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True ACC Comes Into Focus

Monday, October 21, 2013 10:00am

The new ACC came into clearer -- if more crowded -- focus the other day in Charlotte, when some 200 media members, along with 30 players and 15 coaches, in the men’s basketball community gathered at the Ritz-Carlton for Operation Basketball.

This time there were no accusations the venue exemplified a North Carolina bias in ACC operations, the kind former Maryland coach Gary Williams used to decry.

In keeping with the realities of modern conference life, the site was chosen to be convenient to and for ESPNU, an ACC television partner and possible future nexus for a league TV network.

Commissioner John Swofford reported the conference is “strategically evaluating” the prospect of an ACC network.  He also noted in his annual basketball state-of-the-confederacy address that “prime ACC territory” now encompasses more TV households than the market area of any other collegiate league.

If an ACC channel does emerge, expect it to reach the air in 2016, according to a highly-placed conference source.

Charlotte-Douglas International Airport, eighth-largest in the U.S. by total passenger boardings in 2012, was another attraction in placing the preseason gathering in the Queen City. Attendees traveled from far-flung outposts such as Indiana and Massachusetts, Florida and New York.

Swofford provided a curious twist to the league’s sprawling 10-state configuration, declaring, “Geographically, we are moving forward as a true Atlantic Coast Conference.”

Well, true in a rhetorical sense. Last we checked South Bend, Indiana, home of Notre Dame, is located two states removed from the Atlantic Ocean. The nearest major body of water is Lake Michigan

There were more than a few awkward jokes along lines of historic regional difference at the circular tables where players and coaches set up camp behind identifying placards. Someone suggested a rechristening as the Yankee Conference. The name is already taken, but presumably can be had for a price.

The ACC just expanded its headquarters and has plenty of money, thanks primarily to TV. Another significant infusion of funds may be on the way: the ACC reportedly is contemplating the sale of naming rights to its 60-year-old, signature postseason tournament.

The ACC Tournament will include all 15 teams, one of the few basic competitive premises the league has retained from its founding.

The old 17-member Southern Conference, from which the tournament concept sprang, annually whittled down participants to eight teams to compete for the championship. The ACC adopted a similar event, and with eight members by the end of its first basketball season in 1953-54 was able to accommodate everyone.

Of course competitive considerations paled in comparison with the real reason the new league instituted a postseason, single-elimination tournament. It needed to make money.

 The tournament to be played at Greensboro from March 12-16, 2014 will have three games on Wednesday and four each on Thursday and Friday. The top four seeds will get byes until the third round on Friday.

Don’t be surprised if TV moves the new-look tournament back a day in the near future. That way the championship game can command the airwaves on a Saturday night instead of a Sunday afternoon, a scant few hours before the NCAA tournament field is announced.

Whenever the ACC Tournament starts and ends, fans will want to train for the five-day event as if running a marathon -- without the cardiovascular benefits.

Meanwhile the season-long marathon already has begun for the players, occupied with practice and games for at least five full months.

The average athlete playing high-level college sports spends 43 hours weekly in activities related to his or her sport, according to a recent study. Such demands, and the prodigious sums generated by big-time football and basketball, have generated increased calls for a new, less paternalistic paradigm in intercollegiate athletics.

Swofford, although less hard-line than some of his colleagues, made the ACC’s position clear – league schools intend to stick with the so-called amateur model of college sports, subject to tinkering that could enhance direct benefits for those who play the games.

As for the ’14 season outlook, the media crew clearly did not have a great deal of confidence in the ACC’s most quickly improving programs, Boston College and Georgia Tech. They were picked to finish 8th and 11th, respectively.

The lack of respect extended to Florida State, which coach Leonard Hamilton repeatedly mentioned had the third-most wins in the league over the past eight years. FSU, a disappointment last season on the heels of a 2012 ACC title, was projected for ninth place.

The quarter of the attending media that did vote went the safe route at the top – Duke was picked first for the fourth time in the past decade, followed by Syracuse and then North Carolina. The trio were chosen in the top 11 nationally in USA Today’s preseason coaches’ poll.

(N.C. State was projected for first last year and wound up tied for fourth. That was only the fifth time the voters whiffed on selecting the ACC’s top team since balloting began in 1970.)

The ACC media picked Virginia to finish fourth in 2014, which the Cavaliers did in each of the past two years. Last season UVa also had 11 ACC wins and didn’t get an NCAA tournament invitation, a sobering reality cited by BC coach Steve Donahue in fashioning the ACC’s toughest non-league schedule.

Notre Dame was picked fifth in the ACC, followed by Pittsburgh (with Maryland four votes behind). Three new teams among the top six choices is quite a departure, marking the respect commanded by those programs and the old Big East.

Previous newcomers were expected to do less well than they actually did. Well, Georgia Tech excepted. The Yellow Jackets were weak upon arrival in 1979-80 and fulfilled their projected last-place fate.

Florida State joined with a veteran squad fresh off winning the 1991 championship in the Metro Conference, beating South Carolina, Virginia Tech, and Louisville on consecutive days.

Pat Kennedy’s club was picked to finish sixth in its inaugural ACC season. Instead, led by a pair of second team All-ACC performers, guard Sam Cassell and forward Doug Edwards, FSU wound up in second place in 1992.

At the next round of expansion in 2004-05, Virginia Tech was expected to come in 10th, Miami 12th. The first of the Big East defectors finished tied for fourth and sixth, respectively.

The only newcomer to date that finished lower than forecast, and just barely, was Boston College. The Eagles arrived as a first-place Big East team in 2005-06. They were picked second in the ACC, and finished third. Al Skinner’s squad did advance to the ‘06 ACC Tournament title game, losing to Duke, 78-76.

Another point of interest in the media voting: four of five selections for the All-ACC squad will appear in the ACC for the first time this season.

Two are Duke newcomers, transfer Rodney Hood and freshman Jabari Parker, a near-unanimous choice for Rookie of the Year. The last freshman to make first team All-ACC at year’s end was Duke’s Austin Rivers in 2012.

A pair of projected first-teamers are from expansion schools, or rather products of “merger,” as Pitt coach Jamie Dixon continues to call it, admittedly to “try to piss off some people.” C.J. Fair of Syracuse and Notre Dame’s Jerian Grant made the team, along with Virginia’s Joe Harris, the lone holdover from last year’s first team All-ACC squad.

Fair was predicted to be the 2014 league Player of the Year, garnering one more vote than Harris.

During the ACC’s first 34, modern shape-shifting seasons, no player was voted MVP at the end of his school’s first year in the conference. In fact, since Georgia Tech, FSU, Miami, Virginia Tech, and BC have been in the league, they’ve produced only two ACC POYs between them – the Jackets’ Dennis Scott in 1990 and the Eagles Jared Dudley in 2007.