By Dan Wiederer
Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer
March 6, 2007
With a drippy nose and a hoarse voice, Mike Krzyzewski sat down in the media room of Cameron Indoor Stadium after a 71-62 win over Georgia Tech on Feb. 18 and sighed.
His look was one of pure exhaustion. For the first time in forever, it seemed, mighty Duke was using every last ounce of its energy to keep from drowning, desperately thrashing just to get back above .500 in conference play, a struggle that rendered even its Hall of Fame coach vulnerable to the fatigue of a winter cold.
Certainly, the Blue Devils' youth and lack of confidence played a major role in the team's startling four-game losing streak, a skid that dropped them out of the Associated Press poll for the first time since 1996 and prompted widespread national scrutiny. But to hear Krzyzewski tell it after the win over the Yellow Jackets, the conference's strength had made an always challenging 16-game schedule tougher than ever this season even for Duke.
Because of the obvious parity in the league, many ACC coaches have openly wondered what the end result will be March 11, when it comes time to dole out NCAA Tournament bids. Krzyzewski and many other coaches are fearful that good basketball teams beaten down all winter by the ACC's competitive balance will be left out in the cold.
"It's hard for me to think that our league isn't going to get nine teams in," Krzyzewski said. "This conference is just so damn good. And all these teams better get rewarded. Because these kids in this conference are really playing their butts off, top to bottom, every game out."
Added Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg: "Each and every game in this league is an event. And what I don't think people understand about it is that it wears on you physically and emotionally in a different way than other leagues. Every game is so difficult."
ACC COACHES CAMPAIGNING
With Selection Sunday just around the corner, it's obvious that the ACC coaches are sticking together and making a concerted effort to campaign for their league. Last year, after the conference received only four bids to the NCAA Tournament, many inside the ACC felt snubbed, insulted that the league was not getting the respect it deserved.
Florida State, which had a 9-7 league record including an upset of top-ranked Duke in the last week of the regular season, became just the second ACC team since the NCAA Tournament expansion of 1980 (the rules change that allowed more than two bids per conference) to finish above .500 in league play and miss out on the Big Dance.
Maryland, which won 19 games overall and went 8-8 in ACC play in 2005-06, went to the NIT for the second straight year.
A similar problem could pop up this season. North Carolina, Virginia Tech, Virginia, Boston College, Duke and Maryland are locks for NCAA bids. But teams such as Georgia Tech, Florida State and Clemson all were sitting on the NCAA Tournament bubble as the ACC Tournament arrived.
For Yellow Jackets coach Paul Hewitt, the competition has been eye-opening and at times totally draining.
"I felt coming into the year that this was the deepest the league had been in my seven years," Hewitt said. "I thought there were nine teams that could legitimately wind up in the NCAA Tournament. Now how it's going to be viewed come Selection Sunday? I really don't know.
"But the one thing I always say is that people don't really factor in the wear and tear and the grind that this league takes on the players in terms of how hard-fought all the games are and how physical they all are. By the end of the year, there is going to be a team or a few teams wearing down, and people outside our league don't have that great appreciation for how hard that can be."
Perhaps no one has a greater appreciation for that grind and the thin margin for error than Florida State, which ended the regular season 19-11 and 7-9 in the conference, with five of its nine league losses coming by six points or fewer. That means the Seminoles, despite a schedule that's ranked 13th in the country and a huge non-conference win over defending national champion Florida earlier this season, may be headed back to the NIT once again.
The harsh reality of that situation has made FSU coach Leonard Hamilton one of the most vocal proponents for additional NCAA Tournament expansion. Hamilton's biggest beef with the current system is the confusion as to what the selection committee prioritizes in evaluating whether a team is good enough or not for NCAA Tournament play.
"Parity has set in almost across the board," Hamilton said. "And so now I'm not real sure that we totally understand what the formula is for evaluating. It appears to me that the powers that be went through a real intense process to tweak the evaluation process, to evaluate differently now than they had in the past. They're placing different values on road victories and home courts and things like that. And it's gotten to be so much more complicated. ...
"If it's that important that you have to tweak the selection process and re-evaluate it, then maybe we need to look into the possibility of including more teams to make the event bigger and better."
MANY EXPANSION PRECEDENTS
The idea of expanding the NCAA Tournament, of course, is not a new one. In fact, the organizing body of major college athletics has a long-standing habit of re-inventing its signature event every 20 years or so.
From 1939-50, the NCAA selected eight teams for its postseason tournament, one from each of its eight districts. The number of participants jumped to 16 in 1951 and to 24 in 1954. From 23 to 26 teams were invited each year through 1974. Starting with the 1975 NCAA Tournament, the field was expanded to 32 teams, and the format was altered to allow for more than one team from each conference to be invited.
Many historians point to the 1974 ACC championship game, in which eventual national champion N.C. State needed overtime to defeat a 23-4 Maryland team 103-100 in a classic matchup some still consider the greatest college basketball game in history, as the impetus for the revised approach to NCAA Tournament invitations. Under the rules in place at the time, the Terps despite an outstanding resume, a No. 4 national ranking, and All-Americans such as Len Elmore, John Lucas and Tom McMillen were not even eligible for NCAA consideration, because they were not conference champions.
NCAA member schools later voted to increase the NCAA Tournament field from 32 to 40 teams, in time for the 1979 event. From 1980-82, 48 teams were selected, then 52 in 1983, and 53 in 1984. The modern, 64-team field started with the 1985 tournament, and a play-in game (making the field 65) was added in 2001.
