By Patrick Stevens
February 20, 2007
The stirring began last season.
Maryland basketball coach Gary Williams, protective of his own interests and those of his league, made an almost weekly habit of mentioning how important it was to talk up the quality of ACC basketball.
It reached a crescendo in the aftermath of Selection Sunday, when only four conference teams earned NCAA Tournament berths. And it was even louder when the league's coaches convened for a preseason media day in October.
The message was just about unanimous: Somebody had to start talking up the conference, lest a four-bid season become the norm rather than an exception.
In early February this year, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski used his significant national platform to push the ACC's cause, even offering the idea that he was cheering the 2006-07 success of archrival North Carolina "the flagship this year for our league" because it was good for the profile of the conference as a whole. In theory, that could become an important factor in March.
"We should get six, seven teams every year in the darn thing, because of how well our teams play," Krzyzewski said. "This league has gotten messed over for the last five years. We've just gotten messed over. This is the best league."
There may not be quite as much talk from the coaches heading into March, because there may not need to be. By mid-February, several bracket projections including the often-seen predictions of ESPN's Joe Lunardi and CollegeRPI.com's Jerry Palm featured nine ACC representatives.
There were two simple reasons why. The most important is simply intuitive: Conference teams went out and won more games against quality competition.
According to Palm's site, the ACC collected 32 victories over teams in the top 50 of the RPI in 2005-06, including 10 out of conference. As of Feb. 14, those numbers in 2006-07 leaped to 60 and 16, respectively, though they can and will fluctuate as various teams move in and out of the top 50 during the final three weeks of the season.
Ten ACC teams all but Miami and N.C. State poached at least one victory over a top-50 team in non-conference play.
"We did our work in terms of scheduling, winning some quality non-conference games, so therefore it's validated our beating each other up," said Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg, whose Hokies also won at Duke and swept North Carolina. "You would hope that would carry over with the committee."
It likely will.
Yet there's another, more visible reason for the conference's improved standing. It has nothing to do with past performance, an irrelevant consideration to the selection committee. It has nothing to do with a raw number of victories, no matter Williams' multi-season insistence that it is a factor.
Instead, it is something coaches seem reluctant to admit, maybe because it would validate last year's selections to some degree. It was then that Florida State became only the second team with a winning record in ACC play to be left out since the field expanded to 48 in 1980.
Maryland's exclusion meant that a .500 team in league play with a victory in the league tournament was omitted for the first time since the NCAA field expanded to 48 teams in 1980. The Terrapins also were the first top-50 RPI ACC team to miss the tournament since Virginia in 2002.
Yet visually, there's something quite obvious: The league's dozen teams are on average better in some cases, substantially better than last year.
Certainly, Duke isn't nearly as strong this season, and undermanned N.C. State has endured some predictable struggles. But Clemson, Georgia Tech, Virginia and Virginia Tech are demonstrably better than a year ago, North Carolina is a fixture in the top 10, and Boston College has remained near the top of the league despite the midseason dismissal of starting center Sean Williams.
Florida State owns a similar record but a better postseason resume. Even Maryland, for all of its erratic play, is on balance better than last season.
More relevant is just how much deeper a list of accomplishments the teams have cobbled together. Here's a look at seven programs well ahead of their pace from last year, as of Feb. 14:
Boston College (2006 RPI: 22; 2007 RPI: 26): The Eagles beat only one top-50 team all of last season, before catching fire at the ACC Tournament. Coach Al Skinner's team owns six this year, including an early defeat of Michigan State, a rout of Virginia Tech and a sweep of Florida State.
Clemson (2006 RPI: 77; 2007 RPI: 28): The Tigers didn't play any of the conference's four NCAA teams more than once last year, let alone beat any. Clemson this season has swept Florida State and won at Old Dominion, a team that could be rewarded for its fine campaign with an at-large berth if it cannot win the CAA Tournament.
