ACC Basketball Over the Last Decade

I don’t know about you, but my introduction to sports as entertainment was the 2005 ACC tournament game between the North Carolina Tar Heels (a team I would soon become a fan of like my parents), facing off against a national contender Georgia Tech team led under the dominant fire of Paul Hewitt.

And when I thought about this, I also thought: “Wait a minute…national contender GT?  Dominant fire of…of Paul Hewitt? The guy who got fired for failing to post a winning season 4 years in a row?”

Yeah. That used to be the ACC. Now look where we are and you will see a drastic and completely conspicuous difference. So let’s take a trip down Memory Lane and explore what changed between 2005 and now…and what changed again after that.

The Way Back:*

Where exactly did the ACC stand in the mid 2000s?  Turns out a pretty awkward spot.

A 9-team conference was considered equal to a 16-team one (Big East). Both teams had about the same number of teams in the AP Top 25 in a reasonably broad time frame and sent 5-6 almost every year to the Big Dance. The way the 2004 Final Four played out was pretty much the epitome of the way college basketball was: many conferences sent a decent sum of teams, but the Big Ten, Big East, and ACC were the only three with serious success. The Big East and ACC did marginally well, but not well enough to warrant placement better than the Big Ten. The championship game was played by Georgia Tech and UConn; there were two teams who were, at that time, just another great team from the ACC and just another great team from the Big East, and the game was close. 2005 was where things started to get dicey.

Virginia Tech and Miami move to the ACC, but the Big East got a massive influx of teams from scattered conferences (6 to be precise).  So now it’s one 11-team conference and a behemoth 20-team conference. And yet still the ACC was equivocally competitive with the Big East despite having half the members. Why? Qualitatively, the ACC and Big East were equivalent. Holistically, the ACC was unarguably superior.

For man-on-the-street terms, the ACC has the same number of great teams as the Big East, despite being half the size, meaning a greater percentage of teams in the ACC played at this level.

And if you look/think back, you’ll remember. NC State, Georgia Tech, North Carolina, Duke, Maryland, Wake Forest, Florida State, Clemson, even Boston College and Miami jumped in at times…at some point three of these teams were always top 10, and another 3 were top 25.  The ACC did by no means dominate college basketball, but most would agree that it was the better conference from top to bottom.

Here’s where the awkward part starts.

Things fell apart at the hinges for almost every ACC team all at once. Recruiting started failing, head coaches started flubbing, management decisions ended up backfiring, Wake Forest had to struggle with the frailty of life (moment of silence for Skip Prosser…), and all of a sudden the qualitative graph exploded in the middle, shooting most of the teams downward.

But two survived, and that is where our story moves on to Book Two.

The not-so Way Back:*

The story of the late 2000s and the early 2010s.

I am sure most of you all know what two teams I am referring to: North Carolina and Duke.  These two teams under the genius of Coach K and Roy Williams caught the underside of the explosion and skyrocketed upward.  Recruiting succeeded phenomenally for the Tobacco Road rivals, and both schools bred and adapted fundamentally opposite but equally successful styles of play to get the most out of their teams.

If you doubt me, just remember that UNC and Duke won half of the final fours between 2005 and 2010 (3 out of 6), as well as making the final four 2 other occasions including Duke’s trip in ’04. Florida and Kentucky were making noise in the SEC, but that’s a different matter all together. Especially since it is undeniable that the 2008-2009 Tar Heels were one of the best college teams fielded to play together in the last 20+ years.

Celebrating a tournament of dominance in 2009. Photo from the official North Carolina University Gazette

But the ACC conference as a whole? Oh boy had it tanked.

Ironically though, this would prove to be for the better of the conferences in the long run.  We’ll get to the logistics of that soon.

Teams in the ACC were now consistently posting losing records, and if it was above .500 it was only by a couple games at most.  And if two besides UNC or Duke made the tourney, it would almost be guaranteed to lose to some mid-major, or get knocked off in the second round (even though this is not particularly fair, since this is the era where mid-majors starting getting better).  And before you *insert ACC team that did well during some late 2000s year here* break out your buzzers and shout obscenities at how wrong I am, hear me out.  The ACC was a solid conference for a reason we will get to, and a couple rose to the top on occasion rightfully.  But as a whole during this time period?  If you weren’t North Carolina or Duke, it was a set of rebuilding years with maybe one or two peak years during the process of recovery.  Believe me, I know more than you expect about how well some teams perform and come up short rather than seeming to deservedly lose out in the tournament early (Especially looking at you 2010 Maryland Terrapins.  We all felt the heartbreak from that loss to Michigan State, believe me).

But what was the silver lining that would make this conference better in the future?  What was the one aforementioned thing that actually redeems a lot of this conference and makes it acceptably at least good during this time period?

Same answer, actually. Conference play itself.

See, now conference games were not frequent games of great vs. great that just wore on the conference and had many games decided pretty non-excitedly (by 15 or more points with a clear victor from the outset) as was characteristic of ACC play a decade ago.  Instead, conference games were a competition between one of four teams separated pretty far from the rest of the pack and another hungry and ruthless wolf that desperately wanted to climb up in the ACC ladder.  This transformed conference play into being a vicious beat-em-up type…and not literally.  Star recruits had to learn how to deal with conference play and hold the pack of feisty dogs at bay, or end up being carried away by them. If you wanted to learn how to play rough n’ tough basketball in a full 4 (or at least 3) years, you went to the ACC.

This bred incredibly players in North Carolina and Duke. Recruiting soared for those two schools. Slowly, other incredible players started taking notice.

And meanwhile the pagan Big East could not keep it’s head together.

The Way Back so far back it happened a year ago:*

Three factors combined to put the ACC where it is now: conference security, conference play, and conference recovery.

Trivia: What is the ratio of teams joining to teams leaving the ACC?  A whopping 9-2.  In this day and age, that’s staggeringly high, which is a darn good thing for the ACC.  For some reason, the ACC can just keep its act together as a total athletic conference, and has attracted nine teams over while only shooing away two.

The same cannot be said about the Big East. That’s all I need to say about that. Thanks to ‘Cuse, Pitt, ND, and Louisville.

As iterated, recruiting soared for Duke and Carolina. Other people started noticing this. Players started cropping up whose playstyle did not fit these two (or simply were not good enough to make the cut), and wanted to play against people like Kyle Singler and Tyler Hansbrough, etc. They also noticed how players like Greivis Vasquez and Reggie Jackson could be born from what seemed to be insignificant school because of ACC conference play. So recruiting started to grow gradually, but with stability, for all the other schools as well.

Lastly, the teams that had struggles started recovering.  Recruitment as just stated improved, but management also started succeeding.  Coach shifts started working.  Team funding improved enough to get the team good enough to coax fans to show up for games and start a circular feed of profit.  One glaring example of this is NC State.  The Wolfpack, although blowing a huge lead against the St. Louis Billikens last year, have somehow squeaked into the tourney, year in and year out, and rise to the occasion.  Florida State and Virginia have also obviously risen in quality significantly over the years.

So now what do we have in front of us?  A 15-team conference where no team is safe, all teams are high quality, and national championship rings seem to be not only possible for many, but a reality.

Are you kidding me?! This is ACC basketball, bay-beeee!!

* – way back is in time reference perspective of a college student.  Do not feel offended or old if 2005 felt like yesterday.

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