic directors began purging ACC coaching ranks. Since 2009-10, nine of 12 conference programs brought in new coaches.
Most have been impressive.
From Steve Dohanue at Boston College to Brad Brownell at Clemson, Jim Larranaga at Miami to Mark Gottfried at N.C. State, newcomers immediately won with inherited talent.
To sustain success, a coach needs to install his own system and to populate his roster with players who fit his preferred style. That usually takes a full cycle of recruits; only Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, UNC’s Roy Williams, and FSU’s Leonard Hamilton have been at their present posts even four full seasons.
Given time, then, the recent influx of coaches promises better results across the board for the ACC. Meanwhile an immediate boost is on the near horizon, thanks to the league’s football-centric expansionism.
Next season nationally prominent Pittsburgh and Syracuse join the ACC. Louisville and Notre Dame are waiting in the wings, even as Maryland is poised to fly the coop.
Jim Boeheim’s Syracuse basketball program, a perennial power, has been ranked in the Associated Press top 10 throughout 2012-13. The Orange return four of their top six players next season.
Pitt under Jamie Dixon went to the NCAAs eight times in his first nine seasons and has averaged better than 26 victories per year. The Panthers return five of their top six players in 2013-14.
By then three of the ACC’s top teams this season – Duke, Miami, and N.C. State – figure to lose a combined 11 upperclass starters. While they recalibrate Pitt and Syracuse could easily storm to the top of the league standings.
There’s precedent for Big East refugees prospering immediately in the ACC. BC entered the league with a veteran group led by Craig Smith and Jared Dudley. The Eagles finished third in the regular season, and came within a basket of winning the 2006 ACC Tournament against Duke.
Instant success by the latest crop of Big East imports would be a bit uncomfortable for the rest of the ACC. But when you’re trying to regain an accustomed place of prominence, pride has a way of quickly yielding to pragmatism.