Florida State (2006 RPI: 63; 2007 RPI: 33): There will be no questions about the Seminoles' non-conference schedule, not after playing Florida, Pittsburgh and Wisconsin. FSU toppled the Gators, and also won at home against Virginia Tech and at Duke before point guard Toney Douglas was injured.
Georgia Tech (2006 RPI: 160; 2007 RPI: 43): The Yellow Jackets finally overcame their road phobia on Feb. 13 with a victory at FSU, and they defeated Purdue and Memphis on a November trip to Maui. Tech is the last of the three teams possessing Seminole sweeps, and a four-game winning streak this late in the season often is rewarded.
Maryland (2006 RPI: 49; 2007 RPI: 32): In a reversal of recent fortune, the Terrapins made it through mid-February without losing a key player to injury (D.J. Strawberry in 2005) or academic ineligibility (Chris McCray in 2006). They've also poached victories over Michigan State and Illinois, won a pair of road games in February and turned in their customary masterpiece against Duke.
Virginia (2006 RPI: 79; 2007 RPI: 38): Victories over Arizona and fading Gonzaga slightly outweigh a disastrous trip to Puerto Rico. The Cavaliers also possess one of the nation's most potent backcourts, and the mere presence of Sean Singletary and J.R. Reynolds make the Cavaliers capable of upsetting nearly anyone.
Virginia Tech (2006 RPI: 146; 2007 RPI: 19): The Hokies authored the most dramatic improvement and are the first team to win at Duke and North Carolina in the same season since Georgia Tech in 1996. No team represents the ACC's resurgence better than the Hokies, who have moved past a trying season off the floor to challenge for the regular-season title.
BC's Skinner understands the fight for respect as well as anyone. He faces the daily challenge of getting attention in a Boston area market that's typically saturated with professional sports news. He also recently dealt with the realities of being the new kid on the ACC block, which can mean an uphill battle when it comes to all-conference voting and other media matters.
"It's like anything else, and I believe this: You've gotta kind of earn your way," Skinner said. "There is a tremendous amount of history in this league, and there are individuals that have earned that (respect). Well, we've gotta earn ours, and that's what we're trying to do. Eventually, I think, there becomes an appreciation for what you do and what you accomplish. But you've gotta go out and accomplish something before you can ask someone to recognize it."
In theory, that's how it works with the NCAA Tournament, too. Yet the echoes of a year ago, when the previously underrated and unheralded Missouri Valley earned as many spots in the 65-team field as the ACC, irked several coaches.
A particularly galling aspect to some was the drumbeat of support on national broadcasts for other leagues, some of which came across as thinly veiled cheerleading. Others were upset at what they viewed as a shift away from objective standards, in favor of potential Cinderella stories from the mid-majors.
"Who are we running the tournament for the deserving teams or the spectators?" Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt asked. "Just don't tell me the best (34) at-large teams are getting in, because they're not. My concern is that the selection is becoming more of a subjective thing instead of an objective thing."
Williams admits that Florida State received more of a snub than his team, but he still can easily rattle off the details of his own team's resume. Nineteen wins. The 10th-ranked schedule on Selection Sunday. (CollegeRPI.com had it at No. 14.) Three wins over struggling Georgia Tech, which also lost to Air Force in what constituted one of the Falcons' marquee victories.
"It's keeping up with the Joneses," Williams said. "Other teams have gone out of their way and directly talked about the ACC the last couple of years, which never happened before. If the gloves are off, the gloves are off. That's OK. It's kind of fun. We have to stand up."
Thus, the Great College Basketball Public Opinion Battle began, at least in the ACC. Yet the lobbying effort began elsewhere, well before.
The first thing Williams mentioned at his preseason media day in College Park was how Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese opened his league's era as a 16-team confederation by declaring how many NCAA bids it would earn. Taking a cue, Williams did the same this year.
The hype didn't just start recently. North Carolina coach Roy Williams remembers the climate in his days at Kansas, when talking up the conference was a regular occurrence.
