By AL FEATHERSTON
The first week or so of the 2010-11 basketball season has not gone well for the ACC.
The teams predicted to finish near the bottom of the league have suffered embarrassing losses. The teams picked to finish in the middle of the conference have failed when given their chance to post significant wins. And the team picked to rule the ACC world has wasted its time beating up on three outmanned opponents.
That's not a criticism of Duke's schedule - the Blue Devils will certainly face their share (and more) of quality opponents, starting tonight. But it's fair to point out that Duke's first three wins are relatively meaningless in the grand scheme of things.
And what is that grand scheme?
Unfortunately, it's the gradual decline of the ACC from its long-held status as the nation's best basketball conference. That claim was based on one undisputable fact -- throughout the modern era, the ACC has been the most consistently successful conference in NCAA Tournament play. Between 1980 (when the NCAA opened the field to an unlimited number of teams per conference) and 2005, the ACC won more national titles, produced more Final Four teams, won more NCAA games and had the best NCAA winning percentage of any conference.
Oh, the ACC wasn't the best every single year. But it was always among the best. And it never went too long between seasons when it was indisputably the best.
Since UNC cut down the nets in St. Louis in 2005, the ACC has been just another conference. The league's postseason record has been nothing special - just 37-26 in NCAA play with just seven Sweet 16 teams in five years.
The decline is actually worse than the raw numbers, obscured by the fact that the ACC has produced two legitimate powers in that span - North Carolina and Duke. Those two teams are 25-7 in NCAA play with six Sweet 16 appearances and two national titles. The rest of the ACC is 12-19 with just one Sweet 16 team (Boston College in 2006).
You will frequently hear ACC partisans (including this writer) defend the league by pointing out that the ACC has won five of the last 10 national titles, including the last two in a row. That's a fact and it's definitely a point in the ACC's favor.
But it is also misleading because it relies upon the Duke-UNC success to carry the league. Those two rivals have four of those five championships.
And beyond that, the five-titles-in-10-years argument links two eras - five years when the ACC was still the nation's best conference and the five years when it wasn't. Take a close look at the last 10 years, broken precisely in half after the 2005 season.
Between 2001 and 2005, the ACC won three national titles - by three different teams. The ACC produced six Final Four teams from four different schools and 12 Sweet 16 teams from six different schools. Overall, the ACC was 52-22 in NCAA play - easily the best performance of any conference.
Not only were Duke and UNC powers in that half-decade, but Maryland was a national power as well with a national title and two Final Fours. Skip Prosser had Wake Forest at a very high level (two top 10 and four top 25 finishes). The much-abused Herb Sendek made N.C. State a consistent winner with five straight NCAA trips, a Sweet 16 and a reasonable 5-5 NCAA Tournament record. Even Paul Hewitt managed one remarkable postseason run at George Tech.
Contrast that with Part Two of the decade. Between 2006 and 2010 - as noted above - the ACC had two national titles, three Final Four teams and six Sweet 16 appearances. Overall, a 37-26 record that's the fourth best of any BCS conference.
Both Duke and UNC have remained powers - although each had a down year in the half-decade (in UNC's case, 2010 was a much worse down year than Duke's disappointing 2007 season). But where was the league's depth? Boston College finished No. 7 in the nation and reached the Sweet 16 in 2006, but has disappeared in the basketball wasteland since. Wake Forest enjoyed a brief moment of glory in 2008, climbing to No. 1 in the nation in January of that year, but the Deacs collapsed and finished 12th - then made a prompt first-round exit from the NCAA. Other than that, the only ranked ACC teams in the last five years have been near the bottom of the top 25.
The best league in college basketball has become a top-heavy league.
THE NEW SEASON
Nothing that has happened so far this season has indicated that anything has changed.
Look at last week's AP poll and you'll see Duke at No. 1 and North Carolina at No. 8. Beyond the two powers, you'll find Virginia Tech just sneaking in the rankings at No. 22 (will they stay there after voters digest their loss to a short-handed Kansas State team on the road?). Florida State, N.C. State and Maryland are also receiving votes, but none is particularly close to the 25th spot.
