ACC's new schools exude optimism
Facing stiff competition in Big East has prepared Notre Dame, Pitt and Syracuse
The questions about their programs' moves to the ACC from the Big East were asked to Pitt coach Jamie Dixon and Notre Dame coach Mike Brey. The answers, and rhetorical responses, were the same.
"How are you going to handle moving to the ACC?"
"Well, weren't we just in the Big East?"
In an attempt to form the strongest basketball conference in the country, no realignment move was celebrated more than the ACC's additions of Syracuse, Pitt, Notre Dame and, in a year, Louisville.
But let's not forget that the Big East conference these schools just left was stronger, deeper, more competitive and certainly more respected of late than the most recent version of the ACC. The Big East had a record 11 teams in the NCAA tournament in 2011. The league consistently pushed to get eight or nine teams into the NCAAs every March. The ACC should be in that range, but it's not a lock the way the Big East was in dominating the selections.
"It's funny the way people react," Dixon said. "They'll say, 'Man, it's going to be really tough in the ACC.' And I'll be, 'Wait, what league were we just in?' I don't know if people don't want to admit that we were in the toughest. In most cases [in realignment], people are jumping up [in conference competition]. In this case, we're going for different reasons. Every other move mainly was made for football, but this one was made for basketball reasons. It was unlike any other addition. It was basketball-based."
Perhaps there is more brand recognition in the ACC. Perhaps the perception is that Duke and North Carolina are really that strong. But playing a grind of Pitt, Notre Dame, Louisville, UConn, Georgetown, Villanova, Marquette and Cincinnati was a tougher slate than Syracuse playing Duke, North Carolina, Wake Forest, Boston College, Virginia and Virginia Tech.
Still, "they're equally tough," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. "This league will be tough, as tough as our [former] league, for sure. But it shouldn't be a hard adjustment. It's just as hard. We'll have the same tough games that you had in the Big East. It's not easier. It's not harder. It's as hard."
The Big East conference schedule made teams susceptible to losing streaks. But even for potential national title contenders like Syracuse and Louisville, there wasn't a worry that it would hurt them in the championship chase. It was simply the reality of playing in the Big East. That same line of thought will exist with the ACC. If a team lost three or four in a row in any other conference -- save for the Big Ten last season -- there was cause for serious concern.
"I have a mixture of confidence and anxiety," Brey said. "It is funny how people say to me, 'Wow, you're going to the ACC, good luck, are you ready?' With all due respect, it's not like we played in the chopped-liver league. The last time I checked, we were good in that 'JV' league. We were really consistent. All three of us have a very strong identity. All of us go into the ACC feeling, 'Let's go and do that in the ACC.'
"I don't want to get distracted with any adjustment. Let's just go play. The style of play we play, Pitt plays, Syracuse plays, were all very successful. We all play a certain way. We're not going to screw around with that stuff."
Former Boston College coach Al Skinner coached in the Big East and the ACC and was the coach of the year in both conferences.
"It's a lateral move for sure," Skinner said. "It's almost like the old Big East, in the sense that a lot of quality teams from the Big East are now in the ACC. It can be a stronger league once Louisville gets in there. It could be back to being the No. 1 basketball conference in the country. The only difference is playing in a different part of the country. But you're going to be playing a quality opponent every night.
"It's a bigger adjustment for Butler and Creighton to go in the [new] Big East. [For] Syracuse, Notre Dame, Pitt and Louisville, in time, there is literally no adjustment as far as talent is concerned. The ACC has the potential to be the No. 1 basketball league in the country as long as the bottom half plays well."
New conference matchups, such as Duke-Syracuse and North Carolina-Syracuse, will add a dose of anticipation to the ACC season. But it may be the same type of anxiousness that came before a mighty Syracuse-Georgetown game in the old Big East. The return of Syracuse-Boston College is good for the fan bases, but only if the Eagles continue to improve. Having Louisville-Duke and Louisville-North Carolina in 2014-15 will add to the ACC's star value.
But the onus will be on the rest of the conference -- the interchangeable teams that have taken turns in the top five of late -- to maintain the consistency, depth and challenges that UConn, Cincinnati, Marquette, Villanova and Georgetown provided. The ACC can't just be Duke and North Carolina against the incoming four Big East schools. The rest of the teams, Florida State, NC State, Virginia and maybe Miami again, have to pull their weight to ensure this is the top basketball conference in the country.
The ACC elite knew that it needed to make a move to maintain its standing in the college basketball landscape. It did so by adding the Big East's best brands. That's why you saw no resistance to these additions from Duke's Mike Krzyzewski and North Carolina's Roy Williams. They were well aware that without a major upgrade in overall conference talent, the ACC would be pushed down.
If there is a change for any of the ACC's new schools, it will come during the recruiting period. Boeheim admits that the move might help the recruiting a bit, but not a lot. The Orange always have looked to recruit nationally, especially up and down the Eastern Seaboard with an emphasis in the New York-to-D.C. corridor.
Pitt never had an strong in-state recruiting base because the selection of players in its section of Pennsylvania was thin. For the Panthers, recruiting in New York has been a staple and stretching down to D.C. has been a must. Now that recruiting area grows thanks to the ACC.
Brey said the Irish haven't done as much recruiting south of D.C., but there is fertile ground in Richmond, Va., and the Carolinas as well as Georgia and Florida.
"Since the announcement, we've spent more time in those areas," Brey said. "We've always had to fight the Big Ten in the Big Ten footprint. Garrick Sherman and Scott Martin were two players we couldn't get out of the Big Ten since they had blinders on out of high school [Sherman to Michigan State and Martin to Purdue]. But we got them on the rebound. I'm intrigued to see if we can get more of those guys now that there is an ACC buzz about us. We've had more Indiana [in-state] kids in our history here.
"We will look to the South, but at the end of the day, we have to remember our D.C.-to-Boston [recruiting trail] has been really good to us, and so has the state of Indiana," Brey said.
Of course, all that matters for these teams is winning in their new league and doing it on television, where the recruits can watch.
All of that should happen in the ACC, just as it did in the Big East, for these schools that made a move out of necessity but are now in a league that has the potential to be just as rugged as the one they left.
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