Look back, look ahead: ACC

April, 16, 2014
Apr 16
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A basketball-related expansion -- an anomaly during the entire conference realignment shuffle -- was supposed to culminate by making the Atlantic Coast Conference rise above other conferences. The league was supposed to be the biggest and baddest of the major conferences thanks to its first season with Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame as league members.

However, the only thing that increased was disappointment in the league’s overall showing.

Expanding to 15 teams did little to affect the ACC’s reach in the NCAA tournament. Six teams received bids -- and that likely would have been just five until NC State’s late push (including its upset of Syracuse in the ACC tournament).

North Carolina and Duke both failed to advance into the NCAA tournament’s second weekend for the first time since 1979. The Blue Devils were upset by Mercer in the second round. The Tar Heels lost to Iowa State in the third round. The ACC has long depended on the bluebloods to carry the league’s baton, and this season did little to change that narrative.

Only Virginia, which earned a No. 1 seed by winning the league title, advanced to the Sweet 16. The Cavaliers were then eliminated by Michigan State.

The league should improve next postseason thanks in part to Carolina's and Duke's potential to have powerhouse squads.

[+] EnlargeMike Krzyzewski
Tyler Smith/Getty ImagesWith a stellar recruiting class, Mike Krzyzewski's Blue Devils may be the ACC's best in 2014-15.
What we saw this season: The Cavaliers returned to prominence by winning their first outright ACC regular-season title since 1981. Criticism followed since the Cavs, who only played Syracuse, Duke and North Carolina once each and two of those games were in Charlottesville. It took winning the ACC tournament for Virginia to erase those doubts.

Freshmen Tyler Ennis (Syracuse) and Jabari Parker (Duke) proved to be not only among the best players in the conference, but in the nation -- regardless of class.

Many ACC teams had outstanding individual talents -- NC State’s T.J. Warren (won the league’s player of the year award), Duke’s Rodney Hood, North Carolina’s Marcus Paige, Clemson’s K.J. McDaniels to name a few -- but those teams were heavily flawed. Opponents who stopped Lamar Patterson essentially stopped Pittsburgh. Syracuse had trouble scoring. Duke had a thin frontcourt. Carolina was limited by its shooting from the perimeter.

Syracuse started the season strong -- winning its first 25 games -- but faded down the stretch losing six of its last nine games, as its offense went on hiatus. The Orange did provide two classics sure to be talked about in ACC lore. Their first meeting with Duke was a thrilling 91-89 overtime win in the Carrier Dome and their 66-60 loss at Duke featured Jim Boeheim’s first ejection in a regular-season game.

As has long been a problem since the league expanded to 12 teams, the ACC failed to develop a strong second tier of added depth. The conference continued to be top-heavy as Florida State, Maryland, Clemson and Notre Dame never quite became teams to fear.

Three of the bottom four teams in the standings played poorly enough to end the season with their coaches being fired. Boston College arguably had the most disappointing seasons of them all relative to its talent level. The Eagles pulled it together long enough to hand Syracuse its first loss, which was the highlight of their season.

What we expect to see next season: More of the nation’s top freshmen. Duke’s recruiting class is considered tops in the land and is led by center Jahlil Okafor, who is ranked No. 1 overall in the ESPN 100, and Tyus Jones, the No. 1 point guard who is fourth overall. North Carolina also snagged two top-10 recruits in Justin Jackson and Theo Pinson and is ranked third as a class by ESPN.com.

Newcomers are great and all, but let’s also appreciate what we won’t see in the ACC for the first time in its existence. Maryland, a charter member of the conference started in 1953, will begin competing in the Big Ten. Let’s pause to remember the good times.

Long enough? OK.

Louisville obviously doesn’t compare to the tradition Maryland had within the league, but it could be considered an upgrade otherwise. With three national titles and a Hall of Fame coach currently on its sideline, the Cardinals fit the league’s basketball pedigree.

Their addition, plus Virginia’s returning most of its ACC title squad, should help the league become closer to the juggernaut many of its coaches expected this past season.

For all the hand-wringing over a change of guard in the ACC, the Blue Devils and Tar Heels look primed to re-establish their stranglehold on the top of the league standings. Regardless of how Parker’s NBA draft decision falls on Wednesday, Duke will have a good blend of experience (Quinn Cook, Rasheed Sulaimon and Amile Jefferson) and young talent (Okafor, Jones, Justise Winslow, Grayson Allen) at Mike Krzyzewski’s disposal.

Carolina returns the likely front-runner for preseason player of the year in Paige. Forward Brice Johnson and center Kennedy Meeks give the Heels an inside offensive scoring punch that will be hard to contain.

Because of those teams at the top, a trio of new coaches could face a harsh inaugural season in the league. Buzz Williams shocked many by leaving Marquette to take the reins at Virginia Tech, replacing James Johnson. Jim Christian (after a stint at Ohio) takes over Boston College, replacing Steve Donahue. And Danny Manning returns home to Tobacco Road to rebuild Wake Forest, replacing Jeff Bzdelik.

It could all add up and help the ACC live up to its own expectations as the best basketball conference in the nation.

C.L. Brown | email

College Basketball

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