That's not going to change until some ACC team (or hopefully 'teams') beats somebody of consequence - and I don't mean Duke or even UNC.
Virginia Tech was supposed to be the ACC's rising power, but the Hokies gagged on their chance for instant respect when they collapsed down the stretch against a Kansas State team playing without its second best player (Curtis Kelly) and with its best player (Jacob Pullen) limited to 14 minutes by foul trouble.
Now, one game doesn't prove anything (remember Duke-Georgetown last year?), but it was a bad start for a veteran team that has NEVER beaten anybody of consequence. A year ago, Virginia Tech's best win was over a Wake Forest team that failed to finish in the top 25. A year earlier, their record against ranked opponents was 2-6 (wins over a fading Wake team that finished 12th and a Clemson team that finished 24th).
In the last three-plus seasons, Virginia Tech hasn't beaten a top 50 opponent from outside the ACC. Until that changes - they've got a good chance when Purdue visits Blacksburg for the ACC-Big Ten Challenge - it's hard to take the Hokies seriously.
It's possible that N.C. State or Clemson or Florida State will emerge as a legitimate national power. The Pack is loaded with quality young talent, although the temporary loss of senior Tracy Smith could hurt in upcoming games.
Clemson appears to have less firepower than a year ago, when the Tigers missed the final rankings and made a quick NCAA exit, despite the presence of NBA first-round pick Trevor Booker. But new coach Brad Brownell has made a career habit of taking good situations and making them better - right away. He did that at UNC Wilmington and he did it at Wright State. It would not be a shock if he did it at Clemson.
Florida State is also missing some talent, but Chris Singleton appears to have stepped up his game in his junior year and juco/military talent Bernard James has provided a big spark in the post.
Just a quick time out to mention James - a great story that I'm surprised ESPN hasn't jumped on yet. The kid never played high school basketball. Instead, he enlisted in the Air Force at age 17 and served in the Middle East. He began playing service ball and led a team of service all-stars to the world championship of military teams. After his service was over, he attended junior college where he was a Juco All-America. I imagine he brings a level of maturity and toughness - after a tour of duty in Iraq, I doubt he'll be too afraid of Cameron or Littlejohn - that the more-talented Soloman Alabi sometimes lacked.
Back on topic â¦ My point is that Florida State, N.C. State, Clemson and even Virginia Tech all have a chance to establish themselves as quality teams. North Carolina, despite its lackluster effort against Minnesota, should be included in that group.
Of course, they won't all click, but one or two of them probably will. It will be interesting to watch those teams over the next few weeks to see which can forge themselves into contenders
THE BOTTOM OF THE BARREL
The real problem this season is that the bottom teams in the ACC this season appears to be weaker than they have ever been.
It's odd, but even over the last five mediocre ACC seasons, the league has done quite well in regular season measures. When you look at computer rankings, out-of-conference winning percentages and head-to-head records against other conferences, the ACC has remained a behemoth.
According to the cumulative rank of the three major computer systems -- RPI, Pomeroy and Sagarin -- the ACC has been the nation's best regular conference over the last five seasons (again, not every season, but cumulatively). The ACC has the best OOC winning percentage since the 2006 season. The ACC has had a winning head-to-head record against the other five BCS conferences - as well as the strongest mid-majors.
The reason for the contrast between the league's postseason mediocrity and its regular season success is easy to pinpoint - the ACC has remained stronger at the bottom of the standings than any other league. Back in 2009 when pundits were celebrating the Big East as one of the deepest, strongest conferences in history, the ACC actually rated better on the computers and had a better out-of-conference record - because the bottom fourth of the 16-team Big East was garbage.
The ACC bottom feeders have usually been decent teams. A year ago, Miami finished dead last in the ACC standings, but the Hurricanes were 14-0 outside the league. Some of that was due to a weak OOC schedule, but Miami did beat two top 50 teams - South Carolina and Minnesota.
That's more than Virginia Tech has done outside the ACC in the last three years!