"In the Big 12 we pushed all the time, because we were out there in the middle of the country and people thought we still went to school in covered wagons and stuff like that," Williams said. "There was a more concerted effort for pushing the envelope, pushing the media and promotion, than there is here."
How much of a difference it makes and how valid it is to even make the case is another matter entirely.
Conference affiliation is not a factor the selection committee considers, and the impact of external hype is dubious at best. And then there's another fact that's hard to ignore: The conference's profile is already rather high.
"The ACC is the most over-promoted league in the country," Palm scoffed, incredulous at the mere possibility that a league with Duke and North Carolina in its membership didn't receive enough attention and adoration.
The conference's TV contracts with ESPN and Fox Sports Net ensure plenty of on-air coverage nationally, and the mere geography of the conference entirely on the East Coast ensures that most games are done before anyone thinks about going to bed.
But the two teams most people across the country see are Duke and North Carolina, the league's traditional heavyweights. When those two schools dominate the conference as they did last year there might be a tendency to shrug off the ACC as top-heavy.
"I think often our league is shortchanged because those guys are so good and so well-coached and recruit so well," Hewitt said. "If we beat them, we hear they're down, like I hear about Duke this year, which is very laughable. And then if they beat us, then it's the league isn't good (and) Duke and Carolina dominate the league."
Hewitt speaks as a coach whose team owns a victory over Duke, a currency a bit more common this season than in the past. But even though the Blue Devils aren't cruising toward an inevitable title, it doesn't seem that the conference is suffering from a lack of publicity.
Instead, it is simply filling the void created by the usual cycle of other programs rising and falling. The Big East and Big Ten, usually two of the top powerhouses, have impressive teams at the top but less depth than in the past. The Big 12 also is more shallow, while the SEC's depth is made up of nearly a half-dozen bubble teams. Meanwhile, most mock brackets project three berths for Missouri Valley teams this season.
In short, nearly two-thirds of the ACC got better, while several teams elsewhere got worse.
"I think the promoting part of it can only go so far," Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser said. "Production is probably more important than promotion, and I think our teams have produced, certainly in non-conference play. As much as anything, that's the reason why perhaps there is more buzz about the ACC."
Maybe the best way to discern what's happening in the conference this year is to look to the ACC's only first-year coach, Sidney Lowe of N.C. State. Lowe wasn't on the job when last year's selection furor unfolded, but he has picked up on a theme that has bounced around from time to time for several years: the value of conference victories.
"We don't get enough credit. That wasn't my idea, but I heard someone say that, and I started watching and I said, That makes a lot of sense,'" Lowe said. "If one of these teams weren't in the ACC and would be in some other conference and we went and beat them, it would be a huge win."
Krzyzewski also has wondered aloud about whether the ACC's post-expansion scheduling format, in which there is no longer a double round-robin (with everyone playing everyone else home and away), confuses those who cast their ballots on Selection Sunday. Depending on a team's schedule, two 8-8 conference records can be more different than at any time in previous years.
"You have to earn (respect), and you have to earn it in the conference, and we have the toughest conference schedule this year," Krzyzewski said. "It just worked out that way. Every game is huge.
"With expansion, it's like who do you play twice (in the conference), and who do you play once, and where do you play them? People that are determining NCAA bids, you have to look at that. I'm not sure that's happening."
These are the arguments that could grow louder as the final weeks of the regular season trickle away and one or two teams fall victim to the inevitable, annual in-conference cannibalization process. No conference ever has sent nine teams to the NCAA Tournament, and chances are that at least one ACC middleweight will fade down the stretch.
Should it happen, there still stands to be a greater ACC postseason contingent this March, with the bulk of it in the NCAA Tournament. And that, rather than any words, would be the best promotion of all for the conference.
"We won't know what the impact of that buzz is until Selection Sunday and we see exactly who is in the tournament," Hewitt said. "We all who are around this league know that this is a league that should consistently get six or seven teams in, but it doesn't always work out that way. I'm not really sure. Maybe that buzz turns out to be something positive, and maybe it's much ado about nothing when the bids come out."
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