Commentary

ACC gets even stronger

Adding Notre Dame gives the league an odd number of teams, but boosts its brand

Originally Published: September 12, 2012
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

The ACC's men's basketball coaches wanted Notre Dame to join Pitt and Syracuse when the latter two programs were announced as additions to the conference last year, extending the league's membership to 14 schools.

But the coaches weren't enamored with the idea of an odd-numbered, 15-team conference. They wanted one more school to round things out.

On Wednesday, they landed the Fighting Irish -- as soon as 2013 if Notre Dame can buy its way out of the Big East early, or in 2015 if it cannot. But the hoops coaches won't get their wish of an easy, clean split of two eight-team divisions whenever the Irish do officially join the league.

ACC commissioner John Swofford said categorically that the ACC will not expand beyond 15 teams, calling the move illogical since it would create an odd number of football programs because Notre Dame will maintain its status as an independent in that sport.

At the 2011 ACC men's basketball media day in Charlotte last October, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said, "I just want to make sure it's the right 16 because I don't think we should get out of our time zone and stray from the geographic distribution of our teams.

"If we go to 16, and even if we go to 14, we should go to divisions. We didn't do a great job of branding our conference with the last expansion [in 2003, when the conference added Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College]. Adding Syracuse and Pitt helps us in the North and if we're going to add [more teams], it should be more North than South.

"Notre Dame would be a plum for any conference,'' Krzyzewski said. "But I'm an old-timer, and if you're in a conference, then you have to share everything equally. They'd have to iron out that football stuff [such as the Irish's NBC contract]. No one member should ever get more than another. North Carolina and Duke don't have separate TV packages for basketball. If they can iron that out and make it more equitable, then Notre Dame would be terrific for our conference.''

The ACC ultimately didn't balk at cutting a deal with the Irish, even if it means Notre Dame has a separate football revenue and rights deal. The Irish will play five games annually against ACC schools. Notre Dame also will have access to the Orange Bowl and the ACC's non-BCS bowl tie-ins.

But the Irish are on board as full members for all other sports. The ACC has added a brand name that moves the ratings meter and a hoops program that has consistently been in NCAA tournament bid contention under head coach Mike Brey, resides in the same time zone (albeit in the Midwestern portion of it) and doesn't bring with it any NCAA-violation baggage.

The move further connects the Irish to longtime rival Boston College and ensures that those intense skirmishes against Pitt and Syracuse will continue, too.

"I've said it all along that this would happen," said Pitt coach Jamie Dixon. "I said [the Irish] would get a deal, and the ACC gave them a deal. Mike Brey said this was going to happen all along. Just last week at the NABC meeting we joked, 'We'll see you in the ACC.'

"It's significant," said Dixon. "It's obvious they're a very good program, have been and will continue to be."

NC State coach Mark Gottfried, Maryland coach Mark Turgeon and Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton all told ESPN.com that they welcomed the addition of Notre Dame and felt it strengthened what was already "the top league" in the country. Gottfried, though, said he wants the league to expand to 16. Hamilton agreed.

The Big East found a way to work with 15 basketball teams this past season, after West Virginia departed for the Big 12.

Swofford said that the ACC's conference tournament would include Wednesday games once Notre Dame joins, and the league's top four teams would likely receive byes.

Boston College coach Steve Donahue said the conference will need to revisit the new primary travel partner policy that it had set up for the 14-team league in 2013. That plan stipulated that pairs of programs -- BC-Syracuse, Pitt-Maryland, Virginia-Virginia Tech, Miami-Florida State, Georgia Tech-Clemson, Duke-North Carolina, NC State-Wake Forest -- would play each other in home and away games every season.

"Maybe it doesn't make sense or won't work out that way," said Donahue. "We may have to pod them out again."

The ACC has continued to make basketball moves to strengthen the league's brand with the additions of Pitt, Syracuse and now Notre Dame, after the initial expansion moves (adding Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College) were made with football in mind.

Dixon said he assumes the ACC will grow to 16 and pursue Connecticut or Rutgers. And while the coaches would like to see that happen for easier divisional setup and scheduling, the ACC maintains it will add another member only if it dramatically increases the value and the nuisance of having an odd number of football programs becomes moot. Swofford said the ACC wants to have two divisions in football, but no divisions in basketball. If Notre Dame ever joins the league in football, then it would make it an easy decision. But Notre Dame made it clear on Wednesday it had no intention of making that move.

The ACC's decision to stay at 15 is good news for the Big East, which still has plenty of brands -- in Louisville, UConn, Georgetown, Villanova, St. John's, Marquette, Cincinnati and new additions Memphis and Temple -- to sell while negotiating a new television deal.

The Big East could be down to 17 basketball programs in 2013 if Notre Dame leaves early. That's plenty. One Big East assistant athletic director said early Wednesday that the conference should go after another basketball member, perhaps plucking one from a conference such as the Atlantic-10. But the Big East won't make a rash move.

"It wasn't a surprise to anybody," said Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich of Notre Dame's decision to leave. "I enjoyed them being in the league and obviously losing them in the league is important.

"We don't worry about the number [of teams]," said Jurich. "We just need to find the right people. If the right people come in then we'll do it but if not we'll leave it where it's at."

Pitt, Syracuse and Notre Dame all competed recently for the Big East regular-season title. There is no reason to believe they won't also be in the ACC mix with Duke, North Carolina, Florida State and new upstarts NC State and possibly retooled Maryland going forward.

The ACC will still have to work out the nuisances of expansion during the season and into the spring meetings. But one thing is certain: Bringing the Notre Dame brand to places like Maryland, Duke, North Carolina, NC State, Clemson, Georgia Tech and back to its rival Boston College enhances the league.

Moving up from the bottom of the ACC just got tougher. But the opportunities to pick up quality games and power-rating points improved. That's the reason to expand, and the ACC has made the right moves in men's basketball so far.

If the league is done, then it will continue to thrive. If it has one more move left, then it will likely come at the expense of one of the remaining Big East elites.

But for now there is no sense of urgency. The ACC got another brand name. The coaches didn't get an even number. But it won't make a significant difference. The league improved. That's what matters most.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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