Tied for next-to-last was UNC, which beat Final-Four bound Michigan State, plus Ohio State, the won at Mississippi State to reach the NIT finals; N.C. State, which beat future national champion Duke within the league and won at Marquette outside the league (and only lost to Florida on a fluke 75-foot shot at the buzzer); and Virginia, which was probably the weakest team in the 2010 ACC, but still ranked No. 76 by Pomeroy.
None of those were great teams, but they were pretty solid bottom-of-the-standings team. Indeed, the ACC last year (and most of the last five years) has been very strong at the top and at the bottom â¦ it's the marshmallow-soft middle that's been a problem.
This year, the bottom appears to be falling out of the league.
Wake Forest - with homecourt losses to Stetson (picked to finish 10th in the 11-team Atlantic Sun) and Virginia Commonwealth (picked second in the Colonial) - appears headed for a truly dismal season. Boston College - with a homecourt loss to Yale (picked sixth in the Ivy League) - is on the same gloomy path. And Georgia Tech's 17-point loss to Kennesaw State (picked fifth in the Atlantic Sun) is a bad, bad sign â¦ how much longer can Paul Hewitt ride on the glory of that 2004 Final Four run?
And that brief survey doesn't include Virginia, which figures to be in the mix for the bottom of the league. I give the Cavs credit - they haven't embarrassed themselves â¦ yet.
It's all about the coaches.
When the modern era opened in 1980, the ACC was blessed with a strong cast of coaches. The league's leadership was headed by UNC's Dean Smith, 19 years into his Hall of Fame career. He was challenged by such accomplished coaches as Lefty Driesell at Maryland, Terry Holland at Virginia and Carl Tacy at Wake Forest.
That doesn't count Norm Sloan of N.C. State, who won a national title in 1974, or Bill Foster at Duke, who reached the NCAA title game in 1978. Both were on their way out in the spring of 1980 - to be replaced by Jim Valvano and a guy named Mike Krzyzewski.
A year later, ACC newcomer replaced Dwane Morrison with Bobby Cremins.
At the time, none of the three newcomers had much of a reputation. Valvano had produced one NCAA team at Iona, but that one lost in the first round. Cremins had enjoyed modest success at Appalachian State, winning 100 games in five seasons, but he was also 0-1 in NCAA play. Krzyzewski had a losing record at Army - he had never sniffed the NCAA Tournament.
No one at the time could have guessed that all three unknowns would turn into coaching giants. Cremins won three ACC titles, produced three top 10 teams and reached the 1990 Final Four. Valvano won the 1983 national title, produced two ACC champs and was 14-6 in NCAA play. Krzyzewski â¦ well, you don't need me to tell you what Coach K has accomplished in 30 seasons at Duke.
The point is that great coaching fueled the ACC drive to national dominance. The interaction of the three energetic newcomers with the established holdovers gave the ACC a foundation that it used to seize the high ground in the college basketball world.
A constant stream of accomplished coaches helped the league maintain its status for a quarter century - guys like Dave Odom and Skip Prosser at Wake Forest, Gary Williams at Maryland, Rick Barnes at Clemson and Roy Williams at UNC. Even some guys who were maligned by their fan base - Bill Guthridge at UNC and Herb Sendek at N.C. State -- have tenures that look pretty good in retrospect.
I think it's fair to ask whether the ACC coaching ranks have been at that level over the last five years â¦ and whether it's there today?
Through last season, the ACC boasted two Hall of Fame coaches - Krzyzewski and Roy Williams - and one more who should be in the HOF - Maryland's Gary Williams.
Beyond that, the ACC included nine coaches who had won a grand total of 22 NCAA Tournament games in over 120 years of coaching. The listed included three coaches who had never posted an NCAA win (Oliver Purnell; Sidney Lowe; Dino Gaudio) and two more with just one win (Seth Greenberg and Frank Haith). Leonard Hamilton had three NCAA wins in his career - but none at Florida State.
With one exception, these were not young coaches trying to establish themselves in the profession. Purnell and Greensberg and Hamilton had all coached more than 20 years. It's hard to equate them to Valvano or Cremins or Krzyzewski in 1980-81.
