Friedlander: There's no simple answer to the ACC's basketball perception problem
CHARLOTTE, NC – It’s a long-standing tradition at the ACC’s annual preseason media event for every coach of every team to refer to the conference as the best in college basketball.
There was a time when that was an indisputable fact.
Not so much anymore.
The days of Michael Jordan, Ralph Sampson, Len Bias and a true double round-robin schedule are long gone.
Thanks to expansion, the proliferation of television and other factors, the league’s product has been watered down to the point that no ACC team managed higher than a 4 seed in last year’s NCAA Tournament. Things don’t promise to get better anytime soon, either, with the addition of 3 incoming schools – Stanford, California and SMU – who ranked 96th or lower in the final 2022-23 NET rankings.
The perception of the league has changed so drastically that for the past 2 seasons, the NCAA selection committee left a team that finished with 23-plus wins overall and 13 or more in the ACC out of its 68-team bracket.
So the question must be raised: Is the conference really as down as we’re being led to believe?
The answer is yes and no.
It’s true that the bottom of the league has been an anchor dragging everyone else down with it, especially a historically bad 4-28 Louisville. But the quality at the top and in the middle is still as good as any conference in the country. Miami confirmed that by beating the top 2 seeds in its region on the way to the Final Four last spring.
The trick is learning how to package its product in a way that gets people to pay more attention to the latter and not dwell on the former.
“There’s no question that the narrative of college basketball is changing and some of it is just the more networks we all have,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell said Wednesday. “Everybody’s on their network talking about how great their teams are and the other teams aren’t as good.”
Some do it better than others. When it comes to Marketing 101, the ACC and its network are in desperate need of some remedial instruction.
It doesn’t help the situation that some of the league’s most recognizable brand names have failed to live up to their usual standard over the past few years. Or that its most recognizable and dynamic personalities have all left the stage for retirement.
Without Hall of Famers Mike Krzyzewski, Roy Williams and Jim Boeheim, there’s no one in the league with the voice or juice to counter the popular narrative that the ACC is in decline simply because North Carolina has taken a dip since the pandemic and that Syracuse and Louisville aren’t what they once were.
“Parity has set in and that’s good for basketball,” Florida State’s Leonard Hamilton said. “But for some reason in the minds of the talking heads, that’s not good. We have to do a better job of promoting that it’s actually better.”
Self-promotion, however, is only a cosmetic part of the solution.
In order to truly regain its status as the best basketball conference in the country – or even get back into the conversation – it’s going to take more of an awareness of the changing analytics that determine a league’s strength and the number of tournament bids it receives.
Wake Forest got left out in 2022 and Brownell’s Tigers went uninvited last season not because of the quality of their wins, but because of a couple bad losses.
The NCAA’s Quad system, determined by its NET computer rankings, has put a higher premium on nonconference scheduling. Even Duke is changing its philosophy under 2nd-year coach Jon Scheyer by playing true road games, something the Blue Devils have shied away from in the past.
“We’ve got to figure out the math,” Miami’s Jim Larrañaga said. “The Big 12 got 8 (NCAA bids) last year. OK, how do we get 8? It’s going to be based on nonconference performance.”
That’s a good start. But bulking up the competition, as Clemson and others have done, isn’t always enough depending on your luck of the draw in-conference.
It’s not like it was in the glory days when everyone played everybody twice during the regular season. The degree of difficulty can vary greatly given the unbalanced schedule that comes with a 15-team lead.
And it’s only going to get worse once the ACC adds 3 more teams next season.
That’s why Larrañaga and his fellow coaches are advocating a plan to reduce the number of conference games from the current 20 back to 18. Doing so would let each team play an identical league schedule, along with 1 extra game with a permanent rival, while also providing the flexibility to add 2 more challenging outside opponents.
That would certainly make things more equitable.
And yet as Larrañaga points out, the only real solution to getting more teams into the tournament and solving the conference’s perception problem improving the quality of its product and winning more games.
Just as it did back when the ACC really was the best college basketball conference in the country.