So what's next?
Hamilton has support from Maryland coach Gary Williams, also a strong advocate of expanding the NCAA field from its current, 65-team format.
"The way the tournament is celebrated right now," Williams said, "why not give more teams and more kids a chance to experience that?"
ABOUT COMPETITION, CULTURE
Williams believes that the changing culture of basketball at lower levels, with year-round AAU competition enhancing talent nationwide and expanded social circles among players obliterating the sense of awe among lower-tiered programs, has turned college basketball into a competitive free-for-all.
"Fifteen years ago, there was more of an intimidation factor," Williams said. "Back then, you didn't see so many teams on television, and the only schools that were on were the schools in the top 20. Now you get to see everybody play, and so now there are a lot of teams out there that think they can beat anybody. That's why I think there should be expansion in the NCAA Tournament, because there's a much deeper group of schools that can beat anybody else on a given night."
Williams won't need expansion this season for his Terrapins to return to the NCAA brackets for the first time since 2004. Having already reached 20 wins, and with its strength of schedule ranked in the top 20 of the country, Maryland's resume will be persuasive enough to the selection committee.
But knowing the frustration of being snubbed in years past has the Terrapins coach speaking out on behalf of his ACC bubble brethren. And don't get it confused, Williams said, the competition within the league, while taxing, isn't something he's complaining about.
"I don't mind that at all, to tell you the truth," Williams said. "I like playing in the ACC. I like the competition, and it's good when everybody's good. But the problem now is that the most important criteria for making the NCAA Tournament it seems is number of wins.
"Obviously, that was proven last year, when you looked at Florida State or you looked at us, where we had 19 wins, we're 8-8 in the league, won an ACC Tournament game and our strength of schedule was 10th in the country on Selection Sunday. But that wasn't good enough, because we only had 19 wins. The problem is getting enough wins in a league like ours."
SUGGESTED FORMATS ABOUND
So what are some of the possible solutions to enhancing the tournament and letting more teams in?
Williams has actively supported the concept of doubling the field to 128 teams. But critics believe that would rob the tournament of its charm, watering down the prestige and pageantry of the event and making regular-season conference play next to meaningless. After all, if three-quarters of the teams in a conference such as the ACC feel they are deserving of a bid now, what incentive would there be to scrap for position if the NCAA Tournament field doubled?
Another suggestion recommends expanding the field to 68 teams by adding three more play-in games. If that proposition were to be seriously considered, many coaches from major conference programs believe the best solution would be to fill the play-in games with conference champions from tiny conferences such as the Atlantic Sun or the Southland and have teams from those leagues battle each other for the four No. 16 seeds in the NCAA Tournament.
A more intriguing proposal would have the play-in games become showdowns between bubble teams from power conferences, with those squads fighting things out for the chance to get into the field of 64 as a No. 10 or No. 11 seed. This season, such a format could have matched a Clemson versus Gonzaga, or an Illinois against Oklahoma State.
Then, of course, there are those who favor leaving the tournament as is. Even Florida State assistant coach Stan Jones, who knows the despair of being left behind, isn't sure that expanding the NCAA Tournament would benefit college basketball.
"I don't know if tournament expansion is the answer," Jones said. "Right now, we've got an unbelievable product out there that's one of the best three weeks in sports every year. This is a three-week extravaganza where people are so emotionally attached to their teams and their brackets and everything else that goes along with it.
"So is it dangerous to mess with it? Absolutely. If you saturate it, it may not have the same appeal and passion that it has to the national audience right now."
DISCUSSION WON'T DISAPPEAR
Without question, the idea of NCAA Tournament expansion will continue to be debated. But it long has proven to be a slippery-slope argument.
Krzyzewski, who now is posturing for nine ACC teams to get invitations to the NCAA Tournament, candidly worried about the pitfalls of expansion before the season began.
"It's like the sacred cow. You better be really careful," Krzyzewski said. "This works so well now and it's packaged so well, you don't want to mess with that. It'd be like us moving out of Cameron. I don't know if that's the best idea. Not right now."
That leaves the ACC coaches to publicize the strength of their league and to tout its competitive balance in hopes that someone on the tournament selection committee is listening and receptive.
Said Jones: "I don't think our league has gotten the respect nationally that it deserves. Everyone knows it's a great league. But everybody kind of always looks at it as just North Carolina and Duke, and they don't realize that there are 12 really good teams with 12 really good coaches where everybody has NBA-type talent on their team. And when you're 8-8, 9-7, you've played an unbelievable 16 (conference) games in a row on your schedule. Somehow that's getting lost out there on the media and on the commissioners and people in other leagues who don't understand how hard it is.
"I've coached in the SEC, and I've coached in the Big East as an assistant coach, and the one thing in my fifth year in the ACC is that there is not a team anywhere in our league that you can play bad against and win. I don't think our league gets respect for that. There's no way our league should ever just have four teams in the NCAA Tournament."
That won't be a problem this time around. Even the most conservative of estimates has six ACC teams getting into the NCAA field on March 11.
Of course, proponents of the conference still are hoping for seven or eight bids. And one way to further the cause is for the ACC coaches to publicize the strength of their conference.
Said Krzyzewski: "We need to talk about the league, because this league has gotten messed over for the last five years. This is the best league. I'm not saying the others aren't really good. But our league is terrific, always has been, and we've been messed over for a while."
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