The one real exception was Tony Bennett at Virginia, who had already posted three NCAA wins (and a Sweet 16 appearance) in his four-year career at Washington State. Considering he inherited a program that had been trashed by Dave Leitao, it's only fair to give the young coach time to demonstrate whether he's a Mike Krzyzewski â¦ a Herb Sendek ... or a Matt Doherty.
For the rest, it's hard to see potential greatness - which is one reason that Wake's Gaudio and Boston College's Al Skinner were fired last spring. Clemson's Oliver Purnell was not fired - but after 20-plus coaching years without an NCAA win, it was not very likely that he was on the verge of great national success.
The departure of those three veteran coaches creates a new coaching landscape in the ACC this season. Really, I see four tiers of ACC coaches:
-- The giants: Krzyzewski and the two Williams's are untouchable. They've known national success and have produced consistent winners - it's a measure of Roy Williams' stature that last season's 20-17 NIT runner-ups would be a disaster â¦ at Clemson, they hang banners for seasons like that!
-- The new kids on the block: Bennett and the three first-year coaches all deserve time to make their marks. Boston College and Wake Forest are likely to be terrible this season, but Steve Donahue and Jeff Bzdelik are not to blame - if anything, the sad state of the two programs demonstrates why Gaudio and Skinner had to go. It will be interesting to see if Bennett can make Virginia better in his second season than it was last season. He's working a number of young players - the players he expects to become the foundation of his program. It's probably too early to expect a lot (remember, Coach K was just 11-17 with the Dawkins-Alarie class), but there should be hints of promise (as we saw in 1982-83).
Brownell has the best chance to make an immediate splash. He inherited a solid core at Clemson. If Purnell had stayed, he probably would have won 20, snuck into the NCAA Tournament and lost in the first round. If Brownell can better that, he'll be off to a great start.
-- The hot seat: Two coaches really need to produce. N.C. State has lost more ACC games in the last four years than any other school. Sidney Lowe inherited a program that had made five straight NCAA trips and fnished in the ACC first-division in four of the five precious years. Lowe's four N.C. State teams have not qualified for the NCAA or finished better than last year's three-way tie for ninth in the ACC. Luckily, Lowe has a great recruiting class in place and appears to have the tools to build a successful team. But it's probably NCAA-or-nothing for Lowe, who has a new athletic director with a reputation for demanding success from her coaches.
Paul Hewitt was in the same position last year with a veteran team that boasted the nation's top-rated recruit in the middle. He managed to win 23 games, scrape into the NCAA Tournament and win a game. But it's hard to see how the veteran coach can build on that modest success. Derrick Favors was one-and-done. Gani Lawal left early. Zach Peacock and D'Andre Bell graduated. Hewitt is rebuilding again.
The same thing happened after his 2007 team achieved modest success with freshmen Thaddeus Young and Javaris Crittenton leading the way. They scraped into the NCAA, left after one year, then Georgia Tech suffered back-to-back losing seasons.
Hewitt has not had a winning ACC season since his 2004 team caught lightning in a bottle and reached the NCAA title game. He's missed the NCAA Tournament in three of the last five seasons. Patience in Atlanta is wearing out.
Hewitt has a ridiculous six-year rollover contract, but how much longer can that save him - especially if this season ends in meltdown?
-- The Amos Alonzo Stagg Coaches (in honor of the only coach who is in both the football and basketball Hall of Fame): Virginia Tech's Seth Greenberg, Miami's Frank Haith and Leonard Hamilton have all established a level of performance that would have long gotten them fired from a school on Tobacco Road, but seems perfectly acceptable at their football crazy schools.
All three appear to have pretty good teams this season. But after a cumulative 48 years between them, is it reasonable to expect a sudden emergence by any of the three as a real national threat? Based on track record, one or two might end up in the lower reaches of the top 25, but none is likely to threaten a Final Four run or generate a top 10 kind of buzz.
No, the real hope for an ACC recovery is in the four new coaches - if two or three could emerge as top-flight leaders, that would give the league the strong punch in the middle it needs.
Until that happens, the ACC looks like it's going to continue to ride the coattails of Mike Krzyzewski and the Williams' twins.
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